Classical Theism in the Pastoral Key

Just over a decade ago, the big surprise in American evangelicalism was the sudden popularity of Calvinistic theology captured by Collin Hansen’s memorable phrase, ‘young, restless, and Reformed.’   More recently, another unexpected trend has emerged – an interest in classical theism, Nicene Trinitarianism, and Chalcedonian Christology.   Both movements connect to significant correctives within the field of historical theology, epitomized in the early modern period by the work of Richard Muller, in Patristics by Lewis Ayres and Khaled Anatolios, and in medieval metaphysics by Gilles Emery and Matthew Levering.  The older historiography -- that which traded in generalized clichés and caricatures of ‘scholasticism,’ notions of a monolithic medieval ‘Aristotelianism,' and naïve contrasts between West and East -- lies slain and dead in the dust.

So far, so academic.  But how has this become relevant to the Christian in the pew?  That it is so is evidenced by Matthew Barrett’s new book, None Greater, which boasts jacket commendations from such YRR luminaries as Tim Challies, Tim Chester, and Jared Wilson, men known for making solid theology connect with the Christian public.    These are truly fascinating times in which to be living when the classical, orthodox doctrine of God is gripping the imagination of the church.

Yet some may still wonder why such things as simplicity, immutability, and  impassibility, and distinctions such as that between God’s incommunicable and communicable attributes are so important.  Clearly, Barrett’s book will be useful to such, as will Peter Sanlon’s Simply God and James Dolezal’s All That Is In God -- very helpful, straightforward guides.  And Todd Billings’ Rejoicing in Lament has some deeply moving reflections on the importance of impassibility as being vital to the believer’s hope.  There can be few more qualified to write on the practical importance of the doctrine of God than someone facing his own mortality in the shape of a deadly cancer.

To this august group can now be added Terry Johnson’s new volume from Banner of Truth, The Identity and Attributes of God.  The fruit of over thirty-four years of research and reflection on the doctrine of God, this book is both profound in its theology, lucid in its exposition, and deeply pastoral and practical in its tone and intention.   Anyone wanting to dive into the doctrine of God who wants to see how classical theism connects to everyday Christian life – and what is therefore practically at stake when such theology is abandoned – should read this book.

Johnson’s main guide in this work is Stephen Charnock, the seventeenth-century Puritan whose Existence and Attributes of God remains the gold standard treatment of the Reformed Orthodox – indeed, we might simply say the orthodox – position.  But other theologians feature in the discussion – Augustine, Bavinck, Baxter, Cyril of Alexandria, Dabney, Gill, Luther and others from the past; Motyer, Muller, Murray, Sproul and others from more recent days.  And while the overall tone is positive, Johnson does not hesitate to make some pointed contemporary applications, such as to contemporary debates about human nature and the transgender phenomenon.

Again and again the author presses home the practical importance of apparently abstract ideas.  That God exists outside of time? Well, if he did not do so all his perfections would be ‘as withering flowers’ and so his mercy, for example, could not be said to endure forever.  That God never changes?  Johnson quotes Benedict Pictet on divine immutability as ‘the fulcrum of our faith and the foundation of our hope’ – in other words, if God can change, we have no solid ground on which to stand and are truly hopeless.  How about God’s infinity?  This doctrine humbles us, places limits on our speculation, and pushes us to worship.  God’s holiness convicts us, illuminates the depth and power of his grace.  God’s love is creative and as such is regenerating and enabling.  And so on.  The book is a feast and is set to play a part both in the revival of orthodox theism which we are witnessing and in reminding us that numerous alternative positions – from passibility to placing God within time – were rejected by our fathers in the faith for very good reasons -- biblical, theological, doxological, and practical.

My one small quibble – the criticism of rock band, Jethro Tull for their album, Aqualung surely has to have come from a research assistant.  I simply cannot believe that a man of Terry’s impeccable discernment would not find Ian Anderson to be something of a prog-rock inspiration.

But joking aside – this book is both a masterclass in the doctrine of God and a wonderfully devotional piece of work.  Doctrines such as simplicity and immutability are vital but are always under pressure in our anti-dogmatic and historically ignorant age. It is for good reason that they are part of the catholic tradition stretching back through history to the New Testament. 

Our fathers understood this.  To quote Bavinck, for example, ‘If God were not immutable, he would not be God.’  And even a doctrine as apparently abstract as simplicity is of vital importance.  Again, to quote Bavinck: ‘If God is composed of parts, like a body, or composed of genus (class) and differentiae (attributes of differing species belonging to the same genus), substance and accidents, matter and form, potentiality and actuality, essence and existence, then his perfection, oneness, independence, and immutability cannot be maintained.’  To any perplexed by such statements, Johnson’s work will prove a wonderful, reverent, pastoral, and doxological addition to their library.  Terry Johnson is a pastor-theologian and this book is a very fine example of the pastoral relevance of classical theism.