Life in Exile
Last time, we looked at the proto-Puritan William Tyndale in the early stages of his life and work until he left England for Germany. In one sense, he chose this “exile”, but in another, he was forced there to finish his translation work. In this second of a five-part series, we study Tyndale’s life and work on the continent to the time of betrayal and death.
Tyndale arrived in Germany (1524) with the financial support of Humphrey Monmouth, the cloth merchant who housed him in London. His initial whereabouts are uncertain, though he may have spent some time in Luther’s Wittenberg where he met up with his translation assistant, the wayward Franciscan friar, William Roy, who left London a year after Tyndale.
We find Tyndale next in Cologne (1525) where he translated the Greek New Testament into English with help from Latin and German texts. He collaborated with the printer, Peter Quentell, likely driven by profit not conviction to work illegally with Tyndale. Most of Matthew was printed before officials raided Quentello based on John Dobneck’s tip. A couple of printers boasted about the translation work to him after he loosened their lips with plenty of ale and wine. By God’s providence, Tyndale and Roy caught wind of the bust, and headed up the Rhine River to Worms with their manuscripts.
In Worms, they teamed up with printer Peter Schoeffer, and their pocket-sized (for easy concealment) English New Testament was finally published (1526), the first ever from Greek. It was promptly smuggled back to England in bales of cloth by the thousands. Bishop Tunstall (a “ducking hypocrite born to dissemble” says Tyndale), condemned the work and burned all the Testaments he could find and with the trumped-up claim of 2000 translation errors. Tyndale later complained that failing to dot an “i,” was “reckoned for heresy.” Later (1527), the archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, urged buying and burning as many New Testaments as possible. One of his bishops, Richard Nix, praised this “gracious and a blessed deed,” an act God would certainly reward. On strained terms, Roy separated from Tyndale in Worms where he published his preface to Romans. His position on justification by faith alone showed some dependence on Luther’s own prologue, but not without differences.
By 1528, we find Tyndale in Antwerp (Belgium) where he worked with the printer, Martin de Keyser, who published secretly under, “Hans Luft,” Luther’s famous Wittenberg printer. In 1528, Tyndale’sParable of the Wicked Mammon, from Luke 16 showed the vanity of good works apart from saving faith,then The Obedience of a Christian Man, exposed the corruption of the church, affirmed secular authority, taught justification by faith apart from but joined with good works, and asserted the supreme authority of the Bible. Henry VIII found the book’s support for secular authority over the church appealing. Both books were well-received in England yet condemned as heresy by the church. While in Worms, Tyndale likely studied Hebrew, skillfully manifested in the English Pentateuch published in Antwerp (1530). His translation philosophy was vibrant as he pursued a text both faithful to the original and clear to the reader. The same year, in The Practice of Prelates(1530), he condemned the papal hierarchy and with it the English church headed by Cardinal Thomas “Wolfsee” (said Tyndale) Wolsey. In the work, he also opposed Henry’s marriage annulment, which he did not find appealing.
Tyndale’s labors were a growing threat and Wolsey commissioned (1528) Thomas More, a Catholic scholar and eventual Lord Chancellor (head of all judicial matters), to read and respond to Tyndale’s banned books. More’s scathing Dialogue Concerning Heresies(1530) severely condemned Tyndale and his work. He responded with An Answer unto Sir Thomas More's ‘Dialogue’(1531), defending the authority of the Bible and attacking the church’s distortion of biblical truth.Sir Thomasresponded with his bigger and more abusive Confutation of Tyndale's ‘Answer’(1532-33) labeling Tyndale as “a hell-hound in the kennel of the devil . . . discharging a filthy foam of blasphemies out of his brutish beastly mouth.” Tyndale chose not to respond, though More continued his attack in later writings.
In 1533, Thomas Cromwell, the chief advisor to Henry, sent his representative Stephen Vaughan to find Tyndale in Antwerp and invite him back to England under safe conduct. The elusive Tyndale actually found Vaughan, and offered to go back (even to die) only if Henry sanctioned the Bible in English (by anyone!). Vaughan was quite taken with Tyndale, though nothing came of the meetings, which angered Henry and intensified the determination to arrest him. The influential Reformer yet virtual ghost “was everywhere and nowhere,” claimed the exasperated More, obsessed with seizing Tyndale. That same year, Tyndale’s colleague John Frith was burned, largely at the instigation of More, primarily for rejecting purgatory and transubstantiation.
In 1534, Tyndale’s revision of his 1526 New Testament made interpretative and editorial improvements, expanded the prologue, provided comments on translation philosophy, and criticized George Joye’s own 1534 yet anonymous revision of Tyndale’s 1526 edition. Tyndale was not pleased that Joye made changes without naming himself. He continued Old Testament translation and finished the historical books from Joshua to 2 Chronicles the following year.
Tyndale had been living safely in the "English House" in Antwerpwith Thomas Poyntz. Henry Phillips, of whom Poyntz was suspicious, showed up one day from England and proceeded to win Tyndale’s affection. In fact, the charmer had, among other things, gambled away a large sum of money his prominent father had entrusted to his care. Possibly, the bishop of London at the time (John Stokesly) took advantage of the troubled Phillips and employed him to find Tyndale. On May 21, 1535, the plan came to fruition with Phillips luring Tyndale from the house where imperial officers (working for Charles V) seized and imprisoned him at Vilvorde Castle (near Brussels) where he languished for 500 days. Poyntz desperately sought his release but was thwarted by the traitorous Phillips who feared the loss of life and money. Poyntz himself was arrested as a heretic before escaping back to England.
Attempts to “convert” Tyndale failed and he was condemned as a heretic. On October 6, 1536, he was stripped of his priestly orders, taken to the stake, choked to death (a scholar’s more dignified death), and his body burned as a precursor to the fires of hell. At the stake, he prayed, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”
From Germany, Miles Coverdale (another Tyndale colleague) had already published (without authorization) the whole Bible in English in 1535, though with great dependence on Tyndale, and with translation from Latin and German texts due to limited Greek and Hebrew. Then, within the year after Tyndale’s death, his prayer would be answered, . . . at least externally. John Rogers, the chaplain of the English House in Antwerp, had taken all of Tyndale’s work and, with the Coverdale Bible to supplement it, published probably from Antwerp Thomas “Matthew’s” (pseudonym to hide Tyndale’s contribution) Bible in 1537, with Henry’s permission. It was brought to England, became a best seller, and was revised as the Great (giant-sized, to prevent it from being stolen) Bible (1539) ordered to be in every church by Henry, now styling himself (since 1534) as the “supreme head” of the church of England. This was the first English Bible “authorized” to be read aloud during worship services. With these developments and Tyndale’s impact on them, his sacrifices were certainly worthwhile. His impact on the English Reformation, Bible translation, and the English language are profound.
Bob McKelvey (@mckelvrj) is program coordinator of the Puritan Studies Program in connection with the Jonathan Edwards Center Africa at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He is also lecturer in Historical Theology at John Wycliffe Theological College in Johannesburg, South Africa, and extraordinary senior lecturer at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. He is the author of Histories that Mansoul and Her Wars Anatomize: The Drama of Redemption in John Bunyan’s Holy War and a contributor to Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism.
I am currently preaching a sermon series on the Gospel of John. There are some passages in that Gospel that appear to betray the grace of the gospel by presenting a legalistic view of salvation. Since Scripture cannot contradict itself, we know that these passages don’t teach legalism. How then are we to interpret them? The temptation, especially for Reformed folks, will be to explain them away by imposing upon them a theological interpretation that doesn’t fit the context. Reading true doctrine into the wrong text, however, is not exegesis but eisegesis. In this article, I want to look at these texts and show how a common scholastic distinction used by the puritans is helpful in exegeting them.
Jesus says that he and his Father will love those who love him (John 14:21, 23). He makes a similar point in the following chapter, where he says that you need to keep his commandments in order to abide in his love and to be his friend (John 15:10, 14). Still further, Jesus says that the Father loves the disciples because they have loved him (John 16:27). Take your time to read these verses carefully. Jesus is saying that his and the Father’s love is conditioned upon our love. The Father loves us because we love Jesus. Do these verses startle you? Do they perplex or trouble you?
One Reformed theologian was evidently uncomfortable with the patent meaning of these verses. He recently wrote with respect to John 15:9-10, “[Jesus] was actually saying, ‘If you stay in My love, you will be obedient. His love is not a result of our obedience; rather, our obedience is the result of our love for Him.’” This writer is correct, of course, to say that our obedience flows from our love for Christ. Jesus made that point in John 14:15. But he is wrong to read John 14:15 into John 15:10. Jesus is not repeating himself. The context makes it clear that he is saying something different. And what he is saying isn’t something new but that which was emphasized in the Old Testament. Moses told Israel that “because you listen to these rules and keep them and do them, the LORD God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love…He will love you (Deut. 7:12-13).” The second commandment says that God shows steadfast love to those who love him and keep his commandments (Ex. 20:6). Jesus is essentially saying the same thing. I would be remiss not to point out that this observation serves to confirm the Reformed view that the old and new covenants are in substance the same covenant. In other words, Jesus is republishing the covenant of grace that Moses had delivered to Israel.
The scholastic distinction between the love of benevolence and complacency is useful for understanding how God’s love can be conditioned upon our love. Benevolence refers to good will and complacency to good pleasure. God loves sinners and saints despite their sin with a love of benevolence, and he loves his saints for their righteousness and righteous acts with a love of complacency. We love God because he first loved us with a benevolent love (1 John 4:19; Deut. 7:7-8). God loves us with a complacent love because we love him and keep his commandments (John 14:21, 23; Deut. 7:12-13).
In their exchanges with the antinomians, Thomas Gataker, and Samuel Rutherford used this distinction to uphold and explain the connection between God’s love with our righteousness and righteous acts in passages such as Psalm 146:8, 51:6, 147:11, 11:7; Prov. 8:17; John 14:21,23, 16:27. Rutherford said that our own good works “cannot make our Lord love us lesse or more, with the love of eternall election,” however, John 14:23 teaches that they “may make God love us more with the love of complacency, and a sweeter manifestation of God in the fruits and gracious effects of his love.” Commenting upon John 15:10, the 19thcentury Scottish minister Charles Ross wrote that “the love of Jesus, which we secure to ourselves, by the keeping of his commandments” is not “the love of pity and compassion” but that of being “under the sunshine of his smile and approbation.”
Someone recently wrote on twitter: “God doesn’t love me because I repented. I repented because He loved me.” The tweet received 370 likes and was retweeted 95 times. My response is to ask, “Why not both?” God loves (complacency) me because I repented. I repented because God loved (benevolence) me.
When I preached through the aforementioned passages in John, I didn’t dare utter the words “benevolence” and “complacency,” although I did use the concept behind the distinction to explain them. To do so, I talked about the love a father has for his son. Gataker did the same. He wrote: “God is in somethings as a natural father. Himself saith it. As a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth those who fear him. Yea in this particular he is like a discreet parent; who tho he love his child dearly, as wel when he doth amisse, as when he doth well; yet he is not so wel pleased with him; nor can take that delight in him, when he seeth him take some evil course, as otherwise he might and should; yea therefore is he then angry with him, because he loves him; and chastieth him for this end, to reclaim him from the same.”
The Bible is crystal clear that there is a positive connection between God’s love and our obedience. God loves us because we love him by keeping his commandments, including the command to love one another. There is no reason to explain the Johannine passages away in defense of God’s sovereign grace. The scholastic distinction between the love of benevolence and complacency, at least in part, helps us to see how God’s love is the result of our obedience.
Hindrances to & Benefits of the Lord’s Supper
While the Lord’s Supper was open to all believers, not all believers participated fully and regularly in it. There are several hindrances that prevented believers from receiving all the benefits of the sacrament.
The first hindrance is the devil. Doolittle said the devil “will be with you at the sacrament to rob you of the comfort and hinder you from that joy that there you might be filled with.”Watson wrote, “Satan would hinder from the sacrament, as Saul did the people from the honey (1 Sam. 14:26).”Careful observance of the Lord’s Supper opposes Satan’s work, however. Owen said, “In our celebration of the death of Christ, we do profess against Satan, that his power is broken, that he is conquered—tied to the chariot wheels of Christ, who has disarmed him.”Matthew Henry went further, stating, “Christ having thus trodden Satan under our feet, he calls to us, as Joshua to the captains of Israel, ‘Come near, put your feet upon the necks of these kings.’”
The second hindrance is forgetfulness. God’s children must battle spiritual amnesia in observing the Lord’s Supper (Ps. 103:2; 106:12–13). “None can be ignorant,” wrote Edmund Calamy (1600–1666), “of how apt our hearts are to turn aside like a deceitful bow, and to lose the sense of those things which ought continually to influence and govern us.”Doolittle said, “What is most to be wondered at is that we are too prone to forget God our Savior, to forget Him who delivered us from the curse of the law by being made a curse for us; who delivered us from the wrath of God by bearing it Himself; who delivered us from the sting of death by dying for us.”Similarly, Matthew Henry wrote, “Remember him! Is there any danger of our forgetting him? If we were not wretchedly taken up with the world and the flesh, and strangely careless in the concerns of our souls, we could not forget him. But, in consideration of the treachery of our memories, this ordinance is appointed to remind us of Christ.”Opposing forgetfulness is one of the main purposes of the Lord’s Supper, which constantly challenges us to “Remember me.”
The third hindrance is neglect. The Puritans stated several reasons for the neglect of the sacrament, ranging from a sense of personal unworthiness to a sense of personal pride. Either way, neglect is hypocrisy, the Puritans warned. Doolittle wrote of the dangers of neglect while suggesting the remedy. He said, “It is hypocrisy to complain of the hardness of your heart and yet not use the means to have it softened, to complain of the power of your sin and not use the means to have it weakened.”Willison wrote, “Is not the frequent use of this ordinance, in the way Christ hath appointed, an excellent help, to soften our hearts, renew our repentance, strengthen our faith, inflame our love, increase our thankfulness, animate our resolutions against sin, and encourage us to holy duties, and shall we willingly neglect it?”Against a repeated neglect of the Supper, Henry offered this warning: “Thou hast no desire to the wine of the love of God, but rather choosest the puddle water of sensual pleasures; but canst thou ‘drink of the wine of the wrath of God,’ which shall be poured out without mixture in the presence of the Lamb?”
Perkins listed several benefits of the sacraments: (1) “for the better confirmation of our faith: for by it, as by certain pledges given, God of his great mercy, doth as it were, bind himself unto us.” (2) “That it might be a badge and note of that profession, by which the true church of God is distinguished from the other congregations.” (3) “That is might be a means to preserve and spread abroad the doctrine of the gospel.” (4) “It serveth to bind the faithful, that they do continue both loyal and grateful to their Lord God.” (5) “It is the bond of mutual amity [love] betwixt the faithful.”Truly it is a sign and seal of the covenant bond.
Reynolds said the Supper was ordained “to exhibit Christ” so as “to increase the mystical union of the church unto Christ their head.”Just as natural food strengthens our bodies by becoming part of them, so we receive “spiritual nourishment” from the Supper in “the vital Spirit of Christ” so that “Christ, being united unto us by these holy mysteries, doth comfort, refresh, strengthen, rule, and direct us in all our ways.”Sin battles against our spiritual health, but the sacrament is a means “to strengthen our faith” by linking us to Christ so that we grow spiritually.Reynolds also noted that the Supper increases the unity of the church, partly because eating together naturally knits men’s affections together.
Thomas Watson wrote, “Let not Christians rest in lower measures of grace, but aspire after higher degrees. The stronger our faith, the firmer is our union with Christ, and the more sweet influence we draw from him.”Similarly, Matthew Henry wrote, “If thou didst duly attend on this ordinance, and improve it aright, thou wouldst find it of unspeakable use to thee for the strengthening of thy faith, the exciting of holy affections in thee, and thy furtherance in every good word and work.”The practice of self-examination, so important to Puritans, is itself a means of assurance.
Tethered to the Scriptures is the mystical element of the Supper: fellowship with Christ beyond words. Willison said the Supper is rightly called a feast, even a marriage-feast, “because hereby the believers are richly entertained by Christ, have sweet intimacy with him, and great expressions of his love; and their souls are nourished and strengthened for duty.”The Supper seals our place in the covenant of grace, for, as Willison said, “Christ puts a sealed copy of his testament into every worthy communicant’s hand, at the Lord’s table.”
Reynolds said another effect of this Supper is “to signify and obsignate [seal], unto the soul of each believer, his personal claim and title unto the new covenant of grace.”It is a means of our receiving “the pledges of our salvation” so that “we might, at this spiritual altar, see Christ (as it were), crucified before our eyes, [and] cling unto his cross.”Thus the sacrament is both a sign and a seal of our redemption in Christ, “for the nature of a sign is to discover and represent that which in itself is obscure or absent…but the property of a seal is to ratify and establish that which might otherwise be ineffectual.”
Thomas Doolittle saidevery believer seeks deeper assurance when going to the Lord’s Table. He said God’s children come to the Table for the following reasons: “To have communion with God. To increase our faith in Christand love for God. To further our joy in the Holy Ghost. Our peace of conscience and hope of eternal life.... To make us thankful to God for His mercy bestowed upon us in Christ. To get power against our sins. And especially to remember and show forth the death of Christ.”Doolittle said strong believers pursue these benefits even more earnestly than weak ones. They come to the Table seeking to have their hearts inflamed with love for God and desires after Christ; they come to have their Savior more endeared to their souls, their hearts softened, their sin subdued, theirfaith strengthened, their evidences cleared, and their souls assured of eternal life.
Doolittle advised weak believers to “draw near unto this Table of the Lord, and have a share of these gospel benefits and be assured of them.”“I am persuaded that if you would go unto this ordinance, you would in time hear God speaking peace and comfort to your soul.”He said that the believer with strong assurance finds complete joy in participating in the sacrament. When I as a believer apprehend “the truth of my faith in Christ, love for God, and hatred of sin, and the promise that God has made to such in Christ,” so “as surely as I ate the bread and drank the wine, so sure has God pardoned my sins and will save my soul.”In addition, the assured believer finds “the Spirit, God bearing witness to and with my spirit that it was thus with me, and, oh, how sweet was Christ then to my soul!”
The Puritans believed the Lord’s Supper, properly received by faith, “would provide the occasion for the extension of faith,” Holifield said.Watson wrote, “Christ gives us his body and blood for the augmenting of faith; he expects that we should reap some profit and income, and that our weak, minute faith should flourish into a great faith.”Owen offered helpful parallels between physical eating and spiritual eating, saying there is “an increase and quickening of the vital principles, there is growth, and there is satisfaction.”Similarly, Edwards wrote, “You have been hungry and thirsty in times past, but if you come to this gospel feast you shall hunger and thirst no more.”
As believers meditate on the cross of Christ, they are reminded that God keeps His promises. Owen believed the sacraments were “instituted of Christ to be visible seals and pledges whereby God in him confirmeth the promisesof the covenant to all believers, re-stipulating of them growth in faith and obedience.”Similarly, Matthew Henry wrote, “Give up thyself in sincerity to Jesus Christ, and then come and feast with him: thou shalt then have in this ordinance the pledges of his favour, assurances of thy reconciliation to him, and acceptance with him, and all shall be well, for it shall end everlastingly well.”
The sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, evidenced in the Lord’s Supper, further reminds believers that they no longer face divine condemnation. Those who fear the wrath of God can find reassurance in the sacrament. Owen wrote, “Look, whatever the justice of God, the law of God, whatever the threatening of God did require to be inflicted as punishment for sin, Christ underwent it all.”Richard Vines said the sacrament “is needful for relief of our doubts, fears, and waverings; for this is the great question of anxiety which troubles the soul: Are my sins pardoned? Are my sins blotted out? God has...instituted this sacrament to resolve this question for the weak in faith.”
Finally, believers are reminded that they have peace with God. Owen said, “What is the issue of all this? It is to bring us unto God— to peace with God and acquitment from all our sins; and to make us acceptable with the righteous, holy, and faithful God; to give us boldness before him — this is the issue.”
For all their love of the Bible and spiritual simplicity, the Puritans had no desire to jettison the sacraments ordained by Christ in the Bible. They especially delighted in the Lord’s Supper. Reynolds wrote, “Here then, inasmuch as these sacred elements are instituted to present and exhibit Christ unto the faithful soul, we may infer with what affection we ought to approach unto him, and what reverent estimation to have of them.” Christ is the desire of all nations, the sum of our happiness. But we cannot enjoy Him without being united to Him. Reynolds wrote, “Union unto Christ we cannot have, until it please him, by his Spirit, as it were, to stoop from that kingdom where now he is, and to exhibit himself unto those, whom it pleaseth him to assume into the unity of his body.”
We cannot rise up to heaven and see Christ there as Stephen once did in a vision.However, Reynolds said, Christ is pleased to glorify His power by working through weak, created things. He is pleased to confirm and strengthen our union with Him “by those poor and ordinary elements of bread and wine in his sacrament.” Therefore, the Lord requires us to come with reverence and hunger and affection to His Table.
The Puritans teach us that we should approach the Supper with reverence and spiritual hunger, remembering Christ, and seeking to grow in the grace and knowledge of Him (2 Pet. 3:18) to the glory of God Triune. By grace, we will then leave the Supper with a holy resolution to live wholly and solely for Him.
Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 94–95.
Watson, The Lord’s Supper, 60.
Owen, Works, 9:543.
Henry, The Communicant’s Companion,175.
Edmund Calamy, “The Express Renewal of Our Christian Vows,” in The Puritans on The Lord’s Supper, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), 39.
Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 14.
Henry, The Communicant’s Companion, 44. Later Henry adds, “Ought we not to remember, and can we ever forget a friend, who though he be absent from us, is negotiating our affairs, and is really absent for us?”
Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 155.
Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:10.
Henry, The Communicant’s Companion, 61.
Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:72.
Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:68, 75.
Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:75.
Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:76–77.
Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:82.
Watson, The Lord’s Supper, 73.
Henry, The Communicant’s Companion, 69.
Meditations on self-examination include Edwards, “Persons Ought to Examine Themselves of their Fitness Before They Presume to Partake of the Lord’s Supper,” in Sermons, 97–109; Joseph Alleine, “Self Examination,” in The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper, 85–109; and Watson, The Lord’s Supper, 39–47.
Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:70.
Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:90.
Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:83.
Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:83.
Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:84.
Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 139, emphasis added.
Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 153, emphasis added.
Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 154.
Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 156.
Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 175.
Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 175.
Holifield, The Covenant Sealed,57.
Watson, The Lord’s Supper, 68.
Owen, Works, 9:592.
Edwards, “The Spiritual Blessings of the Gospel are Fitly Represented By a Feast,” in Sermons on the Lord’s Supper, 126.
Owen, Works, 1:490.
Henry, The Communicant’s Companion, 62–63.
Owen, Works, 9:522.
Richard Vines, “The Fruit and Benefit of Worthy Receiving,” in The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper, 124.
Owen, Works, 9:569.
Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:111.
Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:111.
Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:112.
Previous Posts in this Series
Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.
Standard Questions, Incomprehensibility, and Simplicity
God is incomprehensible. This means that he is always beyond us. The heaven of heavens cannot contain him (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron. 2:6; 6:18), much less our feeble minds and lisping speech. For this reason, lists of divine attributes have always appeared to be a bit beyond theologians who have made them, since no two lists of attributes agree fully. Even the Westminster Catechisms and the Confession of Faith differ from one another in this regard to some extent. Some have divided divine attributes into communicable or incommunicable ones, absolute or relative ones, as well as a few other methods. Yet while we cannot comprehend God, we can (and we must) apprehend him by faith in Christ, with the Spirit’s help, as he has revealed himself in Scripture.
One way to do this is to understand how the divine attributes relate to one another in some measure. The so-called Leiden Synopsis helps us do this to some extent through its concise summary of the divine attributes, written by Antonius Thysius. This can help us think through the attributes and, in doing so, better understand how and why Reformed theologians grappled with what kind of God the true God is. This post will trace some of his thought by looking at the standard questions related to the divine nature and at the general principles tying together the divine attributes, including the divine names and God’s incomprehensibility and simplicity. The next post will outline how he related specific attributes to one another under the categories of incommunicable and communicable attributes, with some possible implications for understanding Reformed doctrinal summaries, such as the Westminster Catechism and Confession of Faith.
The three standard questions facing theologians were whether there is a God (an sit Deus), what kind of God the true God is (quails sit Deus), and who he is (quis sit Deus). Thysius began by saying that in theology, we should not ask an sit Deus, or whether God exists, “since theology takes for granted that he does exist” (151). Theology begins with faith in the triune God of Scripture rather than an open question as to whether there is such a God or not. Quis sit Deus, or who God is, related to the doctrine of the Trinity, which needs to be treated separately in its own right. Qualis, or quid sit Deus sought to describe what kind of God the true God is through his names and attributes (155). This is the question at hand here.
While other authors gave lengthy treatments of the divine names, Thysius listed only a few. Theos, which refers ordinarily to the Father in Scripture, “is appropriated to the Father especially (Romans 1:1), both because of the relation between the [divine] persons, as well as because of the economy and plan that was established in order to maintain the mystery of our salvation” (157). After introducing various names related to el and Elohim, including their proper and improper uses (157), he concluded that Yahweh, or Yah, was God’s proper name and that it carried the idea of eternality (159). Yahweh is adonai, or Lord. This God revealed himself clearly as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the New Testament. In summary, this means that the God who exists is Triune, he is the self-existent, eternal, independent God, and he is both God and Lord. This takes us from common questions related to the doctrine of God through a truncated view of the divine names, which was the first way of understanding God’s character.
The divine attributes, or qualities, came next. The general principles tying together the divine attributes related to overarching considerations as well as to means of classifying the attributes. As for overarching principles, Reformed theology recognized that God was both incomprehensible and simple. The theologian’s daunting task was to describe from Scripture the God “who cannot be defined” (161). In summary, Thysius wrote that God,
is a spiritual essence, entirely simple and infinite, that is eternal and immeasurable, an immutable; living and immortal, understanding, wise and all knowing. He is goodness itself, love, kindness, mercy, forbearance, righteousness, and holiness, etc. (161).
The et cetera at the end of this short list meant that he could have kept going. The idea was that while the Scriptures provide us with true knowledge of God, they never furnish us with exhaustive knowledge of God. God only has archetypal theology, which includes his self-knowledge and his knowledge of all things in relation to himself. We only have ectypal creaturely knowledge in which we understand God by way of dim analogy.
Reformed authors also taught that God was a single simple essence. This meant that he could not be divided into parts. He is not the sum total of his attributes, but he is all of his attributes all at once. The attributes are not things that God possess, but aspects of who he is. We distinguish between the attributes only so that we can speak meaningfully about God, but he is always beyond our comprehension and there is no real distinction between his essence and his properties (163-165). This incomprehensible and simple God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who is “the Creator, the Preserver, and the Ruler of the universe, the Redeemer, Savior and Glorifier of his elect” (161).
Reformed theologians treated the divine attributes in light of divine simplicity. This meant that the attributes represented differing interlocked and mutually informing facets of the divine nature without importing any real distinctions or parts into God. The attributes were more than names and less than real distinctions in God. This partly explains why he is incomprehensible. While we really know God, he is always beyond us. Though we cannot comprehend him fully in our understandings, we must learn to apprehend him truly by our faith. As we apprehend him by faith, we must worship him in hope and in love.
Editors Note: Read more about the Leiden Synopsis at reformation21!
Ryan McGraw (@RyanMMcGraw1) is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.
The end of the year is close at hand, so we decided to look back at some of our most popular articles from 2018. Here's a list of our top ten:
10. Philip Ryken, The Crook in the Lot
God rules the universe, even when we suffer. For some this is a bitter pill to swallow; for Thomas Boston (1676-1732), it was the greatest comfort in the world.
9. Andrew Compton, Meredith Kline on Genesis
Guest reviewer, Professor Andrew Compton, evaluates a "new" commentary by Meredith Kline on Genesis.
8. Henry Jansma, 39 Articles—The Visible and Invisible Church (1)
Some think that the true Church depends on tradition or apostolic succession. Drawing from Article 19, Henry Jansma says otherwise.
7. Michael Lynch, A Year in PRRD
This year, Michael Lynch and Danny Hyde blogged through portions of Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, "the crowning achievement of Richard Muller’s work on early modern theology."
6. Joel Beeke, The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper
Also this year, Joel Beeke began an important series on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper in the writings of various Puritans. If you like to follow the footnotes, this is the article for you!
5. William Boekestein, Six Benefits of Studying Church History
History's beginning is recorded in Genesis 1, and its end in Revelation 22. Everything that happens in-between is worthy of study.
4. Brian Hedges, Watchfulness: Recovering a Lost Spiritual Discipline
Guest blogger, Brian Hedges, introduced us to his new book, "Watchfulness: Recovering a Lost Spiritual Discipline" (Reformation Heritage Books).
3. Philip Ryken, Good Days, Bad Days
Some days are bright and happy, others dark and lonely. Through it all, we take hope in the knowledge of our sovereign God, and praise Him still.
2. Bob McKelvey, What is Puritan Theology?
Bob McKelvey discusses "Puritan Theology," and reminds us of theology's true goal.
1. Joel Beeke, My Top Ten Puritan Authors
Coincidently, the top of our list is itself a top ten list. Joel Beeke shares some Puritan writers that have profoundly shaped his thought.
I love Reformed scholasticism, but sometimes when I read online posts and discussions related to it I wonder if I am unintentionally creating a monster by writing such things. I can read (and appreciate) Amandus Polanus explain divine simplicity by listing Aristotle’s eleven modes of composition only to negate them one by one. Yet if I start speaking and teaching this way in the church, or even in the seminary, then I have likely lost the benefit of reading Polanus and others like him. While scholasticism can help us communicate better with people, we should never lose sight of the fact that it is real people with whom we are communicating. Scholasticism is not ready made for today’s church, let alone today’s world. We need clear thinking, academic and pastoral theology, good historical theology, Reformed methods as well as Reformed ideas, and the ability to see Christ’s faithfulness in every century of church. Yet we need to be able to use these tools to build a house rather than to cut down a forest.
“Oh what will their communion and fellowship…be…when they shall be totally divested of all their sinful corruptions and natural infirmities; when there shall be such a perfect harmony amongst the saints, as if there were but one soul to act that whole assembly of the first born? When there will be nothing in them to converse with but pure grace; grace without mixture, grace and nothing else but grace? Yea, not pure grace only, but perfect grace; when every grace shall be in its perfect state, and have its perfect works. Now the saints are like an instrument out of tune, jarring and disharmonious; when one is alive, the other is dead; when this is hot, the other is cold; when one is ready to give, the other is not fit to receive the communications of grace. But oh, when all the instruments of glory are alike strung, and equally tuned, what sweet rapturous harmony, what heavenly music will they make.”
WLC 86:“The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls.”WLC 87:“The bodies of the just, by the Spirit of Christ, and by virtue of his resurrection as their head, shall be raised in power, spiritual, incorruptible, and made like to his glorious body.”WLC 90:“At the day of judgment, the righteous…shall be received into heaven, where they shall be fully and forever freed from all sin and misery; filled with inconceivable joys, made perfectly holy and happy both in body and soul, in the company of innumerable saints and holy angels, but especially in the immediate vision and fruition of God the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, to all eternity.”
To turn to the works of the Puritans today, against the background of contemporary popular Christian literature, is to enter a markedly different order of reality. For those unacquainted with their writings, a first encounter with their literature can be like entering a world where people seem bigger, wiser, and years older. To read and study the Puritans is akin to standing in a familiar house and noticing there is an extra door one had never noticed. Press it open and a large basement full of unimagined resources comes into view. Here one may linger often, and from here Christians – and not least pastors – may return to the world of their daily service with renewed vigor, and with greater sense of the gospel and its power, deeply challenged to live for their chief end: ‘to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever’ (167).
XXX — Of Both KindsThe Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people; for both the parts of the Lord’s Sacrament, by Christ’s ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike.