An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part III)

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part III)

John Calvin

Calvin on Twofold Knowledge

Calvin speaks of a twofold knowledge: knowledge of God prior to the fall, and knowledge of God after the fall.[1] Prior to the fall, “man possessed freedom of the will, by which, if he chose, he was able to obtain eternal life.” He relates this freedom to the mind of man when he says, “At first every part of the soul was formed to rectitude. There was soundness of mind and freedom of will to choose good.” Speaking of the natural man’s knowledge after the fall, Calvin writes, “Although they are forced to acknowledge that there is some God, they, however, rob him of his glory by denying his power.” Interestingly, Calvin adds the possibility of the natural man pondering the true God against his will, “When they do think of God it is against their will; never approaching him without being dragged into his presence, and when there, instead of the voluntary fear flowing from reverence of the divine majesty, feeling only that forced and servile fear which divine judgment extorts…”

Natural Revelation & Natural Theology

Speaking more clearly to natural revelation in se, he writes:

[God’s] essence, indeed, is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraved in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse.

Muller, commenting on words such as these, says, “Calvin must argue in this way because he assumes the existence of natural revelation which in se is a true knowledge of God. If natural theology were impossible, idolatrous man would not be left without excuse.”[2] Calvin offers a stronger, albeit still implicit, affirmation of natural theology:

In attestation of his wondrous wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with innumerable proofs, not only in those more recondite proofs which astronomy, medicine, and all natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the notice of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without beholding them.

Speaking of the means by which this natural theology becomes distorted in natural man, he says, “they cannot but know that these are proofs of his Godhead, and yet they inwardly suppress them.” Calvin also appears to understand a measure of natural theology common to both non-Christians and Christians when he writes, “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.” Speaking to the theistic proofs, he says, “We see there is no need of a long and laborious train of argument in order to obtain proofs which illustrate and assert the divine majesty. The few which we have merely touched, show them to be so immediately within our reach in every quarter, that we can trace them with the eye, or point them with the finger.”

The State of Man’s Knowledge Before & After the Fall

Calvin hardly works out in detail a covenant of works between God and man according to man’s prelapsarian state. However, Calvin does outline the elements of that first covenant. Writing on Genesis 2:16, “Moses now teaches, that man was the governor of the world, with this exception, that he should, nevertheless, be subject to God.”[3] Connecting Adam’s probation with his knowledge or theology, he says, “Therefore, abstinence from the fruit of one tree was a kind of first lesson in obedience, that man might know he had a Director and Lord of his life, on whose will he ought to depend, and in whose commands he ought to acquiesce.” Describing the state of man’s knowledge of God after the fall from Genesis 3:8, he writes, “Moses here relates nothing which does not remain in human nature, and may be clearly discerned at the present day. The difference between good and evil is engraven on the hearts of all, as Paul teaches, (Rom. ii. 15;) but all bury the disgrace of their vices under flimsy leaves, till God, by his voice, strikes inwardly their consciences.”

Conclusion

Calvin, therefore, acknowledges a difference not in natural theology in se between pre- and post-fall man, but in what man does with that theology once he has obtained it. This distinction between man’s behavior prior to the fall and after the fall will serve as a fundamental article in later formulations of the same distinction within a covenantal context. Thus, as with Bullinger, Calvin relates man’s knowledge of God to his pre- and post-fall state, and while Bullinger uses the explicit language of league in direct connection to man’s knowledge of God, Calvin makes the same connection albeit more implicitly than Bullinger does. Yet, it may be said that Calvin has a seminal doctrine of the relationship between natural theology and both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

Resources

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 104.

[2] Muller, PRRD, vol. 1, 274.

[3]  John Calvin, Commentary Upon the Book of Genesis, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), 125.

Jeff Johnson’s Scientific Collapse

Jeff Johnson’s Scientific Collapse

I have not read Dr. Jeff Johnson’s new book, The Failure of Natural Theology. I will be reaching out to Free Grace Press for a review copy. But I suppose I could begin my review with the title. When readers such as myself read a title like this one, admittedly, we recoil; least of all because a person must assume natural theology in order to deny it, or adjudicate on its validity (as the title clearly does), and this I will hopefully point out by the end of this article. What’s worse, for readers like myself, is that we understand natural theology to be nothing less than what is described in Romans 1:20, 21:

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.

The word for knew (v. 21) appears in the Latin as the verb, sciere, or in the noun form, scientia. The term natural theology has always, historically, referred to the science or the knowledge of God acquired through what has been made. There is also the innate knowledge of God which is had through the law of God written upon the hearts of men (Rom. 2). So, when we read or hear an outright denial or denigration of natural theology, we understand such to be a direct attack upon the clear revelation of God’s Word in Romans 1 & 2. Natural theology is nothing less than a knowledge of God through what has been made in our estimation.

Johnson’s problem, I assume, is not going to be with natural theology in its most proper sense, but with it as it appears in the corpus of Thomas Aquinas, presumably in the Summa Theologiae, vol. 1. I am interested to read Johnson’s book because what critics, such as Cornelius Van Til and others, typically want Thomas’ natural theology to accomplish is far beyond the scope of what it was intended to do in the first place, and this, I propose, is due to the collapse of at least two distinct sciences (species of knowledge). I hope this is not the same path Dr. Johnson travels. It’s quite tiresome. But, the latter third of the book’s description on Free Grace Press’s website leaves only a smidgen of that hope intact:

If Thomas would have rejected the natural theology of Aristotle by placing the doctrine of the Trinity, which is known only by divine revelation, at the foundation of his knowledge of God, he would have rid himself of the irresolvable tension that permeates his philosophical theology. Thomas could have realized that the Trinity alone allows for God to be the only self-moving being—because the Trinity is the only being not moved by anything outside himself but freely capable of creating and controlling contingent things in motion.

First, observe our confirmed suspicions: Johnson is taking issues with Thomas‘ natural theology on the pretense it represents an effort to produce a proper synthesis between Aristotle and Christianity, a common criticism to be sure, and not an entirely false one, though often very much overstated. Thomas distinguishes himself from Aristotle more times than I can count in the first volume of his Summa alone. It is my hope to see a fair appraisal from Johnson concerning the very important points at which Thomas expressly departs from Aristotle.

Second, if natural theology is rejected on the basis of an off-handed assumption, that it must indeed look and perform like supernatural theology, then these two sub-sciences collapse under the pressure of a demand neither sets out to meet. Natural theology must do the work of supernatural theology, or it is invalid. The rebound effect of such thought? Supernatural theology must relegate to natural theology. This is no different than demanding architecture be explicitly religious in character, even though architecture by no means sets out to be religious in its own right. On a smaller, more nuanced scale, to relegate natural theology to the trash heap because it does not do what supernatural theology does would be as if a Seminary fired all its systematic theology faculty because of its failure to teach biblical theology!

What’s worse, and this is especially troublesome for what I perceive to be Johnson’s view, is that natural theology must either be critiqued from the perspective of supernatural theology, or it must be critiqued from some other perspective outside supernatural theology. If critiqued by supernatural theology, the critic begs the question by virtually assuming all natural theology must basically become supernatural theology. If critiqued by some other means, what would it be? It would have to be natural, not supernatural. It would also need to be theological. Therefore, to critique natural theology is to engage natural theology. Natural theology as a sub-science of theology in general is, for this reason, a self-evident fact. In order to prove natural theology false, one would need to use natural theology.

All of that said, I continue to look forward to Dr. Johnson’s work, and I hope to offer a more expansive and detailed review when I can get my hands on a copy. I also hope I will be forced to heavily redact this post. But I’m not holding my breath.

 

When God Institutes Slavery

When God Institutes Slavery

What about slavery in the Bible?

We should begin by making a distinction between slavery per se and slavery per accidens. Slavery per se is slavery in itself, which is not sinful (because positively instituted by God, who cannot sin). Slavery per accidens is slavery as it appears in any given society, which may or may not be sinful depending on whether or not individual liberties are observed. There are a few observations we need to make concerning biblical slavery, or slavery per se

First, we need to observe that slavery was sanctioned and commanded for national Israel alone. This is not natural law which applies to all men everywhere. This is a positive law instituted for a particular people, place, and time. No other nation has been positively commanded by God to engage in the institution of slavery.

Second, salvery was uniformly regulated by Scripture. It was not left to the dictates of opinion, the fulfillment of greed, etc. Moreover, the slaves in Israel fell under all the same laws as their masters. The laws were no tighter, nor were they different in terms of more or less restriction. This, as we will see, was not the case in the Antebellum south.

Third, there were generally three categories of slaves in Israel: domestic slaves, slaves purchased from other nations, and slaves of plunder. Domestic slaves were never slaves indefinitely. “If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you (Deut. 15:12).” Slave masters were urged to remember their own historical slavehood in Egypt, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you (Deut. 15:15).” The essence of this reminder is, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 7:12).”

There were also slaves purchased from sojourners and other nations, and slaves taken in plunder which the Israelites were permitted to keep as permanent slaves. But, again, this was only instituted for Israel; and it only applied to the individual and not their posterity indefinitely, unless a consensual transaction took place. They, though slaves, had the protection of Israel’s laws and were expected to assimilate into Israelite society so as to be fellow Jews. Moreover, Israel, unlike other, future periods when slavery arose throughout the world, was the only place in which a person could be truly free (to worship the true God).

We, moreover, have to remember that this Israelite slavery was instituted through the Old Covenant, which the New Covenant tells us has been done away with (Heb. 8:13). And the purpose, I propose, for Old Covenant slavery was typological on several levels. It served to foreshadow the slavehood of the nations to Christ under the gospel (Matt. 28:18-20). Paul says, “For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave (1 Cor. 7:22).” If Israel itself was a Christ-type, then it would make sense for God to positively sanction slavery, since Christ Himself would be the other and greater Slave Master. But, as we see in the New Testament, to be a slave of Christ is actually to be a free man, liberated from sin and the world—free, that is, to obey God according to the dictates of conscience.

We can therefore say with biblical confidence that any slavery per accidens that obscures the liberty of a man to live unto or worship God according to the dictates of his conscience is unbiblical slavery.

An Analysis of Generational Journalistic Gullibility (and the Lack Thereof)

An Analysis of Generational Journalistic Gullibility (and the Lack Thereof)

Let me begin by saying: I am not using the term “gullibility” in a derogatory or intentionally offensive manner. Being gullible just means to be easily persuaded, which is not always a bad thing. Young children are often easily persuaded by their parents, and this is normal. A person may be easily persuaded by their most trusted friend. There is nothing wrong with this, per se. Gullibility occurs within the contextual framework of trust. If a group of people live closely with one another, spending their lives with one another, undergoing lifechanging experiences with one another, they are also likely to be gullible toward one another.

My Observation

Anachronistically, not statistically, I have gathered there to be two rather different responses to the current flow of information which comes by way of mainstream media. Before we begin, however, know that this opinionated observation transcends democrat or republican, blue or red, Biden or Trump. This is an observation of something seemingly occurring across both sides of the aisle, and it tends to do so along generational lines, although not perfectly.

For example, I have observed the silent generation, that generation following on the coattails of the greatest generation, seems to be either much less trusting of contemporary news media or at least less aware of what the news media currently reports on. The boomers, following the silent generation, tend to almost entirely embrace what the media reports and has an erudite ability to articulate social media and the interfaces required to use it. They are almost as in touch with the modern flow of information as are gen x and millennials. Of course, gen x’ers and millennials, not to mention their successors, i.e. gen z, are inundated not merely with a flow of information, but also various digital means of engaging that flow, all of which make Facebook look like the first wheel ever invented. But millennials and gen z seem to be much more reluctant to accept what the mainstream media says, writes, or shouts. They appear to be much less united on the issue of media credibility.

Assuming these observations are accurate to any extent, what would explain them? If these observations hold true for the general mean of even just one city or state, one should at least ask, Why? Since this is my experience, I have put some thought into answering that very question.

My Theory

Again, I should reiterate, lest I be misunderstood, that I am not claiming my observations to be universally applicable. Nor do I think that my theory will hold, or even be helpful, in every instance where these observations are made. I am a pontificating pastor forced to consider the causes of things for the good of my family and congregation. I am just a guy wrestling with the same issues we all face with the aim of glorifying God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. Thus, I only ask that you at least consider what I have to say.

My theory revolves around generational, circumstantial, and psychological factors. That said, it is a lot more complex than this article makes it seem, and I could probably write an entire book on it. As I look at generations and their respective circumstances, so too will I mention the psychological effects from those circumstances. For example, the psychological effect of sparse access to mass media is probably less attentiveness to it. A mind with lousy media exposure is less conditioned to give attention to it.

The silent generation is either skeptical of contemporary news media, or aloof from it, because they hardly had access to such a thing, except perhaps by radio or print. They were not conditioned to “watch the news” and accept “journalistic reports” every week, let alone every day, hour, or minute. If they did receive the news, it was through newspaper once a month or so, or it was over the radio for 30 minutes in the evening. But even radio news wasn’t nearly as accessible as contemporary news. Radios were generally not portable, and if they were, they were on the back of a G. I. in Korea or Vietnam. The silent generation simply was not inundated with news, nor were they particularly conditioned to search it out throughout their day. Even if they wanted to, they probably wouldn’t succeed.

Their successor generation, on the other hand, the boomers, had much more access to the mainstream news. However, they were also the generation taking their first steps at the beginning of the space race while living under the threat of nuclear war… during the inception of the tech age. Tech dominated the boomer imagination in the 1970s with popular movies like Star Wars, and shows like the Jetsons and Lost in Space, beginning back in 1962 and 1965 respectively. For some reason, industry usually follows pop culture. And there was a looming excitement among boomers at the prospect of constantly developing technology. They went from CBs to bag phones, and from bag phones to cell phones; from records to 45s, from 45s to 8-tracks, from 8-tracks to cassettes, from cassettes to compact discs, and from compact discs to MP3s and cloud music like Pandora and Spotify. The boomer generation is a generation that has been subject to a level of never-before-seen Heraclitean change, almost for the entire duration of its existence. The psychological effect of this circumstance? A mental conditioning for technological advancement to be received as a desirable common good.

Perhaps the most important circumstantial change was the invention of the personal computer (PC) which arrived in the early 80s. The addiction to tech began with the PC and only progressed from there on out, reaching a climax in the “iPhone age,” which only emerged out of a tight tech race between the largest tech companies in the world in the early 2000s. The race between Jobs and Gates was only the first of many to come. And it was exciting! As tech developed, portable PCs in the form of tablets and phones were next on the horizon. Voice came first, then texting; and, just as lightning strikes, general internet access in the palm of the human hand became normal. Boomers were primed to accept this technology with glee because of the excitement produced by pop culture as early as the 60s, and the pattern of their own generational experience was nothing but technological development after development and a general adaptation to it. Their minds, at the level of imagination, were cultivated for the reception of this new technology, which explains their rapidly growing and continual dependence upon it, keeping pace with their children and their children’s children.

However, there is a two-pronged variable in the boomer generation. The media boomers found themselves exposed to in their earlier lives was both scarce and, in large part, real journalism. They received their news through mediums of either radio, television, or newspaper. And if they received it on television, it was only for an hour a day. Moreover, the news outlets were forced to report the main events affecting the country and the world because they didn’t have the luxury of 24/7 channeling, let alone constant accessibility through mobile devices and social media. The dynamics of how media was produced then versus how it is produced and disseminated now are almost entirely different. Yet, even so, boomers were generally primed for a seamless transition from the news of yesteryear to the “news” of today because of the factors mentioned above (among others).

Mix all the above in with the concept of the “cool parent” (also spurred on by pop culture, usually Disney), and eroding ethics put on steroids by the sexual revolution in the 50s and 60s, and we have the general mass of boomers making an effort not to coach their kids with regard to the new tech, but to embrace it for them, supply them with it, and follow them in eating the fruit from the technological tree. This tech is, after all, what we’ve all been hoping for! Moreover, media is, for the most part, reliable since it only ever reports national and world news. At least, it used to when it only had an hour’s worth of mass visibility per day! But because of the need for production to meet ever-increasing demand paired with the prospect of new technological ability, the current landscape boasts countless ways to receive media. This leaves conventional news outlets vying for dominance by using their now-24/7 channeling and web & app presence advantage as means to retain an audience through whatever catches the most attention. And little retains attention more than bad news, especially bad news that elicits the reactions of mass hysteria and fear.

All of this makes for an unassuming boomer generation caught off guard by the progress of the ensuing technological revolution, not to mention an ever developing slip in political and journalistic ethics motivated by all sorts of greed on the back end. Boomers do not usually question the news media, but this is because they weren’t accustomed to doing so since they grew up in an age of generally honest reporting. The most scandalous events were along the lines of JFK’s assassination or Watergate. Politicians and journalists were in a healthy competition with one another, and they rarely walked hand and hand down the same road. If they did, it was because there was a common enemy, like Lee Harvey Oswald, the Vietcong, or the Russians. This is why it should be no surprise that mainstream media appeals so often to Russian antagonism. They know their most faithful demographic has been conditioned in the 70s and 80s to loath the Russians and anyone in bed with them. Take an obscure political situation and oversimplify it with the terms Russia or Russian collusion, and you will control the narrative in the minds of those who grew up in constant fear of a Russian-caused hot war.

This is how the news mainly functions now, upon sentiment and emotion rather than upon the facts of the matter. The main hinge points, of course, are the unstoppable rise in media consumption, media competition to feed that rise in consumption, and at the political end, the Bush’s and the Clintons with the need for large-scale media coverups or distractions for shady drug deals in central America and endless wars in the Middle East. But I digress. This is not, after all, a history lesson, but a proposed explanation of what’s going on with COVID news and those who most dogmatically follow it. Long story short, the news has changed in both its form and matter, and the transitional generation spanning that change was the boomers, who had been conditioned to embrace it all.

The gen x’ers aren’t far behind the boomers in terms of their level of trust in the media. However, they, as well as many millennials, seem to be less dependent upon centralized media and more trusting and influenced by decentralized media coming through platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Gab, and the latest TikTok. These platforms feature private citizens with first-hand video camera surveillance, personal experiences, etc. This has made it more difficult for centralized media to control a narrative, and it has also introduced a level of distrust, especially among millennials, because the two sources of information, centralized and decentralized, are often at variance with one another; hence the cross-platform mass censorship beginning late last year just after the election.

There has also been an emphasis placed upon the natural sciences and the scientific method in public schools, which I believe has had an affect on the millennial mind. The sentiment is often: If I can’t see it, I won’t believe it. This has led to an inevitable, and perhaps inadvertent, skepticism of information sources. Moreover, Christians, the largest religious demographic in our country, adhere to a competing source of authority often opposed to what modern media heads promote, the Bible. For these reasons and more, the country has been split down the middle by people who generally accept centralized media, and those who do not.

Conclusion

At this point, I am confident there is enough here to at least consider and think about. I will set down my pen and write another day, Lord willing. However, I humbly invite you to consider these things with me. Ask the simple question, Why do I believe what I believe? If you cannot answer that question, it may be time to either find out why, or find an alternate (defensible) belief. I find that personal experience is often the best crucible for testing the claims of any media outlet. If the news app on my phone reports a Godzilla attack on Kansas City while I all the while look at a Godzilla-free Kansas City skyline, I’m going to believe my experience of Kansas City over what my news app says about Kansas City.

Ad fontes.

 

The Monogamous Marriage of Christ and His Church Defended, from Baptist History

The Monogamous Marriage of Christ and His Church Defended, from Baptist History

The teaching that Christ has one Church is integral to a right understanding of the Person of Christ. Christ must have one Bride only. Moreover, His body must not be divided, fragmented, or depreciated in any way which would imply multiple faiths, Spirits, etc (cf. Eph. 4). It must also be said that this one body and Bride is not an earthly, visible institution, but an invisible, presently inaugurated reality received by faith in the present, to be seen with glorified eyes in the eschaton. Or, to put it positively, the one Bride of Christ presently instantiates, or becomes visible, only in local assemblies or churches.

Yet, the one Church of Christ comprises the whole of the elect people of God at all times and in all places. To deny the one Church of Christ comprised of all the elect, at all times and in all places, without qualification, is to deny Christ a monogamous betrothal to a single Bride, to affirm His body is still broken (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5; Mk. 10:8; 1 Cor. 6:16), and to deny the definite or limited atonement, contra Ephesians 5:25-27.

Below, it will be proved that Baptist history testifies to this common conviction. And while we Baptists have historically put much more practical emphasis on the local church, the unquestionable commitment to a single Bride of Christ may be clearly seen in the documentation below. Many of the document titles double as links to digital versions of source documentation. What is not linked is still sourced underneath the quotation. This symbol (*) corresponds to important commentary or clarifying subject-matter also viewable underneath the relevant quotations.

That Baptists Have Always Affirmed One (catholic) Church, Body, and Bride, We Affirm by the Following Proofs— 

Balthasar Hubmaier (1480-1528):

The church is sometimes understood to include all the people who are gathered and united in one God, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, and have confessed this faith with their mouths, wherever they may be on earth. This, then, is the universal Christian corporeal church and fellowship of the saints, assembled only in the Spirit of God, as we confess in the ninth article of our creed (Nicaea). At other times the church is understood to mean each separate and outward meeting assembly or parish membership that is under one shepherd or bishop and assembles bodily for instruction, for baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Balthasar Hubmaier, Balthasar Hubmaier, (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1989), 351-352.

The Schleitheim Confession (1527): 

The ban shall be employed with all those who have given themselves to the Lord, to walk in His commandments, and with all those who are baptized into the one body of Christ and who are called brethren or sisters… 

In the breaking of bread we are of one mind and are agreed [as follows]; All those who wish to break one bread in remembrance of the broken body of Christ, and all who wish to drink of one drink as a remembrance of the shed blood of Christ, shall be united beforehand by baptism in one body of Christ which is the church of God and whose Head is Christ.

Whoever has not been called by one God to one faith, to one baptism, to one Spirit, to one body, with all the children of God’s church, cannot be made [into] one bread with them, as indeed must be done if one is truly to break bread according to the command of Christ.

Hubmaier, Balthasar; Denk, Hans; Simons, Menno. The Anabaptists: Excerpts from the writings of various authors (Anabaptist Writings Book 2) . Solid Christian Books. Kindle Edition.

The Writings of Menno Simons (1496-1561):

But we teach and maintain by the word of the Lord that all true believers are members of one body, are baptized by one Spirit into one body (I Cor. 10:18) and have one Lord and one God (Eph. 4: 5,6).

All who are born of God, are partakers of the Spirit of the Lord, and are called into one body of love, according to the Scriptures, are ready by such love to serve their neighbors, not only with money and goods, but also, according to the example of their Lord and Head, Jesus Christ, in an evangelical manner, with life and blood.

Hubmaier, Balthasar; Denk, Hans; Simons, Menno. The Anabaptists: Excerpts from the writings of various authors (Anabaptist Writings Book 2) . Solid Christian Books. Kindle Edition. 

The Dordrecht Confession of Faith (1632):

VIII. We believe in, and confess a visible church of God, namely, those who, as has been said before, truly repent and believe, and are rightly baptized;* who are one with God in heaven, and rightly incorporated into the communion of the saints here on earth. These we confess to be the chosen generation, the royal priesthood, the holy nation, who are declared to be the bride and wife of Christ, yea, children and heirs of everlasting life, a tent, tabernacle, and habitation of God in the Spirit, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, of which Jesus Christ Himself is declared to be the cornerstone (upon which His church is built). This church of the living God, which He has acquired, purchased, and redeemed with His own precious blood; with which, according to His promise, He will be and remain always, even unto the end of the world, for consolation and protection, yea, will dwell and walk among them, and preserve them, so that no floods or tempests, nay, not even the gates of hell, shall move or prevail against them-this church, we say, may be known by their Scriptural faith, doctrine, love, and godly conversation, as, also, by the fruitful observance, practice, and maintenance of the true ordinances of Christ, which He so highly enjoined upon His disciples.* I Cor. 12; I Pet. 2.9; John 3.29; Rev. 19.7; Titus 3:6, 7; Eph. 2:19-21; Matt. 16.18; I Pet. 1.18, 19; Matt. 28.20; II Cor. 6:16; Matt. 7:25.

*This represents an error in Anabaptist thought which was rejected by later Baptists in that the one church of Christ is not visible, but invisible, cf. 2LBCF, 26.

*Some may want to argue the local church is assumed throughout the Dordrecht Confession. However, this is unlikely since, in the article above, “the church” under consideration will never be prevailed upon by anything, including the gates of hell—which no doubt occurs from time to time with regard to local churches. Yet, the one Bride of Christ is preserved in all ages.

A True Confession (1596):

XVII. That in the meantime, besides his absolute rule in the world, Christ hath here in earth a spiritual Kingdom and canonical regiment in his Church ouer his servants, which Church he hath purchased and redeemed to himself, as a peculiar inheritance (notwithstanding manie hypocrites do for the tyme lurk emongest the) calling and winning them by the power of his word vnto the faith, separating them from amongst unbelievers, from idolatrie, false worship, superstition, vanitie, dissolute lyfe, & works of darkness, &c; making them a royal Priesthood, an holy Nation, a people set at liberty to shew forth the virtues of him that hath called them out of darkness into his marvelous light, gathering and writing them together as members of one body in his faith, loue and holy order, vnto all general and mutual duties, einstructing & governing them by such officers and lawes as hee hath prescribed in his word; by which Officers and lawes hee governeth his Church, and by none other.

A Short Confession of Faith (1610)

22. Such faithful, righteous people, scattered in several parts of the world, being the true congregations of God, or the Church of Christ, whom he saved, and for whom he gave himself, that he might sanctify them, ye whom he bath cleansed by the washing of water in the word of life: of all such is Jesus the Head, the Shepherd, the Leader, the Lord, the King, and Master. Now although among these there may be mingled a company of seeming holy ones, or hypocrites; yet, nevertheless, they are and remain only the righteous, true members of the body of Christ, according to the spirit and the truth, the heirs of the promises, truly saved from the hypocrites the dissemblers.*

*Here the one Church of Christ is put for “congregations… scattered in several parts of the world.”

Propositions and Conclusions Concerning True Christian Religion (1612-1614):

65. That the visible church is a mystical figure outwardly of the true, spiritual invisible church, which consisteth of the spirits of just and perfect men only, that is of the regenerate (Rev. i. 20, compared with Rev. xxi. 2, 23, 27).*

*This is a document prepared by English Baptists living in Amsterdam. It represents a positive development from some of the Anabaptist documents in that it carefully distinguishes between the visible and invisible church, a distinction made in the Scripture itself, cf. Eph. 5:25-27; Heb. 12 with Rev. 1-3.

John Spilsbury (1593-1668):

And lastly, I do believe that there is an holy and blessed communion of Saints, that God of his grace calls such as belong to life by election, unto the fellowship of his Son by the Gospel, of which matter, God by his word and Spirit joins them together in his Covenant of grace, and so constitutes his Church… 

The First London Baptist Confession (1644/46):

That Christ has here on earth a spiritual Kingdom, which is the Church, which He has purchased and redeemed to Himself, as a particular inheritance: which Church, as it is visible to us, is a company of visible saints, called and separated from the world, by the Word and the Spirit of God, to the visible profession of the faith of the Gospel, being baptized into the faith, and joined to the Lord, and each other, by mutual agreement, in the practical enjoyment of the ordinances, commanded by Christ their head and King.

The Faith and Practice of Thirty Congregations Gathered Together According to the Primitive Pattern (1651):

58. That it is the good pleasure of God, which hath given gifts of his grace to the Saints or Church of God,* that some of the gifted men should be appointed, or set apart to attend upon the preaching of the word, for the further edifying of the Churches, that they may be enabled to stand against all oppositions according as necessity requires, to the glory of God and their comfort. Eph. 4. II, 21.

*The “Church of God” is here put for all the Saints. They then utilize the plural “churches” which strongly implies an invisible church comprised of all saints which instantiates in several local churches.

The True Gospel-Faith (1654):

That all ought to avoid the hearing of any Teachers so as to learn of them, except believers dipped, and making of marriages with any out of the Church lest they be drawn from the truth.  2 Jno.10 v.; I John 4.6; I Cor.7.39; Deut.7.3,4; 2 Cor.6.14,15.*

*The use of “church” in this context must be generally or universally applied since it is extremely unlikely marriages would have been limited only to within local congregations at this time.

Midland Confession of Faith (1655):

9th. That Christ is the only true King, Priest, and Prophet of the Church. Acts ii.22-23; Hebrews iv.14, etc; viii.1, etc.

15th. That persons so baptized ought, by free consent, to walk together, as God shall give opportunity in distinct churches, or assemblies of Zion, continuing in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers, as fellow-men caring for one another, according to the will of God. All these ordinances of Christ are enjoined in His Church, being to be observed till his Second Coming, which we all ought diligently to wait for.

Somerset Confession of Faith (1656):

THAT this man Christ Jesus suffered death under Pilate, at the request of the Jews (Luke 23:24.), bearing the sins of his people on his own body on the cross (I Pet. 2:24), according to the will of God (Isa. 53:6), being made sin for us, (2 Cor. 5:11) and so was also made a curse for us (Gal. 3:13, 14; I Pet. 3:18.), that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor. 5:11), and by his death upon the cross, he hath obtained eternal redemption and deliverance for his church. (Col 1:14; Eph. 1:7; Acts 20:28; Heb. 9:12; I Pet 1:18, 19.).

The Second London Baptist Confession (1677/89):

1. The catholic or universal church, which (with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all (Hebrews 12:23; Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:10, 22, 23; Ephesians 5:23, 27, 32).

Hercules Collins (1646-1702):

That is, as he is the Head, and the Church the Body; as he is the King, the Church the Kingdom; for Christ, as Man, is God’s Elect; yea the Head of Election and Predestination: he was fore-appointed to be the Head of a Holy Glorious Mystical Body, the King of a Glorious Kingdom, Captain of a Glorious Company, the Bridegroom of a Glorious Bride… *

*Historically, the mystical body is to be distinguished from the visible body.

The Philadelphia Confession (1742):

The catholic or universal church, which, with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace, may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.

John Gill on Hebrews 12:23 (1697-1771):

and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven; by the “church”, is not meant any particular, or congregational church, nor any national one; but the church catholic, or universal, which consists only of God’s elect, and of all of them, in all times and places; and reaches even to the saints in heaven: this church is invisible at present, and will never fail; of which Christ is the head, and for which he has given himself: now the persons, that belong to this church, are styled the “firstborn”; who are not the apostles only, who received the first fruits of the Spirit; nor the first converts among the Jews, who first trusted in Christ; but also the chosen of God, who are equally the sons of God, and born of him; are equally loved by him, and equally united to Christ, and interested in him: they have the same privileges, honours, and dignity, and shall enjoy the same inheritance; they are all firstborn, and are so called, with respect to the angels, the sons of God, as Christ is with respect to the saints, the many brethren of his: and these are said to be “written in heaven”; not in the earth…

Gill, John. Exposition on the Entire Bible-Book of Hebrews (John Gill’s Exposition on the Entire Bible 58). Grace Works Multimedia. Kindle Edition.

The New Hampshire Baptist Confession (1833):

Of a Gospel Church We believe that a visible Church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the ordinances of Christ; governed by his laws, and exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by his Word ; that its only scriptural officers are Bishops, or Pastors, and Deacons, whose qualifications, claims, and duties are defined in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus.*

*The Sandy Creek statement also implies a distinction between the visible and invisible church.

Treatise of Faith and Practices of the Free Will Baptists (1834):

The Church of God, or members of the body of Christ, is the whole body of Christians throughout the whole world, and none but the regenerate are its members.

Abstract of Principles (1858):

The Lord Jesus is the Head of the Church, which is composed of all his true disciples, and in Him is invested supremely all power for its government. According to his commandment, Christians are to associate themselves into particular societies or churches; and to each of these churches he hath given needful authority for administering that order, discipline and worship which he hath appointed. The regular officers of a Church are Bishops or Elders, and Deacons.

Compend of Christian Doctrines Held by Baptists: In Catechism (1866):

What is the church of Christ? His “calling” or followers taken collectively, or any number of them personally associated for his worship and glory. 1 Cor. 1: 2; Rev. ii: 7; Col. i: 18-24.

B. H. Carroll on Ephesians 5:25 (1843-1914):

“Christ loved the church,” that is, He loved the people who were to be given to Him—all of them. In eternity a joy was set before Him—a future reward.*

B. H. Carroll, Colossians, Ephesians, and Hebrews, (Nashville: The Broadman Press, 1942), 166-167.

*Carroll here admits the general use of the term church has in view all of Christ’s elect people. Unfortunately, he later circumscribes this church to a particular chronology by making it eschatological only. But this of course does not comport with Ephesians 5:26, which assumes the bride, in the here and now, is being sanctified. Carroll later rightly notes that while all the elect is the whole church, the visualisation of it takes place only in particular or local churches (cf. John Gill for sharper, more sensible categories).

Is the Term “Universal Church” Neoplatonic?

Is the Term “Universal Church” Neoplatonic?

Sadly, there is no “yes” or “no” answer to this question without some qualification.

The question is charged, because if someone says, “yes,” they can easily be accused of following a heathen philosopher rather than the Bible. But if they say, “no,” then if Plato was right about something, truth being objective no matter who says it, they would in effect deny the truth spoken. If Plato said, “the sky is blue,” assuming it indeed was, is the fact that the sky is blue to  be rejected simply because Plato stated it? Absolutely not. As Christians, we have no business endorsing informal fallacies (like the genetic fallacy) in our epistemology (our method of knowing).

The term universal is to be seen in formal contrast with the term particular. These terms, like them or not, represent concepts all people engage at every moment in their lives. To reject the terminology and what it represents simply because Plato used it would be absurd, since to do so would be to reject truths independent of Plato, i.e. things which are true no matter what a person thinks about them, says about them, etc. (Even if such truths were uttered by that terrible, wicked Plato guy).

Now, what does it mean to say something is universal? There are a few ways the term could be used, but for ease of explanation it is a general idea, essence, or form applicable to many diverse or distinct things. For example, if I said, “The automobile is a modern marvel,” I am using the automobile in a general sense. Automobile, in that sentence, is a universal since I am not denoting any one automobile in particular, but the automobile in general, the idea of it, the form of it, its essence, etc. I am naming the genus without enumerating particular species of automobile. It’s basic taxonomy which, if rejected, actually collapses all the sciences and makes science in general impossible, including the science of theology.

Taxonomy is not original to Plato, though he was one of the more erudite thinkers to first systematize a realist position, which I would argue just is what the Bible assumes through and through. But realism’s truth doesn’t depend on Plato. After Plato, his pupil, Aristotle, departed from his teacher’s extreme realism—where the universal is radically separated from the particular, i.e. in the world of the forms (and this did lead to Gnosticism). Instead, Aristotle thought of the universal, the essence, or the form as being formally joined with the particulars themselves, such that we come into contact with the universal through the particular, e.g. by means of sense perception. For Plato, the essence of a thing was in heaven, not in the thing. Aristotle saw this as a problem. If the essences of things are in heaven (the world of the forms), then we wouldn’t be able to know what any one particular thing is in itself. We’d all have to be agnostics concerning the true identity of the most basic things around us. Bridging the gulf between the universal and the particular was Aristotle’s homework.

Aristotle, contra Plato, believed a substance (a particular thing) obtained whenever form actualized matter. And for this reason, the form of a thing and the thing are inseparably joined. This is opposite both Docetism and the later Gnosticism.

So, there are two players which heavily influence the general thought patterns of people living at the dawn of the New Covenant era. To give you an idea of how influential this language was and is, the categories found in realism, especially moderate realism, are absolutely essential in the systematic orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity and the incarnation of the Son of God. In fact, to deny the universal and the particular as categories altogether would be to utterly destroy our ability to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in any sensible fashion, i.e. one divine essence subsisting in three distinct relations. To deny the universal (unity) and the particular (plurality) as categories altogether is not only to reject common experience, but to also reject any hope for making sense of what the Scriptures teach.

So, is the “universal church” a synthesis between heathen metaphysics and Christian ecclesiology? Not any more than the terms we use to speak of the Trinity or the incarnation (homoousioshypostasis, etc.) are adaptations of heathen philosophical terminology. If the doctrine of the universal church is heathen on the basis of its appropriation of the category “universal,” then all of Christian prolegomena, theology proper, and Christology are amalgamations of heathen and Christian thought. But this is not so! All truth is God’s truth. Thus, if the categories universal and particular are true, then they are not true because of Plato or Aristotle, they are true because of the one true God who has made Himself known through what has been made (Rom. 1:18-20).

The doctrine of the universal church, while perhaps easier to articulate with creaturely categories like “universal” is not original, not even in part, to Plato. Linguistically, it redeems Aristotle’s correct observation that the form and particular are joined. For this reason, we should understand the universal church not as a visible institution on earth, but a universal which instantiates in distinct local assemblies. This is especially apparent in Hebrews 12:22-23, when it says—

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect… 

As much as those who deny the present existence of the universal (general) church, gathering, assembly by relegating this text to a future-only state of affairs, we need only follow the verbs, i.e. “you have come,” is in the perfect tense. This is very much a present reality, though not yet consummately visible to us. It’s an already/not yet kind of thing: “For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him (Heb. 2:8).”

To conclude, if there be any doubts concerning the appropriation of terminology used in the heathen world for the sake of theological articulation, then I would invite you to consider the fact that the whole of Scripture appropriates preexistent human language which would have been interchangeably used in heathen or pagan culture. This is true in both Old and New Testaments. But this doesn’t mean the Bible depends on heathen culture to do what it does. It means God uses familiar language in order to break into His world through special revelation, which we can only understand if it’s put in our terms. And God, far from leaving the language in its pagan context, actually redeems it and un-perverts it, as it were. To deny the validity of terms on the basis of heathen use would be to invalidate all 66 books of the canon.

It is well known that the term elohim was a term used to denote pagan “deities.” Even the Bible itself does this (Ps. 82:1; 86:8). Scripture redeems that term and applies it to the one true God. The method of the Bible is not to flee from language just because it has been perverted through pagan use. The method of the Bible is to redeem good words. Paul in Colossians 2:3, says it is Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” If one were to read Cicero’s De Finibus, which precedes Paul by about 100 years, they would find this very same phrase. Yet, while Cicero says, “all wisdom and knowledge are hidden in moral virtue (para.),” Paul, who was apparently familiar with Cicero, redeems that phrase by telling us all knowledge and wisdom are hidden in Christ, who is Himself the very perfection of virtue. It would have made a strong appeal to the Colossian Christians at that time. Obviously, Paul appropriates heathen terminology in Acts 17 during his Mars’ Hill discourse. We should be careful about anathematizing words and concepts used in the heathen world simply because they were used in the heathen world. In doing so, we might throw the truth-baby out with the bad heathen bathwater.

Finally, we have to understand that Jesus was not fearful of the leper. Why was this so? Because Jesus was not corrupted by the leper, the leper was purified by Jesus. When we escape terms simply because they’ve been perverted by pagans, we refuse to put this principle into practice. Gratia naturam perficit; grace perfects nature. Nature does not corrupt grace.