REVIEW: The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation

REVIEW: The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation

The below is a book review article submitted in fulfillment of a recent hermeneutics course at International Reformed Baptist Seminary. The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation is authored by Keith D. Stanglin.

Hatched within the cradle of Enlightenment skepticism is the obligatory and incessant quest for certainty. Over the last few centuries, science has undergone a mutilating transformation only to appear now in the form of a proud scientism. Everything is about process, a process that promises certainty. Rules rule the day. System and method, if correctly followed, will automatically garner the right conclusions. The employment of method and the proper outflow of process are givens within the context of a chemical laboratory or doctor’s office. But what happens when methods proper to the natural sciences are imposed upon higher sciences, such as theology or philosophy? The 19th and 20th centuries have especially produced the same air of obligatory certainty within the biblical-exegetical community. As Keith Stanglin puts it, “If the interpreter would simply approach the Bible in the same objective, reasonable way that the scientist approached nature, then, as long as enough information is available, the single message of any passage could be discerned.” (179)

Such an approach to the science of exegetical theology leaves one with the impression that biblical interpretation is a shut case. All the Bible reader must do is follow the correct method. Stanglin’s contribution to the retrieval of historical exegesis in The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation is an asset precisely because it shows that such an approach to Scripture is not only a-historical, but also categorically erroneous.

The majority of Stanglin’s volume (19-187) takes the shape of historical survey. Readers entering this area of study for the first time will quickly discover that the modern era of biblical studies has not been entirely transparent about its own place within the historical timeline of exegetical practice. In the second chapter, which deals with “Earliest Christian Exegesis,” Stanglin writes:

…it is important to get the hermeneutical priority clear. Although the New Testament writers were already recipients of a scriptural tradition, they began their interpretation of Scripture with assumptions outside of Scripture—namely, the revelation of Christ, their witness of the Christ event. (21)

Already, those trained in the modernist interpretive tradition will likely start to become uneasy. But in chapter six, Stanglin helps us to understand the assumptions most probably causing the uneasiness. Speaking of Alexander Campbell, he writes, “He was influenced by a Baconian inductive approach (that is, the scientific method), and like most Enlightenment thinkers he assumed that this was the most reliable way to truth and knowledge in human endeavour.” (170)

In chapter three, Stanglin moves from the first two centuries of Christian biblical exegesis to the third century, the beginning of what he called “Later patristic Exegesis.” (47) This chapter spends a large amount of space surveying Origen and his surrounding controversy. Origen was controversial in his own day largely due to his supposed over-allegorization of the biblical text. However, as Stanglin shows, Origen needs to be carefully qualified. For example, some of Origen’s exegetical conclusions were taken as allegory though today they would be understood as the literal interpretation of the text. Stanglin writes:

Porphyry’s contemporary, Methodius of Olympus, opposed Origen’s interpretation of the dry bones story in Ezekiel 37. Methodius insisted that the story is about the future, bodily resurrection of the dead, and he accused Origen of “allegorizing”… the text. Origen’s allegedly allegorical interpretation, by the way, took the story to be about the restoration of Israel from exile, which, ironically, happens to be the “literal” interpretation now preferred by modern commentators. (49)

In the latter portion of the same chapter, Stanglin very helpfully surveys the Antiochene and Alexandrian schools of interpretational thought. He shows that the Antiochene and Alexandrian schools were not fundamentally opposed along literal versus spiritual party lines. Rather, Stanglin demonstrates that both schools maintain the theoria, or the fuller sense of Scripture beyond the historical meaning. The crux of the divide between both schools rested within their Christology. And it wasn’t as if they had principally different Christologies either, they did not; but they had different emphases within the same Christological conviction. Quoting Frances Young, Stanglin clarifies the divide, “Alexandrian and Antiochene is not spiritual versus literal, for both schools knew that ‘the wording of the Bible carried deeper meanings and that the immediate sense or reference pointed beyond itself.’” (68)

Whereas the Antiochene school has been heralded as the ancient champion of the historical-critical model of exegesis by moderns, Stanglin sets the record straight by concluding, “the Antiochene school of interpretation has more in common with Origen than it does with modern, historical-critical exegesis.” (68) And indeed, given Stanglin’s observation of the Antiochene maintenance of the theoria, such a conclusion seems entirely warranted. Contrary to the modern scientific mindset where rightly following the correct method automatically yields true exegetical conclusions, Stanglin finishes chapter three with the spirit and sentiment of the ancient interpreters when he says, “Biblical interpretation calls for humility, a desire to be formed morally, willingness to listen, and openness to spiritual illumination and understanding.” (76)

In chapter four, medieval exegesis is the object of author’s historical survey. He begins with Augustine (4th c.), who carries the necessity of virtue into exegesis following those who preceded him. For Augustine, it wasn’t only about methods. Morals were also necessary. Stanglin, quoting Augustine, writes, “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.” (82)

Augustine does not imbibe the modern assumption of methodical automation. Rather, moral concern, especially as it appears in a faith-induced humility, is of prime importance. The same could be said of John Cassian of whom Stanglin notes, “that spiritual maturity and understanding are prerequisites for the right interpretation and application of Scripture.” (93) Cassian (4th-5th c.), though not the inventor of it, further develops what is called the quadriga, or the fourfold sense. He maintained two senses—historical and spiritual. But he also understood that the spiritual sense may be distinguished further into tropological, allegorical, and anagogical sub-senses. Gregory the Great apparently continued in Cassian’s footsteps. Henri De Lubac, Stanglin notes, “calls Gregory an ‘expert’ in the four senses, ‘one of the principal initiators and one of the greatest patrons of the medieval doctrine of the fourfold sense.’” (95)

Chapter four isn’t nearly as extensive as it could be since it deals with a lengthy period of Christian history. For this reason, Stanglin is not overly specific. Instead, he hits the wavetops of medieval exegetical history. He helpfully notes the major shift in exegetical practice resulting from scholasticism, where biblical commentary and the church’s theoretical discussions make for an influential distinction between the sacred page (sacra pagina) and the church’s sacred teaching (sacra doctrina). He includes a section on Thomas Aquinas, concerning whom he makes a rather unexpected (for some) observation:

This limitation of basing necessary doctrines on the literal sense is an important control on interpretation and doctrinal application. On the one hand, as Beryl Smalley has shown, Thomas is in a long line of high medieval commentators who gave increasing attention to the literal sense, essentially equating it with human authorial intent… On the other hand, recall that when Thomas emphasizes that the literal sense is the basis for the spiritual sense and for necessary doctrine, he is not saying anything qualitatively different from what the early church fathers said, who also based their interpretations and applications on the literal sense. (105)

Stanglin concludes chapter four with Nicholas of Lyra and, lastly, some principles of medieval exegesis, which include: further systematizing, quadriga and its controls, emphasis on the literal sense, academic setting, and exegesis & theology. (109-111)

Chapters five and six are the last two chapters in part one of the book. Here, Stanglin covers modern exegesis along with historical-critical exegesis. Regarding modern exegesis in chapter five, Stanglin characterizes the debate between Protestants and Roman Catholics as follows:

Those who emphasized biblical obscurity the most also tended to stress the role of external biblical interpretation and the need to supplement Scripture with church tradition. Specifically, the Roman Church’s insistence on the need for the teaching magisterium (ultimately vested in the papacy) to step in and interpret Scripture was a corollary to its claim of biblical obscurity. Thus again the Council of Trent declared: “No one… shall dare to interpret the sacred scriptures either by twisting its text to his individual meaning in opposition to that which has been and is held by holy mother church, whose function is to pass judgment on the true meaning and interpretation of the sacred scriptures.” (129)

Contrary to a modern take of the Reformation, the divide between Protestant and Catholic was not anti-tradition versus tradition. It was between tradition as a ministerially helpful guide and source of personal accountability versus tradition as decided by a specific institution being forcefully imposed upon the general public through tyrannical governmental means. Moreover, the Protestant Reformed use of tradition did not, nor does it currently, presuppose the natural obscurity of the Scriptures but the sinful tendencies of the individual reader. Of the Protestant Reformed, Stanglin writes:

Between the two extremes of Tridentine Catholicism and Radical Reform fell most of mainstream Protestantism, which, against the former, stressed perspicuity as a way to counter the Roman Catholic attempt to regulate biblical interpretation but, against the latter, also saw the benefit of church tradition as a lens for biblical interpretation. (131)

John Calvin is a hinge-point in the turn of the exegetical tide. Stanglin makes a stunning observation when he says:

Calvin goes on to say that it is indeed collective humanity, presumably the church, who will conquer the serpent, which he does associate more directly with Satan, and that it is certainly by Christ that humanity conquers Satan. But Calvin explicitly denies the association between the woman’s seed and Christ; the reference is to humanity in general. (134)

For Calvin, the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15 is not Christ, but those for whom Christ dies, i.e. the church (Eph. 5:25). To reach this conclusion, Calvin “appeals to grammar, a philological reason, for dismissing Christ as the referent of seed.” (134) While Calvin is certainly no modernist per se, various emphases in Calvin may have paved the way for what is now known as modern exegesis. Modern exegesis eventually gives rise to the historical-critical method through several philosophical shifts. One of those shifts came in the form of Remonstrant thinkers Simon Episcopius (1583-1643) and Etienne de Coucelles (1586-1659). (156) Stanglin notes that, “For Episcopius, the reading and understanding of Scripture was not necessarily a spiritual exercise, but a rational one.” (157)

The last two chapters close the book by reviewing the extent of the differences between exegetical approaches, unbridled allegorization along with unbridled historical criticism. It finishes with a discussion on exegetical controls. Controlling the spiritual sense are the sensus literalis, the analogia scripturae, and the analogia fidei. (205-206) Controlling the literal sense is the spiritual sense, the analogia scripturae, and humility. (207-209) The last chapter looks at a way forward through retrieval exegesis, literal-spiritual exegesis, and applies these considerations to various texts as case studies.

Overall, The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation is an extremely helpful book. The most helpful part is the way in which Stanglin engages the historical approaches to biblical interpretation. The last part of the book is not especially necessary. The last chapter might be summarized as “the way forward is the way back.” Stanglin doesn’t bring anything especially new to the table. And this turns out to be a refreshing strength of the book. The overall point seems to be the exegetical continuity through the history of the church, especially when the pre-modern era is considered. Christians must return to pre-modern exegesis, and Stanglin’s book is a very helpful first step for anyone who senses the need to do so.

John Calvin & Tradition

John Calvin & Tradition

John Calvin, the 16th century Reformational giant, highly regarded the theological tradition preceding him.

This is not to say that he wholesale adopted everything handed down to him from previous generations. It is to say, however, that he highly valued the continuity of the core Christian faith as it had been transmitted from the early church onward. As Dr. Richard Muller mentions, “Calvin assumed the catholicity of the Reformation and, accordingly, the continuity of the Reformation with the Christian truths taught by the church fathers…”[1] While Calvin in no wise considered the truth of the Scriptures contingent upon the judgment of the church, he nevertheless made the assumption that there were some things Christians have always believed concerning what the Scriptures teach, and that these things couldn’t be denied without calling into question the integrity of the Scriptures themselves.

The goal of this article is to set forth an earnest and brief survey of Calvin’s use of those subordinate authorities, particularly as they exist in the early creeds of the Christian church.

The Use of the Term “Tradition” In the Early Reformation

In the 16th century, “tradition” was a technical term denoting a coordinate authority alongside Scripture. The “tradition” of the Roman Catholic church was an ecclesiastical prerogative to infallibly interpret Scripture and implement long-standing practices that themselves did not exist in Scripture at all. Tradition was something other than the Scriptures, and it was binding. Pope Pius IX once remarked, “Tradition! I am tradition!” An apt summary, perhaps, of how the collective whole of the Romish institution thought of itself.

Since “tradition,” as a term, was technically limited to Rome’s conception of it, such a word did not enjoy wide-spread positive use among the Reformers. Today, when we say “tradition,” we might be referring to anything and everything that may have been handed down from one generation to the next. Family traditions, political traditions, and religious traditions are all considered traditionary. We no longer assume Rome’s monopoly on tradition, rightly so. And, within the writings of the Reformers, it can be seen that they themselves made appeal to what would formally constitute exegetical and theological traditions, indicating they did not, of course, do away with tradition, per se.

Calvin on the Superiority of “Conciliar” Interpretation Over Individual Interpretation

Calvin generally thought of biblical interpretation as a task to be done in concert with the rest of the Christian church. It was not predominantly an individualist effort, but a churchly one. He writes:

We indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined. Such a definition, upon which the pastors of the church in common, invoking Christ’s Spirit, agree, will have much more weight than if each one, having conceived it separately at home, should teach it to the people, or if a few private individuals should compose it.[2]

That the whole would have more weight than the parts becomes an evident sentiment throughout Calvin’s work. It’s obvious enough that he’s working within an interpretive tradition. For he cites Augustine almost more than anyone else. Chrysostom might be a close second. He marshals the words of these men, not in order to undermine Scripture’s authority, but to show that he’s working within the accepted interpretive scheme of Christ’s people. He’s simply making himself accountable to his brethren. As Muller says, “Calvin’s theology evidences a healthy respect for the patristic tradition.”[3]

While anticipating certain reactions to his own placement of councils, Calvin clarifies where he situates creeds within the order of churchly authority. Scripture always remains primary, but the creeds, he says, have a “provisional judgement,” which must be considered. He writes:

What then? You ask, will the councils have no determining authority? yes, indeed; for I am not arguing here either that all councils are to be condemned or the acts of all to be rescinded, and (as the saying goes) to be canceled at one stroke. But, you will say, you degrade everything, so that every man has the right to accept or reject what the councils decide. Not at all! But whenever a decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with—and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment, yet not hinder the examination which I have mentioned.[4]

Calvin expressly denies the notion that private interpretation should be given place to overturn the earliest conciliar decisions. At the same time, he does not regard every council to hold equal weight. And in this particular paragraph, he’s not so much referring to the ancient councils, like Nicaea I, Ephesus I, or Chalcedon. He’s referring to councils moving forward. In  other words, he’s not casting a blanket of skepticism over age-old orthodoxy, thereby making the individual exegete the final arbiter of biblical interpretive meaning. But he’s situating the councils themselves within the overall framework of biblical authority. Whether or not councils are true depends upon whether or not those same councils prove themselves to be bibline.

Calvin on Biblical Interpretation

Today, individualist assumptions are often brought to the text of Scripture. Now, by “individualist,” I do not intend an individualism concerning which a case might be made that a person should care for himself as a matter of principle.[5] By “individualism,” I mean the general assumption that the individual bible-reader, apart from corporate discourse or accountability, has sufficient ability to make interpretive decisions when it comes to the serious matters of orthodoxy. As has been observed in the previous section of this article, Calvin grants the possibility and reality of individual biblical interpretation. But he understands that a gathering or assembly of God-gifted men adds more weight than the individual is able to bear. The Westminster Assembly is of greater weight than Bob’s private interpretive musings. Calvin considers this a biblical dynamic:

Paul prescribes this method in distinguishing doctrines. For when he assigns the distinguishing of doctrines to the separate churches [cf. 1 Cor. 14:29], he shows what should be the order of procedure in more serious cases—namely, that the churches should take common cognizance among themselves.[6]

Therefore, in terms of biblical interpretation, the individual must put the whole before himself. This basically cashes out in a use of creeds and confessions in the biblical-interpretative effort when it comes to theological disputes over serious matters. Since such documents are products of the gathered churches, they are to be taken more seriously than a single person or their innovative takes just as two or three brethren within a local church hold more authority than a single person. Biblically, individuals, and even groups, who find themselves in disagreement, especially when it comes to “more serious cases,” must make appeal to the chorus of saints. Those who intentionally fail to do so would apparently be considered, by Calvin, haughty or unhinged.

This is not to say the whole church is bound to the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Second London Baptist Confession, as if either of those two documents carried the same exact weight of Scripture. But it is to say that those documents, as they sit within their respective theological traditions, supersede the individual’s biblical engagement and should also be utilized by churches, not only as a way to define their doctrine, but also as a means of remaining accountable to their brethren who went before them. The provisional doctrinal judgment of church history as its represented in creeds and confessions must have a voice today.

John Calvin & “The Great Tradition”

As a term, “the great tradition” doesn’t enjoy much precision. This is partly due to the nature of the term itself. It would be like trying to define the word “Scripture.” We might be able to say, “God’s Word.” But then, obvious questions of the nature of canon may arise. With the great tradition, we may be able to define it as such: inspired doctrine and practice as it has been transmitted from generation to generation, from the first century onward. But even this definition falls short, since it does not take into consideration the Old Testament backgrounds of the New Testament, interpretive method, etc. And, of course, the question arises, “Who decides what is biblical and what is not?”

As we look at Calvin, we quickly notice that he perceives the source of such a tradition to be Scripture alone, or sola Scriptura. There is no other source from which to derive articles of faith, or specially revealed religion. It does not come from the church. It does not come from the heathen. The Christian religion has its genus in special revelation as it has been recorded in the pages of the Bible.

What accounts for the transmission of that revelation to us? Issues arise, such as the lack of original Scriptural manuscripts, the early church that knew nothing of a fully-printed New Testament, and so on. Moreover, the philosophical assumptions of the Old and New Testaments, whilst largely lost in today’s society, continue to be assumed by Scripture since Scripture doesn’t change with the times. How, then, do we account for all these variables? I want to suggest we appeal to interpretive and doctrinal history in order to provide ourselves with accountability on both fronts. Calvin writes:

Thus, when Arius rose up, the Council of Nicaea was summoned. By its authority it both crushed the wicked efforts of that ungodly man, restoring peace to those churches which he had troubled, and asserted the eternal deity of Christ against his sacrilegious teaching. Then, when Eunomius and Macedonius stirred up new tumults, the Council of Constantinople provided a like remedy for their madness. At the Council of Ephesus, Nestorius’ impiety was overthrown. From the beginning, then, this was the ordinary method of maintaining unity in the church whenever Satan began any machinations.[7]

Consider modern-day aberrations of the doctrine of God. We know the Scriptures have all we need in order to know God. However, as individual persons, we need help. Otherwise, we are prone to twisting and contorting the text to fit our fancy. Thus, a “peer review” is needed in terms of how we interpret God’s Word. This is the accountability of the brethren, both within our respective local churches, but also throughout the whole history of Christianity. Calvin assumes the purity of the creeds and statements formed in the earliest centuries of the church’s history when he writes:

Thus those ancient Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, the first of Ephesus, Chalcedony, and the like, which were held for refuting errors, we willingly embrace, and reverence as sacred, in so far as relates to doctrines of faith, for they contain nothing but the pure and genuine interpretation of Scripture, which the holy Fathers with spiritual prudence adopted to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen.[8]

Biblical interpretation should take place within a corporate setting, that of the Christian church as it exists throughout history. The local church should be able to find itself within the interpretive and doctrinal tradition of creedal and confessional history, otherwise, they become a law unto themselves. And orthodox confessions ought to find continuity with the earliest creeds of the Christian faith, and they do. Of course, all the above must be fully and finally grounded in the text of Holy Scripture.


Scripture and tradition, unlike the Roman Catholic understanding, do not have to be two different sources of divine revelation or authoritative teaching. Scripture is the source, which means “tradition” is the general continuance of the church in the belief and practice of the Holy Scriptures. This doesn’t make Christians infallible. But it does recognize that there is a general continuity throughout the past two millennia of Christian belief and practice that is the result of special revelation; and, that this belief and practice has been accurately reflected in creeds and confessions. Calvin himself seems to have this same understanding.

As we deal with the current effort to overturn these age-old creedal imperatives among those who claim a “Reformed” heritage, we should remember that the Reformed themselves would not have given up so easily on the subject-matter of the historic creeds. Divine simplicity, trinitarian consubstantiality, and inseparable operations are creedal and confessional imperatives. And, though certain men seek to throw these long-held doctrines into question, we can be confident that the Reformers and the post-Reformation Puritans would unhesitatingly point them to the earliest ecumenical creeds and the confessions.[9]


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. II, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 342.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1176.

[3] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. II, 74.

[4] Calvin, Institutes, 1171.

[5] Cf. The Metaphysical Foundations of Love by Anthony T. Flood.

[6] Calvin, Institutes, 1176.

[7] Calvin, Institutes, 1176–1177.

[8] Calvin, John. The John Calvin Collection: 12 Classic Works. Waxkeep Publishing. Kindle Edition. Loc. 21663.

[9] Cf. Herman Witsius’ Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed (2 volumes).

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.