Holding Fast the Confession
The last few years have seen a significant – and most welcome – revival of interest in the Christian doctrine of God among Reformed and evangelical writers. Scholars working in patristic, medieval, and Reformation periods have enriched our knowledge of the creedal and confessional heritage of the church; and, as our knowledge of what the creeds and confessions meant has deepened, many of us have become acutely aware of the (unintentionally) heterodox and even heretical nature of many of our own previous beliefs on these matters. And this development is not simply something of personal significance – because this directly connects to the church’s own confessional position, it is also profoundly ecclesiastical.
Both of us have had the privilege of examining candidates for licensure and ordination. With the recent public controversies regarding the doctrine of God, many students are confused. They want to take ordination vows seriously. They know that confessional subscription is not merely a matter of verbal agreement; it is a matter of deep, conceptual agreement expressed though agreed verbal formulations. It is not enough for ministers to affirm, say, that God is without parts or immutable or that the Son’s relationship to the Father is one of eternal generation but then to give those terms any meaning they choose. The church has chosen these terms precisely because they best express specific concepts. And so candidates for ministry need to know exactly what those concepts are.
As they prepare for ordination, some students have asked us to provide sample questions designed to represent the main contours of historic Christian teaching on Trinitarian theology. A Ruling Elder has also recently asked us for the for the same thing. In the interest of clarity, we therefore offer the following as suggestions to those preparing for ordination and those charged with examining candidates.
What is God? Please give exegetical detail for each aspect of your definition.
Give a definition of the doctrine of the Trinity. Please support your answer from scripture.
What are the personal properties of each Person of the Trinity?
Define eternal generation. Describe where the doctrine of eternal generation is derived biblically, and why the doctrine matters.
Is it proper to refer to the Son as subordinate to the Father? Why or why not? Please support your answer from scripture.
Do you affirm that God is without, “body, parts, or passions”? What is the significance of this exegetically, theologically, and pastorally?
What does it mean to call God “simple”?
Can God add parts or properties to Himself?
What is the significance of divine simplicity -- exegetically, theologically, and pastorally?
Does God change? Please support your answer from scripture.
Must God change in order to perform His work of creation, or to engage relationally with His creation? Please support your answer from scripture.
How are we to understand passages which speak of God’s “repentance”?
Does God grow in knowledge? Please give exegetical details to support your answer.
How many minds are there in God?
In what ways would you speak of the Son of God changing in His assumption of a human nature in the incarnation? Please explain the exegetical and historical background of your answer.
When asking these questions, it is important to remember that the student should also give a rationale for their particular answer. Every candidate (one hopes!) will affirm that God is Trinity. The question is – what do they mean by that, and how would they argue for it exegetically and theologically.
Of course, it is always hard to reject a candidate at an ordination exam. They have probably spent tens of thousands of dollars in pursuit of the MDiv degree, not to mention the time invested therein. Their error might be unintentional, the result of poor teaching, or based on a careless reading of the tradition. With this in mind, there are a couple of things which students and presbyteries might consider.
First, seminary students should never be afraid to ask their professors how their teaching on these matters (as on any others) would be received in a presbytery examination. That is vital information for any ministerial candidate. Not all candidates attend confessional seminaries and so finding out how the classroom teaching squares with the requirements for ordination in a confessional denomination is a prudent strategy; and, in the cause of being safe rather than sorry, it is always worth asking such questions even within the context of a confessional seminary. If there is no problem, then this should cause no ill-feeling on the part of the professor.
Second, presbyteries should deal gently with those who have been badly taught or are confused on this point. Instructing the candidate to do some reading on the topic and then to return for re-examination at a later date would seem a most charitable way of handling such a situation. If the candidate persists in error, then a more decisive rejection may regrettably be required; but that should not be the first line of action. To that end, we recommend the following books and blogs as entry points for those wishing to deepen their knowledge of the catholic Trinitarianism of the Reformed confessions:
Athanasius. On the Incarnation
Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations
Matthew Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God
Fred Sanders, The Triune God
Also the blog series hosted by Scott Swain and Michael Allen at Common Places, beginning here.
The doctrine of God is no less important than the doctrine of scripture or of justification. An uncompromising vigilance on this point is vital for the future health of the church. We hope that the above questions and reading suggestions will prove helpful to those with the solemn responsibility of deciding on the suitability of candidates for the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
Jonathan Master and Carl R. Trueman are ministers in the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.