Results tagged “Trinity” from Reformation21 Blog

In previous entries in what is becoming an impromptu antiphonal blog series on the Trinity, Fred Sanders and I have focused on the nature and relevance of the doctrine of inseparable operations (see here, here, and here). To this point, we have considered ways in which the unity of God's being informs the unity of God's action towards his creatures in making, redeeming, and perfecting them for his glory. In the present post, I want to consider a couple of the ways in which his tripersonal manner of existing is inflected in his external works. As God is one and three, so God acts as one and three.

God's triune identity informs our understanding of God's triune actions in two areas, both which specify in different ways how the three persons relate to one another within the context of their indivisible activity toward creatures. 

(1) The doctrine of appropriations helps us appreciate why the Scriptures characteristically appropriate (for example) the act of predestination to the Father (Eph 1.4-6; 1 Pet 1.1-2) even though each divine person is an agent of God's electing grace (John 6.70; 13.18; 1 Cor 2.7-11). The reason distinct divine actions are appropriated to distinct divine persons is not because God's actions toward his creatures are divided between the persons: the external works of the Trinity are undivided (opera Trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt). The reason is due to the ways in which the personal characteristics of the three manifest themselves in their common, indivisible action. Thus, as the Father is the principle of the Son and the Spirit (i.e., he eternally generates the Son and he eternally breathes forth the Spirit), his personal character shines forth in a special way in predestination, the principle act of the Trinity in salvation. Similarly, because the Son is eternally generated by the Father and because he eternally breathes forth the Spirit, the Son's personal character shines forth in a special way in the work of redemption, since the work of redemption flows from divine predestination and issues in the work of sanctification (Eph 1.3-14). Finally, because the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son as the bond of God's tripersonal perfection, his personal character shines forth in a special way in the work of sanctification, since the work of sanctification brings the acts of predestination and redemption to their divinely appointed goal (Eph 1.4; 5.27), making us a habitation for the triune God (John 14.16-17, 23).

More clearly than in the doctrine of appropriations, (2) the doctrine of divine missions reveals how the mystery of God's tripersonal being shines forth in God's tripersonal actions toward his creatures. In trinitarian theology, "mission" refers to the "sending" of one divine person by another for a specific purpose in relation to our salvation. In Scripture, these missions follow a very specific pattern: the Father sends the Son to accomplish his redemptive mission; and the Father, with the Son, sends the Spirit to accomplish his sanctifying mission (Gal 4.4-7; John 15.26). This missional pattern in turn corresponds to the eternal relations that constitute the divine persons: the Father eternally generates the Son; and the Father, with the Son, eternally breathes forth the Spirit. As insightful as this correspondence is, it does not fully capture the wonderful reality expressed in the doctrine of the divine missions. Not only do the eternal relations of the Trinity constitute the "whence" of the divine missions, the latter being the temporal embassy and extension of the former. The eternal relations of the Trinity also constitute the "whither" of the divine missions insofar as they provide the divine prototypes and goals of those missions: the goal of the Son's redemptive mission is to make us sons and daughters in order that he might become the firstborn among many brothers and sisters (Gal 4.5; Rom 8.29); the goal of the Spirit's sanctifying mission is to embrace us within the fellowship of the Father and the Son, pouring out the Father's love into our hearts (Rom 5.5), and awakening within us the Son's filial cry of "Abba! Father!" (Gal 4.6). Formally stated, we may summarize the law of God's triune action as follows: The eternal relations of the Trinity are inflected in their undivided external operations, even as the external operations of the Trinity extend their eternal relations to elect creatures in a manner suitable to creatures.

Why does any of this matter? Along with the fact that the doctrines of inseparable operations, appropriations, and missions help us think truly about the true and triune God in his saving action, these doctrines also help us become better readers of Scripture (see, for example, here) and help deepen our communion with the triune God (see, for example, here and here). Those are not insignificant reasons for caring about trinitarian theology. 

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Now, in order to round out this impromptu series, somebody needs to say something about the relationship between the Trinity and divine simplicity and about the nature and significance of the eternal generation of the Son of God. Fred? 
I recently read an essay by a leading evangelical theologian arguing that many "egalitarian" discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity threaten to compromise basic tenets of orthodox Christianity and to undermine, at least implicitly, the authority of the Bible (Wayne Grudem, "Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminist Arguments about the Trinity," in Bruce A. Ware and John Starke, eds., One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life [Crossway, 2015], chap. 1). Over the course of the essay, the author extensively criticized some of these approaches for subscribing to the doctrine of "inseparable operations." The doctrine of inseparable operations teaches that, because the three persons of the Trinity are one God, each person of the Trinity is operative in all of God's external works--from creation through redemption to consummation. More concisely stated: "the external works of the Trinity are indivisible" (opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt). Though I share the author's complementarian commitments, as well as his concerns about the way some egalitarian theologians treat the Trinity, I believe his attempt to correct these treatments of the Trinity by denying the doctrine of inseparable operations represents a cure that is worse than the disease. To deny the doctrine of inseparable operations is to undermine classical trinitarian theology at its core.

As Lewis Ayres and others have demonstrated quite extensively over the past couple of decades, fourth century trinitarian thought, the context within which "Nicene Christianity" as we know it emerged, was characterized by three basic features: (1) a clear sense of the distinction between "person" and "nature" in the Godhead, with the understanding that there are three of the former and only one of the latter; (2) a conviction that the eternal generation of the Son does not constitute a division between the being of the Father and the being of the Son but rather that it occurs within the indivisible and incomprehensible being of God; and (3) a belief that the unity of being among the Father, the Son, and the Spirit entails a unity of operation in their works toward creatures. These three features, we should note, not only characterize fourth century trinitarian theology; they also characterize mainstream trinitarian theology East and West, late patristic, medieval, and modern, Catholic and Protestant. 

The doctrine of inseparable operations has received broad acceptance in the church because it enjoys a solid foundation in Holy Scripture. The doctrine reflects a pattern of theological reasoning that follows from a biblical pattern of divine naming. 

Consider just one example. In 1 Corinthians 8.6, Paul declares: "for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist." In this text, the Apostle appropriates two common Jewish strategies, one drawn from the Old Testament, another borrowed from Greco-Roman God-talk, for affirming the absolute unity of God's identity and action. The language of "one God" and "one Lord" draws upon Deuteronomy 6.4 to affirm the unity of God's identity. The language about "all things" being "from" him and "through" him borrows discourse often used to describe the various "causes" of the universe in order to affirm that God alone is the supreme cause of all things--i.e., that all things are "from him and through him and to him," to quote Romans 11.36. The striking feature of 1 Corinthians 8.6 is that Paul locates the distinct identities of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ within the singular divine identity and within the singular divine causality that plans and accomplishes all things for God's glory. (For further discussion of this and other Pauline texts relevant to the doctrine of the Trinity, see Wes Hill's excellent book.)

This feature of the biblical naming of God constitutes the controlling grammar of the church's later trinitarian discourse. The distinction between divine persons is a distinction that obtains within the singular being of God without compromising or dividing that being. Similarly, the distinction between divine persons is a distinction that obtains within the singular agency of God without compromising or dividing that agency.  

Of course, the flip side is true as well. The unity of God's being does not elide the distinction between the persons: The Father and the Son are one God and one Lord; but the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. Furthermore, the unity of God's agency, as affirmed in the doctrine of inseparable operations, does not elide the distinction between the persons. Francis Turretin summarizes a broad ecclesiastical consensus on this point:

Although the external works [of the Trinity] are undivided and equally common to the single persons (both on the part of the principle and on the part of the accomplishment), yet they are distinguished by order and by terms. For the order of operating follows the order of subsisting. As therefore the Father is from himself, so he works from himself; as the Son is from the Father, so he works from the Father (here belong the words of Christ, 'the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do,' Jn. 5:19). As the Holy Spirit is from both, so he works from both. They also differ in terms as often as any divine operation is terminated on any person. So the voice heard from heaven is terminated on the Father, incarnation on the Son and the appearance in the form of a dove on the Holy Spirit.

In other words, within the undivided action of God toward his creatures, the three persons act in accordance with their distinct identities: in every work of God outside of himself, the Father acts from himself, the Son acts from the Father, and the Spirit acts from the Father and the Son. The three act in an indivisible but not an indistinct manner. (This principle, by the way, constitutes the intratrinitarian basis of the Son's obedience to the Father in his incarnate state, as Mike Allen and I have argued here.) 

The past twenty five years or so have not exactly been a golden age of evangelical reflection upon the Trinity. This is due in part to modern theological amnesia regarding some of the most basic elements of biblical, trinitarian reasoning (as Stephen Holmes has shown here). It is also due to the (all too often) haphazard manner in which the Trinity has been used in debates regarding gender roles in the church. Thankfully, things are slowly changing. As they do, both complementarians and egalitarians need to do some house cleaning in their theological polemics. Such house cleaning will require patience in recovering the categories of classical trinitarian theology and, more fundamentally, in recovering the patterns of biblical reasoning from which these categories derive and which, in turn, these categories serve to promote. 

When engaging in theological polemics, we must be careful not to destroy the fruitful trees that may stand in the midst of our interlocutors' arguments (see Deut 20.19-20). Let's contend for a biblical understanding of gender and gender roles. But let's not compromise the doctrine of the Trinity in the process.
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." 2 Corinthians 13.14

B. B. Warfield long ago observed that the apostolic writings do not develop but rather presuppose the doctrine of the Trinity. The New Testament is not evidence of a transitional stage in the evolution of a trinitarian faith that is only conceptualized and codified in later centuries. The New Testament exhibits the presence within the apostolic church of a deeply ingrained trinitarian faith that, almost effortlessly, articulates itself in trinitarian summaries of the gospel events (e.g., Gal 4.4-7), trinitarian formulations of sacramental practice (e.g., Matt 28.19), trinitarian outbursts of praise (e.g., Eph 1.3-14), and trinitarian benedictions, such as we have in 2 Corinthians 13.14. 

This little verse is a trinitarian theology of salvation in miniature. As the God in whose name it blesses is one and three, so too is the salvation it commends. 

Second Corinthians 13.14 coordinates each phase of God's saving work--from its conception to its accomplishment to its effect--to a different person of the Trinity. Thus "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" coordinates the accomplishment God's saving work to the Son: our Lord and elder brother who graciously humbled himself to bear our curse and who was gloriously exalted to bestow his Father's blessing (2 Cor 8.9). "The love of God" coordinates the conception of God's saving work to the Father: whose love initiated the sacrifice of his beloved Son (John 3.16) and whose love intended our adoption as that sacrifice's gracious consequence (Eph 1.4-5). "The fellowship of the Holy Spirit" coordinates the effect of God's saving work to the Spirit: who brings us into adoptive fellowship with the Father (Gal 4.5-6), through mystical fellowship with the Son (Eph 1.3), in and by the corporate fellowship of the local church (1 Cor 12). 

The text does not coordinate the three persons of the Trinity to the three phases of salvation because all three persons are not united in all three phases of God's saving work (the external works of God, after all, are undivided) but in order to highlight the distinctive glory of each particular person in each particular phase of salvation. Consequently, as the Father's distinctive personal character lies in begetting the Son and breathing the Spirit, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in conceiving the plan of salvation in love. As the Son's distinctive personal character lies in being begotten of the Father and breathing the Spirit, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in accomplishing the gracious plan that brings many sons to glory. As the Spirit's distinctive personal character lies in being breathed forth by the Father and the Son in their mutual fellowship and love, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in welcoming us into the fruit or effect of God's gracious plan of salvation: the fellowship of the Spirit.

Two quick observations follow from the preceding discussion. 

First, contrary to Warfield's reading, this verse does not contradict the principle that an ordered procession of persons exists within the Trinity; it rather confirms it. Though syntactically the Son precedes the Father and the Spirit in this verse, his position in the work of salvation corresponds to his personal order within the Trinity, as we saw above. The significance of 2 Corinthians 13.14 for trinitarian theology, we might say, lies not in syntax but in semantics. 2 Corinthians 13.14 presents to us a salvation initiated by the first person, accomplished by the second person, and perfected by the third person in correspondence with their eternal relations.

Second, as with the persons themselves, the phases of God's work of salvation may be distinguished. However, as with the persons, God's work of salvation cannot be divided. God's salvation, like God himself is one. No conception of salvation without salvation's accomplishment. No accomplishment of salvation without salvation's effect. 

This observation, it seems to me, holds powerful implications for how we think about the place of the local church within God's saving purpose. If it is indeed true that the fellowship of the Spirit (with the Father, through the Son, in the local church) is inseparable from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father, then we cannot expect to enjoy the grace of the Lord Jesus or the love of the Father apart from the church, the community within which the fellowship of the Spirit flourishes. Accordingly, to the extent that we would lean into the love of the Father and into the grace of the Lord Jesus, we must lean into the fellowship of the Spirit in the place where he pours forth the realities of that fellowship, in the local church.

And this also seems to be why Paul concludes a series of exhortations toward restoration, mutual comfort, agreement, and peace (see 2 Cor 13.11) with a trinitarian benediction: because the triune God of love, grace, and fellowship is the one whose blessing and presence is absolutely essential in forming a community characterized by restoration, mutual comfort, agreement, and peace.
Augustine's second homily on the Gospel of John offers one of the richest commentaries on John 1.12 that I have read. His explanation of what it means for God to give us "the right to become children of God" is worth quoting in full:

What did he bestow on them? Great kindness; great mercy. Singly born, he did not wish to remain one and only. Many couples who have had no children adopt some when advanced in years and realize by choice what nature was unable to provide; that is what human beings do. But someone who has an only son rejoices in him all the more, because he alone will take possession of the whole inheritance and not have anyone else to divide it with and thus turn out the poorer. Not so God; he sent the very same one and only Son he had begotten, through whom he had created everything, into this world so that he should not be alone but should have adopted brothers and sisters. You see, we were not born of God in the same way as the only-begotten Son of his, but we were adopted through the Son's grace. For the only-begotten Son came to forgive sins, those sins which had us so tied up that they were an impediment to his adopting us; he forgave those he wished to make his brothers and sisters and made them co-heirs... No, he was not afraid of having co-heirs, because his inheritance is not whittled down if many possess it. They themselves, in fact, become the inheritance which he possesses, and he in turn becomes their inheritance (Homilies on the Gospel of John [New City Press, 2009], pp. 64-65).

The beauty of Augustine's description of adoption speaks for itself. A few observations are nevertheless worth making.

(1) Augustine's homily is a helpful reminder that faithful biblical exposition did not begin in the modern era. Patristic sermons and biblical commentaries will inevitably strike evangelicals as strange territory. Nonetheless, it is territory that repays patient exploration.  

(2) Much of the power of the doctrine of adoption lies in the disanalogy that obtains between human adoption and divine adoption. Human couples often adopt because they lack natural offspring. Human couples with an only child (at least in Augustine's day) often rejoice in the fact that their offspring can be the sole heir of their inheritance (and thus can avoid the poverty that might accompany dividing their inheritance). "Not so God": He sacrificed what he had--his eternally begotten, eternally beloved Son--to enrich his enemies by making them joint-heirs with Christ. 

(3) We cannot appreciate the full depths of the gospel apart from the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us about the kind of love that is on display in the gospel. The Father eternally loves the Son, and this love is the measure of what the gospel cost: the Father loved us by sacrificing his beloved Son to forgive those sins that "were an impediment to his adopting us." Moreover, the Father's love for the Son is the measure of what the gospel bought: the Father loved us by bequeathing to us an inexhaustible inheritance, which is nothing other than the right to become an heir of the Father's love in and with Jesus Christ, his beloved Son. Truly this is "great kindness; great mercy."

I Worshipped "Allah" Last Sunday

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Never have I so carefully typed quotation marks. Those tiny dashes keep intact both my ordination vows and my soul. They also refer to my enjoyable experience last Sunday attending an international service organized by the Gereformeerde Kerken in IJsselmuiden, Netherlands. Gathered there was a small group of immigrants and refugees from around the world, including not a few from the Middle East. The sermon was in Dutch, but it was immediately translated, phrase by phrase, into French, Russian, English, and Arabic . . . all at the same time. By accident I sat in the Arabic section, but I could still hear the English translator parked on the other side of the room. 

The kaleidoscope of languages spoken all at once pushed the limits of my sensibilities for "decency and order," but it also made the service unforgettable. I was particularly struck by how the content of a single sermon--fittingly, on Pentecost--appeared to resonate with all of the congregants, each in his own tongue. Through both ears, I heard that all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of "Allah." Of course, in this case, "Allah" unequivocally meant the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

How different was the carefully choreographed prayer service hosted last week by Pope Francis with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas. The well-intentioned event enjoyed pre-approval by the modern Catholic Church's declaration that, with the Church, "Moselms . . . adore the one God." Similar confusion between the "Allah" of Islam and the, well, quite different "Allah" of Christian (triune) theism now swirls at the doorstep of our theological homes. What will we do?

At the close of my own international assembly, the congregation sang "Great is Thy Faithfulness," dividing the stanzas into the languages represented there. Such unity in diversity offered a faint analogy of the glory of the triune God. Discerning when that glory gets diminished in the name of well-intended desires to reach and respect foreign cultures requires the wisdom of God. Thankfully, as I heard last Sunday, that is just what our faithful God has promised to give his sons in the Spirit.

The Triune God

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Our latest book, The Triune God, has recently been published in partnership with P&R Publishing. It is high testament to the blessings of God upon some very hard work as it's the culmination of many years of steady and faithful labor by one pastor and one church family. 

Rev. Ron Kohl is the senior pastor of Grace Bible Fellowship Church (a supporting Alliance Member Church) in Quakertown PA. Yes, that Quakertown, of our Quakertown Regional Conference on Reformed Theology. After several years of an encouraging and edifying event, this volume is evidence of the faithful teaching and ministry that has happened there.

In the latest Alliance Re:port Ron tells of the conference and makes a case for Alliance events in a piece titled "Mary Moments in a Martha World." If you have not read it, you ought. And if you need a copy our Alliance Re:port, wish to learn more about Alliance Member Churches, or to order a copy of The Triune God, please call us (215-546-3696) as we would be happy to mail you one.

The Triune God can be ordered here - http://reformedresources.org/books/the-triune-god/
Alliance Re:port can be viewed here - http://allianceradio.org/1403SpringAllianceReportforweb.pdf
Alliance Member Churches can be found here - http://www.alliancenet.org/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID307086_CHID560230_CIID1423494,00.html

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The winners of Jeremy Walker's book, The New Calvinism Considered: a personal and pastoral assessment, will soon be receiving their copies thanks to EP Books! Thank everyone for signing up, those random selected are:

Joan H, Huron, OH
Anthony F, Valencia CA
Helene B, Luverne MN
Alvin L, Herndon VA
Corey D, Walker MI
Nate B, Paso Robles, CA
DeWayne W, Willingboro NJ
Greg M, Olathe KS
Mark P, Tuscaloosa AL
Charles B, Greenville SC

Hunting with a Lion

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Now that B. B. Warfield's theology is back on the scene with Fred Zaspel's The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway), I thought I'd point out a few comments by the Lion of Princeton in his Collected Works on the faithful and fearless John Calvin. What struck me this week was Warfield's assessment of what made Calvin tick, what drove his most profound theological reflection, what conditioned all of his work at Geneva, and what suffused his every religious impulse with devotional fire.


What was it for Calvin that, according to Warfield, "did not stand for him out of relation to his religious consciousness" but was essentially given "in his experience of salvation itself"? What was that "great and inspiring reality" that situated "his profoundest religious emotions"? Was it the compelling narrative of Scripture? A renewed cosmos to come? Small groups?!? No, for Calvin, it was that vital and mysterious truth that we worship one absolute God in three Persons.


Now I confess, I wouldn't instinctively place the doctrine of the Trinity at the center of a church growth strategy. But Calvin knew something we too often don't remember; namely, that God as Trinity permeates and conditions all that is genuinely Christian, including church worship, prayers, providence, salvation, Scripture, sacraments, preaching, and, indeed, all of life and creation.


So 400 years from now, what would an observer say is the ultimate conviction of your (or your pastor's) ministry? What truth undergirded each sermon, Sunday School lesson, or session meeting? Of course, I'm not advocating tossing out words like "hypostases" or "perichoresis" from the pulpit each week. But let us increasingly yearn to become self-consciously Trinitarian in the deepest fibers of our being in order that we might better know and commune with the only God who is.

Results tagged “Trinity” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 2.3, Part Two

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iii. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

To limit the Confession's commitment to Trinitarianism to the two sentences that conclude Chapter two would be a serious mistake. Though simplistic revisionists have seen fit to add a chapter on the Holy Spirit, the entire Confession is viewed from a Trinitarian perspective, including the Confession's robust portrayal of the work of the Spirit in the Application of Redemption that comprises the bulk of the central sections of the Confession. 

Of practical import, to neglect the Father will make us soft and lazy, folk of dull consciences inclined to antinomianism and prone to complain at what we view as a lack of parental care for our most urgent needs. Ignoring the Son will lead us to make little of our need for a blood-bought redemption or of giving praise and glory to another, encouraging us in the default of every Adamic heir - a treadmill of works righteousness as we endeavor to make idols of ourselves. Neglecting the Spirit will encourage worldliness of the worst kind, ignoring what he provides in on-going transformational holiness in fruit-bearing, Christ-like lives. 

To get a grasp of how Trinitarianly robust seventeenth century Reformed theology can be, read John Owen's, Of Communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace, and Consolation; or, The Saint's Fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost Unfolded (1658), otherwise known as Volume 2 of the 16-volumed set of Owen's Works. He will make us appear as theological Lilliputians.

Chapter 2.3

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iii. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Richard Muller notes three characteristics of Reformed Orthodoxy's discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity: First, they showed a careful appropriation and development of Patristic vocabulary; second, they demonstrated a clear appreciation of the exegetical ground of the doctrine in Scripture; and third, they struggled to find philosophical categories for the expression of the doctrine given the increasingly problematic conception of the term "substance" in the seventeenth century [Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics 4:58-62].

Given the degree of anti-Trinitarian sentiments in both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Socinianism in particular)*, and as Trinitarian statements go, the WCF's two sentence, fifty-five word statement is profoundly terse and even simple. We should not conclude, however, that the Divines minimized the doctrine; on the contrary, any form of Unitarian theology was viewed as heresy and, more especially, un-Christian and even anti-Christian. One-in-threeness and Three-in-Oneness constitutes orthodox theology and the Divines bow to Tertullianesque, Niceno-Constantinopolitan creedal justification for the statements they make. There is One God but there is also MORE THAN ONE who is the ONE God. The Father is God. The Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God. 

Truth is, God can only exist this way. Truth is, too, that the gospel can only be the way that it is because God is triune, for love - out-going, sacrificial love that we see in Christ's Mediatorship - can only exist because of plurality within the unity of God. Without Trinity there is no possibility of gospel.

[* See, Paul C. H. Lim, The Crisis of the Trinity in Early Modern England (OUP, 2012); Philip Dixon, Nice Hot Disputes: The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventeenth Century (T & T Clark, 2006)]