Understanding Confessional Retrieval (Part 2)

Understanding Confessional Retrieval (Part 2)

In this post, I’d like to discuss the main problem that arises in the project of theological retrieval.

While it’s easy to define theological retrieval, trying to understand its object is much more difficult. 

Remember, retrieval finds a place within the sub-discipline of historical theology, but it’s not mere history. It’s also the appropriation of the past to within the present. There are many things we observe in history that we wouldn’t necessarily want to appropriate into the present. For example, Christian persecution at the hands of a Christian state, military conflicts fought over religious relics, the papacy, or transubstantiation are historical doctrines and practices most of us wouldn’t want to drag into the present.

More specifically, as a Particular Baptist, I wouldn’t want to appropriate infant baptism, Presbyterianism, or the bishopric of the Church of England. So, a more specific—if not more difficult—question arises: What keeps us theologically accountable as we engage in the task of theological retrieval? 

Further, How do we prevent ourselves from using retrieval as a means of subjectively reacting against the culture? We might be tempted to retrieve only those beliefs and actions of the historical church that seem most opposite to our present culture. This would be wrong-headed and dangerous. It would be reflexive and ungrounded.

The problem of retrieval is as simple as it is difficult. Theological retrieval, by itself, doesn’t really have any guidelines or parameters. Without context, anyone can retrieve anything they’d like. The work of retrieval would become an arbitrary and consumeristic exercise in picking one’s favorite theological candy from the historical bucket.

A person engaged in theological retrieval may one day prefer Richard Hooker’s hypothetical universalism or John Gill’s eschatology. By next week, they’re trying to find a place for Aquinas before flirting with Duns Scotus after boredom with Thomism sets it. A month later, they’ve decided both those guys are wrong and now they’re looking to John Henry Newman or Gregory Palamas. This is not a fruitful way to engage in the work of theological retrieval. And it can even become spiritually destructive.

How, then, should we think of retrieval soberly and contextually?

In the next part, we’ll look at a proposed solution to the retrieval problem, i.e. the “confessional imperative.”

Understanding Confessional Retrieval (Part 2)

Understanding Confessional Retrieval (Part 1)

Just a few years ago, I would’ve never imagined the evangelical landscape would include relatively deep conversations revolving around classical metaphysics, theology, and even politics. But thanks to a collective evangelical itch to retrieve the old ways, along with simultaneous disenchantment with the novus ordo of the evangelical industrial complex, Western Christianity is beginning to rediscover its roots. A contemporary reformation (of sorts) is afoot.

This is a good thing.

But as with any positive development, the danger of overreaction, over-realization, and a lack of wisdom looms. In particular, the question of retrieval always seems to be, What should we retrieve?

Monasticism? The episcopacy? Christian imperialism? The college of bishops? What do we retrieve? And do we ever stop retrieving? Does theological retrieval have a goal?

These are complicated questions. But they are questions I hope to address to some extent in the series that follows. This is the first of a few parts in that series. I hope it’s helpful.

What Is Retrieval?

In some ways, “retrieval” is a biblical principle. Throughout the Old Testament, deference is paid to the “old ways” and the “multitude of counselors.” It is a proverbial dictum that we ought not “remove the ancient landmark Which [our] fathers have set.” (Prov. 22:28) The “old paths” are “where the good way” is found. (Jer. 6:16) And we find safety in listening to the many voices that are wiser and older than ourselves. (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 24:6)

When we speak of “retrieval” within a Christian context, we speak of what is a subset of historical theology. Historical theology is the science of exploring and appropriating the theology of the church’s past to the church’s present. What did our spiritual ancestors believe, and why? More strongly, is what they believed something we ought to be believing today? Have we stepped off the “old paths”?

Some have said, “The way back is the way forward.”[1] This sums up the project of retrieval quite nicely. The church is not a biological, chemical, or mechanical laboratory. We’re not looking for the latest developments in “Christian theology.” Our science is very old. Its purpose is not to locate the new or the most expedient. It’s not even oriented to what we take to be the most interesting or cutting-edge. 

The science of Christian theology concerns itself with a God that calls Himself the “Ancient of Days,” “everlasting,” and, “without end.” We are, fundamentally, a people who derive their knowledge from an eternal God who has sustained an ancient institution for over two millennia through means of an imponderably old Book. Paradoxically, this moves us forward—not only through time but unto everlasting beatitude. This isn’t true with every science. But it is true with ours.

Retrieval is the task of locating the old ways for the nourishment of contemporary spiritual life which, in turn, helps us to persevere well in the faith.

In the next part, I will discuss the “retrieval problem.”


[1] I’ll credit this statement to Dr. Richard Barcellos who, if memory serves me rightly, heard it from the late Dr. Mike Renihan.

Nehemiah Coxe & Paedobaptist Inconsistency

Nehemiah Coxe & Paedobaptist Inconsistency

Nehemiah Coxe was a 17th c. Particular Baptist and was almost certainly an editor of the Second London Confession, 1677. His notable works are Vindiciae Veritatis, contra Thomas Collier’s heresies, and A Discourse of the Covenants.

In A Discourse of the Covenants, Coxe raises several objections against the paedobaptist view of the Abrahamic covenant. Below I have transcribed one such objection. In the 17th c., some paedobaptists faced a dilemma. If the Abrahamic covenant is substantially the same as the new covenant, and if it included not only immediate but also remote posterity, then the new covenant should likewise include both.

But paedobaptists generally limited covenant interest only to immediate offspring. This reveals a possible inconsistency in the claim that the Abrahamic covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace and thus the same in substance as the new covenant—the recipients of the covenant promises are apparently not the same between the two administrations. And this would hint at a substantial, rather than a mere administrative, difference.

Nehemiah Coxe Describes the Inconsistency

He who holds himself obliged by the command and interested in the promises of the covenant of circumcision is equally involved in all of them since together they are that covenant. Therefore, he who applies one promise or branch of this covenant to the carnal seed of a believing parent (esteeming every such parent to have an interest in the covenant coordinate with Abraham’s) ought seriously to consider the whole promissory part of the covenant in its true import and extent, and see whether he can make such an undivided application of it without manifest absurdity.

For example, if I may conclude my concern in this covenant is such that by one of its promises I am assured that God has taken my immediate seed into covenant with himself, I must on the same ground conclude also that my seed in remote generations will be no less in covenant with him, since the promise extends to the seed in their generations. I must also conclude that this seed will be separated from other nations as a peculiar people to God and will have the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession since all these things are included in the covenant of circumcision. But because these things cannot be allowed, nor are they pleaded for by anyone that I know of, we must conclude that Abraham was considered in this covenant, not in the capacity or respect of a private believing parent, but of one chosen of God to be the father of and a federal root to a nation that for special ends would be separated to God by a peculiar covenant. When those ends are accomplished, the covenant by which they obtained that right and relation must cease. And no one can plead anything similar without reviving the whole economy built on it. (Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ, 106)

Summarizing Coxe’s Argument

Let’s try to outline Coxe’s argument:

  • He who is bound by the commandment of the (Abrahamic) covenant and has an interest in the promises of the same covenant is interested in all the promises of the covenant. Not just one or two. The promises of the covenant made the covenant what it was, and so they come all together or none at all.
  • Therefore, a member of the Abrahamic covenant isn’t interested in only one of its promises but all of them.


  • This means that not only the immediate seed of Abraham is a recipient of covenant blessing, but also the more remote generations, e.g. grandsons, great-grandsons, etc. And this is to be perpetual.


  • If the remote posterity of Abraham had equal rights to nationality and Canaan as did the immediate posterity, then so should the remote posterity of new covenant believers have just as much right to covenant blessing as do their immediate offspring.

A Further Explanation

This deserves some further elaboration.

Many 17th c. paedobaptists understood the new covenant to be substantially identical with, though administratively distinct from, the Abrahamic covenant. And this understanding provides a covenantal basis for paedobaptism. 

But most everyone in Coxe’s day would restrict new covenant promises only to their immediate descendants. Virtually no one tried to argue for perpetual covenant blessing upon remote generations. So, Coxe later says, “[The paedobaptists] generally narrow the terms of covenant interest… by limiting it to the immediate offspring. Yet in [the Abrahamic covenant] it was not restrained like this but came just as fully on remote generations.”

In other words, Coxe is saying, “You can’t admit one promise of the Abrahamic covenant (participation of immediate offspring) without also admitting the other promises of the Abrahamic covenant (participation of remote offspring).” If the inheritance will be conferred to the immediate offspring, then so shall it be conferred to the remote offspring. But it’s evident, in both Scripture and experience, that new covenant promises are not conferred upon remote generations of believers.

He further observes, “[The paedobaptists] also exclude the servants and slaves of Christians, with the children born of them, from that privilege which they suppose they enjoyed under the Old Testament in being sealed with the sign or token of the covenant of grace.” While the Abrahamic covenant included servants, slaves, and their offspring in the covenant, and thus proper recipients of the sign of circumcision, the 17th c. paedobaptists did not generally include their servants, slaves, and their offspring in the new covenant administration of the covenant of grace.

He cites an additional inconsistency. He says, “[the paedobaptists] make a believers’ interest in this covenant of larger extent than Abraham’s ever truly was. They have all the immediate seed of believers included in it, while we see only Isaac, of all the sons of Abraham according to the flesh, admitted to the inheritance of the blessing and promises of this covenant.”

Since the paedobaptists believed the new covenant was substantially the same as the Abrahamic covenant, they also believed the recipients of the covenant had to be the same—parents and their children. But they would hold that all the children of believing parents ought to receive the covenant sign of baptism since they were, after all, covenant children. But this isn’t how the Abrahamic covenant worked. Only Isaac (and his line) received the inheritance of the Abrahamic covenant. None of Abraham’s other children, though children of a believing father, received the inheritance.

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.