Every Wednesday in 2018, Michael Lynch (PhD candidate at Calvin Theological Seminary) and our own editor Danny Hyde (PhD candidate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) will be blogging through Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. (2nd edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003).

These volumes are currently out-of-print but used copies can be found online here. For a schedule of weekly readings, go here


Week 9 (2/26-3/4): I.2.8 (pgs. 360–405)
This past week’s reading was especially apropros considering the third installment of Richard Muller’s review of Scott Oliphint’s book on Thomas Aquinas. In fact, there is even some overlap. In this blog post, I want to discuss two important points Muller makes in this chapter: the first, a methodological point and the second regarding the Reformed reception of philosophy. On pages 361-62 Muller writes: 
From a purely historiographical perspective, the problem of much of the theological scholarship on Protestant scholasticism lies in its neglect of the history of philosophy in the seventeenth century – not the history of philosophy writ large in the thought of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibnitz, but the history of philosophy writ small, in the thought of the many significant thinkers in the academies and the universities, whose work has all too often been ignored in the broad surveys.
What Muller complains about here is what he identifies elsewhere as the “great thinkers” approach to history which has its dangers. In its most basic form as applied to Reformed theology, it means that we allow John Calvin, William Perkins, John Owen, and maybe Francis Turretin to set the standard for what Reformed theology looks like (and presumably the Reformed view of everything else!) in the early modern period – overlooking the massive amount of very influential theologians who have largely been lost to history. One reason for this “great thinkers” approach to history can be accounted for by the fact that scholarship often limits itself to modern reprints in English. The great thinkers approach to history is also sustained by the choices of various publishers. Which early modern thinker gets republished today is not always indicative of how influential such a thinker was in his own day. Gisbertus Voetius was far more influential for Reformed theology in the early modern period than nearly every Puritan. When was the last time you picked up and read anything by Voetius? How should one go about trying to discern, say, the early modern Reformed approach (if we can say such a thing; see point two below) to metaphysics? Nearly everything written in the early modern period on the topic from Reformed scholars in England, Scotland, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Switzerland is in Latin, written by scholars we no longer read (nor have even heard of)! But that hardly means that such writings were not influential – sometimes massively influential – in their own day. 
 
This leads me to a second important point found in Muller’s chapter, namely, the eclecticism of philosophy practiced by Reformed scholars in the early modern period. There actually is not “a” Reformed philosophy to be found in the early modern period. To be sure, there is a broad Christian Aristotelian background which shapes the language and general metaphysical assumptions of the great majority of theologians and philosophers whether they be Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed, but that didn’t mean that they all saw themselves as Peripatetics (or followers of Aristotle). As Muller makes clear, the basic philosophical notions of act and potency, fourfold-causality, substance and accidents, hylomorphism, were all standard assumptions across the early modern theological landscape. Yet, once one went beyond these basic characteristics of Aristotelian thought, various disagreements and pluralities of thought respecting various knotty questions emerged, often with the incorporation of new discoveries such as those of Copernicus or the mechanical philosophy of Pierre Gassendi. Dogmatism in committing oneself to the various philosophical schools was often frowned upon. Even though some theologians and philosophers (including some Reformed) in the later 17th century sought to displace certain Aristotelian assumptions such as fourfold causality, this was often done piecemeal rather than as a wholesale rejection. In short, these observations are helpful reminders that history is messy and generalizations are hard to come by when thinking about the early modern period. Reformed theologians and philosophers did address many of the oft-debated questions found today in our universities and think tanks, but if you want to know what the early modern Reformed believed, you must go read them, widely and deeply.
 
Join us next Wednesday as Danny Hyde blogs through the reading for Week 10 (3/5-3/11): I.2.9 (pgs. 406–450).

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.


For previous posts in this series, see:

Week 1: I.1.1.1 (pgs. 27–46) 

Week 2: I.1.1.2–3 (pgs. 46–84)

Week 3: I.1.2 (pgs. 85–146)

Week 4: I.2.3 (pgs. 149–176)

Week 5: I.2.4 (pgs. pgs. 177–220)

Week 6: I.2.5 (pgs. 221–269)

Week 7: I.2.6 (pgs. 270310)

Ulrich G. Leinsle, Introduction to Scholastic Theology, trans. Michael J. Miller (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010). 392pp. Paperback. $29.95.
 
For most Protestants, medieval theology is a strange world. We are familiar with slogans such as, post tenebras lux (“after darkness light”), in describing the Protestant Reformation. Terms like, “scholastic,” are customarily theological curse words in our circles. What possible interest could Reformed Protestants have, therefore, in a book introducing Scholastic Theology?
 
Contrary to popular misconceptions, the medieval period was not the dark ages as much as it was the “less light” ages. While many things were wrong and needed reform, many things were right as well. Scholastic theology was a means, primarily, of knowing and loving God and teaching others to do so. Ulrich Leinsle illustrates these things by treating the foundations and origins of scholastic theology from Augustine through the seventeenth-century, with some brief discussion of what came next. His material shows the continuities and discontinuities in theological method and University education from the middle ages through the post-Reformation period in a way that helps readers understand scholastic theology as a significant piece of church history. This is a mid-level text that will enable readers who love the Puritans and post-Reformation theology to see precedents both for Protestant theology and methodology in the medieval period.
 
One of the most useful features of Leinsle’s book is his focus on how various authors defined theology as a discipline and how this affected their treatments of the relationship between theology and philosophy. As is the case with many historical terms, such as Puritan, he begins his treatment by illustrating the difficulty of defining “scholastic theology” (1-8). He argues that it is easier to describe scholastic theology by its characteristics, methods, and goals than it is to define it (9-11). Scholastic theology was characterized by its preparatory studies (36, 88, 245, 259), reading and commenting on authoritative texts (lectio, and auctoritas), providing reasons (ratio) for received articles of faith (20-23), theological disuptations (disputatio), and providing a basis for the relationship between the text of Scripture and systematic theology (54-65, and throughout). Many of the authors treated are well know while many more will be largely unknown to the average reader. One recurring theme is that the goal of theology was generally treated as man’s blessedness in the beatific vision of God. This meant that theology had theoretical and practical components throughout (133, and throughout), with many authors defining theology as wisdom (sapientia) received through the Word and Spirit of God (155, 163, 179, 258, 315). These questions passed seamlessly into Protestant systems of theology. Leinsle shows throughout how situating the study of theology in rising Universities, coupled with the rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy, led to an impetus to define theology as an academic science in order to justify its place at the head of the University curriculum. Scholastic theology admitted a wide array of opinions and schools of thought. Leinsle illustrates as well the increasing tension in medieval theology between the priority of lecturing on the Bible or on Peter Lombard’s Sententia (47). This tension carried over into the debates between Protestants and Roman Catholics, in modified forms, into the time of the Reformation (e.g., 259-260). One section worthy of note to students of the Puritans is the uncanny similarity between the structure and aims of scholastic sermons to the standard Puritan sermon (68-73). This illustrates simultaneously that the Puritans may have been closer to the middle ages than some are willing to admit and that the medieval scholastics could have a pastoral bent in their theology. These features and many others make Leinsle’s book a remarkably comprehensive introduction to its subject.
 
This reviewer’s only points of criticism relate to the author’s treatment of Protestant scholasticism. He argues that Protestant scholasticism had a markedly different character than its medieval and Roman Catholic counterparts (299). However, this is overstated. One of the remarkable features of Leinsle’s book is that those familiar with Protestant scholastic theology can find virtually every point of Protestant theological methodology in some part of medieval scholasticism. This is especially true, as noted above, in regard to questions as to whether theology is theoretical or practical and to the assertion that theology is spiritual wisdom. Placing “scholasticism” in quotation marks in connection to Post-Reformation Protestantism, moreover, gives the mistaken impression that Protestant scholasticism does not really pass muster as scholastic theology (299-300). However, if the author’s assertion is correct that scholastic theology was not restricted to any one school of thought, then Protestant scholasticism has as much right to the title as post-Trent Roman Catholic theology. The key issue was the development of an academic form of theological education largely through the Universities. Leinsle’s treatment of Protestant scholastics is also limited largely to Gerhard (Lutheran), Alsted (Reformed), and Wittich (Reformed-Cartesian). This bypasses some of the most formative architects of Protestant theological methodology, especially Reformed figures like Franciscus Junius and Andreas Hyperius. In short, Leinsle’s treatment of medieval and Roman Catholic scholastic theology is superb while his treatment of Protestant scholasticism is incomplete, if not dismissive.
 
Scholastic theology is precise and sometimes complex. This means that any thorough treatment of scholastic theology will likely have similar characteristics. Leinsle’s book, while not exactly an easy read, makes medieval scholastic theology about as easy at it gets. Scholastic theology is an important part of the history of the church. It is also woven into the heritage of Protestant theology. Leinsle’s book can help show that, while scholastic theology could run into excesses, scholastic influences were not always a bad thing.

Thanks to our friends at Latimer Trust we have two (2) copies of Pilgrims, Warriors, and Servants: St Antholin Lectures Volume 1: 1991-2000 edited by Lee Gatiss. This volume includes the following chapters:

  • J I Packer: "A Man For All Ministries: Richard Baxter 1615-1691"
  • Geoffrey Cox: "The Rediscovery and Renewal of the Local Church: The Puritan Vision"
  • Alister E McGrath: "Evangelical Spirituality: Past Glories, Present Hopes, Future Possibilities"
  • Gavin J McGrath: "‘But We Preach Christ Crucified’: The Cross of Christ in the pastoral theology of John Owen 1616-1683"
  • Peter Jensen: "Using the Shield of Faith: Puritan Attitudes to Combat with Satan"
  • J I Packer: "An Anglican to Remember - William Perkins: Puritan Popularizer"
  • Bruce Winter: "Pilgrim’s Progress and Contemporary Evangelical Piety"
  • Peter Adam: "A Church ‘Halfly Reformed’: The Puritan Dilemma"
  • J I Packer: "The Pilgrim’s Principles: John Bunyan Revisited"
  • Ashley Null: "Conversion to Communion: Thomas Cranmer on a Favourite Theme"
Enter here.

Papal Errors in the Lord’s Supper

The Puritans viewed transubstantiation as “repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense and reason.”[1] John Owen (1616–1683) wrote, “This is one of the greatest mysteries of the Roman magic and juggling, that corporeal elements should have a power to forgive sins, and confer spiritual grace.... No part of Christian religion was ever so vilely contaminated and abused by profane wretches, as this pure, holy, plain action and institution of our Savior: witness the Popish horrid monster of transubstantiation, and their idolatrous mass.”[2] Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) explained, “The end of the sacrament is not that we may eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ without a metaphor. And if we should suggest a thing so horrid and so monstrous as the papists do in their doctrine of transubstantiation, would that be any benefit to us?”[3]

 

Perkins said the signs of the Supper do not change with respect to their “substance” but in their being set apart “from a common to a holy use.”[4] He refuted the doctrine of transubstantiation with these arguments: (1) How could Christ’s body literally be eaten before He was crucified? His disciples ate the bread in the first institution of the Supper. (2) The bread is broken into parts, but every communicant receives the whole body of Christ. (3) The bread is the “communion” of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 10:16) and therefore is not itself the body. (4) If this were truly Christ’s body, would that body not only be made from the substance of Mary but also “of baker’s bread”? (5) Over time, remainders of the bread will mold and leftover wine will sour, proving they retain their substance as food. (6) Transubstantiation overthrows the analogy between a sign and what it represents by replacing the sign with the reality.[5]

Transubstantiation turns bread into an idol, Perkins said, adding, “By this means, bread is exalted above men and angels, and is received into the unity of the Second Person” of the Trinity. Perkins said that this is evident in how Roman Catholics treat the bread after the Supper: “Therefore the Host (as it is called) or the bread in the box, carried in procession and worshiped, is nothing else but a wheaten or bread-god, and an idol, not inferior to Aaron’s calf.”[6] For this reason the Puritans objected to the Anglican practice of kneeling to receive the Supper, saying it implied the superstitious worship of the bread and cup.[7]

Perkins was willing to acknowledge that the Supper was a sacrifice of praise for Christ’s death on the cross and the presentation of ourselves as living sacrifices in response to His mercies, accompanied by the sacrifice of alms given to the poor (Heb. 13:15–16; Rom. 12:1). In the Supper, Christ’s sacrifice is sacramentally present in the symbols and mentally present in the believing remembrance of communicants.[8]

But Perkins rejected the notion that the minister serves as a priest who offers a real, bodily sacrifice of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, for the Puritans recognized “only Christ’s oblation [offering] on the cross once offered.”[9] He presented the following arguments:

  1. The Holy Spirit says in Scripture that “Christ offered himself but once” (Heb. 9:15, 26; 10:10). The Papist response that this is true of a bloody sacrifice but not the unbloody sacrifice of the mass fails to account for the teaching that without blood there is no remission of sins (Heb. 9:22). This distinction is not based on Scripture and so “is but a forgery of man’s brain.”
  2. The offering up of Christ’s substance in the sacrifice of the mass must either continue His sacrifice or repeat it, either of which implies that Christ’s work on the cross was incomplete (Heb. 10:1–3). But Christ said of His work, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
  3. Christ commanded us to partake of the Supper in remembrance (Luke 22:19), which means we look back to something done in the past, not something happening right now.
  4. The Scriptures teach that Christ did not hand off His priesthood to another but continues in it forever (Heb. 7:24–25). Human priests, if they indeed offered sacrifices, would be taking Christ’s place as the only Priest.
  5. If the priest does offer Christ’s real body and blood to God, that priest becomes a mediator between God and Christ. It is absurd for mere men to mediate for Christ.
  6. The fathers of the ancient and medieval church said the sacrifice of our worship and our eating of Christ are spiritual, not the drinking of human blood.[10]

 

The Puritans opposed the Roman doctrine that the sacraments had inherent power from God to confer grace; Perkins said the effect of a sacrament is subject to God’s will. He wrote, “No action in the dispensation of a sacrament conferreth grace as it is a work done, that is, by the efficacy and force of the very sacramental action itself.” On the contrary, the sacraments work by addressing the mind of believers with the promises of the covenant, leading them to consider those promises rationally and so be confirmed in faith, Perkins said. He also specified that the grace conferred is not the grace of justification but an increase of sanctification. “A man of years must first believe and be justified, before he can be a meet [qualified] partaker of any sacrament,” Perkins said.[11] To make a sacrament effective by doing the work (ex opera operato) makes it an idol, for only God can give grace.[12]

 


[1] “Westminster Confession of Faith” (29.6), in Westminster Confession of Faith (1994; repr., Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 2003), 117–18.

[2] John Owen, “Two Short Catechisms,” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William Goold (repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 1:490–91.

[3] Jonathan Edwards, Sermons on the Lord’s Supper (Orlando, Fla.: The Northampton Press, 2007), 5.

[4] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:71.

[5] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:76. For further Protestant polemics against the Mass published in English, see Alexander Cooke, Worke, More Worke, and a Little More Worke for a Mass-Priest (London: Jones, 1628); David de Rodon, The Funeral of the Mass, or, The Mass Dead and Buried without hope of Resurrection, trans. out of French (London: T. H. for Andrew Clark, 1677); Owen, “A Vindication of the Animadversions on ‘Fiat Lux,’” in Works, 14:411–26; William Payne, The Three Grand Corruptions of the Eucharist in the Church of Rome (London: for Brabazon Ayler, 1688); and three sermons: Edward Lawrence, “There Is No Transubstantiation in the Lord’s Supper”; Richard Steele, “The Right of Every Believer to the Blessed Cup in the Lord’s Supper”; and Thomas Wadsworth, “Christ Crucified the Only Proper Gospel-Sacrifice,” in Puritan Sermons, 1659–1689 (repr., Wheaton: Richard Owen Roberts, 1981), 6:453–529.

[6] Perkins, “The Idolatrie of the last times,” Works, 1:680. For “bread-god” the original text says “breaden god.”

[7] Mayor, The Lord’s Supper in Early English Dissent, 18–19, 50–51. See Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:80.

[8] Perkins, “A Reformed Catholike,” in Works, 1:593.

[9] Perkins, “A Reformed Catholike,” in Works, 1:593.

[10] Perkins, “A Reformed Catholike,” in Works, 1:594–95.

[11] Perkins, “A Reformed Catholicke,” in Works, 1:610–11.

[12] Perkins, “The Idolatrie of the last times,” in Works, 1:680.

 

Previous Posts in this Series

  1. Introduction
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Is there a Christian out there who hasn’t heard this saying? Surely not. Despite its popularity, this saying is not universally loved. There are many people, of course, who believe it is true. Others are more cautious and hold it be true so long as it is properly understood. And there are some who don’t like it at all and believe that it is unbiblical. A google search led me to a sermon on this very saying, but I knew where the speaker stood on it before I started listening because the sermon was part of a series entitled, “God Never Said That.”
 
Some Puritans, however, did believe that God said it, or at least said something similar to it. William Bates (1625-1699) was a popular puritan preacher and after 1662 he became a prominent leader among the nonconformists and English Presbyterians. He was close friends with Richard Baxter, Thomas Manton, John Howe, Thomas Jacomb and David Clarkson. In his sermon on Hebrews 12:5, entitled "How to bear Afflictions," Bates makes the point that God afflicts believers for their sins as their loving Father. God chastens his children in love and for their benefit. “The Devil usually tempts Men in a Paradise of Delights, to precipitate them into Hell: God tries them in the Furnace of Afflictions, to purify and prepare them for Heaven.”  
 
Bates also points out that God’s love in correcting his children is not like that of human fathers.  Human love is tainted with “irregular Passion, mixt with Ignorance, and prone to Error in Excess or Defect.” Consequently, parents may spoil their children or discipline them unnecessarily or improperly. God, however, disciplines perfectly because in him “there is a perfect Union of Wisdom and Love.” His wisdom is displayed in part by administering afflictions according to what each individual is able to handle, or in the words of Bates, “according to the degrees of Strength that are in his People.”  After citing 1 Corinthians 10:13, Bates writes, “As a prudent Physician consults the Strength of the Patient as well as the Quality of the Disease, and proportions his Medicine; so all the bitter ingredients, their Mixture and Measure, are dispens’d by the wise Prescription of God, according to the degrees of Strength that are in his People.”
 
Two other Puritans make similar points. First, Matthew Henry in his comments on 1 Corinthians 10:13 writes, “He is wise as well as faithful, and will proportion our burden to our strength. He will not suffer us to be tempted above what we are able. He knows what we can bear, and what we can bear up against; and he will, in his wise providence, either proportion our temptations to our strength or make us able to grapple with them.”
 
Second, Anthony Burgess in his book on justification addressed the antinomian argument that the teaching that God afflicts his people for their sins greatly troubles them and makes their lives unbearable. In response, Burgess notes that God wisely afflicts his saints so that they will not fall into despair. He writes: “We give many Cordials and Antidotes against despair, while we say they are afflictions even for sin, for we add further that they are all bounded within a due measure; God considers our strength, and will lay no more then he will inable to bear.”
 
The saying, “God won’t give you more than you are able to handle,” does capture an important biblical truth. Certainly, God may give us more than we think we are able to handle. Moreover, God will give us the strength to handle what he brings our way. Nonetheless, it is also true that God takes our ability and maturity into account when providentially dispensing temptations and trials. As John Calvin says, God “regulates our temptations” according to “the measure of our power, which he himself conferred.” In other words, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
 
Previous Posts in this Series
  1. "What would Jesus do?"
  2. "Just-as-if-I-never-sinned"
  3. "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all"
 
Thanks to our friends at Reformation Heritage Books we have two (2) copies of The Foundation of Communion with God by Ryan McGraw to give away.
 
Enter here.
We have examined how the Reformation’s rediscovery of sola scriptura reset both the authority of the Church (Article 20) and the authority of General Councils (Article 21) to their proper status. Having set the necessary limits in how the visible church must remain within the bounds of the invisible, the Articles give an example of the seriousness of making the visible preeminent in the decisions of Church or Council. Article 22 lists three doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church are weighed in the balance of their fidelity to the Scriptures and found wanting: Purgatory with its attendant pardons, worship and the adoration of images and relics, and the intercessory invocation to the saints. All three have, “…no warranty of Scripture …but are repugnant to the Word of God.” 
 
XXII — Of Purgatory

The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.
 
One change was made in 1563 from Cranmer's 1553 original. 1553 has: "The Romish doctrine of the School-authors…" was broadened to "The Romish doctrine…" most likely in reply to the Council of Trent which affirmed the doctrine in the same year. One should read “Romish” to mean the official Roman and Tridentine doctrine which continues to be in force to this day as Trent has never been repudiated. Article 40 of Cranmer’s 1553 Forty-two Articles original goes further in condemnation of the doctrines of Soul Sleep and Conditionalism. Soul Sleep is the doctrine that the soul is unconscious between death and the resurrection of the dead. Conditionalism is the teaching that the soul dissolves with the physical body to revive in the resurrection body:
They which say that the souls of such as depart hence do sleep, being without sense, feeling or perceiving until the day of judgement, or affirm that the souls die with the bodies, and at the last day shall be raised up with the same, do utterly dissent from the right belief declared unto us in Holy Scripture [Bray, Documents of the English Reformation,309].
The first and perhaps most widely known doctrinal error is the doctrine of Purgatory. Purgatory was an intermediate state of rehabilitation for the dead where the regenerate but not yet fully justified members of the church were sent at their death to be "purged" by the remaining stain of sin. The process would inevitably bring such suffering and trial lasting billions of years when one considers how one speck of sin remaining cannot exist with the perfect holiness of God. In the midst of such bleakness, Purgatory’s corollary doctrine of pardon sought to bring comfort to the terrified Christian. The assumption was that as Jesus had paid for the all the sins of the world, past, present, and future, there is an inheritance of grace based upon his merit available to the Church. The Christian may draw upon this treasury of merit principally through the sacraments. But even further remissions of purgatorial rehabilitation were granted through the offices of the Church to a suppliant who had either the financial means (they made a cash contribution) or had the time or ability to complete prescribed rituals as evidence of their submission to Christ. The great danger of the error of rehabilitation after death is the degree to which the integrity of the two natures of Christ as Mediator is compromised and his glory is diminished. No longer a completed work according to both natures, but our earning must in some sense accent his.
 
The second and third doctrines, the worshipping and adoration of images and relics, and the intercessory invocation of the Saints (capital “S”) were further qualifications of the doctrine of Purgatory. The “cult” of the saints is broad and general obsession with believers who had achieved a rare and sought-after status: they had by-passed purgatory and instead been conveyed directly into heaven in merit for the great quality and purity of their Christian lives. These specialized Saints were regularly set apart through the worship of their memory, or by the devotion shown to their pictures and relics. Both were believed to be a special conduit of meritorious grace. In many cases, these Saints were even directly called upon to answer prayer requests. In my part of the world one will still regularly hear the advice to bury a statue of St. Joseph, the father of the Lord Jesus, upside down in the garden to facilitate the sale of a home that has so far not found a buyer.
 
The Scripture teaches that no one has any further penalty or punishment to pay for their sin once they accept the merits of Christ’s death by faith alone. His complete righteousness is imputed to them as their Mediator. Isaiah 53.4–6 makes it plain. The Lord’s Suffering Servant has taken our punishment to make us whole. By his bruises, we are healed. There is no sense in Scripture that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is partial, with the balance to be completed in the extreme suffering of his people between their death and resurrection.
 
As abuse of the plain and simple meaning of the Scriptures, these doctrines were completely unacceptable to our Anglican forebears. They saw that the entire Roman doctrine of Purgatory and its ancillary errors were as article 21 says, “…a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” They could see how these beliefs had been invented and later abused for the sake of wealth, prestige, and power of the Roman Church.
 
 

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.


 
For previous articles in this series, see:

 

Back in November 2017 I did a review of Wallace Marshall’s Puritanism and Natural Theology (Pickwick, 2016) in which he argued for a robust natural theology in the Puritans and one foundational to their doctrine of supernatural theology. Marshall identifies natural theology for them as “all religious knowledge that is accessible through the use of reason independently of supernatural revelation.” Such an approach used rational (not rationalistic) arguments to “demonstrate the existence and attributes of God” to Christians with remaining unbelief, unbelievers in general, and skeptics (e.g. atheists) more narrowly. 
 
The Puritans in general regarded natural theology as sufficient for life unto God before the fall, after which time it still clearly though not savingly revealed God to alienated man. Thus, the written Word of God (the permanent record of special revelation) was necessary to overcome deficiencies of fallen reason regarding certain truths such as the Trinity and the essentials of the gospel. Interestingly, as seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), the Puritans employed natural theology to manifest or “abundantly evidence” (WCF 1.5) the Scriptures as special revelation, which were never received with “full persuasion and assurance” as divine truth apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, “for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word” (WCF 1.7), the Puritans believed that “the inward illumination of the Spirit of God” was most necessary. 
 
The very first statement (1.1) of the Confession sums up Puritan views on natural and special revelation, the two “lights” I will address in this post: “Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.” As a result of needing something more, the Lord revealed himself in special ways to his people (e.g. speech and acts) “and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, . . . to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.” 
 
While the Confession begins with an emphasis on special revelation, it actually starts the discussion with natural revelation. The Westminster Larger Catechism (1647) gives what we could call an apt summary of this section in answer to the second question (which more explicitly focuses on natural revelation!), “How doth it appear that there is a God?”: “The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God; but his word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation.” Clearly, we can know God through the light of nature, but savingly only through the light of special revelation. 
 
We cannot be brought to a saving relationship with Christ apart from the Spirit revealing such to us by and with the Word. As summed up by John Owen (in his Exposition of Psalm 130, Works 6:428), we can “know God by the light of nature” but “cannot come to God by that knowledge.” Related to salvation, the light of special and supernatural revelation takes precedence over the light of nature. 
 
Stephen Charnock (1628–1680), most famous for his Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God (1682), stands as a representative of these views. In A Discourse of the Knowledge of God (Vol. 4 of The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock), for example, he speaks of natural knowledge (from natural revelation) as the ability to “know the being of a God, and something of his nature, helped by reason and discourse,” which can allow men to discourse “excellently of the nature of God.” 
 
Yet, there exists, according to Charnock, “no natural knowledge of Christ,” since such a “spiritual knowledge” is “discovered, not in the creatures, but in the Scripture.” It is “grounded upon a divine light, as plain and evident to the mind as any natural light is. Charnock takes care to distinguish spiritual knowledge of Christ from that which is merely “speculative,” residing in the head “without love in [the] will.” Such knowledge, possessed by even the devil, must not be confused with saving knowledge. However, the speculative provides the foundation to saving knowledge of Christ. Thus, “a speculative might be without a spiritual, yet a spiritual cannot be without a speculative.” 
 
Charnock argues for the necessary work of Spirit in attaining this spiritual knowledge. Indeed, we can get speculative knowledge of Christ “by the natural strength of the understanding,” but spiritual knowledge “is the effect of an infused faith and the Spirit’s operation.”  The speculative “knows God in the Scripture by reading,” the spiritual “by relish.”
 
Charnock rightly sees that the Word must reach the heart and not simply the head, it is not enough to possess “a floating knowledge in the head, but a knowledge sinking to the heart.” We do well to focus on the same in our ministry to others and, in connection with it, Charnock’s fitting reflection: “The thinking of God and Christ with the head, and embracing Christ with the heart, are two distinct things.”
Every Wednesday in 2018, Michael Lynch (PhD candidate at Calvin Theological Seminary) and our own editor Danny Hyde (PhD candidate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) will be blogging through Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. (2nd edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003).

These volumes are currently out-of-print but used copies can be found online here. For a schedule of weekly readings, go here


Week 7 (2/12-2/18): I.2.6 (pgs. 270–310)

In last week’s reading, Muller investigates the role of natural theology in the theology of the Reformed orthodox. (Nota bene: You may want to read Muller’s most recent review of Scott Oliphint’s book on Aquinas touching on this very topic in relation to Thomism here) Like last week, instead of simply summarizing Muller’s chapter, I want to focus on two different early modern Reformed expositions relating to natural theology from two different angles. First, we will look at Johann Heinrich Alsted’s brief treatment of natural theology in his Method of Sacred Theology. Then, we wish to summarize John Davenant’s treatment of Colossians 2:8 (ESV: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ”).
 
Alsted
In his Methodus, Alsted lays out 14 Canons relating to his definition of natural theology. Alsted defines natural theology as “the wisdom of divine things which can be known by the natural light of the intellect.” Nature is the first of three ways by which God communicates theology (the others being by grace and glory). In his second Canon, Alsted quotes straight from Aquinas: “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.” It is not of the nature of subordinate things (like natural theology) to undermine superior things (like supernatural theology): “Nature commends grace and grace emends nature” (Canon 4). Grace is not contrary to nature but above it (Canon 3). Alsted, like Aquinas, denies double truth. God is not contrary to himself. What he reveals in nature and what he reveals by grace must agree; “that which is philosophically true is also theologically true and the contrary.”
 
Interestingly (Canon 6), against the scholastics and various scientists, Alsted claims that natural theology falls under the discipline of theology, rather than metaphysics or natural science. Nevertheless (Canon 9), the beginning (fundamentum) of natural theology is twofold: reason and the experience of nature. The Bible itself (Canon 10) touches upon natural theology chiefly in the beginning of Genesis, the book of Job, Psalm 8, 19, and 104, and finally in the Book of Wisdom. Also corresponding with Aquinas, because natural theology is subjectively the product of the human intellect and is thereby imperfect and obscure, such theology must be perfected by grace (Canon 11). If this was true even for prelapsarian Adam, then it is especially true after the fall (Canons 12 and 13)! Hence (Canon 14), natural theology does not, nor cannot, lead to perfection.
 
Davenant
Consonant with Alsted’s scholastic treatment of natural theology, Davenant’s discussion of Colossians 2:8 explains the way in which philosophy is a handmaid to theology. He admits that philosophy can and has been used “beyond its proper bounds” (391). Still, that which has been “discovered, spoken, or written, by the light of right reason” is properly called philosophy and has a legitimate role in sacred theology (390). Davenant enumerates three ways in which philosophy can be abused and five ways it can be used in the cause of religion (394-399). First philosophy is abused when the fundamentals of true religion are reduced to the common principles of philosophy, resulting in the absence of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity such as the Trinity, incarnation, and justification by faith. Reason simply cannot reach to those doctrines which are to be apprehended by faith. Second, philosophy goes beyond its bounds when it applies its principles to things far above the order of nature. Just because people do not rise from the dead in the ordinary course of nature, does not mean that God cannot or does not do such a thing! A third abuse of philosophy is the subjection of theology to false philosophical conclusions, which leads to all manner of heresy. 
 
Philosophy, however, can be of great use to the theologian. First, true philosophy helps one understand Scripture. After all, without lexicons, the knowledge of the natural sciences, etc., how could we even interpret Scripture rightly? Second, true philosophy teaches us the rules and art of reasoning well. Supernatural theology is not irrational, even though its teachings ascend above where reason can reach. Third, philosophical knowledge can be both a tool to initiate one into the Christian religion as well as to fight against false theology. In other words, true philosophy has both a positive and negative apologetical role, commending the true religion and undermining objections to Christianity. Fourth, true philosophy and literature enriches our treatment of divine things. As Justin Martyr said (Cap. XIII), “whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians.” We should feel free to plunder the Egyptians. Finally, good philosophy flavors, as it were, our theology. Reading theology is simply better when the classical authors are used to illustrate and illuminate. 
 
Evident especially in Davenant’s treatment of philosophy is his belief that the discipline of philosophy is not only legitimate but plays a crucial role (albeit as a handmaiden) in the discipline of theology. Even so, both Alsted and Davenant recognize that philosophy and natural theology have their own principia cognoscendi (first principles of thought) and need supernatural theology to perfect their own imperfections. After all, as Aquinas once wrote: “Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” 
 
Join us next Wednesday as Danny blogs through the reading for Week 8 (2/19-2/25): I.2.7 (pgs. 311–359).

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.


For previous posts in this series, see:

Week 1: I.1.1.1 (pgs. 27–46) 

Week 2: I.1.1.2–3 (pgs. 46–84)

Week 3: I.1.2 (pgs. 85–146)

Week 4: I.2.3 (pgs. 149–176)

Week 5: I.2.4 (pgs. pgs. 177–220)

Week 6: I.2.5 (pgs. 221–269)

Mark Jones, God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017). 240pp. Hardcover. $19.99.
 
Many theologians have complained recently that Reformed theology has stressed the divine attributes to the neglect of divine triunity. Whether such an assessment of classic Reformed theology is accurate or not is debatable. However, Mark Jones does not make it necessary for his readers to choose between what God is and who God is. By mediating the doctrine of God through the person and work of Christ, he presents the attributes of God in a way that is devotionally trinitarian, aiming to deepen our experience of communion with our glorious God. Saturated with the best of classic Puritan and Reformed thought as appropriated to today’s church, God Is is both welcome and needed for promoting a God-centered view of Scripture, the gospel, and the Christian life.
 
Jones’ work is Christological. Each chapter explains the attributes of God from Scripture and in conversation with classic Reformed thought. The chapters are also short and ideally suited to personal or group studies. Such features make this work a valuable bridge between academic studies of Reformed orthodoxy and the rest of the Christian community, making useful distinctions available to all believers. Such features add simplicity and clarity to treating a subject that transcends our comprehension and excites our wonder at the glories of the Lord. The greatest benefit of this book, however, lies in Jones’ Christological focus. He shows how Christ, as the God-man, exemplified every divine attribute clearly and even uniquely. This makes the divine attributes preeminently relevant, since Christ is the heart of the gospel. The end result is that Jesus is the lens through which we see God more clearly and love him more deeply.
 
Jones’ work is devotionally trinitarian. Following his sections explaining each attribute of God and sharpening our focus on them in light of Christ’s person and work, Jones concludes his chapters with personal application. In doing so, he appeals frequently to the Spirit’s work in Christ and in believers in order to draw parallels between the two. The result is that contemplating the divine attributes is explicitly trinitarian and inherently devotional. The following example from his chapter on “God is Spirit” may whet readers’ appetites for more: “Worship in the Spirit is also worship in the truth. So as soon as we conceive of worship in the Spirit, we are also drawing our minds to the truth that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Worship must be trinitarian if it is spiritual worship. Trinitarian worship is also Christ-centered worship, for the Spirit supernaturally enables us to call on Christ’s name, glorify his name, and rejoice in his name” (43). God Is can retrain us how to think the nature of God and the persons of the Godhead simultaneously. This is precisely the kind of thinking that the church needs.
 
The glory of God is the most relevant component of the Christian life because the gospel is ultimately about the glory of God more than it is about the salvation of sinners. Jones’ premise in writing God Is is that, “All that God is has relevance for us. If who God is has no relevance for us, then we have a problem with our conception of God” (106). We need a greater experimental knowledge of our great God. We need to know what he is and who he is in order to live in light of these realities, both now and through eternity. God Is can help us along the way. This book should be pleasing to the church because this reviewer believes that it is pleasing to God.