All That Is God Is Father, Son, & Holy Spirit

All That Is God Is Father, Son, & Holy Spirit

It takes time and humility to think through the far-reaching theological implications of trinity. When we confess, “God is triune,” what do we mean? An initial answer to that question might be, “We mean that God is one God in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” True enough. But in the pell-mell of current trinitarian debate, the implications of the simple, uncontroversial statement, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are stunted by a strange, yet understandable, adversity toward certain extra-biblical terms and the scholastic oven in which they were baked.

I say it is both strange and understandable. Strange because this is an age-old orthodoxy. The timeline of church history spans much further back than the last few decades and should cause us to regularly re-examine ourselves in light of Scripture and what Christians have believed Scripture has taught for the last 2,000 years. It shouldn’t be a surprise when we find we’ve made mistakes, and it shouldn’t be a problem to adjust course once we discover them. But the adversity is likewise understandable precisely because of this decades’ old ignorance we’ve all experienced to one extent or another. These terms and their meaning may not be new, but they are new to us. Yet, the last few years have enjoyed a constantly flowing stream of historical resourcement and doctrinal retrieval, not only from the high medieval period, but also from the patristics, the Reformation, and the post-Reformation.[1] Thus, a learning curve ought to be expected.

The following article is intended to be an irenic assistance in overcoming such a learning curve. I have decided to build off a statement most people reading this article will agree with, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” I will seek to show that this statement is but a simple summary of the more technical formulation, that God is one essence subsisting in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God Is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

I’m not going to jump through hoops in defense of this statement. It will suffice to note that its denial would imply that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not coequal. If all that is God is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then one or more Persons may be said to be “less God” than another—a nonsensical suggestion, to be sure, but one that is substantively identical to Arianism.

If God just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then all that can and must be said of the one God of Scripture must be likewise said of all three Persons. To quote the Athanasian Creed, “Similarly, the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, the Holy Spirit is almighty. Yet there are not three almighty beings; there is but one almighty being.”[2] If God is power, then Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just are that power. If God is glory, then Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just are that same, single glory that God is. More technically, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith reads, “In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided…” (2LBCF 2.3)[3] Ergo, God just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What is lost in the current discussion is the fact that when we say “divine essence” we just mean “God.” So, when we say “the divine essence just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” or that it “subsists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” we are saying “God just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The purpose of the more technical language of “essence” and “person” is to denote the manner in which the one God (divine essence) exists or, more properly, subsists. So, when we say, “God exists in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” we might more technically say, “the manner in which the one divine essence subsists is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Hence, the now-unfamiliar language of the Second London Confession, “In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit…” A “subsistence” just being the manner in which the one God subsists.

Some Implications

We need to think through our theology, and part of thinking through our theology is a conscious effort to remain consistent. The simple statement, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” is uncontroversial, but it’s also incongruous with several contemporary beliefs about God. For example, eternal relational authority submission (ERAS) teaches that Christ is in eternal submission to the Father. This means that the Father must have a superior authority to that of the Son’s. How does this fit with what we’ve already said above? Remember what we said above, “…all that can and must be said of the one God of Scripture must be likewise said of all three Persons.” But since ERAS opines a higher authority in the Father than is in the Son, all that may be said of God cannot be said of both Father and Son. We cannot say that the same divine authority, or power for that matter, may be commonly said of both Father and Son. For the Father has a higher and thus distinct authority from that of the Son.

Fundamentally, ERAS must reject the clause in the Athanasian Creed that says, “Nothing in this trinity is before or after, nothing is greater or smaller; in their entirety the three persons are coeternal and coequal with each other.” Not only this, but it must also reject the very uncontroversial claim that “God just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” What that one God is cannot be commonly asserted of all three Persons. Of course, ERAS proponents verbally affirm the unity of divine nature among Father, Son, and Spirit. Bruce Ware writes:

[ERAS] holds that God reveals himself in Scripture as one God in three persons, such that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully equal in their deity as each possesses fullyand eternally the one and undivided divine nature; yet the Father is revealed as having the highest authority among the Trinitarian persons, such that the Son, as agent of the Father, eternally implements the will of the Father and is under the Father’s authority, and the Holy Spirit likewise serves to advance the Father’s purposes fulfilled through the Son, under the authority of the Father and also of the Son.[4]

Ware confesses the unity of nature between Father and Son. At the same time, he alleges that the Father has a higher authority than that of the Son. But if the authority of the Father isn’t the authority of the Son, how could Ware possibly maintain the orthodox Trinitarian formula, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”? All that may be said of God cannot be said of all three Persons. We could not say, “God’s authority just is the authority of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” since that would make God’s authority common to all three Persons. As it is, Ware has denied a common authority in the Godhead, and this devastates creedal and confessional orthodoxy. For Ware, all that is God is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this renders his statement on the unity of the divine nature rather meaningless.

Ware wants to (rightly) say, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully equal in their deity.” But what about the authority of that deity? For Ware, authority is proper to the Persons rather than the divine nature making the three Persons three distinct willing agents. The question then becomes, “What is the divine nature?” If the divine nature isn’t Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then what is it? A fourth thing in the Godhead? If it is a fourth thing, then there is no trinity, but a “quadrinity.”

Anticipating a Question

If Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just is God, then what distinguishes them from one another? After all, the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and neither Father nor Son are the Holy Spirit. The “several peculiar properties” are the only distinguishing factors between Father, Son, and Spirit, and these “peculiar properties” are the relations of origin described by the divine processions. Unbegottenness, begottenness, and spiration, respectively. 

These relations of origin are but the manner of subsistence of the one divine essence (the one God). So, when we say “Father,” we are not saying anything other than God or the divine essence, we are speaking of the principle manner in which the one divine essence subsists, that is, as unbegotten, eternal generator—the Father of the only begotten Son. Likewise, when we say “Son,” we are not saying anything other than the one divine essence (the one God), we are speaking of the second manner in which God subsists, that is, as begotten, eternally generated—the only begotten Son of the unbegotten Father. And so on.

Conclusion

Those who overtly or otherwise flirt with differentiating Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from the divine essence should reconsider their position in light of the implications, some of which have been discussed above. If God (the divine essence/nature) is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot each be said to be the one true God, and thus trinitarianism is utterly ruined. (Deut. 6:4) All that is God must be and is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit if orthodox trinitarianism is true.

Resources

[1] See the recent translation of Peter Van Mastrcht’s works, https://www.heritagebooks.org/Search.html#/Search.html?search=van+mastricht; and also Barnardinus De Moor’s extensive works, available here: https://www.lulu.com/spotlight/from_reformation_to_reformation_translations

[2] https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/athanasian-creed

[3] https://brokenwharfe.com/the-second-london-baptist-confession/

[4] Bruce Ware, et. al., One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life, 237.

The Creator-Creature Distinction & the Doctrine of Scripture

The Creator-Creature Distinction & the Doctrine of Scripture

Though the three most influential Reformed confessions (Westminster, Savoy, 2LCF) begin with Scripture, it may surprise the reader to learn that neither confession begins with Scripture as a stand-alone authority. In contemporary discussion revolving around the doctrine of sola Scriptura, too often is the authority of God mixed up with the authority of Scripture. Unwitting or not, the consequence of such a confusion not only insinuates Scripture stands alone as a non-derivative source of knowledge, but it also obscures the influence of theology proper in accounting for the nature of God’s Word. God’s Word is authoritative precisely because it derives from the chief Authority, God Himself. But if Scripture is unhinged from its divine cause, then its very nature falls into question. Inevitably, we begin to subject Scripture and its meaning to various other prejudgments rather than understanding the doctrine of God as the seat and determining agent of what Scripture is.

The current fight for sola Scriptura appears not to be a fight for that doctrine classically understood, but a fight for a particular modern understanding which unwittingly blurs the Creator-creature distinction. Is Scripture creature? If it is, it has a Creator and thus must be understood in light of that Creator. Is Scripture not creature? Well, then, it would be Creator (and we will go ahead and assume this option is off-limits to all of us). Divorced from a robust theology proper, our doctrine of Scripture will slowly but surely erode. If Scripture is caused, then it must be viewed in light of its cause. If we perceive it to be uncaused, with no determining ontology (God) in the background, then it becomes anybody’s wax nose. If there is no immutable cause, then why think the meaning of Scripture is anything but fluid?

Appealing to Confessional Doctrine

At this point, it would be helpful to note that the Second London Confession (1677) explicitly grounds the doctrine of Scripture in God Himself. It reads:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God (1.4).

Noteworthy in this paragraph is the transfer of Scripture from the hands of men (or any church) into the hands of God Himself. The negative influence of the Papacy is, of course, behind this paragraph more than any other prevalent institution during the 17th century. Perhaps the church of England, controlled as it were by the monarch, falls within its purview as well.

The central detail is the sufficient reason for why the Scripture ought to be received, that is, because it proceeds from God. The explanation for why we ought to receive Scripture is not the creature but the Creator. The explanation of Scripture’s authority and thus our obligation to receive it is found outside Scripture itself, namely in the God who authored it. And though human institutions may serve as a means to increase our interest in and appreciation of Scripture (cf. 1.5), the sufficient reason for receiving Scripture is its divine Author.

Even though ch. 1 of the confession is purposed to elucidate the doctrine of Scripture, par. 4 can’t help but to bring the doctrine of God into it—a move which apparently anticipates ch. 2. Apart from the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Scripture is rendered void—being detached from the cause that makes it what it is. This is why the doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of God come first in the confessional order—they are the principles of the faith. Scripture is the principle of knowing God unto salvation. God, however, is the principium essendi, or the principle of Being which explains the nature or ontology of Scripture in the first place.

Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Because God is the cause of Scripture, we are automatically summoned toward a theological interpretation of it. All texts must be interpreted in light of the One who inspired them. Not a single biblical text stands in isolation from its divine Author. Moreover, there is no consideration of a single text in isolation from the context of all the other texts. Knowledge of God, therefore, will shape how we understand the shape of the biblical canon and its particulars. This knowledge comes from two distinct places. 

First, nature bears the inescapable fruits of divine knowledge such that all people know God. Genesis 1:1 resonates even with the first-time Bible-reader because they have been created with the habitus to know God. More than this, throughout the course of their lives, they have discerned Him through His works (Rom. 1:18-20). Hence, Francis Turretin enlists natural theology as a preparatory help in one’s approach to revealed theology. For Turretin, natural theology is useful, “as a subjective condition in man for the admission of the light of grace because God does not appeal to brutes and stocks, but to rational creatures.”[1]

More pertinent to our purpose, however, is the question of how to prioritize theological data derived from Scripture, and how the clearest parts of Scripture illuminate obscure passages. The Second London reads, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly (1.9).” Clearer texts help us to understand less clear texts. Similarly, the divine cause of Scripture should temper our understanding of the creaturely language utilized by Scripture. Texts about the creature should not determine the meaning of texts about the Creator.

This is not to say God’s works as recorded in Scripture teach us nothing about God. Certainly, God’s works reveal God to us. But in spite of God’s works acting as a medium of divine revelation, we must understand that neither these works nor our apprehension of them condition God as He is in Himself in any way. As Dr. Richard Barcellos notes, “Though we learn of God in the economy, God’s external or outer works, we cannot account properly for those works without a theology of the One who works prior to accounting for them.”[2] Quoting Dr. John Webster, he writes, “God’s outer works are most fully understood as loving and purposive when set against the background of his utter sufficiency—against the fact that no external operation or relation can constitute or augment his life…”[3] And finally, Barcellos helpfully observes, “Without allowing first place to theology proper, we cannot make sense of the cosmological assertions of Scripture, nor, in particular, its anthropomorphic language pertaining to divine action…”[4]

Divine sufficiency accounts of Scriptural sufficiency. Apart from distinguishing between the ontology of the Creator and the ontology of the creature, throughout our Scriptural exegesis, our Scriptural exegesis cannot be expected to either yield or preserve a consistent Creator-creature distinction. This is why Biblicist accounts of Scriptural meaning tend toward numerous forms of heresy—from pantheism to patripassianism to Arianism. On a consistent Biblicist hermeneutics, nothing should be allowed to influence biblical interpretation, not even God Himself who is the very Author of the Bible. On this account, the creature will inevitably have priority, and God will slowly but surely be recrafted into man’s image instead of the other way around.

Conclusion

The Creator-creature distinction is that in light of which we ought to read Scripture. If our exegesis yields conclusions which effectively drag God into His economy, we should retool our exegetical approach in order to avoid such a miscalculation. Scripture must be understood in light of its Author. And though Scripture reveals its Author to us, it also reveals His works. Biblical revelation of God’s works must be tempered by biblical revelation of God Himself. This theological interpretation will not only preserve theology proper, but it will preserve the integrity and objectivity of Scripture and its purpose. Moreover, it will protect us from ourselves. If left to ourselves, we would perceive Scripture to be a wax nose. But if accountable to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our biblical interpretation, seeing all of Scripture in light of its divine cause, we will be led to uphold an orthodox doctrine of Scripture as well.

Resources:

[1] Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 10.

[2] Barcellos, Richard, Trinity and Creation, (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2020), 13.

[3] Barcellos, Trinity and Creation, 13.

[4] Barcellos, Trinity and Creation, 13.

John Calvin on John 17:5

John Calvin on John 17:5

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

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

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

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

The Theology Behind Calvin’s Exegesis (The Institutes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Calvin on John 17:5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Resources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff Johnson, Moved Movers, & Ghostly Paradoxes

Jeff Johnson, Moved Movers, & Ghostly Paradoxes

In his counter to Ed Feser’s article written in response to The Failure of Natural Theology, Jeff Johnson writes, “Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s foundation that God is the unmoved mover, but Aquinas did not embrace Aristotle’s logical conclusion that God could not have been the moving cause of the universe.” In other words, it is irrational to assert, on the one hand, God’s immobility while yet understanding Him to be the “moving cause” of the universe. He goes on to explain—

By holding Aristotle’s starting point and rejecting Aristotle’s conclusion, Aquinas’ philosophical theology was filled with all kinds of irresolvable tensions. As I explain in my book, Aquinas was unable to show how God could be Pure Act (unmoved mover) and, at the same time, the moving cause (effectual cause) of a world that was made out of nothing. How can Pure Act do something that is not essential to his own pure actuality? How can Pure Act do anything that is not necessary? Aquinas never gave any good answers to these questions. Aristotle sure didn’t think Pure Act could be the moving cause of the universe.

Johnson seems to believe there is an apparent contradiction in need of explanation. There is, as it were, a paradox in need of resolution. But, as we shall see, there is no such paradox unless the doctrine of pure actuality is approached through materialist and, might I say, Newtonian assumptions. Beyond a ghostly apparition, lacking all substance, this apparent contradiction is nonexistent. 

Thomas’ Flow of Thought

Johnson alleges Thomas fails to explain the “tension” between God as a pure act on the one hand and the temporal reality of His effects on the other. If God produces effects, it is assumed, He must undergo some kind of motion in order to bring them about. Thus, to say God is immobile while attributing the work of temporal, mobile creation to Him appears to be a contradiction in terms in need of serious philosophical and theological explanation.

Thomas, however, did not sense such a burden. For Thomas, God’s effects were and are to be interpreted in light of who God is. Rather than utilizing the finite characteristics of creation as an interpretive grid for the doctrine of God, there are fundamental things which cannot be true of God, e.g. contingency, finitude, change. We should understand God, as unchanging, necessary Being, as that which conditions creation rather than understanding creation as that which conditions or limits God—which it would do if God required motion (the actualization of a potential) in order to create. Such a divine priority is set forth in what Thomas writes here:

From what precedes, it is shown that God is altogether immutable. First, because it was shown above that there is some first being, whom we call God; and that this first being must be pure act, without the admixture of any potentiality, for the reason that, absolutely, potentiality is posterior to act. Now everything which is in any way changed, is in some way in potentiality. Hence it is evident that it is impossible for God to be in any way changeable (ST, I, Q. 9, Art. 1).

Why is God altogether immutable? “Because it was shown earlier,” he says, “that there is some first being, whom we call God; and that this first being must be pure act…” In other words, Thomas does not argue as thus: “Creation came into being. Coming into being entails motion. Therefore, there must be a ‘first motion’ in God.” Such an order would be wrong-headed to a medieval scholastic like Thomas because it imposes what is proper only of composed, contingent being upon God—who is altogether simple and therefore necessary.

Does Creation Necessarily Imply a “First Motion” in God?

Johnson asks, “How can Pure Act do something that is not essential to his own pure actuality? How can Pure Act do anything that is not necessary?” If pure act is already “done,” so to speak, how can it “do” any more? To do that which He has not yet done, e.g. to create, would seem to imply some movement from “not doing” to “doing” in God. But to assume God must undergo motion Himself in order to produce motion in another is to place Him squarely within the order of contingency. Most obviously because God would depend on movement in order to bring about His effects. More subtly, however, is the sneaking suggestion that God, like His creatures, would theoretically take on all the marks of what is termed a subordinate cause. Johnson seems to think God is the “moved mover,” which Bernard Wuellner defines as “a cause of motion in another which is itself also moved by another while imparting motion.”[1]

To suggest motion in God as requisite to motion in the creature has three main (read: fatal) implications:

1) God is an admixture of act and potency. He is in act, that is, He exists. But there is some potential or capacity in God to be actualized prior to and for the purpose of creation. This means God is dependent upon two parts or principles to be what He is—act and potency.

2) God is conditioned by motion. If God wants to create, He is required to move from one state of being, “not-Creator,” to another state of being, “Creator.” In other words, given motion in God, (1) comes back to haunt us, that God is composed of act and potency. Motion, after all, is but the actualization of a potential.

3) God is conditioned by His creation. For God to bring about creation, He must undergo motion, and this implies creation determines or conditions God similar to how a builder is conditioned by His building project. His building project determines him while likewise he determines his building project. Just as the builder and his project have a give-and-take causal relationship, God is assumed to have a similar relationship to the world at large. If God would not undergo “creative motion” prior to creation, then creation is at least partially responsible for the actualization of the potential to create in God. If this is so, God would depend on His creation and would thus not be self-existent or a se.

All of this cashes out in a contingent or dependent god who relies upon that which is not God to be God. He would be composed of act and potency, two principles which make him to be what he is. He would be reliant upon motion itself as a requisite to the fulfillment of his goal. And he would be reliant on creation since, in order to create, he must meet certain conditions, i.e. motion. Creation determines, defines, or conditions him, thereby decimating the doctrine of self-existence (cf. Ex. 3:14).

On these grounds, any kind of coherent theism would be impossible. And, if I might employ the help of Anselm’s ontological argument: If there is something greater than a being conditioned to create through act/potency, the actualization of a potential (movement), etc., then that Being is God, and not the one conditioned by motion and creatures. I can conceive of a God that does not require motion in order to create, that is, a God that is actus purus. Thus, the moving, conditioned god is not God. The unconditioned Conditioner is God.

Conclusion

The issues raised by Johnson are not really issues at all. His problems with classical theism assume a certain order of dogmatic theology classical theists would consider incoherent. God, as pure act, cannot be subjugated to categories and properties proper only to contingency and finitude. If God is pure act, unchangeable, and infinite, it follows that He is the unconditioned Conditioner of all that is not God. While creation is a means by which we derive creaturely or ectypal knowledge of God, it itself is not the measure of God. Subordinate causation, i.e. moved movers, a feature of contingency, should not be projected upon God simply due to the profound and inescapable experience creatures have with them. Instead, features proper to contingency ought to be unquestioningly removed from the divine essence so that we do not erroneously promote the “creationalization” of God.

Much of the above, admittedly, addresses a confusion, the likes of which result from rhetoric more so than real disagreement on technicalia. I believe there is some real terminological confusion occurring in this conversation and a severe case of an overcommitment to thesis. Much of this could be resolved if Johnson and others were more amicable to the idea of two-way communication, dialogue, and debate on the issue. For my part, this offer will always stand.

Resources:

[1] Bernard Wuellner, Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy, (Fitzwilliam: Loreto Publications, 2012), 78.

Prudent Knowledge

Prudent Knowledge

The apostle Paul was an educator who deeply desired the intellectual growth of his brethren. A key reason for placing limits upon prophetic activity in the Corinthian church was, “that all may learn and all may be encouraged (1 Cor. 14:31).” He prayed for the Colossians church and disclosed his prayerful purpose in writing, “that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Col. 1:10).” Peter tells us that God’s “divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue (2 Pet. 1:3).” And it is to “virtue” that we are to add “knowledge (v. 5).” And this pays dividends in the form of growing in “the knowledge  of our Lord Jesus Christ (v. 8).” Peter goes so far as to command us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2. Pet. 3:18).”

Maturity in theological knowledge, i.e. “the knowledge of God (Col. 1:10),” is a central imperative and admonishment dictated to the church in general throughout the pages of Scripture. This isn’t a trademark of the New Testament only. Such a thematic emphasis finds its background in numerous calls to knowledge in the Old Testament as well. For example, the supplication of the psalmist, “Teach me good judgment and knowledge, For I believe Your commandments (Ps. 119:66).” And in Proverbs 1:22 it is not the faithful who hate knowledge, but fools, “How long, you simple ones, will you love simplicity? For scorners delight in their scorning, And fools hate knowledge.” Knowledge and the maturity therein is a pervasive concept in Scripture.

A Purposeful Ambiguity?

A quick read of the several “knowledge statements” found in both Old and New Testaments leaves one asking, “Okay, I know I should know. But, how much do I have to know?” Obviously, we would immediately want to include the essentials of the faith within the “things-we-must-know” category. But that’s not all we are called to know, and our first encounter with those precious doctrines is not to be our only encounter.

Such quantitative ambiguity appears to be intentional on God’s part. How much knowledge must we have beyond the essentials? The nebulous nature of this knowledge and the extent to which we are to know leaves room for a number of factors—from subjective aptitude levels to subjective levels of available information. Some people cannot learn the way others learn. First to fourth century Christians would have had severely limited access to a complete New Testament canon depending on their respective lifetimes and locations. Additionally, we live in a busy age, and most people are taken up with secular affairs and cannot afford to study like a seminary student, professor, or full-time pastor. Thus, Scripture doesn’t present us with a curriculum beyond the essentials of the faith which we are commanded to stringently teach and learn. Yet, we nevertheless know that the Christian is to yearn for more divine knowledge, and that such a love for God exists is clearly the spirit and goal behind the “learning imperatives.”

To Speak, or Not to Speak?

This raises an interesting question: Should we be content with the mere letter of the text of Scripture? In other words, isn’t it enough that we memorize Scripture, that is, the ink as it sits upon the page, rather than travel down deep theological holes? 

In light of the above biblical observations, the answer has to be, “no.” A man may memorize the entirety of Scripture, but that does not mean his learning has reached its end. The God Scripture reveals is infinitely glorious, and He has revealed Himself to us that we may know and unceasingly grow in knowing. Therefore, the text of Holy Writ boasts of fathomless depths which each and every Christian should desire to plumb. But this doesn’t mean every Christian must be equal in the extent to which they plumb. Jesus, in the parable of the talents, assumes God gives according to ability. Such language takes for granted not only differing abilities, but even various levels of the same ability, “And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey (Matt. 25:15).” And in Romans 12:6 Paul writes, “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them…” And these gifts are given by God Himself, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven (Jn. 3:27).”

All Christians ought to press on to know God. Not all Christians will know God to the exact same degree. Some who know to a great degree will benefit others through the fruit of their intellectual labors. Others who do not know to a great degree may benefit from such fruits. Still, there are some who do not know to a great degree who desire to speak on things they do not yet understand to a sufficient degree. 

The first group is obeying God in seeking more knowledge. The second group is obeying God in seeking more knowledge. But the third group has a choice. It is not wrong to desire to teach that which is not yet understood by the would-be teacher. Teaching is a qualification for eldership after all, and the desire to be a teacher has to begin somewhere (1 Tim. 3:2). But those who speak publicly prior to first understanding the subject to be spoken of are disobeying God in speaking to things they do not yet understand. And this might result in a violation of the ninth commandment (Ex. 20:16), stumbling blocks in front of fellow saints (Mk. 9:42), slips into erroneous and dangerous doctrine, etc.

Therefore, while it is imperative we know God and grow in our knowledge of God, it is not imperative we all grow to the same degree. And it is especially not imperative we speak to doctrines we have not yet grown into. Quite the contrary. If we speak to that which we do not yet understand we may actually dishonor God, cause confusion among the saints, and fail to adorn the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Aquinas once wrote—

The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected. Nevertheless, 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, A. 2).

In other words, while some men, endowed by their Creator, may take pains to explore the contours of divinity revealed through nature, those unable to do so—for any of the limiting reason mentioned above—may instead accept the same truths otherwise deduced according to the light of nature by faith in the divine Word set forth in Holy Scripture. Thus, those things which might be known of God through both nature and Scripture may justifiably be known by one or the other, but not necessarily both.

It is fitting that man should know God through wherever he might learn of Him—either through nature or Scripture. And though this is expected of those whom God has called and endowed to perform it, it is not required of man generally. This same principle might be applicable even to knowledge derived from Scripture. Not everyone will go on to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, or New Testament Greek. Not everyone will write a biblical theology like those penned by the hands of John Owen, Geerhardus Vos, or Greg Beale. Why? Not only are some not intellectually incapable of doing so, but some are providentially hindered by other God-given responsibilities.

Let us, therefore, humbly go forth according to the grace God has given each of us.

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.