John Calvin on John 17:5

John Calvin on John 17:5

Recent discussion centered around the nature of the incarnation of the Son has driven some to investigate the interpretational tradition of John 17:5. Christology is one of the most difficult loci of Christian theology, and so we should approach it humbly, not approving of error, but also striving patiently and lovingly with our brothers when we believe they’ve misspoken. 

Presently, there seems to be a great deal of difficulty accounting for the Son’s assumption of a human nature and, as a result, the things the Son does in that human nature. Case in point, Christ’s prayer for the glory He had with the Father “before the world was” in John 17:5.

The issue seems to be the prima facie grammar of that singular verse. But behind the grammar lies the theological assumptions (or lack thereof) of the language used to speak of God in Himself: self-existence, immutability, impassibility, and simplicity. It’s as if some come to texts like John 17:5 and drop all their theology proper at the door, allowing for contingency, mutability, passibility, and complexity in the Son’s divine nature.

On its face, John 17:5 seems to insinuate Christ once had a glory that He did not have as He prayed, a glory that He prayerfully demands to resume upon the fulfillment of His Father’s will. Because of the confusion arising from this particular reading of John 17:5, I thought it best to revisit the traditional way in which the sense has been understood by the likes of John Calvin. Calvin is often at variance with other commentators, so I do not take him to be the end-all. But for all of Calvin’s novelty, e.g. John 5:20, the commitment to the fundamental Christology shown below remains continuous between him and others. I will survey Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion as well as his direct commentary on John 17:5, making my own comments as needed.

The Theology Behind Calvin’s Exegesis (The Institutes)

When reading a 16th century Bible commentator, like Calvin, it is important to have some grasp of the categories he was working with. For this, we need to visit his Institutes, in which he writes concerning the Person of the Son in whom, at the incarnation, two natures are united without conversion or confusion—

When it is said that the Word was made flesh, we must not understand it as if he were either changed into flesh, or confusedly intermingled with flesh, but that he made choice of the Virgin’s womb as a temple in which he might dwell. He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For we maintain, that the divinity was so conjoined and united with the humanity, that the entire properties of each nature remain entire, and yet the two natures constitute only one Christ.[1]

Key here is the phraseology, “that the entire properties of each nature remain entire.” Though “divine prerogatives” appears to be a term increasingly utilized in postmodernity (though there are uses in the 17th century), if it is to be used it must be included within the scope of what Calvin terms “properties of… nature.” In this case, the Person of the Son would not “lay aside” any properties or prerogatives proper to the divine nature as has recently been claimed. Instead, the Son qua God would maintain those prerogatives, though such (divine) prerogatives are neither proper to nor exemplified in the Person of the Son according to His human nature. In the same place, Calvin articulates what would later be termed partitive exegesis

They sometimes attribute to him qualities which should be referred specially to his humanity and sometimes qualities applicable peculiarly to his divinity, and sometimes qualities which embrace both natures, and do not apply specially to either.[2]

We see this parsing between divine and human natures united in the one Person elsewhere in Calvin when he writes—

Again, his being called the servant of the Father, his being said to grow in stature, and wisdom, and favour with God and man, not to seek his own glory, not to know the last day, not to speak of himself, not to do his own will, his being seen and handled, apply entirely to his humanity; since, as God, he cannot be in any respect said to grow, works always for himself, knows every thing, does all things after the counsel of his own will, and is incapable of being seen or handled.[3]

Thus, Calvin believes that what is proper to the divine nature ought to be appropriated to the Person of the Son accordingly, and likewise in terms of the human nature, while yet some things apply generically to Christ’s Person on the hypothesis of the communicatio idiomatum, e.g. the authority of Christ which is predicated of His Person. Nevertheless, creaturely traits must be referred to the creaturely nature, and divine “traits” to the divine.

John Calvin on John 17:5

Now that we have seen some of Calvin’s key assumptions, especially his partitive language, we are better equipped to observe and speak to his actual commentary on John 17:5. He begins by writing:

The glory which I had with thee. He desires to be glorified with the Father, not that the Father may glorify him secretly, without any witnesses, but that, having been received into heaven, he may give a magnificent display of his greatness and power, that every knee may bow to him. (Philippians 2:10)[4]

This is a glory to be manifest as a result of the finished work of Christ. Our Lord speaks of this glory in Luke 24:26, “Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” This is a “display of his greatness” according to His human nature since, according to the divine nature this glorious greatness in the Person of the Son was never diminished or laid aside whatsoever. He concludes:

Consequently, that phrase in the former clause, with the Father, is contrasted with earthly and fading glory, as Paul describes the blessed immortality of Christ, by saying that he died to sin once, but now he liveth to God. (Romans 6:10)

Thus, a heavenly glory which Christ procured according to His human nature. He goes on:

The glory which I had with thee before the world was. He now declares that he desires nothing that does not strictly belong to him, but only that he may appear in the flesh, such as he was before the creation of the world; or, to speak more plainly, that the Divine majesty, which he had always possessed, may now be illustriously displayed in the person of the Mediator, and in the human flesh with which he was clothed. 

Calvin’s words here are crucial, “He now declares that he desires nothing that does not strictly belong to him…” In other words, this glory is a glory the Son always possessed and never laid aside, but prayed that He might enter into it according to His human nature at His exaltation. This exaltation was not an exaltation according to His divine nature, but according to His human nature. After all, how could the Person of the Son be exalted according to His divine nature if the divinity never underwent humiliation?

This becomes plain when Calvin says, “that the Divine majesty, which he had always possessed, may now be illustriously displayed in the person of the Mediator, and in the human flesh with which he was clothed.” This is nothing more and nothing less than a prayer for an incarnate glorification of the divine Person of the Son according to His incarnate human nature. In other words, the Person of the Son never laid aside any glory in the divine nature. According to His human nature, however, all that principally and necessarily pertains to humanity, apart from sin, must be ascribed to Him. Calvin goes on—

This is a remarkable passage, which teaches us that Christ is not a God who has been newly contrived, or who has existed only for a time; for if his glory was eternal, himself also has always been. Besides, a manifest distinction between the person of Christ and the person of the Father is here expressed; from which we infer, that he is not only the eternal God, but also that he is the eternal Word of God, begotten by the Father before all ages.

The Son, eternally God, of one essence/nature with the Father, assumed the fulness of a human nature. Features of creatureliness (not divinity) are appropriated to the human nature and not to the divine, e.g. walking, praying, ignorance, etc. Furthermore, Calvin notes the distinction between the Persons of the Father and Son, and also the manner of distinction, “he is not only the eternal God, but also that he is the eternal Word of God, begotten by the Father before all ages.” In His Institutes, he further elaborates—

The worthy doctors who then had the interests of piety at heart, in order to defeat it is man’s dishonesty, proclaimed that three subsistence were to be truly acknowledged in the one God. That they might protect themselves against tortuous craftiness by the simple open truth, they affirmed that a Trinity of Persons subsisted in the one God, or (which is the same thing) in the unity of God.[5]

He further adds, “In each hypostasis the whole nature is understood the only difference being that each has his own peculiar subsistence.”[6] The “peculiar subsistence” or the “peculiar property” of either Person is “unbegottenness (Father),” “begottenness (Son),” and, “spiration (Spirit).” These are termed the eternal “relations” of origin. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith puts it this way, “the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son…” (2.3).

Calvin adds further detail, “when we denote the relation which [the Son] bears to the Father, we correctly make the Father the beginning of the Son.”[7] By “beginning” it is here intended that the Father is the eternal “generator” of the Son, whilst the Son is eternally “generated” of the Father. Thus, for Calvin, it is in this way we distinguish between Father, Son, and Spirit, “But when the Son is joined with the Father, relation comes into view, and so we distinguish between the Persons.” Hence, the Athanasian Creed, “He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time.” And Chalcedon, “but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ…”


It can readily be seen that Calvin understands Christ’s praying in John 17:5 as according to His humanity, not His divinity. Some, thinking it a compromise of Trinitarian doctrine, worry that if the Son does not pray here according to His divinity, distinctions between the Persons in the Godhead are lost. However, the Persons in the Godhead are not, and have never been understood to be (save in recent history), distinguished in virtue of inner-Trinitarian communication, distinct centers of consciousness, distinct wills, etc. The Persons are not distinguished according to relational interaction between the divine Persons. Such would entail process and, thus, change in the Godhead.

Fixed thoroughly within the tradition of Trinitarian orthodoxy, Calvin shows us that the Persons are distinguished according to their manner of subsistence, i.e. the relations of origin, which constitute what he called the “peculiar properties” of each—unbettonness (Father), begottenness (Son), and spirations/breathed forth of Father and Son (Holy Spirit).

Therefore, according to Calvin, Christ prays according to His human nature in John 17:5, and the divine Persons remain sufficiently and really distinguished in virtue of the relations of origin. The Father is distinguished by unbegotten begetting, the Son by begotten begottenness, and the Spirit by spiration of both Father and Son. The divine Person of the Son prays to the divine Person of the Father, not as the Son eternally subsists in the divine nature, but as He subsists in the human nature from the time of the incarnation onward. Thus, to borrow the words of Matthew Henry, “Though as God he was prayed to, as man he prayed.”[8] 


[1] Calvin, John. The John Calvin Collection: 12 Classic Works. Waxkeep Publishing. Kindle Edition. Loc. 8012.

[2] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 8012.

[3] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 8027.

[4] Calvin, John. Commentary on the Gospel of John. Ravenio Books. Kindle Edition. Loc. 621-22.

[5] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1692.

[6] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1993.

[7] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2008.

[8] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1779.

John Gill’s Christology

John Gill’s Christology

God is far beyond our ways such that man must strain the outer limits of his language just to flick the hem of His robe (if that). For this reason, the commonality of human error in thinking and speaking about God, while not right, is nevertheless understandable. Take any given hour of the day, it is doubtful any of us could manage to count all our theological errors in either thought or deed, either explicit or implicit. Without God’s grace, we would be doomed.

Notwithstanding, in proportion with the grace God gives, it is of monumental importance that we take much care in our theological efforts, confessing our errors when we have opportunity. What we think about God is everything.

Basic Heresies

Before we examine the words of the good doctor John Gill on the incarnation as they appear in his Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity,[1] we will need to prepare the reader for the orthodoxy therein, that it might be all the more appreciated. As far as I can tell, Gill implies the falsehood of at least four heresies: (1) Anthropomorphitism; (2) Patripassianism/Modalism; (3) Kenotic theory; and (4) Arianism. I briefly describe each immediately below— 

(1) Anthropomorphitism: A heresy that holds that what is properly said of the creature, and especially man, may be properly said also of the divine essence. Extreme and obvious examples of this heresy would be the claim that God has a physical, anatomical or celestial body. More subtle versions exist in the affirmations of change (motion), complexity (or composition), etc. in the divine essence. Assigning any of these things to God beyond metaphor or analogy confuses the Creator/creature distinction.

(2) Patripassianism/Modalism: A heresy that suggests that in the suffering of Christ, which includes the whole of His humiliation, likewise the Father suffers. If the Father and the Son are one essence, and the Son incarnates, then incarnation is implied of the Father as well, or so it is thought. This heresy is usually considered a twin of Modalism if not identified with it, since it implicatively conceives of God as one Person. Justin Martyr addresses this heresy in his First Apology.

(3) Kenotic Theory: This is the heresy that must take for granted Anthropomorphitism in that it requires an “emptying” of either the Son’s divinity itself in whole or part, or the laying aside of certain prerogatives proper to His divinity in His incarnation. In kenosis, the Son’s divine and human natures are blended or confused such that what is proper to the creaturely nature is misappropriated to the divine nature, e.g. since the Son was humble in the incarnate state, and since the Son is God, He must have ceased the exercise of divine power or prerogative during His humility. We will see how Gill, with all the orthodox, avoid the Kenotic theory.

(4) Arianism: Arianism is perhaps the most famous heresy mentioned here, being the chief cause for the Nicene Council in 325 AD. Arianism conceives of the Son as a created being who is nevertheless God-like. For Arius, the Son was the first creation, but is altogether creaturely.

John Gill’s Christology & Why It Matters

In some corners of contemporary theological discourse, a well-meant effort to “just be biblical” is leading some to either adopt or neglect categories that imply one (or more) of the above four heresies. I thought it helpful, then, to reach back in time to an older mind than our own in order to gain a fresh perspective. To do this, I will quote Gill intermittently, making comments throughout to show how his language avoids the above mentioned heresies—

Nor by the Logos, or Word made flesh, are we to understand the divine nature, essentially considered, or the essence of God, as common to the three divine Persons, Father, Son, and Spirit; for then it would be equally true of the Father and the Spirit, that they are made flesh, or become incarnate, as of the Son; as it must needs be, if the divine nature, so considered, was incarnated; or the human nature was united to it as such: such phrases are therefore unsound, unsafe, and dangerous… 

At this point, Gill is quite clearly protecting the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He says that the “Word made flesh,” or the Son’s assumption of a human nature, should not be applied to the divine essence properly so-called, but to the divine essence as it subsists in the second relation of origin, or the Person of the Son. This language avoids Patripassianism/Modalism because it consistently recognizes the real distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit, and the modal distinction between the divine essence and the Persons (more on this shortly).

…as that the man Christ stands in the divine nature; and that the human nature is united to Deity; this is not the truth of things; the human nature is not united to Deity absolutely considered; but as that in a distinct mode of subsisting, is in the second Person, the Son of God…

Continuing his negation, Gill denies that the incarnation is as “the man Christ stands in the divine nature,” which is to deny confusion of the human nature of Christ with the divine nature of Christ. We confess, in The Second London Baptist Confession (1677), that “two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion… (8.2).” Gill then invokes the modal distinction which had been employed centuries before him, and is utilized by Francis Turretin just a century before. The assumption of a human nature is to be appropriated to God, not absolutely, but according to the second mode of subsistence in the order of procession, which is the Son of the Father.

Here, Gill avoids both Anthropomorphitism and Patripassianism by refusing to mix divine and human natures and by, once more, upholding the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. In telling us the Son’s assumption of humanity was not “as that the man of Christ stands in the divine nature,” Gill avoids reading God’s works (the incarnation) back into the divine Being. He is careful not to apply what is proper to the human nature of the Son to the divine nature of the Son, and vice versa. Moreover, he once more distinguishes the Son from Father and Spirit by an invocation of the modal distinction, that the divine essence subsists in a distinct subsistence from the first and third subsistences is absolutely central in preserving orthodox theology proper while at once affirming an orthodox doctrine of the incarnation. It avoids Modalism and it assists in avoiding the predication of creaturely properties, in light of the incarnation, to the divine essence.

Gill furthermore avoids Kenotic theory because the divine and human natures, while understood to be united in the self-same Person of the Son, remain distinguishable. The assumption of human nature in no way implies a change in the Son according to His divinity. That which is proper to the human nature is appropriated to the human nature, and that which is proper to the divine nature continues to be appropriated to the divine nature, with not one iota of confusion.

…it was the Son of God, by whom God made the world, and by him speaks to men, in these last days, who is the brightness of his Father’s glory, and the express image of his Person; the Creator of angels, and the object of their worship and adoration; and who upholds all things by the word of his power, who partook of the same flesh and blood with the children, and has taken upon him and assumed to him, not the nature of angels, but the seed of Abraham, he who was in the form of God, of the same nature with him, and thought it no robbery to be equal with God, is he that took upon him the form of a servant, the nature of man in a servile state, was made in the likeness of man, and found in fashion as a man, or really became man.

Here, Gill avoids Arianism and Anthropomorphitism. Arius held that the Son was a creature. But here, Gill denies such by saying, “it was the Son of God, by whom God made the world,” by which he means all created things. If the Father made all created things through the Son, this would appear to preclude the Son Himself from being the subject of that creative act by logical necessity. Furthermore, Anthropomorphitism, the ascription of creatureliness to God (a blending of Creator/creature), is avoided when Gill tells us that this same Son who “upholds all things by the word of his power” also “assumed to him… the seed of Abraham (humanity).” The Son remains God—unchanged, unmanipulated—while also assuming human nature. Gill well understands that, in order to preserve the Creator/creature distinction, what is proper of the divine nature must be said of the divine nature, and what is proper of the human nature must be said of the human nature.

Lastly, Gill invokes Philippians 2, not to argue kenosis (as some have done), but to declare the deity of Christ, “and thought it no robbery to be equal with God,” whilst also affirming the assumption of human nature, “that took upon him the form of a servant, the nature of man in a servile state…” He ends by using the common terminology, “or really became man.” But, in light of the above, Gill does not here mean that the divine essence literally became that which it was not before. To become is creaturely, because it entails change. Rather, by “become” he only refers to the assumption of a “true body, and a reasonable soul (The Baptist Catechism, Q. 25).”


Hopefully, the above interaction with John Gill has been helpful in understanding how important careful theological terminology is. Essence, nature, person, etc., terms like these allow the people of God to avoid teaching or implying the heresies mentioned above (and more). Much more could be said regarding Gill and countless of his predecessors. One thing, however, is for sure: We are at a time where we desperately need to return to the old paths in order to go forward (Jer. 6:16). Older isn’t always better, but oftentimes it is. This case is certainly no exception.


[1] John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity: Or A System of Evangelical Truths, Deduced from the Sacred Scriptures, New Edition., vol. 1 (Tegg & Company, 1839), 540.


Calvin’s Classical Theism

Calvin’s Classical Theism

The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin, is sometimes vague when it comes to theology proper. This is not to say Calvin had an underdeveloped doctrine of God. It is only to say that the doctrine of God was largely uncontested in his day (with the exception of some individuals, like Servetus), and so he most likely did not feel the need to invoke either language or length in treatment that may be expected in the Puritan age (corresponding with the rise of Socinianism). The question of source-material has also been asked concerning Calvin’s access or use of older sources. He does make brief, ultra-precise statements at times. For example, he says in the outline for Book I, ch. 13, “In this one essence are three persons, yet so that neither is there a triple God, nor is the simple essence of God divided. Meaning of the word Person in this discussion. Three hypostases in God, or the essence of God.”[1] 

The Institutes of the Christian Religion

He further elaborates on the doctrine of the Trinity by saying, “While he proclaims his unity, he distinctly sets it before us as existing in three persons. These we must hold, unless the bare and empty name of Deity merely is to flutter in our brain without any genuine knowledge. Moreover, lest anyone should dream of a threefold God, or think that the simple essence is divided by the three Persons, we must here seek a brief and easy definition which may effectually guard us from error.”[2] Furthermore, he states, “When we profess to believe in one God, by the name God is understood the one simple essence, comprehending three persons or hypostases; and, accordingly, whenever the name of God is used indefinitely, the Son and Spirit, not less than the Father, is meant.”[3]

Speaking to the importance of understanding Father, Son, and Spirit to be identical to the divine essence, he writes, “If they reply that the Father, while essentiating, still remains the only God, being the possessor of the essence, then Christ will be a figurative God, one in name or semblance only, and not in reality, because no property can be more peculiar to God than essence, according to the words, ‘I AM has sent me unto you,’ (Ex. 3:4.).”[4] Calvin also teaches that the enumeration of God’s attributes or perfections are enumerated only in our conception of God. He writes, “in the enumeration of his perfections, he is described not as he is in himself, but in relation to us, in order that our acknowledgement of him may be more a vivid actual impression than empty visionary speculation.”[5] This may be taken to imply the oneness of God’s attributes, or their identity with the divine essence.

He provides support for the doctrine of the Trinity, against “calumnies,” from Irenaeus, Tertullian, and even the “acknowledged doctors of the church.”[6] For Calvin, though there is controversy surrounding his understanding of the Son as autotheos, the doctrine of the Trinity is basically stated, “by the name God is understood the one simple essence, comprehending three persons or hypostases…” The one God is the three Persons, Father, Son, Spirit. He further denies subordinationism when he writes, “John, declaring that he is the true God, has no idea of placing him beneath the Father in a subordinate rank of divinity. I wonder what these fabricators of new gods mean, when they confess that Christ is truly God, and yet exclude him from the godhead of the Father, as if there could be any true God but the one God, or as if transfused divinity were not a mere modern fiction.”[7] Calvin rightly indicates that he considers subordination in God to imply there is lesser and greater distinctions in the divine essence itself, a figment contrary to the Athanasian Creed on its face. He writes, “If they grant that the Son is God, but only in subordination to the Father, the essence which in the Father is unformed and unbegotten will in him be formed and begotten.”[8] He further explains, “We must hold, therefore, that as often as Christ, in the character of Mediator, addresses the Father, he, under the term God, includes his own divinity also.”[9]

In refuting the notion of manifold wills in God, Calvin writes, “These objections originate in a spirit of pride and blasphemy. Objection, that there must be two contrary wills in God, refuted. Why the one simple will of God seems to us as if it were manifold.”[10]

We may conclude from this that Calvin would not have permitted any real distinction in the divine essence. For him, negation of real distinction in the divine essence would entail that each divine Person is truly identified with the one divine essence. They do not merely possess or participate in the divine essence. They are the divine essence—not collectively, but essentially and identifiably. Furthermore, it may be seen that, for Calvin, this implies a single will in the Godhead. Subordination is denied, and a single divine will, proper (no doubt) to the divine essence, is expressly affirmed.

Exposition of Exodus 3:14

Now that Calvin’s systematics have been explored, albeit in a very limited and brief fashion, we might move on to his exegetical theology, asking the question, “How did he get there?” It goes without saying that we can by no means exhaust this question. This brief look is only intended to peak interest in the reader. Before we observe his commentary on Exodus 3:14, I should mention that Calvin has a surprisingly robust natural theology, and so was not shy to employ philosophical help in his articulation of revealed truth. For this reason, we should take for granted that Calvin employed such help in his Trinitarian theology through terms like “essence” and “nature.” He further allows for some analogy in nature to help cast light upon the doctrine of the Trinity, but this is an article unto itself.

Very early in his exposition of Exodus 3:14, he writes, “This is very plain, that God attributes to himself alone divine glory, because he is self-existent and therefore eternal; and thus gives being and existence to every creature.”[11] This shows us that Calvin had aseity in mind early on in his exposition. He joins in near universal agreement with the orthodox interpretive tradition as to its meaning of Exodus 3:14, that God is a se or self-existent. God is Being in Himself, He exists by His very essence. Therefore, He is the One who gives being to all contingent things, i.e. creatures. His next comment is crucial, but it follows seamlessly from what has already been said, “Nor does he predicate of himself anything common, or shared by others; but he claims for himself eternity as peculiar to God alone, in order that he may be honored according to his dignity.”[12] Here, Calvin denies the notion of participation in God, which is a notion to be understood in light of the limitation of act by potency.[13]

If God is His own “to be,” it follows God does not have love or have justice; He is identical with His divine attributes. God is love, God is justice, etc. If He were not, He would participate in these perfections, as if they were perfections distinguishable from the single, simple, and perfect essence of God. As it is, however, God does not participate, God just is. Conversely, creatures have love, they have justice and are not identified with those perfections. To the extent a creature is loving or just, that creature participates in those perfections which God Himself is. He is an image, reflection, imitator of the divine Being (imago Dei).

He goes on to list the incomprehensibility of God, which implies the need for analogical language in our God-talk, “Therefore, immediately afterwards, contrary to grammatical usage, he used the same verb in the first person as a substantive, annexing it to a verb in the third person; that our minds may be filled with admiration as often as his incomprehensible essence is mentioned.”[14] Elsewhere, Calvin puts analogical predicative revelation in terms of divine “lisping.” He says, “The Anthropomorphites also, who dreamed of a corporeal God, because mouth, ears, eyes, hands, and feet, are often ascribed to him in Scripture, are easily refuted. For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children?”[15] And, “Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.”[16] Such language is nothing less than allusion to analogical predication.

A maxim which gained popularity during the time of the Reformation was finitum non capax infiniti, the finite cannot comprehend the infinite. It was a phrase the substance of which had been assumed long before. The infinite essence of God cannot be communicated directly to finite creatures. What can be communicated to finite creatures must, of necessity, be finite. Thus, the need for analogical predication, and even for understanding the analogical character of Scripture (with regard to God), became inestimably important in theology. The infinite God communicates to the finite creature through means it can understand, analogically. Analogical language is language of similarity through either attribution, metaphor, or proportionality. The latter is here in view. 

Analogical language is distinguished from univocal language which comprehends the thing signified, and equivocal language which uses the same word to signify completely different things. Analogical language recognizes that the creature participates, in some way, in the love of God and thus bears some similitude to the divine essence, though that similitude is exactly definable in light of the infinite essence of God.

Calvin then goes on to apparently affirm some form of Christian Platonism when he writes, “But although philosophers discourse in grand terms of this eternity, and Plato constantly affirms that God is peculiarly to on (the Being); yet they do not wisely and properly apply this title, viz., that this one and only Being of God absorbs all imaginable essences…”[17] Interestingly, this is exactly what Christians, influenced by the Neo-Platonists, would have done. Plato could account neither for the reality of the world of experience, nor for its meaningful correspondence with the forms or essences in the world of ideas. Aristotle first brought this criticism. But Christian theology caught on through the likes of Augustine, Dionysius, and Thomas Aquinas. Whereas Plato’s forms apparently subsisted in themselves without any explanatory principle preceding them, Christianity understood those forms to be found (in some way) in God.[18]

Calvin then mentions providence, the folly of dividing the deity through impious imagination, and then says, “Wherefore, in order rightly to apprehend the one God, we must first know, that all things in heaven and earth derive at His will their essence, or subsistence from One, who only truly is.”[19] In order to know God rightly, in other words, one must know God as Cause of all things. This article of knowledge Calvin appears to place in the beginning of his Institutes, prior to reaching the doctrine of Scripture.[20] Implies in his order is that such a knowledge of God is gained through nature rather than by faith, and thus might be included within natural theology.

Calvin concludes his exposition on Exodus 3:14 by considering how God, in His appearance to Moses, “teaches him that He alone is worthy of the most holy name (Jehovah),” and, “that Moses may have no doubt of overcoming all things under his guidance.”[21]


This is, by no means, an exhaustive commentary on Calvin’s thought concerning theology proper. But, at minimum, we should be able to conclude from the evidence presented that Calvin held to the classical (sometimes called the “over-extended”) formulation of divine simplicity. The Persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—just are the one divine essence. There is only one will in God. And there is no subordination in God. Leaving aside the accidental issues which may throw Calvin into dispute, e.g. the autothean controversy, it may be safely concluded that Calvin held to a classical doctrine of God which departed neither from the Scriptures, the creeds of the ancient church, nor the more developed theology proper of the medievals, such as Aquinas. Calvin himself thinks of his trinitarianism as being in line with all the “acknowledged doctors of the church,” of which Aquinas was knowingly a part. There is very clearly, therefore, a continuity represented in Calvin with regard to the doctrine of God, not only with his medieval predecessors but also with his successors, the Reformed Scholastic Calvinists.


[1] Calvin, John, The John Calvin Collection: 12 Classic Works. Waxkeep Publishing. Kindle Edition. Loc. 1580.

[2] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1632.

[3] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2009.

[4] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2118.

[5] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1152

[6] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2229.

[7] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2197.

[8] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2150.

[9] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 2181.

[10] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 3524.

[11] Calvin, John. Commentary on the Pentateuch. Titus Books. Kindle Edition. Loc. 15043.

[12] Calvin, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Loc. 15043.

[13] Cf. Clarke, Norris W., Explorations In Metaphysics, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 76-77.

[14] Calvin, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Loc. 15059.

[15] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1632.

[16] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 1632.

[17] Calvin, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Loc. 15059.

[18] Craig Carter discusses “Christian Platonism” in his book, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition. One may also find help in Louis Markos’ book, From Plato to Christ.

[19] Calvin, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Loc. 15059.

[20] Calvin, The John Calvin Collection, Loc. 197.

[21] Calvin, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Loc. 15059.

Salvation Through Reason: Did Thomas Teach It?

Salvation Through Reason: Did Thomas Teach It?

In 2016, I took an introduction to philosophy course at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was a Master’s-level course, because at the time I was on track for an MDiv (that is, before I changed degree programs). At that time, it was being confidently asserted by faculty that Thomas Aquinas believed man could reason his way into God’s saving graces. Allegedly, Thomas believed that if a man was sharp enough to do so, he could hypothetically reason his way into the gospel, so to speak. I am not altogether certain where this characterization came from. Reading the first few pages of Thomas’ Summa Theologiae would give one an entirely different impression.

This post is a brief reader consisting of Thomas’ own words concerning the necessity of special revelation within the scheme of man’s redemption. Contrary to the caricature mentioned above, Thomas quite expressly believed Scripture is the principium of saving knowledge. Here are the relevant texts, complete with references.

Summa Theologiae

On the contrary, It is written (2 Tim 3:16): All Scripture inspired by God is useful for teaching, for reproving, for correcting, and for instructing in justice. Now Scripture, inspired by God, is no part of the philosophical disciplines, which were discovered by human reason. Therefore it is useful that besides the philosophical disciplines, there should be another science inspired by God. I answer that, It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a teaching revealed by God beyond the philosophical disciplines, which are investigated by human reason. First, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that love Thee (Isa 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation… It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation (ST, I, Q. 1, Art. 1).

This is the very first response to the very first set of objections under Q. 1 of the Summa. It stands to reason, therefore, that those who repeat the caricature mentioned in our introduction have most likely never even picked up this primary resource on the matter.

So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God (ST, I, Q. 1, Art. 2).

Summa Contra Gentiles

And consequently, although human reason is unable to fully grasp things above reason, it nevertheless acquires much perfection if at least it hold things, in any way whatever, by faith (SCG, I, Ch. 5).

In the above quotation, we see a very clear distinction between reason and faith, reason being unable to attain unto that which comes to us by faith.

Now, though the aforesaid truth of the Christian faith surpasses the ability of human reason, nevertheless those things which are naturally instilled in human reason cannot be opposed to this truth (SCG, I, Ch. 7).

In other words, though special revelation takes us beyond where nature can take us, yet the two will never contradict one another. Though faith is suprarational, it is not irrational.

Commentary on Romans (CoR)

For true knowledge of God, by its very nature, leads men to good, but it is bound, as though held captive, by a love of wickedness through which, as the Psalm says, truths have vanished from among the sons of men (Ps 11:1)… First, therefore, he says: rightly do I say that they have suppressed the truth about God. For they did possess some true knowledge of God, because that which is known of God, i.e., what can be known about God by men through reason, is manifest in them, i.e., is manifest to them from something in them, i.e., from an inner light. (CoR, C. 1, L. 6, 1:16-20).

The above regards not the articles of faith necessary unto salvation, but the natural truths God reveals concerning Himself through nature. Thomas never suggests this knowledge, known through reason, is sufficient for salvation. The “inner light” is the habit/capacity by which man knows God through what is made. He goes on in the same place—

Here it should be noted that one man manifests something to another by unfolding his own thought by means of such external signs as vocal sounds or writing. But God manifests something to man in two ways: first, by endowing him with an inner light through which he knows: send out your light and your truth (Ps 43:3); second, by proposing external signs of his wisdom, namely, sensible creatures: he poured her out, namely, wisdom, over all his works (Sir 1:9).

In an earlier part of Lecture 6, he outlines the way in which salvation is conferred—

The second consideration is how the Gospel confers salvation, namely, through faith, which is indicated when he says, to everyone who believes. This happens in three ways. First, through preaching: preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:15). Second, by confessing the faith: with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Rom 10:10). Third, by the Scripture; hence even the written words of the Gospel have a saving power, as Barnabas cured the sick by placing the Gospel upon them.

Preaching of the gospel, confessing the faith (Rom. 10:10), the Scriptures themselves, e.g. as they are read, applied, etc. In other words, the gospel is transmitted via these means. But the more important point is that here, Thomas teaches the gospel is what confers salvation by or through faith. He does not believe reason apprehends the gospel, nor does he allow another way, other than the gospel, for the conference of salvation.

Commentary on Second Timothy (CoST)

For if you consider its principle, it has a special place above all writings, because others are given through human reason, while Sacred Scripture is divine. Therefore he says Scripture is inspired of God. For prophecy came not by the will of man at any time; but the holy men of God spoke, inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21); the inspiration of the Almighty gives understanding (Job 32:8) (CoST, Ch. 3, L. 3, 3:12-17).

Catena Aurea (CA)

But we do not therefore believe him to have been born of the Virgin, because by no other means he could have truly lived in the flesh, and appeared among men; but because it is so written in the Scripture, which if we believe not we cannot either be Christians, or be saved (CA, Ch. 1, L. 1).

Commentary on Dionysius (CoD)

For Denys, in his doctrine, is supported by the authority of sacred scripture, which has strength and power according as the apostles and prophets were moved to speaking by the Holy Spirit revealing to them and speaking in them (CoD, Ch. 1, L. 1).

Here, Thomas shows something of his integrated theological method. His historical theology is informed by His exegetical theology. It seems to be the case Thomas lays the authority of Scripture as the foundation while inquiring of the thoughts of men.

Opuscula I – Treatises (OI)

First, as to the origin of the spiritual substances, Christian tradition teaches most firmly that all spiritual substances—like all other creatures—were made by God, and this is proved by the authority of the canonical Scriptures. For it is said in the Psalms: Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host (Ps 148:2). And after all the other creatures have been enumerated, it is added: For he spoke and they were made; he commanded and they were created (Ps 148:5) (OI, II, Ch. 18).

Notice how Thomas states the dogma of the tradition, but he looks to the Scripture the proof of the dogma. Again, he is informed by the authority of the “canonical Scriptures.”


This is by no means everything I could have compiled on this subject. Yet, it suffices to show how Thomas most certainly made a distinction between reason and faith, what can be known through nature and what can be known only through Scripture. Thomas, therefore, did not teach that man, through reason alone, could be saved.

Benjamin Keach’s Employment of Aristotle in ‘Tropologia’

Benjamin Keach’s Employment of Aristotle in ‘Tropologia’

In the below verbiage, it becomes clear that our Baptist forefather, Benjamin Keach, positively and helpfully employs Aristotle. However, what is equally obvious, particularly in the first few references, is that his positive reception of Aristotle is not wholesale. But, then again, neither was the medieval reception of Aristotle wholesale. Keach, then, is following very much in the footsteps of the medieval scholastics in terms of his method of appropriation of heathen sources such as Aristotle. In Tropologia, he likewise makes positive use of Cicero and Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas appears positively invoked in ch. 4 of Gold Refined, his treatise on baptism.

Preface Page v

Do we think that Jehovah will use inductions as Plato, syllogisms as Aristotle, epiphonemas as Cicero, subtleties as Seneca, or any artificial syntax? 

The Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, Page xi

And shall we indeed think, that the great God would use inductions, as Plato; syllogisms, as Aristotle; elenchs, as the Carmeades; epiphonemas, as Cicero; subtleties, as Seneca; or words far fetched, joined together with an artificial syntax, with respect to weight, number, and sound? 

The Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, Page xii

What pitiful, crooked, and imperfect lines have the wisest and best of mere men, as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Tully, Seneca, Plutarch, or any others, drawn in their fairest documents, both moral and divine, compared with this complete and transcendent rule of holy living! 

Chapter VI: Of a Metaphor in General, Page 37

But in proportion, two answers two, as Aristotle in his second book of the soul compares a root to the mouth, because it performs the same office to a plant, as the mouth does to a living creature. 

Human Actions Ascribed to God, Page 63

So much of the external actions of sense, whose affections are sleep and watchfulness; for as in sleep the actions of sense are still and quiet, so in watchfulness they are provoked to their respective operations, as Aristotle says.

Of Metaphors Whereby Things Are Proposed, as Persons, Which Are Not Persons, Which Kind They Call Prosopopeia, Page 88

What was the sense of your arms?” Aristotle defines this metaphor, “that which is in act, bringing in inanimate things doing something, as if they had life and sense;” but we will follow the distinct classes of scripture examples.

Metaphors Taken from Some Generalities of Living Creatures, Pages 146–147

He is called a mighty hunter, Gen. 10:9; who abuses his power violently to oppress and subdue men, or is a tyrant; Illyricus, Venatio habet simile quiddam bello, &c., hunting has some resemblance to war, as Xenophon says in his instruction of Cyrus; “yea, it is a kind of war: and, on the other hand, war is a kind of hunting of servile and disobedient men,” as Aristotle in his last book of politics says: “Therefore when Nimrod is said to be a mighty hunter,” it is to be interpreted a warrior, which appears from the text itself, for it is applied in this place to the principal cities of that kingdom, which may not be properly said of a hunter, but of a king or general of an host who built strong cities, when he subdued the countries. 

Of Metaphors Taken from the Kinds of Living Creatures, Page 154

Of the kinds of volatiles, the turtle dove denotes the people of Israel, or the church, Psal. 74:19, “O deliver not the soul of thy turtle dove unto the multitude:” (of which he spoke verse 18,) that is, thy church and people, who worship none but thee, as a turtle dove, that never entertains conjunction with another, and who in their affliction, like a turtle dove, (Isa. 38:14;) express their grief in solitary groans and sighs to thee: and which is unarmed, weak, simple, and meek like a dove, yea, like a turtle dove, which is esteemed the least among the species of doves as Aristotle says. 

Of the Figures of a Word, Page 199

The word Σχημα Schema, principally and properly signifies the garb, habit, or ornament of the body; and by a metaphor is translated to signify the beauty, or ornament of speech, as Aristotle and Cicero say. 

Of the Figures of a Sentence in Logism, Page 206

The perfect is, when the proper person is wholly laid aside, and another person or thing is introduced as speaking; or when the very formal words of the person introduced are recited, which from Plato and Aristotle, de poetis, is called μιμησις, or imitation: in the sacred scripture either the true person is introduced as speaking, or an inanimate thing: the first is done openly or covertly: openly, as when the verb of saying is premised, and a clear intimation given that another person speaks; covertly, when the verb of saying is omitted; in an apert prosopopœia, the speech is uttered of the thing itself; or else feigned and framed to signify another thing: the former is either good and true, or false and evil. 

The Church Compared to a Dove, Page 683

That is, thy Church and people, who worship none but thee, as the turtle-Dove, that never entertains conjunction with another, and who in their affliction, like a Dove, express their grief in sighs and solitary groans to thee; and which is unarmed, weak, simple, and meek, like the turtle-Dove, which is esteemed the least among the species of Doves, as Aristotle says. 

Wicked Men Debtors, Page 794

Nay, Aristotle saith, Debtors wish their creditors to have no being, wish they were dead, so that they might thereby be freed from their Debts.

Wicked Men Compared to Lions, Page 811

And we may see what the intent of a person is, by his looks; many are in this respect Lion-like: they have, as Aristotle saith of the natural Lion, clouds and storms hanging about their eye-brows; it was a threatening against the Jews, in case of disobedience, that God would send against them, “A nation of a fierce countenance, which should not regard the person of the old, nor show favour to the young,” Deut. 28:50.

Wicked Men Compared to Vipers, Page 821

Young Vipers, as Aristotle, Pliny,† Rhodogin, and others affirm, eat their way into the world through their mother’s belly, though some seem to doubt of the truth of this generally received opinion: so the Scribes and Pharisees cried out, we are Abraham’s children, &c., and from thence concluded, they were meet subjects for baptism, and should be saved: they, like Vipers, as one observes, would needs find a way to heaven through the bowels of their ancestors, or by the faith of their parents: but what said the Baptist? 

The Devil a Dragon, Page 925

Besides, we have approved histories and historians, which treat of them, as Ælianus, Aristotle, Pliny, Mantuan, Gesner, Ovid, &c.

The Devil a Serpent, Page 926

Aristotle and Galen define a Serpent to be Animal sanguineum, pedibus orbatum, et oviparum; that is, a bloody beast, without feet, laying eggs.


Benjamin Keach, Tropologia: A Key to Open Scripture Metaphors (London: William Hill Collingridge, 1856), v–926.

A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

It is never a good day to disagree with Dr. Sam Waldron. In spite of our disagreements, I have leagues-worth of respect for this man, and have no desire to enter into any unnecessary disputation, especially by bringing up an article from 2019 on the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary website. However, Waldron republished the article and, apparently, shared it in light of the current debate centered around natural theology. This debate revolves around two distinct subjects which must remain distinct however related they most certainly are. The preeminent issue is the doctrine of God. The second is natural theology. Waldron’s article largely addresses the latter. Though, I am concerned because it seems as if the contemporary rejection of natural theology has more to do with some of the persons by which it was taught, a la., Thomas Aquinas. Such a vein of rejection tends to rot other concepts and categories, and the doctrine of God seems to be the first victim of the disease. Eventually, the attributes of Scripture, the Person and natures of Christ, the work of Christ, and ecclesiology will likewise fall under the revisionist blade—perhaps in the next generation or two.

In this article, I am going to interact with Thomas extensively, but only because this is the target of Waldron’s article, and also because there is some undue identification of Thomas with the issues at hand. Thomas is not the face of classical theism. But contemporary discussion appears to be leveling criticism at classical theism for Thomas’ sake. And this is no bueno. As I’ve said before, if I had to choose between giving someone Thomas or giving someone Francis Turretin, I’d give them the latter. I also would not give the young Christian a copy of the Summa Theologiae. For this reason, it is unfortunate that critics of classical theism have come at this issue because of and through Thomas Aquinas. Because now the debate revolves around a historical person and not the facts of the matter. And as such, defense of the facts are misunderstood to be defense of the persons who teach them. It’s a mess.

It appears there are three main building blocks holding up Waldron’s article. They are:

  • Thomas’ alleged rejection of God’s self-evident existence
  • Thomas’ “imperfect” view of total depravity
  • Irreconcilable differences between Calvin and Aquinas

I want to say at the outset that Thomas is not my object of defense. But unfortunately, the person and the concepts he represents have become so tightly intertwined that it would be almost irresponsible to avoid using his name. He is not “he-who-shall-not-be-named” after all, though some may think so. And there are some misunderstandings of Thomas (understandably so) which lead Waldron to oppose Calvin and Thomas in places they perhaps should not be opposed. I want to make it clear that I am not trying to cop-out by accusing Waldron of “misunderstanding.” Nor am I trying to gaslight the man. Thomas is not 200, not 400, but 800 years removed from us, and his writings are translated out of Latin. So, there are cultural, linguistic, and philosophical chasms to overcome; not only between us and him, but even between him and Calvin—who lived almost 300 years after.

With that said, we should all approach the evidence circumspectly.

Thomas’ Alleged Rejection of God’s Self-Evident Existence

Waldron writes: 

I procured and then scoured the relevant sections of his Summa Contra Gentiles and Summa Theologica.  This reading caused considerable expansion of that lecture.  It actually—in fact—expanded it into two lectures. What it did not do, however, was significantly change my understanding of Thomas Aquinas “Classical Apologetics” at all.  I concluded that basically Van Til’s presentation of Thomas was right.

Here’s one of the first issues with the article, one that may account for some of the wrong assumptions made later on about what Thomas actually believed. It is very difficult to read “relevant” sections of Aquinas and come away with an accurate characterization of what he believed on any one particular topic. This is because Thomas was in the habit of making distinctions—something emphasized in the scholastic milieu he found himself in. So, what he affirms in one place may be distinguished into two or more senses or species in another, some of which he might affirm. It is, to that effect, not a reference work. While his 13th century students would have expected this feature of his work, we less so today. One such place Waldron runs into trouble relates to the notion of “self-evidence.” He writes:

Aquinas denies that the existence of God is self-evident in both his Summa Theologica and in his Summa Contra Gentiles and rejects the above arguments. The five proofs are built, then, upon the denial of any innate knowledge of God.

I have no idea what Waldron did and did not read, but as mentioned above Thomas makes distinctions. And “self-evidence,” for Thomas, must be distinguished into two senses. In his article, Waldron attempts to understand Thomas’ thought by looking at Thomas’ characterization of objections instead of exploring how Thomas answered those objections; and then, he defers to Gordon Clark—a spurious secondary source at best. I will not deal with Clark here because that will do nothing but complicate the discussion. We are trying to understand classical theism, and now we’re trying to understand Thomas’ articulation of it—it would be a shame if we now had to try and understand Gordon Clark’s understanding of Thomas!

Waldron apparently confuses the notion of self-evidence with innate knowledge, claiming that Thomas, in denying self-evidence, automatically(?) denies innate knowledge of God. But this largely takes for granted a definition of what self-evidence even is.

As mentioned, Thomas believed there are two ways in which a thing can be “self-evident.” “A thing,” he says, “can be self-evident in either of two ways: on the one hand, self-evident in itself, though not to us; on the other, self-evident in itself, and to us (Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 2, At. 1).” But we have to remember what Thomas thought self-evidence was. By way of explanation, he says, “No one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident; as the Philosopher states concerning the first principles of demonstration. But the opposite of the proposition ‘God is’ can be mentally admitted: ‘The fool said in his heart, There is no God’ (Ps. 52:1). Therefore, that God exists is not self-evident.”

When Thomas speaks of “self-evidence” he speaks of linguistic propositions, i.e. “God exists,” which may or may not be understood, but he does not subsume all knowledge under “propositional.” Much like one may reject an articulation of the formal laws of logic, they nevertheless “know” those laws through everyday employment of them. They know logic through implication, but not necessarily through inference (because they cannot be demonstrated). In that sense, the laws of logic are not “self-evident” to us, because we may not understand them propositionally. But that does not mean the laws of logic are not “self-evident” in themselves. Liberty is said to be “self-evident” in our Declaration of Independence. But it is not self-evident in that it cannot be rejected as a mental proposition (just look at our government!), but it is self-evident in and of itself.

For the medieval (and Reformed) scholastics, the knowledge situation wasn’t reduced to mental propositions. And this is why Thomas can say in the next two paragraphs, “To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude.” Interestingly, he also admits of the corruption of this knowledge when he says, “for many there are who imagine that man’s perfect good which is happiness, consists in riches, and others in pleasures, and others in something else.” Thus, man has a confused knowledge of God implanted in them because though they see the contours, they apply those contours to idols instead of glorifying God as God (Rom. 1:21).” Concerning the exegesis of Romans 1, Waldron further notes:

Listen to his argument in Summa Theologica Question 2, Article 2: “The Apostle says: ‘The invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made’ (Rm. 1:20). But this would not be unless the existence of God could be demonstrated through the things that are made; for the first thing we must know of anything is whether it exists.” Thomas takes (and the surrounding context of his assertion simply emphasizes this) Romans 1:20 to mean that the existence of God is not self-evident or implanted in man, but can be demonstrated.

We have to understand Thomas’ project. He’s writing what amounts to a systematic theology which means it proceeds discursively by nature. His proofs are largely in service of that effort. Thus, there is language in Thomas regarding the need to “demonstrate” God’s existence. But he did not think anyone and everyone needed to demonstrate God in order to know God. The simple, he thought, were justified in knowing Him through faith alone. And even the wicked, as we’ve seen, has an imperfect knowledge of God in and through the world—not because they performed an argument, but because they’ve inferred God’s existence through what has been made, both in himself (innately) and through the world (acquiescently). Francis Turretin and others would later term this “innate/acquired” knowledge.

In Romans 1:18-20, there are two types of knowledge mentioned, one innate (intuited) and another acquired through the works of God. Both Francis Turretin and Thomas Watson include both of these general “ways” of knowing God in their work. And many more names could be added to that duo (cf. Stephen Charnock). This is because they saw a twofold natural knowledge (theologia naturalis) of God in Romans 1:18-21 and elsewhere. The text reads:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Notice the phrase, “what may be known of God is manifest in them.” It is here we find biblical precedent for an innate knowledge. However, we should be careful not to confuse innate knowledge with the notion of immediate knowledge. Instead we should understand it as intuited knowledge. This knowledge is, of course, not justifiable to the outside world and cannot, in that sense, be “demonstrated” to others. For demonstration, the works of God must be considered. It is from these works derive acquired knowledge of God. Precedent for this acquired knowledge of God is found in the phrase, “being understood by the things that are made.” Another word for “understood” is “perceived.” And, the term “by” or “through” is an instrumental dative, signifying discursus—a process which, when made explicit through formal representation, we call demonstration or argument. Even so, demonstration is not how a person comes to this acquired knowledge absolutely. They infer it internally, sometimes nearly instantaneously—putting this or that together to form a conclusion. In some ways, it’s no slower than hearing the coffee timer beep only to conclude, “the coffee is done!” Demonstration is the art of taking that implicit process and making it explicit for the sake of justifying to others its truth.

Thomas’ “Imperfect” View of Total Depravity

There is much Dr. Waldron has to say about Thomas’ reception of Augustine. But I am not going to delve into that conversation because I think with the above clarification, one could go back and see there is a great deal of reception of Augustine in Thomas. Thomas did not reject every sense of implanted knowledge, but would have rejected the Platonic “pre-downloaded” propositions. Francis Turretin departs from this idea as well, when he goes so far as to call man a “tabulae rasae” from birth, without relative or propositional knowledge, though not without knowledge absolutely (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, 1.3).

Waldron further contends that Thomas rejects, or at least has an “imperfect” view, of total depravity when he writes:

Similarly, Aquinas also seems to have held confused and imperfect views of total depravity.  Sin, in fact, does not seem to occupy an important place in Thomas’s writings.  In Gilson’s index there is no entry for sin, depravity, the fall, or folly.  For a discussion of Thomas’s view of sin, one must consult his doctrine of free will and grace. It is not surprising, then, Thomas argues that natural light is sufficient for natural knowledge. Consequently, human nature is not altogether corrupted by sin.

Sin appears well over 1,000 times in Thomas’ Summa Theologiae, and figures heavily into his theology. So, I am not certain why Waldron thinks otherwise. One possible reason could be the somewhat alien terminology employed by Thomas to discuss original sin and its effects. Chances are, most reading this have no clue what the term fomes means (and neither did I). Fomes literally renders to “fuel,” and is sometimes called “concupiscence (cf. Calvin).” It is the effect of original sin, and whilst grace works to mortify it, it will never be totally removed in this life.

The term concupiscence is a term shared by both Aquinas and John Calvin. Calvin himself says:

For which reason Aristotle truly taught, that in the appetite there is a pursuit and rejection corresponding in some degree to affirmation and negation in the intellect, (Aristot. Ethic. Lib. 6 sec. 2.) Moreover, it will be seen in another place, (Book 2 c. 2 see. 12-26,) how surely the intellect governs the will. Here we only wish to observe, that the soul does not possess any faculty which may not be duly referred to one or other of these members. And in this way we comprehend sense under intellect. Others distinguish thus: They say that sense inclines to pleasure in the same way as the intellect to good; that hence the appetite of sense becomes concupiscence and list, while the affection of the intellect becomes will (Institutes, 15.7).

The final part of the above quotation is Calvin’s basic articulation and agreement with the metaphysics underlying Thomas’ own view of fomes. For Thomas, the lower appetites of the soul, which included concupiscence as that faculty of pursuing desire, e.g. inclination of sensuality, conflicts with the higher powers, namely man’s intellect and will—enslaving both (we become brutes in our sin). This is more foundational to Thomas’ model of depravity, but in terms of depravity itself, Thomas is very clear:

The prudence of the flesh cannot be subject to the law of God as regards action; since it inclines to actions contrary to the Divine law: yet it is subject to the law of God, as regards passion; since it deserves to suffer punishment according to the law of Divine justice.

According to Thomas, a thing may be subjected to the eternal law in one of two ways: by way of knowledge and by way of action. But he says:

Both ways, however, are imperfect, and to a certain extent destroyed, in the wicked; because in them the natural inclination to virtue is corrupted by vicious habits, and, moreover, the natural knowledge of good is darkened by passions and habits of sin. But in the good both ways are found more perfect: because in them, besides the natural knowledge of good, there is the added knowledge of faith and wisdom; and again, besides the natural inclination to good, there is the added motive of grace and virtue (Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 93, Art. 6).

This is a clear expression of depravity, and man’s desperate need for grace. Now, I do not want to be misunderstood. Thomas did not hold to forensic justification, but only mystical and sacramental justification wherein a person is ontologically made righteous or good through infused “charity.” Justification, for Thomas, was not a legal declaration, but a metaphysically “analytic” reality. Instead of God seeing us in and with His Son and on that basis declaring us to be righteous (synthetic justification), God, thought Thomas, judges us to actually be righteous in ourselves as the result of infused, sacramental grace (analytic justification). This is a massive dividing wall between us and him—and on this Dr. Waldron and I can heartily agree. Nevertheless, Thomas believes man is wicked and inclined to all sorts of evil, such that he’s comfortable using words like “destroyed” in terms of man’s ability to submit to God. Though there are nuances, one should not make the mistake of assuming Thomas was altogether discontinued from later Reformed thinkers on this issue.

Irreconcilable Differences Between Calvin and Aquinas

Of course there are vast differences between Calvin and Thomas. This is not in dispute. But Waldron locates those differences in odd places owing largely, I believe, to an anachronistic application of Van Tillianism (idealism) to their thought.

First, I would urge that we do not fall into the trap of making Calvin the measure of all Reformed orthodoxy. He is not. Second, what Calvin and Thomas actually disagree on are not necessarily what Waldron concerns himself with in his article. We have already seen there are some significant marks Waldron is missing which limits how effective he might be in contrasting these two thinkers. For example, he writes:

First, Calvin identifies himself with a theological tradition in regard to the knowledge of God which Thomas rejects.  Thomas rejects the notion that the knowledge of the existence of God is naturally implanted. He argues, as we have seen, that strictly speaking the knowledge of God is not self-evident. He admits: “To know God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us …” Yet he says that this is “not to know absolutely that God exists, just as to know that someone is approaching is not to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter that is approaching.” He goes on in the next article to assert: “Hence, the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us.”

“Calvin identifies himself with a theological tradition in regard to the knowledge of God which Thomas rejects.” This is simply not true, as we’ve seen. Could there be varying degrees to which Calvin and Thomas view implanted or innate knowledge, respectively? Of course. But it cannot be said the former accepts implanted knowledge while the latter altogether rejects it. Waldron himself notes the area in question, but he then implies this isn’t enough. Why? Does not even Cornelius Van Til understand the relationship between his proximate and ultimate epistemological starting points this way? As soon as man has knowledge of himself, he has knowledge of God. As soon as man grips his own beatific purpose in a general way, which all rational men do throughout their whole lives, they know something of God—the outer contours, we might say. What are the contents of innate knowledge? If Thomas’ seminal and imperfect implanted knowledge is not enough, what would be? A full-fledged doctrine of the Trinity?

No matter the nuances between Calvin and Aquinas on this point, they both confessed models of an inner natural knowledge (innate natural theology according to Turretin). An unfortunate feature of Waldron’s survey is his total lack of interaction with Thomas’ biblical commentaries. And this was a defect in Jeffrey Johnson’s recent work as well. For example, in his commentary on Romans, Thomas says, “what can be known about God by men through reason, is manifest in them, i.e., is manifest to them from something in them, i.e., from an inner light (Commentary on Romans, C. 1 L. 6).” In his Commentary on John, he says, “He was the true light, which enlightens every man coming into this world (L. 5).” Thus, he did affirm the inward revelation of God. This is not in dispute (or shouldn’t be). The question is what Thomas believed that knowledge was. But I think that question equally applies to Calvin.

There is one last important point I would like to consider before closing. Waldron implies Thomas believed that “long or laborious” arguments were necessary in order to know God. This is a popular caricature. Waldron notes this while once more contrasting Thomas with Calvin. He quotes Calvin favorably:

We see that there is no need of any long or laborious argumentation to obtain and produce testimonies for illustrating and asserting the Divine Majesty; since, from the few which we have selected and cursorily mentioned, it appears that they are every where so evident and obvious, as easily to be distinguished by the eyes, and pointed out with the fingers  (Calvin, 1:5:9).

Allegedly opposed to what Calvin said, Thomas is then quoted as saying:

Now, among the inquiries that we must undertake concerning God in Himself, we must set down in the beginning that whereby His Existence is demonstrated, as the necessary foundation of the whole work. For, if we do not demonstrate that God exists, all consideration of divine things is necessarily suppressed (Aquinas, SCG, ch. 9, par. 5).

Here, Thomas is speaking of his Work, i.e. the Summas. There is another place where Thomas says, “The Apostle says: ‘The invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made’ (Rom. 1:20). But this would not be unless the existence of God could be demonstrated through the things that are made; for the first thing we must know of anything is whether it exists.” 

It would be a mistake, however, to take Thomas as saying, “The only way God is clearly seen through what He has made is through demonstration.” In point of fact, he’s arguing just the reverse. If this knowledge were not demonstrable, it would not be perceivable, and if not perceivable, then it would not be “clearly seen,” as the text teaches. Rather than God being clearly perceived only after demonstration (as many take him to mean), he means it is because these things are clearly seen that accounts for why they can be demonstrated. This becomes apparent when Thomas says, “there is nothing to prevent a man, who cannot grasp a proof, accepting, as a matter of faith, something which in itself is capable of being scientifically known and demonstrated (Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 2, Art. 2).” For Thomas, these things can be known apart from demonstration.


Again, I want to be very clear: This is not a personal slight toward Dr. Sam Waldron. It is not intended to show any sort of disrespect. My desire here is for truth to prevail. I fear that, in a zeal to escape a personality and even that person’s methodology, good and true things, essential things even, are being rejected, e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity with EFS, immutability, and simplicity. These are staggeringly important doctrines without which the Christian faith falls flat. For this reason, I do hope articles like this one serve to clarify rather than stir the pot.