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.

 

The Kingdom & Its Implications

The Kingdom & Its Implications

If God speaks on earth, the people to whom He speaks are obligated to Him. The covenant established at Mt. Sinai was a covenant of law, the violation of which made one liable to judicial punishment. When God speaks on earth, He imposes upon His people a covenant they are obligated to keep upon pain of death. When God speaks from heaven, however, much less will those escape who refuse such a punctuated address. And indeed the way in which the Father has spoken to us in these latter days is through His Son, the Lord from heaven (1 Cor. 15:47). If Christ is refused, no hope remains. God has spoken from heaven through His Son, and in His Son, He has established a greater covenant through which comes a greater kingdom than that which came through the Mosaic covenant. The old things have been, are, and are being shaken and removed. The new things have come, are coming, and will come in Christ Jesus—an economy which will by no means fade away (Heb. 12:22-24).

The Conclusion to Hebrews 12:18-24

Hebrews 12:28-29 begins with a “therefore,” because it is drawing an important practical conclusion from what has thus far been said, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom…” This is only the third time in the whole of the epistle the term kingdom is utilized. In Hebrews 1:8, it was used when our author quoted from Psalm 45:6, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom.” It was used in Hebrews 11:33, speaking of the faith who “subdued kingdoms.” And now, it is used a final time in Hebrews 12:28, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom…” What kingdom? What is the term kingdom in reference to? The term has not once been employed in ch. 12 until now. What, then, could possibly be its significance?

The Identity of “Kingdom” in v. 28

There has been much speculation as to the identity and timing of God’s kingdom. Contemporary speculation on the kingdom of God tends to domesticate and separate the kingdom from Christ and His work, and it fails to account for present-kingdom language used throughout the New Testament. Moreover, it often cannot account for how the Old Testament relates the kingdom of Christ with His first, not second, coming. Some believe the kingdom has not yet been established, and that it is a future-only reality. Others believe the kingdom has been established to such a degree such that there is nothing but the kingdom of God in the here and now. Everything is the kingdom of God, or so it is thought. I do not think either of these positions account for the biblical data. One reason for this is our text, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom…” The term for “are receiving” is in the present tense. This kingdom is, at present, being received by God’s people. In fact, we could render it more strongly, “Therefore, since we are taking a kingdom…”

The kingdom is something all Christians receive or take in the here and now. But, what about its identity? We know it is present to us. But what is present to us? We have to remember how v. 28 begins, “Therefore…” It is a conclusion. Moreover, this kingdom is one that “cannot be shaken.” We should also remember that vv. 25-27 and its contrast between shakable and unshakable things corresponds to the contrast in vv. 18-24, that between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion—the mountain of terror and the mountain of glory. Thus, the mountain of glory and all it entails is one and the same with the unshakable things. And the unshakable things are summarized by our author using the term kingdom. What is the kingdom of God? Verses 22-24 tells us: Zion, heavenly Jerusalem, the church, God, His Christ, the New Covenant, and justification, i.e. the sprinkling of the blood “that speaks better things than that of Abel.”

If this is not the kingdom, it follows that our author introduces an entirely new concept in v. 28. But such a new introduction would not help his purpose. If his purpose is to motivate his audience unto godliness through vv. 22-24, i.e. Mt. Zion and all it entails, he would not introduce something new and altogether separate in v. 28. So, the kingdom, I contend, just is what is described in vv. 22-24—God, His Christ, His Covenant, His people, that is, His kingdom. Some do not understand the church to be God’s kingdom. It is true that the church at present is not the sum total of the kingdom. But the church does constitute the people of the kingdom. “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love… (Col. 1:13).” Who is conveyed into the kingdom? “Us,” Christians—the church. The church is the citizenry of Christ’s kingdom, and this is made necessary by vv. 22-24 where it is the church who dwells atop Mt. Zion in heavenly Jerusalem. Thus, Christ’s kingdom is now. It is being received at present by all true believers. And the identity of Christ’s kingdom is found in vv. 22-24—the unshakable inheritance of all those who are in Christ Jesus.

Implications of the Kingdom

Yet, our passage moves beyond the unshakable kingdom now to certain implications of the reality of this kingdom. “Since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken,” our text says, “let us have grace…” We are here admonished to “have grace.” And it is this grace “by which we may serve God acceptably…” Apart from grace, it is impossible to serve God in any kind of acceptable manner. And this grace is both justifying and sanctifying grace—justifying, that our works may be acceptable before God in Christ; sanctifying, that we would be enabled to perform such works in the first place. And thus, as John Owen notes, this admonishment to “have grace” is nothing more than an exhortation toward perseverance in the gospel. And it is the grace of the gospel which, in turn, moves us to “serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.”

By grace, we serve God acceptably. In what manner do we serve God? “With reverence and godly fear.” We need to look at both of these terms individually. The term for reverence (αἰδώς) could literally be rendered modesty. The primary lexical connotation is to have a sense of shame. The idea here is to serve God humbly, having a lowly disposition rather than one that exalts man in a proud or irreverent manner. To revere someone is to observe their superiority to yourself. We revere others because their accomplishments and reputations far outshine our own, and thus they seem special and deserving of our undivided attention. How much more ought we revere God, who is Himself beyond us—our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer!

The second term employed is “godly fear.” If read narrowly, this term could almost be synonymous with the term reverence. But “godly fear” denotes more of a recognition of God’s awesomeness, His sublimity, magnificence, etc. To serve God in godly fear is to serve God whilst consumed by the overwhelming glory of our Triune God. For those who stand in awe of a king have no time to disobey—they are too taken by his character and majestic appearance. So too, if we labor to stand in awe of our God through contemplation of the divine essence, less time we have to disobey and much more strength we will have to obey.

An Ominous Reality for Those Outside the Kingdom

In v. 29, our author solidifies this point by returning to the holy nature of God, “For our God is a consuming fire.” This is an application of the terror of God as seen atop Mt. Sinai, “The sight of the glory of the LORD was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel (Ex. 24:17).” You may be wondering, “But I thought we came to Mt. Zion, where there is no terror or wrath, not Mt. Sinai!” This is true. But those who are without the gospel still relate to God just as the disobedient Israelites did in those days under the law. All those who are without the gospel are, by nature, transgressors. And so all they see, all they will experience with a veiled face, is YHWH shrouded in smoke along with His threats and condemning wrath. The admonishment in v. 28 is to persevere in the gospel. The threat of v. 29 is not a threat of the New Covenant (the New Covenant has no threats toward its members, since it’s unbreakable), but a threat toward those who would not persevere, thereby proving their apostacy and condemnation under the law. Without the gospel, outside the New Covenant, there is only the condemnation of the moral law—the same moral law issued upon the stormy, smoky, fiery Mt. Sinai.

Uncovering Simplicity in Scripture

Uncovering Simplicity in Scripture

The term “simplicity” is not in the Bible. 

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

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

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

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

Exegetical Assumptions

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

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

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

Exegetical Reasons for Simplicity

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Drink deeply of this far-reaching doctrine, saints.

Augustine, Lewis Ayres, & 1 Corinthians 15:28

Augustine, Lewis Ayres, & 1 Corinthians 15:28

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

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

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

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

Primary Source Material: Augustine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secondary Source: Lewis Ayers

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

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

Quoting Michael Barnes, he writes:

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

The Way Jesus Uses Nature

The Way Jesus Uses Nature

Appeals to natural revelation, and thus the assumption of a natural theology, are rife throughout the didactic work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Natural theology, you’ll remember, is the “what,” whilst natural theology refers to our exploration and knowledge of the “what.” If natural revelation is known to any extent, there is a natural theology.

In His parables and teaching illustrations, Jesus regularly appeals to nature. Whether it be human ethics (Matt. 18:28-35), economics (Lk. 12:41-48), ornithology (Lk. 12:24), geology (Lk. 6:8), or botany (Matt. 6:28, 30), Jesus is not afraid to use His creation for the purposes of teaching His audience. Since this is the example of our Lord, we also shouldn’t shrink from doing the same. Keep in mind that Jesus makes these types of appeals to both believer and unbeliever, to His disciples and to the magnitude or crowd.

A (Low) Key Text

In Luke 12:1-12, Jesus addresses the crowd. He admonishes them, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” Obviously, Jesus assumes these people can basically apprehend what He is saying to them. This is an “innumerable multitude,” the lion’s share of whom ultimately turn their backs on Him, even lobbying for His death. It appears they were not regenerate people. And even if they were regenerated at some later point, at this current time-stamp in the gospel narrative, readers should not get the sense Jesus understands this multitude to be indwelt by the Spirit in any measure—Pentecost debates aside.

In vv. 6-7, He appeals to two different concepts: human dignity and basic economics—both of which I would argue fall under natural law. Moreover, Jesus makes the assumption His audience has a basic grasp on these two things, and this is abundantly clear when we examine His use of rhetorical inquiry, “Are not five sparrows sold for two copper coins?” The question is Socratic in method, and the price of the sparrows is proportional to the value of the sparrows’ lives. Rhetorical questions such as these are intended to play upon facts already known and assumed by the interlocutor. This is why Socratic questioning is so effective. It forces the other person to answer a question to which they already know the answer. Jesus’ audience, if they would have been allowed to verbalize a collective answer, would have said, “Of course!” And perhaps some did. In which case Jesus’ answer was, “And not one of them is forgotten before God.” Sparrows are cheap. But God’s knowledge is so great, nothing escapes its view.

In v. 7, Jesus says, “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Why is it that Jesus could utilize the assumption of His audience, that there is gradation in life-values, from lower order lifeforms to higher? Why is it assumed that life has value at all? Why should God knowing the number of hairs on these people’s heads be a desirable thing? Why should they care if they are valuable in God’s eyes or not. The only explanation is natural theology. These people know, through natural revelation, that God exists, that He explains their existence, that because of this they are valuable, and that God cares for them. There is a natural benevolence God has for all creatures, and this is seen in His providence—when animals and people alike are provided for. They are valuable in God’s eyes. However, Jesus is about to reveal God’s primal benevolence in Himself when He says, “Also I say to you, whoever confesses Me before men, him the Son of Man also will confess before the angels of God. But he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God (Lk. 12:8-9).”

Jesus further adds, “And anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but to him who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven (v. 10).” He is here preparing His audience for the administration of Word and Spirit that would soon tear through that area from the mouths of the apostles, post-Pentecost. Jesus has essentially moved from natural principles, to the gospel, and to the penalty for refusing the gospel. In vv. 11-12, He addresses those who will believe the gospel with the practical application of the theology He taught from nature, i.e. the Father’s benevolence toward those whom He loves, “Now when they bring you to the synagogues and magistrates and authorities, do not worry about how or what you should answer, or what you should say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”

Conclusion

Apart from natural theology, the assumptions Jesus makes throughout Luke 12:1-12 would be unintelligible to His very own audience. If they could not know that which God has revealed through creation, be it Himself or His law, the first half of the passage wouldn’t make sense, and the second half, consisting of supernatural theology, would be unintelligible. This is just one example where our great Teacher utilizes various aspects of His Father’s world to prepare His hearers for that which He Himself reveals in addition to nature, that is, the beatitude one enjoys in and because of Him alone. Apart from a natural knowledge of God and His will, Jesus’ words would have simply fallen on deaf ears. But nowhere does Jesus make the assumption His audience is ignorant of what He speaks, and He everywhere makes the assumption that they can.