Review of Johnson's The Revealed God

Jeffrey D. Johnson, The Revealed God: An Introduction to Biblical Classical Theism (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2023).[i]


In a previous post, I asserted that the Trinity debates of the last several years have not ended. I mentioned that there were other classical views that were being challenged or outright rejected, such as divine simplicity, and that a soon – to – be released book was set to argue that there were multiple views of simplicity that were considered orthodox. That book has now been published and the claims of the book need to be evaluated.


Following up on his 2021 work The Failure of Natural Theology, which served as a clarion call to abandon the retrieval movement and return to a more biblical view of natural theology and Christian theism, Jeffrey Johnson has published another work towards this end. In The Revealed God: An Introduction to Biblical Classical Theism, Johnson aims to provide readers with a truly biblical theology proper, one devoid of pagan philosophy which informs rival models of God. As Johnson states, the objective of his work is “to build a case for Biblical Classical Theism in opposition to all other philosophical models of God, with a special focus on its contrast to Philosophical Classical Theism” (25). Within this book, Johnson takes on what he sees as unbiblical philosophical articulations that have crept into Christian thought, while employing a number of eminent reformed theologians in his efforts, such as John Calvin, John Owen, Herman Bavinck, and others.


Johnson covers a number of topics in the book, and a single review cannot cover everything.[ii] Therefore, in this first part of the review, I want to focus on some of the erroneous historical claims that Johnson makes in defense of his thesis. Johnson is a confessionally reformed Baptist. He claims that both Calvin and some Westminster divines rejected the “identity” account of divine simplicity (173). Thus, if Johnson can prove that there is precedent for his position in the reformed and confessional tradition over against what he calls the philosophical classical model of God, then that would go a long way in proving his thesis and putting concerns from the classical theism crowd to bed. Unfortunately, this is not what Johnson is able to accomplish.


John Calvin

At least three times (173, 180, 189), Johnson claims that John Calvin rejected the identity account (as articulated by Aquinas, the Reformed Orthodox, etc). However, Johnson never actually proves this, but only asserts it as fact. None of the relevant literature regarding Calvin’s doctrine of God is surveyed or examined. The closest that Johnson comes is on page 267 when he cites Calvin in defense of his own argument.

            The problem is that this is a rather selective citation of Calvin that fails to do justice to the historical record, especially as it relates to Calvin’s doctrine of simplicity. The identity account, according to Johnson, teaches that there is no distinction between God’s attributes except in the mind of man. Yet, a closer look at Calvin’s teaching on the matter will show that he is not positively sided with Johnson. While Calvin did not give a full doctrinal treatise on the essence and attributes of God, this is most likely not because of some strong disagreement with tradition preceding him but more likely due to the genre of literature that Calvin writes.[iii]


Calvin states that the essence of God is “simple and undivided, and he contains all in himself, without portion or derivation.”[iv] No doubt, this is a statement that Johnson could agree to, yet this is not the end of Calvin’s thoughts on the matter. This statement follows Calvin’s brief comment on Exodus 34:6-7: “Here let us observe that his eternity and his self-existence are announced by that wonderful name twice repeated. Thereupon his powers are mentioned, by which he is shown to us not as he is in himself, but as he is toward us: so that this recognition of him consists more in living experience than in vain and high-flown speculation.”[v] This statement from Calvin controls the later statement about God’s essence being simple and undivided. Thus, for Calvin, God’s attributes are enumerated not as He is in Himself, but in relation to us. Note the clarity of this in the translation by Henry Beveridge: “Here we may observe, first, that his eternity and self-existence are declared by his magnificent name twice repeated; and, secondly, that in the enumeration of his perfections, he is described not as he is in himself, but in relation to us, in order that our acknowledgment of him may be more a vivid actual impression.” It is clear that Calvin, who was not a classically trained theologian, mind you, was not attempting to reinvent the wheel but was affirming the classical doctrine that had come before him. In no way is he able to be used to defend Johnson’s thesis.


The Westminster Divines

I was particularly interested in Johnson’s claims that “some of the Westminster divines” rejected the identity account of divine simplicity that reached its pinnacle in the thought of Aquinas (173). As one who unreservedly holds to the Westminster standards and who currently chairs my presbytery’s candidates and credentials committee, evidence that at least some of the divines did not hold to the identity account would have very real and practical implications for me. Sadly, much like his use of Calvin, Johnson fails to prove his claim.


Johnson points to four members of the Westminster Assembly who rejected the identity account of divine simplicity in favor of a more careful, less speculative, biblical position: John Wallis (173), Richard Stock (179), John Howe (180), and Daniel Burgess (250). Indeed, showing four members of the Westminster Assembly who disagreed with the traditional account of simplicity would not be insignificant. The problem for Johnson, unfortunately, is that three of these men were not actually members of the Assembly. Richard Stock died nearly two decades prior the convening of the Assembly. Daniel Burgess was born in 1645 (Johnson rightly lists his dates), which would make it impossible for him to be a member of the Assembly. No doubt the Westminster divines were supremely gifted, and some showed remarkable skill at a young age, but an infant Daniel Burgess was not one of them! Unlike the previous two men mentioned, John Howe was alive during the Assembly’s work, but was not a member.


That leaves Johnson with John Wallis. However, John Wallis was a non-voting scribe whose only job was to record the proceedings but who had no influence on the debates at the assembly whatsoever. Furthermore, Wallis was not a theologian but a trained mathematician! Why would Johnson choose to appeal to a non-voting scribe and mathematician to defend the proposition that the Westminster divines rejected the identity account of divine simplicity? Even if Wallis does reject the account (something worth exploring), that does not actually help prove Johnson’s case for confessional precedent.


Though we could point to numerous assembly members, such as Burroughs, Cheynell, etc. who argued for the identity account of divine simplicity, let us end with the words of the influential divine and prolocutor of the assembly, William Twisse. He observed “that God’s attributes are not really distinguished, we all confess.”[vi] I have hope that with more work in theological retrieval, we will one day be able to agree with Twisse.

[i] This review as well as parts two and three are adapted from a forthcoming review in an academic journal.


[ii] It needs to be noted that the book is riddled with spelling errors. Though no author is immune to mistakes, the number of spelling errors seems to be indicative of greater issues with the research methods employed by Johnson. Examples are worth listing: “income-patible,” 24; “Origin,” 118; “Anslem,” 189; John “Walls,” instead of Wallis, and “conscious” instead of conscience, 190; “Edward” Gilson (instead of Étienne) occurs both on 200 and in the endnotes on 291.


[iii] Benjamin B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of God” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Calvin and Calvinism, vol 5. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2008), 135.


[iv] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 volumes, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1.13.2.


[v] Ibid., 1.10.2. Italics mine.


[vi] William Twisse, A Discovery of D. Jacksons Vanitie (London: N.p., 1631), 74. Cited in James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 74n29.