Van Tillian Inconsistency

I want to start off by saying that I fall into the “presup” camp when it comes to apologetics. I find the position to be most consistent with Scripture (which I am not seeking to defend in this article). However, I find problems among those in the camp and even with some of Van Til’s teaching. I don’t necessarily buy everything Van Til or his followers teach or have taught. I would label myself a “moderate” presuppositionalist. I believe it is possible to find middle ground between the “classical” approach and the “presup” approach without having to result to what I think is a false dilemma between the two positions. Both sides have truths that can be offered and we shouldn’t throw either position out entirely because we may not like certain teachings sourced in either position. I do find it ironic that there are those in the “classical” camp who would complain because some in the Van Tillian camp will reject their position or aspects of it on theology proper due to philosophical commitments that are used in their theology, but then turn around and criticize the “presup” view because Van Til used idealist philosophical concepts in his system. For some reason, it is okay for “classicists” to use philosophical concepts in their theology (and rightly so) that are found in pagan philosophy, but Van Til can’t, even when he goes to great length to defend himself against accusations of adopting idealism (see his work “The Defense of the Faith”). And on the flip side, there are those in the Van Tillian camp that have fallen into this too, where there will be criticism of the usage of “Greek philosophy” in theology while adopting a system (“presup”) that has inherent philosophical commitments that are found in idealism. We have to move beyond this type of argumentation. With all that said, this article spawned out of me reading an essay that Dr. Matthew Barrett of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary posted by Richard A. Muller titled, “Reading Aquinas from a Reformed Perspective: A Review Essay” from 2018. This article is not meant to cover every inconsistency by Van Tillians or the beliefs of Van Til, but a point-by-point discussion of inconsistencies among Van Til and some of his followers. Also, when I say, “Van Tillian” in the title, I am not only referring to what Van Til may have taught, but some teachings found among the “presup” camp that have come from followers of Van Til. Let us begin.

The Doctrine of God

This doctrine seems to be in some way be at the center of multiple controversies. There are those in the “presup” camp (not necessarily everybody) that have adopted an unorthodox doctrine of God. However, there seems to be disagreement among followers of Van Til with Van Til himself on what constitutes an orthodox theology proper. One need look no further than Jeff Johnson. He identifies as a presuppositionalist in his book, “Saving Natural Theology from Thomas Aquinas,” on page 6 of the Kindle edition. However, there does not seem to be agreement even with Van Til on who God is (although this may be done in ignorance). In his previous book (“The Failure of Natural Theology”) he specifically rejects the concept of God as “actus purus,” meaning God is pure act without the capacity to become more than He actually is. He is the fullness of His being, completely perfect. Jeff says the following:

Actus Purus Is Not the God of the Bible…Actus Purus Is Oblivious and Unconcerned…Actus Purus Cannot Create…Actus Purus Does Not Have a Free Will…Actus Purus Is Impersonal…Thus, according to Aristotle, God is somewhat deistic in that he is oblivious to the universe.

Johnson, Jeffrey D. “The Natural Theology of Aristotle.” The Failure of Natural Theology: A Critical Appraisal of the Philosophical Theology of Thomas Aquinas, Free Grace Press, 2021, pp. 66–69.

As you can see, he expressly denies this doctrine. He sees it as a philosophical commitment and not a biblical one, although he does see some overlap between Aristotelian concepts of God and the biblical God (see page 67). However, it is clear that Van Til did teach this doctrine of actus purus as applied to God and even grounded this understanding of God as the basis for his apologetic position (which position Jeff Johnson espouses). Notice what Van Til says,

As God is absolute rationality so God is also absolute will. By this we mean primarily that God did not have to become good, but has from everlasting to everlasting been good. In God there is no problem of activity and passivity.

Til, Cornelius Van. “The Christian Philosophy of Behavior.” The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., Presbyterian and Reformed, Philadephia, 1955, p. 83.

Even on a footnote on the same page, K. Scott Oliphint who edited the 4th edition, says the following in relation to the above:

That is, as orthodox theology has maintained, God is Pure Act. There is nothing incomplete or in any way imperfect in God.

Til, Cornelius Van. “The Christian Philosophy of Behavior.” The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., Presbyterian and Reformed, Philadelphia, 1955, p. 83.

And Van Til then seems to tie this view of God to his view of apologetic methodology where he says,

It should be especially noted that Christians put forth this concept of God, not as something that may possibly be true and may also possibly be untrue. From the nontheistic point of view our God will have to appear as the dumping ground of all difficulties. For the moment we waive this objection in order to call attention to the fact that all the differences between the Christian and the non-Christian point of view, in the field of ethics, must be ultimately traced to their different God-concepts. Christians hold that the conception of God is the necessary presupposition of all human activity.

Til, Cornelius Van. “The Christian Philosophy of Behavior.” The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., Presbyterian and Reformed, Philadephia, 1955, p. 83. (Emphasis mine)

Just prior to this section is where Van Til established actus purus as biblical in understanding God’s nature. So the context and what is said above would seem to indicate that to reject this view of God is to undermine a core aspect of Van Til’s position on God. Jeff says he’s a presuppositionalist without qualification as we’ve quoted already, so it can safely be assumed he holds to Van Til’s apologetic as a whole. Remember, this concept of “presupposing” God is key to Van Til’s methodology. God must be presupposed to account for all things such as logic, thought, facts themselves, etc. This is essentially the transcendental method of arguing for God’s existence. Also, there is no real neutrality when it comes to man. Man’s state is sinful and as such he is bent away from God. Also, since he lives in God’s world, man must assume God by default since he is using those things created. He cannot escape God. So this statement made by Van Til that, “the conception of God is the necessary presupposition of all human activity” is an indication of his apologetic methodology. This, I think, would put Jeff in a precarious situation as it relates to holding to Van Tillian apologetics the way he does.

Proofs for God

Now, I want to visit some of the apologetic argumentation of Dr. K. Scott Oliphint, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary who knew Van TIl personally and was a student of his post-Van Til’s retirement. Among the Van Tillian camp and with Van Til himself, there is a large amount of criticism of Thomas Aquinas. Van Til, at least to me, seems to identify Aquinas with the broader Roman tradition and not allow for much nuance of Romanism. If this is indeed the case, this could be problematic as the Catholic Church under Aquinas was very different than post-Trent Rome, so this could lead to anachronistic predication. Regardless, the emphasis on Aquinas by Van Til seems to have been passed to at least some of his followers including Dr. Oliphint. Let us look at an example. Richard A. Muller says the following in critique of Oliphint’s understanding of “proofs for God” :

Oliphint makes several crucial mistakes in his interpretation of Aquinas’s proofs of the existence of God. The first mistake is categorical. Oliphint assumes, largely on the basis of Aquinas’s Summa contra Gentiles (even though his analysis of Aquinas’s proofs is based on the Summa Theologiae) that the proofs are not only an exercise in the philosophy of “pure” natural reason but also a form of apologetics. The proofs in the Summa Theologiae, however, are identified as preambles to articles of faith that neither identifies them exclusively as philosophy nor classifies them as apologetic—they belong to sacra doctrina.

Muller, Richard A. “Reading Aquinas from a Reformed Perspective: A Review Essay.” Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 53, 2018, p. 274.

This is key, as critiques of the “classical” position of apologetics from the “presup” camp do assume that the arguments coming from the other side, i.e Thomistic the view, are indeed apologetic in nature. This can be understandable given that men like Norman Geisler, who was R.C. Sproul’s mentor, used Thomas as an apologetic tool (see Dr. Oliphint’s book, “Thomas Aquinas” page 55, Kindle edition). However, Thomas never meant his work to be utilized as an apologetic tool or for it to be apologetic in nature, but as part of the basic articulations of the Christian faith itself. This changes the discussion, as this means to critique the “classical” position based on these proofs from Thomas would be to fall into a straw manning by arguing against something that Thomas never said. If the argument is simply against one like Geisler who turned the theistic proofs of Thomas into apologetical arguments, then the argument would be against Geisler and not Thomas unless one misrepresents Thomas. However, Oliphint, who is a prominent Van Tillian, imputes these motives of theistic proofs to Thomas himself as is seen in Muller’s critique above. One should argue against followers of Thomas who have changed his proofs into apologetic tools rather than going after Thomas when he was simply laying out the Christian faith if they are to engage with these proofs at all. Given the discussion above, we can then look at a common argument for any theistic proof that is not attached to the Van Tillian model and is applied to Aquinas’s theistic proofs. Muller says this,

The second mistake is also a categorical one: it concerns the issue of precisely what Aquinas thought he was proving. Oliphint, who has strenuously advocated Mclnerny’s critique of Gilson and has referenced a Cajetanian reading of Aquinas, clearly misunderstands Cajetan’s view of the proofs. Oliphint represents Cajetan as teaching that the “proofs only demonstrated properties that could apply to a god, but not to God himself.”…The intent of the proofs is not to provide a full doctrine of the Christian God but only to show that reason can attain a set of rather limited concepts that can only be predicated of God and that will be seen to belong to God in the full development of the Christian doctrine of God subsequent to the proofs.

Muller, Richard A. “Reading Aquinas from a Reformed Perspective: A Review Essay.” Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 53, 2018, p. 276-277

This line is key from Oliphint’s book “Thomas Aquinas” that Muller cites, “proofs only demonstrated properties that could apply to a god, but not to God himself.” (Page 155, Kindle edition) Oliphint is actually referring here to a Cardinal that was explaining Thomas but Oliphint clearly thinks this principle is true of Thomas’s theistic proofs. But as one works through a massive work like the Summa, it can be seen clearly that saying these theistic proofs logically leave us with merely a god and not the God is inaccurate. Aquinas in the Summa is very clear that the God these proofs are pointing to is not a faceless god but the God of Scripture. As he expounds for instance on God’s immutability in Part I, question 4 of the Summa where he clearly establishes the God that does not change is the God of Malachi 3:6, the one true and living God. And the starting point for Aquinas is not philosophy, but Scripture. He then works from the already established Scripture to bring to light implications of divine immutability. To separate the proofs of God’s existence from the rest of Aquinas’s work as if they are arguments that merely prove a “god” is to take Aquinas’s words completely out of context and to let Van Tillian methodology blind. This Van Tillian argumentation would apply certainly to an evidential apologetic where God’s word is left out of the presentation for the sake of different evidences and even theistic proofs. This methodology is not intended to couple the supernatural with the natural in terms of apologetic argumentation, but it is meant to use “evidence” in lieu of the supernatural to prove the supernatural. This is not what we find with Aquinas. We find that he never meant these proofs to be apologetic and that they were to be taken with the whole doctrine of God, that God being from Scripture who is brought out elsewhere in the Summa.

The Concept of Analogy

We now arrive at a thorny topic: “analogy” There seems to be issue here as it relates to Van Til when it comes to his definition of “analogy” and the concept of the Thomistic “analogy of being.” Let us look at Muller again.

Oliphint’s discussion of Aquinas’s view of God draws heavily on the claims of Cornelius Van Til, one of whose basic points of critique is that Aquinas’s “idea of the analogy of being compromises the biblical doctrine of creation.” The reason for this, in Van Til’s view, is that the notion of an analogy of being comes directly from Aristotle and reduces the distinction between the Creator and the creature by adopting the Greek philosophical assumption that “all being is essentially one” and that “all individual beings are being to the extent that they participate in this one ultimate being,” thereby undermining the Christian teaching of “a self-contained God”…

Muller, Richard A. “Reading Aquinas from a Reformed Perspective: A Review Essay.” Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 53, 2018, p. 270

I am not sure what version of analogy of being Van Til would have held to explicitly, but he did at the very least rejected the concept of “analogy of being” between God and creation, understood Thomistically. This would naturally create problems. It would be dangerous to reject analogy between God and creation as this would mean there really is likeness between us and God in some way completely destroying the creator/creature distinction that must be kept if God is to truly be the first cause of all things and independent of all things. Clearly though, Van Til rejected Thomas’s view of analogy and applied analogy in a different way. What I will say though is I doubt Van Til denied in every respect analogy of being as this would result in no distinction in reality or concept between Him and His creation. I don’t think this was the case. It seems to me that he denied the concept of analogy of being, but maintained it in other areas unknowingly and inconsistently. This would merely show a misunderstanding of Thomas rather than a complete denial of the doctrine all together. What is odd about Van Til’s understanding of analogy of being is that he thought it broke the distinction between God and creatures. This is a complete misunderstanding of analogy of being as it relates to Thomas in that it sought to show a very qualified similarity between God and creatures without violating the distinction. By definition this is the case, and to say it isn’t implements a straw man fallacy. What would in fact break down the distinction would be to utilize a univocal understanding of God and creation or adopt an equivocal view. Van Til seemed to have two different meanings of “analogy” when talking about God. That we shouldn’t talk about the relation between God and creation by way of Thomistic analogy and that analogy of “knowledge,” which Oliphint breaks down for us in a footnote in Van Til’s “The Defense of the Faith”, is how we should view analogy as it relates to God. First we will quote Van Til and then Oliphint’s footnote:

All of this may again be expressed from another point of view by saying that human knowledge is analogical of divine knowledge.

Til, Cornelius Van. “The Christian Philosophy of Knowledge.” The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., Presbyterian and Reformed, Philadephia, 1955, p. 62.

Here is Oliphint’s footnote aforementioned on the above statement from Van Til:

Van Til’s notion of “analogy” or “analogical,” as it applies to knowledge and to predication, is central to his theology and apologetic. Though the term itself is confusing, in that it carries with it a host of assumptions in Thomism, it should not be confused or in any way identified with Thomas’s understanding of analogy. Though for Thomas there was an analogy of being, for Van Til, the notion of analogy was meant to communicate the ontological and epistemological difference between God and man. The difference has been expressed historically in terms of an archetypal/ectypal relationship.

Til, Cornelius Van. “The Christian Philosophy of Knowledge.” The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., Presbyterian and Reformed, Philadephia, 1955, p. 62.

Why Van Til chose to use the terminology Thomas did is odd and even Oliphint notes this terminology as “confusing” since it is clearly a Thomistic term. This makes it quite concerning that Van Til would choose to reject the notion of analogy of being and replace it with his own, confusing definition of “analogy” even if what he meant wasn’t necessary incorrect. This phraseology is not helpful.

Conclusion

These are just some quick points laid out of inconsistencies I see in Van Tillian theology. This does not mean I’m abandoning all that position. But I will not jump on the “presup” band wagon and try to remain objective. Van Til was a product of his day and it seems to bleed through sometimes in a negative way. I have come back to the “presup” position with new eyes having studied more historical theology and theology proper. I’ve been able to look at the position and go, “no that doesn’t work” for some things. But I can do so without throwing out the position entirely. I refuse to commit the genetic fallacy of rejecting “presup” because it came from Van Til or because Van Til was allegedly an idealist. This argumentation is not sound. But, like we do when we critique Aquinas while keeping the gems he taught, we should be willing to critique the Van Tillian camp even if it makes us fall out with the “cool kids club.”

– Daniel Vincent (thanks for those from the team who assisted with reviewing and editing this article)

Mormonism and The Denial of Classical Theism

I to give credit to those on The Particular Baptist team that helped me with this article with recommendations and edits.

With my deeper dive into theology proper and historical theology it has opened up considerations I have not taken into account before. In this case, with Mormonism’s theism and how this topic was dealt with by Joesph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church. That is not to say I did not have a problem with Mormonism’s theism before, but with a stronger knowledge of God and historical theology has led to “Aha!” moments. The dots connect so to speak. It may surprise you to find that classical (i.e. biblical) theism is specifically dealt with in Mormon teaching. I know it did me. It makes for an intriguing study.

Classical theism, to those who may be new to this discussion, claims in its most basic form that God is simple (not composed of parts) and is therefore not actuated by anything outside of Himself. He just “is,” He is impassible (meaning God does not suffer or is acted upon ergo is not moved to anger, love, etc.), and is immutable (he does not change). There are other implications, but these are core tenets. This is contrasted, for instance, by “open theism” which sees God as mutable, passible, and creaturely. The purpose of this article is not to defend classical theism per se. We have defended classical theism in other places (such as in this podcast episode). But for the purposes of this article, it is important to know that classical theism represents the historical Christian position on the nature of God (hence its namesake, “classical”). As we will see, Joseph Smith’s rejection of this doctrine put him and his followers outside of the “catholic” (meaning, in this case, universal) church. In addition, this article is not an exhaustive treatment of Joseph Smith’s theology proper but looking at different aspects of it that he taught over the years. The quotations of Joseph Smith’s theology in this article are from a book put out by their church historian at the time, Joseph Fielding Smith (not to be confused with the Church’s founder), who was also the Church’s tenth president. The book is titled, “Teachings of The Prophet Joseph Smith.” I also quote from the Church’s website, making all my material quoted from the Mormon point of view (whether from the Church’s founder or from broader Mormonism primary sources). Let us begin.

That without body, parts and passions is nothing. There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones…We came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the celestial kingdom. The great principle of happiness consists in having a body. The devil has no body, and herein is his punishment.

Smith, Joseph Fielding. “Section Four.” Teachings Of The Prophet Joseph Smith, Deseret Book Company, 1976, p. 181.

The title of this section in the quoted work is, “Observation on the Sectarian God”. Smith knew that the God of historical Christianity is without body, parts, or passions. Given he came from a Presbyterian background, this should be hardly surprising. He probably knew the Westminster Confession of Faith quite well. It is also important to note that the time that Smith found himself in was one where people had trouble knowing what church to join, at least in the area of western New York where Smith resided. There were also people who were “unchurched” or segregated from mainline churches. See below from the Church’s website:

As more and more Americans crossed the Catskill and Adirondack mountains to settle in the Finger Lakes area of western New York, they tended to lose contact with established churches in their former homes. These “unchurched” settlers worried religious leaders of the main denominations, principally the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, who established proselyting programs for their disadvantaged brothers in the West…Farmington (later Manchester township) was one of several settlements in its district affected by this religious enthusiasm. In later years Lucy Mack Smith remembered it as “a great revival in religion, which extended to all the denominations of Christians in the surrounding country in which we resided. Many of the world’s people, becoming concerned about the salvation of their souls, came forward and presented themselves as seekers after religion.”6 Most folks wanted to join some church but were undecided on which one to adopt. The Prophet Joseph recalled that about two years after they moved to the farm there was “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people” (Joseph Smith—History 1:5)

“The First Vision.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Intellectual Reserve, Inc., https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/manual/church-history-in-the-fulness-of-times/chapter-three?lang=eng.

It really should not be any wonder that Smith would fall into heretical doctrine since he probably was not well-versed in historical and biblical Christianity, given the culture he found himself in. This provides us what I think is key context for understanding Smith’s sharp deviation from orthodoxy. Now, to the discussion of God that Smith was against, this is the God that is not creaturely, composed of parts (simple), and passionate. Smith was in direct opposition to historical Christianity at this point, pitting himself against the ecumenical creeds of the Christian church that taught these principles. This is confirmed by the LDS Church’s own source material which discusses Smith’s engagement with classical theism of his day.

The earliest Latter-day Saints came from a society dominated by English-speaking Protestants, most of whom accepted both ex nihilo creation and the Westminster Confession’s definition of God as a being “without body, parts, or passions.”23 They likely knew little or nothing about the diversity of Christian beliefs in the first centuries after Jesus Christ’s ministry or about early Christian writings on deification. But revelations received by Joseph Smith diverged from the prevailing ideas of the time and taught doctrine that, for some, reopened debates on the nature of God, creation, and humankind.

“Becoming Like God.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Intellectual Reserve, Inc , https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/becoming-like-god?lang=eng.

As we can see, Smith’s opposition was directly against the predominant view of God at the time — among English-speaking Protestants at least. The Church even references the Westminster Confession of Faith’s definition of God’s essence (at least in part). It is interesting that the LDS Church claims that there is this diversity in the beliefs of the Protestant Church early on. While there was not some kind of complete monolithic understanding of God, there were core principles that were agreed on by those who were orthodox. The Council of Nicea in the 4th century concreted the Son’s ontological unity to the Father as opposed to Arius et al who taught Jesus was a creature of the Father, albeit higher than the rest of His creation. Athanatius’ later work bringing out Nicean theology greater shows implications of this ecumenical understanding of God, not to mention the work of the Cappadocian fathers on God that came after Nicea. Matthew Barrett of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary notes:

In the decades after Nicea, Athanasius would not be alone in his appeal to simplicity in the Trinity. Three theologians from Cappadocia offered support: Gregory of Nysa, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nazianzus. For the Cappadocians, affirming simplicity in the Trinity not only meant the persons held the essence in common. It meant more: the persons were consubstantial with one another because they were one in will and power.

Barrett, Matthew. “How Did We Drift Away?” Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit, Baker Books, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, 2021, p. 56.

And Nicea was by no means creating doctrine as they went along, but were following in the footsteps of those who had come before. For instance, James Dolezal points out that we see this even as far back as Irenaeus, who was a 2nd century theologian:

The second-century pastor and apologist Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-202) in his famous work Against Heresies appeals to divine simplicity in order to prove to certain Greek emanationists that God neither exhibited passions nor underwent a mental alternation in the creation of the world…

Dolezal, James E. “Simple God.” All That Is In God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 2017, p. 50.

We then have the Council of Constantinople in 381, which is where the Nicean Creed was birthed from, with the Council affirming Nicean theology in line with Athanasius (Barrett, 64). This creed was then considered binding across the church, not just in the West but in the East as well. Barrett again:

The fathers are claiming, in other words, that this Trinity they confess is none other than the Trinity of the Scriptures, the same Scriptures penned by the apostles. For that reason, the creed carries authority in the church, and not just the church of the fourth century but the church universal, across all lands and spanning all eras, East and West.

Barrett, Matthew. “How Did We Drift Away?” Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit, Baker Books, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, 2021, p. 65.

So while there was some diversity on the nature of God in the early church, it is important to note that God’s simplicity and aseity (that have to do with Him being without parts or body) were agreed upon among the orthodox at the very least, East and West. This is not to even mention the Council of Chalcedon which would deal with the Incarnation specifically and was directly related to Constantinople and Nicea. The article from the Church also mentions that those 19th century Protestants would probably have had little or no knowledge of “diversity” of thought among the early church as if they were simply ignorant and not making an informed decision, which I think would by and large be untrue given the rich heritage that the Westminster came from in the 17th century and its direct line from the early church itself. Notice what Arnold says:

Ultimately, the response of the pre-Restoration Establishment – an Establishment which included many who later would be rejected – remained clear and concise through this iteration of the trinitarian controversy. Even the Laudian regime issued a canon against Socinianism. These theologians built their response on the traditional view of the Trinity as established in the three creeds followed by the Church of England: the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed…the Independents were in harmony with the Establishment when, in the Savoy Declaration (1658), they declared that ‘Doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our Communion with God, and comfortable Dependance upon him’.

Arnold, Jonathan W. “The Godhead.” The Reformed Theology of Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), Regent’s Park College, Oxford, 2013, p. 78.

Keep in mind that the Westminster came about in the 1640s prior to the Savoy Declaration and the Declaration was based on, at least in part, the Westminster. There is different language on the doctrine of God, but it does not contradict it. So if the Savoy was based off the Westminster and the Savoy was following the vein as found in the early church creeds listed in Arnold’s work on Keach that talk about the nature of God, then I think it is unlikely that those during the time of Smith who held to the Westminster’s understanding of God would not have known history surrounding their confession, given said Confession follows the same tradition as the Savoy. It is too simplistic to say that they were merely ignorant. Now, we move onto some astounding words from Joseph Smith.

God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible, – I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form – like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with him, as one man talks and communes with another. In order to understand the subject of the dead, for consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how he came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take way the veil, so that you may see.

Smith, Joseph Fielding. “Section Six.” Teachings Of The Prophet Joseph Smith, Deseret Book Company, 1976, p. 345.

This is a flat out denial of historical, orthodox theology proper. God is made out to be no more than a “super human.” He upholds the world with his power, but he is a man, like us. This plays into what Smith had noted earlier that a being without body, parts, passions is nothing. In his mind, God MUST be like us if he is to be SOMETHING at all. Ergo the only conclusion that Smith comes to is that God must be creaturely. He must be a human body. There is no real creator/creature distinction here: the distinction that if God is the creator of all things, then it must necessitate that everything outside of God must be ontologically distinct from Him. There is no way that this view could be held consistently within this view of a “creaturely” God that Smith created in his mind. We will come back to the discussion of creation here in a bit as Smith addresses it directly. For now, Smith believed and asserted that God is creaturely for various reasons, such as Adam talked with God like you and I would talk — ergo he must be a human body. If God is a human body (even if a “super human”), then it begs the question of who came before God? Is there a supreme being that IS NOT creaturely in Smith’s mind? What about the clear teaching of Scripture (such as Romans 11:36) that teaches God is first cause of all things thereby leaving no room whatsoever for there be anything creaturely in God, as this would necessitate someone above God causing God to be? Smith, in his rejection of over 1,000 years of church teaching, not to mention the Scriptures themselves, created a conundrum on a metaphysical and epistemological level. How can Smith’s God account for anything at all? How can his God really uphold all that there is given he is creaturely and therefore dependent upon outside forces (i.e. his own bodily functions) to be? Smith expressly denies, in the above reference, any notion of eternality in God and treats it as false teaching. The only conclusion that can be made from this assertion is that his God is bound by time. Smith is going after biblical and historical orthodoxy and planting himself outside of Christianity. God’s eternality as found in Scripture (the Bible) leaves us with a timeless being who must be outside of it given his role as the Creator of all things that exist (which would include time by necessity). This removes all change of God since he is not moving along a timeline from one state of being to another as in the category of creatures. The Scriptures remove God from being creaturely in any way (for instance see Psalm 102:25-27). Change is only ascribed to that which is creaturely in this set of verses while God is distinct and remains unchanging. God MUST be outside of His creation, or He would bound to it, or we compromise God’s very distinguished role as Creator as the first cause. This rejection led Smith to believing God became God at some point in time (“in time” is key here since there is no eternality in his mind as Scripture teaches). Smith, by toying with God’s eternality, created a God that was just like him albeit more powerful. This is really no better than a god found in a Greek pantheon of gods: powerful, yet creature. We then look at another error of Smith’s, this time regarding creation.

You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing; and they will answer, “Doesn’t the Bible say He created the world?” And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. Now, the word create came from the word baurau which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence, we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos – chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time he had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning, and can have no end.

Smith, Joseph Fielding. “Section Six.” Teachings Of The Prophet Joseph Smith, Deseret Book Company, 1976, p. 350-352

Here we see explicit denial, by Smith, of creation ex nihilo or “out of nothing”. The book above also has a very long footnote trying to establish the credibility of Smith’s beliefs by citing some “scholars” (some of whom who are from the post-Enlightenment period at least). It seems clear that those cited are not believers in classical theism or of the historical (and biblical) understanding of the doctrine of creation, which speaks to their conclusions about what “create” means. Smith clearly holds to a view that sees some kind of matter as existing alongside God that was then used by God to create the world. If “create” merely means to “form” something (which would mean to be the efficient cause of something and maybe it could be argued the “material cause”) out of what is already there, then we have solved the age of mystery of Creation. However, when studying Scripture (the Bible) we see a very different picture of Creation. Creation ex nihilo is such because the Scriptures teach that God created ALL things (John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:16, Romans 11:36). Matter, given it is not God itself, must thereby come from God, being brought into existence by Him and cannot be equal in terms of its duration of existence. This would give something that is not God the divine essence as eternality (timelessness) is proper to God alone. Therefore, God is not working with some “eternal” matter that God then “forms” or “creates” the world with. Smith seems to have a misunderstanding of creation ex nihilo as historically understood. To begin, Barcellos notes:

Ex nihilo refers to the bringing into existence of being that had no being without change in the Being who brought what was not in being into being. God is productive of things but did not first produce things from things. Creation ex nihilo has not material cause…Ex nihilo does not mean creation from nothing absolutely, for from nothing can come nothing…God brings things into being though not from things in being (i.e. creatures).

Barcellos, Richard C. “Relevant Issues.” Trinity & Creation: A Scriptural and Confessional Account, Resource Publications, Eugene, OR, 2020, pp. 37–38.

God brings things into being and existence, not that they did so spontaneously without a cause as if there was no God, but their existence is grounded in God as being “from Him” (Romans 11:36). This establishes creation ex nihilo. It is also important to note that in the Reformed tradition, at least with the 2nd London Baptist Confession of 1677, it has been understood that there is a difference between “create” and “make”. Notice Barcellos again,

Notice the words “create or make” in 2LCF. These are not necessarily synonymous terms. The word “create” can refer to the production of being or matter and the word “make” can refer to the formation of created matter. This reflects Genesis 2:3, where we read, “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (emphasis added)…To “create” implies “from nothing” and to “make” means to form from something.

Barcellos, Richard C. “Relevant Issues.” Trinity & Creation: A Scriptural and Confessional Account, Resource Publications, Eugene, OR, 2020, p. 39.

This points to the two step approach to creation found among Christians as it relates to creation. Richard Muller notes:

referring to the divine creation of the world not of preexistent and therefore eternal materials but out of nothing. This view is normative for Christian theology and is consonant with the theory of a two-stage creation, i.e., (1) of the material substratum of things and (2) of actual things by the informing or imparting of form to matter.

Muller, Richard A. “Ex Nihilo .” Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally From Protestant Scholastic Theology, 2nd Edition ed., Baker Academic, 2017, p. 112.

God creates existence without any pre-existing material but then (logically, not actually in terms of sequence to remote change in God) forms the matter he brought into existence. Muller again:

The Protestant scholastics allow the maxim Ex nihilo nihil fit as representing the limit of natural reason and as supplemented without contradiction by the truth of the doctrine of the divine creatio (q.v.): no finite creature can create from nothing. The ens perfectissimum (q.v.), God, who is ens (q.v.) in an absolute sense, is without analogy in the finite order and therefore transcends rather than contradicts the results of human reason. As ens perfectissimum, God can give being to the finite order and is therefore the single exception to the rule. In addition, the maxim does not claim Ex nihilo nihil creatur, Nothing is created out of nothing, but only Ex nihilo nihil generatur, Nothing is produced out of nothing. Christian doctrine never claims that nothing or nothingness is a positive source or ground of something but says only that God creates out of nothing or, in other words, creates all of existence, including the material substratum (see materia prima).

Muller, Richard A. “Ex Nihilo .” Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally From Protestant Scholastic Theology, 2nd Edition ed., Baker Academic, 2017, p. 113.

God, as existence itself absolutely, is categorically different than creation and does not fall into the rule that finite beings cannot create from nothing. However, given God is simple, immutable, and pure act, He can and must be able to do this. If God needed material to form the world, He would be dependent upon something outside Himself to actuate states of being within Him (in this case, to make the world). This makes God dependent upon matter and is therefore not supreme but contingent and mutable. This flies in the face of biblical revelation of God’s being and necessitates a God who gains existence from that which is not God. We then have to find the First Cause beyond God and we are back to creation out of nothing. When one is not contingent by nature, infinite power is at their fingertips giving them the ability to actuate existence from nothing. This seems to be along the lines of the Reformer and scholastic Francis Turretin.

One who is existence can give existence to whom they please. All of this leads to the conclusion that Smith has seemed to have conflated these terms (create and make) which had been distinguished in history. Should he have known this? Probably not given the historical reality he found himself in, as we have noted. But this does not diminish the fact he introduced an egregious error. Having a consistent hermeneutic that did not see problems in the Scriptures and that utilizes the “analogy of faith” that Scripture should clarify Scripture would’ve prevented Smith from falling into this trap of seeing the divine, trinitarian act of creation as ex nihilo as anything but problematic. Having proper knowledge of historical Christianity would have helped, too, which it seems he did not have. If he had a theology proper that consistently saw God as being the creator of all things, he would have concluded that matter, in any sense, would need to be brought into existence by God in order to be formed into everything else. This helps us maintain the creator/creature distinction while explaining, as best we can, how everything came to be.

Joseph Smith was a blight. He challenged not only biblical authority (by introducing his own “scriptures”) but challenged settled, Christian orthodoxy as found in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. His religion and erroneous teachings about his god were not found in Scripture, but in the pagan challenges of an American boy (he was 14 at the alleged First Vision) that were fed likely by a lack of sound theology.

– Daniel Vincent

Athanasius and the Arians: A Commentary

I’m currently working my way through John Behr’s book, “The Nicean Faith”. This is a very helpful work that goes into depth of theological and historical events surrounding and involved in the Council of Nicea. This article is really just from me reading and then writing down thoughts I have from my reading. Hope it is helpful.

The basis of Athanasius’ argument against those whom he calls “Arians” is exegetical: he claims that they have not properly understood the scriptural texts that they cite in support of their contention that the Son is a creature. Several times, during the course of examining the disputed texts, Athanasius turns to the principles of exegesis and the elements of the text that should be taken into account, following what any student would have learnt from his grammatikos.

John Behr, The Nicene Faith, Part 1 & 2, vol. 2, The Formation of Christian Theology (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 208.

This section is very interesting. Behr notes the foundation of Athanasius’s push against the Arians is indeed Scripture. Sure, there was philosophical language adopted by the Nicean council (hypostasis and homoousious being at least two examples of this) that were not expressly found in Scripture, but this great church father wanted to ensure that his arguments were not based on philosophical assumptions as helpful as those assumptions may be. He saw this issue as to who Christ is as one that should be settled by going to the authoritative Scriptures. This, at the very least, bears seeds of sola scriptura that would be a large part of the Reformation hundreds of years later. Behr even goes on to discuss the hermeneutical methodology employed by Athanasius.

As both Athanasius and those whom he called “Arians” agreed that the referent of the text of Scripture is the Word of God, the brunt of Athanasius’ argument against his opponents falls upon his claim that Scripture speaks throughout of Jesus Christ, himself the Word of God, and does so in a twofold fashion. As Athanasius sees it, by failing to differentiate how or under what “aspect” any given text of Scripture speaks of Jesus Christ, the “Arians” have conflated theology and economy and have so ended up with an intermediary being, their Word, who is himself subject to time (or at least subsequent to God), even if begotten before our time. Athanasius, on the other hand, by distinguishing what is spoken of Christ as he is from what belongs to what he has done, the economy, can maintain that the abiding, timeless, subject of theological reflection is Jesus Christ, who has himself acted in time for us.

John Behr, The Nicene Faith, Part 1 & 2, vol. 2, The Formation of Christian Theology (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 213–214.

There is an interesting distinction between the “Arians” and Athanasius: while they both held to Scripture as God’s Word, only one party held to a view of Scripture that did not allow for extra biblical language. The Arians did not like homoousious and such language since it was not a term found in Scripture. Francis Turretin notes:

The Arians, Sabellians and other anti-Trinitarians pressed this against the orthodox in their day—that the names ousias, homoousios, hypostaseōs, etc. did not occur in the Scriptures and so ought not to be admitted in the church.

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 257–258.

This extra-biblical language assisted in the description of biblical truth and was not seen as contrary to it. However, the Arians did not hold to such things. They gawked at the idea that anything not expressly found in Scripture could be introduced into the church’s vocabulary. This means that they denied, at least when it came to Christ, good and necessary consequence that flows from what is expressly written in the Scriptures. Contrary to this, we see the tradition of Nicea being carried down through the medieval time period into he Reformation. Among the Reformed there was the strong belief that what flowed from the express Scripture was also to be upheld. Both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1677 London Baptist Confession of Faith in chapter 1, paragraph 6 teach this concept, seemingly following along the same lines of the early church in their hermeneutic.

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture

1677 London Baptist Confession of Faith Chapter 1, Paragraph 6

I think the 1677 LBCF does a better job of communicating the principle of good and necessary consequence. It does not just teach that what necessarily flows from express Scriptures is good or helpful but actually says its “contained” in the Scriptures themselves. This is very important. The Westminster carries the same sentiment, but I do not think communicates this as clearly:

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture

Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 1, Paragraph 6

This is clear evidence of the identification of these Reformed groups with the “catholic” church on core doctrine and biblical interpretation and not redefining such things.

When therefore the theologians [i.e., the evangelists] who speak of him say that he ate and drank and was born, know that the body, as body, was born, and was nourished on suitable food; but that he, God the Word united with the body (αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ συνὼν τῷ σώματι θεὸς λόγος), orders the universe, and through his actions in the body made known that he himself was not a man but God the Word. But these things are said of him (λέγεται δὲ περὶ αὐτοῦ), because the body which ate and was born and suffered was no one else’s but the Lord’s; and since he became man, it was right for these things to be said [of him] as concerning man (ὡς περὶ ἀνθρώπου λέγεσθαι), that he might be shown to have a true, not an unreal, body. And as, from these things, he was known to be bodily present, so by the works he did through the body he made himself known to be the Son of God. (Inc. 18)
Athanasius appears to be claiming that it is the body itself that ate, was born, and suffered, as if the body were a second subject alongside the Word who dwells in it. But, as with his treatment of partitive exgesis, where two subjects also seemed to be implied, closer examination shows that the primary concern for Athanasius is the unity of the one subject, about whom, nevertheless, various things are said in two distinct categories. His point is that, the Word having become man, what happens to the body is properly “said of him”; these things are said of no other, for the body belonged to no one else but the Word.

John Behr, The Nicene Faith, Part 1 & 2, vol. 2, The Formation of Christian Theology (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 217–218.

This is very advanced Christology given that creed of Chalcedon would not be ratified until 451, almost 100 years after the death of Athanasius. You can see even the seeds of the unity of the divine and human natures of Christ in the person of the Word. This is not to say that there was monolithic grasping of this Christology as seen clearly from the dissenting Arians, but this would be the principles found in orthodoxy later on. Even Athanasius would have what I would call less than helpful language to describe “suffering” as it relates to the Incarnation (although he did maintain that the Word was impassible while the human nature was not). Nevertheless, the distinction of Christ’s two natures and their unity around the one person of Christ is there. This is also seen in the fact that Athanasius was using partitive exegesis to see how the Scriptures were talking about Christ. Scott Swain notes what this type of exegesis is:

“Partitive exegesis” refers to the practice of ascribing both divine and human natures, actions, and sufferings from scriptural accounts of Jesus’s life to a single personal subject, the second person of the Trinity. Though his divine and human natures account for how Jesus did and suffered what he did and suffered (i.e., as God and man), they do not account for who it is who did and suffered what Jesus did and suffered. Partitive exegesis, as an exegetical practice, is a way of observing that, in all of his doings and sufferings, we are dealing with one personal subject, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity incarnate.

Swain, Scott. “Trinitarian Personalism and Christian Preaching.” Reformed Blogmatics, 30 Sept. 2019, https://www.scottrswain.com/2019/09/27/trinitarian-personalism-and-christian-preaching/.

This exegesis requires a specific hermeneutic to look at how the text of Scripture is be interpreted relating to Incarnation. And given that this exegesis is specific, it indicates the advanced Christology that was in the 4th century and that Athanasius didn’t come to this by accident, but was working with an intentional approach to the text. This should be a lesson to us, that we should read Scripture as the early church did. Seeing these truths as flowing from good and necessary consequence means they utilized conclusions not expressly found in the text. The real division between the human nature of Christ and and the divine is not found in so many words in the text, but flows naturally from what it does say clearly about both natures. There is only one person namely the Son (who just is a certain mode of existence of the divine essence) brought out in the Scriptures, not multiple personalities. And as the Scriptures in John 1:14, the Word became flesh. The Son, as divine, did not change into a human being as this would violate the nature of God (Malachi 3:6). He assumed human flesh, uniting the nature the human through the unique subsistence of the Son thereby uniting the two natures in the person of the Son.

…the only necessary consequent of this assumption of the human nature, or the incarnation of the Son of God, is the personal union of Christ, or the inseparable subsistence of the assumed nature in the person of the Son.

Vidu, Adonis. “The Incarnation of the Son Alone.” The Same God Who Works All Things: Inseparable Operations in Trinitarian Theology, William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2021, p. 165. (quoting John Owen’s work, The Holy Spirit)

Even Owen sees these concepts as “necessary consequent” of the assumption of Christ as found in Scripture. Owen then in turn is following in the “catholic” church’s hermeneutic utilizing partitive exegesis in describing the Incarnation. This shows yet again the clear identification of the Reformed with the orthodox and their desire to retrieve that which came before and not invent new doctrines or methods.

– Daniel Vincent

Confessing Simplicity Isn’t Enough

Can you spot the irony in the quote below?

“He begot an only begotten Son before aeonian times (γεννήσαντα υἱὸν μονογενῆ πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων), through whom he also made the aeons and everything, begetting him not just in appearance but in truth, giving him existence by his own will, unchangeable and unalterable, a perfect creature of God (ὑποστήσαντα ἰδίῳ θελήματι, ἄτρεπτον καὶ ἀναλλοίωτον, κτίσμα τοῦ θεοῦ τέλειον), but not as one of the creatures, an offspring (γέννημα), but not as one of the offsprings; nor is the Father’s offspring an emanation (προβολήν), as Valentinus taught; nor is the offspring a consubstantial part (μέρος ὀμοούσιον) of the Father, as Mani presented him; nor as Sabellius said, dividing the monad, a “son-father” (υἱοπατόρα); nor as did Hieracas, who spoke of a lamp from a lamp or as it were a torch divided in two; nor do we hold that the one who was previously was later begotten or created as Son (οὐδὲ τὸν ὄντα πρότερον, ὕστερον γεννηθέντα ἢ ἐπικτισθέντα εἰς υἱόν), even as you, blessed Pope, used often in the midst of the church and council to reject those who introduced these ideas. Rather, as we said, he was created by the will of God before times and before ages, and received life and being from the Father, and the glories, since he gave him existence alongside himself (συνυποστήσαντος αὐτῷ τοῦ πατρός). For the Father, having given him the inheritance of all things, did not deprive himself of that which he possesses unoriginatedly (ἀγεννήτως) in himself; for he is the source of all things. Thus there are three hypostases. God, the cause of all things, is supremely alone without beginning (ἄναρχος μονώτατος), while the Son, having been begotten timelessly (ἀχρόνως γεννηθεὶς) by the Father, and created and established before the aeons, was not before he was begotten (οὐκ ἦν πρὸ τοῦ γεννηθῆναι), but, begotten timelessly before all else, was alone given existence by the Father (μόνος ὑπὸ τοῦ πατρὸς ὑπέστη). For he is not eternal or coeternal or counbegotten with the Father, nor does he have being together with the Father, as some people speak of things being in relationship, thus introducing two ingenerate principles. Rather, as the monad and principle of all things, God is thus before all things. He is also therefore before the Son, as we learned from you when you were preaching in church. As therefore it is from God that he has being, glories and life, and all things have been handed over to him, in this way God is his cause (ἀρχή). For he, as his God and being before him, rules (ἄρχει) him. And if the words “from him,” [Rom 11:36] and “from the womb” [Ps 109:3 LXX] and “I have come forth from the Father and am here” [Jn 16:28] are taken by some to mean that he is a consubstantial part of him, and as an emanation, then the Father will be composite, divisible, and changeable, and will, according to them, experience having a body and, insofar as they can arrange it, what is consequent to having a body, he who is God incorporeal.”

John Behr, The Nicene Faith, Part 1 & 2, vol. 2, The Formation of Christian Theology (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 136–137 (emphasis added).

This lengthy quote is from Arius, the notorious heretic who denied that Jesus was one in substance with the Father. I wanted to provide the entire passage from John Behr’s, “The Nicean Faith” to show context. Notice the last section, “…some to mean that he is a consubstantial part of him, and as an emanation, then the Father will be composite, divisible, and changeable, and will, according to them, experience having a body and, insofar as they can arrange it, what is consequent to having a body, he who is God incorporeal”. Arius is utilizing language of divine simplicity (and even immutability). He asserts that the Father (as understood by Arius) can’t be divided. It is clear that Arius thought if the Son was God, then this would compromise the doctrine of God’s unity. He didn’t grasp the concept of relational distinction which would have solved this problem, but instead thought the Son was a creature. Behr notes,

“In his positive assertions, particularly striking is the variety of ways in which Arius describes the relationship of the Son to the Father, using images which go back to Wisdom’s description of her origins in Prov 8:22–25: “The Lord created (ἔκτισεν) me at the beginning of his work … I was established (ἐθεμελίωσεν) … before the hills he begets (γεννᾷ) me.” Such descriptions are taken, by Arius, to apply univocally to the Son himself (rather than as divine or as human), though in a manner incomparable with others. Thus, Arius is clear that the Son can be spoken of as a creature, a “perfect creature of God,” yet “not as one of the creatures,” for the Son alone was given existence by God, while all other things were brought into existence through the Son. Similarly the Son can be called an “offspring,” but again, “not as one of the [other] offsprings” mentioned in Scripture…”

John Behr, The Nicene Faith, Part 1 & 2, vol. 2, The Formation of Christian Theology (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 138.

Arius’s confession of simplicity goes to show that confessing the doctrine isn’t enough. As heretical as he was, this fundamental truth about God was not compromised by him. Yet, the implications of this crucial doctrine were not worked out. We need to work out the implications of simplicity in order to remain in line with the doctrine as laid out in Scripture. This article is not meant to defend this doctrine. We’ve done that before, and I’d recommend listening to this episode from our podcast with Dr. James Dolezal. Now, when I say we need to work out the implications, I’m not saying we need to work out every implication about this doctrine in this life. That’s impossible as that would mean we would be able to grasp God perfectly. But we should work to know our God and have an orthodox understanding of the doctrine beyond just simply saying, “I believe in divine simplicity”. The more we know of our God, not only will we learn how to worship Him better, but it will help keep us from error about God. If one says they believe that God is not composed of parts, but then turns around and says that God’s attributes are really different in God, then you have to wonder if they really believe the doctrine they claim to hold to. Being consistent with what we claim to believe must be our goal.

– Daniel Vincent

Every Good and Perfect Gift

Thanks to The Particular Baptist team for their edits and recommendations for this article.

As Christians, we are truly blessed. Not only have we been given the gift of Christ but we have inherited blessings from God that ensure we have everything that we need.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…

Ephesians 1:3

Paul opens up the book of Ephesians with praise, praise for what God has done for His people. Those who have been united with Christ by faith alone. They have given their lives to follow the King and that leads them to receive these blessings from above. This concept of being “in Christ” is covenantal in purpose. We are united to the federal head of the New Covenant when we believe by faith in Christ, just like Romans 5 teaches that we were in Adam before being saved (covenantally united to him as the federal head of the human race). This means that we receive all the benefits that come from the federal head of that covenant: in this case, Christ. And in Adam’s case, it was death and sin being an adverse “gifting” to his posterity.

What does this have to do with us receiving the spiritual blessings? We are united to Christ, thereby being “in Christ”. This means that we receive all those blessings from God. Not some. All. Every spiritual blessing is ours for the taking. Some of these are listed out in 1 Corinthians 1:30 where it says, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption…”

Being united to Christ means that His righteousness, the righteousness that came from His perfect life lived and His death, is ours. Redemption that comes from His death is ours. We have all that we need being united to Jesus as the mediator of the New Covenant. There are no works to add, no baptisms to perform that regenerate, no rituals to pass through, but all we need is in Christ. Let us rejoice in this promise as we continue to walk in our Christian lives. We will see our King because of His righteousness, part of “every spiritual blessing.”

Clarification on James White

Clarification for this article is found in this podcast episode from The Particular Baptist Podcast. Ensure to listen to this episode in its entirety after reading this article: Three Centers of Consciousness? James White and the Doctrine of God

A recent post from our Twitter and Facebook pages sparked controversy, as these types of things tend to do. I had posted the announcement of James White becoming a faculty member at Grace Baptist Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. The headline caught people’s attention, “Those with a bad doctrine of God tend to hang together.” This prompted blowback but also questions about what the issue was with White’s doctrine of God. James White has quite the dedicated following which is, I think, what provoked the responses we received. There was even a comment that said of James White, and I quote, “His theology is above reproach.” This type of response I think characterizes the pedestal that he has been placed on over the years (for better or for worse). This is not meant to be an exhaustive review of his theology proper (aka the doctrine of God), but one aspect of it that is indeed troubling. It is also not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of theology proper in general, but I hope that it will whet the appetite of those who are learning that they may study this issue more. I want to emphasize that this article is directed to those who are learning and may not be aware of the issues as it relates to the doctrine of God. This is not an article directed at White. As such, the tone of the article will be different than if I was addressing him directly or writing a dedicated critique of his theology proper. I have learned much from White and I think there is much that can be used of him, but the doctrine of God is foundational and if there is a doubling down in bad theology proper in light of being corrected more than once, I believe there is cause for sharp rebuke. Finally, for those who wish to study more on the doctrine of God (and I urge you to), I will list resources for further study at the end of the article.

Let us go back 10 years to 2011 (wow, that was 10 years ago?) where James White participated in a debate with Roger Perkins on the doctrine of the Trinity. Perkins argued against the Trinity while White attempted to argue in the affirmative. The title was called “The Trinity Debate” and it can be found below. During a Q&A session (starting at the 2-hour mark) James White is asked by Perkins, “…does each divine individual in the Trinity possess their own separate mind or center of consciousness apart from the other two divine Persons?” James White then responds, “That’s how they recognize each other and interact with each other…” Perkins did push him later to see if James believed in a “three-minded God,” which he denied because human language is used to describe what is being discussed. At the very least, James affirms that God has “three centers of consciousness”.

This thinking seems fine as far as it goes. Jesus interacts with the Father. He was with the Father (John 1:1). James even discusses in his opening statement Jesus talking with the Father in John 17 so it would appear that Jesus is a separate consciousness from the Father and, by implication, the Holy Spirit if He is able to interact, love, talk, etc. with the other two Persons. However, words do have implications and if implications are left unchecked, it can lead to problematic interpretations, and this is no less true of the Scriptures. I want to look at three things:

  1. What are the implications for saying God has “three centers of consciousness”?
  2. Is this a biblical assertion?
  3. Do we see this as being historically orthodox?

Implications for a multi-conscience God

Saying God is multi-consciousness implies at the very least:

  1. God has multiple minds (contrary to what White asserted)
  2. God has multiple wills

If each one of these Persons can interact in a personal way with one another (according to White’s view) then there must be a consciousness that personal interaction is based on. This however, contrary to White’s assertion, does lead to a three-minded God. How does it make sense that these Persons can all have their own consciousness and interact, love, recognize each other, etc. but not have three minds? Doesn’t recognition require an act of the mind since it has to do with knowledge? White also asserted that there are three centers of consciousness since they “interact” with each other. But interaction, on the account of separate centers of consciousness, would require three wills in order for said Persons to be able to act on their own consciousness! If the Father can interact independently of the other two Persons, He has His own consciousness, then this must needs imply the Father has His own will distinct from the other two Persons. He is His own agent within the Godhead. This breaks the unity of the Godhead. Even having more than one consciousness itself makes God partite by virtue of an absolute property of God being multiplied. Instead of three relations subsisting as one being only distinguished by their operations (relations do not divide as per the nature of a relation) we now have a God who has three separate wills, centers of consciousness, and agency. God is no longer simple, but partite. We now have a God made of parts that is built upon things that are not in themselves God. Danger has come. Now this does not mean that the implications of White’s system are held expressly by him. He may deny that God has three wills just like he denies that God is three-minded, but without consistent qualifications you are left with the necessary implications of the system and therein lies the danger.

Is “three centers of consciousness” a biblical assertion?

Above all else when we talk about who God is, it must be maintained without compromise that God is one. We see this laid out expressly in the Pentateuch.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

Deuteronomy 6:4 (ESV)

This addresses at least two things about God’s nature: there is only one God numerically and that God is in complete unity. There are no parts of God, or it could not be properly said that God is “one” especially when the foundation of this “oneness” is the Tetragramaton or “I AM” which is found in Exodus 3:14. This declaration is none other than God existing in complete distinction from His creation in this existence that is of Himself. His nature is that which is self-existent without the need for anything or anyone outside of His essence. He just is.

No man is humanity as such, but God is divinity as such. Many theologians even conclude that God’s essential identity with His own existence is the ontological foundation of His name “I AM” (Ex. 3:14) …If God should be composed of parts—of components that were prior to Him in being—He would be doubly dependent: first, on the parts, and second, on the composer of the parts. But God is absolute in being, alone the sufficient reason for Himself and all other things, and so cannot in any respect derive His being from another. Because God cannot depend on what is not God in order to be God, theologians traditionally insist that all that is in God is God.

James Dolezal, All That Is in God

John Gill in his Bible commentary has beautiful things to say about Deuteronomy 6:4:

the doctrine of which is, that the Lord, who was the covenant God and Father of his people Israel, is but one Jehovah; he is Jehovah, the Being of beings, a self-existent Being, eternal and immutable; and he is but one in nature and essence; this appears from the perfection of his nature, his eternity, omnipotence, omnipresence, infinity, goodness, self-sufficiency, and perfection; for there can be but one eternal, one omnipotent, one omnipresent, one infinite, one that is originally and of himself good; one self, and all sufficient, and perfect Being; and which also may be concluded from his being the first cause of all things, which can be but one; and from his relations to his creatures, as their King, ruler, governor, and lawgiver.

John Gill, John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible, https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/deuteronomy-6-4.html

If God were composed of different parts making up a whole there would be something that is not God causing God to be. This undermines aseity, His “is-ness” so to speak. He would be dependent upon something greater than Himself since those things that compose Him are prior to Him and make Him to be. This flatly contradicts clear passages of Scripture on God’s independence from anything outside of Himself. For example,

For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:36 (ESV)

All things cannot be from one who has something/someone greater than Himself. It would only be some things at best since God would be a secondary cause, but He would not be the first cause of all things and even with some things coming from Him they would not ultimately be from Him. God Himself would be dependent. The Scripture asserts that all things come from God which by necessity means God cannot be anything other than the supreme, independent, self-sustaining being that created all things. This leaves out any notion that God could be composed of parts (or that He could change) since parts imply something greater than God, as was already discussed. Paul, earlier in the same chapter, discussed the omniscience of God, that there was no one who counseled Him. He knows all things by virtue of His supreme nature. He is the truly a se one.

Simplicity, therefore, protects us from thinking of God’s wisdom and knowledge as an idealized version of man’s knowledge. God does not know things because He came to know them through discovery and deduction. God knows all things because He knows Himself, and all things are from Him, through Him, and to Him.

Samuel Renihan, Deity & Decree, page 70

Simplicity is what implications of “three minds,” “centers of consciousness,” etc. violates. Some may say, “you are just borrowing from Aristotle or Greek philosophy.” No, this is the necessary implication as found in Scripture. If “A” is true as found in Scripture (that God is a se and the first cause of all things) then “B” must necessarily follow (that He cannot be partite). Ergo, He cannot have multiple wills, minds, or consciousness. This hermeneutic follows the principle as found in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith. The latter says it better when it notes,

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men.

2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith Chapter 1, paragraph 6 (emphasis mine)

Notice the language here. Not only is what is explicitly said in Scripture to be received but what is implied necessarily. This is a foundational piece in understanding how to interpret passages about God. If a concept of God’s nature necessarily follows what is expressly said, it is Scripture in as much as the concepts that follow are being taught there. John Owen notes this concept of necessary implications in Scripture in talking about the Trinity,

Wherefore, in the declaration of the doctrine of the Trinity, we may lawfully, nay, we must necessarily, make use of other words, phrases, and expressions, than what are literally and syllabically contained in the Scripture, but teach no other things. Moreover, whatever is so revealed in the Scripture is no less true and divine as to whatever necessarily follows thereon, than it is as unto that which is principally revealed and directly expressed.

John Owen, A Brief Declaration and Vindication of The Doctrine of the Trinity and also of The Person and Satisfaction of Christ

In fact, it was heretics who pressed against the idea of good and necessary consequence in the Scripture while the orthodox saw it as critical to the discussion. Turretin notes,

The Arians, Sabellians and other anti-Trinitarians pressed this against the orthodox in their day—that the names ousias, homoousios, hypostaseōs, etc. did not occur in the Scriptures and so ought not to be admitted in the church. Arius asks, “Why is the word, of which neither the prophets nor the apostles make mention, added to the apostolic faith?”

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Eclectic Theology

Homoousios, meaning of the same substance, was used by Nicea to show that the Son was really God and equal to Him by being of the same substance as the Father. Yet this word is nowhere to be found in Scripture explicitly. But the Nicean council saw this concept as the natural flow of special revelation and to deviate from this language of God was to follow in Arius’ footsteps. What the WCF and 2LBCF show is that they are following in the steps of the orthodox, Christian church going back long before Aquinas and the Reformed scholastics, identifying with Scripture. This is in perfect unison with sola scriptura, a pillar of the Reformation in Europe.

Three Centers of Consciousness Among the Orthodox?

I want to mention some church fathers that can help shed light on whether this idea of “centers of consciousness” would be held among the orthodox.

We have one God because there is a single Godhead. Though there are three objects of belief, they derive from the single whole and have reference to it. They do not have degrees of being God or degrees of priority over against one another. They are not sundered in will or divided in power. You cannot find there any of the properties inherent in things divisible. To express it succinctly, the Godhead exists undivided in beings divided.

Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ

Here we see clear testament to the unity of the Godhead. There is no division in being whatsoever. While there is distinction (a distinction that does not divide by virtue of the Persons being relations) in God by virtue of the Persons, there is no division in the being of God. There is one will, not three which would be created by three centers of consciousness that interact with one another.

I cannot conceive what manner of mind our opponents have, who pervert the truth, darken the light, divide the indivisible, rend the scatheless, dissolve the perfect unity. It may seem to them a light thing to tear up Perfection, to make laws for Omnipotence, to limit Infinity; as for me, the task of answering them fills me with anxiety; my brain whirls, my intellect is stunned, my very words must be a confession, not that I am weak of utterance, but that I am dumb.

Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity: Book II

This is a sobering passage. The doctrine of God was not to be trifled with and it was seen as a serious offense when deviation from orthodoxy was introduced into theology proper. But again, here we see a confession of the unity of God. It is a “perfect unity” one that if compromised undermines God himself.

He is a simple, uncompounded Being, without diverse members, and altogether like, and equal to Himself, since He is wholly understanding, and wholly spirit, and wholly thought, and wholly intelligence, and wholly reason, and wholly hearing, and wholly seeing, and wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good—even as the religious and pious are wont to speak concerning God.

Irenaeus of Lyons, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II.13.3, in The Apostolic Fathers—Justin Martyr—Irenaeus, vol. 1 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, trans. Ernest Cushing Richardson and Bernhard Pick (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903). as found in James Dolezal’s book All That is In God on pages 47 and 48 Kindle Edition.

Keep in mind that Irenaeus came long before Nicea, having lived in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. This points to the fact the absolute unity of God’s being was not something novel, but seen as being consistent with Scripture and taught very early on.

Now, you may say, “These fathers did not say anything expressly about three centers of consciousness. You are stretching their meaning.” I would point you again to the implications of saying God has these qualities. The implications, as has been demonstrated, violate the principles of a unified essence, not broken but simple, especially since White’s view leads inevitably to tritheism (although he would deny tritheism). That means the orthodox fathers would not have held to White’s view. Also, orthodox Christianity did not see the concept of “Persons” in God to be like human persons which would require their own consciousness, rather they saw them as “subsistences”. The Augsburg Confession of Faith in Article I lays this out very well,

Our Churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the Unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three Persons, is true and to be believed without any doubting; that is to say, there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God: eternal, without body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible; and yet there are three Persons, of the same essence and power, who also are coeternal, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And the term “Person” they use as the Fathers have used it, to signify, not a part or quality in another, but that which subsists of itself.

Augsburg Confession of Faith, Article I

You can see in the last sentence that “Person” is not according to human understanding, but a subsistence of the divine essence. This preserves God’s unity while noting the indivisible distinctions between them. This is a far cry from three centers of consciousness which sees “Persons” interpreted in light of human persons rather than letting the unity of the divine essence determine what a “Person” properly should be. Implications of words matter.

Resources

There is much more that could be said, and I’ve only done a survey of the topics at hand. I hope this helps to clarify why James White has erred and why I believe his doctrine of God, at least in this area, is heterodox. I would urge those who want to learn more to get your hands on the following resources:

  • Deity & Decree by Samuel Renihan
  • All That is In God by James Dolezal
  • Simply Trinity by Matthew Barrett
  • Trinity & Creation by Richard Barcellos
  • Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition by Craig A. Carter

Other TPB team members and I have done podcast episodes on theology proper, and most can be found here:

Toying With God: Owen Strachan and the Submission of Christ in the Trinity

Note: I want to acknowledge one of our contributors and team members Andrew Warrick for some major changes in this work in reviewing/editing. We try to have each team member review each other’s posts before posting them and sometimes a team member will make changes in the editing process to a work that is up for a particular week. In this case I think it was substantial enough that I want to give Andrew credit.

The Jeffrey Johnson debate surrounding his new book, “The Failure of Natural Theology,” has made waves in the Reformed world with regards to theology proper specifically. But it seems his employee and sidekick Owen Strachan has his own way of stirring the pot. In a book that he and Gavin Peacock authored, “The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them,” there is discussion about authority and submission in the Trinity. Even though this book was published in 2016, his understanding of God ad intra still causes controversy today. Let us begin.

Paul explains this parallel in 1 Cor. 11:3 ‘But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.’ The Son does the Father’s will: ‘I do exactly as the Father commanded me,’ Christ said in John 14:31. He submitted Himself to the Father’s will (John 6:38). This posture of submission to fatherly authority did not begin the day Jesus came to earth. The Father is the authority of Christ, and always has been. The Son joyfully carries out the plan of His Father. The persons of the Godhead are not impersonal, with only titles to differentiate them. They are living persons, and their own love has structure and form. The Father as Father has authority; the Son as Son obeys His Father.

The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them, Kindle Edition

Now before you run away screaming, let us see why this is such a poor (and I dare say heretical) understanding of the Trinity, especially the relationship between the Father and the Son ad intra. Now, to the untrained eye this understanding of the Persons may fly under the radar. Jesus is the Son and it makes sense that he should submit to the Father ad intra. From a human standpoint submission is exactly what happens. I, as a son of my father, submitted to him. But applying that understanding to the Trinity would assume that the Father and Son as the subsisting essence of God function exactly like we do from a human standpoint. God’s “society” must function univocally, at least to some extent, as our society does. But God cannot be made like corruptible man or we have created an idol (Romans 1:22-23).

What must be kept in mind and what is lost in the authors’ discussion above is that Jesus has (yes, present tense) two natures.

“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,”
‭‭

Colossians‬ ‭2:9‬ ‭ESV‬‬

There is no accounting for the fact that in this mysterious union of divine and human nature there are things that are only to be posited of one nature or the other. Jesus slept, ate, grew, learned, all according to His human nature ONLY. This would also include submission. There is submission to God according to his human nature only thereby allowing us to consistently say the head of Christ is God while preserving the unity of the divine essence of God. It is assumed by the authors that Scripture must be talking about God ad intra in addition to the human nature of Christ. This is a fatal mistake. Never mind both John 14 and 6 are during the Incarnation meaning Jesus would be speaking according to His humanity back to the Father or in relation to Him (only Jesus’ human nature taking on relation, with nothing created in the essence of God). Yes, Jesus did act according to His divine nature while on earth, but if we have a proper understanding of God we can understand why this can’t be the case in every instance.

Two cardinal doctrines must be kept in mind: God is simple and God is immutable. If these are held dearly there will be no room for the error that Peacock and Strachan make. God’s simplicity means He is not composed of parts and is not divisible. And His immutability means God does not change. And not just that he doesn’t change and remains still with potency, but that He cannot change in any way as finite creation would. Divine simplicity ensures this. Movement would mean change and God would take on new states of being. Further discussion of these two doctrines can be found in our podcast episode reviewing Jeff Johnsons book here.

Given the backdrop of these two doctrines, we can now move onto a discussion of why Jesus cannot in any way be subordinate (as Owen and Peacock assert) to the Father according to His Deity. Now, Strachan has said in a recent article that,

One of those areas is the eternal authority of the Father and eternal submission of the Son (called ERAS, eternal roles of authority and submission). There are a bevy of texts that have led many theologians to conclude that Scripture teaches the eternal authority of the Father and the eternal submission of the Son. As I read it, Scripture presents such truth while continually promoting the full ontological equality of the Father and Son; the Father and Son are coeternal and each fully a divine person.

The Danger of Equating Eternal Authority & Submission with Arian Heresy (https://owenstrachan.substack.com/p/the-danger-of-equating-eternal-authority)

This is problematic as we have noted already, but notice there is this distinction made between the Persons and the essence of God, as if each Person is some kind of additional “something” on top of the essence rather than simply being a different subsistence of that essence. In Owen’s model, the Persons submit but somehow there is no submission in the Godhead as it relates to the being of God. Simplicity has already been undermined, as he implies there is a real distinction between the Persons and the essence of God to the point where each Person possesses distinct actual properties (as opposed to the relative properties) that exist outside of God’s being, enabling the Son to have a separate will that can be submitted to the Father. In other words, they have wills outside the essence of Deity. This is not the same thing as subsisting relations in the divine, this is creating a distinction that makes “Persons” and “essence” partite. Understanding the procession of the Persons properly will keep us from errors like this. When we talk about procession of the Son from the Father the question is, a procession from what? There has to be something that Jesus is proceeding from and it has to be the essence of the Father. John 20:21 lays out the procession of Christ from the Father. If the Father is eternal and He is infinite, simple, and immutable, it must be an eternal procession, one that does not divide or start and terminate yet really distinguishes the Father from the Son. But because Jesus proceeds from the essence of the Father, they must be equals since there is but one essence of God that each of the three persons subsist in. Each Person of the Trinity is the essence of God and therefore subsists, and this means there is no real distinction between what the Persons do and what the essence does. They are only distinguished from one another by where their relations “begin.” This preserves the unity of God while providing us with real distinction in the Godhead.

As soon as you insert gradations of authority within the immanent Trinity, gradations that are person-defining and therefore essential for the Trinity to be a Trinity, you forfeit one will in God. You forfeit the Trinity’s one, simple essence. Our God is simply Trinity…no more.

Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit, page 229

God’s nature is compromised if authority, functions, etc. are posited to the Trinity. Seeing Jesus simply as the Father’s essence is to avoid falling into the trap of breaking God up into parts. John Owen noted that the divine essence is simply subsisting specially for a divine person when he said, “Now, a divine person is nothing but the divine essence, upon the account of an especial property, subsisting in an especial manner.” (A Brief Declaration and Vindication of The Doctrine of the Trinity and also of The Person and Satisfaction of Christ). Subsistence helps us to avoid falling into the error of division and roles because it’s simply (no pun intended) God existing as three. No division, no subordination, just “I AM” (Exodus 3:14).

…subordination would absolutely throw into question the divine equality attributed to the Son. And should EFSers object that they only mean the Son is inferior in authority (person), not essence (divinity), let’s not forget that the Son is a subsistence of the divine essence. Begotten from the Father’s essence from all eternity…the Son can be nothing less than equal with the Father in every way. For the divine essence cannot be severed, wrenched away, or divorced from divine power, authority, and glory, each of which subsists in the three persons equally.

Matthew Barret, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit page 236

I will clarify, Owen would not claim to be an “EFSer” (Eternal Functional Subordination) but a proponent of ERAS (Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission) but based on Barret’s assessment, they have the same problem. Namely, that there is a personal difference in authority, not ontologically so. Being very careful with our words about God and our conception of Him will help us to avoid errors like these. Since Owen has been the center of the subordination controversy lately, I’m picking on him but he is by no means alone although it may present itself differently. Owen is continuing down a dangerous path, one that can only lead to destruction if continued. We need to bring God back to the focal point of our theology. Critical race theory, theonomy, complimentarianism, or abortion should not be our focus. These are important issues and they must be addressed but nothing is more important than who our God is. We must let this stick in our brains and our souls. Idolatry takes many forms, not just in statues made by man. Many idols wear religious garb. They look so appealing and entice with a passion, but the church needs to act like men, and stop sleeping while the enemy takes prisoners and slaughters behind our backs. Only then will we recover a proper doctrine of our incredible God. Men have labored hard by God’s grace to provide us what the Scriptures teach on God — not exhaustively, but in a way we can know Him truly. Let us stand on the shoulders of these vessels of grace.

Jeffrey D. Johnson and Motion in God

There has been much controversy on Jeff Johnson’s new book, “The Failure of Natural Theology.” Like a bombshell dropped on a city, it has blown up and brought to light very important topics, most notably on the doctrine of God. We recently did a podcast episode discussing the book which you can find here. One topic that stands out in Jeff’s book is his predication of motion in God. What does he mean by motion when talking about God? I want to clarify that here.

Motion Affirmed

“The Bible does not teach divine immovability…The biblical doctrine of divine simplicity and immutability does not mean, as Aquinas believed, divine immobility.”

The Failure of Natural Theology, page 137

This is but one example of Jeff affirming motion in God. He tries to defend the thesis that there is really motion in God while also trying to uphold the attribute of immutability. This is problematic because something that moves must by definition go from potentiality to actuality, thereby taking on a state of being it did not have before. This undermines divine immutability and divine simplicity as this would require God to change, moving from potential to actualization, and it would necessarily add something to God that is not God. Now you would have change and parts in God through this new state of actualization. Jeff’s view undermines the biblical and classical doctrine of who God is.

“The Trinity is the only being (because he is both one and many) who can move himself ad intra…But a self-moving God is what we find in the Trinitarian God of the Bible.”

The Failure of Natural Theology, pages 161-162

Motion Explained

While Jeff does not seem to spell out in so many words, “motion in God means this,” it is possible to see his meaning based on the overall discussion of his argument. Jeff thinks that motion in God must necessarily be so because motion in creation cannot be from an unmoved mover (pages 68-69). Jeff denies actus purus (page 66), the concept that God is pure act with no potency and is therefore partless and changeless.

“But if Aristotle’s god cannot move, how will he actively move anything inside or outside himself?”

The Failure of Natural Theology pages 68-69

So God must be able to move if He is to create. He cannot be the efficient cause of the universe (page 68). This is but one aspect upon which Jeff denies actus purus (another example being on page 148 where he talks about problems an unmoved mover would create with communicating to man). Now, when Jeff means God moves, he literally means God moves. Although, he may deny spatial movement he certainly affirms temporal movement. He does try to say that this movement in God is a different kind of movement than what we find in creation (e.g., pages 137-138), but it is still movement at its core. The terms of “self-moving” as coupled with his express denial of actus purus remove any notion that this is not actual movement. And as noted before, he denies actus purus so he is not talking about movement in God in terms of actus purus. On page 162, he attempts to defend his idea of motion by distinguishing between God’s essence as immutable but the persons of the Trinity as not. “The Father, as a distinct person, is intrinsically moved to love and glorify the Son…” (page 162). And on the same page he says there are eternal processions of the Son and Spirit, but he seems to not mean it in the same sense the Nicean fathers would have. He even discusses the meaning of the word “automobile” on page 162. He contrasts between a vehicle which is not truly self-moving because it depends on other things to really move and God who can really move Himself without the need for something outside of Himself. “Strictly speaking, the word automobile applies only to God. Only the triune God is autonomously self-moving” (page 162). This places the concept of motion in God with the automobile, just with one allegedly moving Himself and the other depending upon other factors to move. But motion is still there, albeit he tries to say this motion is eternal. Jeff will try to get around the inevitable denial of immutability by saying that the, “eternal state of movement within the Trinity is not a change in the immutability of God” (page 163). But on the previous page, he made a distinction between the persons and the essence of God by noting, “God is both immutable in his essence without being restricted to a static and motionless state within the relations of the three persons.” (page 162) So are the persons not God then if they are moving but his essence is not? How does this not compromise divine simplicity now that there are real distinctions in God that are not relational only? We are left wanting. But one thing is clear: motion means motion.

Motion as we understand it cannot be predicated of God. To move from one state of being to another, from potency to actuality, is to compromise the doctrine of God. Motion is creature by its very definition as Scripture sees it (Psalm 102:26-27 and James 1:17, both of which were discussed in the linked podcast episode). We must not think that we can make God like us. If He can be like us, then we have a creature and an idol.

“Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.”
‭‭Romans‬ ‭1:22-23‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

Jesus and the Bruised Reed

In pursuing his calling, Christ will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax, in which more is meant than spoken, for he will not only not break nor quench, but he will cherish those with whom he so deals.

Richard Sibbes from his book The Bruised Reed

Our Lord loves us. Do we really believe that? When the Scriptures talk about the love of God for His people, do we embrace that? I think we tend to cliché the love of God so much that we don’t stop to think about what that really means and how it is applicable to our lives. We love talking about the judgement of God over sin and the seriousness of obedience and while those things are necessary discussions, sometimes it is good to remind ourselves as Christians that we are really loved by our Lord.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:22-24 (ESV)

It is this great love that God has for His people that disciplines us, molds us, shapes us to be more like Christ. Even though we are broken, He will not forsake us nor leave us. What a glorious truth that is! That our Lord is faithful. He does not leave us when we fail or when we are broken. His faithfulness to us is not based on what we do but according to His precious mercy! He being the immutable God cannot leave His people and will not go back on His covenant. He would have to deny Himself which is impossible. We do not serve a God that changes his mind from day to day. One day we are in the kingdom the next day we are not. This would make God a liar and give us no grounding in His promises. I think as we continue to count it all joy (James 1:2) with trials and discipline that come our way, we will be able to persevere even though we are not able to see what the end really is for our suffering. As Sibbes said, “…Christ will not break the bruised reed…” We may be bruised, pushed around, persecuted, but our Lord’s will ensure the work is completed (Philippians 1:6).

This has been a short entry, but one that I hope is encouraging to your soul. If you are Christ’s, do not grow discouraged when it seems we are bruised. Know that the Lord is molding us more like Himself and that He will never forsake us.

Must We Accommodate the Weaker Brother? A Response to Owen Strachan

Owen Strachan is no stranger to causing controversy. He is Provost and Research Professor of Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. His view on Christ’s relation to the Father within the Godhead (which places him outside of Nicean and biblical orthodoxy) has ruffled some feathers (as it should), but that is a discussion for another day. I want to focus on Owen’s assertions in a tweet he made on August 18th, 2021 and why he is wrong about how we are to accommodate the weaker brother. He said,

The “weaker brother” principle of Romans 14 does not mean you MUST accommodate the conscience of your weaker brother. It means you are free to do so, may choose to do so from love, but are in no way compelled to do so. Otherwise we would have a functional rule of weakness.

Owen Strachan Tweet from August 18th, 2021 at 11:36 AM

Lack of Exegesis

Yes, I know. He posted this on Twitter and there are only a certain number of characters that can be placed in a single Tweet. Which is precisely why at least some theological assertions should be left to mediums such as blogs, podcasts (such as ours, The Particular Baptist Podcast), or the pulpit as you can expound and exegete in a way that is difficult on Twitter. But Owen merely asserts without any references to context, Greek word usage, or any specific place in Romans 14 that would allow us to extrapolate his interpretation from the text. It is merely asserted. And this is a huge problem given his interpretation is in contradiction to the majority reading of Romans 14. I think that Twitter has led us to making quick, terse theological assertions and discussions preventing us from taking the time and effort to be clear and correct. It is better to leave certain conversations off the Twitter space and take the time to write long on them to ensure we are clearly heard and understood.

Loving our Neighbor

Owen says that we do not have to accommodate the conscience of the weaker brother. Paul didn’t actually mean that in Romans 14. It is merely optional. However, let us look at what Romans 14 says and exegete to find out.

Paul is continuing his discussion of love and holiness that we find in chapter 13:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Romans 13:8-14 (ESV)

We are to walk as holy ones and walk in love with our neighbors which would (especially) include Christians. There is to be self-sacrifice and a putting of others’ interests ahead of our own. In doing so, we are fulfilling God’s law, ergo loving God. Keep this theme of love in mind as we go into chapter 14. Notice what Paul says in the opening verses:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.  One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.  Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

Romans 14:1-4 (ESV)

Already we see that there is to be sensitivity to the weaker brother and this follows right after Paul discussed loving our neighbors in chapter 13. We are not to hate the brother who has a different view than we do about scrupulous things. We should be patient with them and see this thing they are NOT doing as something to not divide over. Calvin said,

He passes on now to lay down a precept especially necessary for the instruction of the Church, — that they who have made the most progress in Christian doctrine should accommodate themselves to the more ignorant, and employ their own strength to sustain their weakness; for among the people of God there are some weaker than others, and who, except they are treated with great tenderness and kindness, will be discouraged, and become at length alienated from religion.

Calvin’s Commentary on Romans 14

We should not be discouragers! We should not have a cruel spirit toward our brothers who are weak in the faith, weak in scruples. But we should love them and help them to grow, although not at the expense of their spiritual well-being. Owen has abandoned the principle in Romans 14 of obligatory love toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. He makes love optional in our accommodation of the weaker brother while Paul grounds these principles in God’s law which requires love of our neighbor at all times. And how much more for God’s people! (Galatians 6:10)

The first rule of Christian love is that we receive others who are weaker in faith as brothers and sisters. Every Christian is a servant of Christ. Christ is his master and judge. I am not to judge those who are Christ’s.

Sproul, R. C. “Dealing with Those Who Are Weaker | Reformed Bible Studies & Devotionals at Ligonier.Org | Reformed Bible Studies & Devotionals at Ligonier.Org.” Ligonier Ministries, Ligonier Ministries, 28 July 2009, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/dealing-those-who-are-weaker.

We Must Accommodate

Given what we find from Paul below, it is a wonder how Owen could come to such a conclusion in his tweet. What he says is in contradiction to Paul’s clear and unequivocal language.

Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

Romans 14:13-19 (ESV)

Here we have imperatives, not suggestions. Here we have commands to be obeyed, not guidelines that I can follow if I so choose. But this is what Owen wants us to believe. However, the apostle says we are to not cause our brother to stumble. We are not to grieve our brother as we carry out our liberty. He grounds that in the second greatest commandment: to love your neighbor as yourself. This means we are absolutely obligated to not destroy the one for whom Christ died.

Owen, at the end of his tweet says, “Otherwise we would have a functional rule of weakness.” This could be true if a situation arises where there are weak brothers who are trying to impose their views on other Christians and a church simply accommodates them without confronting them. As Paul said in the opening verses of chapter 14 of Romans, this would be wrong for the weaker brother to do since he is not to judge the one who eats meat (verse 3). So to accommodate him simply because he says we shouldn’t eat meat would be wrong. But if we know that there is a brother or sister who does not like what we do in liberty and we do it in front of them, we are not loving them or considering their weakness and we have sinned. And this has to be based on us knowing who the weaker brother or sister are and that they have this weakness. We cannot live in fear of the weaker brothers as there is any possibility of things that are not commanded or addressed in Scripture that could cause a brother to stumble. In verses 1-4 Paul talks about judging each other based on what we do or do not do in terms of indifferent activities. This would mean that there is knowledge of the weaker brother and his scruple. With this in mind, Paul then moves throughout the rest of the chapter to discuss how the strong are the handle the weak in the assembly. So while a “functional rule of weakness” could be had in unchecked situations, the rule of willing to lay aside what we want to do for our brothers must be in the forefront of our minds as it relates to Christian liberty. Simply writing it off will not do when we have clear instruction from the apostle.

Conclusion

It is frustrating to see this kind of talk about the holy Scriptures in the church. Seeing one who should know better because he is highly educated in the Word and is involved in teaching it to others means he is subject to higher criticism when he speaks. As the Scripture says,

But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

Luke 12:48 (ESV)

If you are educated and are a teacher of the Word or are involved in somehow educating others in the Word, especially at the academic level, you are held to a higher standard than those who do not. Much is given to you, ergo much is required. May the Lord help us all to stay true to His Word and to exegete it rightly.

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