The Failure of ‘The Failure of Natural Theology’—A Review (Chs. 7-9)

The Failure of ‘The Failure of Natural Theology’—A Review (Chs. 7-9)

God sees all other things in continual motion under his feet, like water passing away and no more seen; while he remains fixed and immovable… the centre is never moved… it remains immovable in the midst of the circle; “There is no variableness nor shadow of turning with him” (James i. 17).

~ Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 316-17.

I only wish to observe… that this method of investigating the divine perfections, by tracing the lineaments of his countenance as shadowed forth in the firmament and on the earth, is common both to those within and to those without the pale of the church.

~ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 20.

In the previous two installments, we looked at chs. 1-6, collectively. We have, thus far, seen Johnson reject natural theology. We have seen him claim that God is not actus purus. We have seen him introduce motion to within the Godhead. Along with this, we have seen him misrepresent fellow authors, such as R. C. Sproul and even Thomas Aquinas himself. In this final part, we will see Dr. Johnson continue in all the above; but this time, be on the look-out for specific denials of immutability (though he claims he affirms it), a reaffirmation of Kanitan idealism, in principle, and, most nauseatingly, the location of individual consciousness to within each divine Person (cf. the latter portion of this article). The Father’s consciousness is distinguished from the Son’s, and so on… The book ends in a cataclysmic mingling of analogical and univocal predication, which I will attempt to untangle, at least in part.

By the time I reached the end of this book, I simply didn’t see any God left. All that remained was creature. Such is the end of theistic personalism and/or process theism.

Nevertheless, without any further ado—

The Problems of Divine Immobility

Again, tracing Aquinas’ alleged theological and philosophical errors to Aristotle (the boogeyman), Johnson writes, “because of his commitment to the metaphysics of Aristotle, Aquinas added an attribute to God’s nature that is not revealed in the Scriptures—divine immobility (FNT, 136).” This, of course, is a negative development in the eyes of Johnson. But would Scripture agree? Surely not. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning (Jas. 1:17).” The term for “variation” signifies only mutability, which Johnson claims to deny. How he mutability in God whilst affirming motion in God is yet beyond me, and is never meaningfully explained in his book. However, the second word, “turning,” refers to the revolutions of the heavenly bodies, characterized precisely by motion. There would be no reason to use these terms together unless one were trying to emphasize a particular way in which God does not change, i.e. through movement or motion, as all other contingency does.

Though Johnson wants to argue against the notion of nature giving us any sure knowledge of the transcendent God-realm, James sure seems to think it does when he uses a cosmological term in order to illustrate the nature of God—analogically of course (we’ll get there). Johnson says, “not only is the concept of divine immobility not compatible with apologetics, it is also incompatible with theology (FNT, 136. Emphasis added).” Yet, he never explains this statement in light of some of the most relevant biblical data we have on the subject. So much, it seems, for the centrality of special revelation. If Scripture occupies such an exclusive spot in theological science, one would think a person who’s entire business it is to defend such a notion—whilst tearing down the opposite opinion—would practice what he “preaches.” As it is, all I see in Jeff’s work is philosophical conjecture, the very enemy he set out to destroy in the first place.

He goes on, “The Bible does not teach divine immovability… [God] didn’t come into existence or need any external power to actualize any passive potency within him. God is God (FNT, 137).” Yet, God did need motion, in order to create according to Johnson, “Because he is not stuck in a motionless state, creation does not have to be necessary or eternal. The self-moving God is free to create, govern, and relate without altering his simple essence in the process (FNT, 163).” Either motion and God are one and the same, or motion is a part in God, a part that is not identified with God, yet nevertheless required by God if He is to bring about a new world. Purely and simply, Johnson has just introduced contingency, or dependence into the divine essence. If motion is God, there is no place for immutability. But if it is a part of God, it follows God depends upon it to do what He does.

Quoting from Herman Bavinck, Johnson tries to further bolster his point, “Immutability… should not be confused with monotonous sameness or rigid immobility (FNT, 137).” This, Johnson believes, aligns his position with historical Reformed orthodoxy. But let’s hold Johnson to his own standard and see if he uses Bavinck in context. Bavinck says—

Scripture necessarily speaks of God in anthropomorphic language. Yet, however anthropomorphic its language, it at the same time prohibits us from positing any change in God himself [ad intra]. There is change around, about, and outside of him, and there is change in people’s relations to him, but there is no change in God himself. In fact, God’s incomprehensible greatness and, by implication, the glory of the Christian confession are precisely that God, through immutable in himself, can call mutable creatures into being (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 158).

The problem, however, is that Johnson doesn’t believe that an unchanging God ad intra can affect change in creatures. God must be able to move in order to create or change His creation. Lest there be any confusion, Bavinck strengthens his claim on the next page—

We should not picture God as putting himself in any relation to any creature of his as though it could even in any way exist without him. Rather, he himself puts all things in those relations to himself, which he eternally and immutably wills—precisely in the way in which and at the time at which these relations occur Dogmatics, vol. 2, 159).

The misrepresentation of Bavinck on this point is monumental, but it does not stop with him. He misrepresents William Perkins, the father of puritanism, as well. He says, “And Puritan William Perkins identified the life of God as that ‘by which the Divine nature is in perpetual action, living, and moving in itself (FNT, 138).’” But here, Perkins only alludes to the emperichoresis spoken of by Turretin and others. It teaches a mutual and eternal indwelling of the divine relations, one into the other. But this is not to be confused with the perichoretic theology of the Celts, for example. Perkins is not alluding to an intra-Trinitarian movement, per se, nor ad intra, but God as actus purus, or pure actuality (which Perkins, no doubt, affirms). And thus, his mention of motion, in light of what he says immediately thereafter, must be seen as an improper allusion to God as life in contrast to death (“movement” poetically indicating life rather than the contradiction thereof).

Perkins, for example, says in an earlier part of the same volume, “The simpleness of His nature is that by which He is void of all logical relation in arguments. He has not in Him subject or adjunct (Works, vol. 6, 12).” This denies real predication in God, something Johnson denies by applying motion to the divine essence. Perkins says in the same place, “Hence it is manifest that to have life and to be life, to be in light and to be light in God are all one. Neither is God subject to generality or speciality, whole or parts, matter or that which is made of matter… Therefore, whatever is in God is His essence; and all that He is, He is by essence.” Quoting Augustine, he says, “In God… to be and to be just or mighty are all one; but in the mind of man, it is not all one to be and to be mighty or just. For the mind may be destitute of these virtues and yet be a mind.” He concludes, “Hence it is manifest that the nature of God is immutable and spiritual (Works, vol. 6, 13).”

Quite to the contrary does Johnson state, “without differentiation within God, there is no real possibility for God to subsist in three differentiated and distinct persons. In other words, if there is no ad intra differentiation in God, there is no Trinity (FNT, 138).” Richard Muller, however, sets the historical and theological picture aright when he says:

Since the existence of God is identical with the divine essence, Keckermann continues, it must be fundamental rule of trinitarian doctrine that the mode or manner (modus) of God’s existence does not differ from the mode of His essence. It is not as if there can be diverse “things” in God—rather the divine modi existential must be God himself (PRRD, vol. 4, 208).

Turretin writes, “the singular numerical essence is communicated to the three persons not as a species to individuals or a second substance to the first (because it is singular and undivided), nor as a whole to its parts (since it is infinite and impartable); but as a singular nature to its own act of being (suppositis) in which it takes on various modes of subsisting (Institutes, vol. 1, 265).” Neither Perkins, Turretin, Keckermann, or Muller permitted what Johnson called “differentiation” in God, ad intra. This is an entirely a-historical and heterodoxical assertion.

Before he closes this chapter, he returns once more to the alleged war between philosophy and revelation, “This means that neither man, by the use of philosophy, nor God, by means of revelation, can penetrate the transcendental wall that separates God from man (FNT, 147).” Aside from the idealism assumed in this statement, which is not Christian by any stretch of the imagination, one could ask, “But, does one’s hermeneutical philosophy determine what one thinks about the Bible?” If so, then it would seem that the hard and fast separation between philosophy and theology is unwarranted. There are, most certainly, hermeneutical principles not taught in the Scripture which must nevertheless be assumed in order to interpret the Scripture aright, e.g. the laws of logic and even the existence of God (Heb. 11:6).

Alluding to what he will say in ch. 9, Johnson critically summarizes Aquinas, “God may be able to communicate, but his communication is restricted to the use of earthly symbols and physical metaphors… Man’s relationship with God cannot be with the real God that remains locked behind the transcendental wall (FNT, 148).” Note, Johnson never defines what the term real means when he speaks of real knowledge or real relationship, even though this realness characterizes what Johnson thinks is a defeater for Thomas’ view.

The Necessity of the Trinity

Aside from Van Til’s doctrine of equal ultimacy, which I will not get into here, and following some neat biographical facts about Thomas, Johnson begins quoting Dr. Craig Carter. In an effort to make Carter appear as if he rejected any inkling of relatability from creature to Creator, Johnson writes, “a God without differentiation is a non-Trinitarian God who cannot create, communicate, or relate. Craig Carter, for instance, denied God’s relatability (FNT, 156).” He then quotes Carter, saying, “The false gods are relational because they are creatures; Yahweh is not relational because he is not a creature. Therefore, to worship a relational god is to worship the creature rather than the Creator, which is Paul’s definition of idolatry in Romans 1:22 (FNT, 156-157).”

Carter, however, explains himself quite thoroughly in the interview from which Johnson quotes—

Nicene Trinitarian theology, however, sees the relationality of God to be wholly internal to the simple, perfect, eternal being of God. The only distinction we can identify between the Father, Son and Spirit are the relations of origin: generation and spiration. These relations of origin are eternal and unchanging, and they are part of God’s own being, not ways by which he relates to creation. The missions of the Son and Spirit into the world must not be confused with the processions, which are internal to God (Credo Magazine, vol. 10, Issue 2).

Carter obviously does not deny all creaturely relation to God, as Johnson intimates. Instead, he denies reciprocal relationality between Creator and creature. The creature, in verbal form, relates to God, though God has not undergone change in order to relate to creature. He says in the same place:

The missions indeed involve a relation between God and the world but not in a two-way fashion such that God is changed by the world. As Augustine put it, when God becomes our refuge (Ps. 90:1), the change is a result of our faith. By placing our faith in God, he becomes our refuge, but not because God has changed but because we have changed.

Johnson, while “critically” interacting with Carter, never actually gives Carter the light of day. No matter the fact Carter is only restating what men such as Stephen Charnock have already said, that God, as “the center is never moved… remains immovable in the midst of the circle (Existence, vol. 2, 317).”

Johnson goes on to misuse Turretin as well. He says, “Francis Turretin said there is a clear distinction between the one essence of God and the three persons of God (FNT, 159).” Johnson is here trying to historically vindicate his doctrine of ad intra differentiation. But he is never transparent about Turretin’s intention. “The former,” he quotes Turretin, “is absolute, the latter are relative.” If he were to have proceeded in his study of Turretin, he would have understood Turretin was not speaking ad intra. Turretin says, “but eminently and analogically, all imperfection being removed. Thus the person may be said to differ from the essence not really (realiter), i.e., essentially (essentialiter) as thing and thing, but modally (modaliter)—as a mode from the thing (modus a re) (Institutes, vol. 1, 278).” Turretin further says:

Here we do not have a thing and a thing, but a thing and the modes of the thing by which it is not compounded but distinguished. Again, composition belongs to those things which are related to each other as power and act (which cannot be granted here). Nor can the term composition be applied to God without implying imperfection.

Peter van Mastricht writes, “A twofold difference occurs. The first difference is that through which a person differs from the essence: certainly not a real difference, in which they differ as one thing and another thing (Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 2, 503).” From an historical vantage point, then, Johnson’s ad intra differentiation falls flat. From a philosophical or logical one, it is altogether absurd and even forbidden by a comprehensive meaning of Scripture.

Johnson, within the next couple pages, quips, “A system that prioritizes unity tends to end up with a supreme principle of unity that contains no diversity (FNT, 161).” Interestingly, he doesn’t make the opposite charge, that of placing too high a price on plurality, to any similar extent. The fruit of this has been Johnson’s 200-page book, supposedly intended to refute Thomas’ natural theology, but which actually slices God into too many parts to count. By the end, it leaves one wondering, “Where, exactly, is the unity part (Deut. 6:4)?”

He affirms simplicity, but he goes on to differentiate, realiter, between the essence and Persons. Yet, the Persons are still all God. But, if each Person is fully God, and there are real differentiations in God, where is the unity? The divine essence and the Father, for example, are really different. Where, then, is the unity? It’s been entirely swallowed up in Johnson’s ax-grinding.

Johnson, returning to motion, says, “God is not dependent on anything outside himself (FNT, 163).” But the integrity or consistency of this statement in relation to the whole book is tested by the question, “What, then, is the motion in God?” Is it God Himself, in which immutability would be entirely exiled from the equation (because, principle of identity)? Or, is it a part of God that is not God per se, which nevertheless moves God? If so, then God does indeed need something that is not Himself, i.e. motion. Johnson may want to answer, “Ah, but the motion is in God!” But if something is in God, it must either be God, or it must be something not-God, “outside” of God, geographical imaginations notwithstanding (I can’t believe I even feel the need to say this).

Because God is in motion, so thinks Johnson, He is, “free to create, govern, and relate without altering his simple essence in the process.” This statement is never explained. He further says, “God does not have to take on new properties to create; he simply had everything he needed within his immutable, eternal, and triune nature to freely act in time and space (FNT, 163).” Yet, if God acts in time, He must change since time is but a measurement of alteration, variation, motion, and change in general. Johnson clearly thinks God needs motion in order to create, “For once God creates and relates, he then ceases to be the unmoved mover (FNT, 169).”

As I hope you, the judicious reader, have discerned—Johnson’s rejection of natural theology and accompanying conflation of ontology with epistemology has accounted for his sour doctrine of God. He says, “Science is impossible to carry out without presupposing the existence of logic, mathematics, and ethics. Thus, without the right transcendental conception of God, knowledge (all knowledge) is impossible (FNT, 170).” Our knowledge not only grants an epistemological context for further knowledge, e.g. of first principles, it must be correct if knowledge is to exist (be possible) whatsoever. This has led Johnson to affirm immediate natural revelation. God has to be the first thing known in order for anything else to be known at all. But this raises another problem. How is God really the first thing known if it’s revelation we know and not God Himself? In other words, there is still a medium between God Himself and our knowledge of Him, i.e. revelation. 

Johnson could claim the revelation is God Himself, but that would tend to identify creation with the divine essence, i.e. pantheism. And it would also imply a Cartesian-like doctrine of God, that He is pure thought. Or, Johnson could (rightly) admit revelation is not the divine essence per se, but a created disclosure of the divine essence. But this would, of course, negatively impact his doctrine of immediacy.

Analogical Language

This final chapter helps to explain much of Johnson’s earlier confusion. He either does not understand analogical language, or he is intentionally redefining it. He most certainly revises Thomas without warrant, “when Aquinas said all knowledge of God is analogical, he meant that all knowledge of God is metaphorical… (FNT, 177).” Here he never cites Aquinas in attempting to justify this claim. Metaphor is non-literal predication of something. An example might be, “There is a snake in the grass.” This expression usually refers to foul play afoot, a turncoat or some such. But a turncoat is not a literal snake (unless they’re Satan). This is a figure of speech. The snake is metaphorical. But Thomas affirms literal, and thus non-metaphorical, language about God. He expressly says, “Therefore not all names are applied to God in a metaphorical sense, but there are some which are said of Him in their literal sense (ST, I, Q. 13, Art. 3).” He goes on to write:

According to the preceding article, our knowledge of God is derived from the perfections which flow from Him to creatures, which perfections are in God in a more eminent way than in creatures. Now our intellect apprehends them as they are in creatures, and as it apprehends them it signifies them by names. Therefore as to the names applied to God–viz. the perfections which they signify, such as goodness, life and the like, and their mode of signification. As regards what is signified by these names, they belong properly to God, and more properly than they belong to creatures, and are applied primarily to Him. But as regards their mode of signification, they do not properly and strictly apply to God; for their mode of signification applies to creatures.

Johnson has, therefore, blatantly misrepresented Thomas—as he has with other authors. He doesn’t interact with Thomas at all on this point. There are two reasons Johnson believes Thomas thought all analogical predication concerning God was metaphorical—

Reason one: “Thomas believed an infinite chasm separates us from God. Because there is no probation or gradation between the finite and the infinite, our communication of God, from Aquinas’s perspective, is at best metaphorical, if not altogether mystical (FNT, 177).” Yet, as we’ve seen, Thomas expressly denies all language about God is metaphorical. Moreover, Does it seem as if Johnson implies infinity infinitely surpassing the finite is false? The reader can decide.

Reason two: Johnson thinks Thomas thought, “all knowledge of God is metaphorical… because God has no direct access to us (FNT, 177).” What does it mean for God to have direct access to His creatures? I assume Johnson would say, “It means God reveals Himself immediately to all men.” I would then ask the question I asked earlier, “What is the difference between God on the one hand and revelation on the other?” If revelation is not God, but creature, it continues to be the case that God does not have direct access to creatures in terms of “immediate knowledge,” since knowledge is mediated through revelation and not comprehensive of God ad intra.

He concludes, “for these two reasons, what Aquinas means by analogical language is really metaphorical or symbolical language. But this has its consequence—it not only destroys any real knowledge of God but it destroys any real covenantal relationship with God (FNT, 179).” First, I want to examine what Thomas believed about analogy. Second, I want to connect this language to the incarnation of Christ.

First, for Thomas, analogy is not equivalent to metaphor. Thomas develops his doctrine of analogy beginning with the genus of likeness. He distinguished between three species of likeness: equal likeness, imperfect likeness, and analogical likeness. Equal likeness refers to two things that are, for example, equally white in color. Imperfect likeness refers to two things that are similar, as two white objects, while one is perhaps more vividly white than the other. And analogical likeness refers to two things bearing similarity, not equally noror imperfectly (as if differing on a scale), but generically. For example, existence is common to all. But whereas God has existence of Himself versus creatures participating in existence, Creator and creature share existence, but not according to the formality of a genus. God is not located within a genus, creatures are (ST, I, Q. 4, Art. 3). Thus, there is something like existence in God though it surpasses our mental capacity to define it univocally because, again, God is not in a genus among other genera, distinguished by traits, properties, parts, factors, etc.

In trying to explain his version of analogy, Johnson says that any two analogically related things must have a point of real similarity. He never defines real in this context. I can only guess he meant a “point of identity,” as his comparison shows: “For example,” he says, “oranges and apples are different but similar—they are analogous. They are analogous in that they are different types of fruit, but they are both round pieces of fruit. The real point of similarity is that the word round and the word fruit carry the same meaning for both oranges and apples (FNT, 182).” But what Johnson just described is univocal, not analogical predication. This is because apples and oranges are in the same genus (fruit), and they bear a likeness of equality (roundness). This is definitionally univocal, not analogical. Johnson not only thinks creatures are like God, but also that God is like creatures. I reply, then, with Thomas, “Although it may be admitted that creatures are in some sort like God, it must nowise be admitted that God is like creatures.”

My point is not to write an essay on Thomas’ philosophy of language, but to show to what extent Johnson neglected meaningful interaction with Thomas on this point. It also illustrates Johnson’s implicit assumption that God is just a bigger, better creature, belonging to within a genus like humans.

While much more could be explored and discussed in relation to this chapter, I must end by looking at perhaps one of the most important—and most dangerous—statements in the whole book. Under the heading, “The Trinity Is the Reason God is Immanent and Relational,” Johnson says:

Thomas’s understanding of the Trinity does not allow for the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit to have their own distinct self-awareness. And without each of the three persons being self-aware, there can be no communication or interaction (FNT, 185).

How this does not end Johnson in tritheism, I do not know. What would the ontological difference be between Jeff’s conception of the Trinity on the one hand, and tritheism on the other? But there is yet a further implication, that being upon the incarnation of the Son of God. If self-consciousness is a property of the Person, as Johnson thinks of it, i.e. “their own distinct self-awareness,” then one should ask, “How could Jesus have a human consciousness?”

Remember, the incarnation does not posit two Persons in Christ (Nestorianism), but two natures united in the Person of Christ. Christ’s human traits all accrue to that human nature, such as a human mind or soul, and a human body. This means Christ, in His human nature, has a human intellect, will, consciousness, etc. But when Johnson makes consciousness a property of the Person, it is no longer a property of nature. This means Christ’s human nature would not be furnished with human consciousness. It would need to be personal in order for that to be the case, lending credence to some form of Nestorianism, or two-Person Christology.

This is a sad state of affairs indeed.

Conclusion

This project has essentially been one of reviewing an unreviewable book.

On the one hand, it is unreviewable because it would really require me or someone else to write another book just to correct Johnson’s errors. Yet, on the other hand, since this book is written at a more popular level, I felt the need to address the more serious and obvious issues. From blatant misrepresentation to unorthodox views on theology proper, brother Johnson, I hope, will be encouraged to rethink much of what he has written. I do pray there are people in his life that will respond to this volume with much love and a willingness to clearly address many of these things to him stoma pros stoma (2 Jn. 12).

Moreover, I want my readers to understand that I had no intention of “stirring the pot.” And, had it not been for its more popular appeal, I would not have been so anxious to review this unreviewable book. However, I could only think of my own congregation. Whether they will study these reviews at length is beside the point. I only wanted to have some developed response prepared for when these errors Johnson currently promotes come knocking on the doors of my church. This project, chiefly, aimed at protecting my particular flock. If it can be of use to other pastors and congregations, thanks be to God.

Semper Reformanda.

The Failure of ‘The Failure of Natural Theology’—A Review (Chs. 4-6)

The Failure of ‘The Failure of Natural Theology’—A Review (Chs. 4-6)

With respect to the previous post, I’d say the main takeaway was this: Johnson implicated a want in God. A less archaic way of saying the same: God, thinks Johnson, is in need of motion in order to create the world. The belief in this divine need diminishes in no wise throughout the next three chapters, as we will see.

Before I get started, I would like to address those who have begun their criticisms by saying, “You haven’t read the whole book yet!” I answer—You haven’t read my whole review yet. So, what are you doing criticizing my work? My conscience is clear given where I’ve been with similar subject-matter in the past, and also coming from a Van Tillian background. Please, assess my review on its merits as I am attempting to do with Dr. Johnson’s book. As it is, there is nothing new under the sun, and this most certainly is not an original work. If you’ve read Van Til, Oliphint, and Frame you’ve already read Johnson’s book—a claim perhaps to be proven another day.

The following review will critically evaluate the next three chapters, chs. 4-6. I believe you will find that my criticisms of the first three chapters will hold by the time our evaluation of chs. 4-6 is complete. With that said, let’s get started— 

The (Relevance?) of Pseudo-Dionysius’ Natural Theology

Johnson’s main point in writing this chapter is not to criticize natural theology or Thomas, but to present a survey of Dionysius’ natural theology. For this reason, I do not have many direct critiques of this chapter. But, in reading the following chapters, one gets the feeling Johnson was setting his readership up to accept a massive genetic fallacy. A genetic fallacy occurs when an argument (or something of the like) is rejected purely because of its source. It would be like someone denying 2+2=4 simply because Hitler once verbalized it in a speech. The validity of said equation does not rest upon Hitler. It is true regardless of Hitler’s character. In following chapters, though it be assumed, it doesn’t seem Johnson actually proves causal relation between Dionysius’ philosophical assumptions and terminology to that of Thomas’. I’m not saying there isn’t one, I just do not think Johnson succeeds in making that connection.

Assuming Johnson’s biographical, historical-philosophical and theological information is accurate, this is a somewhat useful chapter in understanding Dionysius’ thought. Yet, seeing as how this book is not purposed to evaluate and critique Dionysius, one has to wonder why it is in here, especially given the conjectural and spurious connections between Dionysius and Thomas in following chapters.

Because this chapter is more descriptive and not opinionated, I only have a single qualm. Johnson writes:

Dionysius, in his attempt to reconcile Neoplatonism with Christianity, claimed that he did not want to add or take away anything from the Scriptures. Concerning the Scriptures, he asserted, “We strive to preserve its treasure in ourselves without addition, diminution, or distortion” (DN. 2.3). Nevertheless, he completely undermined the objectivity and sufficiency of Scripture by reducing divine revelation to an analogical language that is essentially and completely symbolic: [The Scriptures] enwrapped spiritual truths in terms drawn from the world of sense, and super-essential truths in terms drawn from Being, clothing with shapes and forms things which are shapeless and formless, and by a variety of separable symbols, fashioning manifold attributes of the imageless and supernatural Simplicity” (DN. 1.4).

For those just tuning in, there are basically three species of language or predication: univocal, equivocal, and analogical. Univocal language is predication corresponding more directly to its subject. To that end, it comprehends (to one extent or another) that of which it speaks, i.e. “the circle is round.” The predication is proper to the subject, we might say. Equivocal language refers to a single predicate with diverse subjects, e.g. the trunk of an elephant vs. the trunk of a car. And analogical language predicates true things about the subject analogically, e.g. candle light is like sunlight (but the two are obviously not the same). Analogy communicates likeness.

Johnson has taken issue with symbolic language. Oddly enough, however, words themselves are symbolic notwithstanding. Francis Turretin writes, “words are the types (typoi) of things (Institutes, vol. 1, 1, I.).” Contrarily, Johnson implies there is some more direct mode of communication, entirely evasive of symbology or analogy. To jump ahead, he says of Thomas’ view, “Because there is no probation or gradation between the finite and the infinite, our communication of God… is at best metaphorical, if not altogether mystical (FNT. 177).” It is unclear how Johnson makes a distinction between analogical language on the one hand and metaphorical language on the other. He affirms Scripture uses analogical predication through and through, but he never seems to define its meaning in such a way as to distinguish it from metaphor or “mystical” language.

Johnson’s issue with Aquinas seems to be his (Aquinas’) reluctance to allege a comprehension of the infinite divine essence by finite, creaturely terminology. But this impossibility of finite comprehension of the infinite must be the case since that which is infinite cannot be piecemealed, quantified, or otherwise comprehended by finite creatures. A maxim popularized during the Reformation was, “finitum non capax infiniti,” the finite cannot comprehend the infinite. It was relevant especially to the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation. But, for our purposes here, we must affirm the same with regard to our knowledge of the divine essence. Thomas was right. We cannot know God in Himself because God in Himself is infinite. If we finite creatures could “get our arms around Him,” so to speak, God would not be infinite, and so God would not be God. As Turretin says, “finite and created [theology]… is made to travelers… (Institutes, vol. 1, 2, VI).” This is a reference to the Reformed scholastic division in theology: theology of the pilgrim (theologia viatorum), theology of beatitude (theologia beatorum), and theology of union (incarnate theology of Christ)(theologia unionis).

While much of Dionysius is brought forth here, and while I have no doubt Thomas drank deeply from him, it never becomes quite clear what the necessary link is between the two. Johnson appears as if he wants to implicate Thomas in Dionysius’ errors. But he never succeeds in showing where Thomas adopted Dionysis’ errors in the first place.

The Philosophical Theology of Thomas Aquinas

In ch. 5, there are some odd, one-off remarks made which makes me question some of Johnson’s presuppositions. I myself always tell members of our church, “The Christian ought always be in search of the truth.” My assumption, of course, is that all truth is God’s truth. He is the one who, after all, created the cosmos. Yet, Johnson appears uneasy at the prospect of appropriating all truth into the Christian faith, “And like Boethius, who sought to reconcile Aristotle, Plato, and Christ, Alber [the Great] believed that wherever truth is found, either in Aristotle or in Plato, it ought to be assimilated into Christianity (FNT, 96).” Assuming Johnson sees this as controversial, I could just ask, “Why?” 

If God is responsible for all truth, would not all truth tell us more about God? The Second London Baptist Confession (1677), says, “the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God (1.1).” Would it, thus, not follow that all truth in creation communicates something of God, and thus finds some place in our theology?

In this chapter, aside from likening the via negativa (apophaticism) to bad directions to one’s house, there are other issues. Continuing his assault on analogical language, which he calls metaphorical (for what explanation, we know not), he says, “our knowledge of God at best is only a symbolic representation of God (FNT, 106).” If language is just theology made explicit, we might follow Turretin at this juncture and respond, “All propositional knowledge and language is significant of that which it signifies. We have an ectypal not an archetypal theology. And thus, we know God in creature-mode.

On the very next page, Johnson begins comparing the Thomistic and Reformed position with Plato’s cave. “Our relationship with God,” he laments, “is based on knowledge, and this, based on a creative picture. It doesn’t matter if God can speak to us or not; we cannot rise above the cave that enslaves us (FNT, 107).” If by “creative picture” Johnson means a creaturely medium, then what Johnson bemoans as an intellectual handicap is prima facie true! The finite cannot comprehend the infinite, and for this reason revelation must be creaturely. I wonder if Johnson would recognize a distinction between God Himself and His revelation. If there is a distinction between the two, it would follow that revelation just is a creative picture of God, because it is creature rather than Creator. Yet, it nevertheless reveals the Creator accurately and sufficiently, albeit not in the way Johnson has hoped for. More on this when we get to ch. 9.

The Fatal Flaw

As with ch. 3, ch. 6 reveals a staggeringly unorthodox conception of the doctrine of God. This seems, once more, to result from Johnson’s bent against anything having to do with the operation of human reason in discerning the existence of God “by the things that are made (Rom. 1:20).” He asks, “Is philosophy—without the aid of revelation—even capable of leading rational people to the same God of natural and supernatural revelation (FNT, 114)?” The question is deficient. First, natural revelation is the object of natural knowledge/theology (what Johnson rightly places within philosophy). Second, that anyone believes natural theology is mutually exclusive to revelation is a canard I’ve already sought to reveal in my previous piece. The object of natural theology, even for Aquinas, are the things through which God revealed Himself, i.e. His works. Against the heretical Socinians, Turretin writes:

The orthodox, on the contrary, uniformly teach that there is a natural theology, partly innate (derived from the book of conscience by means of common notions [koinas ennoias]) and partly acquired (drawn from the book of creatures discursively)(Institutes, vol. 1, 1. 3. IV).

Later, Turretin asks, “Can the existence of God be irrefutably demonstrated against atheists? We affirm (Institutes, vol. 1, 3. 1. IV).” Under article VII of the same topic and question, he says, “The newness of the world with the commencement of motion and of time proves the necessary existence of God. For if the world began, it must necessarily have received its beginning from someone.” He places motion and time side-by-side, because as time is merely a measurement of change, it follows that that which moves is bound or measured by time, i.e. neither infinite nor eternal. After issuing proofs and discussing atheism, Turretin moves right into the locus of divine unity, following the same methodical order of Aquinas (who goes from the existence of God to God’s simplicity).

In identifying what Johnson calls “the fatal flaw,” he writes, “the fatal flaw of the philosophical theology of Thomas Aquinas is the foundation of his natural theology—divine immobility, the idea that God cannot move Himself (FNT, 114).” (And this is a bad thing!?) Johnson qualifies this statement with a footnote, saying, “To be more precise, I would say the fatal flaw lies in Aquinas’s unbiblical commitment that all knowledge begins and is confined to sense experience.” This warrants a bit of a rabbit trail before returning to immobility.

While Thomas believed all natural knowledge begins in the senses, he did not hold that it was “confined” to the senses. For Thomas, there are lower and higher appetites, sensitive and intellectual. Animals, for example, only have a sensitive soul. So, for animals, it would be right to say that their knowledge is confined to their senses. But this is not so with mankind. While knowledge begins in the senses, it does not end in the senses. “Now it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects, because all our knowledge originates from sense (I, Q. 1, Art. 9).” Thus, the higher considerations of the intellect, while starting with the sensitive powers, certainly does not end in the sensitive powers. We often refer to this as inference. We infer higher truths through sensible objects. Modern empiricists, however, reduce man to beast in assuming all knowledge is confined to the sensitive appetite.

Now, because Johnson wants an immediate knowledge/revelation in man—un-infered or intuited through any kind of process or movement of the intellect—and because Johnson assumes a basic separation between the phenomena and the noumena, i.e. the sensible world cannot give us any sure knowledge of the noumena or God, he says, “No matter how hard Aquinas tried, he could not change the fact that divine immobility is incompatible with the God of the Bible (FNT, 115).” Immobility is a conclusion from the effect of God. But any discursion over God’s works, it is presupposed, cannot land man upon a true knowledge of God. He further says, “Aristotle presumed that what was true concerning motion in the observable realm would be true concerning motion (if it existed) in the unobservable realm (FNT, 116; emphasis added).”

Further elaboration on what he sees to be errors in Thomas’ reasoning, especially with respect to his five ways, Johnson writes, “But who is to say both non-motion and motion couldn’t exist in the Trinity? Seeing that God is triune, could not his essence be without cause, while motion eternally exists within the relationship of the three persons as they eternally communicate their love toward one another (FNT, 116)?” And, “Aristotle assumed that motion would apply the same to an autonomous being as it applies to contingent beings; Aquinas made this same assumption (FNT, 117).”

Johnson assumes Aristotle and Aquinas want to apply motion to God. But this is completely backwards. Whereas motion is creature, Thomas thought, it must be removed rather than applied to God. Thomas was remoting or negating motion—which he held to be nothing less than the actualization of a potential—from the divine essence. Motion, even if self-induced, would require God to be caused by something that is not God. There are basically three options:

  1. God is wholly identified with His movement, in which case there would be no place given for immutability.
  2. A part of God moves God, in which case God is composed and caused to be by said parts.
  3. God is both unmoved and moves Himself at the same time and in the same relationship, a violation of the law of contradiction, the commitment to which would render all predication unintelligible.

In the final analysis, neither of these three options are available to the Bible-believing (Mal. 3:6), orthodox Christian. And this means we must remote or remove motion from the divine essence altogether. 

Furthermore, Turretin believed man was able to draw this conclusion through nature, as was above alluded. Nature reveals a God that is not mobile, but is the cause of all that is mobile. Johnson has committed himself to the same principle error of the process theologians. Rather than remoting creatureliness from God, Johnson wants to understand the essential Godhead in creaturely terms. Rather than understanding creaturely terms to be univocally inapplicable to the divine essence, Johnson falls headlong into affirming a creaturely attribute as proper to the divine essence, i.e. motion. This becomes clear in ch. 8, when he writes, “The Trinity is the only being (because he is both one and many) who can move himself ad intra… For something to be self-mobile, it has to be unmovable and movable at the same time (FNT, 161).”

Among other odd claims in the chapter, Johnson adds, “Natural theology must conclude that it is dependent on divine revelation to go any further than the knowledge of the existence of God (FNT, 118).” This statement comes within the context of Johnson denying accurate, logical inference from God’s effects to God. Just before it, he says, “Just because all contingent things in motion require an external cause does not mean that motion in God, if motion exists in God, requires an external cause.” And remember, he has already said, on p. 116, “Aristotle presumed that what was true concerning motion in the observable realm would be true concerning motion… in the unobservable realm.” Johnson thinks this is a faulty assumption. But if it is a faulty assumption, how could Scripture be any different? If Scripture falls within the “observable realm,” and if Scripture is creature, not Creator, then how could it map the unobservable realm? Kantian idealism has its consequences, and this is one of them. To arbitrarily except Scripture—which is creature—from this problem is to engage in special pleading.

Quoting from Herman Bavinck, he goes on to write, “We have no right… to apply the law of causality to such a first cause, and that we therefore cannot say anything specific about it (FNT, 117).” And he himself says immediately after, “The cosmological argument collapses because it jumps from physics to metaphysics, from science to philosophy, without having any epistemological warrant for such a leap.” There are a few important things to note at this point— 

  1. If there is no epistemic warrant to conclude divine things from creaturely things, metaphysical things from physical things, etc., then how can Scripture, which is ontologically creature, communicate anything about divine things?
  2. The law of causality is but an extrapolation of the law of noncontradiction. Every effect must have a cause (contra John Stewart Mill who thought every thing must have a cause). That every effect needs a cause is an analytical statement because causality inheres in the very meaning of the term effect

We must deny that God is an effect in every sense, because an effect just is that which has a cause. It would be contradictory to say of God, who is not an effect, that He is both uncaused and caused, or unmoved and moved. If this does not apply to our predication of God, it follows the laws of logic do not apply to our predication of God. And thus it would follow predication, biblical or otherwise, is entirely unintelligible. The way by which Johnson tries to reduce Aquinas’ arguments to absurdity actually results in reducing his own position to absurdity as well. For if we are without epistemic warrant to infer of heaven through what is made on earth, it follows that the Scriptures themselves, being creaturely, are altogether ineffectual.

Johnson goes on to ask several questions designed to illustrate alleged incoherence in the notion of an unmoved mover. He begins by saying, “So Aquinas, who sought to integrate the unmoved mover of Aristotle with the God of the Bible, had to explain how the unmoved mover can be the moving cause of the universe (FNT, 121).” Johnson is on a warpath against divine immutability, a la., immobility, and by extension, divine simplicity. He asks questions like, “How can the unmoved mover create anything new?” And, “If God is identical to his acts, how is God not one with his act of creating anything new?” Astounding is Johnson’s apparent assumption that these objections haven’t been discussed for the past 2,500 years. And he hardly interacts with the numberless explanations given, by manifold historical authors, on the point of immutability/immobility and its relation to creatio ex nihilo.

In terms of historical orthodoxy on the point of immobility, Benedict Pictet writes:

From the simplicity of God follows his immutability, which denotes nothing else than such a state of the divine essence and attributes, as is not subject to any variability. We argue this immutability… since whatever possesses all perfection, such is incapable of mutation (Post-Reformed Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 312).

Richard Muller on the same says:

This assertion of immutability is to be understood absolutely denying every sort of mutation, including corruption, alteration, changes in knowing and willing, changes in and of attributes, and changes of place involving “local motion (PRRD, vol. 2, 313).”

Thomas Edwards states:

And so in all the Changes that happen in the World, in the several Ages of it, the case is the same. It is the permanent, and unchangeable Will of God, that he will act and influence on his Creatures, especially Men, as there is occasion. It is his immutable Decree that he will produce such and such alterations in the World, and at such a time. God himselfe [sic] is Immovable and Unchangable though he moveth and changeth all things. We move, not God. We are changed, not He (PRRD, vol. 2, 317).

Johnson’s burden, in this chapter and in others, was to show that mobility was not mutability. He never meets this burden, and as a result, onlookers are completely justified in implicating Johnson in the denial of classical and confessional immutability. And such a denial is contrary to orthodox Christianity, as Turretin writes, “With the orthodox, we maintain that every kind of immutability is to be ascribed to him both as to nature as to will (Intitutes, vol. 1, 3. 11. II).” Quoting Augustine, Turretin goes on, “Whatsoever is changed from the better for the worse, and from the worse for the better, is not God, because perfect virtue can neither change for the better, nor true eternity for the worse.” Also, Turretin denies Johnson’s assumption, that the act of creation requires change or motion in God, “Creation did not produce a change in God, but in creatures… It is one thing to change the will; another to will the change of anything. God can will the change of various things… without prejudice to the immutability of his will because because even from eternity he had decreed such a change.”

In short, if God moves, He is not God. Even if it is so-called “self-motion,” movement assumes a final cause, or that end toward which the object moves. This, even on self-movement, introduces contingency within the Godhead.

Conclusion

The rest of the chapter attempts to deconstruct Thomas’ proofs upon the faulty assumptions Johnson makes which we’ve already reviewed. There is much I could say in defense of Thomas, but in this review, I am not so much concerned to defend a man as I am to examine the integrity of Johnson’s views on natural theology in se and theology proper, both views of which I believe to be soul- and church-destroying.

In this part of the review, we’ve seen clearly Johnson’s affirmation of motion in God. And this, interestingly enough, is seemingly drawn from his rejection of the proofs. Johnson has rejected natural theology, or the first principles. Because of this, he’s landed squarely in a denial of divine immobility, and has rejected the unmoved mover, which has introduced contingency within the divine essence.

Again, Jeff, I pray you walk backwards.

The Failure of ‘The Failure of Natural Theology’—A Review (Chs. 1-3)

The Failure of ‘The Failure of Natural Theology’—A Review (Chs. 1-3)

Jeffrey Johnson’s new book, The Failure of Natural Theology: A Critical Appraisal of the Philosophical Theology of Thomas Aquinas (FNT, henceforth), has made no little splash both prior to and following its publication. As I work my way through Johnson’s book, I am pleased to read some interesting historical tidbits of Aquinas’ life. And I am also grateful for the opportunity to think about the relevant issues in a deeper way than I have previously. That said, as far as it goes, there is very little I can commend concerning the attitude and subject-matter of this volume. Considering this book in proportion with what it claims to achieve should lead the careful thinker to judge The Failure of Natural Theology quite the failure itself.

From obviously selective quotation, not only of Thomas, but also of John Calvin, John Owen, and others, to blatant denial of Christian orthodoxy, this book doesn’t so much represent a nuance within the orthodoxy of Reformedom, but a departure from the first principles of Christianity altogether. I will elaborate upon these concerns throughout the remainder of this review.

An Alleged Dilemma

Chapter 1 of Johnson’s book is titled, ‘Natural Theology’s Dilemma’. Up to this point, readers should be able to see some categorical confusion as early as the introduction. “As this book will seek to demonstrate,” he says, “Thomas added to God’s simple and immutable nature and additional attribute not taught in the Scriptures: divine immobility (FNT, 5).” A red flag, to be sure. “What is motion but change?” many, like myself, may ask while reading this. “And if God changes, then is He not mutable?” No doubt, an explanation for what appears to be a denial of the law of identity is in order. But further study of this volume reveals such vindication is hopeless. Monkeying with analytical propositions at the outset is no way to begin an academic treatment of natural theology (i.e. a denial of motion inheres in the very meaning of the term immutability because motion is but a species of change).

Johnson, in ch. 1, becomes concerned with the confusion of natural theology with natural revelation, which is not altogether unwarranted. But here he makes a mistake fatal to his own credibility by launching a volley of indemonstrable accusations against other theologians. He even names R. C. Sproul among those who confuse natural theology with natural revelation, “R. C. Sproul made this mistake when he attempted to justify Aquinas’s natural theology by appealing to verses in the Bible that affirm natural revelation.” This is the most embarrassing instance, because in the very same book sourced by Johnson, Sproul, in point of fact, makes a very careful distinction between natural theology on the one hand and general/natural revelation on the other:

“Natural theology” is discourse about God informed by our knowledge of nature. It is a knowledge of God gained through an understanding of the external world, in addition to and distinct from the knowledge of God available to us in the Holy Scriptures. Natural theology traditionally has been based on what theologians call general revelation. General revelation is God’s self-disclosure in his created universe. This revelation is an objective act of God that does not rely on our perception of it in order to be true. Natural theology is the human response to general revelation. Natural theology is a human act, a way for us to understand God’s revelation of himself in creation. General revelation is what God does; natural theology is what we do with that revelation.

He also makes claims like, “Natural theology is the philosophy of religion, and the philosophy of religion is limited to what can be known about God through reason and our empirical senses (FNT, 11).” The question, then, becomes, “If our reason is not the instrumental means for knowledge, how do we know anything?” For we can’t even apprehend awareness of our own existence apart from consciousness, which resides in the intellect.

Just as he misrepresented Sproul, he misrepresents Aquinas, when he says, “Natural theology, at least for Aquinas, begins on the false notion that man is ignorant of God.” This is patently false given Thomas’ words in the Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 2, Art. 1. There, he says, “To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude.” And Thomas’ view of innate or implanted knowledge is further evinced in his commentary on Romans 1. Commenting on v. 19, he 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).” And speaking to the divine Logos in his commentary on John, he says, “He was the true light, which enlightens every man coming into this world (L. 5).”

The most troubling part of ch. 1, and that which no doubt shows an underlying confusion affecting the whole of the work, arises when Johnson attempts a definition of natural revelation. He says, “Natural revelation is the knowledge of God revealed to us by God in nature. Through natural revelation, we know that God is both absolute and personal (FNT, 13).” Pay careful attention to Johnson’s identification of revelation with knowledge. This is a subtle, but important, confusion of the order of being (what objectively is regardless of our knowing it) and the order of knowing (our knowledge of what objectively is). Is natural revelation knowledge, or is it that through which we know? It cannot be both, because then revelation would be one and the same thing with the human act of knowing. Subjectivism, or relativism, would be the result.

He makes this subtle confusion again on p. 16, “Natural revelation, therefore, extends and is limited to the infallible knowledge of God, which is revealed universally, effectually, immediately, and consistently.” Paired with his assertion that all people apprehend this natural revelation which, in his words is infallible knowledge, Johnson implies pagans not only have inerrant (does not err) knowledge of God but infallible (cannot to err) knowledge of God.

For Johnson, natural theology’s dilemma is its alleged inability to apprehend truth about God. Natural theology, since it involves the operation of man’s reasoning through the created order, cannot reach a transcendent Creator, or so it is thought. But by defining natural theology as a failed alternative to natural revelation, he separates the act of knowing (science, theology) from the object to be known. In trying to escape any affiliation with human reason, Johnson has opted to exile reason altogether in favor of what he terms immediate natural revelation. Criticizing natural theology once more, he says, “the conclusions of natural theology take time to reason through. Syllogisms are a process. The mind doesn’t see the conclusion of the syllogism immediately, but it has to connect the dots. Therefore, natural theology is not immediate (FNT, 20).”

Apparently, the implication is a non-discursive natural revelation instead of discursive natural theology. But in order to exile reason altogether, Johnson has to put natural revelation in us in “immediate” terms such that there is no formal distinction between our knowledge on the one hand and God’s revelation on the other. Amidst all the problems we could speak of at this juncture, one that stands out to me is the confusion concerning argumentation or syllogisms. The design of syllogisms is to make that which is already implicitly in the mind explicit. Syllogism is but a formal regurgitation of the natural process of human reason. According to Johnson, such argumentation takes time. To organize thought into a formal argument? Sure. But it takes virtually no time at all for our minds to naturally do the same in an involuntary and near-instantaneous act. Syllogizing an argument only attempts to systematize the already-natural mode of human thinking. Descartes knew he existed prior to concluding, “Therefore, I exist.” His cogito ergo sum was but his way of making explicit what was already in his intellect implicitly.

The unfortunate byproduct of Johnson’s immediacy is the absurd rejection of the necessity of consciousness. “The mind,” he says, “doesn’t see the conclusion of the syllogism immediately…” but, in the strictest sense, creatures see nothing immediately. Inasmuch as they depend on this or that to know, they see mediately. Consciousness is a bare minimum requisite to seeing anything beyond it. But, according to Johnson, this connecting of dots, from consciousness to that which lies beyond it, seems wholly forbidden when it comes to knowledge about God. True knowledge of God is had immediately or not at all. Johnson does tip his hat to consciousness, but in an unexplained sort of way, “The knowledge of God that comes through natural revelation is not the conclusion of a syllogism rooted in science. Rather, it is the immediate awareness of God that comes with the awareness of self and nature.” If he means there is an awareness of God chronologically consonant with knowledge of self that is one thing, though I would argue the point in another place. But there continues to be a causal relationship. I could not know God apart from knowing myself. Self-consciousness is causally requisite to our knowledge of God. But again, Johnson is trying to avoid anything that would imply God is a conclusion in our thinking rather than the presupposed starting point, a la., Cornelius Van Til.

Philosophy & Theology: A Marriage Not to Last?

The most baffling aspect of this book is the juxtaposition between the creature’s act of knowing, or process of reasoning, versus his apprehension of natural revelation. He writes, “According to the Bible, God’s existence, transcendence, and immanence are clearly manifested (without argumentation or logical proof) in natural revelation… Instead of building on the foundation of natural revelation… Aquinas built below that foundation by claiming that the knowledge of God needs to be rationally demonstrated from sense experience (FNT, 48-49).” But if by “rationally demonstrated” Johnson understands Aquinas to mean explicit and formal “argumentation or logical proof,” then he does not understand Aquinas. Aquinas, on the demonstration of God’s existence, says:

The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected. Nevertheless, there is nothing to prevent a man, who cannot grasp a proof, accepting, as a matter of faith, something which in itself is capable of being scientifically known and demonstrated (ST, I, Q. 2, Art. 3).

According, therefore, to Aquinas, those incapable of understanding or construing rational, formal proofs may still have knowledge of God through faith. Johnson falsely claims Aquinas rejected the notion of simple-minded apprehension of natural theology when he writes, “For Aquinas, only those who can sensibly understand the proofs and rational arguments of philosophy are able to properly accept its logical conclusions (FNT, 39).” I had expected better from someone who claimed at the outset of his work “years of studying the life and works of Aquinas (FNT, 3).”

Another issue that becomes quite apparent in this chapter, and only grows worse from here on out, is Johnson’s selective quotation of historical works, not only from Aquinas, but also from Calvin and Owen. In ch. 2, he repeatedly quotes from John Owen’s Biblical Theology, but, as far as I can tell, never interacts with Owen’s own view of natural theology. For example, Owen, speaking of the continuance of natural theology, says:

This is not to say that natural theology ceased entirely to exist, or that this new phase (on which we are now embarking) simply replaced it bodily. Rather, the strands of the two combine; remnants of the former surviving the inroads of corruption and combining with the latter and, so, progressing onwards through several noteworthy stages which must be examined.

Though, as Johnson notes, Owen rightly believed natural theology could not help the natural man (only adding to his condemnation), he nevertheless conceived of its continued existence. Owen, it should be noted, did not believe natural theology harmed the natural man because it was untrue, but precisely because it was true (contra Johnson), and the natural man perverts it in his ethical rebellion against God. Why doesn’t Johnson ever engage the natural theology of the Reformed and post-Reformed, a la., Junius, Turretin, Van Mastricht, and/or Owen? Would it not have been more academically responsible to show where the Reformed and post-Reformed aligned with Thomas and also where they differed from him? This question, I suppose, the judicious reader should decide.

The Natural Theology of Aristotle

Chapter 3 is one of the least sourced chapters in the book, and its quality reflects accordingly. After characterizing Aristotle’s argument from motion, on p. 66, Jeff Johnson rejects orthodox theology proper by touting, “Actus purus (pure actuality) is not the God of the Bible.” In the same place, he writes, “the cosmological argument does not lead to the God of the Bible.” Here, Johnson’s confusion of the order of being with the order of knowing comes to a fore. Due to the nature of the argumentation, especially as Thomas frames it, Johnson needs to show one or more of the premises to be false. If he cannot do this, the conclusion necessarily follows. If the conclusion necessarily follows, it cannot be denied with any more consistency than a denial of the formal laws of logic. This is how syllogistic modal argumentation (modus tollens/ponens) works. So, if the cosmological argument ends with a true conclusion, it must conclude at the God of the Bible, since it would be logically impossible for the conclusion to be false.

Trying to explain why a God who is actus purus cannot be the God of the Bible, Johnson says, “According to the logic, actus purus can’t be the efficient cause of the universe because an efficient cause requires movement (FNT, 68).” Johnson does not believe a God that is pure actuality could create since motion is altogether removed from Him. But he has already noted Aristotle’s definitive characteristic of motion, that being the joining of form and matter (FNT, 57). Thomas rightly notes that since God, as I’m sure Johnson would agree, brings both form and matter into existence, there is no motion required in Him, nor must it be presupposed in His work of creation (ST, I, Q. 46, Art. 1). Is this difficult to understand? Sure. Is it illogical? Absolutely not. Is it necessary to affirm? Yes, without hesitation. The only other option would be to opine form and matter in God, a formal and material cause in Him, as it were.

Johnson, at this point, would want to reply, “What is true of the phenomena is not true of the noumena,” or, “What is true of the physical world we experience, is not true for the metaphysical world, per se (FNT, 65).” However, this can’t be the case because the Bible, which is creature, communicates true things about God via creaturely (finitely intelligible) means. If the phenomena cannot tell us anything about the transcendent reality of God, it would follow that the Bible could not communicate anything true about God.

Johnson’s biggest mistake in ch. 3 occurs when he says:

This jump from the study of the cosmos (physics) to the study of God (metaphysics) is based on a single, unfounded premise—that what is true concerning finite objects in motion in the physical realm must be true concerning motion (if mobility were possible) for God in the metaphysical realm (FNT, 65).

 

Functionally, Johnson has just adopted Immanuel Kant’s idealistic worldview based on a fundamental separation between the phenomenal realm (physical, experienced) and the noumenal realm (God, heaven, cannot be known through the phenomena). This single assumption would destroy the fundamental assumption of Christianity that God has indeed revealed Himself through creaturely means, both nature and Scripture. If the material world cannot tell us about God, or if it is unreasonable to assume that it does, it follows that Scripture cannot tell us about God.

Moreover, motion is precisely what is denied of God in Aristotle and Thomas. And it is denied not because, as Johnson claims (FNT, 58), they assume it to be an imperfection, but predominantly because it would entail contingency in the divine essence. The reason motion is seen as a privation of perfection is because it requires composition and thus dependence. In terms of creation, which is what Johnson seems most concerns with, if God needs movement in order to actuate the universe, then God needs something He did not have before, i.e. motion. But this is contrary, of course, to places like Acts 17:25, “Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.” Johnson reveals this assumption when he asks the question, “But if Aristotle’s god cannot move, how will he actively move anything inside or outside himself?” For Johnson, God needs something, i.e. motion, in order to bring about His effect. He is a contingent God.

Conclusion

There are two ways to evaluate an argument. One can judge an argument by looking at what it claims/concludes. Or, one could judge an argument by looking at its implications. So far, Johnson’s book isn’t only a non-starter, it is heterodoxical to the core. The argument is, thus far, not only incoherent, but it leads to heretical implications concerning who God essentially is. Also, the supporting subject-matter has been selectively quoted and misrepresented throughout these first three chapters. So, I want to close this first part of my review by saying the following:

Jeff, you have departed from Christian orthodoxy in this book. 

Hear me carefully and clearly, I do not think this means you’re not a Christian. I think that, with time, review, and admonishment, you will end up either changing or revising your views to fit within the biblical and orthodox parameters, not only on natural theology but also on the doctrine of God. This is my hope and my prayer. Also, I make this rebuke public since your work in question is quite public already.

Please. Please. Please walk backwards, brother.

May the Lord bless you.

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part VI)

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part VI)

John Owen

Natural Theology Within the Covenant of Nature

John Owen follows Bullinger in a twofold Word of God, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. He maintains, therefore, a natural theology, and like his predecessors on continental Europe, e.g. Francis Turretin, he understands said natural theology under two distinct circumstances. Of prelapsarian natural theology, he writes, “Mankind was created pure and placed with undefiled nature under the laws of creation. In that situation, true theology was also natural and God-given.”[1] Alluding to a relationship between natural theology and covenant, he says, “Adam’s light… was both God-given and capable of increase and strengthening by following the precepts of the divine will, and by prayerful meditation upon the works of the Creator.” Speaking more to the  kind of theology Adam possessed prior to the fall, “That which derives its nature from first principles is not inaptly styled ‘necessary’ or ‘natural.’” Though, Owen certainly maintains this theology should be credited to God since God must ultimately disclose Himself and His will through the object of natural theology.

Owen moves to make an explicit connection between the covenant of nature or works and Adam’s natural theology when he says:

Indeed, obedience by demonstrating the power of the covenant, must have been willing and intelligent to conform with the theology which we have outlined above [sic]. Adam recognized both his own duty and the promised reward by the efficacy of this theology. The covenant was coeval with mankind, but voluntary obedience was a means of signing and sealing it on Adam’s part. The proposed reward of obedience consisted in nothing more or less than the secure and eternal enjoyment of God.

Unquestionable is it that Owen understood there to be a natural theology inextricably connected with the covenant of nature. He does say, after all, “all true theology is based on some form of divine covenant.” Adam’s natural theology was the very means by which he would obey the natural covenant between himself and his Creator. In Owen, as in Turretin, the covenant of works provides the natural if not ontological context for prelapsarian natural theology.

The Insufficiency of Natural Theology

We must now say something about Owen’s view of the insufficiency of natural theology. The insufficiency of natural theology for salvation is affirmed by all the orthodox. However, Owen makes clear the correspondence of natural theology to works of the law—

All such knowledge, however derailed it might become, could only serve the purposes of the first covenant, the covenant of works. From the day on which that covenant was made void by sin, its efficacy has gone and the best that it can do is to work an outward obedience by the terror of threatened punishment.

Quoting Augustine, he says:

A man might “… keep the commandments through fear of punishment and not through any love to righteousness; what he does externally, he does not perform in his heart. Therefore, internally, he is guilty of sin, however innocent he might deem himself to be…”

Owen saw significant interplay between the covenant of works, man’s obedience to it, and natural theology. Natural theology, therefore, emerges in Turretin and Owen’s thinking as most proper to the covenant of works. But what about Owen’s understanding of the present, postlapsarian use of natural theology? It seemed it could be used, perhaps, as a means of common grace, encouraging, as it were, a civil obedience. It is, moreover, assumed and studied in every legal jurisdiction throughout the world, to one extent or another. However, natural theology cannot be correctly appropriate by those who remain in the broken covenant of works, dead in their sin. Speaking of its place in fallen man, he remarks:

Our verdict upon the first, that remnant inner light, must be this—like everything pertaining to fallen man, it is sinful and flawed. Similarly, its teaching is imperfect and it remains, as I remarked earlier, confined within the limits of the law and contains nothing germane to the saving knowledge of Christ. As the sinful minds of fallen men are replete with darkness and blindness, they must, of necessity, be also faulty in their manner of perceiving divine truths; and so the spiritual efficiency of such remnant light must be fatally limited.

Natural theology, in the final analysis, is not of much use to the fallen man beyond that of mere civil obedience and jurisprudence. It will take higher revelation, together with spiritual illumination in order for man to react to natural theology appropriately.

The Renewal and Use of Natural Theology Under the Covenant of Grace

Owen’s method of arrangement leads him from a lengthy discourse on natural theology under total depravity to the renewal of a true theology following the fall of man. Beginning this section, he writes:

Now we must turn our attention to the phase of theological development which succeeded [natural theology] and took its place. This is not to say that natural theology ceased entirely to exist, or that this new phase (on which we are now embarking) simply replaced it bodily. Rather, the strands of the two combine; remnants of the former surviving the inroads of corruption and combining with the latter and, so, progressing onwards through several noteworthy stages which must be examined.

The “phase” mentioned by Owen should be understood to represent a covenantal shift, “In a word, this new phase of theology consisted of the teachings and promises of the covenant.” As mentioned, however, Owen doesn understand natural theology to be absolutely nor entirely displaced by this covenant of grace. Natural theology, being now the object of renewed man, will be used as an instrumental means of understanding and maturing in this new covenant. Muller writes, “In very much the same vein (of Turretin), Owen can indicate that ‘the inbred principles of natural light, or first necessary dictates of our intellectual, rational nature’ provide a ‘rule unto our apprehension’ of all things, even of divine revelation.”[2]

Conclusion

Owen, thus, represents a full-fledged Reformed orthodoxy on this matter. There are others, such as Johann Heinrich Alsted, Stephen Charnock, Herman Witsius, and Petrus Van Mastricht. Yet, any differences between them would be mostly accidental and not relevant to the overall point of the present essay. Owen clearly understands theology in genera within the context of covenant. Natural theology is germane to the covenant of works. And while it remains, the theology of the covenant of grace makes use of natural theology, but moves far beyond it to Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the church, etc. This would, in large part, remain the orthodox judgment on the matter up to the 20th century.

Resources

[1] John Owen, Biblical Theology, (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1996), 20.

[2] Muller, PRRD, vol. 1, 301.

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part VI)

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part V)

Francis Turretin

Turretin on the “Covenant of Nature”

By the time we reach the 17th century, we find Francis Turretin affirming an express link between what he calls the “covenant of nature” between God and man and natural theology under a correlate, natural law. The natural covenant is nothing less than what the present author has called the covenant of works throughout this essay. He writes, “The covenant of nature is that which God the Creator made with innocent man as his creature, concerning the giving of eternal happiness and life under the condition of perfect and personal obedience.”[1] This covenant, he says, was “founded on the nature of man (as it was at first created by God) and on [man’s] integrity or powers.” Turretin does not exclude either natural or supernatural theology from the covenant of nature, seeing, as it were, a distinction between general and special parts. There was, according to Turretin, a form of special revelation under the covenant of works which consisted of the positive law, i.e. forbidding Adam to partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Nevertheless, implied in the creation account, man was to obey God in all moral or natural duties as well. We quote him at length:

[Man’s duty] was partly general, partly special (according to the twofold law given to him: the moral or natural and the symbolic). The general was the knowledge and worship of God, justice towards his neighbor and every kind of holiness; the special was abstinence from the forbidden fruit (in which obedience to the whole law was contained as in a compendium and specimen). The former was founded on the law of nature not written in a book, but engraven and stamped upon the heart (of which Paul says, “All do by nature the things contained in the law, and show the world of the law written on their hearts,” Rom. 2:14, 15). Thus they who are without the written law are not without the engraven law since they (through the dictates of conscience) are a law unto themselves. The latter was founded upon the symbolic and positive law. The former was principal and primary; the latter, however, only secondary. For although he was bound to obey each special precept or that symbolic law given to him, still most especially was obedience to the natural law required of him (for exploring of which this symbolic precept only served, as will be shown hereafter).

The general category subsumes natural religion, either intuitively (innately) derived or acquired through conscience or external nature, respectively. That Adam had this natural theology uninhibited from sin, Turretin affirms “that it was in him… sufficiently.” The covenant of works and natural theology, specifically natural law, were consonant with one another. And natural theology under the unbroken or prelapsarian covenant of works was without corruption. Turretin adds, “[The covenant of works] was made in the state of nature, so it was known by nature and impressed upon the conscience of men.”[2] The special category, according to Turretin, under the prelapsarian covenant of works contained all positive laws, or laws revealed by God in addition to that which was perceivable through nature. Natural theology, and with it natural law, formed a foundational context in which Adam would receive and understand the special or positive revelation of God.

The Remnant of Postlapsarian Natural Theology

In contrast to this prelapsarian state of natural theology, Turretin understands it to remain intact post-lapse, yet not without qualification. Speaking to what sinful man does to natural theology this side of Adam’s blunder, he writes, “the reason for the denial [of natural theology] was not so much an absolute ignorance of God as their corruption and wickedness in choking the implanted knowledge and all but destroying it in order that they might sin more freely.”[3] Natural theology, rather than being altogether removed from the postlapsarian situation, remains. It, however, is now subject to the sinful intellectual acts of mankind whereas prior to the fall sin was no such contender.

Grounding Natural Theology in the Covenant of Works

In terms of the contrast between the covenant of works and covenant of grace, Turretin understands there to be several differences. Discerning some of these differences particularly between the effects of either, he writes:

As to effects, the [covenant of works] gave matter for glorying to man when he observed it; but the [covenant of grace] excludes all glorying of man because it is founded upon the grace of God alone—”boasting is excluded, not by the law of works, but by the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27). The first after the fall became terrible, striking terror into the conscience; but the latter is gracious and saving. The first genders to bondage, the other to freedom. In the first, God from Mount Ebal thunders curses in the ears of sinners, but in the second as it were from Mount Gerizim blessings are promulgated. The first drives men away from God because by it no one can approach him; but the latter calls men back to God and opens a way to the throne of mercy, coming to which with confidence we can find help in every time of need.[4]

There are few observations to be made about what is said here. First, the covenant of works has a postlapsarian continuance. Second, after the fall man’s relationship to the covenant of works, not the covenant in se, has changed. Third, both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace inform the conscience. Fourth, the covenant of works terrifies the conscience, the covenant of grace is gracious, liberating, and saving.

Turretin makes a clear connection between natural theology and the covenant of works. The covenant of works informed man’s conscience, prior to the fall, through natural law along with some positive laws suited to man’s estate in the garden. Even after the fall, this covenant continues to inform man’s conscience in a negative fashion, that is, by way of a law no man can obey. How would this be possible if (1) the covenant of works had been entirely eradicated after the fall, and (2) natural theology no longer exists? If the covenant of works persists, and if it continues to inform man’s consciences, then natural theology remains in man to some extent. Turretin, like Junius before him, would go on to use the distinction between nature and grace in relation to that between the covenant of nature (works) and the covenant of grace. “It is evident,” he writes, “that there is a great difference between nature and grace: the former always mutable, the latter always certain and immutable because in the former man was left in the hand of judgment, but in the latter he is guarded by the power of God.” It is quite telling that he does this within the context of a discussion on effectual calling, regeneration, and conversion, all of which are benefits of the covenant of grace rather than the covenant of works.

Conclusion

Turretin, therefore, no doubt understood natural theology in relationship to the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. According to the covenant of works, which has a present subsistence, man’s conscience is bound by natural law. For Turretin, the covenant of works is nothing less than the ontological basis of natural theology. It explains its continuation and the nature thereof. The covenant of grace brings regeneration and renewal to fallen man. As a result, it causes the regenerate man to rightly appropriate natural theology.

Resources

[1] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 575.

[2] Turretin, Institutes, vol. 2, 191.

[3] Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, 9.

[4] Turretin, Institutes, vol. 2, 191-192.

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part VI)

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part IV)

Franciscus Junius

Junius on a Twofold State of Man

Franciscus Junius construes the state of man in a twofold manner when he writes that there are “two states of men, namely, the state of integrity when he was created by God and the state of corruption arising from man’s fall by his own choice.”[1] Further, Junius conceives of natural theology as “that which proceeds from principles that are known in relations to itself by the natural light of the human understanding.”[2] And, “The conception of this natural theology in the human understanding deals with things that are common, and it is both veiled and imperfect.” Like both Bullinger and Calvin, Junius maintains a “common knowledge” of God amongst all men. As it existed apart from corruption, Junius conceived of this theology as that which Adam possessed apart from sin. After sin, however, it “was corrupted,” even though it “yet remained in individuals.” Alluding to the corruption of this natural theology in the creature, he says, “they were completely compromised in themselves and quite confused among themselves, as though mere broken fragments of our nature, because of our depravity.” The principles of natural theology, albeit remaining, are perverted by our corrupt sin nature. He goes on:

So from this statement we establish that supernatural theology, which by the sin of man had been, as it were, rejected and most undeservedly spurned, retreated from here to the heavens; and natural theology, as all other things which arise from nature, was corrupted. For how could it have remained uncorrupted in a subject that was corrupted in every part?

Junius, therefore, understands natural theology in a twofold state, in pre-fall and post-fall mankind. Prior to Adam’s fall, natural theology was uninhibited by sin, and though it didn’t constitute all of Adam’s theology, the condescension of God being added to it, i.e. supernatural theology, and though Adam could have added to it, it was yet able to be performed apart from a corrupt nature. After the fall, however, man’s sin nature would corrupt such a theology and “so this theology,” says Junius, “can lead nothing at all to perfection, nor does it ever do so.” That is, natural theology was never intended to lead to perfection. “And it is not even able, in and of itself, to contain the perfection that is added by grace.”

A Nature/Grace Contrast

At this point, Junius contrasts nature with grace which corresponds to a sister distinction, that between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. By “grace,” Junius of course does not mean any and all kinds of grace without exception. There is, to be sure, common grace associated with common or natural revelation, perceived through natural theology. Junius, rather, means “grace” in the special, uncommon or supernatural sense—that grace which comes through the gospel, or the covenant of grace, alone. Digging a deeper trench between natural and supernatural theology, he writes:

Nature does not draw out a disposition except from a preexisting matter, but the Spirit of God works all things in all. And so with regard to natural theology, nature both applies understanding and takes the seeds of the principles for its disposition. But with regard to supernatural theology, the Spirit of God claims all the parts for itself entirely, so that it is with all justice called supernatural.

The observation that natural theology comes naturally and supernatural theology comes supernaturally is further highlighted when considering the nature of the covenant of grace seen in places like Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8:7-12. Implied in Junius’ view of natural/supernatural theology is the federal connection, at the very least in terms of the covenant of grace where man’s understanding is lifted not only beyond nature but beyond his postlapsarian, inborn corruption, i.e. “I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people (Heb. 8:10).”

Junius on Grace-Theology

Junius further identifies the terms “inspired theology” and “supernatural theology,” and they become necessary for man’s redemption after the fall, assuming, of course, a natural theology corresponded to the prelapsarian covenant of works in a unique, sin-free way, “Consequently, it was necessary that inspired theology come to man’s aid. We call this theology supernatural because of its origin, and a theology of revelation from its gracious mode of communication.” Natural theology and supernatural theology are therefore roughly distinguished along covenantal lines implicitly in Junius’ work. They are not distinguished in terms of mutual exclusivity, as if natural theology existed under the prolapse covenant of works only. Rather, they are distinguished qualitatively: natural theology existed apart from sin and was useful to man prior to the fall. After the fall, it remains but is subject to corruption, only to be restored under the covenant of grace—wherein God begins restoration to a punctuated Adamic state through Christ by renewing his mind and regenerating his heart (Rom. 5:15; 8:22ff).

Conclusion

Junius, therefore, represents a rather large step in the development of language reflecting the relationship between natural theology and covenant. Not only does he employ a twofold state of man distinguished along covenant lines, corresponding to which is knowledge, but he also relates the ancient nature/grace distinction to the covenants of works and grace, a distinction Francis Turretin will continue to make. Junius also clearly distinguishes between the species of revelation proper to either covenant by making “inspired theology” a distinctive of the covenant of grace.

Resources

[1] Franciscus Junius, “Theses Theologicae” in Opuscula Selecta, ed. by Abraham Kuyper, 183.

[2] Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 145.