Augustine, Lewis Ayres, & 1 Corinthians 15:28

Augustine, Lewis Ayres, & 1 Corinthians 15:28

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

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

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

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

Primary Source Material: Augustine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secondary Source: Lewis Ayers

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

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

Quoting Michael Barnes, he writes:

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

The Order of Theology, Classical, and Presuppositional Apologetics

The Order of Theology, Classical, and Presuppositional Apologetics

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

Subordinating Apologetics

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

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

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

Defining and Distinguishing Theology

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

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

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

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

Classical Apologetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presuppositional Apologetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

That last line is crucial.

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

A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waldron writes: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas’ “Imperfect” View of Total Depravity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irreconcilable Differences Between Calvin and Aquinas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Actus Purus & the Project of Redemption

Actus Purus & the Project of Redemption

“Actus purus is not the God of the Bible.” ~ Jeffrey Johnson, President GBTS

What is it from which God’s elect must be redeemed? Why is the gospel so important? Over the last few weeks, I’ve been harping on the integrity of God’s justice… from the pulpit. Christians should not look for a suspension of justice, which would make for a pretty bad judge. Christians, rather, should look for satisfaction which can finally satiate the justice of God in their stead. God’s people desperately need a substitute.

The need for a substitute evinces a never-changing reality—the holy and righteous God of Israel. God’s holiness and righteousness are never-changing, because if they were, satisfaction would be superfluous. God might simply opt to become a bad judge. Overcome with passion for His people, this mutable God could simply suspend His justice. As it is, however, we must understand satisfaction to be necessary in order to the redemption of God’s chosen. If it’s not necessary, the Father’s Son died in vain.

This satisfaction is provided by God Himself, of course. Just as the LORD provided the ram for Abraham in place of Isaac, so too does the Father provide His own Son in place of, well, us. God at once requires heavy-lifting and provides the heavy-lifting for the redemption of His elect. And the base-line reason this dynamic becomes necessary is to be found in God as actus purus.

Actus Purus & the Justice of God

What is actus purus? Created things may be actual, but they also have the potential to be other than they are. This is why we call creatures contingent. They depend on various things to be what they are, and when these things upon which they depend are decreased, increased, improved, or degraded they change. Christianity has always held that God is not dependent (contingent), but independent (necessary). Theologians have historically grounded God’s independence, immutability, and simplicity in His pure actuality (actus purus). God has no potential in Himself to be other than He is, He is all actual and no wise potential.

If there is any potentiality in God, there is potentiality in God’s perfections. In such a case, God could be other than He is. Following from this, God’s judgment of sin wouldn’t be a necessity in God, it would be an arbitrary determination God could or could not have made. Judgment would not be a perfection in God, but the effect of the divine will. Now, I am not here talking about the accidental timing, means, and/or manner of God’s administration of judgment, but about God’s natural opposition to anything contrary to His nature, i.e. sin. A repugnancy (to sin) which is, no doubt, one and the same with His very essence.

If there is potential in God, there is potential in God’s judgment. If there is potential in God’s judgment, satisfaction is not necessary (since judgment in God could be other than it is). Therefore, on such a model, the Son will have died in vain, a blasphemous suggestion to be sure. To the contrary, however, Thomas Aquinas, speaking of the grace of regeneration and satisfaction, states:

Two things are required for the perfect cleansing from sins, corresponding to the two things comprised in sin–namely, the stain of sin and the debt of punishment. The stain of sin is, indeed, blotted out by grace, by which the sinner’s heart is turned to God: whereas the debt of punishment is entirely removed by the satisfaction that man offers to God. Now the priesthood of Christ produces both these effects. For by its virtue grace is given to us, by which our hearts are turned to God, according to Rom. 3:24, 25: “Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, Whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in His blood.” Moreover, He satisfied for us fully, inasmuch as “He hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4). Wherefore it is clear that the priesthood of Christ has full power to expiate sins (Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica (Complete & Unabridged) (p. 556). Coyote Canyon Press. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.)

Elsewhere, he speaks of God’s justice as a perfection in God identified with His very essence, which is formally synonymous with truth, “Therefore God’s justice, which establishes things in the order conformable to the rule of His wisdom, which is the law of His justice, is suitably called truth (p. 114).”

All of this, of course, requires we understand God as actus purus—an understanding currently rejected by some who share podiums with the likes of John MacArthur, Voddie Baucham, and Paul Washer. Owen Strachan has come out strong in defense of the very book containing the aforementioned quotation by Johnson. But if God is not actus purus, then nothing is off the table. Actus purus is the very doctrine grounding the Christian’s trust in the certainty of God’s holy and infallible Word.

No. It is the very doctrine grounding the infallibility of the Scriptures themselves.

The Project of Redemption

The need of redemption, in the final analysis, flows from the unchanging justice of God, which must be satisfied. The question is, “How is it satisfied?” According to Q. 12 of The Orthodox Catechism, it is satisfied in one of two ways: through ourselves, or through Another—the Lord Jesus Christ. The point here is that heavy-lifting is not an option, it has to be performed by someone. Thankfully, for Christians, it is performed fully by God Himself through Christ.

The rejection of God as actus purus, however, renders this heavy-lifting superfluous, and therefore makes the gospel itself nothing but overkill. God, and His justice, could be other. And thus, we have a rather straight line drawn from the necessity of actus purus to the necessity of redemption. The former is the causal foundation of the latter. Without it, biblical redemption is simply an alternative in a list of many ways God’s wrath may have potentially been placated.

Conclusion

This year’s G3 conference centered around the supremacy of Christ, and it hosted one of the men whose views have fallen into question along with that of Johnson’s. Owen Strachan has not only defended Johnson’s book, but has served as a long-term disciple of Bruce Ware’s eternal subordination of the Son (ESS). The question in my mind, in light of some of the above, is, “How can we talk about the supremacy of Christ, if the very foundation of His three-fold office—Prophet, Priest, and King—be removed?” That foundation, of course, is the purely actual divine essence which demands satisfaction for our sin.

Apart from God as actus purus, we have a gospel that not only could have been otherwise, but should have been otherwise, since the death of Jesus would have been unnecessary to the project of God’s redemptive plan. As it is, however, the Son’s sacrifice was necessary due to the perfect and unchanging, purely actual justice in God.

Considering God’s Transcendence & Immanence

Considering God’s Transcendence & Immanence

The question standing before every theologian and layperson who would venture upon the doctrine of God is: If God is transcendent, how can He be immanent? Some may reverse that question to be thus: If God is immanent, how can He be transcendent? No matter how the studious onlooker chooses to frame the question, there is a pressing issue afoot. If God is so transcendent and, as it were, beyond, in what sense is He immanent (if at all)? These are two mutually exclusive properties, much like simplicity and complexity, or immutability and mutability. Immanence would seem to require not only a likeness of analogy between Creator and creature, but some point of identification or equality.

This so-called tension shows up in Dr. Jeffrey Johnson’s recent book, The Failure of Natural Theology (particularly in ch. 9). But whereas I’ve exhausted the limits of my attention on that volume, you can read my reviews for more information. Suffice it to say that the aforementioned tension is not resolved in that book, and the reason for this is because Johnson, along with many others, tend to view transcendence and immanence as equally ultimate in God. Each must, in some mysterious way, mutually exist in God at the same time and in the same relationship, or so it is thought.

Sometimes, the can is kicked further up the road when certain theologians view the transcendence “part” of God as His unity, while understanding His immanent “part” in terms of trinity. His oneness is not personal, whilst His threeness is. The Trinity, it is thought, is the mechanism we ought to use to explain God’s immanence. This proposed dynamic is, in case you’re wondering, carried over into simplicity, immutability, et al. God as one is simple, but as Trinity He is complex; God as one is immutable, but as Trinity He is mutable. Such are the modern conjectures.

God In Himself (ad intra) Is Transcendent, Not Immanent

I think it is important to first begin by saying—God is not one and many in Himself. He is one in many. What I mean is this: the divine essence, which is one and only one, subsists in three distinct relations—Father, Son, and Spirit. But it is not as if there is one God and three Persons side-by-side, our job being to hold those two seemingly exclusive realities together in an odd, even illogical tension (punting it all to mystery when pressed). Instead, there is one God who exists in three modes, Father, Son, and Spirit.

To qualify, the term mode is not being used here as it is in the famed heresy of old, modalism. Modalism posits one divine person who reveals himself in three modal appearances throughout redemptive history.

When we say the distinction between God’s essence and the three Persons or relations is modal in nature, we are referring to the manner of existence of the one divine essence, that is, in three Persons. This means oneness and threeness do not represent two equally ultimate existences in God, as the modern language wants to suggest. It means the one transcendent essence exists in three distinct modal relations, each of which possesses in full that same divine essence.

Dr. Richard Muller, leaning on Zanchi, says, “It is also the case, that the absence of any ‘real distinction’ between the divine essence and its attributes stands in the way of any full communication of divinity to a creature (PRRD, vol. 2, 279).” Peter van Mastricht, Muller notes, also uses language of omni-modality, e.g. simplicity is “original and omnimodal (Theoretical-Practical Theology, II, 6.20.22).” In other words, God is simple in all that He is.

The “tension” between God’s transcendence and immanence, if such a tension actually exists, would have us believe simplicity must at once coexist with complexity in God’s essence. God would have to be both simple (transcendent) and complex (immanent), since complexity would be requisite to a proper immanence in relation to creatures, all of which are composed of parts. But the temptation to “fix” this tension by making the divine essence the transcendent “part” in God, and the Trinity the immanent and complex “part” in God is misguided since it wouldn’t fix any problem at all.

In point of fact, it would swallow up transcendence altogether since God would be one part simple and another part complex. Which is just to say God would be fundamentally complex, composed, as it were, of two parts—transcendence and immanence. This duality, or complexity, would be properly basic in God. There would be no unifying factor beneath or behind it.

To avoid postulating this duality in God, which no doubt results in contingency, dependence, and holistic immanence, we should understand God as absolutely transcendent, simple, immutable, etc. And we should understand that this absolute transcendence exists not with but in three Persons or hypostases—these three Persons being the modes according to which the divine essence just is. If we say God’s essence exists along with (rather than modally in) the three Persons, we substantiate the Persons and differentiate them from the essence. At such a point, the essence is either personified (making a fourth person) or it is meaningless, a sentiment no doubt leading to tritheism.

Francis Turretin lays the landscape by saying—

For the personal properties by which the persons are distinguished from the essence are certain modes by which it may be characterized; not indeed formally and properly (as modes are said to be in created things, which as finite can be differently affected and admit modes really distinct and posterior to the thing modified, which cannot fall on the infinite and most perfect essence of God); 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).

The Persons, therefore, are not formal or real distinctions in the essence, which would imply a division (complexity) therein, but are modes in which the essence exists.

But… God Is Immanent. So, Now What?

Though God is absolutely transcendent, having all imperfections or attributes of creatureliness removed from Him (via negativa), God has most certainly brought His creation into relationship with Himself. The only question becomes, “In what way?” Many contemporary theologians assume that in order for God to relate to creation, He must relate as creatures relate to other creatures. But this is not the case, and to formulate a doctrine of God based upon that assumption is to do theology backwards.

Rather than the assumed relationship informing our understanding of God, our understanding of God ought to be informing our view of His relationship to the world. The question before us is, “How is God immanent, if He is?” God is not immanent, ad intra. All creatureliness must be removed from His essence. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit must have every creaturely attribute and imperfection removed. What applies to the single essence applies to them. Naturally, some want to ask, “Okay, then how can God be immanent if that’s the case?”

It is assumed that if God cannot take on some kind of creatureliness (change or complexity), He cannot be immanent in any sense. But what if, short of thinking God becomes creature-like, we only say He brings creatures into relation to Himself? In this case, God affects change in His creatures without Himself undergoing any change, i.e. “with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning (Jas. 1:17).” Immanence, therefore, would be a creaturely term we use to describe God’s work of creation, and His self-disclosure through revelation. And revelation, we must understand, is fitted to finite understanding (analogical).

Thus, the question, “If God is transcendent, how can He be immanent?” must be answered in the following fashion: God is ontologically transcendent, but analogically immanent. He is ontologically transcendent, but revelatorally immanent (Heb. 1). The apex of this immanence comes, of course, in the incarnate Son—a piece of the conversation usually missing on the part of those who want God to be equally and ontologically both transcendent and immanent.

It is in the incarnation where God the Son brings into union with Himself the fullness of human nature. This does not result in a change or diminution in the divine essence anymore than does the creation itself. The Person of the Son, therefore, is immanent, not in His divine nature but in His human nature—a crucial distinction to keep in mind. The Second London Confession states—

The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father’s glory, of one substance and equal with him who made the world, who upholdeth and governeth all things he hath made, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit coming down upon her: and the power of the Most High overshadowing her; and so was made of a woman of the tribe of Judah, of the seed of Abraham and David according to the Scriptures; so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.

Conclusion

God is both transcendent and immanent, but not in the equally ultimate sense. He is absolutely transcendent, ad intra. He is immanent ad extra, or through the change He brings about in His creatures (relating them to Himself rather than Himself to them), leaving His being unchanged; and also His self-disclosure (revelation), which He produces in terms apprehendable by His finite creatures. The apex of this is the incarnation of the Son of God, who is the express image of the Father. Interestingly enough, when God is closest to us, that is, in Christ, He is closest to us in human nature, and not immediately in His divine nature. If God were not absolutely transcendent, this would not need to be the case.

Something else could be said about how we should be careful not to confuse this absolute transcendence with something like Karl Barth’s “wholly otherness.” Absolute transcendence does not preclude all analogy between God and creature. It only precludes certain kinds of similarities, such as (what Thomas calls) equal and imperfect likenesses. But this is an article for another day.

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.