Mormonism and The Denial of Classical Theism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Daniel Vincent

Confessing Simplicity Isn’t Enough

Can you spot the irony in the quote below?

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Daniel Vincent

PAEDOBAPTISM MOCKS THE OLD TESTAMENT

BAPTISM. It’s no surprise that I disagree with paedobaptism. It also shouldn’t be a surprise when I say the Baptist and Presbyterian views of baptism will revolve around how we view the covenant of grace. Each side believes in the covenant of grace, but we greatly differ in how we believe it is applied as well as when it was implemented. Without getting too far into the weeds, Presbyterians (and some others) believe the covenant of grace was active in the Old Testament but was merely a different form of administration as compared to the New Testament. Just as circumcision was a sign of the old covenant, so they feel baptism is a sign of the new covenant. Similarly, just as children in the old covenant were given the sign of circumcision, they feel children of believing parents are considered “covenant children” who should receive the sign of baptism. Now, there is far more to be understood on this topic, but this should suffice to give a fair overview of their beliefs. While my first two statements shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, perhaps my third will. I assert paedobaptism makes a mockery of the Old Testament and the old covenant (i.e. Mosaic covenant) by inadvertently declaring the latter to be a sham.

Before the hate mail begins, allow me to justify my assertion and preface it with the acknowledgment that no Presbyterian would ever dare make such a claim of the old covenant. I do believe our Presbyterian brethren are genuine in their desire to be true to the Word of God. My point is less that they openly declare such a position and more that their belief in infant baptism necessitates it. As we begin, we need to turn our attention to the eighth chapter of Hebrews. I will make bold the parts I plan to discuss in more detail.

6But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, to the extent that He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. 7For if that first covenant had been free of fault, no circumstances would have been sought for a second. 8For in finding fault with the people, He says,

“Behold, days are coming, says the Lord,
When I will bring about a new covenant
With the house of Israel and the house of Judah,
9Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers
On the day I took them by the hand
To bring them out of the land of Egypt;
For they did not continue in My covenant,
And I did not care about them, says the Lord.
10For this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel
After those days, declares the Lord:
I will put My laws into their minds,
And write them on their hearts.
And I will be their God,
And they shall be My people.
11And they will not teach, each one his fellow citizen,
And each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
For they will all know Me,
From the least to the greatest of them.
12For I will be merciful toward their wrongdoings,
And their sins I will no longer remember.”

13When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is about to disappear. -- (Hebrews 8:6-13)

I will use the remainder of this article to lay out my reasoning. For the sake of space, this will just lightly touch on the subject. However, I do believe my case will still be made clear despite the brevity.

To begin, we must keep in mind the author of Hebrews declares the new covenant is not only new (v.8) but is also a better covenant with better promises (v.6). He makes it abundantly clear that this new covenant is not like the old one made with their fathers (v.9). It seems awfully strange to go to such an extent in differentiating the covenants, only for them to end up actually being the same covenant under a different administration. Not to mention, there is zero mention here of administrations. It is the covenants themselves that are different from one another. In the old, there was fault in that it was held together by man (v.7). The new is faultless because it is God Himself who keeps it. Again, the old covenant and new covenant are not the same, and any similarities in the old serve as a type/shadow of the new that was to come.

Let us shift our focus to Hebrews 8:8-12. These verses are quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34. Take note that Jeremiah is speaking in the future tense. At a minimum, the covenant of grace did not yet exist during his day. He clearly wrote of it as being a covenant yet to be. So when was the covenant of grace established? The answer to this is simple. It was established in the crucifixion of our Savior. The covenant of grace was not validly established until His blood was shed (Hebrews 9:16). Just as the old covenant was inaugurated with blood (Hebrews 9:18-19), so was the new covenant. Nobody tries arguing the old covenant existed prior to its inauguration. We must hold the same standard to the new covenant if we hope to be consistent.

But what happened to the old covenant once the new came? According to Scripture, it was made obsolete and disappeared (v.13). With the new covenant, there was no longer a need for the old. The Presbyterian uses words like “administration” because it fits their tradition, but we see no such wording found here. This is an area where I wish Presbyterians had continued reforming. I like to semi-jokingly assert that Lutherans were part of the Reformation but are not Reformed, Presbyterians are partially Reformed, and Particular Baptists are thoroughly Reformed. Of course that’s not to say we’re perfect and have it all figured out, but I do feel in the case of baptism we are further Reformed than our Presbyterian brethren. I also assert infant baptism is a doctrinal holdover of popish error and tradition. If the new covenant was not the old covenant, the new covenant was not inaugurated until the death of Christ, and the old covenant was rendered obsolete upon the establishment and inauguration of the new covenant, it necessitates that the old covenant and new covenant could not both exist simultaneously. The covenant of grace was not valid until it was ratified by Christ through the shedding of His blood, which means it was not active in the Old Testament. Thus, if paedobaptism requires the belief that the covenant of grace was active in the Old Testament, it must first declare the entire old covenant to be a sham. I dare say this is no small claim, but it is the logical conclusion of paedobaptism so long as it holds to the “two administrations” model of the covenant of grace. If the covenant of grace truly existed in the Old Testament, it means the old covenant was obsolete from the beginning, that it was never a valid covenant, and that it was all a sham. Thus, paedobaptism makes a mockery of the old Mosaic covenant and all who believed they were a part of something valid. During their time, the new covenant existed in promise only, the substance yet to be inaugurated.

But what does that make of Old Testament saints? Were they not actually saved? If they were saved, was it by some other means than how we are saved today? Rest assured, Old Testament saints were saved in the very same manner we are today: by faith in Christ alone. Paul makes very clear that Abraham was justified by the same faith that we possess today (Romans 4). This is because Old Testament saints looked forward in faith to the coming Messiah while New Testament saints look back through faith. This faith remains constant, though there was certainly more revealed in time. So does this mean Old Testament saints were actually in the covenant of grace after all? Does this mean they saw heaven from the moment of death because of their faith? The answer to the second question is no. The answer to the first question, however, is a bit more difficult to answer. While they were saved by the same faith, and we can safely say they are part of the covenant of grace, they were not yet in the covenant because it had not yet been established. There was no covenant of grace to be a part of. However, it was their very real faith that saved them. This is why they went to Abraham’s Bosom (for more, READ THIS). This was not a place of uncertainty but of temporary holding until the Christ would come and inaugurate the new covenant. Upon inauguration, all who possessed faith in Christ were now a part of it though Him. The below graphic might help.

TIMELINE OF THE SAINTS

The good news is that there is now a better covenant with better promises. In the old covenant, you could be a full-fledged member simply by birth, yet be bound for hell in unbelief. The better promise of the new covenant is that all who are part of it will see heaven. This is because only those in Christ by faith are members. All members of this new covenant, from the greatest to the least, will know Christ (v.11). Just as circumcision was the sign of the old covenant, so is circumcision required in the new. All new covenant members will bear the sign of a circumcised heart which leads to faith. This is the inward reality of all members. I, too, believe in covenant children but only in one of two ways: either a child who comes to saving faith in Christ, or by the fact that all believers are children of God. As Pastor Steve Clevenger so succinctly put it, “You are not in the new covenant without the inward realities.”

The new covenant is unbreakable. All who are in it shall remain in it. No covenant member can wear the external signs, void of internal realities, only to fall away or depart later. Such a person only demonstrates they were not covenant members at all. While Baptists may occasionally mistakenly baptize false converts, Presbyterians routinely do so to those who never even proclaim faith, all in the name of a covenantal continuity that does not exist. This is dangerous territory. If you were baptized as an infant only to come to faith later in life, I urge you to be baptized through faith in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the absence of faith, your baptism was just a BATHtism. Seek obedience to your Savior have the ordinance be carried out biblically.

The new covenant is unbreakable! Take peace in this and give thanks to the Lord who has called His own and shall preserve us to the end in such an unbreakable covenant.

~ Travis W. Rogers

Every Good and Perfect Gift

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

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

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

Ephesians 1:3

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

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

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

Clarification on James White

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

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

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

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

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

Implications for a multi-conscience God

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

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

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

Is “three centers of consciousness” a biblical assertion?

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

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

Deuteronomy 6:4 (ESV)

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

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

James Dolezal, All That Is in God

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 11:36 (ESV)

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

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

Samuel Renihan, Deity & Decree, page 70

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Eclectic Theology

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

Three Centers of Consciousness Among the Orthodox?

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

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

Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ

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

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

Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity: Book II

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

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

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

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

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

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

Augsburg Confession of Faith, Article I

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

Resources

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

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

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

The Ground is Not Uncreated: Responding to William Lane Craig

Recently, William Lane Craig and James White had a debate/discussion on Molinism vs Calvinism in regards to the problem of evil (which can be found here). Although there were many things said, one in particular piqued my interest: Craig’s response to the grounding objection, a standard Reformed critique of Molinism that White presented. Molinism teaches that God has what is called Middle Knowledge. Middle Knowledge is the idea that God knows what free creatures would do in a given circumstance. God had this knowledge before the foundation of the world and used it in order to bring about the world in which He felt was most optimal, and works in time to put creatures in the circumstances leading to the most optimal outcome. This is view is to preserve human free will, that God doesn’t determine how the creatures will act, but merely knows how they might act and creates circumstances to make them act how He desires. The facts of what creatures might do are called counterfactuals, as they may never be brought about by God and thus are counter to fact. The grounding objection to Middle Knowledge is the question of where do these counterfactuals come from? If they are not determined by God, is there something outside of God determining the creation? If so, what is that? What is the ground that counterfactuals and thus Middle Knowledge stands on? Here is Craig’s response to that objection. (As a note, I used the YouTube auto generated transcript of the debate for quotations. I fixed anything I saw was incorrectly generated, but I may not have seen everything.)

“That’s known as the grounding objection. It claims there needs to be some sort of ground of the truth of these counterfactuals of creaturely freedom and here, I frankly agree with Alvin Plantinga that it’s much clearer to me that at least some counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are true then that they must be grounded in this way.  This objection seems to presuppose a view of truth called truth maker theory, that in addition to propositions that are true, there are things truth makers that make them true, and I think that this doctrine is very implausible and that there are lots of counter examples to truth maker theory and a truth maker maximalism which says that every proposition has a truth maker.  Take just one example: the proposition that Baal does not exist. There’s nothing that makes that true. Baal just doesn’t exist so if there is a truth maker of that, it’s just the fact that there is no Baal. Similarly, if one wants to identify truth makers for these counter factuals of freedom it would just be the counter facts that are stated by them. If it were true that if I were rich, I would buy a Mercedes then the truth maker for that is just the state of affairs that if I were rich I would buy a Mercedes and I don’t think anything more needs to be said about it.”

Timestamp 23:26 – 24:58

I have some major problems with this. First of all, God is the determiner of all truth outside Himself. God created all things:

“For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.”

Colossians 1:16-17

Here the Apostle Paul lists exhaustively all categories of things to make sure the reader understands God created all things. Truth claims that restrict God may very well not be physical things, but they still exist and thus need to be either created by someone or be self-existent.

“All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

John 1:3

I don’t think the Bible could be any clearer that God created all things and that there is nothing self-existent aside for God. This is where God’s name “I Am” comes from (Exodus 3:14). He is self-existent. He alone exists of itself. Nothing else does. There is nothing else we can say “it is” and leave it at that. And yet Craig would have us believe that there exists something outside of God that is uncreated. It has to also thus be self-existent. It merely is, and he feels no need to explain it. If they are self-existent, one wonders if they should be considered as some sort of impersonal deity, as they are just as eternal as God and restrict the Almighty in what He is able to do.

Craig also presents Baal’s non existence as an example of something that just “is” and needs no explanation for it. I have several problems with this. First, this again implies that something uncreated exists outside of God. Second, it’s wrong to compare something that doesn’t exist to something that does exist; the parallel is not quite the same. Third, the reason that Baal (or anything else) doesn’t exist is because God did not make him. If Baal were to exist, he would need to either be made by God or be self-existent, which he obviously is not. Thus, the truth of Baal’s existence is still determined by God, just like everything else. God is the source of all being for all things including supposed deities.

“For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.”

Acts 17:28

To say anything exists apart from God means He is not the source of being, to which we then must ask: where does being itself come from?

Finally, Craig says the truth maker for a counter factual being true is the state of affairs itself. If Craig were rich, he would buy a Mercedes and the circumstances would have determined it. However, those circumstances themselves didn’t exist before time when God was supposedly considering how to create the world. So how can we say they determined anything if they don’t exist? God is truth (John 14:6-7). If any truth comes from outside of Him, He is no longer the truth, but perhaps part of the truth or the creator of some truth. Brute, uncreated facts do not exist apart from God, neither do we get any sense from the Scriptures that anything constrains God.

“And Jonathan said to the young man that bare his armour, Come, and let us go over unto the garrison of these uncircumcised: it may be that the LORD will work for us: for there is no restraint to the LORD to save by many or by few.”

1 Samuel 14:6

Though this speaks of physical salvation, the same is true for spiritual salvation. God can save anyone. There are no facts that exist outside of Him to restrict Him. Let us avoid the idea that there exist uncreated things outside of God, and instead honor Him as the creator of ALL things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colossians‬ ‭2:9‬ ‭ESV‬‬

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey D. Johnson and Motion in God

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

Motion Affirmed

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

The Failure of Natural Theology, page 137

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

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

The Failure of Natural Theology, pages 161-162

Motion Explained

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

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

The Failure of Natural Theology pages 68-69

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

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

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

Where Does Faith Come From?

This may sound like a rather obvious question but you would be surprised how many people get it all wrong. The dictionary defines faith as belief that is not based on proof. Where does this faith come from? Is it a product of a decision we make or is it something more? Thankfully, the bible is not silent on this.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NASB)

How do we normally receive gifts? We either ask for them or they are given without any influence from us. The latter half of the passage in Ephesians tells us it was given to us without any influence on our part. There was no work done by us (praying, asking, doing good, etc). It was given as a gift out of God’s own heart. He chose to give the gift of faith without any work on our part whatsoever.

You have seen the dictionary’s definition of faith, but what is the biblical definition? According to Hebrews, “faith is the certainty of things hoped for, a proof of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). This, combined with Ephesians 2:8-9, should be enough to prove faith is not something we earn or reach out for. It is something God gives us of His own will. Faith may be something we have but it certainly is not something we create. Faith is not a result of anything on our part. To further drive home the origin of faith, God has given us an abundance of verses that speak to it. For instance, we know that that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:6), the flesh is hostile toward God, does not subject itself to Him, and unable to please Him (Romans 8:7-8), the natural man is unable to accept or understand the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14), and that one who is not with God is against Him (Luke 11:23).

We are all born into flesh. As natural man, not only is it impossible to understand the things of God (spiritually appraised), but it is also impossible to please God. It is impossible to submit to Him because we are naturally hostile towards God. We are not for God, therefore we are against God. How then can one believe we make the choice to follow God of our own free will when it is impossible to understand and we are in a state of hostility?

In reality, prior to being regenerated by the Spirit and given a heart of repentance, our desires are to do the will of another one we called father: the devil (John 8:44). The only way to escape this snare of the devil is if God grants us repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth so that we may come to our senses (2 Timothy 2:25-26). As natural man, we desire to do the devil’s work. In the 2 Timothy passage where it speaks of correcting those in opposition, it is not speaking of rebuking fellow believers. It is referring to correcting non-believers. It says we are to witness to non-Christians in case God decides to grant them repentance. Notice they do not come to their senses before God grants them repentance. The gift is given first. Only then will their desires change, not first. God makes the first move, yet we are told He will often do so through the preaching of the gospel.

In case there are still any doubts as to the efficacy of our will in changing our nature, Scripture also tells us the unregenerate man is incapable of making himself clean (Job 14:4), doing good (Jeremiah 13:23), or bearing good fruit (Matthew 7:18). It is only when the Father draws him (John 6:44) that he is granted to come (John 6:65). Upon this act of God, he is given a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 36:26-27) and is considered adequate (2 Corinthians 3:5). A leopard cannot change its spots (Job 14:4) but God can.

Before we move on, let’s review what was just said:

1) We cannot clean ourselves any more than a leopard can change his spots.

2) One who does evil cannot also do good.

3) A bad tree will only produce bad fruit. There will be no good fruit produced by one who is unsaved.

4) The Father draws and grants. Without these, nobody can enter the kingdom of God.

5) Our adequacy is from God alone and not from our own choices.

6) God gives us a new heart. He gives us the Holy Spirit to walk in His ways. Before this, we were nothing but bad fruit incapable of doing good.

We cannot change our desires. We cannot change our hostility toward God. We are the way we are and we cannot change ourselves. Only God can make the change. Only God can initiate the change. Furthermore, the desire to change ourselves will not be present apart from the Spirit of God in His regenerating work.

We cannot think clearly about or desire Christ by our own unaided decision. Why not? We cannot respond to the good news of the gospel until we want Christ, and we cannot want Christ simply by a decision we can take at any moment we choose. We cannot say to our will, “Will, will to belong to the Lord!” It is beyond our powers to do that. No one can will the will to will what it will not will!

Sinclair B. Ferguson “By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me” p.4

Everything is from God. He draws us to Himself. He changes us. He grants repentance and an understanding of truth. He removes hostility. He causes us to die to flesh and to be born to Spirit. He is Almighty God and it is all in His hands.

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things are passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, (2 Corinthians 5:17-18, NASB)

Faith may be a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9) but that is an incomplete statement regarding non-Christians. It is not just faith that God gives us but faith in Him. The Bible tells us that nobody seeks God (Psalm 14:2-3) and that without His gift of faith, it is impossible to understand the things of God (2 Corinthians 2:14). People can still have faith (i.e. belief in something) but that faith will always be misplaced unless God allows them to open their eyes and have faith in Him.

I certainly do believe it is possible to have more faith than another person even if that faith is misplaced. The great news is that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains if it is placed in God. Faith placed in anything else will be empty regardless how big it is. Be encouraged! Have faith!

~ Travis W. Rogers

Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Defense of Single-Fulfillment Christ-Centered Prophecy

And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me

Luke 24:44

            The entirety of Scripture centers on the Lord Jesus Christ. He is its Author and Scope, and plainly testifies that He has been revealed in the Old Testament thousands of years before His incarnation. Yet, the precise way He is revealed there has become a contentious issue in modern scholarship. Many scholars struggle to see Him in the texts that Christ and His Apostles declare to prophecy Him, and those scholars have come up with various ways of explaining how those texts may be messianic. Michael Rydelnik compiled a list of their various theories, which include sensus plenior (or dual fulfillment), typical fulfillment, epigenetic fulfillment, relecture fulfillment, and midrash fulfillment. All of these have advocates today in the evangelical academy.[1]

            Fortunately, we have not been left to ourselves to develop the best method of preaching Christ from the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit has testified, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God…that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tm. 3:16-17). As Sam Waldron shows, the phrase, “man of God,” is used in the Bible to designate a minister or spokesman of God, so these verses are especially stressing the sufficiency of Scripture to equip God’s under-shepherds for all their duties.[2] Therefore, we can trust that Scripture shows us how to preach Christ from itself, because rightly handling the word of truth to minister the Lord Jesus is one of the primary duties of the man of God. If Scripture did not equip the pastor to preach Christ from the largest part of the Bible – the only Bible Christ’s original disciples had to preach from – then its claims of sufficiency for the man of God would be moot.

            We, therefore, must reject out of hand those approaches that deny we should follow the hermeneutical method used by Christ and His Apostles in favor of methods grounded only in human reason. Graeme Goldsworthy rightly asks, “If we cannot determine our hermeneutics of the Old Testament from the way Jesus, the apostles and the inspired authors of the New Testament interpreted it, have we any firm basis at all on which to proceed?”[3] We must embrace the method that our risen Lord gave to His disciples that they subsequently carried out (Lk. 24:44).  This method is not fully consistent with either the grammatical-historical approach (as most commonly applied) or even sensus plenior, but rather is best identified with what is sometimes known as the pre-critical, direct fulfillment approach. This approach is not only what appears in the pages of the New Testament, but also is the consensus of Christian commentaries before the modern era and – in my experience – it still dominates the pews.

            The topic of Old Testament prophecy regarding New Testament realities is often prejudiced as a conundrum, as if the majority of God’s people struggle to find Jesus in the texts the New Testament finds Him in.[4] But a survey of church history suggests that it was not the norm to have such a difficulty, and even today, my own experience has found that laymen receive the Old Testament prophecies with joy. The difficulties, I believe, largely stem from certain unbiblical presuppositions that have crept into modern scholarship rather than any true difficulty in seeing Christ in the Old Testament. As such, this paper requires us to first approach those presuppositions, including a brief exploration of the nature of inspiration and prophecy. Next, a few examples of the New Testament interpreting the Old Testament using biblical presuppositions will be provided, demonstrating the precedent the Bible establishes for the direct fulfillment view. Finally, an example of what it looks like to rightly interpret messianic prophecy will be given and contrasted with other approaches.

Scripture as true revelation

            Today, the prophetic writings are often treated as if they were little more than theological reflections by the prophet under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, while not denying the role of the Divine, many evangelical interpreters nevertheless imply that the prophetic writings have a real genesis in the minds of the prophets, who have a personal intention in their prophecies with an eye to having a specific effect on their immediate audience. Some evangelicals, like Francis Foulkes, will even say that their predictive capability often largely depends “on the warnings, the promises of the covenant, and on the fact that prophets were convinced that, as God had done in the past, so He would do in the future.”[5] This heavy emphasis on the role of the human author is quite contrary to treatments of inspiration by earlier men like John Owen, who says,

“The doctrines they [the human writers of Scripture] delivered, the instructions they gave, the stories they recorded, the promises of Christ, the prophecies of gospel times they gave out and revealed, were not their own, not conceived in their minds, not formed by their reasonings, not retained in their memories from what they heard, not by any means beforehand comprehended by them, (1 Pet. 1:10, 11,) but were all of them immediately from God … Their tongue in what they said, or their hand in what they wrote, was עֵט סוֹפֵר, no more at their own disposal than the pen is in the hand of an expert writer.”[6]

To modern ears, Owen’s heavy emphasis on the primacy of the Divine author may be so jarring that it sounds like mechanical dictation theory. But it cannot be rightly classified as such, because Owen’s view does not include a suspension of the writer’s faculties in the process of inscripturation – he says in the same spot that the process included “a passive concurrence of their rational faculties in their reception.”[7] Rather than suspending their faculties, Owen confesses that God “acted their faculties, making use of them to express his words, not their own conceptions.”[8] In fact, while he denies Scripture is ever truly a product of the writers’ memories, he does not even deny that the Spirit would use their memories in their writings on occasion (cf. Lk. 1:1-4).[9] Owen’s point is simply that Scripture is not a result of men plumbing their own memories and thoughts to get across their own message. Rather, Scripture is a result of God speaking immediately in His human authors to get across His ideas and His words, which may have sometimes involved the confirmation of their memories and the use of vocabulary suitable to His instruments.

Scripture’s own attestation to its origin confirms Owen’s view. Not every book or genre of books in the Bible is equally clear in how the Divine author crafted it, but the prophets – which we will mostly concern ourselves with here – are quite explicit. Suffice it to say for the other books, they are equally described as the product of the supernatural breath of God (2 Tm. 3:16).

 When we take the words of the prophets at their face value, they do not at all suggest that their message is their own theological musings meant to accomplish their own agenda. Rather, they repeatably say, “a vision appeared unto me” and “the word of the LORD came unto me,” emphasizing that their message came to them externally. It was no vague internal impression of being led to say something; it was so tangible that, for Jonah, the word of the LORD was like a physical location that he thought he could flee from (Jon. 1:1-3). This has led many to understand that the phrase, “the word of the LORD came unto me,” is actually a reference to the pre-incarnate Word speaking to the prophets. This interpretation is strengthened by the New Testament witness, which states that the prophets were communicated to by the Spirit of Christ Himself (1 Pet. 1:11).

Far from getting across their own thoughts, the prophets sometimes would express bewilderment over their message and their ministry. Daniel often did not understand his visions, and when he asked for understanding at the end of his prophecies he was denied, “for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end” (Dan. 12:9). Jeremiah had no motivation to speak himself, but God said, “whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak” (Jer. 1:6-7). The very structure of Jeremiah (and several other prophets) reflects what one would expect if he was simply faithfully recording the messages delivered to him rather than presenting his own work; scholars have had a notoriously difficult time constructing an outline for that book, with some giving up on the idea of making an outline at all.[10]  Ezekiel was forbidden to say anything on his own and would only be allowed to speak when God supernaturally opened his mouth and gave him words to say (Ezek. 3:27). He also clearly did not choose the way he would be used to express God’s message symbolically, which is proven by his petition to God to change what he was instructed to do (Ezek.4:13-15). That the prophets were not expressing their own minds is likewise confirmed by the New Testament, which says, “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). The Bible denies that prophecy came in any way that would make it come by the will of man. Rather, the God of Scripture suddenly and powerfully makes Himself known to His prophets in various ways, instructing them what to write and what to speak through the influence of His Holy Spirit in them.

If the message neither came from the prophet’s mind nor was necessarily understood by them, it follows that the message was not necessarily given to be understood by the immediate audience either. This is rather explicit in Isaiah, where God tells Isaiah, “Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not” (Is. 6:9). The message was not given to be understood by its hearers, but served as a testimony against them, revealing their hardened hearts and blind eyes until the coming judgement (Is. 6:10-12). Ezekiel’s audience likewise did not understand him and said of him, “Doth he not speak parables?” (Ezek. 20:49). Again, Daniel was told that his visions were sealed up until the end, and this was certainly no less true for his immediate audience than for himself. Aside from Moses and the One who would be a prophet like Moses, God said that some obscurity would be a trademark of prophecy (Num. 12:6-8). There is nothing indicating that it was normative for prophecy to be fully understood in the context it was given in.

The New Testament is unambiguous that the Old Testament prophecies did not fully reveal the subject matter they addressed. Scripture says it was revealed to the prophets, “that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven” (1 Pet. 1:12). It further testifies that, without the light of Jesus Christ, the Old Testament was read with a veil on, and still is by those who do not read through the lens of His revelation (2 Cor. 3:14-15). It describes the revelation of Jesus Christ as a “mystery…which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:3,5). As the Expositor’s Greek New Testament notes, the “as” (ὡς) of Ephesians 3:5 has a comparative force,[11] indicating that while the mystery was given to the Old Testament saints, it was not revealed to them with the clarity of the New Testament era – it was a mystery.  These passages teach us both that the prophets were prophesying of New Testament realities and that those realities were not fully revealed to them. Each of their writings will be somewhat cryptic if viewed alone.

It has been necessary to defend these conclusions because they contradict what is taken for granted by much of contemporary scholarship: namely, the conclusions contradict the presupposition that Old Testament prophecies were given to be plainly understood by the original audience and that therefore an exegesis considering only the immediate, human context of each text is sufficient to determine its meaning. It is understandable that scholars who hold to this have difficulty finding Christ in the Old Testament, because that presupposition comes close to ruling out the possibility of Him being there in the first place, especially when it is combined with a tendency to almost reduce inspiration to a bare providential phenomenon. Scripture, however, presents its composition as a miraculous intrusion of the Primary Cause into the normal workings of the secondary causes to form a self-sufficient Book. Accordingly, we are free to give up the task of reconstructing what we think the prophet may have intended in his local context through the use of scant secondary material, because the rest of Scripture provides sufficient interpretive light. The Bible claims God – not the human instrument – supplies the meaning of the text, and that His concern is not for the immediate audience alone, but also for His Church in all ages, especially His New Testament saints reading in light of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. When we do this, we will begin reading the Old Testament like the Apostolic Church did.

Scripture’s interpretation of Scripture

            Having established that Scripture is fundamentally God’s words with a prophetic bent towards the revelation of Jesus Christ, we will see that Scripture indeed exercises those hermeneutics. Naturally, the New Testament provides us with the best and clearest examples of how to preach Christ out of the Old Testament, but even in the Old Testament we see the hermeneutical principles established, which we will first explore. We see, for instance that the typological events accompanying the message of prophecy were not seen as the fulfillment of the prophecy. Scripture teaches that the destruction and abandonment coming on God’s people because of the curse of the Law would be followed by Him bringing them out of all nations, circumcising their hearts, pouring out His Spirit on them, and causing them to obey His commandments under His peace and perpetual blessing (e.g., Dt. 30:1-6, Ezek. 36:24-27, Jer. 31:31-34). Given the emphasis on this message by the prophets prior and during the Babylonian exile, one may make the mistake of thinking that the exile and the return from it are the fulfillment of those prophecies. However, one can see in the post-exile prophecy of Malachi, for example, that these things have yet to be fulfilled. Far from having circumcised hearts, the prophecy bashes the corruptions of the Levitical priests, and the prophet hangs the threat of the curse over them and Judah (Mal. 3:4-5, 11-12, 4:6). The promise of the perpetual blessing still awaited fulfillment. Thus, when we see events near the time of the prophecies that in some ways resemble their fulfillment (but in other ways fall short), we should conclude that they are not true fulfillments of those prophecies, but rather types pointing to their real fulfillment.

While Scripture never acknowledges dual fulfillments when interpreting previous revelation, it does acknowledge types, which is another area where the Old Testament sanctions forward-looking, messianic hermeneutics. Like the New Testament, the Old Testament treats the events of B.C. history as absolutely historical, but nevertheless understands those events as foreshadowing the future. Psalm 78, for example, traces the working of God in redemptive history and shows how His previous works point to and culminate in the establishment of the throne of David (ultimately, the throne of the Messiah) and that at that throne we finally find blessing. In Jeremiah, likewise, God marks the redemption out of Egypt as pointing to the greater deliverance He will accomplish by the hand of the Messiah, and that only then would the prophesied deliverance of God’s people from all nations truly occur (Jer. 23:5-8). Thus, the Old Testament itself is sufficient to provide the Christological hermeneutics exercised in the New Testament.

            Turning now to the New Testament, the Old Testament prophecies likewise are never depicted as having multiple fulfillments – a near and a far one – but only one, centered on Jesus and His inauguration of the last days. This highly Christological hermeneutic follows from an understanding that the Old Testament is first and foremost God’s words. Since God is not chiefly concerned with isolated, historical events for their own sakes, but rather is chiefly concerned with magnifying His Son for whom all of history was created (cf. Jn. 5:20-23, Col. 1:16), it follows that all Old Testaments Scripture ultimately ties back to Him who is the true Apple of God’s eye. Thus, in the New Testament, even the precise choice of words is demonstrated to have predictive, Christological significance and Christ is shown to be the key to understanding otherwise obscure passages in previous revelation. An example of each of these will suffice.

            In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek is one of the many Old Testament events cited as prophesying Christ and His priestly work. The original passage in Genesis makes no explicit reference to the Messiah (Gen. 14:17-24), but Hebrews follows the already scriptural pattern of Psalm 110 in identifying the episode as Messianic. This follows because the Bible is about Christ, and so Scripture gives us the example that it is not so much a matter of proving whether a given passage relates to Him, but understanding how it relates to Him. In the case of Hebrews, there is an insistence that it is not only the subject matter of a passage that is important, but also the manner in which it is presented. Hebrews tells us, “[Melchizedek is] without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually” (Heb. 7:3). The author is not saying that Melchizedek literally had no father or mother, but simply that the way narrative frames him makes him “like unto the Son of God.” God here tells us, then, that it is significant that He did not introduce Melchizedek as “the son of [X]” in Genesis 14. He crafted the narratives of His people’s history in a precise way to point ahead to the fulfillment of everything in Jesus Christ.

            Acts 2 gives us the principle that when the words of the Old Testament do not fit a local referent, we should look to Christ as our hermeneutical key. Peter references Psalm 16, where the writer is said to have been delivered from Hades with his flesh saved from corruption. Rather than having a sensus plenior perspective, Peter bluntly points out that David “is both dead and buried,” and so it could not have been about David; it is a prophecy of Christ, who spoke through David (Acts 2:29-30). Many other psalms and several places in the prophets share that feature of no local referent sharing the characteristics of the subject speaking, with the characteristics only perfectly matching Christ. In such cases, the Bible uses prosopological exegesis.[12] This method was embraced even by pre-Christian Jewish commentators to recognize messianic texts.[13]

Case study: Accurately interpreting 2 Samuel 7:4-17

            Lastly, we will examine what it looks like to freshly apply the principles we have defended to an Old Testament passage, noting dissimilarities with other methods along the way. 2 Samuel 7:4-17 is a classic go-to text for establishing the Davidic covenant. In it, David is promised that he would have an heir to establish his throne forever and build God a house. But who is that heir? One perspective would say that Solomon alone is in view and that he simply typifies the Messiah, another would say that both Solomon and Christ are in view (the human author seeing an immediate fulfillment in Solomon with God intending a greater fulfillment in Christ), whereas the view defended here contends that Christ alone is the referent of this prophecy, and that Solomon only typifies the fulfillment. I take this perspective because it is aligned with the biblical hermeneutics already discussed and because Solomon frankly could not be said to fulfil several aspects of this prophecy. Most glaringly, Solomon did not establish David’s throne forever, as the Son in question is promised to do (2 Sam. 7:13,16). Some argue that “forever” (עוֹלָֽם) sometimes does not literally mean without end, but just like the English word, “forever,” circumstances reveal when this is the case. When we say something will last “forever,” there is an implicit exception if it subsists in a greater, perishable organism. This can be seen in the case of practices part of the perishable Mosaic Covenant and also in the case of the voluntary Hebrew slave, who is said to be his master’s “for ever” (Dt. 15:17). For the slave, an unspoken terminating condition of this “for ever” would be the perishing of a greater organism that the master-slave relationship exists in – e.g., the life of the master or slave. This unspoken condition is understood in Hebrew and English and should not lead us to assume that “forever” may merely mean “a long time” apart from the clear presence of similar unspoken conditions. Far from having contingency in a perishable organism, this promise for an everlasting throne was the latest step in God’s eternal, unconditional, and trans-covenantal promise to provide a Seed to permanently redeem mankind from the forces of evil, even using the same word as found in Genesis 3:15 for “seed” (2 Sam. 7:12). This promise was previously narrowed down to a Seed from the line of Abraham (Gen. 17:7), then the line of Judah (Gen. 49:10), and now it is further narrowed down to the line of David. But Solomon did nothing to establish this everlasting throne, but merely received his throne from David and passed it on to a son that he so ill-equipped for leadership that the kingdom was almost immediately divided afterwards, perishing altogether within a few hundred years. Hence, the prophecy advises us to look to someone in the future, to One who would only be set on the throne after David had died and gone to “sleep with [his] fathers” (2 Sam. 7:12). This is in contrast to Solomon, of whom David remarks, “Blessed be the LORD God of Israel, which hath given one to sit on my throne this day, mine eyes even seeing it” (1 Kings 1:48). For these reasons and several others, Augustine remarks, “He who thinks this grand promise was fulfilled in Solomon greatly errs.”[14]

Conclusion

            The biblical presentation of inspiration helps to make sense of a passage like 2 Samuel 7:4-17. When we understand that the prophet Nathan was not expressing thoughts he had formulated beforehand, but rather was being a faithful ambassador of the Lord, it is understandable how the prophecy did not fit anyone in their lifetime but rather fits only the One the Father is committed to exalting in Scripture. These biblical presuppositions allow us to straight-forwardly preach Christ from the Old Testament alongside the Apostles and Christ Himself.

Note: the above essay was originally written by me for a class at CBTS.


[1] Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 28-32.

[2] Sam Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. 5th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: EP Books, 2016), 57-58.

[3] Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 106.

[4] For example, see Jonathan Lunde, “An Introduction to Central Questions in the New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 7.

[5] Francis Foulkes, “The Acts of God: A Study of the Basis of Typology in the Old Testament” The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 15-16.

[6] John Owen, Of the Divine Original of the Scriptures, in The works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 16 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1862), 298. Logos.

[7] Ibid.

[8] John Owen, Book III, in The works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1862), 133. Logos.

[9] Ibid, 132.

[10] Peter Y. Lee, “Jeremiah” A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised, ed. M. V. Van Pelt, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 280. Logos.

[11] W. Robertson Nicoll, “Commentary on Ephesians 3” The Expositor’s Greek Testament. (New York, NY: George H. Doran Company, 1897), accessed August 31, 2021. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/egt/ephesians-3.html.

[12] Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018). 192-201.

[13] For example, see the messianic citation of Isaiah 61:1-3 in 11QMelch: Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Further Light on Melchizedek from Qumran Cave 11” Journal of Biblical Literature 86:1 (1967), 28, accessed August 31, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3263241?seq=4#metadata_info_tab_contents.

[14] Augustine, City of God, ed. Philip Schaff and trans. Marcus Dods, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol 2. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. XVII.8, accessed August 31, 2021. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1201.htm.

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