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 Carnock). 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.

Natural Theology in the Puritan, Thomas Watson

Natural Theology in the Puritan, Thomas Watson

Thomas’ five ways are well known. But fewer know that another Thomas had even more.

Thomas Watson was born in England in 1620. Cambridge-trained (Emmanuel College), he eventually became the vicar of St. Stephen’s Walbrook. But he was a nonconformist and was eventually ejected from licensure around 1660. He would be reinstated in the 1670s before retiring, probably in the early 1680s just before his death in 1686. 

He was beautifully eloquent. Not only was he theologically surpassing, but his literary skill hardly found a match. My wife and I have a running jest that he was the “theologian of breasts.” Not for any perverted reason, but because he always seems to find a place to work in the nurturing Spirit of God through that particular analogy. God’s grace, abundance, benevolence, and love are often the targets of his bosom analogies. To give you an idea, he says, “Mercy pleases him. It is delightful to the mother, says Chrysostom, to have her breasts drawn; so it is to God to have the breasts of his mercy drawn (Works, Loc. 1964).”

Thomas Watson’s Natural Theology

He is an easy and wondrous author to read. But his theological skill and precision continue to be seen, even through the flowers and vines of his gentle ink-strokes. Located in ch. 2 of his Body of Divinity, Watson takes to developing seven ways through which we might come to a knowledge of God. They are—

  • By the book of nature
  • By His works
  • Conscience
  • Consent of the nations
  • Prophecy
  • His power and sovereignty
  • The devils

By the book of nature, Watson intends the engraving of God’s law upon the hearts of men (Rom. 2). “The notion of a Deity is engraven on man’s heart; it is demonstrable by the light of nature.” But by God’s “works” Watson intends the world surrounding the rational person. “We will begin,” he says, “with the creation of the glorious fabric of heaven and earth. Sure there must be some architect or first cause. The world could not make itself. Who could hang the earth on nothing but the great God (Loc. 913)?” And, “The wise government of all things evinces there is a God… Providence is the queen and governess of the world.” Toward the end of the section, he says, “Understanding, Will, Affections are a glass of the Trinity, as Plato speaks. The matter of the soul is spiritual, it is a divine spark lighted from heaven; and being spiritual, is immortal, as Scaliger notes; anima non senescit; ‘the soul does not wax old,’ it lives for ever (Loc. 939).”

By way of proof through the conscience, he writes, “Conscience is a witness of a Deity. If there were no Bible to tell us there is a God, yet conscience might.” And, “it is observable, the nearer the wicked approach to death, the more they are terrified.” The nations also consent to the existence of God, he says, “by the universal vote and suffrage of all men (Loc. 952).” This is notable, seeing how Watson was a nonconformist. Through prophecy, God is proved, “He who can foretell things which shall surely come to pass is the true God… God himself uses this argument to prove he is the true God, and that all the gods of the heathen are fictions and nullities. Isa 41:23.” The sixth line of proof is God’s power and sovereignty. “He who can work, and none can hinder, is the true God… he acts according to his pleasure, he doth what he will (Loc. 965).”

Finally, Watson presents an argument for God from the existence of devils. “There are devils, therefore there is a God.” And, “Socrates, a heathen, when accused at his death, confessed, that, as he thought there was a malus genius, an evil spirit, so he thought there was a good spirit.” These are precious arguments for the existence of God because, though we may think little of them today, they evince a period in time when the supernatural world was taken for granted, even by the heathen, and not suppressed by rationalism, idealism, and materialism. I think it is time we stop granting the latter in favor of the former.

Conclusion

In the whirlwind of recent discussion, I thought it would be calming to sit down with an old, yet familiar voice. Watson has been my friend. I know him, though he may not know me. He has been helpful to me as friends usually are. Agree or disagree, one has to at least ask the question, “Why did he think like this, and why was he not out of league with the rest of his peers?” Such questions, I’ve found, are humbling when answered. We may relegate his time and intellectual milieu to an irrelevant, bygone era. But is that the case? I do not think it is. I think they knew something we’ve allowed to slip away under pressure from the world. And I think that something is worth rekindling, keeping, and defending.

How Sola Scriptura Presupposes Natural Theology

How Sola Scriptura Presupposes Natural Theology

Very few things surpass the importance of a correct understanding of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).

I’m currently teaching a church history series in Sunday School at my church. The sobering fact is that many faithful men were murdered at the hands of zealots whose religion derived not from Scripture but from a tradition defined by men. We’ve come to realize, throughout the course of that series, that the mere effort to make Scripture understandable to the general population fell under a high level of ecclesiastical and political scrutiny. Men such as John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, William Tyndale, and all who found themselves influenced by them, felt the heavy load of governmental pressure in one way or another for simply desiring to know the Word of God.

The question of sola Scriptura, then, is no mildly important matter. It must be understood, not only that we might prevent history from repeating itself, but also for the sake of knowing God and His will correctly. Unfortunately for us today, we live downstream from the massive ideological change of the 17th-18th centuries—namely, from rationalism and idealism—both of which play large roles in modern assumptions. We are all subject to these assumptions because this is the philosophical milieu we’re all born into. Many of these ideas are no less common than the 8-5 workday, or the need for internal combustion in our regular transportation. As with the latter, we give the former hardly any thought at all.

These oft-assumed and unquestioned ideas make for much difficulty when defining the term sola Scriptura. These influential ideas span from Descartes’ critical and rationalistic epistemology to Immanuel Kant’s idealistic separation of the phenomena from the noumena in response to David Hume’s skepticism. We live in an age largely characterized by assumptions finding much of their genus in the minds of these men, but we’re rarely conscious of them.

Sola Scriptura Has Friends

Chances are, if you don’t today, you’ve once assumed the definition of sola Scriptura to be something like the following: “the Bible is the ultimate authority by which we know God.” This is not an altogether wrongheaded definition if we understand it within its proper context. But because such a definition is rarely understood within its rightful place, it is taken to mean that one’s only authority and source of divinely-related knowledge is Scripture. Or, at the very least, Scripture is the best source, and any other alleged source—natural or otherwise—ought to be viewed with a skeptical eye.

This was not the understanding of sola Scriptura during nor immediately after the time of the Reformation. Phil Johnson, of Grace to You Ministries, helpfully notes:

“Sola Scriptura” is not the same as “Solo Scriptura”. A proper understanding of “Sola Scriptura” will not lead to an individualistic, “me and my Bible in the woods” approach to Bible interpretation. Because of Christ’s gifts to the Church through the centuries, we have the privilege of standing on the shoulders of giants (https://reformedontheweb.wordpress.com/tag/phil-johnson/).

Here, Johnson rightfully makes room for help—that is, from the traditional interpretation of Scripture. But he does so without making tradition itself a coequal authority with Scripture. The tradition is subjected to Scripture concerning everything Scripture reveals. But that doesn’t mean the tradition can’t be helpful. And if it is correct, it carries with it the authority of Scripture—all truth is God’s truth, and thus all truth is equally authoritative coming from the same source. We must understand man’s authority to be entirely dependent upon Scripture, since he is not God and since he is often wrong. Scripture, then, is man’s norm, as it were. And even though man can speak with the voice of Scripture, i.e. when he proclaims God’s truth, he himself is not Scripture and thus does not, in himself, carry the same authority. Man may speak with the authority of Scripture, but that authority is derivative not from himself, but from the Word of God. This is why we can say, “If this or that person rejects the Nicene Creed, they are heretics,” not for the authority of the Creed itself, but for the authority it accurately reflects, i.e. Scriptural doctrine.

Thus, there is a place for tradition when it comes to interpreting the text of Scripture. If this is the case, no Christian should abstract themselves from the tradition altogether (solo Scriptura) under a pretense of sola Scriptura. But what about principles of thought? If we give place to tradition as a handmaiden, helping us to rightly interpret Scripture. Surely, then, it would seem there should be a place made for nature to give assistance as well. More directly, if other men can help us understand the Bible, how much more ought God’s voice through nature help us understand it?

My argument here, and it certainly isn’t original to me, is that the Bible’s context is nature. Not only is it itself creaturely (having been created by God and given to us), but it is contextualized by God’s creation. We live, move, and breathe in this creation prior to ever coming to the text of Scripture. We assume natural life, principles of thinking, principles of ethics, and even possess a rudimentary understanding of who God is prior to turning even one page of the Bible. Scripture itself makes this assumption when it begins in Genesis 1:1 with, “In the beginning God…” Not only must we assume some functionality of reason in order for that line to be intelligible to us, but we must also have some idea of what God is. In other words, the very first line of Scripture cannot be understood apart from principles God gives us through nature—not only logic, but also the basic revelation of Himself as “that Being than which nothing greater can be conceived,” to borrow the words of Anselm.

It would seem, then, genuine sola Scriptura has made friends out of both tradition and natural revelation. And these friendships are, to one extent or another, required for a proper understanding or interpretation of Scripture.

A Brief Defense Natural Theology Against False Definitions of Sola Scriptura

What I’ve just described, in short order, is the Bible’s presupposition not only of natural revelation but also of natural theology (which man’s study of natural revelation). It is, however, all the rage to vocally deny the first principles of natural theology, or at least the knowability of them, and such a denial is often said to be in service to sola Scriptura. Man, it seems, must come to Scripture as a tabulae rasae (blank slate), and from there begin his work of interpretation. It’s as if the modern denial of natural theology is but a veiled Lockean empiricism inconsistently combined with fideism. This, it is thought, is sola Scriptura. We can’t leave place for reason, philosophy, natural theology, tradition, et al., because Scripture stands alone… in a vacuum. I doubt many would admit such a thing if put to them in more or less similar terms, but it most certainly seems to be the prevailing assumption of what sola Scriptura implies.

Richard Muller, in his work Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (vol. 2), gives a rather precise definition of sola Scriptura when he writes:

The logical priority of Scripture over all other means of religious knowing in the church—tradition, present-day corporate or official doctrine, and individual insight or illumination—lies at the heart of the teaching of the Reformation and of its great confessional documents. Indeed, it is the unanimous declaration of the Protestant confessions that Scripture is the sole authoritative norm of saving knowledge of God (p. 151).

There are some heavy qualifications made here. Scripture is not the sole authoritative norm for all knowledge, but saving knowledge. Also, neither tradition, corporate interpretation, or individual interpretation are ruled out entirely, though subordinated in terms of, again, the rule of saving knowledge. Moreover, this is a logical priority, that is, it is to come first in the order of religious thought, once more, in terms of saving knowledge.

Scripture does not outfit the Christian with the general laws of thought necessary for intelligibly apprehending Scripture, or anything and everything else we can know for that matter. All people are furnished with such principles prior to ever coming to the text through natural revelation, and they are assumed if not expressly known as natural-theological articles. Later, speaking of Scripture as the principium cognoscendi (principle of cognition, knowing), Muller states:

Of course, the act of creation itself is a movement of holy God toward the creature which, in its completion or result, provides a basis for knowledge of God. We can, therefore, speak of a first form of revelation whereby God makes himself known “in his works, in their creation, as well as in their preservation and control.” God’s universe is set “before our eyes as a beautiful book, wherein all creatures, small and great, serve as signs to lead us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his eternal power and Godhead.” This revelation cannot, however, save mankind from sin—it can only convince sinful mankind of the existence of God and leave the unrepentant world without excuse (p. 153).

Interacting with the Dutch Puritan, Herman Witsius, Muller also says:

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 (PRRD, vol. 1, 301).

Along these same lines, Francis Turretin writes:

We grant that in natural theology by the light of nature some such [first principles] do exist upon which supernatural theology is built (for example, that there is a God, that he must be worshipped, etc.) (Institutes, vol. 1, 10).

Conclusion

Sola Scriptura must be defined correctly, not only to avoid subjecting Scripture to the dictates of men, but also that we might retain the requisite tools (assumptions) and categories needed in order to make sense of the Scriptures in the first place. The laws of logic, the existence of God, God’s creation, God’s law, and the felt need of redemption (a need which only Scripture and its gospel can meet) provide pretext not only for the interpretation of Scripture, but also for the necessity of Scripture in man’s great need of redemption. Why is the Bible important? Because it is the voice of the God everyone knows (Rom. 1), and it offers salvation from the transgression of the law everyone knows (Rom. 2).

What Fired Nurses & Theological Neocons Have in Common

What Fired Nurses & Theological Neocons Have in Common

COVID is real. Overcrowded hospitals are real. The situation is so overwhelming, in fact, hospitals have—that’s right—decided to fire in-demand medical staff for refusing to take the crack-pot-sponsored COVID vaccine. There’s nothing that sends the message of distress quite like eliminating the solution to the alleged problem—nurses. But hospitals aren’t the only ones fulfilling their own doom-and-gloom prophecy. Modern theological conservatives are doing the very same thing.

The Flawed Battle Cry

“Put away disputes about your confessional doctrinal distinctives. The enemy is at the door!”

Such is the clarion call of the anti-social justice warriors who, rightly, decry things like intersectionality, critical race theory, and standpoint epistemology. I count myself among them, and would fight tooth-and-nail alongside them. However, to fight theological liberalism by adopting the very tactic which characterizes theological liberalism—unity above doctrinal distinctiveness—is to fight fire with, well… fire. But this has been the nagging habit of 20th to 21st century fundamentalism. Fundamentalism has an uncanny ability to cede ground to the enemy by actually adopting the enemy’s terms in order to fight the enemy. Or, by running away from the enemy hoping the evasive maneuvering will forgo coming back to bite them—another less-known tactic of the left (think firing nurses in spite of the available evidence).

Putting away doctrinal distinctives does, admittedly, seem like a more expedient solution. If theological conservatives are so encumbered by the weight of a nuanced theology proper, ecclesiology, or baptism, they’ll be slow to the punch. Because of this, all the extra baggage of Christianity that slows them down needs to be moved aside so they can conquer this monstrous foe.

But, I have to ask, When this common foe is conquered (and it will be), what then? Say the neocons defeat this common enemy, and the collective thinking shifts within the next three years, but they’ve lost the doctrine of the unity of God, the Trinity, the church, sacramentology; what, at that point, was all the fighting for? How could unity continue to exist post-victory if the defeated foe was the only thing functionally giving rise to unity?

What if the neocons are in the midst of a doctrinal pandemic, and this is the moment where they choose to retain or fire their nurses? What if the enemy was borne from the very tactic they’re using to fight it in the first place? The Baptist Faith and Message (2000)(henceforth, BFM, 2000) is, after all, the document which has allowed heretical anthropology, like critical race theory, to echo through the halls of SBC seminaries across the country. And what is the modus operandi of the BFM, 2000? Inclusivity. Put away the doctrinal nuance in order to encourage unity on the “essentials.” This has, of course, resulted in the allowance not only for Arminianism, but also for the denial of original sin.

A Way to Keep the Nurses While Fighting the Virus (A No-Brainer)

The illusion of victory is strong. And sometimes it comes in the form of long-term integrity exchanged for present unity; the former being a virtue which, if lost, results in the automatic defeat of any church, denomination, or association. So, instead of sacrificing integrity upon the altar of having-the-biggest-team, I propose a very simple solution: fight over the doctrine of God. And when you’ve won that battle, fight over church polity. Once that is resolved, fight over baptism, (and marshal as many memes as possible in doing so). The team you have left is the dream team, capable of surviving anything (and is most likely going to be your local church).

“But, but, then we will lose the battle against critical theory!”

Uhm, no. You will cease addressing critical theory on the critical theorist’s terms. And if this bothers you, you probably have not yet sent your drone up for a more comprehensive view of the battlefield. The battlefield is complicated, but there are three main groups: people who know what they’re talking about and hate Jesus (the deceivers), people who love Jesus but are currently deceived by the deceivers (the ignorant), and people who know what the deceivers are pushing and oppose it with every ounce of their being (the educated).

The educated only need to persuade one (not both) of the other demographics. The deceivers are the debate opponent, which means their minds aren’t the ones to be changed The ignorant are the audience, and thus, their minds are the ones for which conservative Christians must fight. To further expound, the ignorant, in this case, are usually the people in the pew. Imagine, then, all those “ignorant,” pew-sitting people having a pastor who they see bypassing the doctrine of God, ecclesiology, baptism, etc., in order to fight a common cause. Short of eliciting the response, “This guy’s a coward,” it may engender a feeling among them that those doctrines are practically powerless in the current battle.

Is this the message the new conservatives want to send laity? Do they really mean to say that doctrines which once earned faithful Christians poverty, imprisonment, and a burning stake are powerless in some modern battle the victory of which could have been won by a single 17th century boy’s school? Give me a break! It stands to reason that if the orthodox are taken up with wholesome matters, they will not be taken up by anything else. If we all loved good doctrine as much as we love bashing the next critical theorist, critical theory wouldn’t even be a threat. Why? Because the robust confessional doctrine—from the nature of God to the nature of man to the nature of last things—would be in constant view. If this had been the church’s posture yesterday, critical theory would not be a problem today.

Conclusion

Just like our hospitals should drown any pestilence in the expertise of nurses, the church should be drowning stupid ideas in a pool of high-octane theology. Instead, we’re pouring the gas out before we get to the burn site. By the time we show up, there’s no fuel for the fire. Setting doctrine aside to fight a common enemy is no different than emptying the magazines just before a firefight. Theologians and laity alike surrender the very ammunition needed to win. Instead, I propose Christians adopt a confession from a careful, studious and prayerful inquiry leading to genuine conviction—this all being done within the context of a local church. Then… fight for that confession in as much as you believe it represents the biblical teaching of those various theological areas.

This is not only one way to fight the onslaught of liberalism and critical theory. It is the only way. “The entirety of Your word is truth, And every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever (Ps. 119:160).”

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 the reality of 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.