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).
Week 4 (1/22-1/28): I.2.3 (pgs. 149–176)
How do Imagine Dragons and Reformed Orthodox prolegomena relate? If you keep reading Muller, he’ll definitely make you a “believer” in reading our old sources and trying to appropriate them for use in the church today. The context of my reading Muller pages 177–220 is preparing an evening sermon series on what we as Christians are to delight in and love as expressed in the Ten Commandments. A part of my doing that is using lyrics from many popular songs to illustrate the world’s delights and loves. As you’ll see, Reformed Orthodoxy is important for helping our people interact with the songs they hear on the radio. Let me explain.
In this section Muller deals with Reformed Orthodox definitions and discussions about two words: theology and religion. (He also gives a little smack down to those relying too heavily on Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics, because he re-organized material contrary to the writers’ own intentions (p. 150). But that’s neither here nor there!) Muller reminds us that the necessity of defining terms was a product of the institutionalization of Protestantism (p. 151).
Concerning the definition of theology as “the teaching of living well” (Ramus, p. 150), this set a trajectory of discussion going forward between theology as science being more theoretical or practice, or something of a hybrid. One of the issues the Orthodox faced was that the etymology of “theology” came from pagan sources. So was it even a Christian endeavor? The answer is yes, because as we’ll see, everyone is a theologian. Men like Du Moulin said the distinction between the philosophers and us is that theology is a “science of divine things…not according to humane reason, but divine revelation” (p. 153). Hence Muller shows that many writers preferred the term “divinity” to “theology” to emphasize that our knowledge of God comes from God himself via revelation (pp. 156–157).
This brings us to Imagine Dragons’ song “Believer.” It’s a song about making something of oneself despite what everyone says about you. In many ways it’s a great motivational song. One of the lines is this:
“Don’t you tell me what you think that I can be
I’m the one at the sail, I’m the master of my sea,
The master of my sea.”
Why should we, especially we pastors, spend our time reading up on definitions of theology? Everyone’s a theologian because everyone knows God (Rom. 1:18ff.). And so every song your people listen to is catechizing them into some belief system. And this is where the Orthodox discussion not only of theology in general but of true v. false theology is so helpful. Everyone is a theologian; not everyone is a true theologian (pp. 158–164). But can “true theology” even exist, especially if we even grant that Scripture as sermonem Dei (word of God) is not exactly the same as theology of sermonem de Dei (word about God) (p. 154)? I mean, isn’t Imagine Dragon’s conception of God, self, and reality just as valid as Amandus Polanus’? It was Polanus who said simply: “If God exists, it is necessary that theology exists” (p. 162). This was in direct contrast to medieval nominalism that said there was no necessary relationship between words and things. That philosophy is still around when you hear lines like, “There is no absolute truth,” “You create your own reality,” “Words like ‘male’ and ‘female’ don’ really mean anything.”
And so what happens in our modern word is a sharp dichotomy between theology and religion. We hear it in lines like, “I’m spiritual; I’m not religious.” But the Orthodox said Christianity involved the whole of our faith and life because right theology is connected to right living and worshipping of the true God (pp. 165–166). How you live is intimately a part of what you know.
For me, as Reformed Orthodox Christian, this means at the end of the day that my life here on earth is not based on my projection that “I’m the master of my sea” but based in God’s gracious revelation of himself to my in Scripture. And that revelation shapes my adoration of Him in my mind, with my will, and in all my affections.
Join us next Wednesday as Michael Lynch blogs through the reading for Week 5 (1/29-2/4): I.2.4 (pgs. 177–220).
For previous posts in this series, see:
Amy Mantravadi joins us this week to discuss John Bunyan's A Discourse Touching Prayer. Read her second post below:
“There is no man nor church in the world that can come to God in prayer, but by the assistance of the Holy Spirit."
“Prayer, without the heart be in it, is like a sound without life; and a heart, without it be lifted up of the Spirit, will never pray to God.”
These two quotes are very typical of Bunyan’s argument in A Discourse Touching Prayer. Working off of Paul’s declaration that “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also” (1 Corinthians 14:15 KJV), Bunyan emphasized the need for the Spirit in all aspects of a Christian’s prayer life, beginning with our initial union with Christ. “And because this poor creature is thus a member of the Lord Jesus, and under this consideration hath admittance to come to God; therefore, by virtue of this union also, is the Holy Spirit conveyed into him, whereby he is able to pour out himself, to wit, his soul, before God, with his audience.”
The first way in which the Spirit assists us in prayer, according to Bunyan, is by revealing to us the truth of God’s Word.
“And indeed the Holy Ghost doth not immediately quicken and stir up the heart of the Christian without, but by, with, and through the Word, by bringing that to the heart, and by opening of that, whereby the man is provoked to go to the Lord, and to tell him how it is with him, and also to argue, and supplicate, according to the Word…”
The second benefit we receive from the Spirit is closely connected. By the working of the Spirit in our hearts, the will of God is illuminated for us in His Word, and it is only according to this will that we ought to pray. “For, as I said before, that petition that is not put up in and through the Spirit, it is not to be answered, because it is beside the will of God. For the Spirit only knoweth that, and so consequently knoweth how to pray according to that will of God.” He goes on to add,
“For in that which is according to his will only, he heareth us, and in nothing else. And it is the Spirit only that can teach us so to ask; it only being able to search out all things, even the deep things of God. Without which Spirit, though we had a thousand Common Prayer Books, yet we know not what we should pray for as we ought, being accompanied with those infirmities that make us absolutely incapable of such a work.”
It should be noted here that Bunyan did not believe the will of God was something nebulous or mystical. He linked this concept with the study of God’s Word and the true knowledge that we receive from the Scriptures.
One area where we need knowledge, according to Bunyan, is in our comprehension of our own sinful state. “Nothing but the Spirit can show a man clearly his misery by nature, and so put a man into a posture of prayer,” he wrote. “No, here is the life of prayer, when in or with the Spirit, a man being made sensible of sin, and how to come to the Lord for mercy; he comes, I say, in the strength of the Spirit, and crieth Father.” Bunyan concluded, “That one word spoken in faith, is better than a thousand prayers, as men call them, written and read, in a formal, cold, lukewarm way.”
Bunyan also saw our communion with God’s Spirit as the primary way in which we banish our doubts related to prayer. He acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining an active and genuine prayer life and pointed to the Spirit as our source of power and comfort.
“The nearer a man comes in any work that God commands him to the doing of it according to his will, so much the more hard and difficult it is; and the reason is, because man, as man, is not able to do it. But prayer, as aforesaid, is not only a duty, but one of the most eminent duties, and therefore so much the more difficult: therefore Paul knew what he said, when he said, ‘I will pray with the Spirit.’ He knew well it was not what others write or said that could make him a praying person; nothing less than the Spirit could do it.”
Bunyan’s emphasis on the work of the Spirit is particularly notable throughout his writings on prayer. It demonstrates that despite their focus on doctrinal particulars and the corporate aspects of worship, the Puritans by no means dismissed the importance of an individual’s private prayer life. The key was in setting down a biblical foundation, allowing the Spirit to illumine us, and proceeding from there to pray according to the will of God. The communion with God described by Bunyan was so much richer than what many of today’s preachers have to offer. We can benefit from reading his writings.
Meet the Puritanssupporting
For previous posts in this series, see:
Amy Mantravadi joins us this week to discuss John Bunyan's A Discourse Touching Prayer. Read her first post below:
Reading John Bunyan’s A Discourse Touching Prayer is a real pleasure, and not only because it is the first such work I have ever read that includes the phrase, “Therefore give me leave a little to reason with thee, thou poor, blind, ignorant sot.” This treatise, also known as I Will Pray with the Spirit, was composed while Bunyan was imprisoned in 1663. It is an exposition of the Apostle Paul’s statement that “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also”. (1 Corinthians 14:15 KJV) It contains some of Bunyan’s clearest teachings on prayer, which he defined in the following manner.
“Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God hath promised, or according to the Word, for the good of the church, with submission, in faith, to the will of God.”
Bunyan argued, “Thou then art not a Christian that art not a praying person.” He declared that prayer “is the opener of the heart of God, and a means by which the soul, though empty, is filled. By prayer the Christian can open his heart to God, as to a friend, and obtain fresh testimony of God’s friendship to him.” This type of prayer is much more than a stiff, formal activity. It is an action of both the head and the heart, even as Paul taught.
Bunyan was concerned that prayer in the Church of England had become overly dominated by passionless readings of the Book of Common Prayer. He was so conscious of this problem that he even questioned the regular use of the Lord’s Prayer. He taught that our communication with God had Him as its only hope and focus, and that it most certainly required emotion as well as words. “For right prayer bubbleth out of the heart when it is overpressed with grief and bitterness, as blood is forced out of the flesh by reason of some heavy burden that lieth upon it.” Elsewhere, he wrote, “Many in a wording way speak of God; but right prayer makes God his hope, stay, and all. Right prayer sees nothing substantial, and worth the looking after, but God.” While he certainly believed prayer was the duty of every Christian, Bunyan would not accept any supplications that did not arise out of genuine humility and affection.
“The greatest part of men make no conscience at all of the duty; and as for them that do, it is to be feared that many of them are very great strangers to a sincere, sensible, and affectionate pouring out their hearts or souls to God; but even content themselves with a little lip-labour and bodily exercise, mumbling over a few imaginary prayers. When the affections are indeed engaged in prayer, then, then the whole man is engaged, and that in such sort, that the soul will spend itself to nothing, as it were, rather than it will go without that good desired, even communion and solace with Christ. And hence it is that the saints have spent their strengths, and lost their lives, rather than go without the blessing.”
The beginning of all right prayer, according to Bunyan, was the knowledge of one’s sinful condition and the greatness of God’s mercy. “For mark, I beseech you, there are two things that provoke to prayer. The one is a detestation to sin, and the things of this life; the other is a longing desire after communion with God, in a holy and undefiled state and inheritance.” Furthermore, he stressed that a sense of our guilt should not keep us from praying.
“Thou criest out that thou art vile, and therefore God will not regard thy prayers; it is true, if thou delight in thy vileness, and come to God out of a mere pretence. But if from a sense of thy vileness thou do pour out thy heart to God, desiring to be saved from the guilt, and cleansed from the filth, with all thy heart; fear not, thy vileness will not cause the Lord to stop his ear from hearing of thee.”
Bunyan always sought to make this connection between praying with the spirit and understanding, and he did this by combining a strong doctrinal foundation and a heart that seeks after God.
“It is not the mouth that is the main thing to be looked at in prayer, but whether the heart is so full of affection and earnestness in prayer with God, that it is impossible to express their sense and desire; for then a man desires indeed, when his desires are so strong, many, and mighty, that all the words, tears, and groans that can come from the heart, cannot utter them…”
10. Thomas Vincent (1634–1678): Only a handful of Vincent’s writings were ever published. Nevertheless, when we find ourselves cold and listless, Vincent can help kindle the fire of Christian love. Just try reading The True Christian’s Love to the Unseen Christ (1677) without yearning to love Christ more! Vincent also wrote The Good Work Begun (1673), a helpful evangelistic book for young people.
Vincent wrote some more solemn treatises as well, including God’s Terrible Voice in the City (1667) and Christ’s Certain and Sudden Appearance to Judgment (1667), both written after the Great Fire of London, as well as Fire and Brimstone (1670). Many of these titles were reprinted by Soli Deo Gloria Publications from 1991 to 2001.
Vincent’s works are uniquely refreshing. It is no wonder that Vincent’s works were bestsellers in the eighteenth century.
9. John Bunyan (1628–1688): When I first felt convicted of my sins, I saw Bunyan’s The Life and Death of Mr. Badman on my father’s bookcase and figured "that book must be for me!" More importantly, my father read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to us every Sunday evening after church (I must have listened to that book fifteen times). As I grew older, I would ask questions about how the Holy Spirit works in the soul, about Mr. Talkative, the Man in the Iron Cage, the House of the Interpreter, and scores of other characters and matters. My father often wept as he answered my questions. Later I realized what a rare gift those sessions were—after forty years, illustrations from Bunyan’s great classic still come to mind while I’m preaching.
8. John Flavel (1628–1691): With the exception of Jonathan Edwards, no Puritan divine was more helpful for me in sermon preparation as a young minister than Flavel. His sermons on Christ’s suffering also greatly blessed my soul. What lover of Puritan literature has not been blessed by Flavel’s classics: The Mystery of Providence, Keeping the Heart, The Fountain of Life, Christ Knocking at the Door of the Heart, and The Method of Grace?
7. Thomas Brooks (1608–1680): Brooks became my favorite Puritan writer in my late teens. His Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, The Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod, Heaven on Earth: A Treatise on Assurance, “The Unsearchable Riches of Christ” (vol. 3), “The Crown and Glory of Christianity” (vol. 4)—a classic on holiness consisting of 58 sermons on Hebrews 12:14—all ministered to me. Brooks’s books are real page-turners. He often brought me to tears of joy over Christ and tears of sorrow over sin. His writings exude spiritual life and power.
6. Thomas Watson (c. 1620–1686): Watson was my favorite Puritan after I was converted in my mid-teens. I read his Body of Divinity as a daily devotional. His All Things for Good was a wonderful balm for my troubled soul in a period of intense affliction in the early 1980s. His winsome writing includes deep doctrine, clear expression, warm spirituality, appropriate applications, and colorful illustrations. I love his pithy, quotable style of writing.
5. William Perkins (1558–1602): Rhetorician, expositor, theologian, pastor, Perkins became the principle architect of the Puritan movement. By the time of his death, Perkins’s writings in England were outselling those of John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and Henry Bullinger combined. He “moulded the piety of a whole nation,” H.C. Porter said. Little wonder, then, that Perkins is often called the father of Puritanism.
Perkins first influenced me while I was studying assurance of faith for my doctoral dissertation. Ten years later, his Art of Prophesying, a short homiletic textbook for Puritan seminarians, helped me understand how to address listeners according to their various cases of conscience. My appreciation for Perkins has increased over the years. I am thoroughly enjoying spending more time reading his works as general editor with Derek Thomas on a ten-volume reprint of Perkins’s works, of which two volumes are now in print.
4. Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758): A class at Westminster Theological Seminary motivated me to read most of Edwards’s two-volume works in 1983. His sermons convicted and comforted me beyond words; what a master wordsmith Edwards was! The two books that influenced me most were Religious Affections, which is often regarded as the leading classic in American history on spiritual life, and Edwards’s sermons on justification by faith. Earlier, I was greatly influenced by The Life and Diary of David Brainerd.
I was touched by Edwards’s concept of “fittedness” throughout his writings, and have often found that concept a great tool for leadership and decision-making. Edwards grounded this concept in God; a God who is always fitting will guide His people to want to do what is fitting in each life situation to bring Him the most glory. Hence, we must ask of every decision we face: What is most fitting in God’s sight according to His Word? What will bring God the most honor?
3. John Owen (1616–1683): Owen’s wide range of subjects, insightful writing, exhaustive doctrinal studies, profound theology, and warm devotional approach explain why I and so many others regard his work with such high esteem. Owen may be wordy on occasion, but he is never dry. His works are invaluable for all who wish to explore the rich legacy left by one who is often called “Prince of the Puritans.”
I was most influenced by Owen when I spent the summer of 1985 studying his views on assurance. The two books that influenced me most were Owen’s treatment of Psalm 130, particularly verse 4, and his amazing Communion with God, which focuses on experiential communion between a believer and individual persons of the Trinity.
2. Thomas Goodwin (1600–1679): Goodwin’s exegesis is massive; he leaves no stone unturned. His first editors (1681) said of his work: “He had a genius to dive into the bottom of points, to ‘study them down,’ as he used to express it, not contenting himself with superficial knowledge, without wading into the depths of things.” Begin by reading some of the shorter, more practical writings of Goodwin, such as Patience and Its Perfect Work; This book was written after much of Goodwin’s personal library was destroyed by fire. Also read Certain Select Cases Resolved, which offers three experiential treatises that reveal Goodwin’s pastoral heart for afflicted Christians. Each deals with specific struggles in the believer’s soul, including spiritual depression, answers to prayer, and sanctification. This is a mini-classic on spiritual growth.
For twenty years, my favorite Puritan writer was Thomas Goodwin. Goodwin’s 12-voume Works most recently reprinted by Reformation Heritage Books (12 vols.) is a treasure trove of experiential Reformed divinity at its best.
1. Anthony Burgess (d. 1664): In my opinion, Burgess is the most underrated Puritan of all time. His best and largest work, Spiritual Refining: The Anatomy of True and False Conversion (1652–54)—two volumes of 1,100 pages—has been called an “unequaled anatomy of experimental religion.” The first volume, subtitled A Treatise of Grace and Assurance, contains 120 sermons; the second, subtitled A Treatise of Sin, with its Causes, Differences, Mitigations and Aggravations, contains 42 sermons.
Several of Burgess’s major works are polemical. His first major treatise, Vindiciae Legis (1646) vindicated the Puritan view of the moral law and the covenants of works and grace in opposition to Roman Catholics, Arminians, Socinians, and Antinomians. Two years later, Burgess wrote against the same opponents, plus Richard Baxter, in his first volume on justification. His 555-page Doctrine of Original Sin (1659) meanwhile drew Anabaptists into the fray.
A scholar acquainted with the works of Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, Burgess nevertheless produced astute, warm, devotional writings, while reasoning in the plain style of Puritan preaching.
In my last post, we considered the question, “What is Puritan Theology?” We answered this question with a contextual approach to Puritanism, historically and theologically, and ended with some discussion on the experiential theology of the Puritans. We especially considered the approach of William Ames (1576-1633) who called theology “the doctrine of living unto God.”
In this post I want to elaborate upon this definition and discuss how Ames, as one so influential to later Puritan theology, saw a “distribution” or division of this life in terms of its respective acts or operations. In other words, I want to talk about Puritan theologizing— how they proposed “doing” theology.
It will help to talk a little more about his claim, “Theology is the doctrine of living to God” (Theologia est doctrina deo vivendi), which concerns a life “according to the will of God, to the glory of God, God inwardly working.” In this way, living to God, for Ames, occurs as “Christ lives in me.” His thinking here connects with and goes beyond his mentor William Perkins (1558-1602) and Petrus Ramus (1515-1572), the French logician before him, in terms of what they both taught concerning living well and what Perkins described as living blessedly (to God). Thus, theology is the “good life whereby we live to God.”
As Jan van Vliet observes in The Rise of Reformed System: The Intellectual Heritage of William Ames (Paternoster, 2013), Ames also went beyond Perkins, and Beza and Calvin before him, in his heightened emphasis on the will in the Christian life. For Ames, as he argues in The Marrow, the will acts as the “prime and proper subject” of theology but never separate from the intellect and not without the impetus of divine grace. He appeals to Proverbs 4:23, which sees action of life arising from the heart, which necessarily involves the exercise of the will.
In this way, as God graciously acts upon us, we “do” theology by responding to him as “a spiritual act of the whole man, whereby” we are “carried on to enjoy God.” Ames not surprisingly calls theology “practical, and not a speculative discipline.” He no doubt here manifests the impact of Ramist (from Ramus) philosophy, which he learned from Perkins at Cambridge, which rejected the Aristotelian tendency to divorce thought and life. For Ames, orthodoxy (correct doctrine) was necessarily and intimately connected to orthopraxy (correct living).
Ames, this time manifesting the impact of Ramist method in terms of dividing subject matter (dichotomously again and again and again . . .) for reasoning well (too rigidly?), mentions two parts of theology, “faith and observance.” He refers to these two as acts or operations of divinity or theology, with faith first in the order of nature over obedience, “for there can be no vital actions brought forth, unless a principle of life be first begotten within.”
Ames defines faith as “a resting of the heart on God; as on the author of life and eternal salvation: that is to say, that by him we may be freed from all evil, and obtain all good.” Later, he speaks of faith as belief in God, which means “to cleave to God, to lean on God, to rest in God as in our all-sufficient life and salvation.” He later calls faith “the first act of life, whereby we live to God, in Christ” and that such consists “in union with God.”
Also, it may raise eyebrows that he did not speak of faith as resting on or being united to Christ (as does the Westminster Confession some twenty years later). He provides clarity later by calling Christ “the mediate” object of Faith” and God the “highest.” This in no way detracts from the deity of Christ or justification by faith in him, which he treats at length later. He concerned to show that we truly “believe in God through Christ” and “live to God by Christ.” This idea of living to God by Christ gives us a preview of the later thought of Dutch theologian, Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706), who was influenced by Ames.
With connections to Calvin (through Perkins), Ames sees the role of the understanding of and assent to the “Divine testimony” of Scripture in faith. Yet faith is not one part this and one part that. So, in a sense, you cannot have true understanding of and assent to Scripture without faith. With faith concerned with life unto God, mere “assent given to the truth” remains insufficient. Likewise, Ames disagrees with the “Papists” that “general assent” be equated with faith. The testimony of God “cannot be received without a pious affection of the will towards God.”
In summary, Puritan theologizing represents a response to God’s gracious operation on us. The will as the subject of faith rests upon the object of faith, God in Christ. Faith as union to God operates as the first act of living to God by Christ. In such theologizing, mental contemplation can never be separated from spiritual observance. One of the passages to which Ames appeals in considering faith and observance as the two necessary operations of theology will serve as a fitting conclusion for us. It remains likewise, a necessary pursuit: “Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13).
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).
Week 3 (1/15-1/21): I.1.2 (pgs. 85–146)
Most of us probably have not spent a lot of time thinking about the “prolegomena” of Christian theology. Sure, we might have Bavinck’s first volume of his Reformed Dogmatics entitled “Prolegomena”— but have we actually read, it or did we skip to the second volume? Yet, arguably the single most important development of Christian theology in the modern period has been theological prolegomena. From Brunner and Barth to Kaufman and Pannenberg, questions touching on 1) the nature of theology and revelation, 2) the source of revelation, and 3) theology’s relation to reason make up what has come down to us as the theological prolegomena. Muller’s first volume of PRRD, especially this second chapter, surveys the basic contours of theological prolegomena from Augustine through the Reformed orthodox in the early modern period. Muller’s thesis is that the development of theological prolegomena occurred well after the practice or the doing of theology was well under way. According to Muller, scholasticism (or school-theology) – both medieval and early modern – was a significant if not primary catalyst for such post-dogmatic reflection.
Reformed orthodoxy, unlike much of the theology of the Reformation, reflected deeply on the nature of Christian theology. As Muller points out, this reflection was not only in continuity with its medieval precursors, as found in theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus, but also underwent significant shifts in emphasis and even substance. Given the early Reformation debates over the interplay between Scripture and tradition, and their authority in determining orthodoxy, it is no surprise that the principia of theology (the foundations upon which theology exists) would soon be systematically configured. By the end of the 16th century, Franciscus Junius, in what was arguably the most significant prolegomena of theology in the early modern period among Reformed theologians, laid out and argued for a material, formal, efficient, and final cause of our theology.
Another area of theological prolegomena which received significant treatment in the early modern period was the relationship between faith and reason. Given the revival of Augustinian hamartiology and soteriology among the Reformers, and because prolegomena “develops in dialogue with basic dogmatic conclusions after the system as a whole has been set forth” (pg. 121), it is no surprise that the Reformed orthodox would emphasize the insufficiency of natural theology and the concomitant need for special revelation, especially in contexts where rationalists and Socinians questioned either the necessity of special revelation or sought to make reason the arbiter of Christian theology.
A third aspect of theological prolegomena developed in the early modern period relates to the philosophical eclecticism of the day. Take, e.g., the advice Richard Baxter gives to students who wish to study philosophy and his caution against following one particular philosophical sect (among the many different philosophical options of the day). Along with your standard Christian Aristotelianism (as modified by Neoplatonism), theologians had to wrestle with the Hermetic tradition, Cartesianism, the revival of ancient Epicureanism, and atomism, just to name some. And some of these latter philosophies, most notably Cartesianism and to a lesser extent the hermetic tradition and atomism, even influenced certain theological systems of the Reformed orthodox. With such philosophical wranglings, it is again, no surprise that the Reformed would be forced to examine the nature and even legitimacy of theological inquiry.
One area where each of the two former aspects of the development of theological prolegomena was exercised regards the question of how we know Scripture to be divine (and, hence, should be believed). This is one area, among many areas, where John Owen and Richard Baxter disagreed. And it is probably the only theological point at which William Cunningham takes Baxter’s side over Owen! Owen emphasized that we know Scripture to be divine principally on account of the inward testimony of the Spirit. Baxter, alternatively, emphasized that we know Scripture to be divine because of objective evidence which points to Scripture as being divinely authored. I am not especially interested in who got the better of the debate, though I think Cunningham is right. These questions of theological prolegomena have profound practical implications on how we do theology and vice versa – this is one area Cornelius Van Til has helped our tradition, no doubt, think through more carefully.
Muller’s survey of these developments will now look in more detail at each of the main topics of early modern theological prolegomena, beginning with the meaning of the term “theology” and “religion” in Reformed orthodoxy. Find out more next Wednesday—it's not too late to join our reading group!
Meet the Puritanssupporting
For previous posts in this series, see:
Contemporary Christian sayings are not necessarily new. In the last article, I pointed out that Edward Reynolds, an important member of the Westminster Assembly, encouraged us to ask what would Jesus do in a particular situation. Reynolds is not alone in building a bridge between the Puritans and contemporary Christian sayings; he is joined by Anthony Burgess, another important member of the Westminster Assembly.
Justification is a very important biblical-theological concept that Christians, including very young ones, need to understand. How do we teach it to them? One catchy and memorable way is to say that it means that God treats me “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned. This is helpful insofar as it captures a key aspect of justification. The Westminster Confession of Faith 11.1 correctly teaches that justification involves forgiveness (“pardoning their sins”) and a declaration of righteousness (“accounting and accepting their persons as righteous”). The “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned captures the forgiveness component of justification.
At one point in his book, The True Doctrine of Justification, Anthony Burgess discusses the meaning of remission of sins. The first proposition that he lays down is this: “That when God doth pardon sinne, he takes it away so, as that the party acquitted is no more looked upon as a sinner.” In light of this, Burgess does not hesitate to say that the forgiven man is not a sinner. His sins are taken away—indeed, he says that they are utterly abolished. At the same time, however, he is also quite willing to say that the forgiven person is a sinner and that his sins are not utterly abolished.
Burgess uses the distinction between liability (reatus) and pollution (macula) to explain how both statements are true at the same time. The liability to guilt and punishment of sin is completely taken away, but the pollution of sin is not. He writes:
“Therefore in different respects we may say, That pardon of sin is an utter abolition of it, and it is not an utter abolition of it. It is an utter abolition of it, as it doth reflect upon the person, making him guilty, and obliging him actually to condemnation; in this respect a man is as free as if he had never sinned; but if you speak of the inherency of sin, and the effects of original corruption, that do abide in all, which are also truly and properly sins; so pardon of sin is not an utter abolition…”
A justified person, therefore, is “as free as if he had never sinned” with respect to guilt and punishment (condemnation) because pardon utterly abolishes these effects of sin. He will also be free as if he had never sinned with respect to the pollution of sin because Christ, as Burgess says, doesn’t apply half-cures (semiplenam curationem) but fully heals “diseased persons.” But that doesn’t happen immediately because Christ “works by degrees in the grace of sanctification.” And until that day when the presence of sin is completely cast out, a forgiven person will both be a sinner and not a sinner.
What is justification? An important component of our justification is the forgiveness of our sins. Forgiveness completely removes our guilt and liability to punishment. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1). Whoever believes in Jesus does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life (John 5:24). Thus, Justification, at least in part, means that God treats me “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned, or in the words of Burgess, it means that I am “as free as if [I] had never sinned.”
Meet the Puritanssupporting
For previous posts in this series, see:
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After setting out the nature of the church in Article 19, the next three articles underline the sufficiency of Scripture in its application to the church’s polity and practice. Articles 20-22 thus take up several aspects of the church’s authority in light of the doctrine of sola scriptura, that was set out in articles 6-8. Article 20 makes it very clear that Anglicanism affirms the supreme authority of Scripture. “It is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written….it ought to not decree anything against the same.” The Church remains under the authority of Scripture, neither above it nor equal to it.
XX — OF THE AUTHORITY OF THE CHURCH
The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree anything against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.
Article 20 is three simple sentences which set out in more detail what was stated in article 19, that the church’s obedience to Christ’s command is in a biblically faithful order in word preached and sacrament administered. As we saw in article 19, the source for the wording in article 20 also comes from Cranmer’s Reformatio Legum
For this reason, the church may not determine anything which is contrary to the Word of God written, nor may it so interpret one passage as to contradict another. Therefore, although the church is a witness, guardian, and keeper of the divine books, yet this prerogative must never be granted to it, that it should either decree anything contrary to these books or that it should make any articles of faith without the witness of these books, and impose them on Christian people as requirements of faith [Bray, 181].
The article guards against two common errors: one negative, one positive. Both errors are equally lethal to the life of the church:
The first sentence, the Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith was added by Queen Elizabeth after it had passed the convocations of Canterbury and York. It affirms the freedom of the church in setting orders of worship and retaining a vital judicial authority in matters of church discipline. This means the church as a body can make decisions and judgments in matters of controversy and disagreement from the parish to the national level.
The second sentence sets out two statements. The first statement clearly affirms that Anglicans submit to the ultimate authority of Scripture, it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written. The second statement, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another, explains the reason.
The reason is the unity of Scripture and that it does not contradict itself (unlike human reason, which may err). Therefore we must not interpret or expound any part of Scripture in a way that contradicts other parts. Articles 7 and 8 are particularly relevant here, because in these articles Anglicanism recognizes the progressive nature of God’s unfolding plan of salvation as far as the Old Testament is concerned. Article 7 reminds us that Scripture's own internal authority testifies as to why the ceremonial laws and civil regulations given in the Old Testament are no longer binding, but the moral law is. Therefore the church has the freedom to write confessions that clarify the errors discovered in contemporary controversies of doctrine and to systematize its teaching for education and catechesis. It is clear that the article affirms the development of a systematic theology. We must have an understanding of the whole if we want to avoid expounding one part of Scripture in a way that contradicts another. We should take note that, as early as 1553, Anglicans anticipated the great Reformed Protestant systematic theologies of the late 16th and 17th centuries. Those who would suggest that systematization is contrary to the nature of Anglicanism simply show that they do not know what they are talking about.
The third sentence summarizes the church’s relationship to the Scripture; the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ…. The Church is a witness and a keeper of Scripture (or the Reformatio Legum: a “witness” “guardian” and “keeper” of Scripture). The church has no authority over Scripture but is to bear witness to Scripture’s authority. As a witness, it testifies to the truth that the Bible is God’s word. Therefore, the church’s ministry is not priestly but a prophetic ministry, boldly proclaiming the Gospel of salvation. As a keeper and guardian, it is called to protect the integrity of the biblical canon, to pass it on to the next generations, and to contend for it when it is assaulted by an enemy that would seek to corrupt its teaching.
My life has been profoundly shaped and enriched by men who died long ago, but whose ministries live on through their books. As a theologian, I have read a lot of books about the teachings of the Bible, but none affect me more than the writings of the Puritans (and its parallel movement in the Netherlands, the Dutch Further Reformation).
As a young man, I found myself nourished by the writings of Thomas Goodwin, whose books about Christ the Mediator and Christ’s compassionate heart in heaven deeply moved me with faith and love for Christ. In my adult years, some of my favorite books have been Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, a combination of Reformed theology and ethics written in a warmly experiential tone; Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining, a classic on recognizing God’s saving work in our lives; and The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, letters full of meditations on the beauty of Christ by a man who suffered much for Him.
While there are many ways that the Bible-saturated books of the Puritans have influenced me, I would like to highlight three special lessons I have learned from them about experiential, practical Christian living.
1. The Priority of Love
The Puritans not only commended love, but called Christians to excel in love with godly zeal. Oliver Bowles said zeal “is a holy ardor kindled by the Holy Spirit of God in the affections, improving a man to the utmost for God’s glory, and the church’s good.” Such zeal is not proud and harsh, as religious zeal can sometimes be, but a sweet and gentle energy to do good. Jonathan Edwards wrote,
As some are mistaken concerning the nature of true boldness for Christ, so they are concerning Christian zeal. ’Tis indeed a flame, but a sweet one; or rather it is the heat and fervor of a sweet flame. For the flame of which it is the heat, is no other than that of divine love, or Christian charity; which is the sweetest and most benevolent thing that is, or can be, in the heart of man or angel.
William Ames said that love for our neighbors means that we desire their good “with sincere and hearty affection” and “endeavor to procure it.” When we speak of being on fire for God, the Puritans remind us that it must be a fire of love. And they realized that no one but God can kindle and fan this fire. John Preston wrote, “The love of God is peculiarly the work of the Holy Ghost…. Therefore the way to get it is earnestly to pray . . . . we are no more able to love the Lord than cold water is able to heat itself . . . so the Holy Ghost must breed that fire of love in us, it must be kindled from heaven, or else we shall never have it.” This leads me to my next point.
2. The Power of Prayer
When it came to ministry, the Puritans were definitely activists, putting in long hours of arduous labor to spread the kingdom. However, they also understood on a practical level that all kingdom work is God’s work. Neither evangelism nor edification can succeed without the Spirit of God. Thomas Watson wrote, “Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts, the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door.” John Owen said, “The Lord Christ . . . sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts, which is the efficient cause of all holiness and sanctification—quickening, enlightening, purifying the souls of his saints.”
Therefore, our ministry must be done on our knees. Richard Baxter said, “Prayer must carry on our work as well as preaching; he preacheth not heartily to his people, that prayeth not earnestly for them. If we prevail not with God to give them faith and repentance, we are unlikely to prevail with them to believe and repent.” And Robert Traill wrote, “Some ministers of meaner [lesser] gifts and parts are more successful than some that are far above them in abilities; not because they preach better, so much as because they pray more. Many good sermons are lost for lack of much prayer in study.”
3. The Pursuit of Holiness
In the worldliness of our fallen nature, our hearts pursue earthly happiness. When sorrow, disappointment, and frustration inevitably come, we grumble and dishonor God. Thomas Manton said, “Murmuring is an anti-providence, a renouncing of God’s sovereignty.” Watson wrote, “Our murmuring is the devil’s music.” However, the Puritans recognized that in Christ, our hearts have a new fundamental direction, one that cherishes God’s kingdom and righteousness above all earthly treasures.
Holiness begins and flourishes with faith in Christ. John Flavel wrote, “The soul is the life of the body, faith is the life of the soul, and Christ is the life of faith.” Isaac Ambrose said that we must fix our eyes upon Christ, not with a bare, intellectual knowledge but an inward and experiential “looking unto Jesus, such as stirs up affections in the heart, and the effects thereof in our life . . . . knowing, considering, desiring, hoping, believing, loving, joying, calling on Jesus, and conforming to Jesus.”
Holiness must be real in our private lives and families, or it is nothing but a hypocritical show. John Trapp wrote, “Follow hypocrites home to their houses, and there you shall see what they are.” Matthew Henry said, “It is not enough to put on our religion when we go abroad and appear before men; but we must govern ourselves by it in our families.” Real holiness is a reflection of Christ having been brought into the heart and the home.
Love, prayer, and holiness—these are the ABCs of a biblical life. They are the very outworking and activity of a living faith in Christ. That’s a large reason why I am so indebted to the Puritans: they keep driving me back to the basics of walking with God through Christ.
 Oliver Bowles, Zeal for God’s House Quickened (London: Richard Bishop for Samuel Gellibrand, 1643), 5.
 The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 2, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 2:352.
 William Ames, Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof (1639; facsimile repr., Norwood, N.J.: Walter J. Johnson, 1975), 5.7.4 [Rr recto]
 John Preston, The Breastplate of Faith and Love, 2 vols. in one (1634; facsimile repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), 2:50.
 Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 221.
 John Owen, Communion with God, in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965–1968), 2:199.
 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, in The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, ed. William Orme (London: James Duncan, 1830), 14:125.
 Robert Traill, “By What Means may Ministers Best Win Souls?” in The Works of Robert Traill (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), 1:246.
 Thomas Manton, A Treatise of Self-Denial, in The Complete Works of Thomas Manton (London: James Nisbet, 1873), 15:249.
 Thomas Watson, The Art of Divine Contentment, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 2001), 65.
 John Flavel, The Method of Grace, in The Works of John Flavel (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1968), 2:104.
 Isaac Ambrose, Looking unto Jesus (Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 1986), 28.
 John Trapp, A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments (London: Richard D. Dickinson, 1868), 2:624.
 Matthew Henry’s Commentary (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), 3:503 [Ps. 101].