Knowing God: Martin Luther, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance. Theologia Crucis against Analogia Entis

Knowing God, it is what we as Christians all desire; we want to not only know Him, but know that we have a more sure way of knowing God. In the history of the church and ideas there have been multiple ways to try and tackle this. There have been mystical (Platonic) types of attempts at this; there have been chain-of-being attempts at this (Thomism) wherein humans are able to work martinluthermiddleagethemselves back to their final source of causation (God) and know God through the analogy and point of contact between Him as Infinite cause over against us as finite causes (indeed effects of His cause) [think analogia entis]; and another way was simply by understanding that words as symbols within a Covenant relation between God and humanity become the source for knowing God in an authoritative way (Nominalism).

It was this latter convention for knowing God that drove the thinking of the spitfire, the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. He repudiated the chain-of-being way, and yet was much more circumspect and concrete than the mystical way would allow for (although influences from this approach are present within the makeup of Luther’s overall attitude and approach to thinking God). As a result, Luther focused on what he called theologia crucis (theology of the cross) not analogia entis (analogy of being)—analogia entis was what gave the Roman Catholic church its authority in a hierarchical scheme for knowing God and mediating knowledge of God (as representative of Christ on earth [i.e. the Papal office] the medieval Roman Catholic church of Luther’s day was a step above [in the chain of being between God and humanity] the laity and regular people, as such they held the keys to knowledge of God). Luther’s appropriation of nominalism (theologically, not philosophically) is what allowed him to forward his idea on a theology of the cross over against the analogy of being (or also what Luther referred to as the theologia gloriae ‘theology of glory’); it cut the link between an analogy to be found in human beings vis-à-vis God. For Luther’s theology of the cross the only way for us to know God was to be found in God’s Self-revelation, which meant the words of Holy Scripture, and more radically the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ on the cross (where Deus absconditus becomes Deus revelatus ‘the hiddeness of God becomes the revealedness of God’).

Richard Muller has written this of Luther:

One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God. All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture. Luther not only denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation, but also argued, in the light of his denial of human merit and his sense of the immediacy of Christ as revealer and savior, against any rational theologia gloriae that claimed to describe God as he is in himself and proposed that our earthly theology be a theologia crucis, conformed to the pattern of God’s revelation in Christ….[1]

Theology of the cross could later correlate to what some have called a theology of crisis (what we find in someone like Jurgen Möltmann, and even in the early Karl Barth). God is known as we meet Him at the cross over and again; as we are depleted of our resources and thrown on the mercy of His resources revealed to us as He freely and graciously met and meets with us through the cross of His dearly beloved Son. The cross is where God’s power and reality is revealed as: God humbled and humanity exalted in the unio personalis (the singular person), Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul was one of the foremost and earliest theologians of the cross, this typifies the attitude that a theologian of the cross thinks and lives from:

Brothers and sisters, we don’t want you to be unaware of the troubles that we went through in Asia. We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive. It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty. This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves. 10 God rescued us from a terrible death, and he will rescue us. We have set our hope on him that he will rescue us again, 11 since you are helping with your prayer for us. Then many people can thank God on our behalf for the gift that was given to us through the prayers of many people.[2]

Closing Remarks

It is interesting, because when we think of the nominalist/Scotist types of dispositions that Luther had it would seem at odds with the realist/Thomist ones that we find in the theologies of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. I think what brings them together constructively is their (i.e. Luther’s, Barth’s, Torrance’s) focuses on a theology of the Word. Barth and Torrance, it can be said, have an a posteriori approach to thinking God; i.e. from God’s Self-revelation in Christ back up to the ontological God (so a chain-of-being way of thinking, but instead of a this chain taking link from a general conception of human being back up to God’s being, it takes link from God’s being given and revealed in Jesus Christ as a center of God’s life). I think if Luther was around when Barth and Torrance came on the scene he would approve of this kind of christologically conditioned chain-of-being thinking, because it takes the christological focus of Luther’s theology of the cross and of the Word and understands that the Covenant between God and humanity that provides genuine knowledge of God is found nowhere else but in theanthropos, the Godman, Jesus Christ. Barth and Torrance actually take the insights that Martin Luther’s via positiva ‘positive way’ (kataphatic) of doing theology emphasizes while at the same time plundering the Thomist way of knowing God non-metaphysically (as it were) from God’s reality given in Jesus Christ. What Barth and Torrance don’t take over, and now in alignment with Luther, is the Thomist chain-of-being separation of cause and effect when it comes to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This might be where Luther, Barth, and Torrance are most closely aligned; for Luther, when we see Jesus, we see God / for Barth and Torrance when we see Jesus, we see God.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 223-24.

[2] II Corinthians 1:8-11, Common English Bible.

An Open Blog Post to Richard Muller on Behalf of all the Bloggers and Self Publishers Out There

If you Google Richard + Muller + theology my blog, and the category dedicated to Richard Muller pops up in third spot—just under the entries from Wikipedia and Theopedia on Richard Muller. I’ve been engaging with Muller’s work, very critically, for years and years; probably my whole time as a blogger, when I started in 2005. My enamor with Muller all started in seminary (back in 2001 – 2002); it was because of my historical theology professor, Dr. Ron Frost (he later would become a mentor of mine as well). Frost had had an exchange with Richard Muller in the Trinity Journal, I believe it was in 1997, it revolved around Frost’s argument that the Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther, was still-birthed because, as Frost argued, the Post Reformed orthodox went straight back to the Aristotelian/Thomist theology that motivated Luther to protest to begin with (see his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology). Frost was critical of Muller in his essay, and so Muller provided a rejoinder, which the Journal published. Muller essentially ignored the basic thesis and argument that Frost presented, but it was this engagement that got Muller on my radar; and he hasn’t been off since.

So I just started reading Richard Muller’s most recent publication (it just came out this year, 2017): Divine Will and Human Contingency: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought. It’s interesting, because in the preface of his book, while he’s finishing up his introduction to what the book will entail, and what brought it to fruition in the first place, he makes mention of “bloggers and self publishers.” After Googling Muller, and realizing that my blog is THE highest profile hit when it comes to Muller, and realizing that I’ve been critical of him for years and years, I couldn’t help indulging myself with the idea that he might just be referring to me (and others of course). Here’s what he wrote:

As a final note, although scholarly discussion has moved beyond the initial encounter between Vos and Helm, I register my surprise at the absence of a broader debate among scholars over the issues raised by Reformed Thought on Freedom, at the same time that the book and its arguments for use of the language of synchronic contingency among the early modern Reformed have created some stir in the typically uninformed and jejune world of internet bloggers and self-publishers. There is, after all, a significant body of scholarship on synchronic contingency and related subjects among medieval theologians and philosophers—and it is surprising that the careful and detailed work of Vos and his associates to show the connections between early modern Reformed thought and its medieval backgrounds has not resulted in the development of a body of literature on the early modern situation approaching the density of the medieval scholarship.

In my preparatory research for what follows I have used several online databases and what I would describe as legitimate, academically credible resources. Rather than heap confusion on confusion and appear to be granting an undeserved credibility to their arguments and assertions, I have not cited the bloggers and self-publishers—although, given these comments, they may conclude that I am aware of their existence.[1]

Now, he may well have others in mind; I don’t recall ever getting into the issue of synchronic contingency relative to Muller’s writings. Although I have hit upon related themes in the past, with reference to Muller; so maybe. But it’s also his reference to the “self-publishers,” I couldn’t help but think he might be referring to our two Evangelical Calvinism books published by Pickwick Publishers an imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers. It’s not the case that publishing with Pickwick is self-publishing, they have many reputable lines, and many academic titles etc. But I have heard some make the claim, not just Muller, that publishing with Wipf&Stock is akin to self-publishing, which is absurd!

Anyway, Richard Muller, if you happen to read this I just wanted you to know that in our newest publication Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion in the Introduction to the book, which I co-wrote with Myk Habets, my contribution to that chapter includes some critique of you. I use you and your constant adulation of scholasticism Reformed theology, and flip it on its head by alerting folks to what we are doing in EC as actually being more scholastic and consistent with (the historic) scholastic aims and methods than your own project has been. You might want to give it a read. It is not that long, but it makes the point with precision—I don’t have volumes and volumes of space to wax eloquent so I have to use an economy of language.

[1] Richard A. Muller,  Divine Will and Human Contingency: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), preface. [emboldening is mine]

God’s Personal, Dynamic and Relational Being: His Ousia is Parousia. Thomas Torrance’s Hebraic Model for Thinking God

The ‘being’ (ousia) of God is largely, is hugely important when it comes to differentiating what we are doing in Evangelical Calvinism versus classical (Federal) Calvinism. If you peruse my blog you might find that addressing this point is something of a theme by now. In order to keep in theme I thought I would post another post that engages with what I would claim, despite those who protest this, that Post Reformed orthodox theology operates from a Pure Being theology and doctrine of God. In other words, even though folks like Richard Muller argue otherwise, it is very hard to see how this just is not the case. What Pure Being theology (like that produced by appropriating classical philosophy with Christian theology i.e. Aristotle et al.) gives us is a God who must engage with his creation through impersonal decrees; he must somehow keep himself untouched by his creation. We end up with an impersonal God who engages with us through laws and decrees, and not with the personal touch we might expect a God who is Triune love to engage his creation with. Here is how Richard Muller argues this:

Etienne Gilson makes the very pointed remark, in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, that the great source and starting-point of all medieval discussion of the being and essence of God is not Greek philosophy in general or Aristotle in particular, but Moses—in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” Nor ought we to attribute the use of Exodus 3:14 as a reference to the being of God as a result of ignorance of Hebrew and dependence on the sum qui sum of the Latin Vulgate. We read, for example, in the Guide for the Perplexed of Moses Maimonides,

God taught Moses how to teach them and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself, namely, by saying Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of “existing,” for the verb hayahdenotes “to be,” and in Hebrew no difference is made between verbs “to be” and “to exist.” The principle point in this phrase is that the same word which denotes “existence” is repeated as an attribute…. This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is “existing being which is the existing Being,” that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute.

Of the Holy Name, Maimonides adds, “the tetragrammaton … is not an appellative; it does not imply anything except his existence. Absolute existence includes the idea of eternity, i.e., the necessity of existence.” The point must be made, with respect to Gilson’s remarks, that however much the classical philosophical heritage influenced scholastic formulation, the form that the influence took and, indeed, the medieval interpretation of the classical sources, was in large measure determined by biblical exegesis—and that, granting the Greek philosophical sources of medieval Jewish and Christian conceptions of God, those sources, taken by themselves, do not by themselves account for either the theology or the metaphysics of the medieval thinkers.

We must take exception to often-uttered claims that descriptions of God in terms of “substance” and “essence” lead ineluctably “to the unfruitful abstractions of the conception of God in Greek philosophy,” or that language such as that of Aquinas concerning God as “supremely existent” (maximè ens) is a “Grecian” as opposed, presumably, to a “religious conception of God.” Such claims assume, first, that discussion of the divine essence is a fundamentally Greek enterprise (if Gilson and Maimonides are correct, it is not) — and second, quite arbitrarily, that abstraction is both characteristically Greek and quite “unfruitful” and, in addition, is somehow divorced from the “religious conception of God.” We ought not to accept any of these comments uncritically, nor ought we to suppose that the medieval development of concepts of God as willing, as thinking, as loving, and as, by nature, spirit (none of which are without “religious” implication), can be severed in a facile manner from the issue of the divine being or essence.[1]

Okay, so we see Muller among many of his contemporaries claiming that the classic Reformed were just doing good biblical exegesis and not borrowing their conceptual apparatus from the Greek philosophers. But when you actually read Reformed theology, particularly in the 16th and 17 centuries, and even now as that gets repristinated in the 21st century, it makes you wonder how Muller et al. can claim what they do.

As an alternative T.F. Torrance highlights the role that the Hebraic mind and categories played in early ecumenical thinking when it came to conceiving of God by way of his Self-naming to his covenant people. This is ironic, really, because Torrance is addressing the same tetragrammaton context that Muller is; yet they arrive at totally different conclusions. Here is what Torrance has to say in this regard:

I have been directing considerable attention Hebraic way of understanding I am or ἐγώ εἰμί of God to which the Early Church so often appealed in seeking to understand the Being or οὐσία of God, for it is very different from the static metaphysical notion of essence or substance found in the Greek philosophical tradition. The Being of God, known only in the fellowship created through his personal self-naming, self-affirming and self-giving to his people, is the living dynamic Being (zwsa kai energhtikh οὐσία) of God’s redeeming presence to them, with them and for them. It is to be understood not simply in terms of the self-grounded Being of God, but as the Being of God for others with whom he seeks and creates fellowship, although that is to be regarded as flowing freely from the ground and will of his own transcendent Self-Being. While the Being of God is not to be understood as constituted by his relation to others, the free outward flowing of his Being in gratuitous love toward and for others reveals to us something of the inmost nature of God’s Being, as at once transcendent and immanent — God in the highest and God with us and for us, the divine ousia being understood as parousia and the divine parousia being understood as ousia. Hence it may be said that the Being of God is to be understood as essentially personal, dynamic and relational Being. The real meaning of the Being or I am of God becomes clear in the two-way fellowship he freely establishes with his people as their Lord and Saviour, for it has to do with the saving will or self-determination of God in his love and grace to be with them as their God as well as his determination of them to be with him as his redeemed children.[2]

There is a deep personalism informing the type of Trinitarian conception of God’s Being that Torrance describes and develops for us. Not of the existentialist type that so many classical theologians worry about today, particularly when it comes to modern theology in general, or maybe even Barth and Torrance in particular. The personalism that Torrance pushes us into is informed by what we find the ecumenical Patristic theologians working with; one that is oriented from the type of Hebraic mode of thought that Torrance alerts us to. A personalism that is truly relational insofar as that relationship is defined by God in his inner and eternal life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which we are then included within by way of God’s gracious and free choice to be for us and with us which allows us to be eternally within him in the Son, Jesus Christ.


While much of this might sound academic, it really isn’t. It has profoundly pastoral and practical implications for someone’s daily spirituality. Who we think God is determines everything else downstream, even how we live before and with God. Who God is will impact what it means to be creatures in the image of God; it will determine the way we understand grace and what it means to have grace in the conversation of our Christian lives; both in the church and outside of it. These are not merely academic platitudes; they are real life and significant issues for every single Christian and non-Christian alike. How we understand God, and who we understand him to be, and from whence find basis for that will determine everything else.


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three.  The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 50-1.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 123-24.

Miscellenies on Natural Theology in Acts 7, Romans 1, and the Late Post Reformed Orthodox

I am in the book of Acts in my Bible reading right now, and something just hit me, even though I’ve read it literally hundreds of times, that in Stephen’s speech in chapter 7 we have a perfect example and intertextual (i.e. canonical) link between what the Apostle Paul wrote of in Romans 1, and what Stephen articulates as he is recounting the history of Israel with particular focus on  Moses and the Exodus. We pick up Stephen mid-way through his speech to the religious leadership here:

39 Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him.’ 41 At that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.42 But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, ‘It was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, Ohouse of Israel? 43 You also took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rompha, the images which you made to worship. I also will remove you beyond Babylon.’[1]

And then the Apostle Paul famously writes this in Romans 1:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural,27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer,God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips,30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy,unloving, unmerciful; 32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.[2]

Often the Pauline passage is referred to, at least by some within the classical Calvinist tradition (or even with someone like Emil Brunner), as a kind of exegetical defense and apparent prima facie illustration and maybe even prescription for a natural theology. But I’d like to suggest that given Paul’s own Hebraic-Jewish psyche and milieu as he wrote to the Roman church (a mixed church of both Gentiles and Jews, cf. Acts 28:16-17), he would have had what we see Stephen (ironically a Hellenistic Jew) referencing in mind, I would argue, in regard to the knowledge of God that people had available to them in creation. It wouldn’t be an abstract or purely discoverable knowledge of God, but instead one grounded in the fact and reality that God had personally revealed Himself to His covenant people the Jews as we see it most explicitly disclosed in Exodus 3:15 and the famous tetragrammton or the ‘I am that I am’ passage, where God names Himself for His covenant people as YHWH. I would want to argue that the universe that the Apostle Paul inhabited was so saturated with this background reality that it would be like tacit knowledge that fueled even what he pens in Romans 1; i.e. that there is no abstract knowledge of the true and living God, but instead an concrete and particular knowledge of God revealed to Moses and His covenant people as the prefigural mediators of God’s salvation to all nations [ethnos] (cf. Gen. 15 and the ‘Abrahamic Covenant’).

Interesting, at least to me, that we see the same progression Paul writes of in Romans as we see Stephen reference in his biblical theologizing of the history of salvation as embedded in the Torah (or Latinized Pentateuch). God freely and graciously gives Himself to His covenant people, who in fact, I would argue along with TF Torrance, are simply prefigural of the true Mediator, the second and greater Moses, the second and greater Adam, Jesus Christ. Without a revealed knowledge of God there is no true God to deny or rebel against; I think this is the backdrop of the Apostle Paul’s writing in Romans 1, and I think Stephen’s speech (as recorded by Luke, the author of Acts) helps provide further context and substantiation for how prevalent this background context was in the period of Second Temple Judaism.

Essentially, what I’m suggesting is that there is no ground for natural theology provided for in Romans 1. I actually think Richard Muller agrees with me, which you can read about in his Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three as he highlights how the early and high Post Reformed orthodox theologians didn’t actually have a full-frontal natural theology at play in theology; Muller shows that it wasn’t until the 18th century where a naked type of natural theology became prominent for the Post Reformed orthodox in its late iteration. It was those who followed after Christian Wolff, known as the Wolffian’s who really argued for a natural theology as the basis and prolegomena for theological endeavor in late Post Reformed orthodox theology. Note Muller as he comments on how and when this shift happened; here he is referring to the “proofs of God,” which were used by the early and high orthodox theologians only in apologetic discussion and not as the basis for actual theologizing:

… The proofs now lose their purely apologetic function and become a positive prologue offered by reason to the system of revelation. Here, for the first time in the development of Reformed theological system, natural or philosophical theology provides a foundation on which revelation can build: we have lost the inherent fideism of the seventeenth century Protestant scholastics.[3]

I find this very interesting. Often you will hear contemporary Reformed theologians who believe they are simply re-iterating what their orthodox forefathers first iterated in founding their theological endeavor upon a natural theology. Clearly the early and high orthodox theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries were not Barthians by any stretch of the imagination, but they did have much more in common with Barth and Torrance in some ways than is often acknowledged; at least insofar as they had a lively fideism at play, and a staunch stance upon revelational Word-centered theology and theologizing.


This post actually needs a conclusion to tie some of the loose links together, but I’m not going to. I just think Barth and Torrance might well have had more in common with the early and high orthodox theologians than many think; at least in regard to the issue of natural theology. Yes Barth and Torrance radicalize things, but they never would have gotten there without the rigorous (in principle) Word based theology found in the early and high Post Reformed orthodox theologians. That’s interesting to me.

[1] Acts 7:39-43, NASB.

[2] Romans 1:18-32, NASB.

[3] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Three, The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 194.

The “God” of Atheists in the 16th and 17th Centuries: And How the God of the Post Reformed Orthodox Needs Be Radicalized

The early Christians were thought of as atheists by the Graeco-Romans because they rejected the pantheon of the Roman gods; at least, so the story goes. As somewhat of an inversion of that, many of the Post Reformed Orthodox theologians of 16th and 17th century Western Europe believed that anyone who rejected the true and living God revealed and disclosed in Holy Scripture, and in the living Son, Jesus Christ was to be considered an atheist. Personally, as someone who thinks After Barth, I think anyone who rejects the God solely and principially revealed in Jesus Christ is worshipping, as Barth might say, a No-God; in other words, I believe worshipping a concept of God not explicitly based upon God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ makes one an atheist (so this would be concordant with the sentiment of the Post Reformed Orthodox). And beyond all this, to invert maybe even the Post Reformed Orthodox, although not de jure, I would have to consider myself an “atheist” when and if someone says they worship a concept of God and godness that is based upon human discovery, philosophical discurvity and projection in regard to the god they worship; even if that God is baptized in the name of Jesus. In other words, I would consider myself an atheist when and if even Christians, whoever they might be, base their conception of God upon the god of the philosophers; a concept of God not based purely on the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ (cf. John 1.18).

Getting back to the Post Reformed Orthodox, though; they had a classification of certain types of “atheists,” and one that I find interesting. There is stuff presented in their approach, respectively, that I find constructively helpful towards thinking about this topic with particular reference to the role that “sin” and hamartiology play relative to people’s perceptions of “God.” There are things in the Post Reformed Orthodox’s thinking that I find pretty attractive towards thinking about what atheism might entail, it is just that I don’t really think the Post Reformed Orthodox went far enough; I think they end up relying too much on a philosophical conception of godness in order to conceive of God—particularly when we start thinking about God’s ousia ‘being’ or essendi ‘essence’. Richard Muller offers a helpful detailing of how all of this looked in the development of Post Reformed Orthodoxy; here we pick up Muller as he has just been discussing the role that “proofs” for God’s existence have or have not played in some of the Reformed Orthodox’s thinking. Muller writes:

Although the proofs are posed “against the atheists,” the Reformed orthodox frequently argue that there are no “atheists properly so called,” or, at least, very few. The Reformed orthodox writers typically understood “atheist” in a very broad sense, designed to include all who denied the true God. “There are many kinds of Atheists,” wrote Bucanus, for some entirely deny the existence of God, others worship “feigned gods,” and still others acknowledge the “true God,” but not “as he is,” rather, “as they fancie him to be.” Given this broad sense of the term, the Reformed tend also to direct their arguments against the majority of atheists, namely, against those who do not deny God absolutely, but whose understandings of God are in need of major revision. The homiletical and hortatory dimensions of the Reformed proofs is particularly clear in Charnock’s initial identifications of atheists and atheism. The problem of atheism is not primarily philosophical but hamartiological: “though some few may choke in their hearts the sentiments of God and his providence, and positively deny them, yet there is something of a secret atheism in all, which is the foundation of the evil practices in their lives, not an utter disowning of the being of a God, but a denial or doubting of some of the rights of his nature.”

Whereas, then, there are either no or virtually no “speculative atheists,” those who directly and expressly deny the existence of any superior Being and have absolutely no “sense and belief of deity,” there are many people who have inward doubts concerning the identity of God or may deny to God such attributes or qualities — as providence or justice — that are necessary to any being rightly called God. In addition, they recognize the existence of “practical atheists.” Thus the text of the Psalm (14:1), “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God,” is not a philosophical text but a “description of man’s corruption.” The point resonates strongly with Calvin’s exegesis of the text. Charnock continues:

Practical atheism is natural to man in his corrupt state. It is against nature as constituted by God, but natural, as nature is depraved by man: the absolute disowning of the being of a God is not natural to man, but the contrary is natural; but an inconsideration of God, or misrepresentation of his nature, is natural to man as corrupt. A secret atheism, or a partial atheism, is the spring of all the wicked practices of the world.

Charnock points out that the “fool” speaks in his “heart,” not in his “head”:

Men may have atheistical hearts without atheistical heads. Their reasons may defend the notion of a Deity, while their hearts are empty of affection to the Deity.

They have “unworthy imaginations” concerning God, engage in “debasing the Divine nature” through idolatry, and exalt human nature unduly. If we are the question of who these practical atheists are, the probable answer is the “cultured despisers of religion” in Charnock’s day, many of whom fit the description of Viret’s “Deists.”[1]

In sentiment there is much to be commended here, in my mind. The issue always, in my view, comes down to an issue of the heart. People have been so polluted by sin noetically that left to themselves and their own sensuous desires they will always and only fashion God in their own image (e.g. Feuerbach comes to mind). People’s wills are in such bondage (i.e. Luther), they are so overcome with other affections (other than affection for God) that all they will “freely” choose is themselves; as such the only God they can discover based upon this weeded ground is one that they manufacture themselves (i.e. think of Calvin’s ‘idol factory’ or simply of the idolatry referred to over and over again in the Old Testament with reference to the nations, but also of course with reference to God’s own covenant people, the nation of Israel).

I think this sentiment in the Post Reformed Orthodox is all well and good, but I just don’t think it goes far enough. Although we need to be sensitive to what they had available to them in their own period of theological and ecclesiastical history, my contention is that they rely much too much on conceptions of God that are correlatively based on the god of the philosophers (like Plato and Aristotle). In other words I don’t think they were radical enough in regard to their doctrine of God; as such the concept of God they offer, often, is too laden down with philosophical accretions that actually emphasize things about God’s Self-presentation that end up distorting who God actually is relative to his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ (which gets fleshed out say in a system like Federal theology and the attending forensic emphases that come along with that). Contrariwise, Thomas Torrance, as he describes Barth’s Christ concentrated approach to theology writes this:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

The Post Reformed Orthodox need help relative to their doctrine of God. They were heading in the right direction, in principle, but they hadn’t developed enough to the point where they could write something like TF Torrance does here.


I’m leaving many loose ends in this post, but I will have to say I agree with the sentiment of the Post Reformed Orthodox in regard to how they thought of atheism; particularly as they focus in on the impact that sin has on that. But in the end, here in the 21st century, with further theological developments that we can now benefit from (as illustrated by Barth and Torrance), I think the orthodox need to be radicalized. Insofar as they aren’t I would have to claim an “atheist” status in regard to the God they offer up when and if they present us with a God based upon an under-evangelized metaphysic and conception of God resulting in emphases that distort who God has revealed himself to be in his Self-revelation and exegesis in Jesus Christ.

It is ironic, I think, many Christians end up becoming “atheists,” but they aren’t really even rejecting an actual conception of God who is based purely upon his Self-revelation in Christ. Instead they are rightfully rejecting a conception of God who is based too much on a philosophical conception and thus human projection of God wherein the type of spirituality on offer is one that is driven by a performance based quid quo pro type of spirituality; of the type that no thinking and self-reflective person can actually bear up under for too long (just ask Martin Luther about that!).


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 179-80.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.


The Name of God in Exodus 3:14: How Revelation Trumps Speculative ‘Being’ Theology. Richard Muller and Emil Brunner in Critical Conference

Who is God? How can we know God? These are some of the most profound questions humanity can engage with. In the history of Christian ideas there has, of course, been an attempt to answer these types of questions as faithfully as possible. Because of the nature of God, and his ineffability, there is almost a grasping by many in an attempt to un-pack who God is in an articulate and maimonidesintelligible way. This is what we see taking place not just in the early church Patristic theology, but also in the spirit of that, in the Medieval church as well. The problem with being pushed up against an ultimate, like the living God, is that, again, people will take desperate measures in an attempt to talk God.

More forcefully, I will contend that in the medieval and post reformed orthodox theologian’s zeal to talk God they adopted philosophical talk about God and forcefully linked that talk with what we are provided with by Holy Scripture. One prime example of this is described by Richard Muller as he attempts to (artificially) argue that in fact the philosophical substance metaphysics of the medievalists and post reformed orthodox was not really a philosophical imposition upon God—when they attempted to talk about God’s inner-life, his being (ousia)—but instead there was an exegetical/biblical correlation which was driving their metaphysical thinking in regard to the inner-reality of who God is in himself. Muller identifies Exodus 3:14, where we encounter the tetragrammaton, and self naming of God as the touchstone passage appealed to in order to establish this exegetical linkage: “14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” As Muller notes it is here where we are confronted with a correlation between the philosophers conceiving of God as ‘being’, and God’s revelation of himself and his self-being. Muller writes:

Etienne Gilson makes the very pointed remark, in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, that the great source and starting-point of all medieval discussion of the being and essence of God is not Greek philosophy in general or Aristotle in particular, but Moses—in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” Nor ought we to attribute the use of Exodus 3:14 as a reference to the being of God as a result of ignorance of Hebrew and dependence on the sum qui sum of the Latin Vulgate. We read, for example, in the Guide for the Perplexed of Moses Maimonides,

God taught Moses how to teach them and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself, namely, by saying Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of “existing,” for the verb hayah denotes “to be,” and in Hebrew no difference is made between verbs “to be” and “to exist.” The principle point in this phrase is that the same word which denotes “existence” is repeated as an attribute…. This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is “existing being which is the existing Being,” that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute.

Of the Holy Name, Maimonides adds, “the tetragrammaton … is not an appellative; it does not imply anything except his existence. Absolute existence includes the idea of eternity, i.e., the necessity of existence.” The point must be made, with respect to Gilson’s remarks, that however much the classical philosophical heritage influenced scholastic formulation, the form that the influence took and, indeed, the medieval interpretation of the classical sources, was in large measure determined by biblical exegesis—and that, granting the Greek philosophical sources of medieval Jewish and Christian conceptions of God, those sources, taken by themselves, do not by themselves account for either the theology or the metaphysics of the medieval thinkers.

We must take exception to often-uttered claims that descriptions of God in terms of “substance” and “essence” lead ineluctably “to the unfruitful abstractions of the conception of God in Greek philosophy,” or that language such as that of Aquinas concerning God as “supremely existent” (maximè ens) is a “Grecian” as opposed, presumably, to a “religious conception of God.” Such claims assume, first, that discussion of the divine essence is a fundamentally Greek enterprise (if Gilson and Maimonides are correct, it is not) — and second, quite arbitrarily, that abstraction is both characteristically Greek and quite “unfruitful” and, in addition, is somehow divorced from the “religious conception of God.” We ought not to accept any of these comments uncritically, nor ought we to suppose that the medieval development of concepts of God as willing, as thinking, as loving, and as, by nature, spirit (none of which are without “religious” implication), can be severed in a facile manner from the issue of the divine being or essence.[1]

But is this really the case? Does Exodus 3:14 provide focus on the ‘being’ of God in such a way that it opens God up to being correlated with the concept of ‘being’ that the philosophers developed by their own wits? This is what Muller is attempting to argue in a smoke-and-mirrors fashion.

Contrariwise and rightfully so, almost as if Emil Brunner was responding directly to Muller, Brunner writes this in 1946:

The idea of the “Name of God” plays almost no part in the theology of the Early Church, or of the Mediaevil Church, in the Biblical sense of the word. On the other hand, it plays a very dubious part, since the Name which was made known on Sinai, especially the interpretation given in (Exodus 3:14) of the Name “I AM ThAT I AM”, was adopted by speculative theology and made the foundation of its identification of speculative ontology with the Biblical Idea of God. There are possibly few passages in the Scriptures which have been quoted and expounded more often in mediaeval theology than this phrase. Even the Fathers of the Church used it: for instance, Athanasius (Epistula de synodis, 35); Hilary (De Trin. L, I, nr. 5); Gregory Nazianzen (Orationes, 30, 18), and many others. … The real trouble, however, only started with the penetration of the Neo-Platonic idea of the identification of the summum esse and the summum bonum, that is through Augustine … (De Trin. 7, 5, 10). Augustine believes that he has found the point at which the Bible and Plato say the same thing: “Vehementer hoc Plato tenuit et diligentissime commendavit.” No one ever said this before Plato save in this passage in the Book of Exodus (De Civ. Dei, VIII, II). Maritain, indeed, is right when—speaking of this text, understood in this sense, he says: “Such passages contain virtually the whole Thomist doctrine of the Divine Names and of the analogy” (La sagesse augustinienne, p. 405).

In reality the Biblical text does not say this at all. Quite apart from the fact that the interpretation of the Name of Yahweh in the sense of E plays no part in the whole of the Old Testament, and “the honour given to the Name of Yahweh is completely independent of its etymology” (Grether, op. cit., p. 15), even the interpretation given in the E is quite different from that of “the One who IS”, or even “Being”. (In addition to Grether, see also Eichrodt, op. cit., I, pp. 91ff.). Even the Septuagint rendering contains a hint of philosophical suggestion which is entirely absent from the Hebrew text. “The Tetragrammaton lays the stress not upon God’s Being as He is in Himself, but upon His Being as it comes forth in revelation, not upon the Deus absolutus, but upon the Deus revelatus” (Grether, p. 7). The mediaeval use of the general interpretation of the Name of Yahweh (in the sense of E) has led to quite disastrous misunderstanding. The chapters in this book which deal with the Being of God and His Attributes, in their opposition to the mediaeval ontology, will show on what my opinion is based. It would be well worth while to write a critical historical account of the exposition of Exodus 3:14.

It is not only the Name of Yahweh, however, expounded in a speculative manner, which plays an important—though essentially negative—part in mediaeval scholastic theology, but also the notion of the Divine Names. Here, too, the “Areopagite” was a pioneer. His work, De Divinis  nominibus, founded a school of thought. But what he discusses (in this book) under the title of the “Names of God”, has nothing to do with what the Bible says about the Name of God. In this book the author is dealing with the question: To what extent are the ideas with which we, by means of thought, can try to conceive the Divine Being, adequate for the task? Naturally the answer is entirely negative: God is the One who cannot be named; all our ideas are inadequate. The Divine Nature is unspeakable. Certainly, just as the Divine Being is “nameless”, so also it can be described by all kinds of names, just as the One who transcends all existence is also the All-existing (I, 6). We can therefore say everything about God as well as nothing.

Thomas Aquinas (Summa theol., I, 13) introduced this doctrine of the Name of God into his system. By the “Name of God” he, too, understands the ideas by means of which we can “think” God: he, too, has nothing to say about the Biblical understanding of the Name of God. He has eliminated the pantheistic element in the Neo-Platonic teaching of his master, it is true, because at every vital point, by means of the idea of causality, he introduces the thought of Creation, which plays no part in the thought of the Areopagite. Through the fact that to him (Aquianas) the creaturely, as God’s creation, is analogous, the creaturely ideas also acquire the validity of analogical truths. But all this remains within the sphere of the speculative theologia naturalis and is therefore diametrically opposed to all that is meant by the Biblical idea of the “Name of God”.[2]

I just provided a lot of context, especially for a blog post, but it is important for the reader to see how Muller is countered. One of the most important aspects of what Brunner just communicated contra, Muller&co., was this clause, “The Tetragrammaton lays the stress not upon God’s Being as He is in Himself, but upon His Being as it comes forth in revelation, not upon the Deus absolutus, but upon the Deus revelatus.” The rest of what Brunner has developed is intended to support this one clause; it is the absolute opposite of what Muller is attempting to argue. What we have in Exodus 3:14 with the “I am”, according to Brunner et al., has to do with God revealing Himself in precisely personal terms; as the God who freely encounters his people by Name. The point was not a metaphysical one, but it is a personal one; one made in the context of God’s covenant with his forthcoming covenant people in the seed of Moses.

If Brunner is correct, and I believe he is!, what Muller is arguing through his appeal to Aquinas, Maimonides, et al. is false. It is a non-starter to impose speculative metaphysical language upon the text of Scripture, and suggest that the inverse is true. In other words, it is a false start to argue that the text of Scripture is what provided for the substance metaphysics of some of the Patristics, Mediaevals, and Post Reformed Orthodox; indeed it is petitio principii, or to beg the question. What we have provided for in Exodus 3:14 is the God who reveals himself by his Name; that’s what we can get from that passage, and we continue to find that type of disclosure over and again throughout the Old Testament finally climaxing in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ (John 1:18).

Who Cares?

Why is this so important? Why have I written a blog post that is twice as long as the longest blog post should be (according to reader’s attention spans)? Because if we get God wrong everything else subsequent is wrong. I contend that Muller and the Post Reformed Orthodox have gotten God wrong, and those who seek to repristinate that theology (such as evangelical and classically Reformed theologians of today) are also getting God wrong. They are emphasizing speculative things about God, about God’s inner life (in se) by appealing to speculative theological categories through the via negativa (‘negative way’), and emphasizing things about God’s being, and his relation to the world in a God/world relation that are false. They have depersonalized God at the very point in Holy Scripture where God seeks to personalize himself by naming himself for his covenant people as Yahweh. They have replaced positive revelation (kataphysic) with speculative inferences about God based upon philosophical speculation that turns God into some sort of ‘Pure Being’ rather than the God who has always already been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; i.e. again they have depersonalized God and his ways at the very point in Scripture where God has made himself known in personal ‘naming’ ways.

If we get God wrong, everything else following is wrong. That’s why this is so important, and should not be papered over. Martin Luther, in particular, understood all of this very well. His theologia crucis, theology of the Cross, is right in line with the observations provided by Brunner. And yet the Post-Reformed Orthodox ‘still-birthed’ (h/t Ron Frost) that whole Luther[an] trajectory by retrieving the type of speculative mediaeval theology that Luther repented of.

If you want to continue to follow this ground swell among young (and some more senior) evangelical and classically Reformed theologians, then that’s your choice; I won’t be there with you. There’s a better way, it’s the way that Brunner describes; it’s the way Luther went (which Brunner develops later); and it’s the way us evangelical Calvinists go.


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three.  The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 50-1.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 128-30.

Christian Aristotelianism: Understanding the Reformed and evangelical Intellectual and Theological History

I originally wrote this post on September 5th, 2010, I thought I’d share it again. It’s relevance hasn’t gone away in these last seven years, and remains unchanged for many folks either just cutting their teeth on Reformed theology, and/or for those who are flamingly Reformed and have been for years. Aristotle’s place in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox (or simply classical Calvinist) heritage will always be unchallenged and unshaken; anyone who has spent any time at all studying the history of Reformed theology will know this. But in my experience many people don’t know aristotle1this, many ostensibly Reformed people; they just think that what they are getting in Reformed theology is the meaty stuff, the purely “biblical” stuff. Yet, many have not done the self-critical, or just plain old critical work required in order to really know what they have gotten themselves into. These folk think they are working in a tradition known for its sola Scriptura – and indeed they are – but they remain unaware that historically sola Scriptura does not mean just pure Bible alone; no the Reformers were much more sophisticated and honest than that. They understood the role that philosophy, substance metaphysics, so on and so forth will need to play in order to unpack the inner-logic, the theo-logic resident and underneath the text of the occasional writings that make up Holy Writ. Of course, my contention is that Aristotle need not play any role in un-packing the theo-logic and reality of Holy Scripture; but that’s not to say that there is no place for the retextualization of philosophical language under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is to say, though, that Aristotle, particularly as we have received him in and from the medieval tradition, in my view, has done irreparable damage to how millions of Christians across the globe conceive of God today. But developing that is fodder for another post (that I’ve already written many times over here at the blog). Let’s stay focused though.

The following is to alert Reformed people, and other interested Christians to the role that Aristotle’s philosophy has played, is playing, and always will play in the center of the most dominant strand of Reformed theology today; the theology of the so called Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians. In case you didn’t know, these theologians are those who followed on the heels of the magisterial Reformers (i.e. Luther, Calvin, et al.) in the later 16th and then into the 17th century. Aristotle was present prior to the 16th and 17th centuries by way, primarily of Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy. Unfortunately the Reformation really never shook itself loose of this impact; it did for awhile say in Luther and Calvin, but then in the Post Reformation period this mantle and way was picked up once again. This long quote from historian, Richard Muller is intended to alert you all to this, if you’re unaware.

Trajectories in Aristotelianism and Rationalism. Although the early orthodox era (from roughly 1565 to 1640) is also the era during which the new science was being set forth by Kepler, Galileo, and Bacon, and the new rationalism was being initially expounded by Descartes and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the rise of modern science and modern rationalism did not profoundly affect Protestant orthodox theology until the latter half of the seventeenth century. For the most part, early orthodox Protestant theologians doubted the new cosmology and rejected rationalist philosophy, resting content with the late Renaissance revisions of Christian Aristotelianism at the hands of Roman Catholic philosophers like Zabarella and Sua´rez and of Protestant thinkers like Ramus and Burgersdijk. The new cosmology had to wait until the latter part of the seventeenth century for Isaac Newton’s physical and mathematical discoveries to make any sense at all and seventeenth-century rationalism, particularly in the deductive model presented by Descartes, has never proved entirely congenial to traditional theology and was never incorporated either universally or without intense debate into Reformed orthodox thought.

Just as the Ptolemaic universe remained the basis of the Western worldview until the end of the seventeenth century and continued to affect literary and philosophical forms of expression well into the eighteenth, so did Christianized Aristotelianism remain the dominant philosophical perspective throughout the era of orthodoxy. Here too, as in the area of theological system, important developments took place in the context of the Protestant universities in the late sixteenth century. Where Melanchthon, Vermigli, and others of their generation had tended to content themselves with the teaching of rhetoric, logic, ethics, and physics without giving particular attention to the potential impact of these disciplines on theology, in the second half of the century, the philosophical disciplines began to have a marked effect on Protestant theology. Aristotelian physics served the doctrine of creation in the works of Hyperius, Daneau and Zanchi; aquinas2Agricolan and Ramist logic began to clarify the structure of theological systems, and metaphysics re-entered the Protestant classroom in the writings of Schegk, Martinius, Keckermann, Alsted, and Timpler.

This development of Christian Aristotelianism in the Protestant universities not only parallels the development of Protestant scholasticism but bears witness to a similar phenomenon. The gradual production of philosophical tradition was set aside followed by a sudden return to philosophy. Instead, it indicates a transition from medieval textbooks, like the Summulae logicales of Peter of Spain and the De dialectia inventione of Rudolf Agricola, to textbooks written by Protestants for Protestants, like Melanchthon’s De rhetorica libri tres (1519), Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), his commentaries on Aristotles’Politics and Ethics (1536) and the De Anima (1540), Seton’s Dialectica (1545), Ramus’ Dialectica (1543) and the spate of works based upon it, or somewhat eclectic but also more traditional manuals like Sanderson’s Logicae artis compendium (1615) and Burgersdijk’s Institutiones logicae (1626) or is Idea philosophiae naturalis (1622). The absence of Protestant works from the era of the early Reformation points toward a use of established textbooks prior to the development of new ones under the pressure not only of Protestant theology but also of humanism and of changes and developments in the philosophical disciplines themselves. The publication of Protestant works in these areas parallels the rise and flowering of Protestant academies, gymnasia, and universities. Schmitt summarizes the situation neatly:

. . . Latin Aristotelianism stretching from the twelfth to the seventeenth century had a degree of unity and organic development that cannot be easily dismissed. . . . the differences distinguishing the Catholic, Lutheran,  or Calvinist varieties, are far outweighed by a unifying concern for the same philosophical and scientific problems and an invocation of the same sources of inspiration by which to solve them.

Furthermore, the continuity must be understood in terms of the subsequent trajectories and modifications of late medieval schools of thought — Thomism, Scotism, nominalism, the varieties of via antiqua and via moderna — and the ways in which these schools of thought were received and mediated by the various trajectories of theology and philosophy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. For if the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist theologians shared a common Christian Aristotelian foundation, they differed, even  among themselves, over the nuances of the model and over which of the late medieval trajectories was most suitable a vehicle for their theological formulation.

The continuity of Christian Aristotelianism and scholastic method from the medieval into the early modern period together with the relationship of these two phenomena to Protestant orthodoxy pinpoint one further issue to be considered in the study of orthodox or scholastic Protestantism. It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers (as in the case of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis). It is also an error to discuss Protestant orthodoxy without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages, through the Reformation, into post-Reformation Protestantism. Whereas the Reformation is surely the formative event for Protestantism, it is also true that the Reformation, which took place during the first half of the sixteenth century, is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed, as it were by the five-hundred year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism. In accord, moreover, with the older scholastic models as well as with the assumptions of the Reformers concerning the biblical norm of theology, The Reformed scholastics uniformly maintained the priority of revelation over reason and insisted on the ancillary status of philosophy. In approaching the continuities and discontinuities of Protestant scholasticism with the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the chief task is to assess the Protestant adjustment of traditional scholastic categories in the light of the Reformation and the patterns according to which it mediated that tradition, both positively and negatively, to future generations of Protestants. This approach is not only more adequate to the understanding of Protestant orthodoxy, but is also the framework for a clearer understanding of the meaning of the Reformation itself.[1]

Points of Implication

  1. Muller’s thesis is somewhat acceptable — given the expansive nature he sets for the accounting of the various streams represented by the “Reformed tradition.”
  2. petervermigliChristian Aristotelianism is the framework wherein Protestant theology took shape in the main.
  3. Muller admits to both a conceptual and methodological Aristotelianism within the period known as the “post-Reformation.”
  4. Muller holds that the continuity which he argues for between all periods of the “Reformation” is grounded in late Medievalism — thus construing the magesterial (early and “high”) Protestant Reformation as a hick-up in comparison to the tsunami that swept through from the 12th into the 17th century.
  5. For Muller, it seems, the only real difference between Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist Aristotelians is a matter of emphasis and theological order. In other words, for Muller Christian Aristotelianism is the best philosophical framework commensurate with articulating Christian dogma.

Popular Implications

  1. There is a “popular” ground-swell towards returning the church back to our Protestant heritage — this move works under the assumption that our “past” is a “strictly biblical one.” What is never presented is what we are looking at here, and that is the history and conceptual frame from whence “most of the Protestant” heritage has taken shape (at least in the “Reformed” heritage). People naively assume that the categories that the “Reformed” provide them with are actually Gospel truth (i.e. not associate with a school of interpretation).
  2. These are in fact, typically, the categories that ALL “Evangelical” Christians think through when they approach Scripture (this is the vacuum from whence they/we typically think).
  3. If people fail to realize the affect Aristotle has had upon the way they understand God, they will fail to understand the true nature of God, and thus their daily walk with Jesus is going to be severely skewed.


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. One,  71-73.


Martin Luther’s ‘Real Reason for the Protestant Reformation’, and What Critics of evangelical Calvinism Don’t Get about evangelical Calvinism’s Impetus or Their Own Mode of Theologizing

Martin Luther famously critiqued and rejected Aristotle, and the impact that Aristotelian philosophy had had upon Christian theology in the late medieval period; particularly as mediated through the synthesis of Thomas Aquinas’s theology with Aristotelian philosophy. This was such a fundamental piece for Luther, that it can be said, as Alister McGrath, and my former seminary professor luthermartinand personal mentor, Ron Frost have said, that this rejection and repudiation of Aristotle’s impact on Christian theology led, theologically, to Luther’s “breakthrough” in regard to his understanding of sola fide, and the material principle of the Protestant Reformation theology. The implication of this, if followed, is that theological reasoning is strictly reduced to reliance upon the revelation of God in Christ apprehended by faith.

As McGrath sharpens this further, he underscores why this move for Luther was so important; he underscores why working away from Aristotelian and forensic conceptions of God’s righteousness, and working from the righteousness of God revealed by Christ is so important and so delimiting for a genuinely Christian approach to the theological task. McGrath writes:

For Luther, ratio and its associated concept of iustitia (as used by Aristotle and the jurists) had its proper place in the ordering of civil affairs. Luther’s rejection of ratio relates to his soteriology, particularly to the definition of iustitia Dei, which is of central importance to his theology as a whole. The concept of iustitia which Luther rejected in this context is none other than that of Aristotle’s Ethics, which had been taken up by the medieval canonists and jurists, which had found its way into the soteriology of the via moderna, and which corresponded to a secular, commen-sense understanding of justice in terms of a quid pro quo morality, whose validity was immediately apparent to reason. Julian of Eclanum had insisted that God judged man rationabiliter, which he took to be equivalent to iuste, and had therefore applied to a common-sense concept of iustitia by a process of analogical predication to God. God rewards each man according to his merit, which may be defined in terms of whether he has lived well by the standards set him in the law: non ego, sed ratio concludit. A similar interpretation of iustitia Dei can be derived by direct analogical predication of the Aristotelian understanding of iustitia, linked with the associated interpretation of the relationship between iustitia and lex, to God. The young Luther appears to have adopted precisely such a concept of iustitia in his early attempt to expound the Psalter: indeed it is of particular significance that Luther should choose Psalm 9 (10). 9 to expound the relationship between iustitia and equitas in the divine judgement, as Julian of Eclanum had earlier used exactly the same passage to demonstrate the divine equity in dealing with man according to his merit! It was against this understanding of iustitia, as applied to God (but not applied to civil affairs), that Luther rebelled when he discovered the mira et nova diffinitio iustitiae, with such momentous results for his theology. Luther’s revolt against reason is indeed occasioned by his soteriology — but in a far more specific manner than appears to have been generally realised. Whilst it cannot be proved that Luther appreciated the theological ramifications of everything he read in Book V of the Nichomachean Ethics, it is beyond dispute that he recognised that the concept of iustitia developed therein, applied to God, had appalling theological consequences for sinners: Tota fere Aristotelis Ethica pessima est gratiae inimica. Luther’s joy at his discovery of the new definition of iustitia reflects his realisation that God loves and forgives sinners, and that the iustitia of iustitia Dei is not to be understood qua philosophi et iuriste accipiunt, but qua in scriptura accipitur. Luther’s vitriolic attacks against Aristotle, reason, the jurists, the law, and the Sautheologen of the via moderna reflects his basic conviction that all these employed a concept of iustitia which, when applied to God, destroyed the gospel message of the free forgiveness of sinners. Luther’s ‘evangelical irrationalism’ is closely correlated with his discovery of the righteousness of God: if reason and its allies were unable to comprehend the mystery of the justification of the ungodly, then so much the worse for them. Reason has its role to play in the civil affairs of men, as in so many other spheres — but when faced with the justification of sinners, the central feature of the gospel proclamation, it collapses, unable to comprehend the mystery with which it is confronted. For Luther, the word of the gospel, upon which all theological speculation was ultimately based, was that of a righteous God who justified those worthy of death: if reason was unable to comprehend this fundamental aspect of the gospel, it had forfeited its right to have any say in theology as a whole. In Luther’s opinion, reason was not neutral in this matter: according to reason, God should only justify those whose deeds made them worthy of such a reward: itaque caro est ipsa iustitia, sapientia carnis ac cogitatio rationis, quae per legem vult iustificari. Human wisdom and human concepts of righteousness are inextricably linked — and, as Luther emphasised, both were called into question by the fact that a righteous God could justify sinners. It is clear that this critique of human wisdom, which is ultimately based upon Luther’s deliberations upon the concept of the ‘righteousness of God’, foreshadows the theologia crucis of 1518 in a number of respects. Before moving on to consider the nature of the theology of the cross, however, it may be helpful to summarise our conclusions concerning the nature and the date of Luther’s theological breakthrough.[1]

It is precisely for what McGrath just detailed that Ron Frost in 1997 wrote an essay for the Trinity Journal entitled: ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’ Frost believes, and I agree with him, that insofar as the following Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology imbibes a ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ it has skipped off the central critique of Luther’s protest movement; which is very ironic indeed. Note Frost’s analysis here:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

This is quite profound, to say the least! It is this very premise and insight as developed by Ron Frost, and illustrated by the work of McGrath, that has led me to my form of evangelical Calvinism. It is this fundamental critique and insight that not a single contemporary Reformed thinker or theologian I have come across has grasped whatsoever. I know many who read me seem to think that evangelical Calvinism, my form, is wholly contingent upon Barth and Torrance, but that is way too quick and limited of a conclusion to draw!

It is ironic, indeed, that the most adamant of Reformed voices today simply and uncritically accept the research of someone like Richard Muller who advocate for the Post Reformed orthodox re-appropriation of a ‘Christian Aristotelian’ mode; this is ironic because the very thing that kicked off the Protestant Reformation was in protest to Aristotle’s influence on Christian theology; particularly the impact that played on defining God’s righteousness and how that implicates a variety of things; including how ‘faith’ is conceived. If someone wants to critique evangelical Calvinism, at least my form, then start with engaging with Luther’s critique of ‘Christian Aristotelianism,’ the informing “theology” of what now constitutes most of Reformed theology, proper.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 139-41.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.

The Covenant of Works in Reformed Theology and an Alternative Covenantal Frame Provided by evangelical Calvinism

I have had a little interaction, recently, on Twitter, with Derek Rishmawy in regard to his affirmation of the Protestant Reformed Federal theology covenant of works. As such I am returning to this post I originally wrote up at least a couple of years ago, a post that offers a full explanation of the history and development of the covenant of works; and then offers an evangelical Calvinist alternative informed by none other than Karl Barth. This is also in response (but only in acknowledgement) to a forty page paper I read from David Gibson where he critiques the type of critique I offer up in my first paragraph following this one (which is informed by T.F. Torrance’s type of critique of Federal theology). Gibson argues that the three points I make in my following paragraph are weak and misunderstand Federal theology; his response isn’t directly to me, but to Torrance and Rolson in particular.

The Covenant of Works/Grace in classic Covenant Theology ultimately provides us with a God who 1) becomes shaped by Law as Grace, in relation to His creation (primarily the gem of His creation: humanity); 2) cannot efficaciously love His ‘elect’ people until the legal conditions of the Law are met; 3) and who ends up with a rupture in His subject (or person in the Son), as the Son’s jesuscreatorlife is shaped by the decrees in creation when He agrees (in the pactum salutis or Covenant of Redemption) to meet the conditions of the broken-Law by redeeming and purchasing the ‘elect’ humanity by incarnating (enfleshing), actively obeying (meriting), and dying on the cross.

I think these above stipulations and observations all represent theological problems that most Christians, by way of piety, would want to repudiate, because these observations about God in classic Covenant Theology do not actually end up cohering with the conception of God as love and grace that becomes so apparent in God’s first Word of original creation in Genesis 1, and His continuous exemplification of this in the manger of Christmas, and so forth.

Beyond trying to further engage with the inherent theological problems that I find plaguing classical Covenant Theology, for the rest of this expose, as it were, what I would like to do is attempt to substantiate my claims by simply quoting post Reformed orthodox scholar, par excellence, professor Richard Muller on what gives classical Covenant Theology its purported shape;  both in its etymology and synchronic historic development, and in its contemporary expression in our current situation. So, be prepared to read for about the next five to seven minutes or so, and then reflect upon what Muller articulates as the focal points of what constituted, and thus of what constitutes the particular and global realities of what makes classic Covenant Theology, classic Covenant Theology. [ps. The following is not for the faint of heart, take off your blog hat, and put on your paper reading hat, the following is made up of approx. 3600 words]

[G]iven these relationships between law and grace, the two covenants, and the problems of sin and salvation, it should not be surprising that a central issue addressed in the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works was the issue of federal headship and, therefore, the parallels between the first and the second Adam, the federal heads of the covenants of works and of grace. It is at this point that the soteriological ground of the doctrine of the covenant of works is most clearly presented, particularly in terms of its relationship to the doctrine of Christ’s mediatorial headship and work of satisfaction.

mullerAdam, in the covenant of works, “stood as the head of mankind [caput totius generis humani],” in his person “representing” the entire human race. By the same token, as indicated by the Apostle in Romans 5:11-15, Christ as the antitype of Adam stands as the representative of humanity in the covenant of grace and the “surety” of fulfillment or substitute for mankind before the law of God, in effect, in fulfillment of the demands of the violated covenant of works. After all, the violation of the covenant of works abrogated the law as a covenant, not as the ultimate “rule of life.” It is both the permanence of the divine promise of fellowship and the stability of the divine law as the standard of holiness and righteousness and, therefore, as the basis for fellowship with the holy and righteous God, that relates the covenants to one another: “the law declares, that there is no admission for any to eternal life, but on the account of a perfect and absolutely complete righteousness; [and] also, that every sinner shall undergo the penalty of death, the dominion of which is eternal” unless the penalty of sin is paid and “the dominion of death … abolished.”

Drawing on the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, Witsius argues the equivalency of the promises of the two covenants. Paul, he notes, “distinguishes the rightness of the law from the evangelical” while at the same time indicating that “life” is promised under both covenants. Concerning legal righteousness, Paul writes “that the man which doth these things shall live by them” (Rom. 10:5) and concerning evangelical righteousness, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17). Even so,

On both sides, the promise of life is the same, proposed in the very same words. For the apostle does not hint by the least expression, that one kind of life is promised by gospel, another by the law…. But the apostle places the whole difference, not in the thing promised by the law to the man that worketh, which he now receives by faith in Christ. But to what man thus working was it promised? to the sinner only? Was it not to man in his innocency? Was it not then when it might truly be said, If you continue to do well, you shall be the heir of that life upon that condition. Which could be said to none but to upright Adam. Was it not then, when the promise was actually made? For after the entrance of sin, there is not so much a promise, as a denunciation of wrath, and an intimation of a curse, proposing that as the condition for obtaining life, which is now impossible. I therefore conclude, that to Adam, in the covenant of works, was promised the same eternal life, to be obtained by the righteousness which is the law, of which believers are made partakers through Christ.

The identical point is made by Brakel with reference to the same texts.

Arguably, both theologians here manifest the central reason for the doctrine of a covenant of works and its fundamental relationship to the doctrines of justification by grace through faith and Christ’s satisfaction for sin: the issue is not to hammer home a legalistic view of life and salvation but precisely the opposite, while at the same time upholding the stability of divine law. There can be no salvation by works, but only by a means that excludes works—in short, through faith in Christ. Nonetheless, the law is not void. Indeed, the law remains the representation of divine goodness, holiness, and righteousness placed in the heart and mind of Adam even as he was created in the image of God. Given the fact of sin, such a law can no longer hold forth its original promise of fellowship with God, but it remains the condition of fellowship just as it remains the temporal indication of the goodness, holiness, and righteousness of God. The covenant of works takes on for the fallen Adam the function of the second or pedagogical use of the law—precisely the function of the Mosaic law understood as the legal covenant or covenant of works: “The Lord willed,” Brakel writes, that Adam “would now turn away from the broken covenant of works, and, being lost in himself, would put all hope in the seed of the woman, which was promised to him immediately thereafter.”

The covenant of works, then, was not violated and made void from the human side by the sin of Adam and Eve, rendering the promises of the covenant inaccessible to their posterity—but it was also, Witsius argues, abrogated from the divine side in the sense that God has clearly willed not to renew or recast the covenant of works for the sake of offering to fallen humanity a promise of life grounded in its own personal righteousness. In other words, God will not now, in the context of human sinfulness “prescribe a condition of obedience less perfect than that which he stipulated” in the original covenant of works. Nontheless, so far as the promise of eternal life is concerned, all of mankind remains subject to its “penal sanction”: thus, sin does not render void nor the divine abrogation of the covenant of works remove “the unchangeable truth” of God’s “immutable and indispensable justice.” Even so, Calvin had argued the “perpetual validity” of the law and had insisted that “the law has been divinely handed down to us to teach us perfect righteousness; there no other righteousness is taught than that which conforms to the requirements of God’s will.”

The divine abrogation of the covenant of works, then, does not abolish the promise of God or the condition of holiness and righteousness required for the fulfillment of the promise. And it is precisely because of this coordinate stability of promise and law that the covenant of grace becomes effective in Christ alone. When the Apostle Paul writes, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law,” he indicates both that “the covenant of grace does not abrogate, but supposes the abrogation of the covenant of works” and that

the covenant of grace is not [itself] the abolition, but rather the confirmation of the covenant of works, inasmuch as the Mediator has fulfilled all the conditions of that covenant, so that all believers may be justified and saved according to the covenant of works, to which satisfaction was made by the Mediator…. The very law of the covenant, which formerly gave up the human sinner to sin, when his condition is once changed by union with Christ the surety, does now, without any abolition, abrogation, or any other change whatever, absolve the man from the guilt and dominion of sin, and bestow on him that sanctification and glorification, which are gradually brought to perfection, which he shall obtain at the resurrection of the dead.

The stability of the law, guaranteed in the divine maintenance of the terms of the covenant of works, points not to a legalistic view of salvation but to the fullness of Christ’s work of sanctification and to the totally unmerited character of the salvation provided by grace through faith to believers. “Recognize,” writes Brakel, that “the Lord Jesus placed Himself under” the “same law Adam had … and thereby He merited redemption and adoption as children for the elect.”

The ultimate relationship of the covenant of works to the covenant of grace and, equally so, of Adam to Christ as the old and new federal heads of the humanity, is established and outlined by Witsius, Brakel, and virtually all of the major Reformed covenant theologians of the seventeenth century in their discussion of the “covenant of redemption” or pactum salutis between God the Father and God the Son. Here, also, as in the case of the covenant of works, we encounter a doctrinal construct, elicited according to the terms of the older Reformed hermeneutic, from the collation and exegetical analysis of a series of biblical passages. The doctrine itself probably originated with Cocceius, but its roots are most probably to be found in the earlier Reformed mediation on the trinitarian nature of the divine decrees. While not attempting to offer a discussion of the entire doctrine of the covenant of redemption, we can note here its function with respect to the two other covenants. In the first place, it is the eternal foundation of the covenant of grace, according to which Christ is established, in the depths of the Trinity, as the Redeemer, the new federal head of humanity, and the surety and sponsor of humanity in covenant: in short, the covenant of redemption is an “agreement between God and his elect. The covenant of grace thus also “presupposes” the covenant of redemption and “is founded upon it.”

In the second place, the covenant of redemption established the eternal remedy for the problem of sin and ensured the full manifestation and exercise of the divine righteousness and justice both in the covenant of works and beyond its abrogation. As Brakel comments, “The fact that God from eternity foreknew the fall, decreeing that He would permit it to occur, is not only confirmed by the doctrines of His omniscience and decrees, but also from the fact that God from eternity ordained a Redeemer for man, to deliver him from sin: the Lord Jesus Christ whom Peter calls the Lamb, “who was foreknown [voorgekend] before the foundation of the world. By the covenant of redemption, the Son binds himself to the work of salvation and, therefore, to the fulfillment of the condition of fellowship with God for the sake of God’s covenant people. Thus the promises, the conditions, and the penalties for failure to fulfill the conditions remain—but the conditions are met and the penalties satisfied in Christ. As eternally guaranteed by the covenant of redemption, “conditions are offered, to which eternal salvation is annexed; conditions not to be performed again by us, which might throw the mind into despondence; but by him, who would not part with his life, before he had truly said, “It is finished.”

After excoriating Thomas F. Torrance, Rolson, and Poole for naïvely deconstructing this kind (the above aforementioned by Muller) of classical Covenant theology through a ‘Barthian’ misunderstanding and caricature (of classical Covenant Theology, as described by Muller above); Muller concludes thusly:

[…] The purported legalism of the continuing covenant of works as presented in the demands of the law is nothing less than permanence of the original divine intention to ground the fellowship in the nature of God and in the imago Dei. Witsius and Brakel recognized in their debate with seventeenth-century Arminian and Socinian adversaries that as long as covenant refers to a relationship between God and human beings, law must belong to covenant as much as promise. They also understood—as we should perhaps recognize in the theological presuppositions of the contemporary critics of the doctrine—that the denial of the covenant of works, the attempt to deny the legal element of covenant in general (and, today, the attempt to pit the Reformers against their successors), represent not only an alternative view of the original relationship between God and human beings but also an alternative theory of Christ’s atonement and a theology that, at best, is less than traditionally Reformed.

The elements of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works that I have described here indicate the result of a process of doctrinal development in the Reformed tradition. As such, the language of the doctrine is certainly different from the language of the Reformers and even from that of earlier successors to the original Reformers such as Ursinus and Olevian or, indeed, in a slightly later time, William Perkins. Yet, the fundamental points of the doctrine, that the work of redemption must be understood both in terms of law and of grace, that human beings were created in and for fellowship with God under terms both of promise and of law, that Adam’s fall was a transgression of God’s law, that human inability after the Fall in no way removes the standard or the demands of the law, and that the gift of salvation through Christ’s satisfaction for sin both sets believers free from the law’s condemnation and upholds the laws demands, remain virtually identical. The free gift of grace in the one covenant respects the stability of law in the other, while the presence of law under different uses in both covenants echoes both the immutability of the divine nature and the constancy of the divine promises.[1]

Muller’s explication of the history, development, and contemporaneous reality of classical Covenant Theology is quite clear. As he develops this it becomes clear that for classical Covenant Theology, the touchstone for the subsequent redemptive-historical narrative development in the Old Testament, in particular, is Genesis 3; wherein ‘Law’ is elevated as locus classicus for interpreting God’s relation to tim-kellerhumanity in the imago Dei, and further, for exegeting how ‘Grace’ functions as an adjunct of ‘Law’ in the divine determination and decree.

Bringing this into application: In reference to my post on Timothy Keller’s book, Gospel Theology: Center Church, what bubbles up for me, and becomes pretty apparent (especially understanding the background of Keller’s theological education at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he also has taught as Adjunct Faculty), is that even if Keller is not a theological technician, such as Witsius & Brakel are in the history, or as Richard Muller, Carl Truemen, Scott Clark, et. al. are presently, he (Keller) is a practitioner, and I would suggest not a naïve one, as some would like to understandably suggest. Keller’s theology in general, and soteriology in particular, have an ‘informing theology’, as Walter Kaiser imbibes in another (and in his own biblical studies) context. And while Keller might not dot all of his “i’s” and cross all of his “t’s,” like Muller & co. do, he still has these “i’s” and “t’s” present and underwriting his practical theology (I think my post on him illustrates that to a “t”).

An alternative to all of the above, the alternative that we offer in our so called, Evangelical Calvinism, can be indicated by Karl Barth’s reification or recasting of Covenant Theology by starting the order of things not in Genesis 3, but in Genesis 1 as reinterpreted by John 1:1. The relation of God to His creation is ‘protologically’ grounded personally (not decretively) in His first and final Word of grace to be for us  barthglassesand with us (as the archetypal imago Dei & imago Christi in the original creation and apocalyptic re-creation) in and through His Self-determined (gracious) free choice to not be God without us, but only with us. Barth’s reordering of things, in this regard is captured well as he opines in (and more commonly as he applies this contour of thought throughout his theological oeuvre):

He [God] wills and posits the creature neither out of caprice nor necessity, but because He has loved it from eternity, because He wills to demonstrate His love for it, and because He wills, not to limit His glory by its existence and being, but to reveal and manifest it in His own co-existence with it. As the Creator He wills really to exist for His creature. That is why He gives it its own existence and being. That is also why there cannot follow from the creature’s own existence and being and immanent determination of its goal or purpose, or a claim to any right, meaning or dignity of existence and nature accruing to it except as a gift. That is why even the very existence and nature of the creature are the work of the grace of God.[2]

Barth sees the Covenant [of Grace], as do I, as the ‘internal basis for creation’ and ‘creation as the external basis of the covenant’[3]; Michael Allen writes:

[…] Faithful to his doctrine of election, he [Barth] considers creation within the bounds of his ‘Christological concentration’. The next paragraph (§41) considers the link between creation and covenant, noting that they are intertwined with ‘creation as the external basis of the covenant’ and ‘covenant as the internal basis for creation’….[4]

I will have to leave this kind of suggestive alternative for later (and simply refer you to other posts on my blog where I have engaged with the ‘alternative’ further, and to our edited book: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church).


This paper (of sorts) has covered a lot of ground (about 3,500 words of ground). I started this “paper” out with a few points of theological critique in regard to classical Covenant Theology and its implications. I then turned to Richard Muller, and quoted him at length for the purposes of illustrating how I might have come to my conclusions which are based upon the kind of historic classical Covenant Theology that Muller & co. articulates, embraces and defends. I then turned this depiction of classical Covenant Theology towards the pastoral theology of Timothy Keller as he has articulated it in his book Gospel Theology; and I included, therein, that Keller, while not a technician of classical Covenant Theology, is in fact a practitioner of classical Covenant Theology in its most basic and thematic expression. After all of this, I offered an alternative to classical Covenant Theology by alerting the reader to Evangelical Calvinism’s ‘informing theology’ provided by Karl Barth (and I would add here, Thomas F. Torrance). And I have had to leave it here, because of space and time restraints.

My hope is that, at the least, even if you disagree with my conclusions and the way forward in regard to engaging with Covenant Theology, that you will at least arrive at the one conclusion; and that is that classical Covenant Theology (made up as it is of the covenant of works, grace, and redemption, respectively) elevates ‘Law’ as the touchstone—even if one wants to argue is couched in ‘Grace’—for how Covenant Theology believes that God relates to humanity, even in His ‘dearly beloved Son’. If Grace is contingent upon Law and Law is contingent upon Grace, then it becomes very hard to conceive of a way to disentangle them as distinct things or realities; indeed, Muller and the classical Reformed position does not want to do so. And so grace is really law, and law is really grace. And I must leave it here.

[1] [emboldening mine] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 185-89.

[2] Karl Barth, CD III/1.95

[3] See R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (New York: T&T Clark International, 2012), 115 (nook edition, chapt. 8, first page).

[4] Ibid.

Who is the AntiChrist? Post Reformed orthodoxy’s Answer and Other Traditions

Eschatology in the realm of systematic theology often means something different from eschatology within a biblical exegetical frame of things. Maybe it isn’t that it means something different, per se, but its focus is broader and more hermeneutical; i.e. it doesn’t necessarily get into the nitty gritty exegetical minutiae of trying to figure out what millennial scheme we should hold (i.e.
leoxpremillennial, postmillennial, amillennial, etc.), or who the anti-Christ might be, so on and so forth. Richard Bauckham summarizes this different emphasis well when he writes:

Traditionally, eschatology comprised the ‘four last things’ that Christian faith expects to be the destiny of humans at the end of time: resurrection, last judgement, heaven, and hell. They formed the last section of a dogmatics or a systematic theology, a position they still usually occupy. But in the twentieth century, eschatology ceased to be merely one doctrinal topic among others to be treated after the others; it became something more like a dimension of the whole subject matter of theology. Karl Barth famously claimed in 1921, ‘If Christianity be not altogether thoroughgoing eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatever with Christ’ (Barth 1968: 314; cf 1957: 634-5). While the content given to the term ‘eschatology’ has varied considerably over the subsequent period, in which Barth’s claim has become a favourite quotation in discussions of eschatology (e.g., Moltmann 1967:39; Pannenberg 1991-8: iii. 532), the indispensable role it attributes to eschatology has been widely endorsed. Moltmann writes, ‘From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology…. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day’ (Moltmann 1967:16).[1]

I largely subscribe to Barth’s view that Christianity is eschatology through and through. I subscribe to the cosmic nature of Christianity, of the reality that all of creation has its telos from, in, and for Christ. I affirm the reality that this world is God’s world, and this world is the theater wherein God breaks into it through the Son, Jesus Christ, and sets to right all things according to the order of His Kingdom come.

But because I am an evangelical I have grown up in a Christian sub-culture that has given (and continues to give, in some sectors) an inordinate amount of focus to working meticulously through the details of the books of the Bible such as Revelation, I&II Thessalonians, and other prophetic books with a gaze towards answering all of the various “bible prophecy” questions (you know what I mean). This exegetical approach, funded in many instances by an overly wooden-literalistic engagement with the text, has attempted to provide exegetical conclusion to a variety of interpretive questions in regard to such things as: the millennium, who the anti-Christ is, if there is such a thing as the rapture (within the dispensational approach), how current events relate to biblical prophecy and its fulfillment (within the dispensational approach), and many other like foci. To be honest, as much as I have moved away from much of that, it still interests me at some level; even if that interest, at points, is at the level of social-curiosity.

Given my curiosity, I found it very interesting to run across how Richard Muller defines what the Latin language for anti-Christ, antichristus, entailed in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period (i.e. 16th and 17th centuries). Muller writes at length:

antichristus (from the Greek, ντίχριστος): antichrist; scriptural use of the word is confined to the Joannine Epistles (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7) where a distinction is made between (1) the many antichrists now in the world, who work to deceive the godly and who do not confess Christ, and (2) the Antichrist who is to come who will deny Christ and, in so doing, deny both the Father and the Son. John also speaks (1 John 4:3) of the “spirit … of the antichrist” which “even now … is in the world.” Following the fathers, the medieval doctors, and the Reformers, the Protestant orthodox identify the final Antichrist of the Johannine passages with the “man of sin” or “son of perdition who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God” foretold by Paul in 2 Thess. 2:3-4. The orthodox can therefore distinguish between (1) the antichrist considered generally (generaliter), as indicated by the plural use of the word in 1 John and by the “spirit of antichrist” now in the world, and (2) the Antichrist considered specially (specialiter et kat’ exochen), as indicated by singular usage. The former term indicates all heretics and vicious opponents of the doctrine of Christ; the latter, the great adversary of Christ who will appear in the last days. Of the latter, the Antichristus properly so called, the orthodox note several characteristics. (1) He arises from within the church and sets himself against the church and its doctrine, since his sin is described as apostasia (q.v.), or falling away. (2) He will sit in temple Dei, in the temple of God, which is to say, in the church. (3) He will rule as the head of the church. (4) From his seat in templo Dei and his position as caput ecclesiae, he will exalt himself above the true God and identify himself as God. (5) He will cause a great defection from the truth so that many will join him in his apostasy. (6) He will exhibit great power and cause many “lying wonders,” founded upon the power of Satan, in a rule that will endure until the end of time. On the basis of these characteristics the orthodox generally identify the Antichrist as the papacy, the pontifex Romanus. Some attempted to argue a distinction between an Antichristus orientalis and an Antichristus occidentalis, an Eastern and a Western Antichrist, the former title belonging to Muhammad, the latter to the papacy; but the difficulty in viewing Islam, or any form of paganism, as an apostasy, strictly so-called, led the orthodox to identify Rome alone as Antichrist. They also reject the identification of Antichrist with the imperium Romanum, the Roman Empire, on the ground that the Antichrist is not a secular power or a result of pagan history. Finally, they also reject the identification of any single pope as Antichrist on the ground that Antichrist’s rule and power extend farther and endure longer than the rule and power of any one man. Thus, Antichrist is the institution of the papacy which has arisen within the church and which assumes religious supremacy over all Christians, seats itself in the temple of God, and builds its power on lies, wonders, and apostasy.[2]

Clearly, for the Post Reformed orthodox, the papacy as an institution represents the office of the eschatological Antichrist. I would imagine that this still holds true today, particularly for Orthodox Presbyterians, and maybe the Presbyterian Church of America; i.e. that the papal seat and Vatican city, and what they represent, serve as emblematic and as the embodiment of the personal Antichrist. It isn’t just the Post Reformed orthodox, and the Reformed in general who held, and may continue to hold this view; we once attended a Lutheran church (Wisconsin synod) that made a point to emphasize that they see the Roman See as the embodiment of Antichrist. More sensationalistic than this, evangelicals, of the dispensational sort (like Dave Hunt, Chick tracts, etc.), have also seen the papacy as a potential candidate for fulfilling the role of the Antichrist.

Attempting to answer this question, of the identity of the Antichrist, is not a bad thing in my view; it reflects a people who take the Bible and its various teachings seriously. I may have given the impression, earlier, that I find such things pedantic; I don’t. What I do find pedantic is when people become consumed by the sensationalistic aspects of all of this, and fail to miss the bigger picture of eschatology, theologically and hermeneutically, and what that is all about. It is about God’s Kingdom, come, and coming every day. We live in a world that needs to hear and know that good news. Within that framework, we can attempt to work through the exegetical questions and various biblical foci; but never losing sight that we ought to be living as those who are simply looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.


[1] Richard Bauckham, “Eschatology,” in John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance eds., The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 306.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 39-40.