Results tagged “systematic theology” from Reformation21 Blog

Turretin's Treasure


Many years ago, at one of the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society, Allan Fisher gave me (a poor doctoral student at the time) one of the best gifts that an aspiring student of theology could ever receive: a copy of Francis Turretin's three-volumeInstitutes of Elenctic Theology. Though Turretin's name is well-known in Reformed theology, Turretin having earned a reputation for his many years of faithful service as professor of theology at the Academy of Geneva, his Institutes of Elenctic Theology is not well-read today. This is partly due to the fact that, upon its publication, Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology replaced Turretin's Institutes as the theological textbook of choice at Princeton Seminary, thus narrowing Turretin's history of reception in North America. Perhaps more significantly, lack of readerly attention to Turretin's Institutes is also due to the fact that this massive work represents a theological genre and sensibility (i.e., Reformed  "scholasticism") that has become increasingly foreign to us over the past century or so. This neglect of Turretin's Institutes is, in my judgment, to our theological impoverishment. 

Turretin's Institutes is an interesting work. By Turretin's own admission, it does not intend to offer "a full and accurate system of theology." As the title indicates, the Institutes is an exercise in "elenctics." As such, it engages some of the principal heads of controversy that lie between Reformed theology and its rivals (both ancient and modern) in order to refute error and bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. The design of the Institutes explains the polemical edge that characterizes its (quite thorough) treatment of various disputed questions in theology. For all its polemical intent, Turretin's work is nevertheless an example of Reformed theology at its finest: rooted in sound exegesis, a model of conceptual clarity, and rich in pastoral wisdom. For those willing to familiarize themselves with the canons and genres of scholastic debate, and willing to spend some time learning the history of theology that Turretin often presupposes, the Institutes of Elenctic Theology repays careful study.

Turretin's discussion of the covenant of grace, a topic which he expounds over the course of twelve questions (roughly twelve chapters), provides a particularly good example of what readers may expect to find in his Institutes. Therein, the professor of Geneva discusses the various biblical terms for covenant, both Hebrew and Greek, along with their Latin equivalents.  He also addresses knotty issues such as whether or not the covenant of grace is a "conditional" covenant (and, by the way, his treatment of this issue is much more sophisticated than many contemporary discussions), whether and how the old and new covenants differ, the difference between "accepting" and "keeping" the covenant, and how Christ mediated grace to the patriarchs under the Old Testament. 

In addressing these and other issues of great systematic theological importance, Turretin does not neglect to comment upon their spiritual import. In what is perhaps my favorite section of the Institutes, Turretin discusses the various blessings that God grants us in the covenant of grace. Principal among these blessings, according to Turretin, God "gives himself to us that ever after he may be ours as much essentially . . . (as to his nature and attributes) as hypostatically . . . (as to the persons and personal operations)."

What does it mean for God to give himself to us "essentially"? According to Turretin:

God so gives himself to us as to be ours as to all the attributes (conducing to our advantage and salvation). They are well said to be ours by fruition and use because their salutary effects flow unto us. Ours is the wisdom of God for direction; the power of God for protection; the mercy of God for the remission of sins; the grace of God for sanctification and consolation; the justice of God for the punishment of enemies; the faithfulness of God for the execution of promises; the sufficiency of God for the communication of all manner of happiness. And as sin brought innumerable evils upon us, we find a remedy for all in the divine properties: wisdom heals our ignorance and blindness, grace our guilt, power our weakness, mercy our misery, goodness our wickedness, justice our iniquity, the sufficiency and fulness of God our poverty and indigence, fidelity our inconstancy and fickleness, holiness our impurity and life our death.

And how does God give himself to us "hypostatically" or "personally"? Turretin explains:

God is ours personally, inasmuch as the individual persons are ours and give themselves to us for accomplishing the work of redemption: the Father electing, the Son redeeming, the Holy Spirit sanctifying. He becomes our Father by adoption when he receives us into his own family and regards, cherishes and loves us as sons (1 Jn. 3:1). The Son becomes ours by suretyship when he offers himself as the surety to make satisfaction for us and as the head, to rule over and quicken us. He becomes ours as a Prophet, revealing salvation by the light of his doctrine; our Priest, who purchases it by his merit; and our King, who applies it (when acquired) by the efficacy of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit becomes ours when he is sent to us and gives himself to us as sanctifier and consoler that he may dwell in us as his temples and enrich us with his blessings, light, strength, joy, liberty, holiness and happiness. Thus our communion is with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (1 Jn. 1:3; 2 Cor. 13:14). Hence, baptism, which is a seal of the covenant, is administered in their name so that we may be consecrated as sons of God, the Father, as members of the Son and as temples of the Holy Spirit and enjoy the blessings flowing from each person--the mercy of the Father, the grace of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit.

As these passages indicate, in spite of Turretin's polemical design, the Institutes of Elenctic Theology cannot avoid being a work of penetrating theological insight and profound pastoral comfort, drawing as deeply as it does from the wells of Holy Scripture. It might be worth foregoing a couple of months of cable to obtain this treasure trove of Reformed theology. If that is not possible, then perhaps you will stumble upon an exceptionally generous Christian book editor.

Postscript: For those interested in exploring Turretin's covenant theology, I recommend Professor Mark Beach's excellent book, Christ and the Covenant: Francis Turretin's Federal Theology as a Defense of the Doctrine of Grace.

*This post is an adapted version of a post that first appeared at Ref21 in September of 2014.

How One Book Changed My Life (Part 2)


In addition to modeling and teaching submission to the Word of God, Petrus van Mastricht--in the recently translated prolegomena of his Theoretical-Practical Theology--powerfully corrected my thinking on the relation of reason and theology.

Reason is incorporated into theology.

First and foremost, Mastricht taught me that reason is welcome in theology. He taught it by his example--his admirable order and logic, his careful distinctions, his steadfast refusal to reason in a circle (135, 160, 170, 173) or to presuppose anything not self-evident or proven elsewhere (81, 88, 99, 182), and his free use of arguments from nature and reason (68, 73-74, 117-119, etc.).

He taught it indirectly, in his explaining various points: for example, that the student of theology should master, in addition to biblical studies, the liberal arts, including languages, philosophy, and history (94). Or that natural theology, though limited, is real, that many true facts about the true God can be truly known by nature, the senses, and reason (77-78, 82-83). Or, moreover, that the truth and authority of Scripture can and should be confirmed by reason (131-137).

He also taught it directly, when he explained two proper uses of reason in theology. Reason, he said, may be an instrument, the use of which is "necessary in every inquiry of truth, even of that which is occupied with Scripture"; and it may be an argument, "so that the truth derived from Scripture, as from its own first and unique principle, we may also confirm with natural reasons" (155-156).

Mastricht's teaching on this point particularly changed my thinking. I had been laboring under the idea that no theology could be learned anywhere but the Bible. The heavens may declare God's glory (Ps. 19:1), and nature morality (Rom. 1:26), but, I thought, no one can hear the word of nature except through hearing the Word of Scripture. Indeed, in my mind nature was entirely mute without Scripture: the fundamental principle of all knowledge, all predication, all reasoning, was found only in the Word of God.

But Mastricht's vision of faith and reason, I discovered, was much more true and satisfying. In it the Bible is indeed the "perfect rule of living for God" (117), and absolutely necessary in order to know Christ for salvation (129-130), but even so, some truths taught supernaturally in Scripture are also taught naturally in nature (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:14-15). Moreover, God has mercifully preserved the mind of sinful man so that even pagans recognize certain facts about him (Acts 17:28). Thus while Christ is indeed the light of men (John 1:4), even if man's reason does not recognize him as such, it is still able to learn natural truths naturally. And this is especially true outside the domain of theology: as Mastricht argues, though theology is helped by nature, its foundation is Scripture; but the foundation of all other disciplines is "nature and human investigation" (100).

Furthermore, Mastricht instructed me in the way that these truths practically inform our teaching and defending of the faith. Consider, for example, how in his defense of Scripture he appeals to commonly accepted rules of verification to establish the truth and trustworthiness of Scripture (132-133, 148-149, 118-119), and cites objective evidence to prove that the Bible is indeed the Word of God (133-137, 149-151), explaining that the Spirit's internal testimony to the Word is not itself an evidence, but rather the gift of power to see and to believe the evidence (183). Similarly, in next year's forthcoming volume 2, Mastricht masterfully calls heaven and earth, reason and logic to witness against atheism to the existence of God, and in arguing for God's attributes, not only proves them all from Scripture, but confirms them all from nature.

Thus Mastricht not only changed my thinking on an important, even foundational matter in Christian theology, but also changed my practice. Now that my doubts concerning the natural knowledge of God are gone, I find great joy in making use of it. Among other things, in my ministry I am now free in teaching certain doctrines to use natural and rational arguments, both to confirm the godly in the biblical faith, and to leave the wicked without excuse. And in this way I have the privilege to follow not only Mastricht (78, 12), but the apostles (Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-29; Rom. 1:18-20, 26-27), and Christ himself (Matt. 5:45; 6:26-30).

Reason is subordinate in theology.

But in addition to the two proper uses of reason and theology, Mastricht presents a third use that he condemns, that is, reason "as a norm or principle of truth on account of which something is believed" (156). In that way, reason would no longer be the handmaiden of theology (78), but would either join or replace Scripture as its perfect principium. But this cannot be. As Mastricht explains, "Reason is blind (1 Cor. 2:14-15), darkened (John 1:5), deceptive and inconstant (Rom. 1:21ff.), and finally, imperfect (cf. Rom. 1:19 with 1 Cor. 2:12)," "The heads of religion transcend reason because they are mysteries (1 Tim. 3:15; Matt. 13:11; 1 Cor. 2:7; 4:1)," and "Christ, the prophets, and the apostles never refer us back to reason but always to Scripture (Isa. 8:20; 2 Peter 1:19; 2 Tim. 3:14)" (156). This is why Mastricht was a fierce opponent of Cartesianism (xxxv), but also why he at times used strong words against medieval scholastic theology (85), even though throughout his work he shows his debt to it. Though reason is necessary in theology, and there is true natural knowledge, neither can presume to replace Scripture as the perfect rule of living for God.1

So Mastricht taught me not only the goodness and necessity of reason in theology, but also its proper limits. I am hopeful that in the discussion of this important topic, Mastricht's balanced method will prove for many, as it did for me, a wholesome model.

1. On this topic see also the excellent digression in Pontanus's funeral oration for Mastricht, lxxxi-lxxxvii.

*This is the second post in a short series by Michael Spangler

Michael Spangler is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and assists with the editing of Mastricht's Theoretical-Practical Theology. He lives with his wife and children in Greensboro, NC.

Understanding Theology Proper


With the first verse in the Bible, we are confronted with the necessity of the interpretive priority of theology proper (i.e., answering that and what God is) to account for the economy (i.e., answering that and what God does): "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). How are we to understand the meaning of "God" in this verse? Does the plural form of God in the Hebrew text (i.e., Elohim) and the singular verb (i.e., "created") hint at a plurality of persons in the Godhead or not? How are we to understand the meaning of the word "created"? Similar questions arise when we consider the second verse of the Bible: "And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:2; emphasis added). Who or what is this "Spirit of God" and how are we to understand the meaning of "hovering"? The same goes for the third verse in which we read, "Then God said..." (Gen. 1:3). God speaks? Does He speak Hebrew or some sort of divine language? In order to answer these and related questions properly, we have to understand that divine ontology precedes divine economy and conditions our interpretation of it.

When divine ontology does not properly inform the divine economy in our interpretive process, we have a theological train-wreck in the making--a wreck heading to the junk-yard of heresy. How would one explain "Then God said" without more information about the One who spoke and said, "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3)? Without more information about the speaker, one might conclude that God (whatever 'He' or 'it' may be) must have vocal chords, a larynx, or voice box, and that He takes in air and it flows over throat organs which end up producing audible sounds that come forth from a mouth producing detectible and understandable words. Consider verse 26 as well: "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness" (Gen. 1:26; emphasis added). One might conclude from these words a plurality of creators without more information, or some sort of pre-cosmological, heavenly sanhedrin inclusive of God and others.1 What's the point? We cannot properly interpret the divine economy, God's external works, the opera Dei ad extra, unless we have theology proper (God, Trinity, and decree) firmly in place. Without this, we run the risk of falling into the error of neo-Socinians. John Webster is correct when he says, "We do not understand the economy unless we take time to consider God who is, though creatures might not have been."2

Maybe asking and answering an important question at this juncture will help illustrate what is being argued. Where do we learn of God as Trinity, for example? In the economy. This means, as Giles Emery asserts, "[t]he doctrine of the Trinity and the history of salvation are intimately connected; they mutually illuminate each other."3 It is through the economy that the Trinity is revealed to us and it is the Trinity throughout the economy which illuminates it for us. The acts of God (i.e., oikonomia) reveal the divine to us, but the theologia (i.e., the mystery of God as Trinity), as revealed in Scripture, illuminates all the acts of God.4 The Trinity constitutes the economy, not the other way around. Though the economy reveals the Trinity, it does not make or re-make the Trinity. Emery's comments may be helpful:

"God reveals Trinity, because he is in himself Trinity and he acts as he is; however, the reception of the revelation of the economy does not exhaust the mystery of the Trinity in itself."5

In order to account properly for God's acts in the economy, we must learn who God is from the economy. Our interpretation of the economy must be conditioned by who God is apart from it, though revealed to us in it. And, as Emery says, God "is in himself Trinity and he acts as he is." Knowledge of who God is, then, must condition and shape our explanation of what God does. While this is so, we must always remember that "the economy does not exhaust the mystery of the Trinity in itself," as Emery asserts. Though God reveals Himself through various revelatory modalities, the various revelatory divine acts do not exhaust who and what God is. As Webster says:

"The divine agent of revelatory acts is not fully understood if the phenomenality of those acts is treated as something primordial, a wholly sufficient presentation of the agent. God's outer works bear a surplus within themselves; they refer back to the divine agent who exceeds them."6

Though it is God who reveals Himself in the economy, the revelation of God--while true--is not comprehensive of who and what He is. As well, the acts of God are not "a wholly sufficient presentation of the agent," as Webster asserts. The acts reveal God but do not exhaust His identity, nor do they constitute Him as God. God is not God by virtue of what He does. Without the interpretive priority of theologia to oikonomia, we run the risk of reading the economy back into the divine ontology. This is the error of all forms of process theism and that of the older Socinians.

1. The idea of a "heavenly sanhedrin" comes from John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 23 vols., ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991 edition), 17:222. He argues that God is clearly the exclusive creator (ref. to Gen. 1:26), not a heavenly court inclusive of angels, "as if God had a sanhedrim in heaven . . ." The spelling of sanhedrim is original in Owen.

2. John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I, God and the Works of God (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2016), 86.

3. Gilles Emery, The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 173.

4. For a helpful discussion on the history and meaning of the terms theologia and oikonomia see Lewis Ayres, "[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Theologia and Oikonomia," Accessed 6 September 2017. For a good discussion on the more recent and common terminology (i.e., economic Trinity and immanent Trinity) see Fred Sanders, The Triune God, New Studies in Dogmatics, Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, gen. eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 144-53. Sanders provides resistance to the newer terminology.

5. Emery, Trinity, 177.

6. Webster, God without Measure, 1:8.


Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis

Defining Creation


What is creation? Quite often, when asked that question, everyday Christians would immediately direct attention to what has been made. One might say, "Look at the vast sky above, with its moon and stars, its sun and clouds which give rain from heaven." We might point to the ocean and all its deep mysteries or the Grand Canyon's majestic scenery. This is not a wrong answer to the question. Theologians of the Christian theological tradition, however, give a more theocentric answer to that question. But if we ponder the question a bit more, contemplating how the Bible presents to us the account of creation in Genesis 1, our answer would start with God and go out from there. 

When defining the doctrine of creation, Herman Bavinck says, "[Creation is] that act of God through which, by his sovereign will, he brought the entire world out of nonbeing into being that is distinct from his own being."1 Bavinck started his definition from the theocentric standpoint. Creation is an act of God. This definition is important for it clearly upholds a Creator/creature distinction. 

Creation is of another order of being than that of divine being. Divine being is; created being is brought into existence by God. There are two orders of being: created being and non-created, or divine, being. The former is finite (i.e., having bounds or limits according to its created capacities); the latter infinite (i.e., having no bounds or limits according to its uncreated essence and is thus incomprehensible to the creature). The former is temporal (i.e., it began-to-be with time and exists in relation to it); the latter eternal (i.e., ever existing, "without beginning or end and apart from all succession and change")2. The former is dependent; the latter independent. Creatures are contingent; God is not. As John of Damascus said long ago, "All things are distant from nature."3 Created nature and divine nature are both distinct and different in kind.

Bringing things into being distinct from himself makes God the efficient cause of creation. That is, God, and God alone, the triune God, brought creation into existence without any change in God the Trinity. Since he is pure act, or not becoming or able to become in any sense, God alone is able to bring about the existence of things without change in himself. In fact, change in God is impossible. Divine existence is not one of "incomplete realization," as Richard Muller puts it.4 God is "the fully actualized being, the only being not in potency..."5 Muller continues:

"...God in himself, considered essentially or personally, is not in potentia because the divine essence and persons are eternally perfect, and the inward life of the Godhead is eternally complete and fully realized."6

God does not possess some sort of potency, some latent potential, to become what he is not. Nothing can change God; not creation nor even God himself. The execution of divine power, then, does not make God what he is not; it reveals or manifests who he is.

Creation is a work of God, bringing being into being "distinct from his own being," as Bavinck says. The Creator is of a different order of being from the creation; God is not like us. This distinction is crucial to maintain. As Thomas Weinandy says, "As Creator, not one of the things created, and is thus completely other than all else that exists."7 John Webster's penetrating words are to the point:

The difference between creator and creature is infinite, not just 'very great'; 'creator' does not merely refer to the supreme causal power by which the world is explained, for God would then be simply a 'principle superior to the world,' or 'the biggest thing around.' Such conceptions falter by making God one term in a relation, and so only comparatively, not absolutely, different. . . . God the creator is not simply the most excellent of beings, because the distinction between uncreated and created being is not a distinction within created being but one between orders of being; God is not one item in a totality, even the most eminently powerful item in the set of all things.

The simple, infinite, eternal, immutable, and impassible triune God brings into existence a vast array of diverse creatures out of the fullness of his being. He brings creatures into being, sustains them, and mysteriously moves them in their ever-changing existence with no change in him.

Confessing divine simplicity, eternity, infinity, immutability, and impassibility means that God cannot change from within or from without because of what he is and what he is not. He is God, the simple and immutable Creator. He is not in any sense a mutable creature, nor does he become one, in the sense of changing divine being. He is, according to Muller, "free from all mutation of being, attributes, place, or will..."9 God can and does reveal who he is to creatures, but he does not refashion himself or add attributes, or perfections, to do so. By creating, God does not become something he was not in order to reveal who he is; he simply reveals who he is by creation, conservation, re-creation, and consummation indicating to creatures that he is, that he is present, and that he is worthy of our praise.

Let all the earth fear the LORD; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast. (Psalm 33:8-9)

1. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, gen. ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 2:416.

2. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Second Edition (Grand 3. As quoted in Ian A. McFarland, From Nothing: A Theology of Creation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 59.

4. Muller Dictionary, 11.

5. Muller Dictionary, 11.

6. Muller, Dictionary, 11. Muller goes on to state the following: "This view of God as fully actualized being lies at the heart of the scholastic exposition of the doctrine of divine immutability . . . Immutability does not indicate inactivity or unrelatedness, but the fulfillment of being."

7. Thomas Weinandy, "Human Suffering and the Impassibility of God," Testamentum Imperium Volume 2, 2009: 1. This can be found on-line at ( Accessed 9 February 2015.

8. John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I, God and the Works of God (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2016), 1:91.

9. Muller Dictionary, 162.

Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis.

Cornelius Van Til and Classic Reformed Theism


Cornelius Van Til, former professor of Christian apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA, professed to have stood on the shoulders of classic Reformed theological giants such as Abraham Kuyper, Benjamin B. Warfield, and Herman Bavinck.1 While not everyone is agreed on how consistently he stood on the shoulders of those men,2 I wish to underline--in this article--the fact that Van Til stood squarely on the shoulders of theologian extraordinaire Geerhardus Vos.3 Vos was, like his friend and old Princeton colleague Benjamin Warfield, a polymath and renaissance man, expert in exegesis, biblical, systematic, and historical theology.4 Vos proves to us that you can be adept at all of these and allow each to mutually reinforce and inform the other disciplines. Van Til often said that Vos was his favorite seminary professor. He kept a framed photo of Vos in his office at the seminary as proof of his love and esteem.5

In recent years some have given the impression that Van Til did not uphold so-called classical theism. As long as classical theism is not equated with any single theological influence (say, Thomas Aquinas to the exclusion of other equally profound thinkers), I can affirm without fear of contradiction that Van Til upheld classical theism, or more accurately, classic Reformed theism. This is not to suggest that he merely parroted the tradition (whatever that might actually mean), as if he did not suggest improvements and creatively construct theological formulations. He is known, after all, for his creative approach to apologetics. Even here I would suggest that the more one reads in Dutch Reformed orthodoxy the more one will see that Van Til extended its insights to apologetics. In other words, Van Til was committed to the deeply rich theological vision of the likes of Geerhardus Vos.6 That Vos is little known is a true disappointment. I am convinced that we are the poorer for this neglect.7

For the sake of this article, let's consider the matter of God's aseity. The doctrine of divine aseity is that biblical truth that upholds God's independence. God is not dependent on anything outside of Himself. Whereas we creatures are dependent on God and the world He has created for us, God did not need to create us whatsoever nor does he depend upon us in any way. God does not change in himself by the mere act of creation nor does he change in himself in order to relate to or interact with his creation. Another way to say the same thing is to note that God is both absolute and that he relates to us. God does not need to change in himself in order to enter into meaningful relationships with us.

Even in the incarnation, the eternal and absolute Son wills a new relation that consists in taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul in permanent hypostatic union to his divine person. Yet precisely in that new relation his divine person remains immutably absolute. In other words, God the Son remains a se in himself. Both the essence and the person of the eternal Son remains immutably absolute in the "new relation" to the contingent human nature assumed in the incarnation. That is why the Chalcedonian formula is so important.

The Son does not become what he was not before. The Son as to his divine nature remains independent but he enters into a hypostatic union with a true, but contingent human nature (soul and body so that Christ has a divine nature and a full human nature in one person). While the two natures are united, they are not mixed nor do the two natures intermingle or become a third thing (per Chalcedon). Jesus Christ is both God and man in one person, but the union does not contradict the Creator/creature distinction. The God - man is absolute as to his divine PERSON and nature and contingent and changeable as to his human nature (as Luke 2:40, 52 explain, "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man").

Cornelius Van Til often talked about the "self-contained ontological Trinity" throughout his various writings. He could not have meaningfully and truthfully used such language had he denied divine aseity.

I am interested in defending the metaphysics that comes from Scripture. This involves: (a) the doctrine of the self-contained God or ontological trinity, (b) the plan or counsel of this God pertaining to created reality, (c) the fact of temporal creation as the origin of all the facts of the universe, (d) the fact of God's providential control over all created reality including the supernatural, and (e) the miraculous work of the redemption of the world through Christ. This metaphysic is so simple and so simply Biblical that non-Christian philosophers would say that it is nothing but theology...So I point out that the Bible does contain a theory of Reality. And this theory of Reality is that of two levels of being, first, of God as infinite, eternal, and unchangeable and, second, of the universe as derivative, finite, temporal, and changeable. A position is best known by its most basic differentiation. The meanings of all words in the Christian theory of being depend upon the differentiation between the self-contained God and the created universe.8

If God had to change within himself in order to create or relate to creatures, then he could not be independent, no matter how much conceptual and linguistic gymnastics one performed. For Van Til, God is both self-contained, and relational. This is true because God is both one and three, three and one. Unity and diversity are equally ultimate in the godhead. God is one and at the same time he is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God's oneness is not something other than the three persons, but the three distinct persons who subsist distinctly as the undivided essence of God, also relate to one another in perichoretic, personal relations of mutual interdependence (known in Greek as perichoresis and in Latin as circuminscessio). It should be noted that we do not need to fall into the equal and opposite error of thinking that God is an undifferentiated monad (like the One of Plotinus).9 Van Til clearly builds upon the insights of his mentor Geerhardus Vos as evidenced by Vos's discussions about God and the incarnation in his recently translated five-volume Reformed Dogmatics.10

In the first volume of Vos's Reformed Dogmatics, which follows the catechetical question and answer format (although it often has answers far too long for a memorable catechism answer), Vos asks about God's "self-existence,"

  1. What is God's self-existence? That attribute of God by which He is the self-sufficient ground of His own existence and being. Negatively expressed, independence says only what God is not. Self-existence is precisely the adequate affirmation here. Proof texts: Acts 17:25; John 5:26.11
If Van Til builds on Vos in his understanding of divine aseity, the same is true with regard to divine omniscience. God is the original and man is the copy. God is the archetype and man is the ectype. God's knowledge is creatively determinative and man's knowledge is derivatively reconstructive. As Van Til liked to say, we are to "think God's thoughts after him." Vos, specifically notes,

  1. What is God's knowledge? That perfection by which, in an entirely unique manner, through His being and with a most simple act, He comprehends Himself and in Himself all that is or could be outside Him.
  2. What distinguishes divine knowledge from that of human beings?
  3. a)     It occurs by a most simple act. Human knowledge is partial and obtained by contradistinction. God arrives immediately at the essence of things and knows them in their core by an immediate comprehension.
  4. b)     It occurs from God's being outwardly. With us the concept of things must first enter our cognitive capacity from outside us. God knows things from within Himself outwardly, since things, both possible and real, are determined by His nature and have their origin in His eternal decree.
  5. c)     In God's knowledge, there is no cognition that slumbers outside His consciousness and only occasionally surfaces, as is the case for the most part with our knowledge. Everything is eternally present before His divine view, and in the full light of His consciousness everything lies exposed.
  6. d)     God's knowledge is not determined through the usual logical forms, by which we, as by so many aids, seek to master the objects of our knowledge. He sees everything immediately, both in itself and in its relation to all other things.12
God knows all things because he has decreed them. We know because we discover the truth of things after the fact. God knows all things exhaustively. We know things truly, but not exhaustively. God created us to know him and his world. We know him as he intended us to know him, after the fall into sin, not only dependent upon him for every breath but for any knowledge we have of facts or the laws that govern facts.

God could not be archetype if he was not a se. If he had to change within himself in order to create us or relate to us, he would by implication also have to come to learn things as we do. If God had to change within himself in order to create or relate then that would mean that he had to be what he was not before which would entail learning or coming to know something he did not know before. If God knows himself perfectly since he is a se, his knowledge would be correspondingly incomplete and imperfect should he need to change.

While Cornelius Van Til was creatively constructive in his application of Reformed theology to apologetics, he was standing on the shoulders of giants like Geerhardus Vos. Van Til sought to bring out the rich insights of classic Reformed theism in his theology and his theological apologetics. We have briefly considered his treatment of divine aseity and omniscience. If we think Van Til is novel in these areas, it may be because we don't know the depth of the richness of classic Reformed theism as we think we do. With Van Til, let's seek to be faithful to our heritage which seeks to bring out the riches of Scripture as found in classic Reformed theism.



1. See Greg Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic: Readings & Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998), for a discussion of Van Til's critical appropriation of Kuyper and Warfield. For further elaboration of this topic, see my "On the Shoulders of Giants: Van Til's Appropriation of Warfield and Kuyper," The Confessional Presbyterian Journal, Fall 2011 (Vol. 7), 139ff. With the recent translation and publication of Bavinck's magnum opus, the Reformed Dogmatics (John Vriend, tr. John Bolt, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2003-2008), the reader can see Van Til's dependence upon and extended application of Bavinck's method to the defense of the Reformed Christian faith.

2. In recent days, it has not been uncommon to discover certain theologians affirming Bavinck and rejecting Van Til. I would contend that those who have done so have almost certainly not read the former carefully and have most likely misunderstood the latter. One cannot read and affirm Bavinck's project and at the same time reject Van Til's work. This is not to suggest that one must agree in every detail. Even Van Til disagreed with Bavinck here and there at points.  But that is the subject for another article.

3. Van Til noted his appreciation for and dependence upon Vos throughout his teaching career at Westminster. Vos is the author of such noteworthy volumes as Biblical Theology, the Pauline Eschatology, and Grace and Glory. Many of Vos's works are available through the Logos electronic library in a fully searchable format now.

4. A good exposure to Vos's ouvre can be found in the compilation of his shorter writings ably edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., >Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ:P&R Publishing, 2001). In this volume the reader can find Vos's adeptness with all the disciplines of the theological encyclopedia.

5. Van Til's framed portrait of Vos is now located in the front lobby of the Montgomery Library at Westminster Seminary. Van Til also indicated his dedication to his favorite professor by performing his funeral in 1949.

6. Van Til, in advanced years, even produced a Sunday School level biblical theology volume that has not been published. He manifests his clear attachment to Vos in this typescript.

7. For biographical material on Vos, see James T. Dennison, ed., The Letters of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001). The first portion of this book is a biography with the remainder of the book comprised of letters written by and to Vos by such worthies as Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Benjamin B. Warfield. More recently see the series of articles by Danny Olinger in the Ordained Servant, the journal for officers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The final article can be accessed online at: Accessed on 25 April 2018.

8. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith. 4th Edition. (K. Scott Oliphint, ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 236-37. This is a restoration of the original full text of the 1st edition of 1955 with introduction and explanatory notes by the editor. Italicized words are added for emphasis and clarity.

9. That is, the two errors to avoid are indistinguishable monadism on the one hand, and mutual dependence between the Creator and creature on the other hand.

10. See the five volume set by Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ably edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Multiple trs. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012-2016). Lexham Press is the print edition arm of Logos software. This set is also available in electronic format in the Logos library and other formats. The RD was originally written by hand in Dutch and then typed up, again, in Dutch. See Lane G. Tipton's review of the set in the New Horizons April 2018 issue, 9-11. This can be read online at Accessed on 25 April 2018. For a more detailed audio discussion of the issues covered in this article and in the Vos set, see the Christ the Center podcast from the Reformed Forum:

11. Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 1: 8.

12. Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:16-17.

Borrowed Conviction

It has happened a few times before. It happened again recently. Someone without a good church gets in touch, referred by a mutual friend. Or someone drops an email asking for advice. Or there is a conversation at a conference with someone who has come looking for help, counsel, refuge. Somewhere along the way, I ask about their convictions. I ask about their home church, if they have one. It helps me. It helps them. If I am to walk carefully, act wisely, tread on no toes, be of any assistance, it is useful to know what they actually believe and where they belong. And so I ask.

The answer, too often, involves a list of names. Top dogs. Big cheeses. In many instances, men who have earned their spurs. I understand that sometimes a name or names attach to systems or principles. I would understand if someone identified themselves in terms of an Augustinian soteriology, or a Calvinistic view of God, or a Puritan approach to holiness. I accept that it sometimes helps us and others to situate ourselves by locating ourselves in relation to others whose doctrinal or practical position is fairly firmly fixed, at least in some regard: "I love Spurgeon, or Owen, or Bunyan, or M'Cheyne."

I appreciate that we sometimes use shorthand. "I am a Calvinist." "I believe in the doctrines of grace." "I hold to the Reformation solas." "I am a Westminster/Savoy/1689 man." That helps. Even then, to be honest, I would usually say, "That's great. Let's talk about what that actually means." But it is not what I often hear.

What I hear is a list of names. "I like Beeke, Washer, MacArthur." Or, "I would love to sit under the preaching of Piper, Keller, Carson." Or, "I really appreciate Dever, Sproul, Grudem." Or, "I listen to guys like DeYoung, Mohler, Chandler."

And this from someone who is often saying that they are looking for a church home, somewhere to put down roots. What's the problem? The problem is that these men do not believe the same things. To be sure, most of them would share some or many fundamental convictions. They would all set out to preach the Gospel. But their understanding of the intricacies of the gospel, their hermeneutics and exegesis, their sense of how soteriology feeds into and shapes ecclesiology, their view of ordinances and sacraments, their notions of duty and discipleship, their expectations in terms of authority and structure, their priorities and pursuits--all of those things--will have often significant variation.

And so I find myself explaining to the person in question that they now have a problem. The convictions that would bring you into membership in some of the congregations to which those men belong, or in which they find their home, would necessarily exclude you from membership in the congregation in which another serves. You could ask them questions, and in some cases you would get contradictory answers. Some of those contradictory answers would be of lesser importance, but most would have a significant impact in terms of principles and practices in regular church life. You are in danger of living on borrowed conviction, and therefore remaining a spiritual and ecclesiastical roamer.

The men they mention are, to them, not so much reference points in an organized system, or recognizable markers along a clearly-discerned path, so much as they are random notes heard without arrangement. However clear and convinced the particular figureheads might be themselves, to the person who is hearing them they might be no more than a voice on the wind. That person might think of those men as pastors and disciplers (and in their own context they might be), but they are - to this roving and unrooted listener - merely floating heads, disembodied preachers, often nothing more than voices from the internet or passing personalities at a conference.

A list of gurus is not the same as a developed set of theological convictions. Neither is it the same as having a spiritual home with true shepherds caring for your soul. And yet to find a church and to find pastors is no easy task, for the person in question typically does not know what they are looking for. There may be an expectation of profile and gift in the man under whose ministry they will sit, the man who effortlessly hits a home run in every sermon and whose sermonic hit counter regularly goes stratospheric. They are looking for a big personality or a 'proper ministry'--you know, one with a logo, and a strapline, and a reputation, and a staff. Often, the notion of finding a faithful man faithfully feeding faithful members, investing in each one so as to bring each to their potential as a servant of the Lord, is alien. Not only do they have no experience of it, they have no expectation of it. And so I urge the person in question to find a church and pastors. Generally, I explain, the two go together! Find a community of believers among whom you can live and serve with a clear and biblically instructed conscience. Read the Scriptures and pray and study and pray and ask and listen and pray until you know what that means. If you are coming to me, I can tell you and show you what I believe and why I believe it. I will try to persuade you, because these things are important. If you want to check out these things with someone else, that is your call. But don't come to the conclusion that these things are not important, or you will end up living in a spiritual landscape without definition, in a house without the roof and walls that provide order and security. You will need to think about your soteriology, your ecclesiology, your eschatology, your missiology - you will need to figure out a few 'ologies' in order to know where you can put down roots. You will need to be ready and willing to listen and to learn. You need to find a man or men of God whom you can trust and love and receive and, in some ready measure, follow, not from an adoring distance, but up close and personal. You need to find a place to call your spiritual home. You need a faithful company of saints who have covenanted together to love the Lord and one another, among whom you can stand and with whom you can serve. You need to get convinced and get committed.

If you are already in such a situation, thank God for what may seem like mundane realities. They are no small blessings. Keep learning, but be careful not to keep shifting. Settle the basics of comprehensive Christian believing and living and then get on with the substance of that convinced life. Listen more - much more - to the undershepherds God has given you that to the ones he has given someone else (and steer clear of the men who claim to be shepherds but have given up on or been legitimately rejected by sheep).

If you need to be in such a situation, determine not to live on borrowed conviction. Do not be one of those who, in these respects, are "always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2Tim 3.7). Learn and embrace the fundamentals of Christian faith and living before God, among the saints, and under authority, and you will find--under God--that this is the place and this is the sphere to know and enjoy developing spiritual health and advancing biblical holiness and increasing Christian happiness.

The Hidden Omnipresence of the One Lord

In the first of this series, and last time, I set out to explore Professor Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God

Having established the meaning of the fundamental and perfect Oneness of God, she next turns to the Omnipresence of God. In successive chapters, she will explore the other 'omnis' - the Omnipotence, and then, the Omniscience of God. 

But the Omnipresence of God, as Sonderegger points out, is linked to his Hiddenness. God, the one God, is not represented by images, nor worshipped through idols that human beings can see. If there is one conviction that is basic to Israel's faith it is this. On the contrary: the God of Israel is hidden from view. He is invisible. He is certainly heard; but he is not seen. 

This does not mean a simple declaration of what God is not, as in the tradition of the via negativa. Rather, God's hiddenness is revealed to Israel. He is manifest precisely as hidden. 

Nevertheless, 'it is a striking fact that God cannot be seen in the cosmos' (p. 52). This may be seen as the ultimate image problem of course, if he is to be known by creatures who have been given eyes. But it is actually entirely consonant with his Omnipresence: 'He is everywhere present through His cosmos, not locally, but rather harmoniously, equally, generously, and lavishly in all places, at once, as the Invisible One.' (p. 52)

Of course, the modern world demands that God be visible, and laughs rather bitterly when he is not displayed before it like some specimen. But Sonderegger offers in this place a rather nuanced argument: it is actually the fact that we can operate in the world by means of a 'methodological atheism' that testifies to God's invisible omnipresence: 'The hidden and free Lord is present to His cosmos in the worldliness and secularity of the intellect' (p. 57). It is only with our eyes opened by Holy Scripture that we can see God in his hiddenness. The failure of natural theology to discover him is not surprising, since he is not an object or a principle lurking in the structure of created things. In fact, this is his gift to us, claims Sonderegger - that our senses are immersed in the creation. 

Is this too negative about the possibility of a natural theology? In the current apologetic environment I don't want to concede as much to the atheist as this. David Bentley Hart's work has given me a great deal more courage on this front. However, what Sonderegger does is show how the hiddenness of God is not an embarrassment, but completely commensurate with who a God like him must be. If there is a singular God who is the fount of all being, and omnipresent to the creation, then he must be hidden in it - or, he is very close to being it. And that would be idolatry, or paganism. 

The secret and invisible aspect of God's deity is found through the Scriptures. At Sinai, God appears concealed in smoke and fire. The temple itself was a grand act of visible concealment, a gesture of invisible presence. God is in heaven - a place that our human eyes of flesh cannot see, except by being given a vision. 

Sonderegger's reading of those passages which turn our gaze to the heavens as the place where God dwells - in Isaiah, for example - is that by these we are not to understand God as being absent on earth and present only in heaven, but rather that in heaven his invisible presence with his creatures is made visible. 

Not as a critical reviewer, but as a worshipping Christian, I found these observations enriching. God's hiddenness does not equate either to his absence nor his unknowability. He is present, everywhere: as we read in Jeremiah:
Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord. (Jer 23:23-24)

Katherine Sonderegger and the Divine Oneness as Foundational Perfection

Last time, I proposed to share with you my 'reading notes' on Katherine Sonderegger's new Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God

There are plenty of big books in the world to which one could commit cash and time. Why this one? Well, my answer to that is a bit of a hunch: I heard Prof Sonderegger present a paper at a conference and I was impressed by three things: her commitment to listening to the voice of Scripture, her elegant literary style (she really has an ear for English prose), and her determination to press theological ideas a very long way indeed. 

I haven't been disappointed in picking up this stout volume of her work, though I have been daunted at times. That is not because Sonderegger parades her learning, or attempts to intimidate by being opaque. On the contrary: in reading this theology, one feels as if one is experiencing theology as it really should be done. And that is hard but rewarding work. 

Having established her beginning point with the Oneness of God - a surprising challenge to the fashionable determination to start with the Three - Sonderegger subsequently turns to an examination of the Divine Oneness as the foundational perfection. That is a measure of how seriously she takes the divine unity - there is no gainsaying or surpassing it as a perfection of God. And that is, as she writes, something that 'beckons us into the mystery of God' - by which Sonderegger means it draws us into prayer, and to worship. Divine Oneness is 'contemplated on bended knee'. It is something that Israel heard when they encountered God at the foot of the mountain, and trembled. 

What is it for 'Oneness' to be a 'foundational predicate' of God? It means that all the other things we might validly say about God are 'governed and determined' by Oneness.  The corollary is naturally the strong prohibition throughout Scripture against idolatry. Not only does Scripture testify that God is supreme, and that he is not accompanied by a queen-god, but God does not look like anything. He is without likeness on the earth. He is not to be paired with any material, visible thing. But importantly, he is not a concept or an idea, either. 

This is pushing the notion of this divine Oneness a long way, and rightly: "We do not approach God's Holy Oneness any more powerfully by examining our general concepts and ideals than we do by examining trees, and human faces, and sunsets. God is One, this very One: God is concrete, superabundantly particular." (p. 27)

How do we then know God? It is enough at this stage for Sonderegger to state that, as we do know him, we are confronted by mystery. This is the immortal, invisible, God only wise, ineffably sublime. And yet, he is known, as he declares himself, through the Scriptures, where we hear his voice. 

In contemporary terms, we might say that God is free, and radically so. He is not constrained by comparison. He is not a member of a class, or a set. And, echoing Barth, Sondereggar notes that God's freedom has its impact in the world not to enslave but to free those who draw near to him. This is not then a meditation on a concept of God's freedom, but a reflection on what God's freedom actually achieves in the history of Israel, and in the history of Jesus Christ. 

That is: God is free, not constrained by some human plaything, some statute or item. He is not for us to imagine into being through our comparison of him with mute beasts, or with great human beings. There is not to be found, nor thought, his likeness in the earth. Yet, this is not simply a dissolving of God's reality into a vast blackness of negativity, where we say only what God is not and not what he is. For Sonderegger, negating the form, image, or likeness of God is merely what creatures must do to affirm the reality of the Divine Oneness and Freedom. 

I am not sure that I wish to carp at all with what Sondereggar has drawn out from this affirmation of the Divine Oneness as foundational predicate. Perhaps we could add some things that the Professor no doubt would also add: the Oneness means that all the other things we might say about God must be held together - he is not the Almighty God on Monday, and the Merciful God on Tuesday. Rather, might must modify mercy, and vice versa. The Oneness will also mean that the history of his actions is one single history, not a disconnected and arbitrary series of events. History itself, as creation too, emanates from the one source, and no other. 

But to affirm the Divine Oneness is to recognize that the divine being is so deep, so without parallel, so uncompromised and untainted, so holy, that it is probably time to quit these inadequate meditations and simply fall to praise, confession, and thanksgiving. 

Michael P Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of Martyrdom and Identity: the Self on Trial and Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology

Katherine Sonderegger and the Divine Oneness of God

I've been slowly working my way through Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Doctrine of God.  Released this year, it is the sort of book that pastor-theologians or theological students could make the focus of a reading group. It is beautifully written, fresh, biblical in method, and extremely stimulating. It is above all genuinely theological, and not as concerned with the political as much contemporary theological writing is. You can see some other comments I've made on Sonderegger here. This post represents the first of what might be called 'reading notes' on Sonderegger's text. 

'The Perfect Oneness of God' is the place that Sonderegger chooses to begin her doctrine of God. This is for a biblical reasons, she argues: the Shema is such a foundational truth for all of Scripture that it cannot be gainsaid. She notes that the New Testament is likewise insistent on the oneness of God as 'axiomatic', citing James 2:19: 'You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder!'. For Jesus, the oneness of God is the theological principle from which he argues with the lawyer about the greatest commandment (Mark 12:29-30). 

So God is One. But what does that mean? Does it mean that God is to be worshipped alone among other gods? Or that in fact that there are no other gods? At this juncture, Sonderegger begins to address one of the concerns underlying her work: that the critique of a kind of theological conceptuality as being 'Greek metaphysics' in the name of a more 'biblical' or 'Hebraic' type of thinking has been a massive mistake in late twentieth century theology. For Robert Jenson, writing in the tradition of Karl Barth, the divine oneness needs to sweep away all thought of the 'one' of Greek metaphysics and instead consider the particular and distinctive contribution of the narrative of Holy Scripture, with its dramatic presentation of the threefold God. 

Sonderegger is not an anti-trinitarian! But she questions the almost universal trend to take the doctrine of the Trinity as the starting point for the doctrine of God. This was Aquinas's starting point, and that of many Reformed theologians, although not Peter Lombard's. Lombard began with the Three; Aquinas insisted on beginning with the One. 

So, what is Sonderegger's argument for beginning with the Oneness and not the Threeness? The Oneness of God is, she says, one of those principles so foundational that all other theological statements rest upon it. There are philosophical and traditional warrants for starting here, but most importantly: 'Divine Oneness is recommended principally by Holy Scripture itself' (p. 9). Sonderegger then argues that the principle form of the Old Testament is not narrative, but Torah. And the subject matter of Torah is the One God. In particular, we see the profound influence of the book of Deuteronomy in the gospels and in Paul. As Sonderegger says:
Indeed so central is Torah, and especially its representation in Deuteronomy to the authors of the New Testament, that we risk simply repeating these Gospels and Epistles when we set out the citations (p. 12). 
The law is framed in narrative, but it is after all not the narrative that Psalm 119 celebrates, but the 'precepts' 'commandments' 'laws' and 'statutes'. 

What this allows us to do is to go beyond God as an actor in a drama, as per Barth and Jenson, and to talk about metaphysics. The Oneness of God says something about his being. Even though Scripture is not a philosophical treatise, and it is certainly not a Greek philosophical treatise; but that is saying something about genre, not subject matter. This is an important principle to distinguish for a properly theological hermeneutics. The form of Holy Scripture is certainly not to be separated from its subject matter, but it surely can be distinguished from it, and definitely not reduced to it. 

In particular, the narratives and other literature of the Old Testament distinguish the One True God from the other gods by the fact of his invisibility. 'The nature of the One God is to have no image, form, or likeness' (p. 21). That is the opening principle for Israel's invitation to worship the One God. That is the tragic story of apostasy, as the chase after idols. The Oneness of God, and his Invisibility, are in opposition to the gods and idols of the nations that surround Israel. 

There are questions to ponder here. Is Sonderegger right in putting Torah in the central form of her reading of the Old Testament? Certainly, this move allows her to reintroduce the traditional metaphysical conceptuality of theology. The limp theism of a previous generation is now being seriously challenged (how did anyone ever think that Open Theism was a good idea?) But the warning, that a thicker version of metaphysics might do damage to the proper reading of Scripture, should be heeded, too. 

Michael P Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of Martyrdom and Identity: the Self on Trial and Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology

Dogmatics and doxology

I have the delightful day job of teaching systematic or dogmatic theology. The study and teaching of systematic theology is delightful because systematic theology is preeminently concerned with the Bible, the living and loving address of the Most High God to poor and miserable sinners in the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Systematic theology is especially concerned with the Bible as a whole."The whole counsel of God" (Acts 20.27) constitutes the scope of this discipline. Systematic theology does not pretend to exhaust the unsearchable riches of Christ as they are put on display in the Bible. But systematic theology is responsible to trace out the breadth and length and height and depth of those unsearchable riches, ignoring none, cherishing all. It may not pick and choose between biblical teaching about God and biblical teaching about creatures or between biblical teaching about grace and biblical teaching about gratitude. God and creatures, grace and gratitude belong to the whole counsel of God and so God and creatures, grace and gratitude command the attention of systematic theology.

Systematic theology is not only concerned with the Bible as a whole. It is also concerned with the relationships between various aspects of biblical teaching. It is one thing to know what the Bible teaches about law and gospel and quite another to know how the Bible relates those two topics to each other, and great systematic theological mistakes are made when we fail to rightly relate various aspects of biblical teaching. 

The most delightful dimension of systematic theology lies in its calling to relate every aspect of biblical teaching to the one who is the author and end of everything about which the Bible speaks: the blessed Trinity. "Of him and through him and to him are all things," Paul tells us (Rom 11.36). And that too sets an agenda for systematic theology. Not only must systematic theology rightly relate creation and fall, law and gospel, justification and sanctification. Systematic theology must also show how each of these subjects relate to God, the efficient, exemplary, and final cause of all creatures. Systematic theology is about God and all things in relation to God.

For this reason, systematic theology is through and through a doctrine of God. As Herman Bavinck well observes: "Dogmatics . . . describes for us God, always God, from beginning to end--God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name. Dogmatics, therefore, is not a dull and arid science. It is a theodicy, a doxology to all God's virtues and perfections, a hymn of adoration and thanksgiving, a 'glory to God in the highest' (Luke 2:14)."

If systematic theology is through and through a doctrine of God, then it is ultimately a doxological discipline, a field of study that arises from and terminates in wonder before the Lord our God. Systematic theology is a meditation on the glorious splendor of God's majesty, and on his wondrous works (Ps 145.5). It is an intellectual and affective engagement of the human person with the whole of biblical teaching that seeks to turn biblical understanding into a song of biblical praise to the Alpha and the Omega of all things, the first and the last, the Lord God Almighty. 

Justification and Ariel's Grotto

Systematic theology must make sure that each doctrine it teaches is biblical. It must also make sure that each doctrine it teaches reflects an appropriate proportion and order in relationship to other doctrines. This proportion and order is determined by the shape of biblical teaching--"the pattern of sound words" (2 Tim 1.13), not by the theologian's architectonic sensibilities. 

Justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. But justification is not a stand-alone doctrine. The doctrine of justification only makes good Christian sense when rightly ordered and related to biblical teaching about other doctrines such as God and creation, sin and the law, grace and Christology, church and eschatology. Abstracted from this broader biblical and doctrinal context, even the most pristine doctrine of justification is susceptible to distortion and misuse, much like that poor fork in Ariel's Grotto.

Mike Allen devotes the first chapter of his fine book on justification to this precise issue. Where does the doctrine of justification fit in relation to other biblical doctrines? According to Allen, the doctrine of justification provides the legal "ground" of our sanctifying fellowship with the triune God, a fellowship enjoyed now under the ministry of the gospel within the church and not yet in the unmediated presence of the triune God within the new creation. This, in part, is what it means to say that the church "stands or falls" on the doctrine of justification. Furthermore, according to Allen, though justification is the "ground" of our sanctifying fellowship with God, this sanctifying fellowship--now in the church, not yet in the new creation--is the "goal" of justification. Within the broader economy of God's saving works on behalf of his elect children, justification is not an ultimate end. Justification is a wonderful and indispensable means to other (more) wonderful ends.

A quick glance at Romans 5.1-11 confirms this point. According to Paul, the blessing of justification is ordered to (at least) six other blessings. 

(1) As a consequence of justification, we have peace with God (Rom 5.1). The greatest consequence of sin is neither guilt nor misery. The greatest consequence of sin is that we have made ourselves "enemies" of God (Rom 5.10) and therefore that we abide under his "wrath" (Rom 1.18ff). God himself, the Holy One of Israel, is our problem. In an act of incomparable love (Rom 5.6-7), and through the obedience and death of his beloved Son (Rom 5.9, 18), God himself has addressed this problem. God has reconciled us to himself: "since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 5.1).

(2) As a consequence of justification, we stand in the state of grace (Rom 5.2). If we limit ourselves to the Book of Romans, this state of grace includes several privileges: (i) the privilege of adoption, a privilege sealed by the Holy Spirit who has been poured out into our hearts (Rom 5.5; 8.12-17); (ii) the privilege of Christ's heavenly intercession on our behalf, wherein he preserves us in the state of grace and justification (Rom 5.10; 8.34); (iii) and the privilege of living unto God and of bearing fruit for the glory of God, i.e., the privilege of sanctification (Rom 6.1-23; 8.4-11, 29; 12.1-2).

(3) As a consequence of justification, we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom 5.2). The ultimate goal of human nature, and the supreme source of human bliss, lies in the beatific vision: beholding the unmediated glory of the triune God. Sin deprived us of fulfilling our true end and thus of realizing our true happiness. Through justification, our ultimate goal and our supreme happiness have been secured. We are at peace with God. We will see God. And we will be supremely happy in God (Ps 16.11; 1 John 3.2; Rev 22.4).

(4) As a consequence of justification, our suffering is now ordered to our benefit (Rom 5.3-4). Because we have been reconciled to God through the death of his Son, all of the suffering, sorrow, and loss that God sends our way in this "vale of tears" does not come to us as punishment for our sins (see Isa 54.14-17). Instead, suffering, sorrow, and loss are divinely ordered to our endurance, character, and maturity. Suffering, sorrow, and loss are ordered to our conformity to the image of God's beloved Son, our elder brother (Rom 8.29; Phil 3.10). Though often we cannot feel the reality of this privilege in the midst of suffering (Heb 12.11), this too is one of the blessed consequences of justification and a reason to rejoice.

(5) As a consequence of justification, we will be saved from God's eschatological wrath (Rom 5.9). According to Hebrews 9.27, "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment." However, for those who belong to Jesus Christ, and therefore who are united with him in his sin-bearing death, the second coming of Jesus Christ is not a reason to expect divine wrath and judgment. For us the second coming of Jesus Christ is reason to expect full and final salvation: "Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for  him" (Heb 9.28).

(6) As a consequence of justification, we rejoice in God (Rom 5.11). Matthew Henry observes that the doctrine of justification causes Exodus 15.2 to be fulfilled in us: "The Lord is my strength and my song; and he has become my salvation." Through justification, God becomes the "strength" of "weak" sinners (Rom 5.6). Through justification, God becomes the "salvation" of guilty sinners, who are the objects of his righteous wrath (Rom 5.9). And through justification, God becomes the "song" of the justified. We were made to glorify God and enjoy him forever, the catechism teaches us. Justification is a blessed means to realizing this blessed end here and now. Because of our justification, we no longer relate to God as an object of terror and fear. We relate to God as an object of love and delight: "we . . . rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation" (Rom 5.11).

Why is it important to grasp the proper order and relations of justification to other biblical doctrines? The doctrine of justification is all too easily hijacked by the American "folk religion" that sociologists and theologians have labeled "Moral Therapeutic Deism" ("MTD") (see here  and here), a folk religion that plagues many of our Reformed and evangelical churches. Within the religious universe of MTD, the self lies at the center of the solar system and the affirmation of the self is the law that maintains all planets in their orbits. One of the most common errors related to justification in popular (as opposed to academic) Christianity does not involve revising the nature of justification. It involves making an otherwise pristine doctrine of justification the satellite of the therapeutic self. There is a kind of gospel teaching and preaching that does not challenge the basic tenets of MTD but (often unwittingly) appropriates the doctrine of justification to serve MTD's ends rather than Christian ends. In a universe where the chief end of man is his own affirmation, justification is easily employed in a manner which suggests that even God is ultimately ordered to the self's affirmation. 

I am not a sociologist. Nor am I the son of a sociologist. But I do suspect that the scenario described above is responsible in part for the high degree of moral and theological compromise and confusion that characterizes many Reformed and evangelical churches today. To the extent that this is the case, systematic theology, and particularly its office of articulating the order and interrelationship of biblical teaching, may yet have an important role to play in shaping an ecclesiastical culture in which justification makes good Christian sense: beyond the borders of Ariel's Grotto.

Law and Gospel


It seems increasingly to me that one of the challenges facing theologians and preachers in the Reformed tradition is to explicate the statement of the Westminster Confession of Faith that 'neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it' (19.7). Much contemporary evangelicalism so absolutises the principle 'not under law but under grace' that we have forgotten that the God who gave the law is none other than the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. One of the marks of grace in both Old and New Testaments is a love for God's law. The church needs that; and we need wisdom to highlight this without going down the road of legalism. I love the versification of Ralph Erskine (1685-1752) who says in one of his 'gospel sonnets':


Thus gospel-grace and law-commands

Both bind and loose each other's hands;

They can't agree on any terms,

Yet hug each other in their arms.


We need to divide the truth rightly in order to show the validity of this insight. Without law we cannot define sin or righteousness, and without the imputation of these objective realities there can be no atonement. Without an objective atonement, in which the sanctions of the law are met, there can be no Gospel.

Interview with David Wells

Roger Overton interviews David Wells (part 1, part 2) about his new book, The Courage to Be Protestant.