Actus Purus & the Project of Redemption

Actus Purus & the Project of Redemption

“Actus purus is not the God of the Bible.” ~ Jeffrey Johnson, President GBTS

What is it from which God’s elect must be redeemed? Why is the gospel so important? Over the last few weeks, I’ve been harping on the integrity of God’s justice… from the pulpit. Christians should not look for a suspension of justice, which would make for a pretty bad judge. Christians, rather, should look for satisfaction which can finally satiate the justice of God in their stead. God’s people desperately need a substitute.

The need for a substitute evinces a never-changing reality—the holy and righteous God of Israel. God’s holiness and righteousness are never-changing, because if they were, satisfaction would be superfluous. God might simply opt to become a bad judge. Overcome with passion for His people, this mutable God could simply suspend His justice. As it is, however, we must understand satisfaction to be necessary in order to the redemption of God’s chosen. If it’s not necessary, the Father’s Son died in vain.

This satisfaction is provided by God Himself, of course. Just as the LORD provided the ram for Abraham in place of Isaac, so too does the Father provide His own Son in place of, well, us. God at once requires heavy-lifting and provides the heavy-lifting for the redemption of His elect. And the base-line reason this dynamic becomes necessary is to be found in God as actus purus.

Actus Purus & the Justice of God

What is actus purus? Created things may be actual, but they also have the potential to be other than they are. This is why we call creatures contingent. They depend on various things to be what they are, and when these things upon which they depend are decreased, increased, improved, or degraded they change. Christianity has always held that God is not dependent (contingent), but independent (necessary). Theologians have historically grounded God’s independence, immutability, and simplicity in His pure actuality (actus purus). God has no potential in Himself to be other than He is, He is all actual and no wise potential.

If there is any potentiality in God, there is potentiality in God’s perfections. In such a case, God could be other than He is. Following from this, God’s judgment of sin wouldn’t be a necessity in God, it would be an arbitrary determination God could or could not have made. Judgment would not be a perfection in God, but the effect of the divine will. Now, I am not here talking about the accidental timing, means, and/or manner of God’s administration of judgment, but about God’s natural opposition to anything contrary to His nature, i.e. sin. A repugnancy (to sin) which is, no doubt, one and the same with His very essence.

If there is potential in God, there is potential in God’s judgment. If there is potential in God’s judgment, satisfaction is not necessary (since judgment in God could be other than it is). Therefore, on such a model, the Son will have died in vain, a blasphemous suggestion to be sure. To the contrary, however, Thomas Aquinas, speaking of the grace of regeneration and satisfaction, states:

Two things are required for the perfect cleansing from sins, corresponding to the two things comprised in sin–namely, the stain of sin and the debt of punishment. The stain of sin is, indeed, blotted out by grace, by which the sinner’s heart is turned to God: whereas the debt of punishment is entirely removed by the satisfaction that man offers to God. Now the priesthood of Christ produces both these effects. For by its virtue grace is given to us, by which our hearts are turned to God, according to Rom. 3:24, 25: “Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, Whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in His blood.” Moreover, He satisfied for us fully, inasmuch as “He hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4). Wherefore it is clear that the priesthood of Christ has full power to expiate sins (Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica (Complete & Unabridged) (p. 556). Coyote Canyon Press. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.)

Elsewhere, he speaks of God’s justice as a perfection in God identified with His very essence, which is formally synonymous with truth, “Therefore God’s justice, which establishes things in the order conformable to the rule of His wisdom, which is the law of His justice, is suitably called truth (p. 114).”

All of this, of course, requires we understand God as actus purus—an understanding currently rejected by some who share podiums with the likes of John MacArthur, Voddie Baucham, and Paul Washer. Owen Strachan has come out strong in defense of the very book containing the aforementioned quotation by Johnson. But if God is not actus purus, then nothing is off the table. Actus purus is the very doctrine grounding the Christian’s trust in the certainty of God’s holy and infallible Word.

No. It is the very doctrine grounding the infallibility of the Scriptures themselves.

The Project of Redemption

The need of redemption, in the final analysis, flows from the unchanging justice of God, which must be satisfied. The question is, “How is it satisfied?” According to Q. 12 of The Orthodox Catechism, it is satisfied in one of two ways: through ourselves, or through Another—the Lord Jesus Christ. The point here is that heavy-lifting is not an option, it has to be performed by someone. Thankfully, for Christians, it is performed fully by God Himself through Christ.

The rejection of God as actus purus, however, renders this heavy-lifting superfluous, and therefore makes the gospel itself nothing but overkill. God, and His justice, could be other. And thus, we have a rather straight line drawn from the necessity of actus purus to the necessity of redemption. The former is the causal foundation of the latter. Without it, biblical redemption is simply an alternative in a list of many ways God’s wrath may have potentially been placated.

Conclusion

This year’s G3 conference centered around the supremacy of Christ, and it hosted one of the men whose views have fallen into question along with that of Johnson’s. Owen Strachan has not only defended Johnson’s book, but has served as a long-term disciple of Bruce Ware’s eternal subordination of the Son (ESS). The question in my mind, in light of some of the above, is, “How can we talk about the supremacy of Christ, if the very foundation of His three-fold office—Prophet, Priest, and King—be removed?” That foundation, of course, is the purely actual divine essence which demands satisfaction for our sin.

Apart from God as actus purus, we have a gospel that not only could have been otherwise, but should have been otherwise, since the death of Jesus would have been unnecessary to the project of God’s redemptive plan. As it is, however, the Son’s sacrifice was necessary due to the perfect and unchanging, purely actual justice in God.

Spurgeon on the Stiff & Stilted Pastor

Spurgeon on the Stiff & Stilted Pastor

Long has it been the expectation of social Christianity for clergy to maintain a sort of aloof and other-worldly demeanor among their congregations. It seems odd, think many, for the pastor to demonstrate some likeness or continuity between  himself and the members of the church the Lord has called him to serve. When he discloses his interests, hobbies, or shows others he, too, is indeed capable of “having fun,” the reaction is not necessarily one of recoil, but perplexity.

This somewhat amusing dynamic between a pastor and his people isn’t only cause for a chuckle, it should—I believe—be the object of some serious concern. Such an aloof attitude, while succeeding at a level of professionalism, can end in a sort of isolation or separation of the pastor from his flock. Such a disjointment often results in the pastor’s ignorance of the congregational pulse. “Where are they, doctrinally and practically? What are their needs? Who are they? How should I pray for them?” are all questions which may lack answers if such “professionalism” is allowed to form a wall between the under-shepherd and the sheep entrusted to him by Christ.

Asking Spurgeon for Help

The Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, saw the dangers of such an approach. In his Lectures to My Students, ch. 12, he writes on ‘The Minister’s Ordinary Conversation’. If our day has yielded its fair share of superficial, stereotypical ministers, Spurgeon’s day is no exception. He writes, “let [the minister] remember that the more simple and unaffected he is, the more closely will he resemble that child-man, the holy child Jesus.” Such a statement discloses to us Spurgeon’s heart on the matter. He goes on, “I have been irresistibly led to remember some of my dignified brethren of the teaching and preaching fraternity, who are so marvelously proper at all times that they are just a shade amusing. Their very respectable, stilted, dignified, important, self-restrained manner is easily acquired; but is it worth acquiring (Lectures, 166)?”

Spurgeon understood that, at the end of the day, such decorum may, in point of fact, serve as nothing but a façade. It is the fabricated wall placed between the sheep and their under-shepherd—all, of course, in the name of professionalism. Such a formalization of the ministerial office isn’t helpful, neither to the minister who is in need of knowing his people, nor to the laity who are in need of being known by their under-shepherd.

The Inhumanity of Stilted Ministers

The minister of the gospel should be relatable. The under-shepherd is but a fellow sojourner on this earth en route to the Celestial City. Nothing avails the pastor who would pretend this is not the case by abstracting himself from the rest of the flock. He must labor to see himself as a fellow parishioner. Spurgeon writes, “We must have humanity along with our divinity (Lectures, 167).”

The religious elite of Jesus’ day placed between themselves and the common-folk an insurmountable barrier. This is part of the reason Jesus’ relatability was quite the taboo in their eyes. “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners (Lk. 5:30)?” they would ask. Jesus, relating their own sentiments, says, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners… (Lk. 7:34).’” Jesus was profoundly relatable. If anyone possessed the social credit to exalt themselves above others, it was Jesus Christ. Yet, in His ineffable humility, He is seen relating to the people throughout the gospels.

Unlike Jesus, gospel ministers have no social credit granting the warrant for self-exaltation, yet it is often the gospel-minister who sees himself as one above his fellow congregants; if he doesn’t really think this way, chances are he acts this way. For this reason, it is difficult for the laity to personify their spiritual leaders. And this is a problem. The person who ought to be the most relatable is often the most isolated, abstract, and unapproachable.

The Effeminacy of Stilted Ministers

There are several things in this chapter worthy of serious consideration. Spurgeon is not deriding any and all professionalism for those who hold the pastoral office. Quite to the contrary, he is arguing for a genuine relatability which nevertheless maintains a self-conscious awareness of how special and important the ministerial office is. This does not, however, require inaccessible formalism. For Spurgeon, such attempted transcendence on the part of the pastor is emasculating. In a whirlwind of wit made of one part hilarity and another incisiveness, he writes:

A well-known minister was once rebuked by a sublime brother for his indulgence in a certain luxury, and the expense was made a great argument. “Well, well,” he replied, “there may be something in that; but remember, I do not spend half so much upon my weakness as you do in starch.” That is the article I am deprecating, that dreadful ministerial starch. If you have indulged in it, I would earnestly advise you to “go and wash in Jordan seven times,” and get it out of you, every particle of it. I am persuaded that one reason why our working-men so universally keep clear of ministers is because they abhor their artificial and unmanly ways.

The pseudo-fundamentalism of the 50s and 60s bred an oversimplified understanding of Christian theology, in the name of practicality, while at the same time encouraging a lucidly impractical division between minister and laity. For this reason, no matter what he said from the pulpit, the pastor failed to engender a truly practical disposition toward his people. He was and often is seen as a school-boy who can’t relate to wrench-turners, horse-boarders, or factory workers. The pastor’s hands are soft, and his inaccessible formality rightly represents his aloof ignorance of a genuine, practical masculinity. The pastor may be able to diagram a Bible verse in Greek, but the laity knows he hires someone to mow his lawn.

This is perhaps more true today than it was in Spurgeon’s. During my time in college, I was astounded at the number of seminary students who were attending credit courses on their wives’ hard-earned dime! Such a strategy sets the gospel-minister up for failure. The time will come when he is called to a church only to find himself in the midst of a bunch of men who would never think of doing such a thing.

Conclusion

There are two extremes to which pastors most often swing. Either they are overly self-deprecating (and this actually bleeds into a depreciation of the pastoral office); or they are hyper formalized. Neither of these extremes are good. The man of God must be guided by the Word of God, and his attitude and disposition, public and private, must be soaked in prayer. A hyper-formalized minister does nothing but regurgitate what he wanted to study throughout the week. Often, he has no idea whether or not it was what his congregation truly needed. And this is because he has placed a wall between himself on the one side and them on the other.

We need gospel men to inherit pulpits, who are concerned not with formality so much as they are concerned with bringing the whole Christ to their congregations every Lord’s Day.

What Hath Baptism To Do With Regeneration?

What Hath Baptism To Do With Regeneration?

But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

~ Titus 3:4-7 ~

There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…

~ 1 Peter 3:21 ~

Over the years, and for various reasons, the subject of baptism has gradually become more and more complicated. Some of this owes to our eroding grasp of theological concepts brought about by the winds of change. Some of it owes to new doctrines of baptism and new understandings of its purpose which crop up from time to time. Whatever the cause, it is certain baptism is more or less misunderstood in mainstream evangelicalism, and this misunderstanding has unfortunately influenced even the most conservative Baptist churches.

The scope of this article is obviously unable to encompass every point of baptismal confusion (they are legion). So, I will limit myself only to contemporary baptistic evangelicalism and the theologies of conversion, salvation, and baptism spawned by a culmination of the first and second great awakenings, the follow-on revivalists, and the (relatively) recent crusade movements.

Further, I do not want to be perceived as the guy who thinks he has all the answers. This is a subject I’ve been trying to work out in my own thinking in terms of how I would explain it to another person. I have issues with some of the explanations given for the so-called tough texts in Scripture, two of which I’ve presented above. I think evangelicals tend to brush aside the meaning of these texts, not taking into consideration the true weight of the terminology, and thus miss out on a more substantive doctrine of baptism.

Ephesians 2 & the Great Divorce

Coming to terms with the true gospel is, simply put, coming to terms with Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” But there is a right and a wrong way to apply the free grace of God throughout the rest of our theology and practice. Some apply Ephesians 2:8-9 in a way that warrants rebuke from the apostle, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it (Rom. 6:1-2)?” Sinning for grace is nothing more than a bold form of antinomianism. Those who believe in such licentiousness draw an improper conclusion from Ephesians 2, namely that, since salvation is by grace, individual duty and responsibility disappears.

Others apply Ephesians 2:8-9 (and other texts of course) in a more subtle—yet still disproportionate—manner when it comes to things like baptism and the Lord’s Supper; both of which often function as simple formalities in the Christian life, footnotes in salvation, or arbitrary rituals intended as mere reminders of Christ’s work. Since salvation cannot be by works, it is often concluded that baptism and the Lord’s Supper must be entirely divorced from salvation altogether, having no other significance beyond that of a public profession of faith in the case of baptism, or a commemoration of Christ’s atoning death in the case of the Lord’s Supper. Because of this, texts such as Titus 3 and 1 Peter 3 are both doomed to die at the hands of a thousand eisegetical nuances.

An Historical Baptist Account

Baptists of old rarely saw these texts as problematic, and they had no problem taking them at face value. Today, however, Baptists often scramble to explain these texts, and as they do it they end up reducing both the significance of baptism and the meaning of the texts in question. Baptism has become, along with the Lord’s Supper, an empty religious ritual. But did our Baptist forefathers have such a low opinion concerning this ordinance? The Baptist (Keach’s) Catechism reads—

Q. 96: How do baptism and the Lord’s supper become effectual means of salvation?

A. Baptism and the Lord’s supper become effectual means of salvation, not for any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them, but only by the blessing of Christ (1 Pet. 3:21; Mt. 3:11; 1 Cor. 3:6, 7), and the working of the Spirit in those that by faith receive them (1 Cor. 12:3; Mt. 28:19).

And Hercules Collins’ An Orthodox Catechism reads—

Q. 76: Where does Christ promise us that He will as certainly wash us with His blood and Spirit as we are washed with the water of baptism?

A. In the institution of baptism, the words of which are these, go, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; he that shall believe and be baptized, shall be saved, but he that will not believe shall be damned. This promise is repeated again when the Scripture calls baptism the washing of the new birth, and forgiveness of sins (Matt. 28:19; Mk. 16:16; Tit. 3:5; Acts 22:16).

It is clear our Baptist forerunners thought the significance of baptism stretched beyond a mere memorial or ritual. God does something, they thought, through means of baptism. They did not run from the tough-texts-for-Baptists. They freely admitted them, and frankly declared them throughout their theological work.

Parsing God’s Grace in Baptism

Perhaps, at this point, I should clarify: I do not believe in baptismal regeneration, nor do I think our theological forefathers held to such a belief. This too is clear in Collins’ follow-up question—

Q. 77: Is then the outward baptism in water the washing away of sins?

A. It is not. The blood of Christ alone cleanses us from all sin (Eph. 5:25-26; 1 Pet. 3:21; 1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Jn. 1:7).

So, we come to something of a sacramental paradox. On the one hand, baptism saves us and is linked to regeneration, per Paul and Peter. On the other hand, baptism doesn’t save us, and is not one and the same with inward regeneration, also per Paul and Peter, e.g. Ephesians 2:8-9.

We often perceive these two beliefs to be paradoxical, unexplainable, or even contradictory because modernity has a way of sneakily removing helpful historical categories. In this case, the category missing is the concept of the sign or signification and the function thereof. Closely related to the idea of a sign is the concept of typology, which Peter expressly engages in 1 Peter 3 concerning baptism. So, let’s ask and attempt to answer two questions: First, what is the relationship between the sign and the thing signified? Second, can/does a type ever bear the attributes or properties of its antitype (I’ll explain below)?

The first question is too easy to answer. And because it’s so easy, we pass it over without a thought. “How does a sign relate to the thing it signifies?” is like asking, “How does a weather radar relate to the storms it detects?” We may look at a weather radar on the internet, point to the signatures, and exclaim, “There’s the storm!” and everyone in the room would understand exactly what we meant. Not only this, but we would also be completely accurate in calling the radar signature “the storm,” though perhaps not completely proper. We wouldn’t, of course, be saying that the storm is literally and entirely confined to the computer screen inside the house! We would all understand that the storm is truly located in western Kansas. But the signature of the storm on the radar is spoken of as if it were the storm itself. The radar signature is the sign, and the storm itself is the thing signified on the radar. Likewise, baptism is the sign and regeneration, union with Christ, remission of sins, salvation, etc., are those things signified in baptism.

The second question relates to the first in that a type is always a sign of something, even though a sign isn’t always a type. For example, the animal sacrifices of old typed forth the atoning work of Christ. They were, to that effect, signs signifying something, namely Christ and His work (cf. Heb. 7-8). Baptism has a typological relationship to regeneration, or circumcision of the heart. It looks beyond itself to something other and greater, i.e. the inward work of the Spirit and our union with Christ.

More importantly, types often bear the terminology of the other and greater things to which they look. For example, Hebrews 7:3 says Melchizedek was, “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually.” Now, Melchizedek, in himself, did have a beginning of days. He was, after all, the king of a geographical location in antiquity, perhaps even the prototypical Jerusalem. But because Melchizedek types forth Christ, he accurately bears the predicates which properly concern Christ alone. 

In Isaiah 61:1 something similar happens where Isaiah bears the prosopon of Christ Himself. “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me…” respects Isaiah in an immediate-historical sense. But ultimately, Isaiah 61 looks to Christ as Christ Himself makes explicitly clear in Luke 4:18-21. 

Again, in Hebrews 1:5, we read, “You are My Son, Today I have begotten You,” and, “I will be to Him a Father, And He shall be to Me a Son.” The former is from Psalm 2:7, which immediately respects King David. The latter is from 2 Samuel 7:14, which immediately respects Solomon. And even though both these texts accurately, immediately, and historically correspond with someone other than Jesus, i.e. David and Solomon, both texts properly and ultimately apply to Jesus alone.

So, we must conclude that types can and do often bear the terminology proper only to their antitypes. Melchizedek is said to be everlasting, Isaiah is said to be anointed, David is said to be begotten of God, and Solomon is said to be God’s very own son. But it is only insofar as these individuals type forth Christ that these various descriptors apply to them.

Tying It All Back to Baptism

Baptism is a sign of a thing signified, a type of an antitype, and as such it may (and I believe does) bear the same terminology to that which it signifies and typifies. Baptism, therefore, can be called “regeneration,” or, “washing… of the Spirit” so long as we understand that it is only so in a significant and typological sense, not in a causal sense nor in the sense of identity. And this somewhat nuanced dynamic requires faith. Without faith, baptism is nothing but a bath. With faith, however, it is a sign signifying much more, such as our union with Christ.

The key benefit of understanding the sister concepts of signs and types is the provision they make for us to affirm a robust doctrine of baptism and, most importantly, for us to be honest, transparent, and non-invasive with regard to the texts which link baptism to various soteriological realities, i.e. regeneration, remission of sins, salvation, etc. We can, therefore, understand baptism, insofar as it signifies something deeper than itself, to be inextricably linked with the things it signifies while at the same time denying causal, regenerative efficacy in the work of baptism itself (though baptism may be effectual in other respects, i.e. assurance, sanctification, et al).

Apart from faith, baptism is just a bath. Through faith, it’s a sign or type of internal realities wrought by the Holy Spirit; and so, in our parlance, baptism may be called our “regeneration” or “forgiveness of sins,” inasmuch as it looks to and signifies those deeper realities, just as a radar signature is often called “the storm,” though it itself is not.

The Particular Baptists & Covenant Children

The Particular Baptists & Covenant Children

This is part 2 of a series on baptism I’ve been writing.

It is often supposed by our paedobaptist friends that Baptists outrightly reject the notion of covenant-holiness with regard to children of believing parents. And while this is typically the case in modern Baptist circles, the 17th century Particular Baptists seemed to have no problem admitting infant covenant membership in some sense.

In the appendix on baptism, following the Second London Confession, 1689, they write:

As for those our Christian brethren who do ground their arguments for Infants baptism, upon a presumed federal Holiness, or Church-Membership, we conceive they are deficient in this, that albeit this Covenant-Holiness and Membership should be as is supposed, in reference unto the Infants of Believers; yet no command for Infant baptism does immediately and directly result from such a quality, or relation.

The phrasing is a bit confusing, but I will attempt to clarify: For the framers of our Confession, the deficiency in paedobaptist theology does not seem to be located in the admittance of federal holiness, and not even in some notion of church membership (although this must be understood in light of Baptist principles), per se, but in the presumption upon those things which leads to infant baptism. While infants may be sanctified in view of belonging to a believing household (1 Cor. 7:14), and while they are in constant attendance and participate somewhat at and in Christ’s church (yet, not being formal members thereof), there is nothing in either of those realities necessitating infant baptism.

To cap off their point, they appeal to a somewhat mutually understood definition of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), which was then agreed upon by both Particular Baptists and many paedobaptists in England. They say:

All instituted Worship receives its sanction from the precept, and is to be thereby governed in all the necessary circumstances thereof.

 

The Amalgamated Man

The Amalgamated Man

Something about humanity has drastically changed over the last few centuries. Consider the contrast between the 17th century man and the 21st century man. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the 17th century man accomplished more in forty years than the 21st century man might accomplish in a lifetime. Often, twelve-year olds were more educated than today’s average adult, having a rather large vocabulary and even a multilingual education. Prior to the 18th century, it was not altogether uncommon to find men of the educated class who were experts in multiple fields of study. Today, everyone seems to be relatively educated, but almost no one could consider themselves as an expert in multiple career fields. Today, even individual sciences have further specifications the average schoolman might master.

Little to none of this massive shift should be attributed to genetics. Nor should we venture to blame it solely on the rise of technology (although it is not altogether unrelated). The cause seems instead to rest within the rise of modern psychology as a primary interpretive or observational science of man. Though observational in nature, psychology has, relatively recently, taken a formative role in terms of how man thinks about himself. What’s worse is the extent to which man’s psychologically-driven understanding of himself is anachronistically imposed upon figures from the past. In other words, history has been affected by man’s contemporary understanding of his current self.

Modern psychology tends to see man as an amalgamation of traits, properties, or attributes. It doesn’t begin, per se, with personhood defined as imago Dei (image of God). Instead, it approaches man as a conglomerate of personality traits and passions (especially sexual, a la., Freud). More than this, it inadvertently casts individual persons into personality molds. Once psychology assesses a person’s personality at any given life-stage, it issues a decree: “This person is X, Y, or Z.” The (perhaps unintended) effect? The assessed person goes on casting themselves as an X, Y, or Z personality. Much like a placebo, modern psychology, in its mere exercise of observation, inevitably begins to shape a person’s beliefs about him or herself.

Imagine, for example, a young boy who, throughout grade-school, is constantly berated for his love of the arts. “You’re gay!” his classmates might jest. Or, “You’re weak!” the jocks might shout in the hallway. It is no wonder a boy who hears such descriptions of himself for years on end might begin to actually believe them. Something similar happens within modern educational and psychological structures (which permeate almost every institution). In education, for example, there is now the concept of specialty. Gone are the days when medical doctors address multiple aspects of the human body. Increasingly, they concern themselves only with neurology, to name one example. And then, even within neurology, there are sub-specialties. This doesn’t only occur within the medical field, where complexity may demand more refined areas of study and thus more laborers. It also occurs in the liberal arts. Now, we could speculate as to why this is. It certainly doesn’t hurt the profit margin of colleges and universities, does it? But I’m more interested in what this has done to the modern man—

A white-collar man is now assumed to be aloof from all blue-collar work. Blue-collar men are too “simple” to converse with the white-collar class. And often times this is truly the case. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was a day when this was not the case. Those who had access to the tools of education were often not distant nor ignorant of various, practical trades. For example, William Kiffen, a Baptist minister in 17th century England, was an astute and pastoral theologian. Yet, he was one of the more wealthy men in England, granted his skillful business arrangements as a merchant. Benjamin Keach was a brewmaster (of all things), and made part of his living from such. John Owen, the good doctor himself, was chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, and was with him in the Scotch-Irish conquests. Moving backward in time, Albert the Great was a medieval physician, theologian, and philosopher. Of course, the most popular example of a man who concerned himself with multiple sciences is Leonardo DaVinci, but he wasn’t an island unto himself. There were others before and after the Renaissance who understood themselves as capable images of the divine.

We now have all sorts of personality assessment tools used in the corporate and academic world. These may be helpful in terms of communication and work-relationship improvement. But they’ve almost become definitive of how people think of themselves. If the test says the person is a strong personality, prone to less relatability having a more task-driven bent, that person may think, “This is my personality, and none else.” They implicitly trick themselves, thenceforth, into thinking they are unable to adapt to circumstances which may not conduce to their “personality type.”

As alluded to above, this thought process has been anachronistically superimposed upon Christ. In his recent, somewhat helpful, book, Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund struggles to centralize the Person of Christ around a single quality, i.e. His lowliness. But this struggle is a self-inflicted wound made by the knife of modern psychology. If modern psychology sees man as an amalgamation of qualities, properties, or emotions, then it follows one such property must win out. This is a struggle arising from the faulty starting-point of modern psychology, where the nature is almost entirely absent from the conversation, while behavioral traits are the sole definitional factors in determining the nature of a person. Instead of nature giving way to various accidents and behavioral characteristics, behavioral characteristics and emotional dispositions define and even determine the nature. This is backwards, and it explains the constant teetertotter in Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly, where he wants to affirm the centrality of Christ’s gentleness, but also wants to avoid detracting from other crucial properties of His Person (cf. ch. 3).

Modern psychology apparently sees man much like a playdough figurine. He’s compose of all different colors of playdough, some colors being more prevalent than others. The modern psychologist, upon observing what he thinks to be more prevalent colors, makes a diagnosis, and this diagnosis declares the man to be a static instantiation of his most habitual color. He cannot escape that diagnosis, no matter how hard he might want to. He is simply stuck that way. Such is the way of the contemporary opposition toward “deconversion therapy” of homosexuals, and the oft-parroted licentious statement, “I was born this way! I cannot change!” The psychologist has defined his patient, and now his patient must always think of himself according to the psychologist’s definition.

In closing, what if we stopped thinking of mankind this way? What if we understood each an every person to be, first and foremostly, a creation of God which bears God’s image. And then, what if we defined God’s image according to what God actually says it is? If we did that, I think we would have another Renaissance. And given the unprecedented availability of resources today (contra to the 17th century), we wouldn’t only have a few Leonardo DaVincis or Albertus Magnuses, we’d have countries full of them. The change agent in all of this, of course, is the gospel. It is the gospel which teaches us who man was, what man’s problem is, and where man’s restoration and glorification is found, i.e. in Christ Jesus alone (who, by the way, was a carpenter, a fisherman, a peripatetic philosopher-teacher, and orator—a nice blend of blue and white collars).

A Biblical Case for Disputation

A Biblical Case for Disputation

Disputes are not preferable.

Be that as it may, the prophets were involved in disputes. Jesus and His apostles were involved in disputes. And the church has been embroiled in dispute ever since. The early church fathers were involved in dispute. The medieval theologians were involved in dispute. The Reformers were involved in dispute. The post-Reformed were involved in dispute. Our forerunners, the particular Baptists, were involved in dispute. While not preferable, and while unfortunate, dispute is nevertheless biblical, and it is a perspicuous article found in play throughout church history. Like self-defense and giving to the poor, dispute is something the church must engage as a result of the fallen nature of man.

From this, however, we need to distinguish between holy dispute, or dispute for a noble cause performed in a noble manner, and unholy dispute, or dispute for an ignoble (not noble or honorable) cause. There is a biblical kind of dispute, a dispute which Jesus Himself and His apostles engaged in. This is incontrovertible (Matt 12:34; Lk. 13:32; Jn. 2:15; Acts 17). Yet, there is a wicked kind of dispute, characterized by Scripture as quarrelsomeness or controversy for the sake of controversy (1 Tim. 3:3; Prov. 20:1).

Because there is a holy kind of dispute, this being beyond controversy, we need now concern ourselves with the nature of it. We will begin negatively.

What Holy Disputation Is Not

In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul writes:

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.

When Martin Luther penned the Ninety Five Theses, he was engaging in a methodology referred to in the Latin as disputatio or, in English, disputation. Unfortunately, men who now claim to follow in the Protestant tradition have almost entirely done away with the practice or art of disputation. Failing to recognize the distinction between holy and unholy disputation, many men, many pastors, have come to think of all disputation as wicked—and the church is worse for it.

We need to be careful, however, lest we ruin ourselves upon the jagged rock of what holy disputation is not. In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul begins with the character of a person who “does not consent to wholesome words.” Here, we find that Paul is talking about those who do not submit to, nor do they embrace the gospel—the epitome of wholesome words. He goes on to add, “even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness…” Paul is not talking about a person who is a professing believer, much less a person who’s life is marked by gospel obedience.

He goes on to remark on this person’s pride. This person is puffed up and conceited. They know nothing. They are obsessed with dispute. In other words, they live for the argument. A more wooden reading might say, “[he] is sick with disputes…” He vomits up disagreement. That’s all he can do. This person is a contrarian. More interestingly is the kind of disputation Paul identifies in v. 4. Paul is not outlawing all disputation. But he does indicate a repudiation of diputes about words, signified by the word arguments (λογομαχία). These are useless, semantic disputes. In this passage, Paul by no means makes all disputes unlawful.

Therefore, holy dispute cannot be characterized by dispute for dispute’s sake. Holy dispute is not engaged by unholy people. Moreover, holy dispute cannot be about trivial things, like semantics, word battles, competition of sheer rhetoric, etc. Those are all insufficient explanations for disputation.

What Holy Disputation Is

Paul expressly helps us with a definition when he writes:

For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled. ~ 2 Corinthians 10:4-6

And also an example of disputation among believers, “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed (Gal. 2:11).”

There are about three characteristics of dispute gleaned from these two passages. First, holy disputation casts down unholy arguments raised against God. Second, holy disputes are useful for bringing minds into compliance to Christ. Third, holy disputation can, and often does, take place among brethren. Therefore, I offer a concise and positive definition of holy dispute as follows:

Holy dispute is that Christian practice of bringing thoughts into captivity to Christ through honest disagreement and argumentation conducive to resolving such disagreement.

Holy disputation, on the Christian’s part, can be either intermural or intramural. Intermural dispute would entail a Christian disputing with a non-Christian interlocutor. Intramural dispute would be when two or more Christians dispute with one another over doctrine and/or practice.

When to Dispute & When Not to Dispute

Now that we’ve at least started a discussion concerning the nature of disputation, it would now be prudent to identify some criteria which might help us decide when and when not to dispute.

There are three questions we all must ask prior to entering into dispute:

1) Is the dispute concerning what is true? The goal of all holy disputation must be an arrival at the truth. Any other intention or purpose of dispute is insufficient and self-refuting. For disputation presupposes the categories of truth and falsehood, and disagreements arise precisely because one party believes the truth is being misrepresented by the other, and visa versa.

2) Is the dispute about God’s revealed doctrine? This could be doctrine revealed through nature or doctrine revealed through Scripture. Either way, God’s teaching is always worth discussion, and when a correct understanding thereof is at stake, it is always worth disputation. This is the very reason Paul confronted Peter to his face, in public I might add.

3) Is your intention to love your neighbor through dispute? If you are not disputing in an effort to love your neighbor to the glory of God, you might as well call it quits. Our intention, as Christians, must be in the right place prior to entering into disputation. Therefore, if your intention is any place other than obeying the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:39), you ought to reassess yourself and, perhaps, change course.

These criteria are not exhaustive, but they might be helpful in deciding when to enter into dispute, whether that be dispute over social media or in-person. Disputes can be powerful things. They can rip apart churches, but they can also mature and secure churches, strengthening them for future challenges. Disputation, even holy disputation, ought to be the last resort. But if a disagreement arises, it is holy dispute alone that will serve as the acceptable means of conflict resolution.