The Decline of Natural Theology

The Decline of Natural Theology

There isn’t a single place upon the timeline of history to which we might point in an attempt make an historical demonstration of natural theology’s demise. History is like this. The causes of things are just that, causes. Rarely is it possible to locate a singular cause for why this or that philosophy or tradition eventually fell out of vogue (or came into vogue for that matter). Usually these things occur through process. Ideas have consequences, but sometimes those consequences hide themselves from the general population for decades behind the doors of the ivory tower. This essay is in the service of defending and thereby promoting the idea that natural theology is indeed valid, that is, it is a legitimate species of knowledge available to both unregenerate and regenerate persons. But before such a defense can be made, a brief survey must be undertaken of the ideas and criticisms leading to the erosion of confidence in natural theology. Yet, as noted above, this survey will struggle to locate the demise of natural theology in any one place upon the historical timeline. Such an overview, therefore, is more like observing a mere piece of tapestry woven through with complex details and countless colors that we can neither observe nor display in full.

The 17th century will serve as a key historical point of entry. René Descartes was a French philosopher born in 1596. Political and theological reformation continued to hang heavy in the continental European air. In his brief volume, Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes undercuts the entire pre-modern project of natural theology. He writes:

Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences.[1]

The would-be demise of natural theology resides in Descartes’ conception of a “foundation,” that is, it was epistemological and thus ideological in nature. He does not here have in mind an ontological or metaphysical basis that would be external to himself and thus true notwithstanding his idea of it, nor is he referring to axioms common to all men which themselves may be said to be self-evident and thus mind-independent. 

Instead, Descartes wants to have a foundational idea from which he can deduce other ideas, and this process is supposed to result in a proper collection of opinions or beliefs about the world. Frederick Wilhelmsen describes Destartes’ epistemological commitment as follows, “Intuition furnishes the mind with a set of ideas whose objectivity cannot be doubted. Deduction is the tool whereby the mind expands its knowledge by moving rationally from the ideas to every truth implicitly contained within them.”[2] From Descartes’ foundational cogito ergo sum he would seek to intuitively and deductively construct a valid system of knowledge with as few assumptions or false opinions as possible. This would only set the stage for the later David Hume’s skepticism and Immanuel Kant’s subsequent idealism which included an epistemology committed to central ideas inclusive of the infinite whole of reality. Simply put—a worldview.

Situating Knowledge Within the Historical Picture

Prior to Descartes, in medieval, Reformed, and post-Reformation thinkers, reality itself was understood as the source of knowledge. Knowledge was not so much understood to be a collection of ideas which hopefully approximate the context of the subject. Knowledge was seen as the apprehension or abstraction of the real essences of things in the world. Creation was understood as something that inevitably informed the intellect of the rational soul. As Peter Martyr Virmigli writes concerning the creature’s knowledge of God:

For by the workmanship of this world, they knew God to be most mightie. Further, they knew by the beautie, shew, & distinction of all things, that so great a power was administered by a most high providence and wisdom. Also the commoditie and profit of things created taught them the Maiestie of God, which consisteth chieflie in this, that he dooth good unto all things.[3]

Though such words are in direct reference to theistic proof, the assumption of how one comes to knowledge is apparent. Objects or things serve as the medium through which knowledge comes. He further states, “And these knowledges of God being naturallie ingrafted in us by God, are every daie more and more confirmed and made perfect by the observation of things created.”[4] But for Descartes, knowledge of the world must begin within the self, that is, idealistically. From the Cartesian conception of knowledge would eventually come historical worldview theory. A person’s knowledge of the world begins with a single concept which must account for the whole. The difference between the pre-modern and modern epistemologies, represented by Virmigly and Descartes respectively, could not be more different. For Virmigly, human knowledge entails having something of the objective world in the intellect. Knowledge, thought Vermigli, originates in the things to be known rather than in the knower.

Worldview theory made its official debut in the thought of Immanuel Kant. The approach of worldview theory is summed up well by Dr. J. V. Fesko, “The rise of philosophical idealism was one of the reasons why the book of nature was largely set aside, namely the idea that one must have a comprehensive view of life and the world that has a solitary starting point unfolding into a holistic system of thought.”[5] Such an approach is incompatible with the classical notion of natural theology since natural theology takes for granted common notions. Thomas Aquinas notes, “the truth is not known to all as regards the conclusions, but only as regards the principles which are called common notions.”[6] Common notions are principles common to all men in that they are not conclusions but principles that cannot be demonstrated, e.g. the laws of logic, principle of causality, etc. On the contrary, however, Greg Bahnsen, quoting Cornelius Van Til who followed Kant on this point, writes:

The absolute contrast between the Christian and the non-Christian in the field of knowledge is said to be that of principle. Full recognition is made of the fact that in spite of this absolute contrast of principle, there is relative good in those who are evil… So far as men self-consciously work from this principle they have no notion in common with the believer…[7]

The difference is decisive. On the one hand, Aquinas, who is in favor of natural theology, asserts common notions. On the other hand, Van Til, who would come to be known as an important Christian proponent of worldview thinking in the 20th century, rejected common notions on the basis of worldview theory. If he granted common notions at all, such were understood to be contingent upon and defined by an epistemological state rather than the objective world.

Conclusion

Following the consummation of Descartes’ approach in the Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century, and more relevantly, as those assumptions were absorbed into Christian thought, common notions, and thus natural theology, are now generally assumed to be invalid. As the reader will hopefully see, this has been largely taken for granted rather than demonstrated. And if a demonstration contra natural theology has occurred, it has usually occurred upon the basis of some misunderstanding of the principles involved (cf. John Stewart Mill’s mis-definition of the principle of causality and Bertrand Russell’s appropriation of it in, Why I Am Not A Christian). Most criticisms of natural theology and the arguments for God’s existence commonly marshalled within natural theology are criticisms which inadvertently domesticate the proofs thereby removing them from their context within Christian prolegomena. As a result, criticisms of the proofs usually proceed on the false and unexamined assumption that they are inherently rationalistic. Moreover, it is often thought that David Hume produced a valid and sound refutation of causal reasoning which, if true, would render the proofs entirely invalid. Thus, the domestication of natural theology and the validation of skepticism are two major reasons for the cultural demise of natural theology, especially within the Christian domain.

Resources:

[1] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, (p. 12). E-Bookarama. Kindle Edition.

[2] Frederick Wilhelmsen, Man’s Knowledge of Reality, (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2021), 10.

[3] Peter Martyr Virmigli, Common Places, vol. I, (Coppell: Reformation Classic, 2021), 24.

[4] Ibid., 26.

[5] Fesko, J. V., Reforming Apologetics (p. 6). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part I-II, Q. 94, Art. 4, (Claremont: Coyote Canyon Press, 2010).

[7] Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, Kindle Edition. Loc. 608.

 

Uncovering Simplicity in Scripture

Uncovering Simplicity in Scripture

The term “simplicity” is not in the Bible. 

Much less is the term “simplicity” as it applies to the divine essence found in the Bible. Like the word “Trinity,” the word “simplicity” eludes those making the demand for an express, biblical reference. So, how do we know if it’s biblical? 

For those just joining the discussion, divine simplicity is a doctrine which states, “God is not composed.” Composed of what? “Anything,” we might respond with every shred of accuracy. However, the classical terminology has been, “God is not composed of parts.” The gist is that God is not an aggregate of anything that is more basic than Himself which makes Him to be what He is. God is not the sum of attributes, properties, or even Persons. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677/89) puts it this way: “[God is] a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions… (2.1).” We might simply say, along with Dr. James Dolezal, All That Is In Godis God.

Recently, this doctrine has been charged as being the product of nothing more than an over-realization of Greek philosophical categories within the sphere of sacred Christian theology. It is the stuff of Aristotle; and it, if consistently believed, lands one squarely within the bounds of deism—where God is a seemingly lifeless, emotionless, cold deity disconnected from His creation. An additional charge is that simplicity represents Roman Catholic hangovers on the part of theologians like Stephen Charnock and Francis Turretin. After all, the preeminent scholastic defender of simplicity Thomas Aquinas, a Roman Catholic, set out to offer a synthesis between Aristotle and the Christian faith. These are two charges which amount to nothing more than genetic fallacies if taken alone. Simply because Aristotle or Aquinas say or write something does not automatically entail invalidation or lack of soundness in their argumentation. Aristotle systematized the logical system our entire world depends upon for any measure of real-world interaction or productivity; I doubt we want to throw that baby out with his otherwise dirty pagan bathwater.

Nevertheless, such charges have led many, well-meaning Christians to ask the question, “How do we know these doctrines weren’t invented by men? How can we know whether or not doctrines like simplicity are true, sound… biblical?

Exegetical Assumptions

I do not want to spend a great time dealing with the a priori assumptions Christians (must) make before coming to the text of Scripture. But every Christian ought to agree that there are things that must be true if Scripture is to have even an ounce of meaning. First, the laws of logic must hold. The laws of logic determine the impossibility of contradictions actually obtaining. In other words, without the laws of logic, anything would go, and there would be no discernibly objective meaning in the world—Scripture not excepted. Second, the basic reliability of sense perception must also hold. We come to the text of Scripture assuming not only that it exists, but that we, the readers, exist as well. Moreover, we assume we, the readers, can apprehend the supposed object of knowledge—the Scriptures in this case.

I would press further and say that we assume God exists prior to coming to the Scriptures. Scripture itself witnesses both to the universal knowledge of God’s existence in Romans 1, and a compulsory law to obey God revealed through nature in Romans 2. Therefore, there is a God and we must obey Him. This provides sufficient, motivational reason to not only read the Bible, but also to obey the claims of the Bible as well. Furthermore, this God has revealed certain attributes through His creation. Simplicity is a doctrine pertaining to God that can be demonstrated through nature via what has been labeled the neo-Platonic proof by Edward Feser—an argument from composite contingency to non-composite necessity. In his words, “The Neo-Platonic proof is an argument from the existence of things that are composite to a first cause that is absolutely simple or non-composite.”

That all created things are composite, in one way or another, means they are caused, i.e. by their constituent parts. This composition cannot continue ad infinitum up or down. The further we drill down into a thing, the more composite parts we find. The higher up we go, e.g. through the solar system, galaxies, universe, etc., the more composite parts we find. But this cannot go on forever. There must be a first cause responsible for the composition of creation in the first place. And that first cause cannot itself be composed, since in that case it would also need an explanation outside itself. This first thing must be, in a word, simple.

Exegetical Reasons for Simplicity

Even if readers take issue with what I have set forth above, the doctrine of simplicity isn’t only revealed through nature but through Scripture as well. Prior to giving a few exegetical reasons for simplicity, I want to be clear that I assume the possibility of good and necessary inference. According to this rule, there are things taught in the Scriptures that are not expressly set forth. One obvious example is the doctrine of the Trinity. Another example might be a covenant of works in the Garden of Eden between God and Adam. And yet, another example would be language of incarnation, a term not found in Scripture explicitly but necessarily taught by it. These are all terms accurately applied in Christian theology precisely because they are taught by Scripture. But they are taught implicitly in many cases, not explicitly.

Moving on, I want to quickly note how Genesis 1:1 necessarily implies the simplicity of God. It says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” If God created all things, it follows He is simple. Why? Because that which is composed is composed of parts more basic than itself upon which it depends to be what it is. A thing that depends is caused by that upon which it depends. Therefore, if God created all things, He is not caused. If He is not caused, then He is simple, since to be composed is to be caused.

The next place we will visit is Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” The natural question is, “One what?” At bare minimum, we should answer, “one substance.” Or, we might say, “one essence.” “YHWH our Elohim, YHWH one!” we might more woodenly render the text. This is, among other things, a substantial statement of identification. The text isn’t only telling us there is one God. That is true enough. It is telling us this God, of which there is only one, is one. This is a statement of identity that could not be said about any created object, human or otherwise. It would not be accurate to say “Josh is one” in this sense because Josh is not one substance per se, but a conglomerate of several substances which go into making Josh what he is. When the Israelites said, “YHWH one!” they were making the definitive claim that their God does not depend upon stuff, matter, parts to be what He is. This was relevant to a godly nation surrounded by idolatrous peoples whose gods were made of wood, stone, precious metals, etc. The shema not only exclusivised the God of Israel as the only true God, but it also proclaimed Him to be uncaused by constituent parts, as the heathen gods no doubt were.

There is an interplay between the doctrine of simplicity and that of immutability. Malachi 3:6 says, “For I am the LORD, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” Malachi 3:6 is not telling us God does not change because He chooses not to change. Malachi 3:6 removes change from God altogether. We could render the text, “For I am the LORD, unchanging…” How does this relate to simplicity? If God does not change, that is, if there is no possibility of change in God, then it follows there are no parts in God. If there were parts in God, we could conceive of there being one or two less parts than there are, which would represent a possibility for change through a subtraction of His parts. In this case, God could change, contrary to the bold claim made by YHWH Himself in Malachi 3:6. Moreover, at bare minimum, a God who could change would be composed of actuality and potentiality. That is, He would be, and He would also have the potential to be otherwise. But since God does not composed, He is not made up of actuality and potentiality, but is only actuality—pure actuality. Therefore, God does not change.

Conclusion

This article is not intended to be an academic treatise on the exegetical proofs for divine simplicity. It is only a primer intended to communicate the presence of exegesis behind this all-important article of orthodoxy. The doctrine of simplicity is not devoid of biblical support. It is not, contrary to common perception, the stuff of over-theoretical philosophers and theologians. It has been featured in the theological work of John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, Franciscus Junius, and other post-Reformed Puritans complete with exegetical support and practical application. It is a doctrine upon which the Christian faith stands or falls. If God is composed, He is caused. If He is caused, He is not God. If God is not composed, He is not caused, He is independent, a se, etc., and the hope of the Christian church remains well-founded.

Drink deeply of this far-reaching doctrine, saints.

Augustine, Lewis Ayres, & 1 Corinthians 15:28

Augustine, Lewis Ayres, & 1 Corinthians 15:28

I would like to thank Josh Tinkham, pastor of Covenant Community Church, for proof reading this article while making helpful suggestions along the way prior to publication.

As the all-too-familiar trinity debate rages on, one vital piece of the “discourse puzzle” is still missing—hermeneutics. It is easy to forget that the pre-, present-, and post-Nicene conclusions concerning the triunity of God did not drop out of thin air. It is also easy, given the now-unfamiliar language and methodology of the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers, to assume they were speculating well beyond the bounds of holy Scripture into a kind of philosophical no-man’s land. As Dr. James White has recently indicated, it has come to be thought that the trinitarian formulations found during the first five centuries of the church are too philosophical in scope, or that they at least should be questioned. First, it was Thomas Aquinas who came under fire for being too Aristotelian. Now, it’s the early church fathers. It seems the most agreed upon doctrine of the first 17 centuries of church history was merely the product of over-speculation and philosophical abuse. As a result, multi-millennial theology proper has been placed in the dock. White writes:

There really seems to be no end to where backwards-engineering based upon temporal creation could take us when it comes to speculation about that which the Scriptures leave in silence. “But early church writers we really benefit from speculated about these things!” Yes, yes they did. But anyone who reads those men filters out a large amount of unprofitable speculation already in many areas, and it might be good to do so in this one, too.

Unfortunately, those questioning and encouraging revision of the church’s nearly 2000-year old confession of the trinity have not yet meaningfully engaged patristic (or medieval for that matter) hermeneutics. I say this as a newbie to the inner-workings of early patristic exegesis myself. I do not want to be taken as an authority in this area. Instead, I will let an actual expert speak in my place, Lewis Ayers. And I will also interact here with Augustine, per Ayers’ commentary, since on this issue Augustine represents the mature thought of the patristic age and serves as a magisterial guiding influence for the subsequent medieval and reformational eras.

Primary Source Material: Augustine

First Corinthians 15:20-28 has become an anchor text for proponents of contemporary subordination models, such as Eternal Relations of Submission and Authority (ERAS). It reads—

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.

The specific area in question is v. 24 in relation to v. 28. The Son appears, in this text, to bear a lesser authority than the Father. In this case, vv. 23-28 may be read in terms of relative, voluntary or functional submission of the Son to the Father. Dr. James Hamilton concludes:

First Corinthians 15:24 and 28 indicate that Christ will hand the kingdom over to the Father, that Christ will be subject to the Father, and that God will be all in all. God’s glory will cover the dry lands as the waters cover the seas, and the best way to talk about Jesus the Son being subjected to God the Father is to affirm that they are ontologically equal as God while the Son takes up a functionally subordinate role (One God in Three Persons, 108).

Kyle Claunch, after discussing the immanent/economic Trinities and how the economic reveals the immanent, namely, that there are relations of authority and submission in the eternal Godhead, he writes:

By arguing for eternal authority and submission in the Godhead, Ware, Grudem, and others are not abandoning all traditional Trinitarian categories. Rather, drawing on the distinction between the one divine essence and the three divine persons (a distinction that is basic to Trinitarian orthodoxy from its earliest mature expressions), they are making a conscious and informed choice to conceive of will as a property of person rather than essence. This model of a three-willed Trinity then provides the basis for the conviction that structures of authority and submission actually serve as one of the means of differentiating the divine persons (One God in Three Persons, 88-89).

Before we look at Augustine, I should note his employment of what might be called partitive exegesis. Partitive exegesis takes into consideration the identity of Christ’s two natures regarding Christological passages found in Scripture. Texts proper to God are applied to Christ’s divine nature; texts proper to creatures are applied to Christ’s human nature. Throughout his exegesis Augustine consciously distinguishes between God (theologia) and God’s works (oikonomia). An example of this distinction in play might be his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:3, “the head of Christ is God.” In his De Trinitate, book 6, ch. 9, he writes:

But again, if God is only all three together, how can God be the head of Christ, that is, the Trinity the head of Christ, since Christ is in the Trinity in order that it may be the Trinity? Is that which is the Father with the Son, the head of that which is the Son alone? For the Father with the Son is God, but the Son alone in Christ: especially since it is the Word already made flesh that speaks; and according to this His humiliation also, the Father is greater than He, as He says, “for my Father is greater than I;” so that the very being of God, which is one to Him with the Father, is itself the head of the man who is mediator, which He is alone.

Augustine brings the assumption that God really is all God into his exegesis. In other words, he presupposes the absolute co-equality and consubstantiality of the divine Persons. For Augustine, it would be absurd to suggest one Person might retain an eternally supreme authority over another because all three Persons are all God, and since this is the case all three Persons have all authority proper to God. Concerning the “kingdom” in 1 Corinthians 15:24, he says, “in this ‘kingdom’ He means the sight of His own form also to be understood, the whole creature being made subject to God, including that wherein the Son of God was made the Son of man.” Augustine is apparently reading the text partitively, that is, he is assuming a distinction between that which is proper to the divine essence, i.e. God in Himself, and that which is proper to creatures. He goes on:

Because, according to this creature, “The Son also Himself shall be subject unto Him, that put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.” Otherwise if the Son of God, judging in the form in which He is equal to the Father, shall appear when He judges the ungodly also; what becomes of that which He promises, as some great thing, to him who loves Him, saying, “And I will love him, and will manifest myself to him?” Wherefore He will judge as the Son of man, yet not by human power, but by that whereby He is the Son of God; and on the other hand, He will judge as the Son of God, yet not appearing in that [unincarnate] form in which He is God equal to the Father, but in that [incarnate form] in which He is the Son of man.

Notice the way in which Augustine puts Scripture into discourse with itself, and how such a discussion prevents him from drawing any subordinationist conclusions. He brings John 14:21 into conversation with 1 Corinthians 1:15-24, 28. “If,” so his reasoning goes, “the Son promises to manifest His Person to His people at long last, it stands to reason He must be referring to Himself according to His human nature, i.e. as the Son of man.” But if God being all in all, per 1 Corinthians 15:28, means what the subordinationist wants it to mean—that such a return to the Godhead is an indication of Christ’s eternal submission to the Father—then the human nature of Christ either goes away at that point, or it is divinized by being absorbed into the divine essence such that it is no longer distinguishable. But this could not be, since John 14 tells us the Son will manifest His Person to His people. Such a manifestation of His Person must be according to His human nature since if it were not, Jesus would be implying that the divine nature would become directly perceptible to the human senses—an impossibility. One could logically opine such manifestation would be a sort of shekinah glory, as God often manifested Himself in the temple under the Old Covenant. But this would be inferior to an experience of God through the incarnate Person of Christ, and it would represent a regression in the redemptive scheme rather than an eschatological progression and climactic punctuation at the end of time.

Augustine, for good reason, keeps God in Himself distinct from His works. This is not an egg-headed quest for vain philosophical or speculative glory, but is reasoned upon the foundation of the Scriptures themselves by way of a partitive method of exegesis. This method of exegesis, as we’ve hopefully seen, is necessary to maintaining the integrity of theology proper and consistency in our dogmatic reflections upon Scripture.

Secondary Source: Lewis Ayers

Lewis Ayers, a prominent commentator on Augustine, addresses the subordinationist attempts to use 1 Corinthians 15:28 within the framework of Augustine’s approach. He writes:

Augustine reads 1 Corinthians 15:24-8 as an eschatological narrative in conjunction with Matthew 5:8 (‘the pure in heart shall see God’) to show that there is a progress towards vision at the end, when the pure in heart gaze upon the form of a servant, and see ‘through’ that form the form of God in equality with Father and Spirit. Neither the Old Testament theophanies nor the Incarnation itself make God available to sight; they enable faith that knows it will become sight and knowledge only at the end (Augustine and the Trinity, 143-144).

Quoting Michael Barnes, he writes:

Salvation came from faith—this is faith’s ‘utility’. Such a judgment is not merely one about discipline, as though the virtue of faith was primarily the act of obedience. The utility of faith for salvation lies in the fact that it marries an epistemology with a moral anthropology, and then grounds them both in Christology: ‘Everything that has taken place in time… has been designed to elicit the faith we must be purified by in order to contemplate the truth, [and] has either been testimony to this mission or has been the actual mission of the Son of God’ (pg. 144).

In other words, the Person of Christ according to His glorified human nature will be the object of eschatological sight through whom we will experience God at long last. To claim or imply God being all in all, and the surrounding texts in 1 Corinthians 15, argue the point of subordination is to actually obscure the profound relevance of the Person of Christ according to His human nature. Ayers goes on to write:

With this argument Augustine attempts to undermine all Homoian exegesis of passages which apparently suggest the ontological subordination of Christ to the Father. All such exegesis should be seen, according to Augustine, as misunderstanding the role of the Incarnation in the shaping of faith and thus misunderstanding the very nature of the Incarnate Word (pg. 144).

According to , Augustine took on Arianism by relating biblical passages concerning the Son partitively. In other words, Augustine distinguished between Christ’s divine and human natures by consistently appropriating the biblical data proper to either. What is proper to creatures only, Augustine would apply to the human nature of Christ. Conversely, what is proper to God only, Augustine would apply to the divine nature of Christ. Christ’s subjection in 1 Corinthians 15, therefore, should be understood of His Person according to the human nature only.

ERAS, on the other hand, appears to blur the lines between the divine and human natures, often applying what is proper only to the human nature of Christ to the divine nature, e.g. Christ’s submission to the Father’s will. As a result, the Person of the Son is understood to have properties appropriate to a human nature prior to the incarnation which seems to cash out in an ontological difference between Father and Son in eternity past. Most ERAS proponents would deny such ontological gradation in the Godhead, affirming sameness and equality of essence. But an explanation in terms of how affirming the same essence in God yet different qualities (greater and lesser authorities, wills, powers, etc.) is yet to be seen.

Conclusion

Hopefully I have achieved my goal in this article, which was to introduce another way to understand the “subordination passages” in Scripture by looking at Augustine’s approach to 1 Corinthians 15:28 (and other related passages) with the help of Lewis . The doctrine of God and the biblical language requires a theologically robust hermeneutic that doesn’t necessarily try to retool a doctrine of God from the ground up at every turn. Christological passages ought to be understood partitively, that is, consciously reading them in light of Christ’s two natures and what those natures entail. If God does not change, we cannot ascribe change to Christ’s divine nature. If creatures change, then we should ascribe change to Christ’s human nature, but not His divine.

The Order of Theology, Classical, and Presuppositional Apologetics

The Order of Theology, Classical, and Presuppositional Apologetics

Before understanding either of these apologetical routes, we need to understand what apologetics is. Apologetics refers to the defense (apologia) of the Christian faith, at least in this context. The landmark text bolstering the need for apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear…” Briefly stated, apologetics is the science of answering those who question why we believe what we believe as Christians.

Subordinating Apologetics

Historically, apologetics, while scientific in nature, has been subjected to the queen science of theology, usually falling under the locus of prolegomena—the area of theology that asks the question, “Is theology possible?” To which the answer would be made in the affirmative, and the existence of God would therefore also be affirmed along with the theistic proofs in demonstration of that affirmation. As time progressed, however, apologetics came to be seen less as a subjugated science to theology, instead being understood as a driving force of theology.

Such a confusion of order has also resulted in the mixture of what used to be called the preambles of the faith with the articles of the faith themselves. Apologetics, in terms of order, happened prior to and distinct from the articles of faith. But in elevating the significance of apologetics nearly to the level of a stand-alone science which informs our theology, even the articles of the Christian faith, those things which must be known through special revelation and are necessary for our redemption are now influenced by apologetic methodology.

This issue has occurred in all three main apologetical schools of thought—classical, evidential, and presuppositional. This problem, therefore, is less an issue of apologetic method and more an issue of how we understand theology in general, and its placement among other related disciplines. However, presuppositionalism’s very genes demand this methodological confusion take place, and it is this I would like to—at long last—eventually address in this post. But we have some additional housekeeping to do—

Defining and Distinguishing Theology

The term theology, taken by itself, means something like “the study of God.” However, historically its definition is more precise. William Ames writes, “[Divinity] is called a doctrine, not as if the name of Intelligence, Science, Sapience, Art, or Prudence were not hereto belonging; for all these are in every accurate Discipline, and especially Divinity (Marrow, I. I. 2).” Peter van Mastricht likewise says, “Christian theology unites theory with practice, and is ‘a knowledge of the truth that is according to godliness’ (Titus 1:1) (Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 1, 78-79).”

Typically, there would be what Van Mastricht calls “the prolegomena and the system.” Prolegomena precedes the system (of dogma) and includes the mixed articles—articles of knowledge which are revealed in both nature and Scripture. Natural theology is included in Van Mastricht’s prolegomena, but he also subsumes it under the genus of “Christian theology.” It is here apologetics should be located, as part of natural theology. It is, after all, traditionally set forth in the form of the theistic proofs, a la., the Protestant scholastics like Van Mastricht and Turretin. However, the Reformed orthodox understood this natural theology, which I will here equate to the true sub-science of apologetics, not as an absolute or causal foundation for that which comes after, but as nothing more than an instrument to be used not only in defense of our believe in a God, but also in our further exposition of the Scriptures. Richard Muller states:

Witsius can even declare that the faint glimmerings of the natural light provide a “foundation” on which the gospel can build: “for as grace supposes nature, which it perfects; so the truths revealed in the gospel, have for their foundation those made known by the light of nature.” Although Witsius here addresses calling and, specifically, the character of the natural knowledge that seems to call human beings to God, only to leave them without excuse in their sins, he also, like Turretin and Owen, raises the issue of the positive relationship of natural reason and the truths it knows to revelation and supernatural theology (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, 301).

In the modern situation, apologetics is neither included in or identified with natural theology, which falls under the prolegomena. Instead, it is largely viewed as a science unto itself which is either devoid of any relationship to true Christian theology, or is identified with true Christian dogmatics itself, and thus ends up serving a definitional hermeneutical force in the contemporary exposition of the Bible. Either of these extremes loosely correspond to rationalism or idealism, respectively.

Classical Apologetics

I have just alluded to the classical model which views theology as an ordered science inclusive of natural theology or apologetics, to be located in prolegomena. Methodologically, this just is classical theology, and it rightfully houses (and should determine) what has come to be known as classical apologetics. Because classical apologetics and natural theology are intimately interwoven, we should understand how the Protestant Reformed orthodox have understood natural theology. To do this, I will once more defer to Peter van Mastricht. He begins his section on natural theology by saying, “Christian theology does not exclude natural theology… but includes it just as a larger quantity includes a smaller one (Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 1, 77).”

Within this same discussion, he notes its fourfold use, which does not disagree substantially from the uses identified by Francis Turretin. Van Mastricht says:

We note that natural theology has four chief uses. (1) The first has to do with God, who by means of it renders the impious without excuse (Rom. 1:20). (2) The second has to do with the pagans and atheists, who are most powerfully refuted by it (Acts 17:24-26; Ps. 8:2-3; Matt. 6:26). (3) The third has to do with revealed theology, which, at least with regard to us, is confirmed to an amazing degree when we discover that it agrees completely with natural theology. (4) The fourth has to do with us, who root ourselves chiefly in the recognition of revealed truth, that we discern that nature itself applauds it. And this is so even in our pursuit of the good, where nature itself calls us in the same direction as revelation.

Classical apologetics, therefore, should be seen as nothing less nor nothing more than an application natural theology.

Of course, classical apologetics and natural theology have themselves been understood in different ways. The Natural Theology of William Paley is much different than the natural theology found in Puritans like Peter van Mastricht. And this plays into the confusion between what is now called evidentialism and the historical understanding of classical apologetics. Whereas evidentialism argues for the probable existence of God based on one’s examination of natural effects (which then leads to a speculative conclusion), classicalism argues for the necessity of the existence of God, not from a mere examination of natural effects (think Paley’s watchmaker), but from the general rule to a necessary conclusion. Thomas Aquinas’ first way, for example, begins “It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion.”

This argument is formally deductive, arguing from general premises to a certain and necessary conclusion, should the premises hold. This is different from evidentialism in that evidentialism takes particular things, adds them together, and upon amassing enough evidence, draws a probable implication. Classicalism argues from generalities, which do not necessarily need to be true of every particular, in order to draw a necessary conclusion. This is why Thomas begins, “some things are in motion.” Evidentialism would not argue from the universal of “motion,” neither would it argue from gradation or teleology. It would instead look at particular artifacts and point to how complex they seem, how designed they must be, and how they confirm the biblical account.

Natural theology, classically understood, makes it’s object God as He is made known through His effects using laws of reason, i.e. logic, that could not be otherwise. It does not presume to validate the biblical record, though it bears witness to it, nor does it demonstrate faith (otherwise faith would not be faith, but reason). We are not dependent upon some deep acquaintance natural theology it for warranting our beliefs in the articles of faith, though it may assume or even contain means by which we ascend to such articles of faith.

Presuppositional Apologetics

Presuppositionalism identifies the project of apologetics with biblical theology, such that the Bible is our apologetic and our apologetic is the Bible. Greg Bahnsen writes:

The Christian apologist must not trade away the certainty of knowing God for a probability or subjective moral conviction; he must unashamedly presuppose the truth of the Word of Christ in Scripture as congruous with the inescapable self-revelation of God in nature and man’s constitution (Presuppositional Apologetics, p. 5 ).

Rather than there being a taxis or order in the science of theology in general beginning with prolegomena prior to reaching the doctrine of Scripture, the doctrine of Scripture, according to Bahnsen, must be consonant with prolegomena. I want to be careful. The Bible can and does inform our prolegomena, and our prolegomena cannot contradict it. But our understanding of the Bible, and our rules of interpretation, must likewise be informed by prolegomena, e.g. the assumption theology is possible, God exists, etc.

As pious as this may sound, there is a devastating rebound effect from presuppositionalism not just on apologetics, but upon Scripture and the doctrines of the faith in general. If Scripture and prolegomena are essentially the same thing, if they are put in the same place and are to that extent indistinguishable, the Bible may be prolegomena, but the prolegomena also becomes the Bible (for better or worse). This is a massive problem because prolegomena would usually be the place where philosophical presuppositions are disclosed and defended, a la., natural theology. But because presuppositionalism, in accordance with its name, presupposes the Bible itself, any philosophical assumptions being made are either not admitted or are severely ignored, and then the interpretation of Scripture is subjected to such unadmitted precommitments which run the risk of skewing the interpreter’s approach to God’s Word.

If the presuppositionalist wants to discuss philosophical commitments prior to the text of Scripture, it would then follow “the Word of Christ” is not being presupposed in such a case. In such an event, there would be a prolegomena (something said before) prior to Scripture. It is perhaps the presuppositionalist’s collapse of the distinctions made within theology that accounts for the contemporary issues we face concerning the doctrine of God. When presuppositions that come prior to one’s examination of the text of Scripture are ignored or not admitted, it is easier to read the text with blurry lenses.

Presuppositional apologetics, far from being a mere apologetic, is an entire philosophical apparatus concerning the nature of divine and human knowledge and the construction of theological system. Such a system, which banishes any discussion had prior to Scripture and the articles of the faith, is bound to drive one’s understanding of the articles of faith through said epistemological lens. If this epistemological lens is Cartesian, Kantian, or Hegelian, those holding it would not know. And what’s worse, the doctrine of Scripture would necessarily be understood through this particular epistemic filter. The very assertion, “We must presuppose Scripture along with God’s self-disclosure in nature” would make it impossible to evaluate if the one attempting to do so even understood what Scripture was. Such a definition would be assumed or presupposed, and thus not allowed scrutiny. Who is to say, for example, a person’s idea of Scripture—which they allegedly presuppose—is actually a bad worldly philosophical assumption. How would they know such a thing unless there were some method by which they could rightly place the doctrine of the Word of God in relationship to the whole of the Christian faith?

Presuppositionalism allows for the employment of theistic proofs, but not in a discussion prior to the doctrine of Scripture, that is, as part of prolegomena. Thus the proofs, and any natural knowledge of God (innate or otherwise), are not allowed to inform one’s understanding of Scripture. This is why some have decided to apply the  anthropological language in Scripture, i.e. “God walking in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8),” directly to the simple and immutable essence of God which results in a denial of immutability and simplicity. There is no divine metaphysics informing one’s understanding of biblical language in this scenario. Scripture itself does not disclose a philosophy of language so, again, on the presuppositional scheme, a philosophy of language is presupposed, rather than consciously examined in any measure, and then the Scriptures are subjected to it. All the while, the person making this mistake has the best of intentions, telling everyone, “We presuppose the Word of God!”

This results in devastating consequences, and explains the origin of countless heresies over the last 2,000 years. Again, it sounds pious to say, “We presuppose the Bible.” But the practical effect is the subjugation of the meaning of Scripture to one’s unexamined epistemological assumptions. To use their language, it is to cloak a “worldview” in biblical categories whilst refusing to examine that worldview while at the same time presupposing said worldview when reading and interpreting the Bible.

Conclusion

I want to be very clear that I do not mean natural theology itself is the foundation upon which and the lens through which all Scripture ought to be viewed, though it does entail instruments by which we understand and exposit the text, e.g. knowledge of God and some things about God to name a couple. The point here is the necessity of method in theology. If we neglect all method, then the order of subjects and the subjects through which we view other subjects will be confused. Hear Peter van Mastricht once more—

A method is nothing but an apt arrangement of the different topics according to the dependence they have upon each other, first with respect to themselves in how they mutually coexist, and then with respect to us in how we understanding them. This is necessary so that the method of theology corresponds not only to the topics that must be taught—by it, for example, more general matters are placed ahead of specific ones and simpler matters ahead of complex ones—but that it corresponds also to the comprehension and use of the students (Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 1, 69).

That last line is crucial.

Part of our current ailment is the inability for Christians to relate subjects of theology to one another in terms of their respective, causal relationships. Thus, the doctrine of God cannot inform our interpretation of Scripture, for example. Instead, it is thought, Scripture must entirely shape our doctrine of God (because it is said to be presupposed). But this is problematic because what Van Mastricht calls “the arrangement of different topics according to the dependence that have upon each other” is simply not permitted. As a result, God becomes entirely determined by one of His effects—our understanding of Scripture. Hence Arianism, Sabellianism, Anthropomorphitism, Arminianism, Socinianism, etc.

A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waldron writes: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas’ “Imperfect” View of Total Depravity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irreconcilable Differences Between Calvin and Aquinas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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.