Lessons Learned From the Thomas Collier Incident

The Particular Baptists were not strangers to controversy. One of, if not their biggest, disagreements with the establishment around them was on the issue of infant baptism. They were distinct in that they generally argued against it from the perspective of covenant theology (see Sam Renihan’s book, From Shadow to Substance). Although they agreed with Reformed orthodoxy on many things, they would not capitulate to the Church of England nor to their Puritan brothers, whom they identified with as Separatists. Controversy not only found itself from the outside, but also from within. The Particular Baptists, beginning in the 1640s, were faced with a substantial threat from a prominent and active member among them: Thomas Collier.

Historical Background

Thomas Collier was not a fringe or silent member of the Particular Baptists. He was quite active and, “served as a chaplain, pastor, evangelist, church planter, and associational leader in the west. Over the span of his long ministry, Collier covered considerable territory, geographically and theologically.” (Renihan, From Shadow to Substance, 174) Just because a man is in this position does not mean error will not follow, although one would think he would have the spiritual maturity to avoid the heresies he would espouse. But espouse heresy he did. In the 1640s and into the 1670s he was teaching heresy. Renihan gives us a picture of his teachings:

…Collier published heretical expressions regarding the trinity, denying the distinction of the persons…In 1674, Collier boldly placed himself outside the boundaries of Protestant orthodoxy in a book entitled The Body of Divinity. Two years later he espoused heterodoxy even more explicitly in his Additional Word to the Body of Divinity. Among other things, he taught that God exists in a “increated” heavens, that Christ died for the universe, that man is able to believe the gospel of his own power, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, that believers could lose their salvation, that salvation remained possible after death, and other heresies regarding the hypostatic union of the Mediator, Jesus Christ, asserting that God the Son was a creature.”

Renihan, From Shadow to Substance, 174-175

In other words, Collier was attacking the biblical teachings of the church. These deviations went to the heart of the Christian, let alone Particular Baptist, faith. This was not just about baptism or who the members of the new covenant were anymore. This was a fight for the faith itself. And the response of the Particular Baptists was one that needed to be proportionate to the teachings brought against them. Given he was no small fish in the Particular Baptist pond, this problem had to be dealt with quickly. And try they did.

A prolific author and active church-planter, Collier’s open and published embrace of heresy could not go unanswered. In fact, regional pastors and some of the members of the church in Southwick where Collier was pastoring took notice and requested help from London leaders in order to deal with his deviations.

Renihan, From Shadow to Substance, 175

Collier was addressed by Nehemiah Coxe, William Kiffen, and others, although there was no repentance on the part of the heretic. “…it was clear that Collier had no intention of changing his mind or putting down his pen on the matter.” (Renihan, From Shadow to Substance, 178)

In response to the beliefs of Mr. Collier, and to distance themselves from him, what would come to be known as the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith would be published (it was originally called A Confession of Faith put forth by the Elders and Brethren of many congregations of Christians (Baptized upon profession of their faith) in London and the country).

In fact, the Confession was published the same month (August of 1677) that elders from London and Bristol were declaring Collier a heretic (Renihan, From Shadow to Substance, 178).

Lessons Learned

While there are probably many things that could be learned from the Collier incident, there are three items that can be gleaned.

  1. Sound doctrine is crucial to eternal life. This should seem rather obvious but it is good to re-iterate. What you believe will impact how you live especially as it relates to what we believe about God, His Word, and the Gospel. With the Gospel in particular, Paul was adamant about ensuring it was taught, and if another “Gospel” was taught, those who espoused it were damned to hell (Galatians 1:8). What Collier taught was against orthodoxy and ultimately went to the heart of the faith. Who God is, salvation, who Christ is, all these things were taught in a way that could not be reconciled with the Christian faith and really led to another Gospel, thereby securing him as a heretic.
  2. Having association with other like minded churches can be very helpful. While associationalism is not commanded in the Scriptures, it is a very helpful way for churches to support one another. We see this clearly in the Collier incident. Churches worked together to try to stamp out Collier as he made a stink among the brethren with his heresies. This strong associationalism can allow other knowledgeable brethren to deal with issues in other churches without being authoritative over a local church or substantially interfering in their affairs.
  3. Properly defining what we believe is very important. The 2nd LBCF coming out of this incident with Collier showed how important it was to clearly define what orthodox doctrine is and what the Particular Baptists believed. The Particular Baptists did not want to be associated with Collier in any way and wanted to ensure that there was no confusion in what “real” Particular Baptist theology was. This Confession was that official response. Properly defining as a church what is believed in said church is crucial. The Reformed were very careful to define their beliefs and were not casual or lazy in how they defined core orthodoxy. This meant that substantial time had to be given to their expositions and defenses, but it meant they could clearly define who they were as opposed to those around them, namely Rome (although the Particular Baptists were primarily dealing with the Church of England, Presbyterians, Independents, and Anabaptists, but there may be more). We need to clearly define what we believe and use this to take a stand against heterodoxy.

Conclusion

Collier is by no means an isolated incident in false teaching creeping into the church. The church has constantly been dealing with false teaching in one way or another and it was no different for the Particular Baptists. Their commitment to Biblical truth was what guided them through this difficult time and the Lord ultimately united them in it. May we have the strength and passion for truth as the Particular Baptists.

Roman Catholics: Mission Field or Family?

In this article, I want to bring something to the table that has confused many people over the years. It is a controversial discussion. It is a topic that many people feel they know the basics of but fall short when asked for an explanation. The subject is whether Roman Catholicism should be considered a valid option when it comes to matters of Christian faith. Specifically, it is whether Romans Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ, or if they are the mission field. I want to let it be known that nothing said here is meant to belittle anybody else as a person. It is simply meant to inform so that you will never again be without an appropriate response when presented the title question.

Beginning in 1985, there was a movement. This movement was called Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). In 1994, there were many people of both Protestant and Catholic persuasion who signed an official document. The purpose of the ECT was to work together for the common good. Although they may have had their differences, they believed they were following the same Christ. Instead of fighting each other, they desired to work for the common good and share Christ with others. On the surface, this seems like a great idea. If we all worship the same Christ, why not work together? It was a joint effort to stop treating each other like the mission field. However, this simply is not possible regardless of what piece of paper is signed so long as each party holds their beliefs unwavering. There are simply too many irreconcilable differences.

To realize why it is impossible, a Protestant must only look at his own name. The key word is protest. There are some very clear things being protested among us Protestants. In fact, the Catholic Church had some very strong things to protest as well toward us. In the 1500’s, over the course of 18 years, a council took place to put together an official statement. This assembly was known as the Council of Trent. Protestantism was gaining popularity in the way it held dear to Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) and did not place Church Tradition on the same level of authority as the Catholic Church had done.

…the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 82

The Council of Trent had it in mind to put a stop to the Sola Scriptura Reformers. In their attempt, they declared 125 anathemas. Dictionary.com defines anathema as, “a person or thing accursed or consigned to damnation or destruction.” However, words have meaning. Many Catholics contend that being outside of the visible Catholic Church does not automatically equate to Hell. That said, if there is truly “no salvation outside of the Church,” and one is in open opposition to the teachings of the Catholic Church, the orthodox Catholic position is that such a person is a heretic with no salvation. In other words, the Catholic Church gave 125 different ways a self-proclaiming Protestants can be eternally cut off and cursed by God. We are going to review a few of those ways and then learn the truth.

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

Canon 9, Justification

In other words, if you believe you are justified by faith alone and that there is no work we can possibly do to justify ourselves, you are eternally cursed and cut off from God. Yet, Scripture is clear that no works of the Law can justify (Romans 3:20), and that man is justified by faith, apart from works of the Law (Romans 3:28). We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8), “not on the basis of deeds done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). The Law does not justify us. If anything, it does the exact opposite. It shows how there is nothing we can do to justify ourselves. It shows our total depravity and dependence on God. It gives us knowledge of sin. It shines light on sin so that we can see it for what it really is and how impossible it is to be justified apart from God or by anything else other than God.

If any one saith, that a man once justified can sin no more, nor lose grace, and that therefore he that falls and sins was never truly justified; or, on the other hand, that he is able, during his whole life, to avoid all sins, even those that are venial,- except by a special privilege from God, as the Church holds in regard of the Blessed Virgin; let him be anathema.

Canon 23, Justification

Canon 23 says it is possible, indeed likely, to lose your salvation. If you say it is impossible to lose your salvation and that one who falls away from the faith was never truly saved to begin with, be eternally cursed by God. Yet, John tells us that all who permanently depart from the faith actually had no faith at all (1 John 2:19), and that he who believes in the Son has eternal life (John 3:36) and will be raised on the last day (John 6:40). All with faith will persevere and none will be snatched out of His hand (John 10:28). Salvation is not something which is here today and gone tomorrow. It is eternal. What good is eternity if it is only temporary and always changing? The answer is that it isn’t. Thankfully, Scripture promises something quite different: a man who has obtained salvation through faith will remain secure in his salvation until the end.

If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.

Canon 24, Justification

The Council of Trent declares that good works are not merely the fruit of a Christian but are actually a method of obtaining justification. If you believe the former and not the latter, you are eternally cursed by God. If good works are more than just fruit and do indeed justify, why is it that Paul so clearly states otherwise in Galatians? Does the Catholic Church now charge Paul with being a liar? He tells us we are to not be subject to a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1). By putting our faith and hope of justification in works, we are binding ourselves to them. We are hoping we will perform well enough so that we might one day be considered justified. Paul rebukes the Galatians for this. He calls them foolish to think something that was started by the Spirit could be made perfect by our own doing in the flesh (Galatians 3:1-3). Justification is by Christ alone. Those whom He calls, He justifies (Romans 8:30). Our own works have nothing to do with it.

If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.

Canon 30, Justification

In other words, if you believe the blood of Christ fully cleanses and does not leave some form of spot or blemish in which we must purify ourselves of in the fires of purgatory, you are anathema. That’s great and all, but what does the Bible actually say on the matter? It says we are forgiven of all of our transgressions. Christ canceled out all of our debt (Colossians 2:13-14). He rescued us from the domain of darkness; from Hell (Colossians 1:13). While we are not to sin, even if we do, we have an Advocate in Christ (1 John 2:1). That is in the current tense. We currently have an Advocate making intercession for us at all times. Every little thing that might be held against us is nailed to the cross. As a result, we are fully justified and declared “not guilty” before the eyes of God. In Christ, we have been made complete (Colossians 2:10).

If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or, that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or, that it profits him only who receives; and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains, satisfactions, and other necessities; let him be anathema.

Canon 3, The Sacrifice of the Mass

To understand, the Catholic Mass would be similar to our communion. Another name for it is the Eucharist. In other words, if you do not believe that communion is a sacrifice of Jesus, you are condemned. If you do not believe that communion is profitable for the dead as well as the living, you are damned. If you do not believe that communion is a means of propitiation, you are cursed. If you believe communion to be merely symbolic and not the imparting of grace, you are eternally cut off from the Father. Here are some quotes from official Catholic teaching:

The mass is the sacrifice of the new law in which Christ, through the Ministry of the priest, offers himself to God in an unbloody manner under the appearances of bread and wine. The mass is the sacrifice of Christ offered in a sacramental manner…the reality is the same but the appearances differ.

New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, Vol 2 Question 357

Their catechism clearly teaches that the mass is a sacrifice of Christ. Now the question remains as to what they mean by sacrifice. Thankfully, they answer this question:

A sacrifice is the offering of a victim by a priest to God alone, and the destruction of it in some way to acknowledge that he is the creator of all things.

New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, Vol 2 Question 358

Based on those two statements alone, we can clearly see the mass is the sacrifice of Christ, their victim, which a priest offers up to God countless times over and over again to purposefully destroy him on the altar. Unfortunately, there is more.

The sacrifice of Christ the only Mediator, which in the Eucharist is offered through the priests’ hands,

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1369

How is it that they can possibly be proud to claim something so vile and disgusting? The Roman Catholic Church attempts to use Scripture to back itself up but it fails miserably. They use verses such as Matthew 26:26-28 and Luke 22:19 in an attempt to justify their position. Instead of taking this as a command to perform communion on remembrance of the death of Christ, the Romans Catholic Church teaches that Christ was passing on a sacrament to the apostles and their succeeding priests, and was giving them the power to transform the bread and wine into the literal flesh and blood of Christ. As we read, they do not teach that it is bread and wine, but literal flesh and blood that only appears to be bread and wine, although the bread and wine is no more. This is where the priest comes into play with his sacrifice. He goes to the altar where the bread and wine await him. He lifts it up to the sky in the action of raising it to God. He then brings it down and offers it to the people. According to their teaching, it is not bread and wine that he offers up but is literally Christ being sacrificed by the priest under the appearance of bread and wine. The Catholic Church does not deny that Christ alone is our propitiation. However, with their teaching of the Mass, it allows them to claim propitiation in the act of the priest for it is Christ being sacrificed.

According to Scripture, Christ died once for all (Hebrews 7:26-27). There was no need for countless reoccurrence as was the habit of the priests. We are told the repetitious sacrifices are in vain as they can never take away sins (Hebrews 10:1, 10-12). If Christ died once for all, who is it that the Catholic priests are sacrificing? It is bad enough that they claim to sacrifice Christ countless times over but it is even worse that they are lifting up someone other than Christ since we know Christ was only sacrificed once, and that was by God. Once was sufficient. Once for all. The one they are lifting up certainly is not our Lord. The whole concept of the Mass is an extremely anti-biblical, pagan, and dare I say, satanic practice.

The Catholic Church will deny their claim that they re-sacrifice Christ over and over. They do this because the claim of repetitious sacrificing completely goes against the Scripture that says he was sacrificed once for all. They instead say that they are simply re-presenting the one-time sacrifice of Christ. Despite these claims, this is not what they teach.

For it is in the liturgy, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, that “the work of our redemption is accomplished”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1068

The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1367

By their own admission, they go against Scripture. However, they will never claim error because they believe they are preserved from such. They can never be wrong in their doctrine or dogmas (even if such a position is circular reasoning). They clearly teach a sacrifice of Christ and will never recant these teachings for to do so would crumble the whole system. If one thing is admitted to be wrong, how many countless other things are wrong as well? Again, if Christ is not being sacrificed over and over again (as per the Scriptures), who is it that they are lifting up week after week all over the world?

If any one saith, that, by the Catholic doctrine touching Justification, by this holy Synod inset forth in this present decree, the glory of God, or the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ are in any way derogated from, and not rather that the truth of our faith, and the glory in fine of God and of Jesus Christ are rendered (more) illustrious; let him be anathema.

Canon 33, Justification

In other words, if you disagree with even one jot or tittle of the declarations and teachings of the Catholic priesthood, you are eternally cut off from the glory of Heaven, eternally cursed by God, and are destined for Hell. I must be in big trouble then because I denounce every single one of those and I have the truth of Scripture to bring me confidence in these matters. One may ask if the Catholic Church still holds to these teachings. Wouldn’t it be highly possible that they would have renounced these absurd teachings so many years after the Reformation? After all, if the entire purpose of them was to scare people from leaving the Roman Catholic Church during a time when so many were converting to Protestantism, shouldn’t changes in culture have allowed for a more lenient view by now? Despite the time that has passed, the Roman Catholic Church still clings to each and every declaration of the Council of Trent. In fact, it was only 61 years ago that Pope John XXIII affirmed them. To say otherwise is to go against the very core of Catholic teaching.

but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:15, NASB)

I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. (Matthew 16:18, NASB)

They teach that they are Christ’s one true church and that they are preserved from error. They claim the truth abides with them and that they will never teach doctrinal error because the gates of Hell will not overpower Christ’s Church. Because of this, nothing they declare as doctrine, dogma, anathema, and especially ex cathedra will ever be wrong. As a result, instead of preserving the truth, they have done nothing more than preserve error upon error under a system of works.

I have only touched on a few of the decrees from the Council of Trent. According to the Roman Catholic teachings, a few other things that will get you booted to Hell include:

1) Rejecting the Apocrypha as being the inspired Word of God

2) Saying baptism is not a requirement for salvation

3) Claiming infant baptism is wrong

4) Believing confirmation is just a ceremony and not a sacrament that imputes grace

5) Denying penance

6) Denying the priesthood

7) Denying the doctrine of purgatory

Where exactly does the grace of God ever come into play in all of these preposterous claims?

The Mass is the sum and substance of our faith.

Pope Benedict XVI

If the Mass is the substance of faith, the Catholic Church does not have saving faith. The Mass lifts up someone they call Christ but is not actually Jesus. It worships a counterfeit and makes sacrifice after sacrifice of this counterfeit Christ. Again, how can this be the substance of faith? It follows after a system of legalistic works that teach you can earn your salvation as if by merit (in addition to faith) so long as you follow their rituals and make payment on time. It teaches that there is some other way of justification and some other source of propitiation and then places it at the feet of the priest who lifts it up to a false god. No, the Catholic Church cannot be considered a valid alternative. It cannot even be defined as a Christian denomination any more than Mormonism or Jehovah’s Witnesses can be. Their counterfeit Jesus is not an all-sufficient Savior but merely a person who helps them to save themselves.

All that said, please keep in mind that not everyone in the Catholic Church fully affirm its teachings. Some people know the truth for what it is but do not see the harm in staying in the local Catholic church they grew up in. Being in a local Catholic church is not the same as being a part of the Catholic Church, or a devout follower of Catholic teaching. If you know anybody in this predicament, I urge you to speak with him or her on the importance of leaving. While it may seem harmless, I hope the examples brought to you in this short article can show how it is far from safe. It is very dangerous and we need to understand why. It is the mission field through and through.

~ Travis W. Rogers

Theonomy No More

THEONOMY. Perhaps there is no word more beautifully deceptive than this. Literally meaning God’s Law (theos: God, nomos: law), it sets forth the proposition that our civil magistrates must adhere to God’s standard and that our earthly laws should reflect His moral law. Keeping this in mind, it’s easy to see how the Christian might be inclined to follow it. For instance, Jeff Durbin of Apologia Church is a strong advocate for the system where he has affirmed his position that the only two options are theonomy or tyranny. With such well known Christians proclaiming the belief, does this give credence to it? There seems to be a growing number of people, particularly post-millennials, who are advocating for it and are using the Bible and etymology of the word to justify their position. However, as set forth, I believe to do so is to fall victim to highly deceptive terminology rooted in error. Before we begin, I want to outright state I’m certainly not advocating for antinomianism (i.e. lawlessness) with this post. I’d be foolish to ignore the fact that God has written His moral law on the hearts of believers (Jeremiah 31:33; 2 Corinthians 3:3; Hebrews 10:16) and that we have an obligation to be obedient to the One who bought us with His blood (Galatians 3:13). However, what does that obedience look like and how far does it extend? If God truly reigns over all the earth (and He does), is theonomy a view that aligns with Scripture? I argue that it does not.

Personally, I think theonomy becomes a dangerous position when taken to its fullest extent because it becomes inconsistent, mandates a theocracy, merges Church and State, Religious Liberty and Legislating God’s Lawand reintroduces what Christ has abrogated. I think it’s a wonderful and necessary thing in the Church, but it has no place in the government as a formal requirement or system. I’ll give a very brief summary and then expound upon each point throughout the remainder of this post. If enacting a theocracy, it necessitates the reinstatement of Civil Mosaic Law or else it’s no longer grounded in biblical principles. After all, if we’re going to mandate civil government follow the biblical structure as found in the Old Testament theocratic systems, we must also resurrect the biblical pattern for judicial consequences. Any other structure results in “cherry picking” and fails the test of consistency. However, our nation follows a system of Separation of Church and State, which means a theocracy can never be as that makes the two a joint union. While I pray for leaders to be Bible-believing Christians (for obvious reasons), I don’t see it as a requirement for office that they be. The only two offices I feel necessitate that are elder and deacon.

Aside from feeling theonomy within government can’t be done properly, we’ve also never seen a single instance of it actually work, even in all of Scripture. Ultimately, sin gets in the way and leads to a perversion of God’s Law, oftentimes leading to legalism, which is just as bad as antinomianism. It’s impossible for us to live in a pure society that is fully governed by God. The only time we’ll ever see a functioning theonomy is in Heaven, and the only way to truly be a consistent theonomist is to conflate the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. As Christians, we adhere to God’s Moral Law as found in the Ten Commandments. Yet, even these are for His people, of which most of the world is not. Those not in Christ are expected to live like the world. Those in Christ are expected to adhere to the Moral Law. The Civil (and Ceremonial) Law has since been abrogated and, I argue, to adhere to theonomy is to minimize the completed work of Christ. Furthermore, a theocratic government, if implementing theonomy to its fullest extent, would have to punish people for not being Christian, having a different sexual preference, etc. God will indeed judge spiritual rebellion and sexual immorality in His time, but our government shouldn’t assume that role.

When speaking with a theonomist, you’ll undoubtedly be given Scriptural examples of God being over governing rulers. However, what does this actually imply? Does it imply we’re to advocate for a theocracy, or does it simply tell us that God is sovereign? I dare say it’s the latter. Because He has sovereignly placed them in positions of power, we’re to submit to this governing power as unto God. Despite this, it in no way advocates for a theocratic form of government. As stated earlier, every such form of implementation has failed, and there is a good reason for it. Let’s break down a number of examples.
At Creation, we see Adam and Eve before the Lord. They were in direct communion with Him and He was over them. He gave the command and their responsibility was to obey. That’s a prime example of a theocracy how it was meant to be. However, we both know Adam and Eve failed miserably and paid the price that, ultimately, spread to all men in the form of physical and spiritual death. This wasn’t a failure on part of the theocracy but of humanity. Yet, it still failed.

Throughout Scripture, we see more examples. For instance, the Hebrews followed Moses and submitted to the governing structure that was in place. This was another theocracy, as it was leadership appointed by God to lead His people. All moral, ceremonial, and judicial matters were handled by this body. While it was in effect for a time, Scripture reveals that Christ abrogated the Ceremonial and Civil Law, leaving only the Moral Law that is written on the hearts of His own. Thus, we shouldn’t desire to go back to that construct as it’s no longer functional.

When we see kings come on the scene, it was something that immediately angered God. Yet, they wanted one just like the pagan lands. While we see times of prosperity when those kings feared the Lord and used discernment, we also see how they abused the position. Countless forms of sin crept in due to a sinful nature. This was a horribly perverted form of a theocracy that even God Himself warned against. Surely, this shouldn’t be advocated for if even God is against it (1 Samuel 8:7).

Now, let’s skip ahead to the time of Christ and the early Church. While we see examples telling us to submit to the governing rulers because they were placed there by God, nowhere do we see a requirement that they be Christian in order to be legitimate. In fact, we even see evil rulers being regarded as legitimate. While they were indeed placed there by God, in no way was it a theocracy. Nor do we see Christ trying to implement a theocracy. What we do see is Christ setting the foundation for His Church and other New Testament passages telling us how we’re citizens of Heaven (Ephesians 2:19; Philippians 3:20). If a theocracy was the structure in view here, Christ took zero time to speak of it and actually seemingly spoke contrary to it.

It’s been argued that Jesus was a theonomist, and that He advocated for the system in Matthew 5:17. Does this undo everything I’ve just said and annul anything I’m about to say, or are we just not thinking critically enough yet? First, think about the time period in which Jesus lived. The threefold division of the Law was still in effect. He was still performing His active obedience to the Law. With this in mind, we’d be remiss to ignore the preceding verse where he says he, “did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Again, we can’t “cherry pick” the parts we want just to validate a belief. Keeping in line with the extent of Christ’s vicarious atonement also comes the extent to which, as our federal head, His active obedience fulfilled the Civil and Ceremonial Law. I’ll elaborate on this in a bit.

Where we once again see a theocracy try to rear its ugly head is in the Catholic Church. Within the first few centuries after Christ’s death, the Church was the State and it handled all matters of governing ordinance. It was a true theocracy in every sense of the word. However, it, too, failed miserably due to human nature. It quickly became corrupt, lost sight of God, and sought absolute power, all while claiming the name of Christ. Perhaps even more frightening than the prospect of religion ruling over the people of the State is the thought of the State ruling over the people of the Church. Think it can’t happen? I highly suggest reviewing the history of Theodosius, c.391 A.D. When one conflates Church and State, man’s sinful nature knows no bounds.

Yet again, it was an example of why a theocracy will never work this side of Heaven. The only example of a pure theocracy was in the Garden with God as the direct ruler and even that failed on the part of man. Every other instance was nothing more than a perversion of the theocracy we will see in eternity. And, as I stated above, to implement one on this earth necessitates a restoration of Mosaic Civil Law in order to properly punish the wicked who violate God’s Moral Law.

The greater question becomes one of whether we are to hold the unbeliever accountable for violating God’s Law. Clearly, we have violations and punishments in place for things such as murder, rape, theft, etc. But is it in place because they violate God’s Law or is it in place because they violate the law of the land? I’d argue it’s the latter, because punishment for violating God’s Law will come from God Himself on the Day of Judgment. We still submit to it because we know the rulers are only there by God’s divine appointment, but just as Pharaoh met his demise at the hand of God, so, too, will our ungodly earthly rulers. Again, no instance of a theocracy is necessary nor is it prescribed. We live in a pagan land with pagan rulers. While I would prefer a Christian be in office in order to possibly implement laws that honor God, I also recognize they aren’t obligated to do this. Similarly, if we had a Christian in office, I wouldn’t want the law of the land to be conflated with the standard of the Church. This would only open the door to punishing people simply for not being Christian or for worshiping a false god. Our civil government is not to be conflated with the moral law written on the hearts of those in the Christ.

Chapter 19, Of the Law of God, in the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 gives a very concise, yet highly biblical, description of what Christ accomplished in His death, burial, and resurrection in regards to the Law. I highly suggest reading it for yourself. In it, paragraph 1 speaks of a law of universal obedience being written on Adam’s heart. Paragraph 2 goes on to say how this same law, “was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments and written on two tables, the first four containing our duty to God and the other six, our duty to man.” Paragraph 3 speaks of the implementation of ceremonial laws and how Christ abrogated these laws (Ephesians 2:15). Paragraph 4 goes on to speak of judiciary (i.e. Civil) laws , “which expired together with the state of the people,” (Acts 6:14) and tells how, though they have a certain practical application in the moral use, we’re under no obligation to follow them. Take note that all of this is written for the Church and not for our civil government. Look no further than 1 Corinthians 5 for an example of how this should play our biblically. Though this man was to be excommunicated, at no point was the recommendation to put him to death (Leviticus 20:10). Such Law that would require it had been fulfilled. In the sense of civil government, it held no role in what would happen to the man. It was a Church matter only.

In conclusion, I hope you can see why, though a beautiful term from the etymological position, theonomy is incredibly dangerous when implemented with an earthly system of government. We have many freedoms in this great nation and I value all of them, even the ones that give people the legal right to worship idols. While sounding liberating, due to its very nature, when taken to its logical and consistent end, it will always result in bondage to man and threatening of liberty. God indeed reigns over the earth and His righteous judgment will one day be executed in the day He withholds His grace and mercy. That day belongs to Him alone and not to any civil magistrates. There will come a day when Christ shall return and we’ll finally see theonomy as God intended. However, unless Christ comes back before sundown, today is not that day.

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

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

Pseudo-Dionysius’ Hierarchies

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

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

The Celestial Hierarchy 1.1

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

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

The Enneads 5.2.1

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

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

The Celestial Hierarchy 3.1

And further:

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

The Celestial Hierarchy 10.1

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

The Ecclesia

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

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

The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 2.2.1-2

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

What Saith the Scripture?

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

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

Conclusion

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

Footnotes:

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

[2] ibid, p. 42

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

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