Of Creation Part 1

*This post is adopted from a presentation on chapter 4 paragraph 1 of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith

1. In the beginning it pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, to create or make the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good.

2LBCF (1677/89) IV.1

Chapter 4 is a small chapter in the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 with only three paragraphs. But there is so much doctrine here that is assumed by the writers of our confession.  It is built upon (at the time) over 1000 years of the church’s orthodox confession of theology. The writers were trying to cram as much as they could into this little chapter. Now some things we will be discussing today will be deep. We will have to stretch our minds some as we go through the doctrine of Creation. Keep in mind though that these doctrines were considered basic Christianity to the men who compiled the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith. This not considered “high church” doctrine or a 500-level course in systematic theology. This was Christianity 101. These doctrines encompassed the basics of what Christian doctrine entails. Christians need to have this mindset as it should lead us to want to study and gain the knowledge that these doctrines contain. We should not fear them.

However, this is not knowledge for knowledge sake. We ultimately gain this knowledge so we can worship God properly. How can I worship a God that I do not know? I must know Him to worship Him. The more knowledge that is gained of Him, the more I should worship Him. In other words, proper doctrine will lead to proper living if applied. These items are vital if we are to worship God properly. Now, as we go along this will not solely be a post about whether the Genesis account is figurative or literal, but a discussion of the meat behind this doctrine that the writers of our confession packed into Chapter 4, paragraph 1. The Doctrine of God is integral to this chapter and we will be diving into this post and then next weeks post focusing on man being made in God’s image and his state of freedom before sin came into the world. I think there is a tendency to read these chapters in isolation which is not how they are to be read. Of Creation was placed as chapter 4 intentionally. Now why would the authors place this right after the chapter on God’s decree? Would it not make more sense for the doctrine of providence to come after the decree because they are intricately related and inseparable? Maybe at first glance it appears that way, but we must not think this to be the case. Richard Barcellos notes,

“The decree of God is an ad intra divine work, as Richard A. Muller says, “willed by the entire Godhead as the foundation of all [ad extra works]”. The decree is sometimes termed an immanent, or intrinsic, divine work because its termination is in God. The execution of God’s decree, however, brings us into the realm of God’s external, ad extra, transient, or extrinsic, works-works which produce effects, or creatures.”

Trinity & Creation: A Scriptural and Confessional Account, pages 8-9

The doctrine of Scripture is put first to show where our supreme authority for faith and practice comes from: Scripture. Chapter 2 builds upon this by grounding our minds in the doctrine of God who is the creator of Scripture. Then the basis for everything, His decree, is then laid out for us and after that there is chapter 4 being an outpouring of that decree. Chapter 4 could rightly be said to be a “part 2” to chapter 3 since it essentially tells us more about the actual decree of God. He then works out His decree through providence.  You can see the systematic way in which this was formulated. I do think, however, that chapter 2 on God and the Holy Trinity is probably more in view here in the first paragraph. Again Barcellos says,

“What chapter 4 does is confess, in particular, the manifestation of the very same God confessed in chapter 2. This manifestation of God comprises the revelatory divine effects in creatures. It is the eternal and immutable God confessed in chapter 2 who manifests divine power, wisdom, and goodness in that which comes-to-be.”

Trinity & Creation: A Scriptural and Confessional Account, page 10

 Notice what is says in the opening paragraph of chapter 4: “In the beginning it pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit …” There is this trinitarian emphasis given with respect to God’s working in creation. What the confession says on God in chapter 2 must be in light here or the words used here to describe God make no sense. He is most wise in his acts; He is impassable meaning he does not have passions. He is simple meaning He is not composed of parts and does not change. A solid doctrine of God is needed to understand this chapter, or our understanding of this passage will be hindered greatly. Barcellos notes,

“Since chapter 4 is not the first chapter of the confession, it assumes all the formulations which precede it. Though this is obvious to anyone who reads the confession, it is no small or trite observation. It has mammoth implications of hermeneutics and theological method in the process of formulating Christian doctrine.”

Trinity & Creation: A Scriptural and Confessional Account, page 9

Another interesting note is that this chapter does differ from the Westminster Confession of Faith. Sam Waldron notes,

“The 1689 Confession differs from the Westminster and Savoy only in making the last sentence a separate paragraph.”

A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith 5th edition, page 88

What this shows is that our Particular Baptist forefathers were in complete agreement with their Presbyterian brothers on this topic.  If you recall, the Particular Baptists were not looking to create division with their Presbyterian brethren. Far from it. They desired to walk in unity with them, but there was a time to bring forward their differences. But here they show their unity.

Given that, here is what I want to investigate from Chapter 4, paragraph 1:

  1. What exactly is Creation and what is the Trinitarian activity in the eternal act of Creation?
  2. Was there a change in God because of Creation?
  3. Is Creation Poetry or History?

What Creation is and the Trinitarian activity of God in the eternal act of Creation

We find the Creation story at the beginning of Genesis which spans the first two chapters of that book.  Let us look at Genesis 1:1-8,

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness [a]was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. [b]So the evening and the morning were the first day.

 Then God said, “Let there be a [c]firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day.

Now we know the rest of the story. God makes animals and man, placing that man in the garden of Eden to watch over what had been created. Woman was then made from him and they were told to be fruitful and multiply. This is the story of Creation. Given this story, we would tend to think that Creation is just simply God creating all things, right? While that is true, there is more to it than that. Creation is God creating things that are not God. It is God working outside Himself bringing things to be that were not before.  Herman Bavinck says,

“[Creation is] that act of God through which, by his sovereign will, he brought the entire world out of nonbeing into being that is distinct from his own being.”

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2, page 416

This distinction is especially important. I think the tendency to make God like us in our descriptions of Him, flows from a conflation of these categories. While it may be denied that God is creature, the way He is sometimes described assumes a creatureliness about Him.

Herman Bavinck says,

“It is God who posits the creature, eternity which posits time, immensity which posits space, being which posits becoming, immutability which posits change. There is nothing intermediate between these two classes of categories: a deep chasm separates God’s being from that of all creatures.”

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2, pages 158-159

Going back to our discussion about Creation, the act also includes the creation of time. Time was created along with other created things as William Ames notes in his work, The Marrow of Theology. Since time is the measurement of change in what is created, it must have been created along with the rest of the world and its contents.  James Dolezal notes,

“Properly considered, time is not an entity or an essence but rather is merely a relation between things that change and are liable to change. Time is concreted with all creatures insofar as it is the measure of all their movement. When we speak of time as a realm we do not mean to imply that it is like a container or box in which temporal things exist, rather we denote simply the created order which is populated by beings that are subject to and undergo change and thus are measured temporally.”

“Eternal Creator of Time” from Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, 2014

The act of Creation is an eternal act of God and it was not just one or two persons of the Trinity that were involved in said act.  They were all participants in the act of Creation. We know that Scripture discusses this in different places.  It was the full being of God making the world out of nothing. Now what do I mean that the act of Creation was an “eternal” act of God? How can the act of Creation be an eternal act if it happened at the beginning of time? God exists outside of time. We see this in passages such as 2 Timothy 1:9 and Titus 1:2.

2 Timothy 1:9

who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began,

Titus 1:2

in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began,

In both these passages God works outside of time. He is not bound to it nor is he measured by it. Dolezal notes,

“Both 2 Timothy 1:9 and Titus 1:2 describe God’s purposeful activity…Literally rendered “before times eternal” or “above times eternal,” the sense is that God’s intrinsic activity is not a temporally indexed event. In the context, the point is that God’s good purposes toward His people are not an afterthought with Him, but are eternally settled apart from the fluctuations of history.”

All That Is in God, page 79

This means that God acting as God is not held in place by time or the constrains of this created world. His actions are outside of it are therefore eternal. The conclusion then is that all the acts of God are eternal, including Creation. There was no point where Creation began with God and no point where it stopped. It simply is. With Creation, this means that there is an eternal act of Creation in God that produced a temporal effect in the production of material things (Dolezal discusses this in All That Is in God on pages 100-103). This is the only way to consistently look at all the acts of God with the biblical data that is presented to us. Keeping the principle in mind that Creation is God making things that are not God is important here as we are confronted with this difficult truth. God created the world and therefore He is not bound by time, He must be eternal. If He is eternal, all His acts must be eternal. The truth about God’s eternity is by no means an easy thing to grasp. In fact, we will not be able to fully comprehend it.

John Owen notes,

“How inconceivable is this glorious divine property unto the thoughts and minds of men! How weak are the ways and terms whereby they about to express it… He that says most only signifies what he knows of what it is not. We are of yesterday, change every moment, and are leaving our station to-morrow. God is still the same, was so before the world was, – from eternity. And now I cannot think what I have said, but only have intimated what I adore.”

A Practical Exposition upon Psalm CXXX from The Works of John Owen Volume 6, page 662

There is mystery involved. However, that does not mean that we should not pursue greater knowledge of God in things like this.  We should seek to know this God more! Mystery should not lead us to timidity. These men who came before us sought to know these things and so should we. This is the God we serve.

Change in God and Creation

Given what we have discussed about the eternal act of Creation, why is it so important that we defend this difficult doctrine of Creation? Who cares about how God created the world (whether it is an eternal act or not?). Is it not enough that the world was created?  No, it is not. If we are not careful, we can posit things about God that are in fact not true therefore creating a different God. Once it is placed in those terms, it should cause us to be incredibly careful with the doctrine of God. What may seem like trivial technicalities about the being of God to us, were by no means trivial to the orthodox in the church and to the writers of our confession of faith. If we go back to chapter 2, we see a detailed description of who God is (read chapter 2 paragraph 1).  We see from this paragraph the careful detail that is given to who God is.  One aspect of God’s nature that is of importance in relation to His creation of the world is what is called His simplicity and immutability.  Simplicity does not mean that God is easy to understand. It means that God is not composed of parts. This is what is being referred to in chapter 2 paragraph 1 where it is posited that God is “without body, parts, or passions”.  God is not “made up” of anything. There are no components to God’s being.  He is not dependent on anything outside of Himself to be Himself. He just is. God cannot become anything greater or lesser than He is.

Barcellos says,

“Confessing divine simplicity, eternity, infinity, immutability, and impassibility (WCF/2LCF 2.1) means that God cannot change from within or from without because of what he is and what he is not. He is God, the simple and immutable Creator; he is not in any sense a mutable creature, nor does he become one, in the sense of changing divine being.”

Trinity & Creation A Scriptural and Confessional Account page 43

Richard Muller notes,

“…God in himself, considered essentially or personally, is not in potentia because the divine essence and persons are eternally perfect, and the inward life of the Godhead is eternally complete and fully realized.”

Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms Second Edition, page 11

We see this doctrine by what is revealed in Scripture:

Job 35:6-7

If you sin, what do you accomplish against Him?
Or, if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to Him?
If you are righteous, what do you give Him?
Or what does He receive from your hand?

Acts 17:23-28

for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:

TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.

Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 And He has made from one [a]blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’

Exodus 3:13-15

 Then Moses said to God, “Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”

14 And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” 15 Moreover God said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.’ 

Numbers 23:19

“God is not a man, that He should lie,

Nor a son of man, that He should repent.

Has He said, and will He not do?

Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good

Malachi 3:6

For I am the Lord, I do not change;

Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.

James 1:17

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.

Hebrews 6:13-18

For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, 14 saying, “Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.” 15 And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. 16 For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute. 17 Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the [a]immutability of His counsel, [b]confirmed it by an oath, 18 that by two [c]immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we [d]might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.

Daniel 4:35

All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing;

He does according to His will in the army of heaven

And among the inhabitants of the earth.

No one can restrain His hand

Or say to Him, “What have You done?”

Isaiah 40:14

With whom did He take counsel, and who instructed Him,

And taught Him in the path of justice?

Who taught Him knowledge,

And showed Him the way of understanding?

Given what the Bible says about the immutability and simplicity of God, how does that relate to Creation?  Because if God cannot change then Creation does nothing to make God something He was not before.  God cannot take on new properties to be God. God would not be a perfect being if He is able to take on new properties. There was no time where God was not the Creator. There was no new property that was taken on by Him given the temporal world that was brought into existence. If God could change due to Creation, then He is no longer the God that is explicitly confessed in Scripture as not being dependent upon His creation to be God.  We now have a God that is like us. We have fundamentally changed God.  The basis for the promises of God found in Word are now shaken.  This principle of change in God given Creation has been asserted by some in the Reformed camp (John Frame and K. Scott Oliphint). This view is far from what the writers of what both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith had in mind.  They confessed an eternal Creator who was before the world existed and continues to be.

Creation: Poetry or History?

In our final point here this morning, I want to touch upon a topic that Dr. Waldron brings out in his book on the confession. That is the topic on whether the Genesis account of Creation is a historical account or simply poetic, figurative language. There are those who have suggested that the Creation is simply figurative and should not be taken as actual historical record.  It has also been posited, that the terms for “day” in Genesis are referring to a time over millions of years.  Why are these assertions about the text dangerous? They seek to impose to the text what does not exist.  As to the argument raised about the historicity of the Creation account, there are problems with this view.  Dr. Waldron brings out some very helpful points. There is no reason to believe the account of Creation is given in any other way than by historical account. The language is given of a record and it is noted within time the events that took place (temporal effect of God’s eternal act).  Waldron notes,

“If we take Genesis 12 and following as historical narrative (and it would be a radical critical position to deny the historicity of Abraham), then it cannot be doubted that Genesis I-II is intended also to be understood as such.”

A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith 5th edition, page 90

It would be ridiculous to think that the account given in the Scripture is anything but historical given what follows it.  Unfortunately, higher criticism of the Bible leads us to question fundamental truths in the Bible not only on a theological level, but simply on a literary level.

Finally, we will address the falsehood that the term “day” means “age” or “millions of years”.  This is probably the most radical view, but one that appears to try to make modern day science and the Bible compatible with one another.  There is an underlying assumption that the theory of evolution must be true and therefore for Christians to be consistent, we must assume the text is talking about an “age” when it says “day”.  This is preposterous.  Waldron notes how it would be foolish to think that a Jew would read this and understand “day” to mean millions of years.  Waldron goes on to say,

“Furthermore, the meaning of day is defined in Genesis 1:5 as composed of periods of light and darkness, as well as evenings and mornings.”

A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith 5th edition, page 92

How this translates into “millions of years” is left lacking. This is what is called a non-sequitur. That means it does not follow. Just because A is given does not mean B follows. That is what is being asserted in this argument.  Also, historically speaking the theory of evolution did not exist prior to the Genesis account being written. It came maybe close to 3,000 years later. To read a system backwards into a text that says completely the opposite with no other supporting evidence is to create an anachronism that is laughable.  The text should be taken as it is.  God worked a supernatural miracle to bring about material things that are not God.  We should bask in the awesomeness of the power of God.  What did we say before? Why is the Creator/creature distinction so important? It keeps us from making God like us.  We are more hesitant to make assertions about God based on our experience when we have firmly grounded in our minds that He is distinct from us. 

A Systematic Defense for the Textus Receptus

Disclaimer: The Particular Baptist is evenly split on the issue of the Textus Receptus, with the hosts of the podcast having a debate on the subject here. As such, the following post does not represent the views of the blog as a whole. You can also read Dan and Sean’s articles here and here, respectively.

In the debate between the confessional text underlying historical Protestant translations of the Bible and the modern critical text underlying the majority of contemporary translations, it’s my opinion that the real substance of the debate can be lost in the sea of variants, manuscripts, and church father citations. By saying this, I don’t mean to diminish the importance of those facts. Rather, I say this because I contend the real reason for the disagreement is not the facts themselves, but how we interpret and weigh those facts. In other words, it’s the presuppositions we bring to the table that form the heart of this debate. My aim in this post is nothing less than to demonstrate that the presuppositions that lead to the Textus Receptus position are biblical, and that they are alone consistent with the tenets of Reformed Christianity, despite the good Reformed men who indeed disagree with us on the issue.

I will not be arguing in favor of the TR here per se, but rather in favor of the principles that would lead Christians such as myself to adopt it. Thus, there will be no discussion of the “Which TR?” question here. Even though I believe that a rigorous application of these principles would lead you to embrace a specific edition of the TR that you can hold in your hands as the very words of God, I will present the principles in a safer, more modest form, which – even if it didn’t lead you to adopt a single edition of the TR – would inevitably result in something that looks much more like it than the modern critical text offered as an alternative.

My argument can be summarized as follows: God’s promise to preserve His Word is more sure than our ability to reconstruct it. The reconstructionist presuppositions behind the modern critical text are incompatible with God’s promise of preservation. Therefore, the modern critical text must be rejected in favor of the text that the Church has organically received.

The rest of this two-part article will be a defense and an elaboration of the above.

Part 1 – Different Ways of Knowing and the Authority of Preservation

In order to properly evaluate the evidence on this issue or any other, we must know how much weight to give to the different types of arguments. For our purposes, we can divide the types of arguments Christians encounter into three broad categories.

  1. Appeals to the authority of Scripture. This is the highest and only absolute authority that can be appealed to. Scripture alone is given by inspiration of God, and is able to make the man of God perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It is breathed out by God, contains no errors, and – as the infallible self-revelation of the infallible God – grounds every assertion faithfully derived from it with an absolute certainty trumping the authority of all other claims. We can be more sure of the claims of Scripture than the color of the sky, because its self-authenticating authority generates a greater assurance than even our fallible senses can provide. When our eyes tell us that the tree looks good for food, the Word of God says with greater authority, “thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). If any position is truly grounded in the authority of Scripture, it can NEVER be overthrown by an appeal to any lesser authority, because no lesser authority carries absolute authority with it, and it is impossible to overthrow a claim that you are 100% sure of using evidence that is less than 100% sure. By its very nature as the only absolute authority, it is the only authority that can ever have 100% certainty associated with it.
  2. Appeals to Church tradition. Already, we have moved to considerably weaker ground. Those who would attempt to bind a man’s conscience by the authority of tradition alone are rebuked by the Savior Himself, decrying those “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). However, it must be said that when Scripture is silent, it is at least more authoritative than the third category, even if it already cannot be used to teach any sort of binding doctrine. The Scriptures themselves say, “in the multitude of counsellers there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14), and what is church history but a multitude of Spirit-led counselors? (Assuming the men we’re consulting are genuine Christians). [1] Again, Church tradition cannot bind the conscience or rival the authority of the Bible, but it can at least be helpful. I am here speaking only of Church tradition considered apart from the Bible itself, and not about the consistent exegesis of Scripture by faithful men of the past, which – when it can be demonstrated that they did it properly – carries the authority of the first category.
  3. Appeals to reasoning divorced from Scriptural truths and Church tradition. The weakest authority of all is reasoning that does not rest on the solid ground of Scripture or even the shaky ground of Church tradition, but rather on the quicksand of arguments unconnected to either of them. Over and over again the Bible throws water on merely human authority, admonishing us to “lean not unto thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5), calling the wisdom of the world foolishness (1 Corinthians 3:19), and warning us not to be taken captive by human tradition and philosophy that isn’t based in Christ (Colossians 2:8). In the context of rebuking those who had a conceited pride about their own knowledge/wisdom independent from divine revelation, the Bible says, “if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2). As feeble, fallen creatures who either abide in darkness or else are just beginning to become truly acquainted with the light, all of our thinking is corrupted, dim, inconsistent, and woefully incomplete, so that we cannot truly know anything unless it stems from the revelation of Him who alone knows perfectly. Arguments from this third category are suspect by their very nature.

It’s important to keep these categories in mind when examining the merits of any position, and that includes the textual issue. Arguments that can plausibly be grounded in the first category must always be weighed as having greater authority – indeed, infallible authority if conclusively proved – than any arguments based on the second or third category. Likewise, arguments from the second category should be favored over the third, but are unable to challenge the first. Frankly, the only place for the third category is when both the first and second are silent/when appeals to them are utterly baseless, leaving the third as the only option. Accordingly, the burden of proof always rests on those arguing from the third category to show that it is really and truly the last resort, and even then they cannot present their position as certain due to the nature of the authority they appeal to – independent, worldly reasoning. They cannot simply pit their arguments against an argument derived from Scripture as if they are of equal weight. In order to have a hearing, they must show conclusively that the position they are opposing doesn’t have the Scriptural basis that’s asserted of it.

The rest of this post will be dedicated to showing that the presuppositions behind the TR rest in the authority of the first and second categories, as opposed to the arguments for the critical text, which appeal only to the third and contradict the first and second. I will also show that the appeals to the third category – like all other appeals to it – are ultimately shallow, unstable, and are completely unable to generate the certainty that the proponents of the critical text often claim it can provide. To argue for the critical text is to become inconsistent with the biblical epistemology that the faithful Christians who support it would otherwise embrace. If we embrace this way of thinking in the fields of cosmology, biology, geology, archaeology, and ancient history whenever the current consensus (derived from the “preponderance of evidence”) of any of them contradicts biblical claims, what biblical reason do we have for abandoning that way of thinking in the field that just happens to be closer to the hearts of many modern, famous conservative Christians – textual criticism?

The Biblical Basis for the Promise of Preservation

A number of passages can be appealed to in defense of the preservation of the Scriptures; the doctrine is ubiquitously taught in the Book whose availability is a testament to its truth. The Westminster Confession cites Matthew 5:18 as a prooftext for the doctrine in chapter one paragraph eight, which paragraph is identical to our 2nd London Baptist Confession. The verse reads, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” Many complain that this verse is taken out of context, and that the chief point is that the prophecies and teachings of the Law will be completely fulfilled. But while that might be the ultimate aim of the verse, such complaints are nevertheless unwarranted because 1) Jesus’ argument appears to be a classic example of an argument a fortiori, and 2) the prophecies and teachings of the Law depend on the jot and tittle, which Jesus explicitly says will not pass away. An a fortiori argument is an argument from the certainty of a stronger claim in favor of a claim that would be true by extension. In effect, Jesus would be saying, “of course God’s law will be fulfilled, because God’s Word is so precious in His sight, and so sure to continue, that not even the smallest letter of it will be lost.” Again, arguments of this sort depend on the stronger premise being true, so there can be no doubt that Jesus really meant that not even a jot or tittle would be lost, which is what He says. The cultural context strengthens this interpretation, because that was indeed the common view of the Jews Jesus was speaking to and is how they would have understood it. In John Gill’s (1697-1771) commentary on this verse, he refers to several different Jewish sources that clearly indicate as much. For example, Rabbi Meir (2nd Century AD) says:

“In the time of the prophets there were such who very diligently searched every letter in the law, and explained every letter by itself; and do not wonder at this that they should expound every letter by itself, for they commented … upon everyone of the tops of each letter.”

Clearly, every letter was considered sacred in the eyes of the Jews. They believed each letter was that which God chose to infallibly speak and commit into writing for His perfect purposes. Since they were treating their copies of the Scripture in this way, they also clearly believed the original letters God gave them were preserved for them in those copies. More explicit is Akiba ben Joseph (40-135 AD), who Gill references as saying:

“If, (say they,) all the nations of the world were gathered together, ‘to root one word out of the law’, they could not do it; which you may learn from Solomon, who sought to root ‘one letter out of the law’, the letter ‘jod’, in ( Deuteronomy 17:16 Deuteronomy 17:17 ) but the holy blessed God said, Solomon shall cease, and an hundred such as he (in the Talmud it is a thousand such as he) … ‘but, jod shall not cease from thee (the law) for ever'”

The similarity between the language used by Jesus and a Jewish rabbi from the same century cannot be missed. Akiba even tells us of an apocryphal story where Solomon attempted to alter one “jod” (or jot) of Scripture, but God didn’t allow it, because He decreed that not one letter should cease from His Word. There can be no doubt, then, that when Jesus said, “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law,” His audience would have understood Him to really mean that not a single jot or tittle would be lost. Frankly, there is no reason to believe that He just meant “no general concept would be lost” unless you’ve already made up your mind that He couldn’t have meant that, perhaps because your understanding of preservation wouldn’t allow it.

But a passage that I believe is even more relevant for supporting the view of preservation advocated by TR proponents is the classic text on the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture: 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”

There are two reasons this passage is relevant. First, despite the frequent use of this passage to say that the original autographs (the original manuscripts written by the human authors of Scripture) were God-breathed and sufficient, the passage never directly references the autographs at all. That Paul is here speaking about the autographs is an assumption brought in by those who already believe that only the originals are the true Scriptures referenced by Paul in this passage. But if we believe that words should be interpreted in their own context, we will see that Paul just told us what Scriptures he was referring to in the previous verse:

“And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15)

In other words, the God-breathed Scriptures Paul is referring to in verses 16 and 17 are the Scriptures Timothy has known from childhood referenced in verse . We must then ask, “did Timothy had the original autographs?” Since the answer is obviously no, we have two options:

  1. The copies Timothy had were given by inspiration again, or:
  2. Through the copies he had, Timothy possessed the original autographs which God had preserved through their faithful transmission all the way to Timothy’s generation.

The first option is obviously incorrect, because it contradicts Scripture’s presentation of inspiration as an event that happened in the past. Peter, for example, says, “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” in reference to the prophecies of Scripture (2 Peter 1:21). Therefore, that leaves us with option two: the copies of Scripture had been faithfully transmitted from generation to generation, and could be referred to as the authentic God-breathed Scriptures given by God. We have no biblical reason that this would cease after Timothy’s day, especially in light of the already discussed Matthew 5:18, which says that not one jot or tittle would pass.

The second reason this passage is relevant is its insistence that Scripture is able to make the man of God perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. As has long been recognized by Bible commentators, the phrase “man of God” does not simply refer to any male Christian, but rather refers to a minister of the Church in its New Testament usage (cf. 1 Timothy 6:11 and its Old Testament usage as a title for prophets – those who proclaim God’s Word). This does not diminish the sufficiency of Scripture for the Christian in the pew; rather, it confirms it, because a Christian minister has to be equipped for all the duties of an ordinary Christian as well as those only necessary for a pastor/elder/deacon.

But one of the most essential good works the Scripture equips a minister for is the pulpit ministry. As proponents of modern textual criticism are often not shy to admit, their view requires the minister to familiarize himself with the basic principles of textual criticism in order to handle the Word of God properly from the pulpit. It is essential, they say, for the minister to be able to distinguish the authentic from spurious textual variants using their principles as he encounters them in his preaching. The obvious problem is that, under this view, we have something necessary for the pulpit ministry that Scripture does not furnish us for. If it can’t be denied that the pulpit ministry is a good work – one of the most essential works for the man of God – and that an essential part of this ministry is identifying which variants can be preached as God’s inspired Word, then Scripture MUST equip us for it. Therefore, we must reject any method of determining the authentic readings of Scripture that cannot be grounded in Scripture itself. Otherwise, we risk denying the sufficiency of Scripture in an area it promises to thoroughly equip us for.

The difference between proponents of the Textus Receptus and the modern critical text is clear at this point. The methodology of the Textus Receptus follows the biblical example of organically receiving the Word of God. Like Timothy, who was able to know the Word of God from childhood, it proposes that all we have to do determine the true Scriptures is to look at what was received by God’s people. The only caveats is that the received text must be in the original language since inspiration was an event that occurred at the writing of the Scriptures, and so they cannot be reinspired in another form. The approach of modern textual criticism, however, is at odds with the biblical method of organically receiving God’s Word, and introduces unbiblical methods for determining the readings of Scripture using manuscripts that had been lost to the Church for over fifteen hundred years in some cases. This makes their approach at odds with the Bible’s teaching on preservation.

The Church’s Confirmation of the Doctrine

To prevent this post from being excessively lengthy (more than it already is), I will keep this section brief. An example of an argument from the Church’s traditional understanding would be an appeal to her confessions of faith. The 1689, for example, states that the words of God have been kept pure in all ages, and that the Greek New Testament they had and the Hebrew Old Testament they had “are authentic.” A modern critical text proponent will say that they don’t refer to any specific textual family here, and that is true. However, the whole of the Greek manuscript tradition they had was essentially that which is found in the Textus Receptus, and so unless one is prepared to say that the New Testament they referred to as being kept pure in all ages and presently authentic consisted of manuscript traditions they didn’t have access to in their age, it is clear that the NA28 is incompatible with their view of the text. This is especially certain in the context of who they were responding to, as one of the Roman Catholic arguments against Sola Scriptura was that the manuscript tradition had become too corrupted for the Reformers to use as their final authority. But if they were still unable to determine the authentic Greek text in their day, then this would have been a useless defense on their part. (see the section on the historical background of 1.8 of the Confession in Sean’s post for more on this).

The practice of modern textual critics is also certainly not in line with the Church tradition. They will often accuse Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza of doing work similar to theirs, but their practice differs in several vital areas. Most importantly, the manuscripts used for the TR had been in active use by the church in the East, and had not been altogether lost to the people of God. The manuscripts came to the West after Greek-speaking Christians were pushed out of their native territory, just in time for the development of the printing press, which would give the new Reformation Church a stable Greek text to be propagated and translated into the native languages of Protestants throughout the world. (The convergence of all those factors at one time and place seems almost providential, doesn’t it?). As such, the reformers were able to receive their Bible from a living tradition, rather than from an archeological site. For those interested in exploring the differences between the methodologies of the Reformers and modern textual critics more, I commend this article by Taylor DeSoto to you.

How the Modern Critical Text Position is Based Only on the Third and Weakest Form of Authority

That modern textual criticism is based neither in Scriptural truths nor Church tradition hardly needs to be proved. Proponents are quite open to the fact that it’s based in considerations such as the perceived development of text types, the plausibility that a scribe would make one sort of error over another, and an evaluation of the earliest extant copies. An easy proof of this is that some of the greatest textual critics even in the eyes of Christians in the field are unbelievers like Bart Ehrman, and that their scholars do not see the sharing of different theological commitments as any hindrance to their work.

But how could it possibly not be a hindrance? In a world where God has – with His singular care and providence – been working to keep His text pure in all ages, would we not expect a denial of that truth to have an impact on the work of the textual critic, and lead him to erroneous conclusions at least some of the time? Wouldn’t someone who believes God was working to give His Church His pure Word have a different standard of what’s necessary to overthrow the present text than someone who believes that the present text is just as likely to be inauthentic as not? We’d expect that someone who didn’t believe in preservation would overthrow the Church’s readings whenever the “preponderance of evidence” (according to the standards they’ve come up with) favored another reading by any more than 50%, but we hope the believer in God’s preservation would need something significantly more compelling than that. How then, could the believer and unbeliever come up with the same text, unless the believer was doing textual critical work with unbelieving presuppositions, or else the unbeliever was behaving like a believer? Considering the statements of some believing textual critics, such as Tommy Wasserman who once said, “I would like to work as a text-critic as if God didn’t exist, so to speak,” it’s not hard to say which of those two scenarios has happened.

In the last section, I will show how that – like every other argument grounded in the third category – the methods adopted by modern textual critics are far from able to provide the certainty they pretend to, and so do not come close to challenging a position built on God’s sure promises.

Part 2 – No Ability to Reconstruct the Text of the Early Centuries

One of the easiest ways to tell if someone has understood our position is if they accuse us of being inconsistent on the grounds that we have no consistent textual critical methodology to reconstruct the text. This would be much like saying to a young earth creationist (such as myself), “You have no consistent scientific methodology to determine the age of the earth! You use one standard of explaining fossils that exist in this strata, and another standard for fossils in a different one, etc.” Someone who would say this to a creationist clearly has not understood their position; the creationist position is that we should not use scientific inquiry to determine the age of the earth! The evidence is too fragmentary, the assumptions behind historical science are unfounded and untestable, and none of their efforts have the infallibility of God’s Word, which plainly teaches a young earth. Likewise, we proponents of the Textus Receptus say that the manuscript evidence is too fragmentary, that the assumptions behind textual criticism are unfounded and untestable, and that none of their efforts have the infallibility of God’s Word, which plainly teaches God preserved His Word.

The parallels between creationism and the arguments in favor of the TR are many, and the proponent of the modern critical text would do well to stop and ask himself before making a given argument: “Does this argument look a lot like the ones old earth creationists use against young earth creationists?” They complain that we shouldn’t discuss evidence if our position is theologically based. Well, is Ken Ham wrong to look at fossil evidence when his position is theologically based? It would be inconsistent of us to do so if we were saying our position was based on manuscript evidence, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful in bringing up the errors of our opponents’ viewpoint, and showing that the evidence is not as conclusive as they’d like it to be. Their view, in fact, has many problems.

1- Their evidence is fragmentary. Despite the often repeated trope that “we have earlier and better copies of the New Testament than any other work of antiquity,” the honest truth is we have nowhere near the number of copies necessary to establish the readings of the early Church with the level of certainty maintained by some modern critical text advocates. While its true that we have a greater number of New Testament manuscripts than other works of antiquity, and we have certain fragments that are nearer to the time of the autographs than can be found in other ancient works, none of these facts imply that we can have the kind of certainty we’d like to have in the reading of the Word of God. Most of the large number of New Testament manuscripts are late, and agree much more with the Textus Receptus than they do with the modern critical text. But there are some parts of Revelation, for example, that have only one extant Greek manuscript attesting to them for nearly the first thousand years of the Church, and it’s a sleight of hand to use the large number of later manuscripts to say that the early copies of the Church are well-attested to. Further, the Greek copies that we do have from the earlier periods are not geographically wide-spread, but simply come from a region whose climate was more conducive to their survival: Egypt. There is no good evidence that those manuscripts were representative of the text in Christendom as a whole and not simply the region they came from. This is especially probable because those texts (formally called “Alexandrian,” but that’s no longer recognized as a legitimate category) have been observed to contain more readings in common with the Textus Receptus the older they are. In the early 3rd Century Cheaster Beatty Papyri, for example, there are dozens of readings that are distinctly Byzantine (the family of manuscripts the TR belongs to), which surprised the textual critics of the time, who before only had Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus as the earliest Greek manuscript evidence [2]. In any case, the “Alexandrian” manuscript family that the modern critical texts mostly align with has little more than a handful of early manuscripts (mostly fragmented) from a narrow region of Christendom to support it. Considering the immensely larger population of manuscripts that no doubt existed at the time, the vast swaths of Christendom whose climate wasn’t favorable for the survival of manuscripts, and the apparent lack of influence these manuscripts had on many that came after them, can anyone say that this is sufficient to determine with certainty what the text of the Church looked like at this time? Especially when that “text” is so unstable, and its manuscripts so dissimilar from one another, that modern textual critics are abandoning the notion that its representatives could even be classified into a unified manuscript family?

For throwing doubt on the notion that the manuscript evidence is solid enough to reconstruct the text of Scripture with a high degree of certainty, TR proponents are often accused of a “hyper-skepticism” that would obliterate are ability to know anything about ancient history at all. The argument seems to be that since the standards for establishing the readings of other ancient works is even weaker than those for the New Testament, that therefore the small, disparate, regional manuscripts must be good and solid. This is a non sequitur. Poor evidence for one discipline doesn’t make evidence for another good. Further, TR advocates do not generally say that the scant evidence means you wouldn’t be able to know anything about the New Testament by the standards of secular history, or that you can’t know anything about Plato or Aristotle; rather, what we are saying is that it’s utterly insufficient to be able to establish individual readings with anywhere near the level of certainty that the opposing position pretends. Especially since – as the early, heretical corrupters like Marcion have shown – the authority that the New Testament demands over its hearers provides greater motivation for evil men to alter it than the works of Plato or Aristotle, and so if we are to appeal to the world’s standards of textual certainty, we would have greater reason to be suspicious of the copies of the New Testament than other works of antiquity. Therefore, our standard of evidence would need to be all the more stronger, and we cannot pretend that as long as it would be sufficient for another work that it would be sufficient for the NT. Most importantly, we can all rest easy if the standards for the Greek poets is only good enough to reliably establish their general content and not their exact words, but we can NOT rest easy if that’s all we can do with the Bible. God’s words are much more precious to the Church than the words of ancient pagans, and God has promised to preserve His words perfectly, not theirs. Every word of God is pure (Proverbs 30:5).

2- Their methods are unscientific. Despite often being referred to as the “science” of textual criticism, textual criticism is about as scientific as the social sciences. It’s essentially just guess work, and the principles for favoring one variant over another rests on little else than the opinions of a few men who pioneered the field. Sure, on the microscopic scale they may be able to reliably determine the spelling of a word, but whenever they encounter a translatable variant of significance, their “scientific” methodology is basically, “If I was the scribe in that circumstance, I think I’d probably be more likely to make this mistake instead of that mistake.” Examining their works, the language that appears is “probably,” “most likely,” “with little doubt,” etc. Unlike a real scientific discipline, they are unable to quantify those probabilities in any meaningful way. This is because they can’t conduct any sort of rigorous experiment to examine the success-rate of the “rules” they developed. Without knowing what the correct readings of a text should be, there is no way to determine if their methods have produced the correct readings, which is why they are unable to provide any hard numbers about the likelihood of their product. They are ultimately limited to their ability to imagine the different motivations for spurious readings, as well as their ability to reconstruct the circumstances of the unknown scribe, without any thorough way to determine if they’ve done a good job. Indeed, there must be many places where they haven’t done a very good job before, because as we speak CBGM (a computerized way of trying to uncover relationships between manuscripts) is overthrowing a large number of the readings that they claimed were established using reliable principles that could give us near certainty. So far, in fact, CBGM has been favoring Byzantine readings.

An example of the unreliability of their historical methods may be helpful. There’s a discrepancy in the opening of Mark’s Gospel between the TR and the modern critical text. The TR reads,

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:2-3)

However, in the modern critical text, instead of reading “As it is written in the prophets,” it reads “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet.” The problem with this reading is that the quotation that Mark immediately references is from Malachi, not Isaiah. But largely because one of the principles of textual criticism is to prefer the harder reading – i.e., the reading that’s harder for them to imagine emerging by accident – they ignore the vast majority of manuscripts which read “the prophets” in favor of “Isaiah the prophet.” They generally excuse the problem on the grounds that there was a custom to refer to the scroll of a major prophet that a minor prophet was attached to, but those who have looked into this have been hard-pressed to find a citation for that claim. But in any case, it’s far from inexplicable why “Isaiah the prophet” might have been tacked on later. I say that with confidence, because I once made a similar mistake myself. Earlier in my Christian walk, I had a conversation with two Jehovah’s Witnesses, and while witnessing to them I remembered hearing something about the citation in Mark 1:2 confirming that Jesus is Jehovah God. And so, I went to my King James Bible, which read “the prophets” in Mark 1:2, and recognizing the language of the quotation that followed, I went to the place I was sure it came from… Isaiah 40. Unfortunately, I found Isaiah 40 wasn’t nearly as clear in confirming Christ’s Deity as I was expecting it to be. The reason, of course, is because the passage Mark cites in verse 2 which proves Jesus is Jehovah God is in Malachi 3, not Isaiah 40, even though Mark references Isaiah 40:3 in verse 3. Because Isaiah is a more familiar book to most Christians than Malachi, and because I didn’t have the whole of chapter 40 memorized (believe it or not), I simply assumed that’s where the whole passage was from. Would it be shocking, then, if an early scribe who likewise didn’t have the whole Bible memorized but recognized the familiar language of Isaiah, wrote “Isaiah” in the margins, which was later confused as part of the text? This is especially probable considering that the scribe very likely wouldn’t have even had an Old Testament on hand to check the citation, and he couldn’t exactly Google the reference either.

Many more examples of their suspect conclusions could be given. I bring up that example not to say for sure how the error arose (I can’t mind-read the scribe any better than they can), but rather to show that it’s unwise to base our texts on the limited imagination of man. There is no guarantee we could come close to imagining all the possible ways one reading may have emerged over another, so it’s dangerous to place confidence in a reading simply because we think it’s less likely to be accidental. We are dealing with the Word of God, and we need a much surer ground for our confidence than what men can provide.

3- Their methods are inconsistent. The methods which they defend as the best way to reliably ground the preservation of Scripture can’t be applied to the whole Bible. Namely, they cannot be applied to Old Testament. A staple of their argumentation is that we can have confidence that we have the Word of God in the modern critical editions because it’s based on earlier and better evidence than other works of antiquity. However, the same people will usually insist that we can be confident about the readings of the Bible as a whole, but the OT would fail by those standards. The earliest material we have for the OT are the ~3rd Century BC Dead Sea Scrolls, which do include virtually the entirety of Isaiah, but otherwise little more than scraps of the rest of the OT. For the rest of the Hebrew Bible, we have the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex, which are from the 10th and 11th centuries AD. Considering that the Pentateuch was written c. 1500 BC, we’re talking about a gap of ~2500 years from the autographs to our earliest copies. To dodge this obvious problem, evidence-based apologists will appeal to how similar the material is in the Dead Sea Scrolls is to the later copies we have, and indeed this is a remarkable testament to God’s providence in preserving His Word. However, they have already rejected appealing to God’s providence to ground the text of Scripture, and so to fill in the massive gaps between the earliest copies and the originals they appeal to the rigorous copying techniques of the Jewish Masoretes, and say this is sufficient reason from a purely naturalistic perspective to trust that the OT we have is authentic. But this argument cannot withstand any serious scrutiny, because it relies on extrapolating the techniques of the later Masoretes (6th-10th centuries AD) all the way back to the time of Moses. The history given to us in our Bible makes this impossible. Are we to believe that the techniques of the Masoretes were employed during the Babylonian Captivity? If we insist on not appealing to the promises of God when establishing our text, what historical evidence would anyone bring to say those practices existed during that time? Further, we know there wasn’t any extensive copying during the early reign of Josiah, because the copy found in the Temple was the only one they had (2 Kings 22:8-10). You can say that it was faithfully transmitted before and after that event, which I do, but you must admit that our grounds for saying that with confidence can only be God’s promise to preserve His Word. And if you say that we can be confident about the readings of a text that’s removed 2500 years from its originals, how can you turn around and say we’re wrong for trusting a text 1500 years removed from its originals is authentic? Are we wrong to do that because you believe the evidence we’ve found since that time undermines the TR (despite the fact this evidence isn’t good enough to prove that a single reading of our TR is inauthentic)? If that’s the case, why can you be confident that the Hebrew Bible we have is authentic, and that we won’t find earlier evidence for it that undermines it, in the same way you believe the TR has since been undermined? You surely can’t claim that our copies of the OT are too near to their originals to make that impossible. You are left where we are, and where we will always remain by the grace of God: trusting in God’s providence for your Bible.

Conclusion

When there’s a conflict between the plain reading of Scripture and the “plain reading” of other forms of evidence, we must always let Scripture interpret the evidence, and not let evidence interpret the Scriptures. This, I contend, is the foundation of creationism as well as the TR. Scripture was given to us to read and understand by the infallible God, but extra-biblical evidence has no such promise attached to it, and we have no reason to believe the “plain reading” of the current consensus of any human field was meant to lead us into truth. When the choice is between arguments built on the infallible ground of Scripture and arguments built on the quicksand of man’s reasoning, latest archaeological findings, and favorite scholars, we hope the right decision is clear.

Footnotes:

[1] Proverbs 11:14, of course, is speaking of godly counselors – followers of the old paths whose wisdom is rooted in God’s Word, such as the old men who counseled Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12:7. The verse is not speaking of counselors that may appear in the third category – those like the young men who counseled Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12:10-11 out of their own fleshly wisdom. The latter type of counselors multiply only folly.

[2] Hills, Edwards. The King James Version Defended. Des Moines: The Christian Research Press, 1997. Pg. 225.

Thoughts on the Textus Receptus: A Critical Text View

Author’s note: This is a revision of my opening statement from my debate with The Particular Baptist Podcast co-host Sean Cheetham. The content of this post is not representative of all contributors at The Particular Baptist.

CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s opening post by Sean Cheetham as he introduced this series with his position.

Recently, there has been a resurgence in debate as it relates to the text of the New Testament. Should the Textus Receptus (TR) be considered the “final word of God”? Those of the so-called “ecclesiastical text” or “confessional text” perspective would have us believe that the TR fits this paradigm. As debated in our last episode, Is the TR the Preserved Word of God? this was brought forward. To be clear, I do not mean to say that my opponent is “TR only”. He is not. However, I believe the core arguments for both “TR onlyists” and “TR advocates” are the same. Before moving on, I want to briefly provide context on what the TR (Textus Receptus) is.  The TR as it is known is really the combination of the Greek texts of Erasmus, Beza, and Stephanus. They each produced more than one Greek New Testament.  Their works would be utilized by the King James Bible translators.  The TR that is probably used most today is not strictly the works of Erasmus, Beza, and Stephanus.  It would be the work of Scrivener’s published Greek New Testament which is a work based on the underlying textual choices made by the King James translators.

Considering all the evidence we have is important if we are to honestly view the text of the New Testament. We should not simply pick a text-type, or a specific printed Greek text based on tradition or any other means that excludes honest historical evidence.  I believe that God has kept his Word pure in all ages as the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith states in chapter 1 paragraph 8.  I believe His Word has been preserved and kept from error.  This does not mean that the manuscripts were kept free from human mistakes as plainly seen by the over 400,000 variants that show up in our manuscripts which is more variants than there are words in the New Testament. But it does mean that in the tradition, God has kept his Word pure. As a side note, I do not believe that this confession is saying that a particular Greek text was kept pure, but that the text has been preserved in the manuscript tradition. James Renihan in an article titled “Our Confession and the Textual History of Scripture” writes on the historical accuracy of the claim that paragraph 1.8 is talking about the Textus Receptus. He notes,

“On the Confessional issue, I think that the matter has to be handled with great care.  On the one hand, it is easy to think that the language of the Confession supports the kind of doctrine of providential preservation promoted by modern defenders of the Textus Receptus.  But, in the study that I have done on the issue, I think that that is probably anachronistic.  Much more work needs to be done, but I think that the Confessional position is much more carefully nuanced than is sometimes represented to us today.”

He goes onto quote William Bridge who was a Westminster Divine and since the 1689 is based on the work of these Divines (at least in part), it can provide insight into what was believed by those scholars.  Bridge writes in his Works,

“How can we hold and keep fast the letter of the Scripture when there are so many Greek copies of the New Testament, and those diverse from another?”

“Yes, well; for though there are many received copies of the New Testament, yet there is no material difference between them.  The four evangelists do vary in the relation of the same thing; yet because there is no contradiction, or material variation, we do adhere to all of them, and deny none.  In the times of the Jews, before Christ, they had but one original of the Old Testament, yet that hath several readings: there is a marginal reading, and a line reading, and they differ no less than eight hundred times the one from the other; yet the Jews did adhere to both, and denied neither.  Why? Because there was no material difference.  And so now, though there be many copies of the New Testament, yet seeing there is no material difference between them, we may adhere to all: for whoever will understand the Scripture, must be sure to keep and hold fast the latter, not denying it.”

This statement by Bridge does not imply the settlement on a single Greek text or manuscript but taking the evidence that is given to reconstruct the original. What this means is that these men, at least with Bridge, would have loved to look at the other evidence we have today, yet would have held to divine preservation.  There may be a rebuttal that they would only be collating manuscripts of their day and therefore would not have envisioned using manuscripts found after their time. My response would be that nothing in what Bridge said implies only utilizing manuscripts of his day but discusses the method used to reconstruct the text. This method transcends manuscripts confined to a specific point in history and can be applied across the board.

Renihan goes onto quote Richard Muller who is a scholar in Reformed history from his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms,

“specifically, variant readings in the several ancient codices of Scripture that lead to debate concerning the infallibility of the scriptural Word.  The orthodox, Lutheran and Reformed, generally argued that the meaning of the original can be recovered by careful collation of the texts.  In the second half of the seventeenth century, the argument was developed that inconsistencies occurred only in the copies, or apographa, and not in the now lost originals, or autographa, of Scripture.”

With confessional discussion aside, I want to address some assertions made by my brother Sean and bring out more detail than I was able to in our debate.

First, Sean asserts in a paper he wrote called, “The Word of God Kept Pure for us to Read in our Language” that modern textual criticism means text has been lost due to corruption. He writes,

“Modern textual criticism rests on the idea that the text of the Bible has become corrupt and is currently in the process of being restored…If it is true that the Bible was corrupt, then at best we could say that it was kept pure in some ages, but not that it was kept pure in all ages.  This is not to ignore the fact that the manuscript copies of the Bible do contain variances from one another, and clear deviations from the original text.  However, that fact does not mean the true church as a whole had a completely corrupted textual transmission.  We would expect by God’s providence that, even if only in a minority of manuscripts, the correct words of any part of scripture would be preserved somewhere in the Greek and Hebrew and at least some of the church would have access to it.  Any idea that part of the text has been completely lost to the church (even if only for a certain amount of time) should be rejected on its unbiblical nature.”

This argument is a strawman as it presents modern textual criticism as monolithic when it is not. Notice what Kurt and Barbara Aland said about the text’s tenacity in their book The Text of the New Testament on pages 291-292 and 294 respectively,

“The transmission of the New Testament textual tradition is characterized by an extremely impressive degree of tenacity. Once a reading occurs it will persist with obstinacy …. It is precisely the overwhelming mass of the New Testament textual tradition which provides an assurance of certainty in establishing the original text”

“It is probably quite clear that the element of tenacity in the New Testament textual tradition not only permits but demands that we proceed on the premise that in every instance of textual variation it is possible to determine the form of the original text”

They held that we have the original readings in our textual tradition without doubt, which by implication means God has preserved His Word and kept it pure in all ages.  To imply that modern textual scholarship as a whole means text has been lost is to misrepresent the position.

Second, my brother has asserted that we must determine the Greek text of the New Testament primarily by presupposition, meaning that since the Scripture is our ultimate standard, we must believe it to be the case from a textual stand point. Since his position holds the TR as the standard, we must believe that to be God’s Word, kept from error.  An evidence of this is found in his paper,

“Although there are variances between the printed editions of the TR, the variances are minor , and based on our faith in God’s word being preserved, we should expect that the TR editions should have the true reading somewhere and that it should be possible to identify which are true and which are false on theological or other grounds. Thus, we can say that every letter of God’s word is available to us complete and pure.”

To argue your view of a certain Greek text by using “presuppositionalism” is a misapplication of Cornelius Van Til’s system of apologetics. And if all agree that his systematizing of apologetics is truly biblical, an appeal to the Scriptures for authority on this apologetic methodology cannot be done without utilizing his method. Van Til did not apply his apologetic methodology to a specific manuscript or Greek text.  You find evidence for this in his book The Defense of The Faith on page 130 of the Fourth Edition,

“The proper attitude of reason to the authority of Scripture, then, is but typical of the proper attitude of reason to the whole of the revelation of God. The objects man must seek to know are always of such a nature as God asserts they are. God’s revelation is always authoritarian. This is true of his revelation in nature no less than of his revelation in Scripture. The truly scientific method, the method which alone can expect to make true progress in learning, is therefore such a method as seeks simply to think God’s thoughts after him. When these matters are kept in mind, it will be seen clearly that the true method for any Protestant with respect to the Scripture (Christianity) and with respect to the existence of God (theism) must be the indirect method of reasoning by presupposition. It in fact then appears that the argument for the Scripture as the infallible revelation of God is, to all intents and purposes, the same as the argument for the existence of God.”

In the referenced passage in his book, we see no mention of the “TR” or any specific Greek manuscript or text. In fact, in Van Til’s specific discussion of the doctrine of Scripture (on pages 127-136) he never once discusses directly the aforementioned items. Van Til’s point here has to do with the nature and authority of Scripture, not a certain Greek New Testament, or otherwise. Even if the rebuttal is that you are not strictly arguing what Van Til proposed, you are still utilizing his method, effectively borrowing from his worldview (ironically so, given Van Til argued the same about what the unbeliever does with the Christian worldview). And if you use the teachings of another individual as is done here in supporting the TR position, those words and messages still carry the meaning as they were originally intended. Just like when the unbeliever borrows from the Christian worldview, the meaning of those items he is borrowing do not change just because he is not giving God the glory. When we go to apply the teachings of a man, we should be careful to use them as they were intended, not as we want them to be. This is also not an argument from silence, as Van Til asserts his arguments for Scripture in the positive in relation to its authority and nature as opposed to anything else.  Also, this would be the place one would expect Van Til to address an issue such as a specific text of the New Testament as he clearly applies the same ontological argument for the existence of God to the Scripture being the infallible Word of God, but does so in the context of its authority and nature and not in any way implying a specific Greek text. But do not confessional text advocates argue a Greek TEXT by presupposition? Yet Van Til never argues a TEXT by presupposition, but the Scripture’s NATURE by presupposition. The only way this could be consistent is if a specific Greek text and the nature of Scripture are conflated.

After our debate, Sean had sent me a passage from R.J. Rushdoony in a book called Faith & Action, Vol. 1: Authority, Humanism & Morality where he asserts that Van Til came to believe his apologetic methodology should be applied to the underlying text of our Bibles. The quote from him is on page 569. There are three reasons I do not believe this to be accurate:

  1. Van Til’s book The Defense of the Faith was not recanted as needing to be updated. Given what I have established already about Van Til’s position on Scripture, would it not it be important for Van Til to have updated his work to reflect his new view? Otherwise, would it not lend us to believe his work remains as is given the evidence presented in this paper? In my next point, I note what Oliphant says about this specific work of Van Til.
  2. This book is still printed as representing Van Til’s apologetic methodology and therefore his conclusions. The conclusion or application of a methodology systematized by an author cannot be divorced from the methodology itself. If Van Til did in fact change his conclusion, the methodology would indeed have to change along with it. Since the notion of “presupposition” being applied to Scripture only encompasses its nature in Van Til’s mind, the the meaning of it would have to be expanded to include a specific Greek text. If 2+2 no longer equals four but now equals six, we would not simply look at the conclusion (six), but would want to know WHY 2+2 now equals six. This is because we would see a change in methodology that now changes the conclusion that was at once different. Given what I have said about Van Til’s methodology and conclusions, notice what K. Scott Oliphant who is the editor of the Fourth Edition said on page ix of the forward of The Defense of the Faith, “Given this context of controversy, this book should be seen as the center of Van Til’s long (forty-plus years) teaching and writing career. All that he had written and taught previously leads up to this book, and all that came after reflects back to it. In that sense, this is the book to read if one wants to understand Van Til’s approach to apologetics.” The controversy noted is about critiques that were laid against Van Til in relation to his apologetic methodology.
  3. Oliphant knew Van Til in his later years while in retirement not long before his death. He corresponded with him at length and learned from him in person ergo becoming an eye witness to teaching from Van Til.  This would likely be the time that Rushdoony asserted Van Til believed his apologetic methodology should be applied to the underlying text of the Bible. Oliphant, who inputs multiple clarifications of Van Til’s methodology throughout the book, makes no mention of this alleged key shift in Van Til’s philosophy. One would expect this to be addressed given Rushdoony’s claim about how much of a controversy this was between Van Til and Hills. We also have the positive statement by Oliphant in my previous point that clearly references Van Til’s work in The Defense of the Faith as representing the apologetic views of this great man and those views do not include application of those views to a specific Greek text. The only note that Oliphant makes on page 130 as it relates to the quote I used by Van Til is where he quotes the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 1, paragraph 4 on the authority of Scripture which is consistent with Van Til’s thought process in his discussion of Scripture.

Second, I want to address an inconsistency in Sean’s view of preservation and that the text the 16th century was “solidified”.

I want to demonstrate this by using the comma Johanneum.   He holds that the comma Johanneum is original, which creates problems with preservation on his own standard (the alleged grammatical issue created with the comma’s absence aside). The comma Johanneum does not show itself in the Greek tradition until the 13th century when a Greek copy of the Latin came into the scene.  This means that there is no early Greek evidence for this reading.  It only appears in Latin.  If a verse does not show up in the Greek tradition until the 13th century, and is later part of the text in the 16th century, doesn’t that mean the verse would have disappeared for nearly 1,200 years? This idea has been brought out by James White. Furthermore, does not this mean that the purity of the Word would not have been kept by God in all ages? This means that my brother cannot hold to preservation consistently with the very Greek New Testament he espouses as containing the Word kept pure. Even if you want to go to Erasmus, whose work was part of the TR, he did not include the comma Johanneum in his Greek New Testament until his third edition. If one of the framers of what would become the TR had issues with this verse, should that not cause one to pause and consider the authenticity of this verse? Luther’s German Bible did not even contain it since his New Testament was based on Erasmus’s second edition.

Dan Wallace, in talking about the comma Johanneum and about those who say the TR is the original text in an article titled, “The Textual Problem in 1 John 5:7-8” says,

“Modern advocates of the Textus Receptus and KJV generally argue for the inclusion of the Comma Johanneum on the basis of heretical motivation by scribes who did not include it. But these same scribes elsewhere include thoroughly orthodox readings—even in places where the TR/Byzantine manuscripts lack them. Further, these KJV advocates argue theologically from the position of divine preservation: since this verse is in the TR, it must be original. But this approach is circular, presupposing as it does that the TR = the original text. Further, it puts these Protestant proponents in the awkward and self-contradictory position of having to affirm that the Roman Catholic humanist, Erasmus, was just as inspired as the apostles, for on several occasions he invented readings—due either to carelessness or lack of Greek manuscripts (in particular, for the last six verses of Revelation Erasmus had to back-translate from Latin to Greek).”

This has now been updated to seven readings due to later findings.

Would not this mean Erasmus ADDED to the text?  Does not that mean there would be more than God had preserved? How is that consistent with God’s Word being kept pure in all ages? To be clear, Wallace’s discussion about what TR and KJV advocates argue in his first two sentences does not appear to represent my brother Sean. But it provides context to what Wallace is arguing.

As to the notion of a “solidified” text in the 16th century, Sean writes about this as well in his paper. He asserts that the text the Protestants had was solidified with the help of the printing press.

“So, if modern textual critical methods are unable to help us identify the true text, how do we know what it is?  We should expect based on the wording of the confession and the scripture that we should have the text that the true church of Christ has always had.  While it may be harder to see what the state of the text in the manuscripts was in earlier centuries, even with new manuscript finds, we do know what the text looked like that was available to Protestantism in the 16th century when the text became solidified with the help of the printing press. The Hebrew text of the Old Testament that was available was known as the Masoretic Text, and the Greek text of the New is commonly called the Textus Receptus (TR).”

Sean noted in our debate that “solidified” was referring to the lack of ability for errors to be introduced into the text which by implication means the text had to be pure. Erasmus and the Reformers did not believe the Greek text of the New Testament was “settled” or “solidified” in their time as evidenced in the fact that not all the “TRs” of the day even agreed with one another. For instance, in Luke 17:36, Erasmus omitted this verse but Beza kept it. Theodore Beza even made a conjectural emendation at Revelation 16:5 deviating from Stephanus (as discussed in The King James Only Controversy second edition on page 105).

John Calvin, who was one of the Reformers, did not believe in a “solidified” or “finalized” text either as evidenced by his own changes to the “TR” of the time through conjectural emendations. Again, refer to James White in The King James Only Controversy of the second edition on page 114,

“Hills also noted that Calvin went beyond Erasmus, adding eighteen other places where he rejected TR readings in favor of others. Calvin also made two conjectural emendations: (1) at James 4:2, in reading “envy” instead of “kill”, and (2) deleting 1 John 2:14, seeming to him a repetitious interpolation.”

Reconstruction had to be done to the text.

Weren’t Reformers and Erasmus the ones who challenged Rome’s view of Scripture being preserved in the Latin Vulgate? Weren’t they the ones who were reconstructing Greek texts in opposition to the status quo? How are TR advocates not falling into the same position Rome did by challenging those who would criticize the TR? There were those who even questioned Erasmus’s view of inspiration in relation to his Greek New Testament as noted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Erasmus’s life:

“Critics of Erasmus’ New Testament edition accused him of introducing changes to a sacred text and thus challenging the principle of inspiration. Erasmus denied these charges. On the contrary, he said, his edition restored the original text and corrected the errors introduced by translators and scribes.”

It can be seen from this short historical survey that this idea of a text that could not have errors introduced into it was unknown to the writers of the said text, and the one who advocates for that view must remain alone as it relates to its authors.

In conclusion, preservation of the Scriptures is especially important. If there is no preservation of God’s Word, there can be no confidence in what the New Testament teaches and therefore we cannot know what God has told us. Our faith would have no ground without the Scriptures. However, holding onto false notions of what the Greek New Testament should look like leads us into misrepresenting history. We must not fall into such historical fallacies.

Can Rome Even Identify the Word of God?

A frequent claim by Roman Catholics is that Protestants need Rome to know what the Bible is. After all, how could we infallibly know the contents of the Bible? We need an infallible authority, and Rome is just that authority they claim. However, I’d like to pose a question: Can Rome actually identify what the contents of the Bible are? I know they claim they can, but their official pronouncements are contradictory, which leads me to conclude that even on their own terms Rome cannot tell us what the word of God is.

I’d like to investigate the difference between what the Reformation-era Roman Catholic Church says is contained in the Bible, and what modern Rome says. The first thing to understand is that the Latin Vulgate was affirmed as the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church at the council of Trent.[1] However, in the 20th century the Nova Vulgata (New Vulgate) was adopted as the official Latin text of the church.[2] So the question is: are there significant differences between these two editions of the Vulgate? I’d like to look at two texts to demonstrate that Rome can’t even identify the true contents of the bible.

Acts 8:37

Acts 8:37 is a contested verse because it is not well represented in the Greek manuscripts we have that survived to this day[3]. It reads as follows in the New King James Version:

Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.”
And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

The New King James Version. (1982). (Ac 8:37). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

This verse was included in the Latin Vulgate of the Reformation era. An easy way for an English speaker to see this is to look at the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible, which was an approved Catholic translation of the Vulgate into English[4]:

And Philip said: If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest. And he answering, said: I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

Acts 8:37, The Holy Bible Douay Rheims Version.

However, this verse is not included in the Nova Vulgata. As you can see from the Vatican’s website, the verse itself missing. All that remains is the verse number in parenthesis.

1 John 5:7

1 John 5:7 (known as the Comma Johanneum) is a hotly contested verse, because it doesn’t appear in very many Greek manuscripts, and the ones it does appear in were made very late[5]. Again, this verse is included in the Latin Vulgate of the day:

And there are three who give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost. And these three are one

1 John 5:7, The Holy Bible Douay Rheims Version.

So is it in the Nova Vulgata? This will be a little more difficult for non-Latin readers, as it does include a verse 7. However, it does not have the same contents as the verse 7 from the Old Latin Vulgate. A modern Roman Catholic translation will show the difference:

So there are three that testify,

1 John 5:7, New American Bible

There is a significant portion of the verse that is gone. So how much does this really matter for the Roman Catholic? It matters a great deal because as the Council of Trent declared:

But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.

Council of Trent, Session IV, First Decree

Note that is says the “books entire with all their parts”. This would include Acts 8:37 and 1 John 5:7. So what are we to make of this then? Has Trent condemned modern Rome saying it is anathema for holding different parts of the Bible? Is modern Rome correct, and Trent mistaken? If Trent can be mistaken about this, can it be mistaken about other things, most importantly justification by faith alone?

To get back to my original question, it does not appear that Rome is able to tell us what the word of God is. Roman Catholics might say that, while perhaps they don’t know what the exact words of the books of the Bible are, we still need Rome to tell us what books should be in the Bible. However, this is nonsensical. Should we trust Rome on the macro level when it comes to the canon, when it cannot tell us even the littlest part of it?

Now, the Roman Catholic may ask at this point how I, as a Reformed Baptist, know what the word of God is. And this is a very fair question to ask. To quote from my confession of faith:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church of God to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scriptures; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, and the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, and many other incomparable excellencies, and entire perfections thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, Paragraph 5.

The testimony of the Church may indeed be helpful for identifying the word of God. However, ultimately it is the Holy Spirit that gives us testimony that the Bible is the word of God, and he being God is able to communicate us this knowledge infallibly. Does this mean that every true Christian is always knows exactly what the word of God is? No it does not, but it does mean it is possible in this life to know exactly what the word of God is. So I invite my Roman Catholic readers to come out of the institution that is the Roman Catholic Church, which makes enormous claims about the certainty it can provide, but ultimately cannot deliver. I’ll close with a passage from the word of the living God:

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.  And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.

The New King James Version. (1982). (Jn 10:27–28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[1] https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2014/nine-things-know-council-trent/?fbclid=IwAR2ATiRhKQFnkyshmUo4gX8w4g0iLCaACR5SfnWUWrRvJl7S4LjCNnZ3zq0

[2] https://m.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/is-the-vulgate-the-catholic-churchs-official-bible?fbclid=IwAR2D69Eibl2XQH7hDdzKwTcdoVevN1XDC9pGbs3a-Qf3Q92bWVTz1suTWZw

[3] It should be noted that author of this post considers Acts 8:37 to be part of the inspired word of God

[4] https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/uncomfortable-facts-about-the-douay-rheims?fbclid=IwAR2XyGlB6LOHRO6RiTFfl563p14d_7jg2OqjoAFUUlgm0tdh46fOxMU9xjk

[5] It should be noted that author of this post considers 1 John 5:7 as found in the majority of editions of the Textus Receptus to be part of the inspired word of God

Errors About the Trinity: A Classical Defense

There is perhaps no doctrine more frequently misunderstood or more difficult to comprehend than the doctrine of the Trinity. A large amount of our errors stem from our refusal to acknowledge that we cannot fully grasp it, and that the inner-workings of our almighty, infinite God are far beyond the capacity of even the best and brightest minds of men. It is a doctrine that we must receive to be true and shun any hint of deviation from, regardless of how much an alternative view might appeal to our fallen nature. Fortunately for 21st Century Christians, we have an abundance of riches that we may inherit from those who came before us – precious understandings of Scripture that have been tried, debated, and hammered out for two millennia by our Bible-believing forebears who have proven them to be in accord with the entirety of the Divine Revelation. Unfortunately for 21st Century Christians, of late there has arisen the most acute epistemological snobbery to ever infiltrate the ranks of many of the Church elite. These men treat their heirlooms like worn-out clothes, which may have fit once-upon-a-time but are now well out of fashion. They view their ancestors as barbarians to be pitied for their simplicity, and whose entire enterprise needs to be recreated from the ground up. My aim is to familiarize the reader with the jewels trampled upon by many prominent figures of our day, and to steer them away from the doctrines which contradict orthodoxy. I also aim to show that – while above our understanding – the classical doctrine of the Trinity is coherent, beautiful, and logically sound in the truth it proclaims.

The Litmus Test

Here at the Particular Baptist, we subscribe to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, and hold it to be an accurate summary of Biblical teachings. Concerning the Trinity, our confession speaks as follows:

“In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.”

1689 LBCF 2.3

In this articulation of the Trinity, there is nothing peculiar to our confession. It’s merely an expanded form of the corresponding section in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which itself is little more than a summary of the Nicene Creed that has been universally accepted by the Church for almost 1700 years now. Rather than unpack the meaning of these affirmations at the outset, we will take the via negativa, and uncover their truths by examining the falsehoods that depart from them. Only in the context of the errors that prompted the development of our standard Trinitarian language can we fully appreciate the precision and depth found in our historic confessions.

Part I – Errors Concerning the Trinity

Aside from overt denial of the Trinity, there are only two primary ways of departing from the above truths among those who still insist to be “Trinitarian”: modalism and tri-theism. Anyone who explicitly adopted either of those views would immediately be labeled as a heretic by orthodox believers worth their salt, but there are many who hold to either modalistic or tri-theistic understandings of the Trinity who will still claim to be Trinitarian, and so they fly under the radar of many Christians. Indeed, there are likely even many genuine, born-again believers who honestly think they have orthodox views about the Trinity, but have conceptions that are more akin to these heresies simply because they have never been properly instructed. We must be willing to extend grace to those who struggle but are eager to learn, since a mature understanding of the doctrine is difficult to expect for babes in the Faith. Such Christians may believe in the Triune God of Scipture and simply fail to properly articulate Him. However, less gentleness is called for when dealing with seminary-educated men who make themselves out to be leaders. Those we will be rebuking in this essay are those who are fully aware of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and yet still deny it, all the while pretending to believe in the Trinity lest anyone call them what they are. We will first deal with the error of modalism.

1.1 – Modalism

Part of the reason why so many professing Trinitarians end up with modalistic conceptions is because they don’t really understand what modalism is. There’s a misconception that modalism is the belief that the Persons of the Trinity are one God taking on different roles at different times, and that He is never more than one Person at one time. However, this is indeed a misconception, and one that I’ve seen made even by popular teachers who should know better. There is nothing in modalism that precludes God from being different Persons (or, in their view, manifestations) at the same time. A Oneness Pentecostal who knows his stuff won’t flinch to see the Father and Son contemporaneously interacting with each other. What distinguishes modalists is their belief that the distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity are not real, eternal distinctions within the Godhead, but are rather the distinctions between the roles God plays in creation. Accordingly, you can have real interactions between the manifestations of God within creation, because in their view these are simply the distinct roles of the one Person intermingling. The key difference between Trinitarian theology and modalistic theology is NOT the fact that the distinct Persons of the Trinity simultaneously exist in creation, but that they are simultaneously distinct in eternity, within the Godhead Himself. The Bible says that Jesus shared His glory with the Father as a distinct Person “before the world was” (John 17:5), and that, in the beginning, the Word already was God and with God (John 1:1), and therefore the Word was/is distinct from God the Father outside of creation. And so, if you believe that the Trinity is something like the separating of a single beam of light as it travels through the prism of creation, I humbly encourage you to repent, because that is not true Trinitarianism, but modalism. Creation may magnify the distinctions between the Persons, but they already exist within the Godhead. Simply confessing that the Father is not the Son, who is not the Spirit, and yet that all three are One God does not sufficiently distinguish you from modalism – you must confess that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct in eternity. This is why the LBCF stresses that “the Son is eternally begotten of the Father,” because this affirms that the distinction is not temporal, but eternal. And so, a heretic like T.D. Jakes can throw Trinitarians all the bones he wants by saying he believes in the distinction of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but until he confesses that they are distinct within the Godhead, this concession means little.

1.2 – Tri-theism

The bulk of our concern in this essay will be combating tri-theism. This is because, unlike modalism, latent forms of tri-theism have ample support in the modern academy itself. If modalistic conceptions are common among lay people, at least they usually won’t be encouraged in that error when they turn for instruction. However, when the teachers themselves teach heresy, the danger is much greater. Not many will be surprised to see T.D. Jakes called a heretic, but would you expect that someone like William Lane Craig has embraced a fundamentally heretical view of the ontological nature of God? Unfortunately it’s true, and – as we shall see – he and many other such men have fearlessly abandoned a core tenet of the Christian faith confessed with unanimity for over 1800 years.

This error stems from a Jesuit by the name of Theodore de Régnon, who in 1892 began to write of an alleged fundamental difference between Latin-scholastic and Greek-patristic Trinitarian ontology. This misconception has grown to become an imagined divide between Eastern and Western Trinitarian thought altogether, rather than the specific Greek/Latin subcategories that de Régnon theorized. According to de Régnon, the basic difference between the two camps was that the Latins started with the divine essence and then proceeded to the Trinity, while the Greeks started with the Trinity and then proceeded to the divine essence. This distinction (which stands on specious grounds to begin with [1]) may seem harmless, but modern heretics have abused it to frame their abominations with historical legitimacy. Straining this perceived Eastern tradition, they feel comfortable to assert that the individual Persons of the Trinity have an ontological priority to the essence of the One God (which even de Régnon does not say the Greeks believed). Or, to translate tradesman-speak into English, what these theologians say is that God is the RESULT of the three Persons coming together, and therefore NONE of the Persons are themselves the One God; He is simply the combination of the Persons. In this view, God is composed of three distinct Beings, and therefore there is not really one, but three Gods! Make no mistake, friend, this is not monotheism, but tri-theism. Lest anyone think I’m misrepresenting them, let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth:

“Father, Son, and Spirit must be regarded as tightly enough related to each so as to render plausible the judgement that they constitute a particular social unit … In such social monotheism, it will be appropriate to use the designator God to refer to the whole Trinity, where the Trinity is understood to be one thing, even if it is a complex thing consisting of persons, essences, and relations.”

Cornelius Plantinga, JR, “Social Trinity and Tritheism.” 68

Notice the author of that statement: Cornelius Plantinga, former president of Calvin Theological Seminary. This is not a theological liberal, but someone who claims to stand in the stream of historical evangelicalism. In Plantinga’s view, God is not One Being, but rather a social unit,” much like a cohesive community of like-minded individuals would be. The Father, Son, and Spirit do not each possess the whole, undivided Divine Essence as the LBCF asserts, but rather they are parts of the Divine Essence, and only the Trinity as a whole would rightly be called God. Therefore, Plantinga does not hold to a real, ontological monotheism, but rather a “social monotheism,” as he says. William Lane Craig is even more explicit in this:

“[My view] holds that while the persons of the Trinity are divine, it is the Trinity as a whole which is properly God … the Trinity alone is God and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while divine, are not Gods”

William Lane Craig, A Formulation and Defense of the Doctrine of the Trinity

In Craig’s view, then, only the whole Trinity can be called God, and none of the individual Persons can be called God, but only divine beings. If only Dr. Craig was around to let the Apostles know this, who routinely refer to the distinct Persons as each God in their own right (e.g. John 1:1, John 3:16, Ephesians 1:3, 1 Peter 1:2, 1 Timothy 3:16, John 21:28, Acts 5:3-4, Psalm 45:7, etc., etc.)! And while Craig tries to dodge the label of tri-theist by insisting that each Person is not Himself God (which is already profound heresy), it is truly the height of semantic trifling to deny that his position imagines three Gods, especially when he and J.P. Moreland say that the three Persons are “distinct centers of consciousness, each with its proper intellect and will” [2]. Who cares if you call each Person God or not if you say each are distinct divine beings, who each have more of a right to be called God than any of the fictions dreamed up by pagans? In their attempt to fashion God after their own image, they imagine that the Persons of God are like the persons of men, and so each Person is an ontologically distinct being with His own mind and will (contrary to Scripture, which presents no division in the one Will shared by the Persons of the Trinity [e.g. John 5:19, John 16:13]). But in this pertinacity they plummet themselves into polytheism, since if the Persons of God were like persons of men in this respect, God would no more be one Being than three like-minded comrades would be one person, and no matter how tight their “social unit” might be, they would not be One God. And so with that, Craig, Moreland, and Plantinga have abandoned all Protestant confessions, Nicaea, the Apostle’s Creed, and the daily recited Shema, which says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). They depart from the first thing Jesus says when asked what the greatest commandment is (Mark 12:28-29). To pretend that these men are orthodox, evangelical Protestants when they aren’t even monotheists is to make orthodoxy mean nothing at all.

Part II – Defending Orthodoxy

Piecing together what we’ve said so far, the philosophically-minded reader may think that our rebukes of modalism and tri-theism have put us in a predicament. On the one hand, we’ve dismissed modalism for not recognizing a distinction of Persons within the Godhead, and on the other we’ve attacked tri-theism for arguing that there are multiple distinct Beings in the Godhead. So, what are we saying? Are we saying that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father within the Godhead, and yet the Father, Son, and Spirit are each simply the same One, undivided God? Our answer: Yes, and any departure to the right or to the left of this is heresy. It’s no concern of ours if this doesn’t fit into your realm of philosophical possibilities; what’s impossible for man is possible for God. He is by no means like us or anything else we’re familiar with. However, while the inner-workings of the Trinity are far beyond us, it is possible to demonstrate that these seemingly contradictory affirmations are, in fact, logically coherent. To the best of my ability, the remainder of this essay will be dedicated to proving just that.

2.1 – Divine Simplicity

We cannot properly explore the Trinity without first discussing another crucial aspect of God’s nature: namely, His simplicity. When we say God is simple, we don’t at all mean the same thing as when we might call a man simple. God is simple in the sense that He doesn’t have parts, and that everything in God is God. As Irenaeus put it in the 2nd Century:

“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. He is, however, above [all] these properties, and therefore indescribable.”

Irenaeus. Against Heresies, 2.13.3-4

This truth, confessed by Irenaeus at a time when the Church was still relatively pure from the later errors that would seep in, has been recognized by all branches of Christendom, and retained even by those who have apostatized on other doctrines. It was recognized by all of the reformers and all the historic confessions of faith. It became a universal doctrine of the Church because it’s a thoroughly biblical doctrine, grounded on God’s repeated emphasis of His Oneness, His pure self-identification with His Being, and the utter independence He asserts from all that is not Him. I’ve gone into a little more depth explaining this doctrine elsewhere, but here I will simply say that it’s a necessary consequence of God’s self-existence. If God was composed of parts that were not simply God Himself, then He would be dependent upon those parts to be who He is. Therefore, He would not be the utterly independent, self-existing Being we see in Scripture, but rather He would be dependent on that which isn’t in and of itself God, much like a car depends on nuts and bolts that aren’t the car itself.

The universal recognition of this doctrine is one of the reasons why the appeal to the East to lend an air of legitimacy to tri-theism is so unconvincing, because all of the Eastern theologians embraced a doctrine of divine simplicity that is completely incompatible with the musings of Craig, Plantinga, and Moreland, all of whom openly reject divine simplicity. And it’s easy to see why they must do so, for there is no room to have God be the sum of three Beings who are not God in light of His simplicity.

But the doctrine requires us to be even stricter than this, making our job more difficult still; if all that is in God is God, and the three Persons are each God, then it’s not only the case that a shared divine essence is uncompounded, but also that there are no additional attributes in any of the members of the Trinity that may differentiate them. How, then, is the Father not the Son, the Son not the Spirit, and the Spirit not the Father? Boethius answers this dilemma brilliantly.

2.2 – Actual vs. Relative Properties

When we describe something, there are multiple types of predication (i.e., there are multiple ways in which we can ascribe a quality to something). For the purpose of this essay, we’ll distinguish three types of predication: essential, accidental, and relational. Essential predication deals with the essence of something: namely, that which determines what a thing is on a fundamental level. E.g., to describe Bob as a person would be an essential predication, because Bob wouldn’t be Bob if he wasn’t a person. Accidental predication, on the other hand, occurs when we describe something that isn’t fundamental to the thing we’re describing; it’s something that could change without changing the nature of the thing we’re describing. E.g., describing Bob as having white hair is an accidental predication, since Bob would still be Bob even if he had blonde hair. Finally – and most importantly for our purposes – there is relational predication, which doesn’t directly describe the thing itself, but rather its relation to something else. E.g., describing Bob as the father of Joe is a relational predication.

Why is this relevant? Because, unlike essential and accidental predication (which together may be described as actual predication), relational predication doesn’t necessarily say anything about the thing it describes, but only speaks of a relationship that exists between that thing and something else. It may sometimes imply essential and accidental qualities (e.g. Bob being a father implies something about his age, gender, and hopefully character), but – in and of itself – relational predication doesn’t demand to be associated with any essential or even accidental qualities in the thing it describes. An example Boethius uses is a person being on the right or left of someone else. “Right” can be predicated of one person, but this doesn’t distinguish any of the person’s essential or accidental properties from the person on the left. A proof of this is that we can stipulate the person on the left suddenly vanishing from reality, and yet the person on the right remains exactly the same. The only thing that has changed is that he now can no longer be called the person on the right, and has lost that relative property.

So, what if – as we must confess – the Persons of the Trinity are only distinguished by relative properties, but not by any actual (i.e., essential or accidental) properties? I’ll let Boethius answer that himself:

“Wherefore if father and son are predicates of relation, and, as we have said, have no other difference but that of relation, but relation is not predicated with reference to that of which it is predicated as if it were the thing itself and objectively predicated of it, it will not imply an otherness of the things of which it is said, but, in a phrase which aims at interpreting what we could hardly understand, an otherness of persons … since the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but God has no differences distinguishing him from God, he differs from none of the others. But where there are no differences there is no plurality; where there is no plurality there is unity … Thus the Unity of the Three is suitably established.”

Boethius. De Trinitate, V

Notice that this is precisely what was said by the LBCF, the framers of which stood on the shoulders of the giants before them. The Persons of the Trinity are there said to be “distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations,” i.e., not by any actual, objective properties, but solely by the relations existing between the Persons who are identical in essence, and not distinguished by anything else like space or time. And if there is no distinction between things, and they are not separated by either space or time, then they are indeed one and the same, yet this would not invalidate any relationship between them if one existed. Thus, the Father, Son, and Spirit are indeed distinct from one another, insofar as the Father is distinguished as the Begetter, the Son is the Begotten, and the Spirit is He that proceeds from the Father and the Son, yet they are all One and the same God. In Trinity, Unity.

2.3 – How God Can be Related to Himself

Mockers of the Faith view the idea of God’s self-relations as nonsensical. How can One and the same God be related to Himself in different ways, especially a simple God who has no parts that could have relationships between them? It would be permissible to stop here on the grounds that we, who have no idea what the divine nature is like in itself, have no basis for saying that He cannot be self-relating. But I believe it’s possible to go further, and to show that it’s not only possible, but even logical for God to be self-relating.

When I studied modern physics, I vividly remember my professor calling the Bohr model – that famous depiction of an atom’s electrons orbiting neatly around its nucleus – “a lie, but a pedagogical lie.” It’s a lie, because electrons don’t orbit like objects might on a macro-scale (they’re more like “probability clouds”), but it’s still pedagogical, because the lie reveals something true about the nature of atoms which we can learn from (i.e., the existence of electrons at different energy levels, which is analogous to an orbit). Similarly, in order to better understand the Trinity, it’s sometimes useful to resort to what could be called a “pedagogical heresy.” Much like the analogies frequently used by Athanasius, the following picture will be inadequate, and even heretical if taken too seriously, but it may nevertheless be helpful in understanding something true about the relations within the Trinity. Specifically, we will imagine what it would look like if the relationships within the Trinity emerged over time, starting with the Father and then proceeding to the Son and the Spirit. To be clear, they did NOT emerge over time, and all three Persons are eternally co-existent, but – because of the limitations of our time-bound brain – we will have to consider how the relationships would look temporally, and then we may be able to better understand how they exist logically.

Let’s begin by imagining a time when there was only God the Father (again, there was no such time, and if there were He certainly wouldn’t have been a father, but I digress). Imagine then that He decided to beget another God exactly like Himself – what would happen? If it’s a clone of Himself that He begets, there would be no difference between them, and in the absence of anything such as space or time to distinguish them (as would actually be the case), the action of begetting would simply result in Himself. No new Being was generated. However, just because He didn’t generate a new Being doesn’t negate the fact that He performed the action to generate a new Being; it just so happens that the product of that action was Himself. Therefore, we are still left with One Being, yet there was an action that took place that related Him with Himself. For that action, there was an initiator (a Begetter) and a result (the Begotten). Both the Begetter and the Begotten are the same Being, God, but in respect to the action, there is a Begetter and a Begotten that are logically distinct from each other, since there are logically distinct start and end points of the action. Thus, there is One God, and yet two relations or – as we’ve come to call them – Persons.

What if there was another begetting? Well, from the perspective of a time-bound pedagogical heresy, God could keep begetting Himself an infinite number of times, producing an infinite number of Persons. However, without time to distinguish one act of begetting from another, there could necessarily only be the one begetting that took place in eternity. Keep in mind that the Begetter and the Begotten are not separate Beings; if they were, it would be possible for the Begotten to do His own begetting, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. However, when they are One and the same Being, then the Begotten is simply the result of the action of the begetting, and the Begetter is simply He who begets. And so it’s impossible for the Begotten to do any begetting, because for God to beget is simply to be God the Begetter (remember, the different Persons are only the relations, nothing more). In other words, the Father is simply God begetting, and the Son is simply God being begotten, so they cannot interchange their roles. If the Son could be imagined to beget (which the careful reader will see is a contradiction), it would simply make Him the Begetter, and the result would be the Begotten. And with neither actual nor relative properties to distinguish these new two Persons from the first two Persons, we’re still left with only the original two, and there wouldn’t even be any multiplication of relations.

BUT besides the relationship of begetting, there is an additional potential relationship in the Godhead which we’ll call procession. There are two feasible ways to replicate: one way is to beget from oneself, and the other is to use that which one has received. And so the One who has received, the Begotten, may take what He received from His source to overflow into a third Person, who again is One and the same as the Begetter and the Begotten. This would not be the Begotten functioning as a Begetter because – unlike the Begetter – He did not take from Himself but from a logically distinct source, and so it’s a different relation with its own logically distinct result. This third Person would properly be described as He who is “proceeding from the Father and the Son,” as the LBCF states.

This model was inspired by that found in Pavel Butakov’s paper [3]

And so we have three Persons: One who can be described as “the from,” One who can be described as “the to and from,” and another who can be described as “the to,” as far as the direction of their relationships goes. Laid out like this, it’s apparent that there can be no other Persons. This is the beauty of the Trinity. What other possibilities are there but “from,” “to/from,” and “to” for the Divine Essence? We cannot multiply any more Persons without making them identical to one of these three categories. Therefore, the Trinity is the fullness of the Divine self-expression, fully complete within itself. And this Trinity does not emerge from the speculations of any philosopher, but was revealed gradually by the Living God Himself through His inspired, Holy Word. Do not cast these precious truths to the wind, reader; cherish them, and become heirs to great tradition of Bible-believing Christians before you.

Footnotes:

[1] D. Glenn Butner, JR. For and Against de Régnon: Trinitarianism East and West

[2] Moreland and Craig. Philosophical Foundations, 583.

[3] Pavel Butakov. Relations in the Trinitarian Reality: Two Approaches. This work provides an excellent exploration of the differences that do exist in some Eastern and Western Trinitarian models which resulted in the great Filioque controversy. He somewhat draws from de Régnon, but makes plain the deficiencies of that paradigm. The reader will notice that the distinctions that do exist do not result in anything like the tri-theism posited by Craig, Moreland, and Plantinga. However, the Western model is undoubtedly superior, as the article shows, and the Filioque can be found to have been supported even by some of the patristics that de Régnon would like to pit against the West. And that’s not to mention the biblical support for it (e.g. John 15:26)

Rome, Constantinople, and Plotinus: How Neo-Platonic Philosophy Corrupted the Ecclesiology of the Church

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (~5th-6th Century AD) was a heavily influential early church father for medieval Christendom. Thomas Aquinas – the scholastic theologian par excellence – quotes him a whopping 1700 times in his writings [1]. What’s more, the Areopagite’s writings were greatly consulted by the primary early adversary of Luther, John Eck, specifically in defense of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and sacramental system of Rome [2]. Pseudo-Dionysius was judged by Eck to ground their traditions with “Apostolic” authority (some thought Dionysius was the man converted by Paul in Acts 17:34, yet this is a view discounted by all today, as well as by virtually all of the Reformers and many early Christians, too). In the East, Pseudo-Dionysius’ writings had an even earlier and greater influence on ecclesiology, with famous commentaries produced on his The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy by such prominent figures as Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), Germanus of Constantinople (634-733), and Nicholas Cabasilas (1319-1392). Given the influence he had on the development of ecclesiastical doctrine, it’s worthwhile to examine his writings. Will we find deep, compelling exegesis of the Scriptures that supports the ecclesiastical institutions maintained by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy? On the contrary, even a cursory examination of the Areopagite’s works reveals that his contribution is not only sub-biblical, but anti-biblical, demonstrably drawn from neo-Platonic philosophy over and against biblical truth, and that these works are fundamentally pagan. Thus, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox institutions propped up and reinforced by his writings are themselves not Christian, but pagan. In this article, we will juxtapose the works of Pseudo-Dionysius with the works of his Neo-Platonic predecessors, the later Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox ecclesiastical systems, and the Bible itself, showing to the unbiased reader that those “churches” have sided with pagan philosophy against the Bible in their ecclesiology.

Pseudo-Dionysius’ Hierarchies

We are not the first to expose the great leaven of pagan thought that leavens the whole lump of the Areopagite’s writings. Luther himself called the man “downright dangerous, for he is more of a Platonist than a Christian” [3]. However, we anticipate that a large segment of our audience will be unfamiliar with the Dionysian corpus, so it’s necessary to review his ideas. The two works that most concern us are his The Celestial Hierarchy and, naturally, his The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. These two works are closely linked, because in them he argues for the operation of the same principle in the two different spheres. That principle is summed up in the opening paragraph of The Celestial Hierarchy:

“Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” [James 1:17] But there is something more. Inspired by the Father, each procession of the Light spreads itself generously toward us, and, in its power to unify, it stirs us by lifting us up. It returns us back to the oneness and deifying simplicity of the Father who gathers us in.

The Celestial Hierarchy 1.1

As he often does, Pseudo-Dionysius begins with a Bible verse to ground his authority, but then proceeds to go entirely beyond what the verse says. His own words betray his practice here; after quoting the verse, his first comment is, “there is something more,” i.e., something that’s not found in the text. In this case, he does nothing more than inject a metric ton of unbiblical, Neo-Platonic philosophy into the hapless verse of James’ Epistle, paying no heed to the context or intent of the author. For those unfamiliar with Neo-Platonic language, the above quote might seem fairly innocuous, albeit a bit strange. But it’s straight from their pagan philosophy, where what’s called “the starting principle,” or “the One,” emanates itself out into creation, and then draws the creation back into itself insofar as each creature is able to receive from it. That’s why Pseudo-Dionysius says it “returns us back to the oneness,” because in the Neo-Platonic worldview we’re essentially lost fragments of the divine. A fuller expression of this idea can be found in the works of the preeminent pagan philosopher, Plotinus (205-270 AD):

The One is perfect and, in our metaphor, has overflowed, and its exuberance has produced the new: this product has turned again to its begetter and been filled and has become its contemplator and so an Intellectual-Principle … attaining resemblance in virtue of this vision, it repeats the act of the One in pouring forth a vast power. This second outflow is an image or representation of the Divine Intellect as the Divine Intellect represented its own prior, The One. This active power sprung from essence (from the Intellectual-Principle considered as Being) is Soul. Soul arises as the idea and act of the motionless Intellectual-Principle … It takes its fullness by looking to its source

The Enneads 5.2.1

Comparing this to Pseudo-Dinoysius, we see the exact same idea of emanation from the One and then fulfillment by turning back to the begetter. According to the standard Neo-Platonic framework, Plotinus’ model postulates three Principles: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. Each of the created principles are oriented to return to the One, but, crucially, they must do so through the mediation of the principle above them. So, while the Intellect can go straight to the One, the Soul must first reach the Intellect, because the Soul is just the outflow of the Intellect like the Intellect is the outflow of the One. In Neo-Platonic thought, this principle extends out to the material world as well as the world of ideals, where the former imitates the latter. Thus, from the least to the greatest, every creature has a place within an elaborate hierarchy that is ultimately directed towards the One, from which all emanate and seek to return. But again, each creature must ascend via that which is immediately superior to it, and cannot directly reach the One. And this is precisely the direction the Areopagite’s thought will go:

The goal of hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like as possible to God and to be at one with him … It ensures that when its members have received this full and divine splendor they can then pass on this light generously and in accordance with God’s will to beings further down the scale.

The Celestial Hierarchy 3.1

And further:

So, then, the primordial rank of those intelligent beings in God’s company is hierarchically ordered by enlightenments coming from the source of all perfection, and they rise up to it with the help of no intermediary … As they are poured forth, they are radiant with that greater proximity to their source. Then by this rank [of angels] the second one, and by the second the third, and by the third our hierarchy is hierarchically uplifted, in due proportion and divine concord and according to this regulation of the harmonious source of order, toward that source beyond every source and consummation of all harmony

The Celestial Hierarchy 10.1

We see the same concepts and language found in Plotinus pop up once again, just in an ostensibly Christian writer. All members of the hierarchy strive to be reunited with God, the One, and they likewise pour out their own essence for the rank immediately below them to receive. Consequently, the only way for the lower ranks to be uplifted is to go through the ranks immediately above them, since they cannot go to God directly. The perceptive reader will also notice that there are three ranks of angels. This is no accident, for Pseudo-Dionysius says, “in our sacred tradition every hierarchy is divided in three” (EH 5.1.1). That this is in imitation of the Neo-Platonic rule is evident by the way his whole system is clearly modeled after the One/Intellect/Soul principles. For Pseudo-Dionysius, the One is God Himself, and the sphere of the Intellect is occupied by the angels (remember how he referred to them as the “intelligent beings”?), which in turn “extends its most sacred gifts into our domain” (EH 5.1.2), which more or less corresponds to the Soul. Just like in Plotinus’ writings, we can only receive the knowledge and gifts of God from the realm immediately above us, and we cannot receive directly from God.

The Ecclesia

We wish we could conclude that errors of the Areopagite ended with the angels, but they extend deep into the Church itself. Pseudo-Dionysius imitates the Neo-Platonic threefold division for each ecclesiastical order, so that the hierarch (bishop) mediates to the priest who then mediates to the deacon, and there is further division between them and the laymen, catechumens, and penitents. Rather than there being a direct revelation of God to each believer, the believer can only know God through his immediate superiors, utilizing the system of symbols and sacraments to aid him in rising further. It’s not difficult to imagine how this ends up playing out:

The hierarch, who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4) by taking on a likeness to God, proclaims the good news to all that God out of his own natural goodness is merciful to the inhabitant of earth … Someone fired by love of transcendent reality and longing for a sacred share of it comes first to an initiate, asks to be brought to the hierarch, and promises complete obedience to whatever is laid upon him.

The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 2.2.1-2

Here we see the horrible consequences of the Areopagite’s theology in a glaring way; since God cannot be reached directly, the ecclesiastical superiors stand in the place of God for the believers beneath them (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4). The believer is demanded to submit totally and completely to his spiritual superior, because he is the only means through which he can know God. A further consequence of this is, of course, a diminishing of the value of Scripture, because the idea that it could speak directly to any believer is at odds with their system of mediation to God by superiors. Indeed, Pseudo-Dionysius refers to Scripture as the “introductory food” given to catechumens (EH 3.3.6), and treats contemplation of liturgical symbols (through the assistance of the superiors, of course) as a higher form of knowledge. This is in keeping with his Neo-Platonic background, which likewise viewed symbolic contemplation as a superior means of ascension than instruction through words. It’s understandable that the religion of Eastern Orthodoxy – which has been influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius for longer and more significantly than anyone else – in practice is completely dominated by its liturgy almost to the exclusion of the written Word. Liturgy elevates both the symbols and the men who alone are able to practice them in the service. It also helps to explain Eastern Orthodoxy’s preoccupation with theosis (or divinization), because they share the Areopagite’s conviction that one begins to have a greater participation in the divine as they improve their abilities of contemplation and ascend the hierarchical ladder. This is a view Pseudo-Dionysius embraces to the point where he only calls those “the temple and the companion of the Spirit of the Deity” who have “arrived at the highest possible measure of divinization” (EH 3.3.7), in direct contrast to the Biblical teachings. Likewise, we can understand how Roman Catholics such as John Eck found Pseudo-Dionysius’ writings so useful in their extreme elevation of the priests, the bishops, and the pope as well as their minimization of the importance of Scripture. The Roman authorities were the mediators of God to men and would not allow the Word of God to compete, ultimately resulting in them forbidding the common people from reading it at all.

What Saith the Scripture?

The influence of pagan philosophers on Pseudo-Dionysius’ thinking is far from an innocent error, but effectively results in a denial of the glorious revelation of God to man in Christ Jesus. Pseudo-Dionysius tells us that we must reach God by a mediation of a plethora of beings closer to God than we are, because he takes it as a universal rule that “beings … first meet with their kin and proceed then to go through these in bringing their activity to bear on other beings” (EH 5.4). If that is indeed the case, then the angels will have to go through us to reach God, “For verily he [Jesus] took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham” (Hebrews 2:16). Christ – who was God manifest in the flesh (1 Timothy 3:16) – took on our nature, and has become our kin, for “in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). The believer has no need for any other mediator, because our “bodies are the members of Christ” (1 Corinthians 6:15) and “he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:17), so that we are the very “temple of the Holy Ghost” (1 Corinthians 6:19). By being united to Christ via His human nature, we are through Him united to God Himself, and this applies to all believers – clergy or laymen: “they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). This is the wonderful Good News of the Gospel: that God – who we could never reach, regardless of how many mediating men and angels – condescended and took on flesh, so that we could know Him and have full forgiveness for all our sins. Scripture flatly contradicts an endless chain of mediators: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

When reading Pseudo-Dionysius, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Christ has even come. But this is understandable, because his theology is fundamentally of a pre-Christian, pagan brand. But how senseless is it! Beyond the Biblical refutation, how could one possibly climb his way up to God? God is absolutely and utterly different from every one of His creatures, and He has nothing in common with them as far as essence goes (see my essay on Divine Simplicity). Outside of union with Him through Christ, it’s impossible for one creature to be closer to Him than another. The view of the Areopagite and the Neo-Platonists makes their system more akin to henotheism than monothesism; regardless of the places where they state the utter dissimilarity between God and creatures, they effectively nullify any such assertion by saying that one creature is more like Him than others, which makes Him merely the top of a pyramid of beings rather than the One who utterly transcends them all, and who is an infinite distance from all beneath Him equally. But it’s an explicable error because all who are without Christ are “alienated from God” and have “the understanding darkened” (Ephesians 4:18). Without Him, they have no means of reaching God, so they construct a foolish ladder of men and angels in their minds, forgetting their own admissions of His incommunicability. Praise God that the believer is not in this predicament!

Conclusion

To thoroughly explore Pseudo-Dionysius’ ecclesiology, its relation to Neo-Platonic doctrine, and the influence it had on Western and Eastern forms of Christianity would require a book instead of an article. However, even this brief overview reveals that it’s impossible to deny the pagan elements of his thought and that these ideas were transmitted to church bodies at large. The elaborate liturgies and spiritual disciplines developed by the West and especially the East are impossible to justify from the Bible, but they flow perfectly from the Neo-Platonic thought that influenced many of the early church fathers like Pseudo-Dionysius. These practices and hierarchies, then, are not legitimate “alternative” ways of practicing Christianity, but are pagan and anti-biblical. Those true believers trapped within these systems should heed the words of God: “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4).

Footnotes:

[1] Farina, John (Ed.), Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (p. 21). Mahwah: Paulist Press

[2] ibid, p. 42

[3] The Babylonian Captivity of the Church 6:562.8-14

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