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What Is Conservatism? Lee Edwards Offers a Fine Distillation

Having studied privately under the late Dr. Russell Kirk, author of the seminal work The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot (and many other books and thousands of articles that shaped the modern American conservative movement), I have often felt the difficulty of stating concisely and clearly what conservatism is, for it is not a simple ideology—indeed, it is not an ideology at all, but a complex and highly textured philosophy.

Lee Edwards, Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation, has condensed conservatism nicely in an article in which he draws from the founding document of Young American for Freedom, from Kirk’s “Six Canons of Conservatism,” from Barry Goldwater and Brent Bozell’s The Conscience of a Conservative, and from William F. Buckley’s Up from Liberalism. It would be hard to find a better introduction to conservative thought for those who are curious about it, or even for those who think themselves opposed to it (but who might be surprised to see it as it truly is). The whole article is worth reading, but this paragraph sums it up:

I end my definition of conservatism with an excerpt from Buckley’s Up from Liberalism, in which he lauds the conservative alternative based on “freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of the conscience, the spiritual view of life.” In just 21 words, Buckley provides a neat summation of conservatism’s first principles.

Tolle, lege; pick it up, read it.

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What Is Justice? How Are Justice and Rights Related?

If someone asked you, “What is justice?” how would you answer? If he asked, “What are the four Biblical criteria of justice?” would you know them? And if he asked, “How are justice and rights related?” what would you say?

Justice is among the most important concepts in all of human relations. As the great eighteenth-century moral philosopher Adam Smith pointed out, justice is

… the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice [of society]. If it is removed, the great, the immense fabric of human society . . . must in a moment crumble into atoms. In order to enforce the observation of justice, therefore, nature has implanted in the human breast that consciousness of ill desert, those terrors of merited punishment, which attend upon its violation, as the great safeguards of the association of mankind, to protect the weak, to curb the violent, and to chastise the guilty. (Theory of Moral Sentiments, II.ii.iii.4).

Justice requires that we do no one harm. This is not so noble a sentiment as that we should do good to all—the requirement of love—but without it, all striving after love would be folly. A society can exist, though it can’t thrive, without love; it devolves into barbarism and mutual destruction without justice.

One of the most important questions facing Americans today is whether rights are only negative (against undeserved harms) or also positive (to unearned benefits). Does my negative right not to be murdered, for example, mean I have a positive right to life? Does my negative right not to have my property stolen mean I have a positive right to food?

It’s easy to let common usage confuse us. Of course I have a right to life! We even have a whole political movement called the “right to life” movement—and I would be the last person on Earth to oppose its goal of making abortion illegal except to save the life of the mother (and even then every effort should be made to save the life of the child as well).

But does a murderer still have a right to life, or has he forfeited it? Since God’s law says a murderer is to be executed (Genesis 9:6; Exodus 21:12, 14; Romans 13:4), it follows that one’s right to life is limited. It can be forfeited. Or does a person who refuses to work have a right to food? If the food is his property, undoubtedly he does, since the Eighth Commandment says, “You shall not steal.” But what if he owns no food? Does he still have a right to food? What does Scripture say? “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

Confusion over the meaning of rights (and corresponding duties) is rampant in America today, thanks in large part to the Progressive movement. In Social Justice vs. Biblical Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel, I carefully build a definition of justice that is Biblical, refute arguments that the Bible requires wealth redistribution or some approximation of economic equality, explain the important difference between negative rights and positive rights, and argue that in fact there are no real “positive rights.” At every step, I challenge the Progressive movement so prevalent in America today.

I hope you’ll read this booklet and share it with many others. So, from now through the end of October, as my way of saying “Thank you!” for your 100% tax-deductible donation of any size, I’ll send you a copy—and if you’ll promise to give a second one to a Millennial Christian, I’ll send you two free copies! Just ask for it and mention Promo Code 1810 when you make your gift at any size through our secure online site by clicking here and then clicking on the “Donate” button near the bottom of the page, or by phoning Cornwall Alliance’s office at 703-569-4653, or by mailing your check to Cornwall Alliance, 9302-C Old Keene Mill Rd., Burke, VA 22015.

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Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition: Biblical Foundations and Historical Development

A paper delivered at the

Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology

Annual Conference, October 23–25, 2009

The dominion mandate to Adam and Eve at the creation makes human responsibility for creation stewardship inescapable. Neither our fall into sin nor the redeeming work of Christ eliminates that responsibility. Rather, the fall complicates it, as the Earth too suffers the consequences of human sin. But redemption elevates environmental stewardship, making it part of the hope-filled task of the redeemed in spreading the kingdom of Christ.

The creation teaches us to praise God. And it shows us God’s wisdom and power in establishing complex, inter-connected, and resilient systems sheltering humanity and other creatures. Yet those systems and creatures are vulnerable to harm when humans abuse their dominion. With time, study, and experience, the Church has grown in its understanding of these truths.

It is encouraging to see many U.S. Christians embracing creation care. But we must undertake that task with discernment. Unfortunately, many contemporary church statements on the environment fail that test. It is important to understand, for example, the “environmental transition” by which rising wealth enables societies to solve environmental problems. This historical lesson—that economic growth, lifting the poor out of their poverty, is in the long run beneficial and not harmful to the environment—should offer us guidance and confidence as we address current environmental problems. Among other things, it points to the fact that economic development is the most important step toward improved environmental stewardship.

Neither the environmental transition nor the credibility of many claims of environmental degradation, however, is the focus of this paper. Instead, this paper focuses on the Biblical foundations for environmental stewardship and how some important Christian thinkers and churches past and present have built on them.

Biblical Foundations

Psalm 148: Creation Praises God

There is a kind of praise, the worship that is “in spirit and in truth,” as Jesus described it, that can be rendered only by rational creatures—men and angels. But there is also a kind of praise, simply by being what God designed them to be, that non-rational creatures can render and indeed always do. So a psalmist felt no awkwardness in calling on them to praise God:

Praise the Lord! . . .

Praise Him, sun and moon;

Praise Him, all stars of light!

Praise Him, highest heavens,

And the waters that are above the heavens! . . .

Praise the Lord from the Earth,

Sea monsters and all deeps;

Fire and hail, snow and clouds;

Stormy wind, fulfilling His word;

Mountains and all hills;

Fruit trees and all cedars;

Beasts and all cattle;

Creeping things and winged fowl. [Psalm 148:1, 3-4, 7-10][1]

Psalm 19 and Job 38-41: Creation Reveals God

The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). Just what, though, does creation reveal about the Creator? His greatness, His glory, surely. But greatness and glory in what? The simplest, briefest summary comes in Romans 1:20: His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature.

The Book of Job contains a dramatic illustration of how God evokes human praise through creation. After he had harangued God because of what he considered his own unjust suffering, Job suffered the onslaught of God’s challenges to him. God ironically demanded that Job explain to Him various aspects of creation—a task Job found impossible (Job 38:2-11). When God finished His long rebuke, spanning chapters 38-41, Job replied:

I know that You can do all things,

And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.

“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”

Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand,

Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

“Hear, now, and I will speak;

I will ask You, and You instruct me.

I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear;

But now my eye sees You;

Therefore I retract,

And I repent in dust and ashes.” [Job 42:2–6]

As we think about creation stewardship, then, the first thing we must keep in mind is the doctrine of God—particularly, that an infinitely wise, infinitely powerful Creator made and sustains the universe and every part of it. This doctrine does not mean we have no responsibility for stewarding the creation. But it does mean that the design of all things reflects the wisdom of God, and the sustaining of all things reflects the power of God. These truths are relevant to creation stewardship.

Genesis 1 and Psalm 24: Humanity the Crown of Creation

In Genesis 1 God repeatedly declared good each new day’s creations. But the crown of creation was humanity. It was not till after He had made humanity that He looked at all that He had made and declared it Avery good.@ Created things derive their worth not from their usefulness to humans but from God=s sovereign evaluation of them. Nevertheless, their intrinsic worth does not make them immune to use by other creatures. After making man and woman, God said to them, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food.”[2]

Neither does the intrinsic worth of created things make them immune to human rule. God made human beings in the image of God and granted them dominion “over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the Earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” This “cultural mandate” in Genesis 1 bids humans, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the Earth, and subdue it.”

The crown of humanity is Jesus Christ, whom the letter to the Hebrews describes as the “heir of all things, through whom also [God] made the world[,] . . . the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature,” who “upholds all things by the word of His power.” Because of man’s fall into sin, “we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.“[3]

What does it mean for human beings to be the image of God? The Genesis 1 passage presents four principal aspects of this image: wisdom, righteousness, creativity, and dominion. The creation narrative indicates all of these: God creates and orders the heavens and the Earth by His authoritative word and passes moral judgment on all His works. These four characteristics of the image of God ought all to be employed in fulfilling the vocation God gave us: to rule over the Earth.[4]

Psalm 24:1 declares, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.” Another psalm teaches that God has entrusted the Earth to human stewardship: “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth He has given to the sons of men” (Psalm 115:16).

In this dominion people are accountable to God. We must reflect God’s own creative work and dominion, conducting ours in cooperative fellowship as the Father, Son, and Spirit all were involved in the work of creation. Humankind is called to beget life after our own image and multiply to fill the Earth, subduing it and ruling over all the creatures in it. We are to cultivate and guard the garden and eventually turn all the Earth into garden.[5]

Genesis 3 and Romans 8: Human Rebellion and Redemption Affect All of Creation

Rather than acting as a responsible steward, mankind rebelled against God. Every aspect of the image of God suffered. What had been a sound mind full of the light of truth, full of the God who is the Truth, became unsound and darkened by falsehood, futile, dark, and ignorant. What had been a clear conscience, untainted by sin, became fouled with the stench of guilt and fear. The once living soul died, becoming mere dust again. He who had been alive in righteousness and holiness became “dead in . . . trespasses and sins.” The companion and servant of God became the companion and servant of Satan. The child of God became a child of wrath. His once fertile and creative brilliance collapsed into “unfruitful deeds of darkness.” Sin brought God’s judgment not only on human beings but also on the whole Earth. The Apostle Paul writes of how “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now,” as with humankind it awaits God’s redemption.[6]

1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21: Resurrection and New Creation

But God had from eternity past a plan for redemption through Christ Jesus, the “last Adam.”  In Christ’s life, He exercised a wise, righteous, and life-giving dominion over the Earth itself (calming a storm), over plant and animal life, and even over human life (healing the sick and raising the dead). By His death and resurrection He saved us from God’s wrath, reconciled us to God, gave us the gift of righteousness, and restored us to life. Now those who are His are being restored in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness.[7]

The effects of the atoning death, victorious resurrection, and triumphant ascension of Christ, then, sweep over all of creation. They include people, animals, plants, and even the ground itself. They include the restoration of the image of God in the redeemed and the restoration of knowledge, holiness, and creativity in working out the cultural mandate. This new impetus for the cultural mandate flows especially through the redeemed but also, by common grace, even through many who are not redeemed. Their mandate includes human multiplication, subduing and ruling the Earth, transforming the wilderness by cultivation into a garden, and guarding that garden against harm. It is significant that Revelation 21 presents the new creation not as a wilderness or even as a garden but as a garden city. This city does not rise Babel-like from human endeavor but descends out of heaven.

As the authors of Earthkeeping in the Nineties put it, “redeemed men and women are to be ‘fellow heirs’ with Christ—Christ, the sustaining logos of the world, in whom all things consist. The idea that humanity—redeemed humanity—is to share in that ‘creatorly’ task is clearly the implication of Romans 8:19. . . .”[8] That passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans draws the connection between the liberation of humankind and the liberation of creation: “For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21).

Genesis 1:26-28: The Dominion Mandate

The dominion mandate, then, did not cease with the coming of either sin or redemption. It continued, and all people exercise it all the timeBsome wisely, righteously, and fruitfully, some foolishly, wickedly, and barrenly. In response to abuses, some critics have blamed biblical teaching for environmental degradation and called for repudiation of the doctrine of human dominion over nature. Yet it is not dominion per se but selfish or foolish dominion that leads to environmental abuse. Christians, who seek to be faithful to the Bible, cannot simply abandon its doctrine of dominion.

Some seek to soften the biblical doctrine of dominion by redefining it, in the process replacing rule with service. They often use Genesis 2:15 (the mandate to “cultivate and keep” the garden) to reinterpret or replace 1:28 (the mandate to fill, subdue, and rule the Earth). Yet while dominion is not exploitation, Genesis 2:15 does not say the same things as 1:28. Garden and Earth differ, and the Hebrew words for subdue and rule have very different meanings from those for cultivate and guard. Further, the frequent claim that the Hebrew for cultivate properly means to serve—implying that the mandate in 2:15 is for mankind to serve the garden and, by extension, the Earth—is mistaken.[9]

The dominion mandate, then, must be neither repudiated nor softened. Properly understood, it gives human beings legitimate authority to subdue and rule the Earth, progressively transforming it into a garden, indeed a garden city, to serve their needs and the glory of God. Both the dominion mandate and man=s creation in the image of God imply human priority over other created things. As Jesus remarked in the Sermon on the Mount, people are of greater importance to God than birds or flowers (Matthew 6:26-30). This principle points to a biblical environmental ethic that puts human needs before others.

Biblical Law: Dominion Is Not License to Abuse

Yet this principle does not imply human autonomy in dominion. The moral law of God—revealed in the two great commandments to love God and neighbor, the golden rule of doing to others as we would have them do to us, the Ten Commandments,[10] and all the moral statutes, ordinances, and precepts sprinkled throughout Scripture—defines righteous dominion. There is no excuse for tyranny, which violates that law. Some specific laws of Scripture have direct relevance to creation stewardship. Consider several examples from the Old Testament.

While people are free to harness animals to perform tasks for them, they must ensure that the animals’ needs are met while they labor. The law of Moses contains the prohibition: “You shall not muzzle an ox [preventing it from eating] while it is treading out the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4). We may infer from this passage a general duty to guard animals.

Yet such laws aim principally at human, not animal, welfare. The Apostle Paul, in quoting this verse, asked, “God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake . . . .” (I Corinthians 9:3-11). Paul pointed out that the principle was that someone laboring for others should have a share of the production. While that principle entails making sure a laboring animal is properly fed, its primary point is that a laboring person should benefit from his labors.

Similarly, when God instructed the Israelites not to destroy fruit trees while besieging a city, He permitted destroying other trees to make siege works. The fruit trees were to be spared because from them the Israelites could eat. The command’s focus, then, was on preservation of trees not for their own sake but for people’s sake—not for their intrinsic value, but for their value to people.

Likewise, the focus of an ordinance to help a donkey struggling under an excessive load is more on doing justice to the neighbor who owns the donkey than on care for the animal. The provision that the Israelites= domestic animals should rest on the Sabbath seems intended mostly to ensure that those who worked the animals should be free to rest on the Sabbath. Yet human benefit from such laws was not exclusive. Israel learned this lesson when God ejected it from the Promised Land so that the land could enjoy the seventy years of sabbatical rest the people had failed to observe.[11]

Clearly, care must be taken in both interpreting and applying biblical laws to creation stewardship. They tell us that we should care for all that God created: the Earth and the various plant and animal species that dwell in it. But the Scriptures do not tell us which are the most urgent environmental problems for our society today. They do not prescribe precise solutions for those problems. So we must not make biblical texts into clubs with which to strike those who disagree with our assessments of particular environmental problems and their solutions.

Wisdom from Church History and Tradition

Environmental stewardship has not been a main topic of Christian—or indeed any other—thought until recent generations. That should surprise no one when we recall that for most of human history until the nineteenth century, “nature” was in practice not a lovely place to be preserved and in which to escape the stresses of urban and suburban life but a harsh place to be survived and subdued. The one thing nature seemed to do best was to kill.

Pre-modern teaching on creation by Christian thinkers includes significant tensions. Some lends itself to criticism by modern ecologists as anti-ecological, stripping nature of sacred character and viewing it as mere backdrop for the drama of human salvation and raw materials for human economic production. Other teaching emphasizes nature as God=s self-revelation, as itself praising God, and as deserving admiration and care.

An early representative of the latter thought was Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. a.d. 130–200). In contrast with widespread Gnostic thought of his day, Irenaeus believed that the material creation was itself good. While the current plight of creation, dominated by the devil and sinful people, will pass, its essence will be renewed, and the just will receive the Earth as an inheritance at the resurrection. Therefore, Irenaeus affirmed, human flesh is “not destitute [of participation] in the constructive wisdom and power of God” but will itself be renewed in the resurrection.[12]

An early representative of the more negative view of the material world was Origen (ca. a.d. 185–254). He speculated that when rational souls (logikoi, men and angels) sinned, they fell from heaven, by varying degrees. God made the world as a sort of safety net for fallen souls, keeping them from falling all the way into nonbeing. For Origen the material world was a place of probation whence souls could attempt to climb back up to union with the divine, as they repudiated and left behind that material world.[13]

St. Augustine of Hippo (a.d. 354–430) had a much more positive view of creation. Augustine admitted that our limited knowledge and experience prevent humans from understanding how everything God created fits together into a beautiful, harmonious whole. Nevertheless, he urged belief in the beauty and harmony of creation, “lest in the vanity of human rashness we presume to find any fault with the work of so great an Artificer.” Even things that we find inconvenient or harmful to ourselves—even the “eternal fire” of hell—are part of this beauty and “with respect to their own nature . . . are glorifying to their Artificer.” “All natures, then, inasmuch as they are, and have therefore a rank and species of their own, and a kind of internal harmony, are certainly good.”[14]

St. Maximus the Confessor (ca. a.d. 580–662), an Eastern Orthodox mystical theologian, like Origen and indeed Augustine, had a hierarchical view of creation. He assigned human beings the highest rank. He believed that, through grace, they were capable of overcoming the five divisions in reality, including—though in a qualified sense—even that between Creator and creation.

Reality, Maximus thought, was divided in five ways, as shown in the accompanying table.

Strongly influenced by neo-Platonic philosophy and the idea of the “Great Chain of Being” associated with Plotinus (a.d. 205–270), Maximus believed that, according to the “great mystery of the divine purpose,” all divisions must be overcome in a kind of evolution toward divinity achieved by human participation. “In order to bring about the union of everything with God as its cause,” he wrote, “the human person begins first of all with its own division, and then, ascending through the intermediate steps by order and rank, it reaches the end of its high ascent, which passes through all things in search of unity, to God, in whom there is no division.” The person begins by “shaking off every natural property of sexual differentiation into male and female [a differentiation that “depends in no way on the primordial reason behind the divine purpose concerning human generation”] by the most dispassionate relationship to divine virtue”—a union achieved through “perfect knowledge. . . . Then, by a way of life proper and fitting to Saints, the human person unites paradise and the inhabited world to make one earth. . . . Then, through a life identical in every way through virtue with that of the angels, so far as is possible to human beings, the human person unites heaven and earth. . . . [T]hen the human person unites what is perceived by the mind and what is perceived by the senses with each other by achieving equality with the angels in its manner of knowing, and thus makes the whole creation one single creation, no longer divided by what it can know and what it cannot know. . . . And finally . . . the human person unites the created nature with the uncreated through love . . ., showing them to be one and the same through the possession of grace, the whole [creation] wholly interpenetrated by God, and become completely whatever God is, save at the level of being.”[15]

Although Maximus’s neo-Platonism led him to an unbiblical, deprecatory understanding of sexuality, and although he nearly denied the quintessentially biblical Creator/creature distinction, nevertheless his recognition of the primacy of humankind within creation is clear and, as we have seen, firmly rooted in Scripture. He also believed that creation was a Self-revelation of God and, unlike Origen and others who viewed the material world as evil per se, he had a scheme for its redemption.[16]

The medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) reported a vision in which God said: “I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every spark of life. . . . I remain hidden in every kind of reality as a fiery power.” Hildegard described human beings as illumined with the “living breath of the spirit.” The Word of God, in her account, “awakened all creation by the resonance of God’s voice.” God “called creation to himself,” “led all creatures to the light,” and “committed himself to all creation.”

Many people consider St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) the “patron saint of environmentalism.” His Canticle of the Sun has been an inspiration for many modern environmentalists. David Kinsley calls him “the most unambiguous example in medieval Christianity of the affirmation and embrace of nature.”[17] His early biographer Celano wrote that when Francis

found an abundance of flowers, he preached to them and invited them to praise the Lord as though they were endowed with reason. In the same way he exhorted with the sincerest purity cornfields and vineyards, stones and forests and all the beautiful things of the fields, fountains of water and the green things of the gardens, earth and fire, air and wind, to love God and serve him willingly. Finally, he called all creatures “brother” and in a most extraordinary manner, a manner never experienced by others, he discerned the secrets of creatures with his sensitive heart.[18]

It is not certain, however, that Francis spoke more than metaphorically when he called creatures Abrother@ and Asister.@ Yet his Canticle of the Sun rivals some of the Psalms in the poetic grandeur of its appreciation for the natural world:

Most High, omnipotent, good Lord,

All praise, glory, honor, and blessing are yours.

To you alone, Most High, do they belong,

And no man is worthy to pronounce your name.

Be praised, my Lord, with all your creatures,

Especially Sir Brother Sun,

Who brings the day, and you give light to us through him.

How handsome he is, how radiant, with great splendor!

Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon and the Stars.

In heaven you have formed them, bright, and precious, and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Wind,

And for Air, for Cloud, and Clear, and all weather,

By which you give your creatures nourishment.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water,

She is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,

By whom you light up the night.

How handsome he is, how happy, how powerful and strong!

Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister, Mother Earth,

Who nourishes and governs us,

And produces various fruits with many-colored flowers and herbs.

Praise and bless the Lord,

And give thanks and serve him with great humility.[19]

Even in this great poem, however, Francis recognized that the intrinsic value of creatures coexists with their utility value. God gives “light to us” through “Brother Sun,” and by air and cloud and fruits and flowers and herbs God gives “creatures nourishment.”

The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) had a highly anthropocentric and hierarchical view of earthly creation. “As we observe,” he wrote, “. . . imperfect beings serve the needs of more noble beings; plants draw their nutriment from the earth, animals feed on plants, and these in turn serve man’s use. We conclude, then, that lifeless beings exist for living beings, plants for animals, and the latter for man. . . . The whole of material nature exists for man, inasmuch as he is a rational animal.” But the usefulness of earth, plants, and animals to man was not solely material but also spiritual, “helping him to know God, inasmuch as man sees the invisible things of God by the things that are made.”[20]

The two great Reformers Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564) both also wrote things relevant to creation stewardship. Many of Luther’s comments about nature present it as an arena in which we suffer God’s chastening, meant to lead us to repentance and faith in Christ. “God’s wrath,” he wrote, “. . . appears on the earth in all creatures. . . . And what of thorns, thistles, water, fire, caterpillars, flies, fleas, and bedbugs? Collectively and individually, are not all of them messengers who preach to us concerning sin and God=s wrath?”

Yet Luther could also write that “night and day alternate for the purpose of refreshing our bodies by rest. The sun shines that work may be done.”[21] He did not consider the creation itself evil, even though it was destined to be dissolved in judgment because of man’s sin and then recreated. The German Reformer interpreted the “vanity” to which God had subjected the creation (Romans 8:20) not as its own corruption and decay but as its being required still to serve people’s needs despite their being sinful and unworthy. “For instance,” Luther wrote,

. . . the blessed sun, most glorious of created things, serves the small minority of the godly, but where it shines on one godly man it must shine on thousands and thousands of knaves, such as enemies of God, blasphemers, persecutors, with whom the world is filled . . . . To these it must minister in all their ungodliness and wickedness, permitting its pure and glorious influence to benefit the most unworthy, most shameful and abandoned profligates. According to the apostle, this subjection is truly painful, and were the sun a rational creature obeying its own volition rather than the decree of the Lord God who has subjected it to vanity against its will, it might deny every one of these wicked wretches even the least ray of light; that it is compelled to minister to them is its cross and pain, by reason of which it sighs and groans.[22]

Indeed, Luther considered things in nature good in themselves but often abused by humans. “A wicked tyrant, a shameful harlot, may wear gold ornaments. Is the gold responsible for its use? It is the good creature of the Lord our God and fitted to serve righteous people. But the precious product must submit to accommodating the wicked world against its will. Yet it endures in hope of an end of such service—such slavery.”[23]

Calvin taught that “man was created to be a spectator of the created world, and that he was endowed with eyes for the purpose of his being led to God Himself, the Author of the world, by contemplating so magnificent an image.” Yet he also taught that humanity’s fall into sin blinded people to the creation’s testimony. Romans 1:20, he said, shows that “the manifestation of God by which He makes His glory known among His creatures is sufficiently clear as far as its own light is concerned. It is, however, inadequate on account of our blindness. But we are not so blind that we can plead ignorance without being convicted of perversity.”[24] Calvin affirmed human dominion over the Earth as taught in Genesis 1 and added that part of “the end for which all things were created” was “that none of the conveniences and necessaries of life might be wanting to men,” which showed “the paternal solicitude of God for man.”[25]

Modern Christians developing our own understanding of creation care can gain inspiration and insight from the past. But we must be careful not to read into past teachings more than is there. Awe and respect for nature, gratitude to God for it, and a desire to care for creation are all excellent motivations. But they resolve no debates about the reality or extent of environmental problems and answer no policy questions.

Further, it can be anachronistic to expect thinkers before the start of the Industrial Revolution to answer current questions about environmental stewardship. Most did not confront problems comparable to ours. For them and for everyone before the Industrial Revolution, “nature” was not an idyllic place from which to escape the stresses of urban life. Instead it was primarily a harsh surrounding from which one needed protection. Human impact on nature was minimal by comparison with modern economies.

Yet even then, people sometimes exaggerated human impact on the environment. For example, the Church Father Tertullian lamented how the weight of sinful humanity was oppressing the Earth. Writing around a.d. 200 (when world population was probably under 500 million), Tertullian saw a grim future as humanity pressed up against supposedly fixed limits to the resources available:

Everything has been visited, everything known, everything exploited. Now pleasant estates obliterate the famous wilderness areas of the past. Plowed fields have replaced forests, domesticated animals have dispersed wild life. Beaches are plowed, mountains smoothed and swamps drained. There are as many cities as, in former years, there were dwellings. Islands do not frighten, nor cliffs deter. Everywhere there are buildings, everywhere people, everywhere communities, everywhere life. . . . Proof [of this crowding] is the density of human beings. We weigh upon the world; its resources hardly suffice to support us. As our needs grow larger, so do our protests, that already nature does not sustain us. In truth, plague, famine, wars and earthquakes must be regarded as a blessing to civilization, since they prune away the luxuriant growth of the human race.[26]

To put it rather simply, if we go to history and tradition, we may well find helpful insights on our general attitude toward Creator and creation. But we shall be disappointed if from them we expect much help measuring and responding to specific environmental problems today.

Nevertheless, Christians reflecting on the Scriptures and their own situations have carried forward some of the biblical themes sketched above: the unique place of humans in creation; creation as source and motive for praise to God; and the effects of sin and redemption on both humankind and the rest of creation.

Churches’ Voices Today

With rare exceptions, churchmen are generally at their best when they speak of Biblical and historical theological principles of environmental stewardship, and at their worst when they speak of scientific and economic aspects. In the latter, their entirely proper tendency toward compassion tends to lead them to embrace, without the due caution Paul’s instruction to “test all things, hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) should generate, claims of extreme environmental harm. Many messages coming from churches promote such environmental misinformation and poor thinking. As early as 1970 the American Baptist Church adopted a “Resolution on Environmental Concerns” that is a model of the exaggerated, context-free, snapshot claims common to the environmental movement:

The rapidly increasing pressure of world population, coupled with massive technological capabilities, constitute an unprecedented threat to the survival of life and beauty on this planet. The quality of our air and water is visibly deteriorating. Indiscriminate use of pesticides threatens to annihilate whole species of animal life and to jeopardize vital links in the food chain. The freedom to enjoy wilderness areas and uncluttered landscapes is rapidly becoming a memory.

It is increasingly evident that the apparent limitlessness of our natural resources is an illusion and the concept of unending economic expansion is now being questioned. The total creation is wondrously interrelated, and annihilation of any link threatens the existence of the whole.[27]

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2001 statement on climate change, although it included some vague qualifications, embraced the “consensus” view that human action is causing destructive climate change and that prudence requires trying to stop it.[28] The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America went so far as to say in 1993 that manmade global warming was a more serious problem than resource depletion, species extinction, topsoil erosion, and air and water pollution[29]—although at that time the evidential basis for the claim was slim at best, it has since deteriorated significantly, as we saw above, and the harm to human life and health from air and water pollution was and continues to be much greater than from global warming. Perpetuating that thinking, the presiding bishop of the ELCA issued a letter on Earth Day in 2007 describing the buildup of greenhouse gases as “sinful treatment of God’s gift of the Earth.”[30] The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. adopted “A Brief Statement of Faith” that asserted that human beings “threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.”[31]

The United Church of Christ on June 25, 2007, adopted “A Resolution on Climate Change” that evidenced no awareness of the scientific and economic debate documented above but simply repeated widespread claims and admitted “Christian complicity in the damage human beings have caused to the Earth’s climate system and other planetary life systems” and expressed “profound concern for the pending environmental, economic, and social tragedies threatened by global warming, to creation, human communities and traditional sacred spaces.” It resolved “to respond to global warming with great urgency and firm leadership by supporting mandatory measures that reduce the absolute amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and in particular emissions of carbon dioxide, to levels recommended by nationally and internationally recognized and respected scientific bodies.”[32] Similar statements have been issued by the World Council of Churches[33] and the National Council of Churches.[34]

An important exception to the generally poor quality of most ecclesiastical pronouncements on global warming was a resolution adopted in June 2007 by the Southern Baptist Convention, which recognized climate change as primarily natural and cyclical and asserted that attempts to mitigate it were more costly than whatever benefits might be expected from it.[35] The statement displayed an awareness of scientific and economic arguments pro and con on the issue. Likewise, the National Association of Evangelicals adopted “For the Health of the Nations: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” that made measured, if vague, statements on environmental stewardship and said nothing specifically of climate change.[36]

Blest Be the Ties that Bind: Matters of Ready Consensus Among Christians

Despite all the matters on which Christians can and do disagree about creation care, there are matters on which we can all agree.

All should join together in praising God for the beauty and goodness of His creation and its testimony to His wisdom, power, and goodness.

All should appreciate the connection, in God=s providential plan, between the fate of humankind and the fate of the creation. All should grieve the brokenness that afflicts the creation as the result of human sin. And all should look toward the hope of God=s redemption in Jesus Christ, liberating both humans and the entire creation from their bondage to sin and death.

All should accept our human responsibility as God=s stewards on the Earth, called to rule and care for it to His glory. All should understand that this dominion does not mean autonomy. We will have to render an account for our stewardship, under the strict standards of God=s moral law.

All should be committed, as stewards under that moral law, to caring for the rest of God=s creatures, protecting them from senseless harm. God created them and pronounced them Agood.@ He cares for them, and we as His image bearers should follow His pattern.Yet we should follow God=s pattern fully, not only caring for other creatures but also caring more for human beings.

All should be committed, in particular, to protecting the most vulnerable people among us. In large measure this means the poor, whose very poverty makes them vulnerable to malnutrition, disease, hunger, and premature death. While Scripture forbids partiality either for or against the poor, still it often associates help for the poor with justice, because the poor are particularly vulnerable to injustice.[37]

This concern entails looking carefully at the potential for various environmental hazards to harm the poor more than others It also involves being watchful for the potential that environmental policy itself might have unintended consequences that harm the poor—as when environmental regulations or energy taxes raise their cost of living or slow economic development that could lift them out of poverty.

Finally, as we weigh the benefits and costs of different policy options for addressing different environmental problems, all should be committed to honesty. That is, we should strive to tell the truth as best we understand it. We must study diligently various sides of controversial issues, remembering that A[t]he first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him@ (Proverbs 18:17).

Matters on Which There Should Be Consensus

There are also matters on which there ought to be widespread agreement among orthodox Christians. As the church statements cited above illustrate, there is not currently a consensus on these points. But we believe that the weight of biblical teaching and historical experience is so strong that it cannot credibly be denied:

  • Economic development is a good to be pursued (wisely and responsibly) rather than an evil to be restrained. It is the key to alleviating poverty and its attendant ills, including environmental ills.
  • Our environmental ideal is not wilderness but rather a garden—or even a city—where nature is used wisely for the benefit of humankind and for the greater glory of God.
  • Creative humans enhance and improve what they have been given in nature.
  • The environment and the economy are not zero-sum games in which consumers fight for fixed resources. Creative people can enhance, improve, and multiply what they have been given in nature.
  • In view of the fall, we must avoid utopian expectations that all problems can be vanquished in the next generation by government fiat. Human sin and its consequences are intractable realities. There will be benefit-cost trade-offs in any policy that we adopt. It is foolish to imagine that we can have perfectly “clean” technologies without unintended side-effects.
  • We must avoid the panic of excessive alarmism about the imminent destruction of the planet. Instead we must take a sober and balanced view of the environmental problems that confront us and trust God to give us the means to be responsible stewards if we are attentive and faithful. The resilience of natural systems and the historical record of the environmental transition also offer some reasons for encouragement.

Where the Churches Must Not Bind

One of the Apostle Paul’s sternest admonitions was against being taken captive by human traditions masquerading as laws of God. Jesus condemned putting human tradition in the place of God’s law and making it the standard by which to judge sin and righteousness. The law of God, and nothing less, is the standard of righteousness.[38]

One of the characteristics of good human law is that it is stable. The stability of divine law is symbolized in its having been written by the finger of God on tablets of stone “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

But the natural and human sciences are a very different realm. Ongoing developments in our understanding of ecology, in technology, and in economic conditions result in constantly changing judgments of “best practices” in creation stewardship. For example, the evangelical authors of Earthkeeping in the Nineties pointed out the changing costs and benefits, both financial and environmental, of paper recycling. These made it difficult to judge whether recycling was a best practice. At the time, they wrote, “the use of recycled paper appear[ed] to be only slightly more stewardly than the use of virgin materials.”[39]

The comparative economics and ecology of recycling versus making paper from newly logged trees are vastly simpler than the economics and ecology of such enormously complex systems as Earth’s atmosphere and the various habitats that shelter global biodiversity. Significant revisions of our understanding of these matters occur over and over. For instance, famed climatologist James Hansen of NASA changed his view from warning of an ice age starting around 2020 to warning of catastrophic global warming. But famed geochemist Claude Allegre went from being one of the earliest to warn of manmade global warming to being one of the chief critics of the theory.[40] Such rapidly evolving understanding implies that much that we consider understanding at any given time may later turn out to be misunderstanding.

This characteristic of science stands in stark contrast with the stability of Biblical law. It is an important reason why Christians should not presume to make current science or economics the basis for judgments of sin. While government regulation often must be adopted on the basis of shifting science, theological and ecclesiastical judgments of sin and righteousness should be based only on the unchanging standard of God=s moral law revealed in Scripture. Only that can bind the conscience. Pronouncements that individuals or churches have a moral obligation to support one or another policy regarding creation care, therefore, are fraught with the danger of substituting changing human standards for the abiding standard of divine law.

Pastors, other religious leaders, and ecclesiastical bodies should exercise great caution in making pronouncements about environmental issues. Particularly, they should refrain from calling sin what cannot be shown to be sin from the unchanging law of God in Scripture. Thus they will avoid make binding pronouncements on questions like these:

  1. How do we assess different factors that might be causing global warming?
  2. What is the likely extent of future global warming? Will its effects be catastrophic or manageable?
  3. Is prevention or adaptation a better strategy?
  4. If we seek to prevent global warming, is a given policy too strict, too lax, or just about right?
  5. Is global warming our top environmental problem, the issue of the age, or is it a misguided panic?
  6. Should U.S. energy policy give greater emphasis to fossil fuels, nuclear power, or solar power? What is the best mix of conserving current energy supplies versus expanding energy supplies?

On none of these questions does the Church have the expertise or the authority to proclaim, “Thus says the Lord.” It should leave these matters open for debate among well-intentioned Christians who agree about their environmental responsibilities while disagreeing about the best means of fulfilling them.

Some Tentative Theses for Further Study

Aside from the biblical teachings on which Christians have or should have consensus, and the scientific and policy questions on which consensus is not possible (or even necessarily desirable at this point), there are also matters that fall into a middle ground. These are matters on which there are no plain biblical directives. Nevertheless, reason and experience point strongly in one direction, I believe. Perhaps further study and the passage of time might yield an informal consensus, although not a binding doctrine.

With that hope, I submit these tentative theses for discussion in the U.S. Christian community:

  1. Providing pure drinking water to the poor and protecting them from indoor air pollution may be the most important environmental tasks for today.
  2. Preventing predicted global warming is probably near the bottom of the list of environmental challenges.
  3. In responding to possible climate changes, adaptation is probably a better strategy than prevention
  4. Over and above specific environmental challenges, overcoming poverty through economic development is the best long-term strategy for improving the environment.
  5. The environmental transition is already well advanced in the developed countries, and we should be grateful rather than alarmed at the growth of our economies.
  6. The environmental transition is feasible in developing countries, especially with just and accountable governments that allow economic and political freedom to their peoples and thereby reap the benefits of free trade.
  7. By contrast, the empowerment of unaccountable international regulatory bureaucracies that rob the sovereignty of more accountable democratic national governments would not be a step in the right direction.


Featured image “Coast Redwood forest and understory plants” in Redwood National Park, California, by Michael Schweppe, Wikimedia Commons



[1]This and all subsequent Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.

[2]Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31, 29

[3]Genesis 1:26, 28; cf. Psalm 8:4-8; Hebrews 1:2-3; 2:8-9

[4]Genesis 1:26, 28

[5]Genesis 2:16-17; 1:1-3; Revelation 22:1-5

[6]Genesis 3:1-17; Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:17-18; Titus 1:15; Genesis 2:7, 17; 3:19; Ephesians 2:1-3; 5:11.; Romans 8:22-23

[7]1 Corinthians 15:45; Colossians 2:3; Colossians 3:10; 1 John 2:2; 1 Corinthians 15:45; Mark 4:37-39; 5:21-43; Matthew 14:13-21; Romans 5:9-11, 19, 21; Ephesians 4:24

[8]Loren Wilkinson, ed., Earthkeeping in the Nineties: Stewardship of Creation, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 108.

[9]Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, edsd., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. Edward Robinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, [1907] 1978), 461, 712-13, 921-2, and 1,036.

[10]Matthew 22:37-39; 7:12; Exodus 20:1-17

[11]1 Timothy 5:18; Deuteronomy 5:14; 20:19-20; Exodus 23:5-6; Leviticus 25:3-4; 26:34, 43; 2 Chronicles 36:21; Mark 2:27

[12]Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.36.1, 5.32.2, 5.3.2-3.

[13]Origen, de Principiis, 5.6.2.

[14]Augustine, City of God, 12.4.5.

[15]Maximus the Confessor, The Difficulties, 1304D-1308C, in Maximus the Confessor, translated by Andrew Louth (New York: Routledge, 1996), 156-8.

[16]John Hart, Sacramental Commons: Christian Ecological Ethics (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 9.

[17]David Kinsley, A>Christianity as Ecologically Harmful= and >Christianity as Ecologically Responsible,=@ in This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, ed. Roger S. Gottlieb (New York: Routledge, 1996), 104-24, at 121.

[18]Cited in Kinsley, 122.

[19]Cited in Roger Sorrell, St. Francis of Assisi and Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 68.

[20]Cited in H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 91-2.

[21]Cited in Kinsley, AChristianity as Ecologically . . .,@ 111-112.

[22]Martin Luther, Sermon on Romans 8:1822, Fourth Sunday After Trinity, 1535, in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, 7 vols., ed. John Nicholas Lenker, trans. John Nicholas Lenker et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 4.2.96-118, at 105-112.

[23]Martin Luther, Sermon on Romans 8:1822, Fourth Sunday After Trinity, 1535, in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, 7 vols., ed. John Nicholas Lenker, trans. John Nicholas Lenker et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 4.2.96-118, at 105-107.

[24]John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, trans. Ross Mackenzie, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Calvin=s Commentaries, 12 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 8:31.

[25]John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. John King (Calvin=s Commentaries, 22 vols.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 1.1.96.

[26]Tertullian, Opera II: Opera monastica, cited in Susan Power Bratton, Six Billion & More: Human Population Regulation and Christian Ethics (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 76.

[27]American Baptist Church, AResolution on Environmental Concerns,@ 1970, modified 1988, 1995, online at

[28]U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, AGlobal Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good,@ June 15, 2001, online at

[29]Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ACaring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice,@ August 28, 1993, online at‑We‑Believe/Social‑Issues/Social‑Statements/Environment.aspx.

[30]Mark S. Hanson, Earth Day letter, April 2007, online at

[31]Presbyterian Church in the USA, AThe Brief Statement of Faith,@ undated, online at

[32]United Church of Christ, AA Resolution on Climate Change,@ June 25, 2007, online at

[33]World Council of Churches, AA call to action in solidarity with those most affected by climate change,@ November, 2002, online at

[34]National Council of Churches News Service, ATheologians Warn of >False Gospel= on the Environment,@ February 14, 2005, online at

[35]Southern Baptist Convention, Resolution #5,  AOn Global Warming,@ June 2007, online at‑06.asp?ID=6.

[36]National Association of Evangelicals, AFor the Health of the Nations: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,@ 2004, online at

[37]Exodus 23:3, 6; Leviticus 19:16; Psalm 72:2, 4; 83:3; 140:12; Proverbs 29:14; 31:9

[38] Colossians 2:1-4, 8, 18-23; Matthew 15:1-6

[39]Wilkinson, ed., Earthkeeping in the Nineties, 381-2.

[40]John McCaslin, ACold Yet?@, The Washington Times, September 19, 2007, online at; Lawrence Solomon, AAllegre=s Second Thoughts,@ Financial Post, March 2, 2007, online at‑5b0d‑4b59‑8705‑fc28f14da388.

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Reflections on the Christian Apologetics of Gordon H. Clark

[This paper was originally delivered as a lecture at an apologetics conference at Branch of Hope Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Torrance, California, October 23, 2015.]

I’m going to focus today pretty exclusively on Gordon Clark’s epistemology. Clark believed Christian apologetics must address not only matters of theological prolegomena (the existence and nature of God, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the historicity of Biblical persons and events, especially of Jesus Christ and His bodily resurrection, etc.) but also the implications of the Christian faith—that is, the teaching of Scripture on—every aspect of human life, private and public, personal and social. For he believed that Scripture does have implications for all aspects of life, and that because it does, it is important to defend those implications against attacks just as it is to defend what most would see as its more prominent doctrines. He wrote over 40 books (including a systematic theology the manuscript of which was only discovered in about the last year, which his grandson now hopes to get published and which I expect I shall read with great relish), many articles, and many lectures, addressing every branch of philosophy, plus history, various divisions of natural science, economics, ethics, politics, and more, and though I personally find everything he wrote fascinating, it would be impossible to treat the broad spectrum of his thought even tolerably, let alone well, in a single short lecture.

For this lecture, therefore, I think it most profitable to confine ourselves to his epistemology, which is probably the aspect of his thought that has been the most divisive in broader Christian circles because of his presuppositionalism, and in narrower Reformed circles because of his disagreements with and critiques of the epistemologies of Herman Dooyeweerd and, more prominently and importantly in American Reformed circles, Cornelius Van Til.

I will not try to document all or even many of my descriptions of Clark’s thought by specific quotations from his work. I’ve written this lecture as one who studied Clark intently for about fifteen years, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, but whose attention has for the last dozen years or so been on quite different matters. So instead what I’ll give you here is more what I as a serious student of Clark perceive on reflection at some distance to have been the most important epistemological lessons I learned from him. It is entirely possible, therefore, that some of what I say might more accurately describe his impact on my thinking than his own thinking per se. If that is so, it won’t be the first time a great thinker’s disciple has succumbed to some revisionism—not even the first time for a disciple of a famous Reformed presuppositionalist.

Part One: Clark’s Presuppositionalism

I shall begin with Clark’s presuppositionalism in the most basic, general terms, with particular attention to its relevance to his understanding of what knowledge is, and with what I hope will calm the anxieties of some who think his theory of knowledge leaves them with precious little understanding of the world around them or even of themselves.

By knowledge Clark meant justified true belief; by justified, he meant belief that was either axioms or propositions validly deduced from axioms.

Therefore, in Clark’s epistemology, knowledge is limited to axioms and their logical implications.

As an aside, it is common for some Reformed apologists to think that Reformed presuppositionalism is unique, or nearly so, in embrace of this view of the justification of knowledge. It is not, however. My own first exposure to presuppositionalism, though not by that name, was in a philosophy course taught by the late Dr. Dallas Willard at the University of Southern California (who later mentored Greg Bahnsen toward his Ph.D. in philosophy and had a strong influence on many other apologists of Greg’s and my generation). Dr. Willard assigned us to read Catholic philosopher Roderick Chisholm’s The Problem of the Criterion, which was a brilliant, short demonstration that without undefended axioms as starting points, reasoning could never get started, and therefore no conclusion could be justified. It wasn’t until about a decade later, when I first began reading Clark and a few other Reformed presuppositionalists, that I recognized their presuppositionalism as one variety of the axiomatic epistemology Chisholm represented.

Clark’s axiom (using the singular collectively) was the Word of God, i.e., Clark’s axioms, using the plural specifically, are the thoughts of God, which so far as man’s access to them is concerned (for God surely has thoughts that He has not revealed to us—indeed, He has told us so[1]) are the content of the Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety in its original autographs (to borrow the language of the original doctrinal basis of the Evangelical Theological Society, of which Clark was one of the founders).

It follows that in Clark’s epistemology, we know nothing but what the Bible says or logically implies.

But we must be careful not to misunderstand Clark. Many think Clark’s epistemology implies the rejection of science, history, engineering, etc., as valueless, other than such as might be explicitly or implicitly revealed in Scripture. Some go farther and think Clark was an idealist who denied the objective reality of the external world. Neither is so—as Clark’s quite broad and deep acquaintance and fascination with botany, history, and economics, among other disciplines—demonstrated. While Clark did say those yielded no knowledge—justified true belief—they were still useful. They could yield opinions that, when acted upon, could be more or less effective at achieving various ends. When he spoke of knowledge, he distinguished it, as did Plato, from opinion. Knowledge is by definition both true belief and justified belief. Opinions, by contrast, might be either true or false, but even when true could not be justified, that is, even if they were true, we couldn’t know them to be true. I.e., they would not constitute part of our knowledge.

It is important also to understand what Clark meant when he said a belief was justified. He didn’t mean that it was a belief lots of people would agree with, or even a belief that, when acted upon, could lead to useful practice; he meant it was a belief that followed by valid inference from true axioms known to be true, that is, the axioms of Scripture.

Thus, for example, Clark would call knowledge the belief that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons yet one God—the Trinity—because that was validly deduced from propositions in Scripture.

However, he would call opinion my belief, upon looking to my left at a street curb and seeing a car 30 feet away coming toward me at 45 mph, that I would put my life at risk if I stepped out into the street. That opinion might be true, and if I acted upon it I’d probably be safer than if I didn’t, but it would not be knowledge, because it would not have been deduced from the axioms of Scripture.

Some would protest, however, that this belief was justified by inference from my sensory perception of the car 30 feet away coming at 45 mph and my direct past experience, or others’ direct past experience communicated to me by their testimony, of what happens when someone is hit by a car traveling at that speed and of the very low probability that a driver would be able to stop or swerve in time to miss me if I were to step out in front of him.

Clark would respond, I suspect (It is my opinion; I cannot claim to know it.) that while the opinion was justified as an opinion (a belief that, whether true or false, could still be the basis of practical judgment), it still would not deserve the label knowledge, because (a) it wasn’t validly deduced from axioms and (b) the premises from which it was derived, whether validly or invalidly, were not known to be true.

Clark sought to persuade people of this through his many critiques of empiricism. In the case of this illustration, he could point out that I couldn’t be sure that I wasn’t dreaming this, or that I wasn’t hallucinating, or that there wasn’t some large mirror placed just to my left that was reflecting a car actually coming from my right, or that my calculation of the car’s speed was mistaken, etc. (I experienced a similar mistaken perception while driving up the California coast in my youth. Having been on the road for about 13 hours, and it by then being late at night, I suddenly perceived a locomotive barreling toward me just ahead and realized with terror that I was about to miss a curve to the right in the highway and crash into the train. I swerved just in time to make the curve—and then realized, as I came fully awake, that what I’d seen had been a billboard. At least to this day I think it was a billboard. That is my opinion. There were, or at least I think I perceived that there were, lots of trees around and obscuring it. Perhaps I dreamed the whole thing. I didn’t go back to check. I just drove on the next couple of miles into Eureka, quite shaken but very much awake, and stopped to rest.)

What people object to when Clark insists that knowledge is limited to the propositions in Scripture and valid deductions from them is a caricature—the notion that this means we’re left with nothing but nearly comprehensive skepticism, and so we never believe anything, and never act on our beliefs in anything, other than the propositions of Scripture and valid deductions from them. Clark, however, simultaneously affirmed his epistemology and chose to eat the scrambled eggs on his plate rather than the plate. He was content with life in a world in which we act on many beliefs that are opinions, not knowledge, and there’s nothing wrong with doing that—indeed, it is unavoidable, and often enough it serves our ends tolerably effectively.

That those who represent Clark as rejecting the value of all sources of opinion other than Scripture misunderstand him is demonstrable (insofar as any opinion is demonstrable—a qualifier that should bring to our attention the fact that words have a range of meaning; what I mean by “demonstrable” in this case is similar to but not identical to what I’d mean by saying that the doctrine of the Trinity is demonstrable; the doctrine of the Trinity is demonstrable by valid deduction from the propositions of Scripture; this opinion is demonstrable in a weaker sense of the word, weaker precisely because the propositions in an argument leading to it are not part of Scripture; so please keep that in mind if either Clark or I sometimes say we “know” that, for instance, George Washington was the first President of the United States, even though that’s not revealed in Scripture, for even the word know has a range of meanings, and which meaning it has in a given instance must be determined by its context)—

That those who represent Clark as rejecting the value of all sources of opinion other than Scripture misunderstand him is demonstrable by the fact that although he insisted that experience yields no knowledge, he often wrote quite clearly of the value of experience and some opinions derived from it (such as many facts[2] of botany, a subject he loved)—a value that stopped short of qualifying them as knowledge, it is true, but nonetheless a value. (A $100 bill is not valueless merely because it is not a $1,000 bill.)

For example, in his critique of Logical Positivism in his Three Types of Religious Philosophy, having pointed out that Logical Positivism stipulated that “a sentence is meaningful, as opposed to being nonsense, only if it is verifiable by sensory experience” (which, by the way, he did point out was self-refuting and therefore not true) he then wrote, explaining the meaning of verifiability: “For a long time the assertion ‘The other side of the Moon has no mountains’ could not be actually verified or falsified; but it was meaningful [to proponents of Logical Positivism] because it was verifiable in principle. A few people have now seen the other side of the Moon, and their experience discovers whether the assertion is true or false.”[3] That second sentence would be inconsistent with the belief that experience is of no epistemic value, but it is consistent with the belief, which was Clark’s, that experience is of epistemic value as evidence for or against opinion, even if not as evidence for or against knowledge.

Some people have called Clark’s epistemology Fideism and have thought that was sufficient to debunk it. On the one hand, Clark embraced the label, though he preferred the confessedly pejorative term Dogmatism because it “is a pointed term that pricks one’s attention.”[4] On the other hand, Clark rejected the meanings usually attached to Fideism.

Popular opinion often views Fideism as arbitrary—one believes something regardless whether it is reasonable to do so, even, perhaps, precisely because it is unreasonable (as, for instance, in Søren Kierkegaard’s insistence that becoming a Christian requires a blind leap of faith).

Much scholarly opinion holds that Fideism is, as Alvin Plantinga put it, “exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth,” a reliance that “may go on to disparage and denigrate reason.”[5]

Clark, however—because he rejected the popular definition of faith as something extra- or contra-rational and believed instead (because he was convinced Scripture defined the term this way[6]) that faith is assent to an understood proposition—rejected both definitions of Fideism. For Clark, faith and reason are neither contrary nor logically unrelated; rather, reason starts with faith. With Augustine, he would say, Credo ut intelligam, “I believe in order that I might understand.”[7]

But be careful. This doesn’t mean one starts with faith, which is devoid of understanding, and progresses to understanding. Rather, faith being assent to an understood proposition, “I believe in order that I might understand” means “I believe some things that I understand (e.g., the explicit propositions of Scripture), in order that from them I may come both to understand and believe other things (i.e., propositions validly deduced from Scripture) that for now I don’t understand, and even in order that I might come to understand and believe yet other things that are matters of opinion because not deduced from Scripture.” That is, believing the axioms of Scripture not only leads, in the inquisitive mind, to believing those axioms’ logical implications, but also to believing other things about the external world not revealed in Scripture. The first category of beliefs Clark called knowledge; the second, opinion.

Granted Clark’s definition of faith as assent to an understood proposition, Fideism by definition cannot be extra- or contra-rational. The word is derived from the Latin fides, belief, faith, trust, from fido, I believe, I have faith, I trust; the translation of the Greek pisteuo, I believe, I have faith, I trust.

Thus I think that Fideism, for Clark, simply meant presuppositionalism, that is, the belief that all valid reasoning, and hence all knowledge, begins with starting points, propositions logically prior to which there are none because that is the definition of starting points.

To believe that the Bible is the Word of God is not arbitrary, for the Bible claims to be the Word of God, no argument has ever successfully refuted that claim, and while other starting points, such as Empiricism and Rationalism or dependence on other alleged divine revelations, fail to deliver knowledge, taking the Bible as axiomatic yields a great deal of knowledge. And coupling that knowledge with opinion that we gain by other means, taking the Bible as axiomatic yields also a great deal of highly defensible opinion about such things as history, chemistry, astronomy, economics, art, and music.

So for Clark Fideism is not arbitrary. Neither does Fideism require disparaging reason. On the contrary, Fideism alone provides the starting points without which reason is fruitless, i.e., yields no justified true beliefs, no knowledge.

Clark did not defend Scripture as axiomatic, if by defend we mean to present a positive case for it from something outside itself. That would be a contradiction in terms. Axioms are starting points, and by definition there is nothing earlier in a chain of reasoning than a starting point.

But while Clark did not defend Scripture as axiomatic, he did defend his belief that Scripture is axiomatic, and he did so in two ways.[8]

First, positively, he asserted that Scripture is the Word of God and showed that Scripture contained the propositions from which this assertion could be validly deduced, i.e., showed that Scripture asserted itself, in some instances explicitly and in others implicitly, as the Word of God and therefore axiomatic.

Second, to answer objections against this axiom, he argued in two ways. The first was to argue that every alternative starting point for epistemology failed to justify any belief. This was the use of his critiques of both rationalism and empiricism. The second was to argue that no proposition either explicit in Scripture or validly deduced from it could be demonstrated to be false, and therefore all attempts to demonstrate that Scripture failed as an axiom also failed. That left Scripture undefeated.

Clark also believed, however—because he thought Scripture taught this—that one’s belief that Scripture is God’s Word, i.e., that it is axiomatic, could come about only by the enlightening action of the Holy Spirit, not as a result of a chain of reasoning. And this, again, he believed because he thought Scripture taught it. In commenting on the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.5, he acknowledged that archaeology could contribute something “toward proving that … the historical events … of the Bible are true,” though “little or nothing toward proving that the doctrines” are. (Notice, by the way, how his wording there—that archaeology could contribute something “toward proving that … the historical events … of the Bible are true”—militates against the misapprehension that he thought extra-Biblical grounds for belief were valueless. But to go on:) “How then can we know that the Bible is true?” he asked. “The Confession answers, ‘Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority [of the Scripture] is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit.’ Faith is a gift or work of God. It is God who causes us to believe: ‘Blessed is the man whom thou choosest and causest to approach unto thee’ (Psa. 65:4).”[9] Notice, by the way, that when Clark here says “Faith is a gift … of God” he means, as the context makes clear, specifically this faith, namely, faith that the Bible is God’s Word. He affirms the same elsewhere of faith in the gospel, but he would not say it of faith generically, for, e.g., faith that if we rid ourselves of all desire we shall experience nirvana and be absorbed into Brahman is faith in a falsehood.

So for Clark, all knowledge—all justified true belief—consists of our believing propositions either explicit in or validly deduced from Scripture. Opinions are all other propositions that we believe, some of which might be true though we can never know them to be true, and some of which undoubtedly are false. Opinions invalidly deduced from Scripture might be true, but our invalid deduction doesn’t entail our knowing them to be true. They might also of course be false. And opinions deduced from other sources—experience, secondhand testimony, authority, etc.—might also be true, but again we cannot know them to be true.

But that’s okay. We still manage to muddle through a great deal of life based on opinion.

One hopes, however, for a more sure foundation for our beliefs about God, sin, and salvation than either Empiricism or Rationalism (let alone Existentialism and other forms of Irrationalism!), and thankfully Scripture gives that to us. As Peter put it, “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty …. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place … knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:17, 19–21).

Part Two: The Clark/Van Til Controversy

What I have said thus far will probably encounter little resistance among most Reformed presuppositionalists, perhaps with the exception of Clark’s definition of faith (which I know is controversial, but which I believe most critics badly misunderstand—and I invite them to tangle with Clark’s careful, thorough, and detailed discussion and critique of the various alternative definitions of faith in his book Faith and Saving Faith). I turn now to more controversial ground, namely, his objections to what I have come to designate “Cornelius Van Til’s epistemological idiosyncrasies.” Here, I expect I will step on some toes. If yours are among them, I beg your patience, your forgiveness, and your readiness to reassess.

Years ago I read the complete OPC General Assembly and Philadelphia Presbytery minutes related to what became and still is known as the Clark/Van Til controversy. I also read various histories of the controversy. One was written pretty much contemporaneously with it as a series of articles by the theologian Herman Hoeksema in the Standard Bearer, the magazine of the Protestant Reformed Church, which later were republished as the book The Clark-Van Til Controversy.[10] Another of the more important ones was the chapter on it in John Frame’s Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought.[11] In preparing for this lecture, I reviewed these and the discussions of the Clark/Van Til controversy in Greg Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis[12] and John R. Muether’s Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman.[13]

I am now about to disappoint many, probably most, perhaps all of you. But if you are, as I expect you will be, disappointed by what I am about to say, I ask you to think soberly about why you are disappointed.

How am I going to disappoint you? By declining to rehearse the controversy in depth, to assess the arguments pro and con, and to seek to justify my judgments of the two protagonists’—or antagonists’, depending on your point of view—positions and their arguments for them.

Instead I will sketch the controversy only very briefly, even superficially and indicate my conclusions about it, with little attempt to justify those conclusions. Why? For two reasons: First, because godly men who have studied the controversy in much greater depth than I have argued about it a great length and still have failed to persuade each other, and I don’t think I can, even in a major treatment, let alone a brief lecture like this, do any better than they. Second, because after doing this I want to conclude by addressing something I consider to be much more important to the health of Christ’s Church.

So, here’s my sketch of the controversy. I understand it to have been largely, though not exclusively, over Van Til’s doctrines that all human knowledge is exclusively analogical of God’s knowledge, and that all truth is necessarily paradoxical.

The first challenge is to understand rightly what Van Til meant by these two terms, and that is admittedly quite a challenge. Van Til’s defenders and critics alike acknowledge that he often expressed himself in ways that others, even intelligent and well studied, found very difficult to understand.

Bahnsen, for instance, could write of “the tremendous philosophical and linguistic confusion (on all sides) that has swirled around the debate.”[14]

Frame could write at the end of his survey of the controversy, “It is time for us to admit that these issues should never have been raised in such confusing terminology ….”[15]

Let us begin with the doctrine that man’s knowledge is always analogical to God’s. I’ll start by offering some standard explanations of analogy.

The clearest and most precise discussion of analogy I have seen occupies 11 pages of H.W.B. Joseph’s Introduction to Logic, of which the following statements are helpful excerpts, though they leave out a great deal:

“Analogy meant originally identity of relation. Four terms, when the first stands to the second as the third stands to the fourth, were said to be analogous, or to exhibit an analogy. If the relation is really the same one in either case, then what follows from the relation in one case follows from it in the other; provided that it really follows from the relation and from nothing else. … [e.g.] If in respect of weight a : b :: c : d, and if a weighs twice as much as b, then c must weigh twice as much as d. …”

“There is however another sense in which the terms analogy and argument from analogy are used. The analogy may be any resemblance between two things, and not merely a resemblance of the relations in which they respectively stand to two other things; and the argument from analogy is an argument from some degree of resemblance to a further resemblance, not an argument from the consequences of a relation in one case to its consequences in another. Expressed symbolically the argument hitherto was of the following type: a is related to b as c is to d; from the relation of a to b such and such a consequence follows, therefore it follows also from the relation of c to d. The present argument will run thus: a resembles b in certain respects x; a exhibits the character y, therefore b will exhibit the character y also. …”[16]

Distinct from these uses is that of analogy specifically in theology, where analogy is thought to provide a sort of halfway house between univocal and equivocal language about God. Some theologians have thought the Creator/creature distinction implies that no quality predicated of God can be identical to that quality predicated of anything else, and therefore they have asserted that univocal language about God is necessarily false. Yet to confine ourselves to equivocal language about God is in fact to say nothing about Him. It has been thought, therefore, that some middle way must be taken, and that way has been called analogy, and a theological statement has been held to be an analogy if it is neither wholly univocal nor wholly equivocal.[17] The objection to this has been that it either admits of some univocal elements in propositions about God, or it excludes all such; if it excludes all such, then it seems gratuitous to say that the propositions are anything less than wholly equivocal. Consequently, philosophers like Clark and theologians like Robert Reymond insist that for any analogy actually to communicate something true about God (or anything else), there must be some element of univocalness in it, i.e., some quality that may be attributed as truly to one member of the analogy as to the other.

Now let us contrast these senses of analogy with Van Til’s—or at least with various attempts to define Van Til’s.

Bahnsen, whose massive Van Til’s Apologetic is the most thorough study and determined defense of Van Til’s thought, having written “that Van Til speaks of human knowledge as being ‘analogical’ of God’s knowledge,” immediately added, “This may not be a familiar way of speaking,” and in a footnote wrote: “From a pedagogical perspective, I would not have preferred to use this kind of summary tag-word for what Van Til was trying to teach. Although it is certainly possible to understand what he meant by the expression, this way of speaking probably occasioned more avoidable misunderstanding and misrepresentation from a small circle of critics than anything else he wrote.”[18] Forgive me if I take Bahnsen’s “From a pedagogical perspective, I would not have preferred to use this kind of summary tag-word” as meaning approximately, “If Van Til’s intent was to teach, this expression was bound to fail.”

In his Introduction to Systematic Theology, Van Til wrote of his doctrine of analogical knowledge this way: “If then every fact that confronts me is revelational of the personal and voluntary activity of the self-contained God, it follows that when I try to think God’s thoughts after him, that is to say, when … I try to make a ‘system’ of my own, my system will … at every point by analogical of the system of God. … On the other hand, since the human mind is created by God and is therefore in itself naturally revelational of God, the mind may be sure that its system is true and corresponds on a finite scale to the system of God. That is what we mean by saying that it is analogical to God’s system. It is dependent upon God’s system, and by being dependent upon God’s system it is of necessity a true system.[19]

Similarly, in his Introduction to Benjamin Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, Van Til wrote, “When the Christian restates the content of Scriptural revelation in the form of a ‘system,’ such a system is based upon and therefore analogous to the ‘existential system’ that God himself possesses. Being based upon God’s revelation it is on the one hand, fully true and, on the other hand, at no point identical with the content of the divine mind.”[20]

Muether, in a paper written for the OPC Presbytery of the South in 2009, offered this explanation: “By analogy (or analogical knowledge) Van Til set forth the Reformed principle of humanity reinterpreting experience by thinking God’s thoughts after him.”[21] He described man’s knowledge as “derivative or analogical,” apparently as if the former term were in this context synonymous with the latter.

Both Bahnsen and Muether also wrote of Van Til’s concept of analogy as expressing the difference between God’s knowledge as archetypal and man’s as ectypal. To quote only Muether, “God contains certain capacities and characteristics in himself. He alone is the archetype. Humanity, as created in the image of God, enjoys a derivative, creaturely, yet genuine existence. We are the ectype. Our being is derivative: we are the image of God. And our knowledge is derivative. We do not possess archetypal knowledge but rather ectypal knowledge.”

As an implication or corollary of this, Van Til held that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge “coincide at no point in the sense that [the emphasis is Bahnsen’s] in his awareness of [the] meaning of anything, in his mental grasp or understanding of anything, man is at each point dependent upon a prior act of unchangeable understanding and revelation on the part of God.”[22]

Clark and others have criticized Van Til on this not for saying that man’s knowledge is dependent on God’s, not for saying that man’s knowledge is necessarily incomplete (finite) while God’s is complete (infinite), not for saying that God’s and man’s acts of knowing are qualitatively different (God knows all instantly, eternally, exhaustively, and intuitively because He knows Himself, while man learns things gradually, over time, partially, and discursively) (to all of which all agree), but for saying that God’s knowledge and man’s “coincide at no point.” I find it difficult to understand why Van Til would define the phrase “coincide at no point” as meaning that one’s knowledge is dependent on another’s. I might, for instance, say that I had learned from my statistician friend Ross McKitrick that a HAC-robust statistical analysis of weather balloon and satellite global temperature measurements from 1960 through 2012 indicated that there was no trend from 1960 to 1977 and none from 1977 to 2012 but only a stepwise upward shift in late 1977 consequent to a shift in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation from negative to positive[23] and therefore that my knowledge of that was derivative of his, but I wouldn’t conclude therefore that my knowledge and his “coincide at no point,” and I doubt that it would occur to any of you to say likewise of anything you have learned from anyone else.

It would be natural to think, “But Van Til clarifies by saying “in the sense that … man is at each point dependent upon a prior act of unchangeable understanding and revelation [by] God.” But in the Complaint against Clark’s ordination, Van Til and his co-authors wrote specifically that God’s knowledge and man’s do not “coincide at a single point,” that a proposition does not “have the same meaning for man as for God,” that man’s knowledge is “analogical to the knowledge God possesses, but it can never be identified with the knowledge” God “possesses of the same proposition,”[24] and that “Man could not have the same thought content in his mind that God has in his mind ….”[25]

Various writers have sought to defend Van Til by interpreting him differently from Clark.

Bahnsen, for instance, calls Van Til’s use of the term thought content, in denying that man can have “the same thought content in his mind that God has in his mind,” a “vague expression” that “has played havoc in many a theological and philosophical dispute,” adding, “its ability to generate confusion was conspicuous in the Clark–Van Til controversy,” and then offers this explanation: “I believe that by ‘thought content’ Van Til meant the thinking activity in which the mind of God engages, which mental ‘experience’ … is metaphysically different from the operations of man’s mind.”[26]

Perhaps. But one wonders whether it is really so difficult to distinguish between “thought content” and “thinking activity” as to necessitate the misunderstanding and confusion with which many learned scholars have interpreted Van Til. In years past I have often thought that George Washington was the first President of the United States; as I write now, I am thinking that again. As I understand it, my “thought content” is the proposition “George Washington was the first President of the United States,” and that proposition was the same ten years ago that it is now, but my “thinking activity,” or act of thinking that proposition, today is not the same “thinking activity” that occurred ten years ago.

Bahnsen argued that Van Til’s denial that man can have “the same thought content in his mind that God has in his mind” refers exclusively to the (subjective) thinking activity of God and the (subjective) thinking activity of man. He likened this distinction to that between the thinking activities of two human beings: “The word [knowledge] can … signify the actual act of knowing as a personal event; in this sense my knowledge (act of knowing) is not identical with your knowledge (act of knowing), just as my driving a car cannot be identical with your driving a car (since we are different ‘actors’).” Consequently, he wrote, “To say that the Creator’s act of knowing does not coincide with the creature’s act of knowing should be noncontroversial.”[27] Well, yes, it should. It should be so obvious as to be trivial.

Yet “thought content” (which I take to be synonymous with idea) and “act of thinking” do not, prima facie, seem to mean the same thing, and I’m not at all sure that Bahnsen has interpreted Van Til properly or that Clark and his other critics have misinterpreted him, as Bahnsen charges.

Now before you start trying to figure out how to prove me wrong in my interpretation of Van Til and Bahnsen right, hear me carefully: My intent is not to prove that this or that interpretation of Van Til on this point is right or wrong. It is instead to suggest that this exemplifies an underlying difficulty with Van Til’s writing, namely, his proclivity to use terms in non-standard and hence confusing ways. If all Van Til ever meant by calling man’s knowledge “analogical” is that it is derivative, i.e., derived from a source outside man and therefore contingent, in contrast to God’s, which is original, intuitive, and noncontingent, because it is knowledge of Himself, then no Biblically orthodox theologian should object to the substance of his view.

But, first, if that is the case, then it seems quite inexplicable why so many theologians and philosophers, otherwise able scholars, both defenders and critics, have thought Van Til was saying something highly significant and even fairly original in the history of theology, and why so many critics have thought he was saying something at least mildly, perhaps catastrophically, mistaken.

Second, if all Van Til meant by “thought content” was “act of thinking,” then Van Til’s critics still have a legitimate complaint against his non-standard use of the term analogical because it was guaranteed to occasion extensive misunderstanding. The words analogy and analogical, as used in logic, epistemology, and theology generally, simply have not normally, outside of Van Til and some (not all) of his followers, typically meant derivation and derivative (any more than the phrase thought content has meant act of thinking). Try as I might, I have found no definition of analogy in any English dictionary that even closely resembles, let alone matches, Van Til’s. It is permissible for writers to assign special meanings to terms within the confines of their own work, so long as in doing so they make it clear that their sense differs from the standard sense, but so far as I can tell Van Til never acknowledged this about his use of the term analogical, and therefore it is understandable that many of his readers would have misunderstood him, thinking he intended something similar, if not identical, to the standard meaning.

Now let us turn to the other point on which Clark (and others, like Reymond) have sharply criticized Van Til, his doctrine of the paradoxical nature of human knowledge. And on this point I shall be brief.

In his Common Grace and the Gospel, Van Til wrote, “[Antinomies] [another word for paradoxes] are involved in the fact that human knowledge can never be completely comprehensive knowledge. Every knowledge transaction has in it somewhere a reference point to God. Now since God is not fully comprehensible to us we are bound to come into what seems to be contradictions in all our knowledge. Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical.”[28]

For present purposes I shall only mention in passing that Van Til’s inference here from the incompleteness of knowledge to its necessarily being paradoxical seems a non sequitur. He seems to offer us a conclusion, “All man’s knowledge is paradoxical,” and a single (minor) premise, “All man’s knowledge is incomplete.” In this partial syllogism, the major term is paradoxical, the minor man’s knowledge, and the middle term is incomplete. What is missing from the syllogism is the major premise, which, for the argument to be valid, would have to be, “All incomplete knowledge is paradoxical.” But that premise is demonstrably false, in that a thinker whose knowledge was limited to only the two propositions Richard III was a king of England and Volleyball is a sporting game would have incomplete knowledge, but there would be no paradox, no apparent contradiction, between those two parts of his knowledge.

To return to what Van Til wrote: In the same book, he wrote, italicizing for emphasis, “All teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory.[29]

And again: “All the truths of the Christian religion have of necessity the appearance of being contradictory. … We do not fear to accept that which has the appearance of being contradictory. … In the case of common grace, as in the case of every other biblical doctrine, we should seek to take all the factors of Scripture teaching and bind them together into systematic relations with one another as far as we can. But we do not expect to have a logically deducible relationship between one doctrine and another. We expect to have only an analogical system.”[30]

Clark, Reymond, and others have expressed various criticisms of this idea, among them

  • that it assumes that the one who holds it knows everything every human now, in the past, or in the future ever will know and knows that none of them will be able to reconcile the apparent contradictions;
  • that “if actually noncontradictory truths can appear as contradictories and if no amount of study or reflection can remove the contradiction, there is no available means to distinguish between this ‘apparent’ contradiction and a real contradiction,”[31] which implies
  • that it is impossible to conclude that any doctrine is false by pointing out that it contradicts another doctrine thought to be true, and hence
  • that we might as well dispense with theology exams for ordination.

I will not take the time to survey the attempts to interpret and defend Van Til on this point. Let us assume that they are correct.

My point is not that Van Til was wrong about this (though I think he was) and Clark right (though I think he was), but that Van Til’s doctrine of paradox was inherently confusing at best.

And now let me say why I have so emphasized the difficulty of interpreting Van Til on these two doctrines of analogical and paradoxical human knowledge.

It is because of the tragic consequences for Christ’s Church, or at least for one part of it, the Reformed faith, mostly in the United States, and particularly the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. And here I can do no better than to offer you some excerpts from John Frame’s discussion of the Clark–Van Til controversy in his Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought:

“In my estimation both the Van Til party and the Clark party had valid scriptural concerns. Van Til was concerned to maintain the Creator-creature distinction in the area of human knowledge. Clark was concerned to protect the integrity of divine revelation: to insure that it could provide a true communication from God to man. The Report [of the General Assembly], which generally favored Van Til [but did not reverse the Presbytery’s ordination of Clark], did, in my opinion, do justice to Clarks’ concern about revealed truth. It repudiated the Complaint’s language about different ‘meanings’ and its denial of ‘coincidence at a single point.’ In this respect, the Report made real progress toward a resolution of the questions.

“Did Clark do justice to Van Til’s concerns about the Creator-creature distinction? Probably not, in my view, but that was due in large measure to the confusing way in which the Van Til party stated the question. …

“… had [Clark] been willing to bend [his] prejudice [against formulations dealing with subjective experience] a bit, I see no reason why he could not have affirmed an ‘experiential’ difference between God’s knowledge and man’s. Certainly there was nothing in his theory of knowledge to rule out such a distinction. Indeed, I believe that distinction is implicit in Clark’s point about the ‘difference in mode’ [between God’s knowledge and man’s—God’s being intuitive, man’s discursive].”

Frame then offered several suggestions as to how to reconcile Clark’s and Van Til’s thought, some of which I think hold some promise, others of which I find completely unpersuasive.

Next Frame rehearsed Van Til’s later critiques of Clark and defenses of himself, finding in them both strengths and weaknesses. I shall bypass those.

What is crucial, and what I embrace wholeheartedly, is his conclusion:

“I must reluctantly conclude that Van Til’s response to Clark in An Introduction to Systematic Theology sheds more heat than light on the controversy. With the benefit of hindsight, Van Til could have come up with formulae such as I suggested earlier that would have drawn the parties together without compromising anyone’s theological concern. Instead, he went on the offensive, employing the ‘great gulf’ language of antithesis, but with an argument so weak (in both interpretation and criticism) as to be quite unworthy of him.

“Here we see Van Til as a movement leader. He was leading his troops against those of Clark with the sharpest antithetical rhetoric, taking no prisoners, admitting not the slightest shade of truth in Clark’s formulations, suggesting that Clark’s entire effort was marred by a false principle. … saying that there were no fundamentals in common between himself and Stuart Hackett; here he turns the same guns on Clark. We shall see this extremely antithetical side of Van Til again. I do believe that when he gets into this sort of mood, his normally powerful intellect often fails him. Van Til is a thinker who is normally capable of making careful, even subtle, distinctions. But in his extreme antithetical mode, he tends to miss the obvious.

“This is not Van Til at his best; nor, in my estimation, did Clark’s performance represent Clark at his best. Further, their warfare badly divided a denomination that was already very small and could ill afford such disunity. In time, Clark and many of his followers left the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I confess that I am appalled that at the Fiftieth Anniversary celebration of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1986, one speaker lauded the Van Tillian contenders for achieving a great victory for truth. In my opinion, truth was the great loser in the battle. Evidently the only winner was pride, an unjustified pride at that.

“The controversy dealt for the most part with rather technical philosophical issues that few of the OPC elders [whether ruling or teaching, I might add] understood very well. Even Clark and Van Til were rather confused about them. Some of their disciples, even down to the present, have continued to prattle away about ‘qualitative differences,’ ‘propositional meaning,’ ‘identity of thought-content,’ ‘single point of identity,’ ‘twofold truth,’ and the like, without much idea of what they are talking about, but with the sublime assurance that they are right and that those who disagree with them are dangerous heretics. It is time for us to admit that these issues should never have been raised in such confusing terminology, that none of the confusing formulae should be made a test of orthodoxy,[32] and that the Clark controversy was a low point in the life of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and in the ministries of the two major protagonists.”[33]

And here is my heartfelt conclusion, after having watched, first as an outsider, then as an insider, and then again as an outsider, some of the squabbles not only about this but also about many other highly technical and extra-confessional issues within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church:

James 3:13–18: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

Philippians 2:1–13: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”


[1] Romans 11:34; 1 Corinthians 2:9, 16

[2] Notice by the way, that the word fact also has a range of meaning—a fact of Scripture being a proper object of knowledge, but a fact of botany being a proper object only of opinion.

[3] Gordon H. Clark, Three Types of Religious Philosophy (1973), in The Works of Gordon H. Clark, volume 4, Christian Philosophy (Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 2004), 88.

[4] Clark, Three Types of Religious Philosophy, 19.

[5] Alvin Plantinga, “Reason and Belief in God,” in Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (eds.), Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 87.

[6] Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith (Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 1990).

[7] Gordon H. Clark, Lord God of Truth (1986), and Aurelius Augustine, Concerning the Teacher (1938), 2d ed., edited by John W. Robbins (Hobbs, NM: Trinity Foundation, 1994).

[8] Gordon H. Clark, God’s Hammer (Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 1987).

[9] Gordon H. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe? rev. ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1956, 1965), 17, 18.

[10] Herman Hoeksema, The Clark-Van Til Controversy (Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 1995).

[11] John N. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1995).

[12] Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998).

[13] John R. Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008).

[14] Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 226 n. 151.

[15] Frame, Cornelius Van Til, 113.

[16] H.W.B. Joseph, Introduction to Logic, 2d ed. (1916; reprint edition, NJ: Paper Tiger, 2000), 532–542.

[17] A clear and concise summary of the matter is in Frederick Ferré’s “Analogy in Theology” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 4 vols., edited by Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 1:94–97.

[18] Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 224–5, 225 n. 147.

[19] Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1949, 1952), 101, cited in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 251, emphasis added.

[20] Cornelius Van Til, “Introduction,” in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, by Benjamin B. Warfield (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed 1948), 33; emphases added.

[21] John R. Muether, “Robert Reymond and Cornelius Van Til: Some Reflections,” a paper for the Candidates and Credentials Committee of the Presbytery of the South of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, unpublished, 2009.

[22] Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 165, cited in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 226, emphases Bahnsen’s.

[23] Ross R. McKitrick and Timothy J. Vogelsang, “HAC robust trend comparisons among climate series with possible level shifts,” Environmetrics 25(7) (November, 2014), 528–547.

[24] Cited in Clark’s Response to the Complaint, which in turn is cited in Hoeksema’s The Clark–Van Til Controversy, 9–10.

[25] Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 184, cited in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 227.

[26] Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 227 n. 152.

[27] Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 226–7 n. 151.

[28] Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 9; cited in Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 104.

[29] Van Til, Common Grace, 142; cited in Reymond, New Systematic Theology, 104.

[30] Van Til, Common Grace, 165–6; cited in Reymond, New Systematic Theology, 104–5; emphasis added.

[31] Reymond, New Systematic Theology, 105–106.

[32] As some attempted when the OPC Presbytery of the South in 2009 considered (and, I’m glad to say, approved, though not without considerable controversy) the transfer of Robert L. Reymond’s ministerial credentials from the PCA into the OPC. See Muether, “Robert Reymond and Cornelius Van Til: Some Reflections.”

[33] Frame, Cornelius Van Til, 103–113.

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John Calvin on How Creation Displays the Glory of God

Although he tends to be remembered more as a theologian—so much so that not merely a system of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) but a much greater system that encompasses the doctrines of God, creation, providence, humanity, sin, salvation, and even ethics and politics and economics and the arts bears his name—John Calvin was, more than anything else, a pastor whose passionate concern was that men and women, boys and girls, might know God—a knowing that, as Calvin understood, Jesus Christ (in John 17:3) equated with eternal life.

Born in Noyon, France, in 1509, just eight years before Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Cathedral of Wittenberg and sparked the Reformation, Calvin went to Paris at age 14 to study at the university, after which, at age 21, he went to Orleans and then Bourges to study law. Sometime around 1533, he experienced what he called a “sudden conversion” but about which he left no details in writing. That “sudden conversion,” though, set him on a new course, and by 1536, he was among the pastors in Geneva, Switzerland when the first edition of what would become his most famous work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, was published. From then until its final edition in 1564, from which I shall quote throughout this talk, he enlarged it repeatedly.

Under pressure from the leading citizens of Geneva, he was banished in 1538 and became pastor to a French-speaking congregation in Strasbourg. When Geneva’s leaders received a letter from the Roman Catholic Cardinal Sadoleto in 1539 challenging their Reformation faith, they asked Calvin to respond, and by 1541 they asked him—now married to Idelette de Bure—to return and become their lead pastor. From then until his death in 1564, Calvin preached, typically four or more times every week, wrote commentaries, trained other pastors and missionaries, and advised the city council on many matters.

It is commonly said that the primary characteristic of Calvin’s teaching is the sovereignty of God, but I think that doctrine, in Calvin’s system, actually plays a subordinate role to the glory of God. His sovereignty is one of various displays of the glory of God. And in the Institutes, the first of the displays of the glory of God is His creation. We may take that term in two senses, both of which properly apply. First, we speak of God’s creation as His action of making all things of nothing. Second, we speak of God’s creation as the result of that action—the universe and everything in it.

In this talk, drawing on Book I chapters 1–5 of the Institutes, I want to introduce you, letting him speak for himself as much as possible, to Calvin’s teaching on how creation—both God’s act of creating, and the resulting creation itself—displays God’s glory, so that he calls it “a kind of mirror, in which we may behold God, though otherwise invisible.”

Calvin begins the Institutes by writing,

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.

For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain.

Though our fall into sin blinds us to much of the message through the creation, nonetheless we still can gain some knowledge of God through it, and “We are … urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves.” Although there are hints at something like the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God—arguments from cause and design—here and elsewhere in the Institutes, Calvin rather takes God’s existence for granted and addresses us primarily not as rational (though he insists that we are) but as sinful and desperately in need of salvation that comes only by, and indeed may even be defined as, knowing God not only as Creator but also as Redeemer.

So we begin to know God by knowing ourselves. But Calvin insists that we cannot properly know ourselves unless first we know God. Why? Because our sinfulness blinds us not only to how the creation reveals God but also to our own pollution, and so, to know ourselves as the sinners we are, we must know something first of God. We cannot recognize our deviation until we recognized the Standard.

So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods. But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being he is, and how absolute the perfection of that righteousness, and wisdom, and virtue, to which, as a standard, we are bound to be conformed, what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme folly; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence.

And so, “though the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are bound together by a mutual tie, due arrangement requires that we treat of the former in the first place, and then descend to the latter.”

This knowledge of God that makes possible our knowledge of ourselves is not the mere philosopher’s knowledge of Him as “First Cause.” No,

[W]e must be persuaded not only that as he once formed the world, so he sustains it by his boundless power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness, in particular, rules the human race with justice and judgement, bears with them in mercy, shields them by his protection; but also that not a particle of light, or wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause; in this way we must learn to expect and ask all things from him, and thankfully ascribe to him whatever we receive. For this sense of the divine perfections is the proper master to teach us piety ….

And what is piety? It is “that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.”

The effect of our knowledge [of God] … ought to be, first, to teach us reverence and fear; and, secondly, to induce us, under its guidance and teaching, to ask every good thing from him, and, when it is received, ascribe it to him.

Such a knowledge, Calvin teaches, leads us to trust and “respect his authority in all things, to reverence his majesty, aim at the advancement of his glory, and obey his commands” and to loving and revere Him as father, honor and obey him as master, finding “the very idea of offending him” revolting. This, he says, “is pure and genuine religion, namely, confidence in God coupled with serious fear—fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it … legitimate worship ….”

Thus far chapters 1 and 2 of Book 1. In chapters 3 and 4, Calvin asserts that though it is indisputable that “there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity,” nonetheless our sinful nature corrupts our understanding of God and therefore also of His worship, leading most into superstition and idolatry and some few who “look out for hiding-places where they may conceal themselves from the presence of the Lord,” even into atheism.

Yet, “all are born and live for the express purpose of learning to know God, and … all those who do not direct the whole thoughts and actions of their lives to this end fail to fulfil the law of their being.” Indeed, “though experience testifies that a seed of religion is divinely sown in all, scarcely one in a hundred is found who cherishes it in his heart, and not one in whom it grows to maturity, so far is it from yielding fruit in its season.” Instead, most of us “fashion God according to our own whim” and “by departing from the true God … have nothing left but an execrable idol.” And that isn’t all. We never approach even our idols without hypocrisy taking the place of “the voluntary fear flowing from reverence of the divine majesty” that we ought to have. “At length [we] bewilder [our]selves in such a maze of error, that the darkness of ignorance obscures, and ultimately extinguishes, those sparks which were designed to show [us] the glory of God. Still, however, the conviction that there is some Deity continues to exist, like a plant which can never be completely eradicated, though so corrupt, that it is only capable of producing the worst of fruit.”

Nonetheless, as Calvin puts it in the title of chapter 5, “The clarity of God’s self-disclosure strips us of every excuse”:

Since the perfection of blessedness consists in the knowledge of God (cf. John 17:3), he has been pleased, in order that none might be excluded from the means of obtaining felicity, not only to deposit in our minds that seed of religion of which we have already spoken, but so to manifest his perfections in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place himself in our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him. His essence, indeed, is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraven in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse. Hence, with perfect truth, the Psalmist exclaims, “He covereth himself with light as with a garment” (Psalm 104: 2); as if he had said, that God for the first time was arrayed in visible attire when, in the creation of the world, he displayed those glorious banners, on which, to whatever side we turn, we behold his perfections visibly portrayed. … And, first, wherever you turn your eyes, there is no portion of the world, however minute, that does not exhibit at least some sparks of beauty; while it is impossible to contemplate the vast and beautiful fabric as it extends around, without being overwhelmed by the immense weight of glory. Hence, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews elegantly describes the visible worlds as images of the invisible (Heb. 11: 3), the elegant structure of the world serving us as a kind of mirror, in which we may behold God, though otherwise invisible. For the same reason, the Psalmist attributes language to celestial objects, a language which all nations understand (Psalm 19: 1), the manifestation of the Godhead being too clear to escape the notice of any people, however obtuse.

For Calvin, the intricate design evident in the solar system, the stars, and every part of the earth itself all testify to God’s wisdom and glory, but Man [is] the loftiest proof of divine wisdom,” “a microcosm (miniature world), as being a rare specimen of divine power, wisdom, and goodness, and containing within himself wonders sufficient to occupy our minds, if we are willing so to employ them.” Far from this being reason to boast, however, the fact that, unless God regenerates us, we ignore this testifies of our guilt:

Can anything be more detestable than this madness in man, who, finding God a hundred times both in his body and his soul, makes his excellence in this respect a pretext for denying that there is a God? He will not say that chance has made him differ from the brutes that perish; but, substituting nature as the architect of the universe, he suppresses the name of God. The swift motions of the soul, its noble faculties and rare endowments, bespeak the agency of God in a manner which would make the suppression of it impossible, did not the Epicureans, like so many Cyclops, use it as a vantage ground, from which to wage more audacious war with God.

Calvin ridicules “those who, led away by absurd subtleties, are inclined, by giving an indirect turn to the frigid doctrine of Aristotle, to employ it for the purpose both of disproving the immortality of the soul, and robbing God of his rights.” He has in mind those who, in the final analysis, deny the distinction of the soul from the body. The thinking he describes is remarkably like the secular, materialistic naturalism of our day.  “Under the pretext that the faculties of the soul are organized [which I take to mean, determined by the matter of the body], they chain it to the body as if it were incapable of a separate existence, while they endeavor as much as in them lies, by pronouncing eulogiums on nature, to suppress the name of God.” The result is to exalt nature to the place of God. “But there is no ground for maintaining that the powers of the soul are confined to the performance of bodily functions,” he says. Rather, the very fact that the mind—or soul—of man occupies itself with things irrelevant to the body’s needs—measuring the heavens, counting the number of the stars, ascertaining their magnitudes, their relative distances, the rate at which they move, and the orbits which they describe—testifies that the soul is more than just the body and is designed to look to higher thing than matter alone.

What shall we say but that man bears about with him a stamp of immortality which can never be effaced? But how is it possible for man to be divine, and yet not acknowledge his Creator? Shall we, by means of a power of judging implanted in our breast, distinguish between justice and injustice, and yet there be no judge in heaven? Shall some remains of intelligence continue with us in sleep, and yet no God keep watch in heaven? Shall we be deemed the inventors of so many arts and useful properties that God may be defrauded of his praise, though experience tells us plainly enough, that whatever we possess is dispensed to us … by another hand?

In light of this, “Let each of us, therefore, in contemplating his own nature, remember that there is one God who governs all natures, and, in governing, wishes us to have respect to himself, to make him the object of our faith, worship, and adoration. Nothing, indeed, can be more preposterous than to enjoy those noble endowments which bespeak the divine presence within us, and to neglect him who, of his own good pleasure, bestows them upon us.” He sees as “glorious manifestations” of God’s power natural phenomena such as “thunder, … lightning, … raging tempests …, and a perfect calm; keeping the sea, which seems constantly threatening the earth with devastation, suspended as it were in air; at one time, lashing it into fury by the impetuosity of the winds; at another, appeasing its rage, and stilling all its waves.” But he also sees in events

… above the ordinary course of nature, the evidence of his perfections …. For in conducting the affairs of men, he so arranges the course of his providence, as daily to declare, by the clearest manifestations, that though all are in innumerable ways the partakers of his bounty, the righteous are the special objects of his favor, the wicked and profane the special objects of his severity. It is impossible to doubt his punishment of crimes; while at the same time he, in no unequivocal manner, declares that he is the protector, and even the avenger of innocence, by shedding blessings on the good, helping their necessities, soothing and solacing their griefs, relieving their sufferings, and in all ways providing for their safety. … those things which men call fortuitous events, are so many proofs of divine providence, and more especially of paternal clemency, furnishing ground of joy to the righteous, and at the same time stopping the mouths of the ungodly. But as the greater part of mankind, enslaved by error, walk blindfold in this glorious theatre, [Psalm 107] exclaims that it is a rare and singular wisdom to meditate carefully on these works of God, which many, who seem most sharp-sighted in other respects, behold without profit. It is indeed true, that the brightest manifestation of divine glory finds not one genuine spectator among a hundred.

Still, neither his power nor his wisdom is shrouded in darkness. His power is strikingly displayed when the rage of the wicked, to all appearance irresistible, is crushed in a single moment; their arrogance subdued, their strongest bulwarks overthrown, their armor dashed to pieces, their strength broken, their schemes defeated without an effort, and audacity which set itself above the heavens is precipitated to the lowest depths of the earth. On the other hand, the poor are raised up out of the dust, and the needy lifted out of the dung hill (Ps. 113: 7), the oppressed and afflicted are rescued in extremity, the despairing animated with hope, the unarmed defeat the armed, the few the many, the weak the strong. The excellence of the divine wisdom is manifested in distributing everything in due season, confounding the wisdom of the world (cf. 1 Cor. 1:20), and taking the wise in their own craftiness (1 Cor. 3: 19; cf. Job 5:13), in short, conducting all things in perfect accordance with reason.

Calvin was widely read in the philosophers and no doubt recognized that they offered sophisticated arguments for and against the existence of God, but he was more concerned to speak to the common man and to impress on him not some abstract philosophical doctrine but something that strikes to the depth of his heart:

… there is no need of a long and laborious train of argument in order to obtain proofs which illustrate and assert the Divine Majesty. The few which we have merely touched, show them to be so immediately within our reach in every quarter, that we can trace them with the eye, or point to them with the finger. And here we must observe again (see chap. 2 s. 2) that the knowledge of God which we are invited to cultivate is not that which, resting satisfied with empty speculation, only flutters in the brain, but a knowledge which will prove substantial and fruitful wherever it is duly perceived, and rooted in the heart. The Lord is manifested by his perfections. When we feel their power within us, and are conscious of their benefits, the knowledge must impress us much more vividly than if we merely imagined a God whose presence we never felt. Hence it is obvious, that in seeking God, the most direct path and the fittest method is, not to attempt with presumptuous curiosity to pry into his essence, which is rather to be adored than minutely discussed, but to contemplate him in his works, by which he draws near, becomes familiar, and in a manner communicates himself to us.

By the knowledge thus acquired, we ought not only to be stimulated to worship God, but also aroused and elevated to the hope of future life. For, observing that the manifestations which the Lord gives both of his mercy and severity are only begun and incomplete, we ought to infer that these are doubtless only a prelude to higher manifestations, of which the full display is reserved for another state. …

It must be acknowledged, therefore, that in each of the works of God, and more especially in the whole of them taken together, the divine perfections are delineated as in a picture, and the whole human race thereby invited and allured to acquire the knowledge of God, and, in consequence of this knowledge, true and complete felicity.

Nonetheless, though “we are in a manner forced to the contemplation of God (a circumstance which all must occasionally experience), and are thus led to form some impressions of Deity, we immediately fly off to carnal dreams and depraved fictions, and so by our vanity corrupt heavenly truth. This far, indeed, we differ from each other, in that everyone appropriates to himself some peculiar error; but we are all alike in this, that we substitute monstrous fictions for the one living and true God …,” and so “The manifestation of God is choked by human superstition and the error of the philosophers. … and hence there is scarcely an individual to be found without some idol or phantom as a substitute for Deity.”

And so Calvin concludes that the creation, though in itself it does display the glory, the wisdom, the power, the majesty of God, is because of our self-imposed, sin-imposed blindness, insufficient to communicate those things to the unregenerate:

In vain for us, therefore, does Creation exhibit so many bright lamps lighted up to show forth the glory of its Author. Though they beam upon us from every quarter, they are altogether insufficient of themselves to lead us into the right path. Some sparks, undoubtedly, they do throw out; but these are quenched before they can give forth a brighter effulgence. Wherefore, the apostle, in the very place where he says that the worlds are images of invisible things, adds that it is by faith we understand that they were framed by the word of God (Heb. 11: 3), thereby intimating that the invisible Godhead is indeed represented by such displays, but that we have no eyes to perceive it until they are enlightened through faith by internal revelation from God. …

But though we are deficient in natural powers which might enable us to rise to a pure and clear knowledge of God, still, as the dullness which prevents us is within, there is no room for excuse. We cannot plead ignorance, without being at the same time convicted by our own consciences both of sloth and ingratitude. It were, indeed, a strange defense for man to pretend that he has no ears to hear the truth, while dumb creatures have voices loud enough to declare it; to allege that he is unable to see that which creatures without eyes demonstrate, to excuse himself on the ground of weakness of mind, while all creatures without reason are able to teach. Wherefore, when we wander and go astray, we are justly shut out from every species of excuse, because all things point to the right path. But while man must bear the guilt of corrupting the seed of divine knowledge so wondrously deposited in his mind, and preventing it from bearing good and genuine fruit, it is still most true that we are not sufficiently instructed by that bare and simple, but magnificent testimony which the creatures bear to the glory of their Creator. For no sooner do we, from a survey of the world, obtain some slight knowledge of Deity, than we pass by the true God, and set up in his stead the dream and phantom of our own brain, drawing away the praise of justice, wisdom, and goodness, from the fountain-head, and transferring it to some other quarter. Moreover, by the erroneous estimate we form, we either so obscure or pervert his daily works, as at once to rob them of their glory and the author of them of his just praise.

So, in the end, is God’s self-revelation through creation futile? Calvin would have answered with a resounding “No!” not only because it leaves men without excuse but also because God has acted through another sort of revelation to cure our blindness. “God bestows the actual knowledge of himself upon us only in the Scriptures”:

Therefore, though the effulgence which is presented to every eye, both in the heavens and on the earth, leaves the ingratitude of man without excuse, since God, in order to bring the whole human race under the same condemnation, holds forth to all, without exception, a mirror of his Deity in his works, another and better help must be given to guide us properly to God as a Creator. Not in vain, therefore, has he added the light of his Word in order that he might make himself known unto salvation, and bestowed the privilege on those whom he was pleased to bring into nearer and more familiar relation to himself. … For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any books however fair, are set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly. God therefore bestows a gift of singular value, when, for the instruction of the Church, he employs not dumb teachers merely, but opens his own sacred mouth; when he not only proclaims that some God must be worshipped, but at the same time declares that He is the God to whom worship is due; when he not only teaches his elect to have respect to God, but manifests himself as the God to whom this respect should be paid.

The Scriptures introduce us first to God as our Creator, “but also as a Redeemer, in the person of the Mediator. … Accordingly, [Psalm 19,] after mentioning that the heavens declare the glory of God, that the firmament shews forth the works of his hands, that the regular succession of day and night proclaim his Majesty, proceeds to make mention of the Word” which ‘is perfect, converting the soul; … sure, making wise the simple; … right, rejoicing the heart; … pure, enlightening the eyes.’ … For though the law has other uses besides, (as to which, see Book 2 c. 7, sec. 6, 10, 12,) the general meaning is, that it is the proper school for training the children of God—the invitation given to all nations, to behold him in the heavens and earth, proving of no avail. … Since the human mind, through its weakness, was altogether unable to come to God if not aided and upheld by his sacred word, it necessarily followed that all mankind, the Jews excepted, inasmuch as they sought God without the Word, were laboring under vanity and error.”

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The Scottish Covenanters’ Contribution to America’s Founding Principles

“I find no more privilege granted unto kings by God, more than unto the people, to offend God’s majesty,” wrote John Knox in his History of the Reformation in Scotland.

In so writing, Knox stood firmly with John Calvin and other Reformed thinkers. All believed that rulers were as much under God’s authority, and answerable to Him, as anyone else, and ultimately this led them to conclude that subjects—citizens—had a right to rebuke, resist, and even to overthrow and replace rulers who egregiously vitiated the purposes for which God ordained them.

In the Institutes, Book 4, Chapter 20, “Of Civil Government,” Calvin taught that subjects owe honor and obedience to rulers:

The first duty of subjects towards their rulers, is to entertain the most honourable views of their office, recognising it as a delegated jurisdiction from God, and on that account receiving and reverencing them as the ministers and ambassadors of God. … From this, a second consequence is, that we must with ready minds prove our obedience to them, whether in complying with edicts, or in paying tribute, or in undertaking public offices and burdens which relate to the common defence, or in executing any other orders. “Let every soul,” says Paul, “be subject unto the higher powers.” “Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God” (Rom. 13: 1, 2). Writing to Titus, he says, “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work” (Tit. 3: 1). Peter also says, “Submit yourselves to every human creature” (or rather [Calvin interjects], as I understand it, “ordinance of man,”) “for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well” (1 Pet. 2: 13).

Let no man here deceive himself, since we cannot resist the magistrate without resisting God. For, although an unarmed magistrate may seem to be despised with impunity, yet God is armed, and will signally avenge this contempt.

This obedience, Calvin taught, was due even to wicked rulers, who were sent by God as punishment on wicked peoples. Rather than foment unrest under them, people should “seek the peace of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7), for “It is not the part of subjects but of God to vindicate the right.” “But rulers, you will say, owe mutual duties to those under them. This I have already confessed. But if from this you conclude that obedience is to be returned to none but just governors, you reason absurdly.”

Nay, since the duty of all is not to look behind them, that is, not to inquire into the duties of one another but to submit each to his own duty, this ought especially to be exemplified in the case of those who are placed under the power of others. Wherefore, if we are cruelly tormented by a savage, if we are rapaciously pillaged by an avaricious or luxurious, if we are neglected by a sluggish, if, in short, we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake by an impious and sacrilegious prince, let us first call up the remembrance of our faults, which doubtless the Lord is chastising by such scourges. In this way humility will curb our impatience. And let us reflect that it belongs not to us to cure these evils, that all that remains for us is to implore the help of the Lord, in whose hands are the hearts of kings, and inclinations of kingdoms (Prov. 21:1). “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods” (Ps. 82:1).

Nonetheless, said Calvin, “Constitutional magistrates … ought to check the tyranny of kings; obedience to God comes first”:

… when popular magistrates have been appointed to curb the tyranny of kings (as the Ephori, who were opposed to kings among the Spartans, or Tribunes of the people to consuls among the Romans, or Demarchs to the senate among the Athenians; and, perhaps, there is something similar to this in the power exercised in each kingdom by the three orders, when they hold their primary diets). So far am I from forbidding these officially to check the undue license of kings, that if they connive at kings when they tyrannize and insult over the humbler of the people, I affirm that their dissimulation is not free from nefarious perfidy [i.e., treachery], because they fraudulently betray the liberty of the people, while knowing that, by the ordinance of God, they are its appointed guardians.

Further, “Obedience to man must not become disobedience to God”:

But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their scepters must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offence of Him for whose sake you obey men! The Lord, therefore, is King of kings. When he opens his sacred mouth, he alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all. We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him, let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates—a dignity to which, no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God. On this ground Daniel denies that he had sinned in any respect against the king when he refused to obey his impious decree (Dan. 6: 22), because the king had exceeded his limits, and not only been injurious to men, but, by raising his horn against God, had virtually abrogated his own power. On the other hand, the Israelites are condemned for having too readily obeyed the impious edict of the king. For, when Jeroboam made the golden calf, they forsook the temple of God, and, in submissiveness to him, revolted to new superstitions (1 Kings 12: 28).

So for Calvin, so far as he addressed the subject in the Institutes, subjects not only may but must disobey when commanded to do what God forbids or forbidden to do what God commands, and tyrants might be resisted, but only, it seemed, by what later Calvinist political writers would term “lesser magistrates,” not by the common people.

Yet in 1561 Calvin wrote in his commentary on Daniel 6:22, “earthly princes lay aside all their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy of being reckoned in the number of mankind. We ought rather utterly to defy than to obey them whenever they are so restive and wish to spoil God of his rights, and, as it were, to seize upon his throne and draw him down from heaven.” “Utterly to defy them.” That seemed more radical than the language of the Institutes.

A long train of other Calvinist writers took up the theme over the next 150 years or so. Here are a few examples:

  1. John Ponet, in A Short Treatise of Politic Power (1556);
  2. John Goodman, How Superior Powers Ought to be Obeyed of their Subjects: and Wherein they may lawfully by Gods Worde be disobeyed and resisted (1558);
  3. John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558);
  4. Francois Hotman, Francogallia (1573);
  5. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor as pastor in Geneva, in Right of Magistrates (1574);
  6. Hubert Languet and Philippe du Plessis Mornay, Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos, or, concerning the legitimate power of a prince over the people, and of the people over a prince (1579), written after the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Huguenots by the French king had demonstrated just how far a tyrant might go if not resisted;
  7. George Buchanan (tutor to James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots, in his minority), in De Jure Regni apud Scotos (“The Law of Kings in Scotland”) (1579);
  8. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor as pastor in Geneva, in Right of Magistrates (1574);
  9. Johannes Althusius, in Politica Methodice Digesta (1603), one of the most important treatises on government of its time, particularly for its application of covenant theology to politics;
  10. Samuel Rutherford, one of the most beloved of all Scottish Presbyterian pastors and theologians, in Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince; a Dispute for the Just Prerogative of King and People: containing the Reasons and Causes of the Most Necessary Defensive Wars of the Kingdom of Scotland (1644);
  11. John Milton, in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) and A Defence of the People of England (1651);
  12. Richard Baxter, the great Puritan theologian and pastor, in A Holy Commonwealth (1659);
  13. the Scottish Presbyterian pastor John Brown of Wamphray, in An Apologeticall Relation Of the particular sufferings of the faithfull Ministers & professours of the Church of Scotland, since 1660 (1665);
  14. Samuel Pufendorf, in On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to the Natural Law (1673);
  15. Alexander Shields, in A Hind Let Loose, or an historical Representation of the Testimonies of the Church of Scotland (1687);
  16. John Locke, who by most historians of philosophy until the 1980s was wrongly counted a fairly secular thinker but was in fact a Puritan who built his entire philosophy on his understanding—however accurate or mistaken—of the Scripture that he considered to be the very Word of God, in Two Treatises of Government (1690);
  17. Algernon Sidney, in Discourses Concerning Government (1698).

I offer you this list to suggest that the ideas I’m going to convey through the rest of this talk, though taken from one particular writer, have a deep pedigree in Calvinist thought—deep enough, indeed, that historians of political thought have a formal name for it: “Calvinist resistance theory,” a particular strain of a larger stream of thought identified with the “monarchomachs”—those who fought against, not monarchy per se, but the ideas of “divine right of kings,” or “absolute monarchy,” exemplified tragically in the thought (but because of his prudence not so much the practice) of James VI of Scotland and I of England, who defended it in two books, The Trew Law of Free Monarchies: Or The Reciprock and Mutuall Duetie Betwixt a Free King, and His naturall Subiects (1598), and Basilicon Doron: Or His Maiesties Instructions to His Dearest Sonne, Henry The Prince (1599).

The writer on whom I will focus is James Stewart of Goodtrees (1635–1713), a Scottish covenanting lawyer, politician, and amateur (though good) theologian who was influenced heavily by Samuel Rutherford and John Brown of Wamphray and, through his studies in law at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, became conversant with the writings of the most important Calvinist political theorists. He developed his ideas in two books. The first, Naphtali, Or The Wrestlings of the Church of Scotland For the Kingdom of Christ (1667), co-authored with James Sterling, the minister of the Presbyterian church at Paisley near Glasgow, was a legal, ethical, and theological defense of the “Pentland Rising,” an effort by Covenanters of the southwest of Scotland to bring grievances before the Privy Council of Scotland in 1666 that ended in their massacre by royal forces. The second, far larger and more mature, was Jus Populi Vindicatum, Or The People’s Right, to defend themselves and their Covenanted Religion, vindicated (1669), in which he refuted a critique of Naphtali by the Scottish Episcopal bishop Andrew Honyman. To save time, I’ll focus just on Jus Populi.

Typical of treatises of the time, the full title of the work was Jus Populi Vindicatum, or The Peoples Right, to defend themselves and their Covenanted Religion, vindicated. wherein the Act of Defence and Vindication, which was interprised Anno 1666. is particularly justified: The lawfulnesse of private Persons defending their Lives, Libertyes and Religion, against manifest Oppression, Tyranny and violence, exerced by Magistrats Supream and Inferiour, contrare to Solemne Vowes, Covenants, Promises, Declarations, Professions, Subscriptions, and Solemne Engadgments, is demonstrated by many Arguments. Being a full Reply to the first part of the Survey of Naphtaly &c. The government of Charles II condemned the book (as it did others that were similar) to be burned and threatened its owners with death for treason. Indeed, Stewart himself was tried thrice in absentia for treason and found guilty, escaping penalty by going into exile on the continent, where eventually he joined other English and Scots radicals, including John Locke and Algernon Sidney, at the court of William of Orange at the Hague in the Netherlands, where he eventually swore fealty to William and was involved in planning and executing William’s invasion of England that became known as the “Glorious Revolution” leading to James VII and II’s abdication and William’s becoming king in his place.

Stewart had several purposes in writing Jus Populi. The first and most obvious was to rebut Honyman. A second, the necessary consequent, was to vindicate the Pentland Rising, as he had done already in Naphtali, but now against specific counterarguments. A third and much larger purpose was to justify resistance to tyranny not only by “lesser magistrates” but also by private persons—an idea that was to be crucial to the American Revolution. But even this wasn’t his highest aim. That was to chart a path to just and stable government and the prevention of tyranny. Not rebellion, not instability, not democracy or anarchy, not even a republic, but stable, limited, constitutional, godly monarchy was Stewart’s principle.

The first four chapters of Jus Populi were largely historical, and though he interwove some political arguments, we can safely pass them over. Chapters 5 through 8 contain the core of Stewart’s argument. In them Stewart sets forth a covenantal theory of the erection, nature, limits, and end of civil government: salus populi, the safety of the people.

In chapter 5, Stewart appealed to what would become a principal element of Whig political philosophy, the idea of the origination of government from a free agreement among people in a state of nature to enhance the defense of life, liberty, and property—an idea found in such earlier Calvinist writers as Hotman and Buchanan. Since the whole purpose of government was to defend life, liberty, and property, it was unimaginable that those who formed it had intended to forfeit their own rights to defend such. But that was the implication of the idea that private persons had no right to resist tyrants.

Although government was ordained by God, its specific form and officers in any state were “meerly from the People,” “no man coming out of the womb into this world, with a crowne on his head, and a scepter in his hand.” The distinction between office and person followed, God ordaining the former and the people choosing the latter, a point Stewart supported by references to the Bible and political theorists. It followed that the people retained the power to change both the form and the officers of government, if they thought it necessary, to preserve the ends for which they had erected it.

In chapter 6, Stewart argued, drawing heavily from Althusius, on the basis of Biblical covenant theology that king and people were united by a covenant that was binding on both and the breaking of which by either party released the other from its obligation. Not least important among the reasons to believe that government was always erected on conditions was that Scripture taught so. Stewart spent over ten pages arguing the point (99-110) from David’s covenant with the ten tribes of Israel (2 Samuel 5:3; 1 Chronicles 11:3), Jehoiada’s covenant with the people of Judah (2 Kings 11:17; 2 Chronicles 23:3, 16), and Jephthah’s covenant with the people (Judges 11:2-13), all cited by Althusius as examples illustrating the same point.

In sum, Stewart wrote, ‘by vertue of this mutual compact, the Subjects, have jus against the King, a Right in law to pursue him for performance’ (112), despite Honyman’s strident objections (112-17). When the king violates the covenant, wholly or in the main, the people are free, by the nature of a covenant, ‘For it is absurd to say, that in a mutual conditional compact, one party shall still be bound to performe his conditions, though the other performeth none . . ., or performeth not the maine and principal one’ (117).

Stewart built on the distinction between office and person, mentioned a moment ago, by arguing that the prince cannot violate the constitution “as a Prince, having already engaged as a prince to maintaine the constitution, [so] he must do it as a private person, or an enemy to the constitution and whole body of the land. Therefore he may wel be resisted, even by private persones’ (140–41). In support of the last point he cited (but did not quote) Althusius, who had written that a ‘tyrant, working against the contract entered into with the people and breaking the very fundamentals of the state, loses by the law itself all power and becomes a private citizen . . . against whom it is lawful for anyone, even a private citizen, to defend himself, and to repel the one attacking the life or goods and laws of the people tyrannically, and to get rid of the danger’. Indeed, Stewart added, ‘a Prince violating all, or the maine conditions, upon which he was made Prince, becometh stricto jure no Prince’ and therefore ‘may be resisted, even by Private persones’, as Althusius also implied (141).

Chapter 7 Stewart devoted to discussing the limits to royal power and their implications for the right of resistance, beginning with a list of seven types of power a king did not have. A king’s power over his subjects was not:

  1. parental, because it arose from a voluntary compact;
  2. marital, because a wife was appointed to help her husband, but a king to help his subjects;
  3. organic, because while a body’s members die without the head, a commonwealth survives the death of its king;
  4. ‘lordly, dominative, or masterly’, because such was ‘a frute of sin’, not freely chosen by slaves, would put subjects in a worse condition than before the contract of government, and entailed a right to sell subjects as masters sold slaves, which kings could not do since ‘Subjects are the King’s brethren, 17. 20’;
  5. despotic and masterly as of an owner over his possessions, for the prince was chosen to protect, not to destroy or take, his subjects’ property;
  6. proprietary, because the king could not sell his kingdom;
  7. usufructuary, because princes could not pledge or give their kingdomes away or do with them whatever they pleased, as usufructuaries could (144-9).

It was simply not rational, Stewart argued, for people to choose a government that could do such things to them. Rather, the sovereign’s power was properly fiduciary, ‘for to this end & purpose was He created of the People, that he might defend them from injuries and oppressions’, and his power, like that of any other fiduciary, was restricted by compact (149).

From these observations Stewart derived eight arguments for the right to resist kings violating the contract of government. If (a) children could resist their fathers, and (b) wives their husbands, and (c) servants their masters, bent on destroying them, and if (d) the body could resist a distemper in the head, then, although in each instance the authority of the one over the others was less conditioned than that of a prince over his subjects, surely subjects could resist a prince bent on their destruction. If princes (e) had no despotic power over their people’s goods and (f) could not sell their kingdoms, then the people had a right to resist if they acted otherwise. (g) If an owner could hinder a usufructuary from damaging his land, then the people could hinder the prince from damaging the commonwealth. Finally, (h) ‘If the King’s power be only fiduciary, as is shewed. Then when that power is manifestly abused . . . lawfully enough may he be resisted’ (149–53), as Althusius affirmed.

Chapter 8 turned to the Ciceronian maxim that the people’s safety was the supreme law, arguing that it implied limits to royal power. Their own safety was the people’s aim in constituting the government and choosing their rulers in the first place; consequently they must have intended to limit all their rulers to that end. As the end it must be preferred above all means to it. The Word of God (Romans 13:4) defined the magistrate as ordained by God for the people’s good. All laws were enacted for the people’s good, which was ‘anima & ratio Legis’ [the soul and reason of law]; hence no law detrimental to it was valid, and the sovereign could in cases of necessity neglect the letter of the law to serve its supreme end (153-4). Consequently, it was irrational to exalt a sovereign, who was a means, over the safety of the people, which is the end of government; any law contrary to the safety of the people was ‘really no law’; fine points of laws ‘must be accounted as no lawes really’ if contrary to that end; as surely as the people’s safety prevailed over any privilege or prerogative of the crown, so it prevailed over any privilege or prerogative of parliament, another means; neither could king and parliament, both means, together outweigh their end. So when king and parliament together sought to overthrow ‘the work of reformation’, to force the people to sin by renouncing their covenant with God, and to overturn the constitution, so that ‘by an arbitrary and illegal tyranny, no man hath security for his life, his lands, his libertyes, nor his religion’, salus populi was manifestly threatened and could be defended.

If the king’s power were absolute, absurdities would follow: The people would have set over themselves someone without limits, making their condition worse after than before and effectively repealing salus populi. The king ‘might then break all bonds and oathes’ and so would become ‘a great plague and judgment to a People’, his subjects then being ‘formal Slaves’ to him and he not ‘the Servant of God for the good of the People, contrare to Rom. 13:4’. The thrust of his argument was that monarchical absolutism was the repudiation of the rule of law. That his view, expressed by others in coming generations, became dominant in the Anglophone world is illustrated by American founder John Adams’s remark that Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington ‘define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men’,1 the last eight words being incorporated into the Massachusetts Constitution (1780).

Lest you think that Stewart’s argument was drawn primarily from human authorities or his own notions of prudence, I should point out that by far the most common source of quotations and references for Stewart was the Bible, which he considered the very Word of God, ‘written for our learning’ and as examples, and ‘for our admonition’, not to be looked upon ‘slightly’ but pondered ‘narrowly.’ He cited roughly 400 different verses from the Bible—Romans 13:1 most frequently.

As I have already said, Stewart’s primary purpose in Jus Populi was to assert and defend a theory of limited, constitutional government that would prevent magistrates’ degenerating into tyrants and so bringing contempt on themselves and government in general, ‘the ruine of humane Societyes and Kingdomes’, and ‘the destruction of the People both in soul and body’ (465). many radicals then and after, Stewart proved himself, after the Glorious Revolution, as capable and energetic in office (as Lord Advocate of Scotland most of the time from 1693 to his death in 1713) in a monarchical government as, before it, he had been in opposition. He was no anarchist; he was not even an antimonarchist. He was a constitutional monarchist ardently opposed to absolutism, the practice of which he believed was the surest means to undermine any government.

Absolutism was the real threat to monarchy. Constitutionalism and its companion doctrine, the right of resistance, were its real friends. When kings forgot their calling to rule ‘as Ministers of God for the good of the People’, they exposed ‘themselves to disgrace, and to the contempt of these who otherwise would most willingly honour them as God’s vicegerents’. Far from ‘opening a gap to endlesse rebellions’, Stewart sought ‘to prevent rebellions’ by vindicating the right not to rebel but to resist tyranny, ‘for if Kings remembered that their Subjects might lawfully and would oppose them, when they turned Tyrants, they would walk more soberly, . . . and so give lesse occasion to Subjects to think of opposeing them’ (465).

All of the major arguments in the far more famous Two Treatises of Government by John Locke can be found, usually at greater length, in Jus Populi, but Stewart’s work suffered two disadvantages. First, as a writer Stewart, the Scot, lacked the elegance of Locke, the Englishman. Second, Jus Populi was condemned as treasonous as soon as published, with almost all copies being burned. Had it not been for those two disadvantages, Jus Populi might be the more famous of the two, and historians of American political thought might ascribe to it the influence they ascribe to Locke’s work.

I will conclude by demonstrating how closely Stewart’s thinking was reflected in America’s most important founding document, the Declaration of Independence.

The political historian Daniel Elazar, author of numerous books and articles on the importance of the Biblical doctrine of covenant in the entire history of Western politics, has argued persuasively that the Declaration of Independence should be understood as a religious covenant. Viewing it in light of the heavy influence of English Puritan and Scotch-Irish Presbyterian political thought in the colonies during the decades leading up to the Revolution, we should expect to see in the Declaration marked similarities to the typical Scottish Covenanter resistance arguments. While I make no claim of direct causal connection, the parallels between it and Jus Populi are strong and are to be explained by the shared discourse and perspective of the documents’ authors. While Thomas Jefferson, principal penman of the Declaration, did not share Stewart’s religious perspective, many members of the Continental Congress, in whose name Jefferson labored, did. The Declaration should be seen as authored not by Jefferson but by the Congress with Jefferson its wordsmith.

As Stewart wrote Jus Populi (and the earlier True and short Deduction) to justify a specific instance of resistance in the eyes of the world, the Declaration began with a preamble stating the concern of its authors to justify their act of separation from the British Empire:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The next paragraph set forth ten principles on which the colonists acted. Stewart also stated each one, though in different words, in Jus Populi:

  1. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Stewart had written that in the state of nature, ‘there was none, who by birth, or any other lawful clame, could challenge to himself any civill dominion . . . so that as to any actual, and formal right unto Magistracy, and supream government, all are by nature alike.
  2. “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Stewart had written that ‘this liberty & privilege of self defence, against manifest injuries, cannot be taken away from Rational Creatures, by the erection of a Government’, ‘Nor . . . could they ever give away the power of self-defence, which is their birth right’, and had affirmed that ‘liberty which nature [not king, parliament, or the nation] hath granted unto them’.
  3. “that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Stewart had written that “liberty … is the privilege of all free subjects,” and had asked, “when by an arbitrary and illegal tyranny, no man hath security for his life, his lands, his libertyes, nor his religion, is not the saifty of the People in danger?”
  4. “–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Stewart had written of “the Peoples power, in erecting Governours” and that magistrates are “official fathers appoynted by the subjects, and set over them by their will and consent.”
  5. “–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” Stewart had written, “in so far as that meane [viz., government] is perverted, and actually abused to the destruction of those high and noble Ends, [the people] must be interpreted as Non consenters, and eatenus de Iure [in the extent of right], in no worse condition, then they would have been into, if they had not erected such a constitution, or set such over themselves.”
  6. “and to institute new Government.” Stewart had written, “when through the notorious and manifest perversion of the great ends of society and government, the bond there of is dissolved, and the persons now relapseing into their Primeve liberty and privilege, may no lesse now joyne and associate together, to defend Themselves and their Religion, then at first they entered into societies”
  7. “laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Stewart had written, “People setteth Magistrates over themselves, to promove the glory of God, the good of Religion, and their temporal felicity” and “That the peoples saifty is the cardinal law, hence appeareth, 1. That the attaineing of this end, was the maine ground and motive of the peoples condescending upon the constitution.”
  8. “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Stewart had written, “by saifty here is not meaned dignity, or liberty in some small and inconsiderable triffles, unto which some small and inconsiderable hurt is opposite: … yet … the saifty of the people, is in hazard, when it is manifest and notour, so as they who run may read it, that lawes … are annulled, condemned, and rescinded; nay the Covenants whereby the land was devouted to God, and their Religion secured to them, and the fundamental law or ground of the Constitution, and condition on which the Sove­raigne was admitted to his throne, overturned,” and “in smaller injuries subjects may be patient, and beare a little, for redeeming more, and rather suffer the losse of little then hazard all, but when it comes to an extremity; and Life, and Religion and Liberty, … then they may lawfully stand to their defence, and resist that abused power, … because it … destroyeth the ends for which it was appoyntd,” and “We plead not for resistence by every one who thinketh himself wronged, but for resistence when the wrongs are manifest, notour, undenyable, grievous and intolerable, and … as manifest as the sun at the nonetide of the day.”
  9. “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Stewart had written, “Since The [sic] privileges, and lawful prerogatives of the Soveraigne must vaile, in cases of necessity, unto this High and Supreame Law, the saifty of the People. Then no lesse must the privileges of a Parliament yeeld unto this: for whatever privilege they enjoy, it is in order to this end, and the meanes must always have a subserviency unto the end, and when they tend to the destruction of the end, they are then as no meanes unto that end, nor to be made use of for that end.”
  10. “–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.” Stewart had written, “when strong and inevitable necessity urgeth, in order to necessary and just ends, people may have their owne convocations, even against authority, and de jure be guilty of the breach of no standing law against the same, seing all know that salus populi est suprema lex,” and “it was in the Peoples power to limite the time definitely or indefinitly, how long such a forme [of government] should continue, and therefore had power . . . to change that forme, when the necessity of their condition did require it,” and “the King may be resisted in cases of necessity,” and “People must make use of that Court and tribunal of necessity, which nature hath allowed, and by innocent violence, repel the unjust violence of Princes, seing there is no other remedy.”

Finally, the Declaration set forth historical examples of the sorts of “abuses and usurpations” that its authors asserted justified their action. As we have seen, both Naphtali and Jus Populi strove to do likewise in justification of the Pentland Rising.

Was there a historical path from Stewart’s thought to theirs and the Declaration? Did any of America’s founders actually read Jus Populi? We don’t know for sure. It likely had an impact on the Scottish Claim of Right of 1689, which asserted not merely, as the English Bill of Rights did, that James VII & II had abdicated but that by violating the covenant with the Scottish people had forfeited the crown, and to which the Declaration of Independence and the American Bill of Rights was more closely aligned than to the English.

The likelihood is only slight that Jus Populi (or Stewart’s earlier work, Naphtali) was unknown to John Witherspoon (1723–1794), who “saw himself as an heir of the Scottish Covenanters and the Glorious Revolution.” He was called from the pulpit of Paisley (which had been Naphtali co-author James Stirling’s pastorate a century before) to be president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1768 and not only was a delegate to the Continental Congress (in which he served continuously, on over one hundred committees, from 1776–1782) and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence but also had among his many influential students James Madison (principal author of the Constitution and fourth president of the United States) and eighteen other members of the Constitutional Convention. Horace Walpole had Witherspoon in mind when he complained that “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.” In his February 1758 sermon “Prayer for National Prosperity, and for the Revival of Religion Inseparably Connected,” Witherspoon affirmed God’s providential blessing on the National Covenant, the Solemn League and Covenant, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Although “much of Witherspoon’s library acquisition for Princeton focused on the Scots,” and the Princeton Theological Seminary library includes one copy each of both Naphtali and Jus Populi, there appears to be no way to determine whether either came to the library via Witherspoon, because his library was damaged by British forces during the Revolutionary War.

However, Covenanter political theory like Stewart’s was certainly familiar to some Americans during the Revolutionary War, as the republication of an extract from Alexander Shields’s A Hind Let Loose that cited, extensively summarized, and indeed plagiarized much from Jus Populi makes clear. Whether Jus Populi itself was read and used by the patriots is unclear, but “A Moderate Whig,” Stephen Case, referenced both of Stewart’s books in his anonymously published 1782 sermon Defensive Arms Vindicated and the Lawfulness of the American War Made Manifest.

In any case, Americans who love liberty surely owe a significant debt not only to Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees but to the whole tradition of Calvinist Resistance Theory of which his work is an important example.

1John Adams (1735-1826), The Works of John Adams, vol. 4, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, 1851), and Novanglus Papers, Boston Gazette, no. 7 (1774).

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Martin Luther as Preacher

Martin Luther (1483–1546) is considered by many historians to be one of the two or three most influential and important people of the last thousand years. He was a brilliant theologian and disputant, a beloved professor, a fine Bible translator, a reluctant but effective political figure, the author of scores of books, hundreds of sermons, and thousands of letters. His writings fill 73 volumes in the Weimar Edition, his correspondence another 18 volumes, his “Table Talk”—students’ notes of discussions with him, often around his family’s table—another 31 volumes. But I believe he found himself most at home as a simple pastor, a shepherd seeking to guide his flock in the Christian life.

He did all the things a pastor does—marrying and burying, administering the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, counseling individuals, couples, and families in person and by letter. But as a man of the Word, he saw the pulpit and the preaching of that Word to be the most important thing he could do as a pastor. His sermons were always warm, filled with concern for his congregants, carefully crafted to help them through the trials of the Christian life, and almost always exhibiting a simplicity that made them well suited to audiences of every age.

Today I want to give you a taste of Luther as a preacher by delivering to you his Second Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, preached at Marburg on October 3, 1529, on the third day of the Marburg Colloquium—a meeting at which Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and other early Reformers sought to resolve a dispute between Luther and Zwingli over the Lord’s Supper. Notice how in this sermon Luther, despite the circumstance, carefully avoids exploiting his position in the pulpit to address the debated topic and instead focuses on his listeners’ soul needs.

His text was Matthew 9:1–8:

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city.  2 And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”  3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.”  4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts?  5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?  6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”- he then said to the paralytic- “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.”  7 And he rose and went home.  8 When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

Here, then, is Luther’s sermon, and may it bless you as it undoubtedly did those who first heard it almost 488 years ago:

The theme of this Gospel is the great and important article of faith, called “the forgiveness of sins,” which, when rightly understood, makes an honest Christian, and gives eternal life. Therefore it is necessary in the Christian Church to teach this article diligently and unceasingly, so that we may learn to understand it clearly and distinctly. For this is the one great and difficult art of a Christian, where he will have enough to learn as long as he lives, so that he need not look for anything new, higher or better.

But that we may rightly understand this, we must thoroughly know how to distinguish two powers or kinds of piety. One here upon earth, which God has also ordained and has included under the second table of the Ten Commandments. This is called the righteousness of the world or of man, and serves to the end that we may live together on earth and enjoy the gifts God has given us. For it is his wish that his present life be kept under proper restraint and passed in peace, quietude and harmony, each one attending to his own affairs and not interfering with the business, property or person of another. For this reason God has also added a special blessing, Lev. 18, 5, ”Which if a man do, he shall live in them”, that is, whosoever upon earth is honest in the sight of all men shall enjoy life; it shall be well with him, and he shall live long.

But if on the other hand man is unwilling to do this, he has ordained that the sword, the gallows, the rack, fire, water, and the like be used, with which to restrain and check those who will not be pious. Where such punishment is not administered and the whole country becomes so utterly bad and perverted, that the officers of the law can no longer restrain, God sends pestilence, famine, war, or other terrible plagues, in order to subvert the land, and destroy the wicked, as has happened to the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, and others. From this we may learn his will, namely, that such piety be exercised and maintained; and know that he will provide what is necessary; but if such piety is not practiced he will in turn take away and destroy everything.

This is in short the sense and the whole substance of this piety on earth. But it is further necessary to urge it and to admonish people that every man diligently, zealously and voluntarily exercise himself in it, and that he be not driven to it by force and punishment. This admonition consists in setting forth God’s commandments and in applying them to every station of life on earth, as God has ordered and highly honored; we should find pleasure in them and heartily do what is required in the different spheres of life. When God says, ”Honor thy father and thy mother,” every child, man-servant, maid-servant, citizen, and the like, should receive the Word with joy, have no greater treasure on earth, and not imagine if he do this he is already halfway or altogether in paradise. And this should be solely done, that every heart may be assured without a doubt and say: Now I know, that such work, life, or position is right and proper and is assuredly well pleasing to God; for I have his Word and command as a sure witness, which never deceives nor fails me.

For do not let this be the least grace upon earth, when you have come to this decision in your heart and your conscience rests upon it. We owe this assurance to the blessed Gospel alone, in which we should delight and which we must reverence, even if we receive no other benefit or use from it than this, that it quiets our conscience and positively teaches us how to live and in what relation we stand to God. In what error and blindness we were aforetime, when not even a spark of such teaching enlightened us and we allowed ourselves to be led in the name of the devil by the whims of every lying preacher; we tried all kinds of works, ran hither and thither, expended and wasted our energies, money and property; here we established masses and altars, there cloisters and brotherhoods, and everyone was groping for the way in which he might serve God; yet no one found it, but all remained in darkness. For there was no God who might say: This is pleasing to me, this I have commanded, etc. Yes, our blind guides did nothing less than lose sight of God’s word, separated it from good works, and instead of these set up other works everywhere; in addition to this they discarded and despised the positions in life, which God had appointed, as though he knew no better, nor even as well as we, how to manage his affairs.

Therefore we must constantly take heed to inculcate this Word of God, which does not burden us with any special, great and difficult works, but refers us to the condition in which we live, that we look for nothing else, but with a cheerful heart remain satisfied in it, and be assured that by such work more is accomplished than if one had established all the cloisters and kept all the orders, although it be the most insignificant domestic work. For hitherto we- have been woefully deceived by the fine lustre and pomp of works, hoods, bald pates, coarse apparel, by fasts, wakes, pious looks, playing the devotee, and going barefoot.

Our foolishness consists in laying too much stress upon the show of works and when these do not glitter as something extraordinary we regard them as of no value; and poor fools that we are, we do not see that God has attached and bound this precious treasure, namely his Word, to such common works as filial obedience, external, domestic, or civil affairs, so as to include them in his order and command, which he wishes us to accept, the same as though he himself had appeared from heaven. What would you do if Christ himself with all the angels were visibly to descend, and command you in your home to sweep your house and wash the pans and kettles? How happy you would feel, and would not know how to act for joy, not for the work’s sake, but that you knew that thereby you were serving him, who is greater than heaven and earth.

If we would only consider this, and by the power of the Word look beyond us, and think that it is not man, but God in heaven who wishes and commands these things, we would run full speed, and in a most faithful and diligent manner rather do these common, insignificant works, as they are regarded, than any others. There is no other reason why this is not done than the simple fact that the works are separated from the Word, and God’s command is not regarded nor respected; we move along in a blind, drowsy manner, and think the doing of the works is all sufficient. Because we regard these works as insignificant, we stare and look around for others, become indolent and fretful, do nothing in love, faithfulness and obedience, have no scruples on account of our negligence, are faithless to our fellowmen, injure or vex them, and thus heap upon ourselves all manner of misery, wrath, and misfortune.

This then is one part of our discourse, that this external righteousness be urged both in admonitions and in threatenings, and not be considered as of no importance. For whosoever despises it, despises God and his Word.

Therefore let every man look to himself what he is or what he has to do, and what God demands of him, whether it be to rule, to command and order, or on the contrary to obey, serve and labor, that he may attend to the duties of his office with all faithfulness for God’s sake. Let him be assured that God has more respect for such faithfulness than for all the work and piety of the monks, who never yet have attained to this outward righteousness; nor are they able to extol all their works and doings as heartily as a child or servant girl performing their duties according to God’s command. Oh, what a blessed world we would have, if people believed this, and every man remained at his post, always keeping in mind God’s will and command. Then there would shower from heaven all kinds of blessings and gifts instead of the many vexations and heart-aches, which we now have, are looking for, and deserve.

Above this external piety there is another, which does not belong to this temporal life on earth but which avails only before God and which leads us to the life beyond and keeps us in it. The former piety consists in works, which this present life requires to be done among men, whether they be our superiors or inferiors, our neighbors, or our kindred. It has its reward here upon earth, also ends with this life, and they who do not practice it shorten their days. But this latter piety moves and soars far above everything that is upon earth, and has nothing to do with works. For how can it have works, since all that this body can perform and that is called works, is already included in the former piety? This piety is now called the grace of God, or the forgiveness of sins, of which Christ speaks in this and other gospels, and which is not an earthly but heavenly righteousness; it does not come of our work and ability but is the work and gift of God. For that human piety may well shield us against punishment and the hangman, and permit us to enjoy temporal gifts; but it cannot attain for us God’s grace and the forgiveness of sin. Therefore, even though we may have this external piety, we must nevertheless have a much higher one, which alone avails before God, frees us from sin and an evil conscience, and leads us out of death into eternal life.

This is, furthermore, the only part or article and doctrine, by believing which we become and are called Christians, and which separates and divorces us from all other saints on earth; for they all have a different foundation and nature of their saintliness, peculiar exercises, and rigorous life. It separates us also from the works of those holding positions and offices approved by the Word of God, which are indeed much higher and better than all the self-chosen ecclesiasticism of the monks. These also constitute a holy calling, so that they are called pious and deserve praise of all men because they do their duty. But all this makes no one a Christian. He alone is a Christian who receives this article in faith, and is assured that he is in the kingdom of grace, in which Christ protects him, and daily forgives him his sins. But he who looks for something else or wishes to deal otherwise with God, must know that he is no Christian, but is rejected and condemned by God.

For this reason the greatest skill and intelligence is needed to grasp and understand this righteousness, and in our hearts and before God rightly to distinguish it from the above mentioned outward righteousness. For this is, as has been said, the skill and the wisdom of the Christian, but it is so high and great that even all the beloved Apostles could not speak enough of it; and yet it meets the painful misfortune that no art is mastered as soon as this. There is no greater theme for a preacher than the grace of God and the forgiveness of sin, yet we are such wicked people, that, when we have once heard or read it, we think we know it, are immediately masters and doctors, keep looking for something greater, as though we had done everything, and thus we made new factions and division.

I have now been teaching and studying this subject with all diligence for many years (more than any one of those who imagine they know it all), in preaching, writing and reading, yet I cannot boast of having mastered it and am glad that I still remain a pupil with those who are just beginning to learn. For this reason I must admonish and warn all such as want to be Christians, both teachers and pupils, that they guard themselves against such shameful delusion and surfeit, and understand that this subject is most difficult and the greatest art that can be found upon earth; so that even Paul had to confess and say (2 Cor. 9, 15) that it is an unspeakable gift, that is, one which cannot be described among men with words so that they may regard it as highly and dearly as it really is in itself.

The reason for this is, that man’s understanding cannot get beyond this external piety of works, and cannot comprehend the righteousness of faith; but, the greater and more skillful this understanding is, the more it confines itself to works and rests upon them. It is not possible for man in times of temptation and distress, when his conscience smites him, to cease from groping around for works on which to stand and rest. Then we seek and enumerate the many good deeds, which we would like to do, or have done, and because we find none, the heart begins to doubt and despair. This weakness adheres so firmly to our nature, that even those who have faith and recognize the grace of God, or the forgiveness of sins, cannot overcome it with all their efforts and exertions, and must daily contend against it. In short it is entirely beyond human knowledge and understanding, ability and power, to ascend above this earthly righteousness, and to transfer oneself into this article of faith; and although one hears much about it and is conversant with it, there continues nevertheless the old delusion and inborn corruption which would bring its own works before God and make them the foundation of salvation. Such is the case, I say, with those who are Christians and fight against this work-righteousness; others, critics and inexperienced souls are even lost in it.

Therefore this doctrine, that our piety before God consists entirely in the forgiveness of sins, must be rightly comprehended and firmly maintained. We must therefore get beyond ourselves and ascend higher than our reason, which keeps us in conflict with ourselves and which reminds us both of sin and good works; and we must soar so high as to see neither sin nor good works, but be rooted and grounded in this article and see and know nothing besides. Therefore let grace or forgiveness be pitted not only against sin, but also against good works, and let all human righteousness and holiness be excluded. Thus there are in man two conflicting powers: Externally in this life he is to be pious, do good works, and the like, But if he aims beyond this life and wishes to deal with God, he must know that here neither his sin nor his piety avails anything. And though he may feel his sins which disturb his conscience, and although the law demands good works, he will not listen nor give heed to them, but will boldly reply; If I have sin, Christ has forgiveness; yea, I am seated on a throne to which sin cannot attain.

Therefore we are to regard the kingdom of Christ as a large, beautiful arch or vault which is everywhere over us, and covers and protects us against the wrath of God; yea, as a great, extended firmament which pure grace and forgiveness illuminate and so fill the world and all things, that all sin will hardly appear as a spark in comparison with the great, extended sea of light; and although sin may oppress, it cannot injure, but must disappear and vanish before grace. They who understand this, may well be called masters, but we will all have to humble ourselves and not be ashamed to keep on learning this lesson as long as we live.

For wherever our nature succeeds in finding sin, it tries to make an unbearable burden of it. Satan fans the spark and blows up a great fire which fills heaven and earth. Here the leaf must be turned and we must firmly conclude: If the sin were ever so great or burdensome, this article of faith is nevertheless much higher, wider and greater, which has been recommended and established not by man’s wisdom, but by him who has comprehended heaven and earth and holds them in the hollow of his hand. Is. 40, 12. My sin and piety must remain here on earth as far as they concern my life and conduct. But in heaven above I have another treasure, greater than either of these; there Christ is seated and holds me in his arms, covers me with his wings and overshadows me with his grace.

You may say: How is this, since I daily feel sin and my conscience condemns me and threatens me with God’s wrath? I answer: For this reason, I say, one must understand that the righteousness of a Christian is nothing that can be named or imagined but the forgiveness of sin, that is, it is a kingdom of power which deals only with sin and with such abundant grace as takes away all wrath. It is called the forgiveness of sin for the reason that we are truly sinners before God; yes, everything in us is sin, even though we may have all human righteousness. For where God speaks of sin, there must be real and great sin; so also forgiveness is no jest, but real earnestness. When you, therefore, consider this article you have both. Sin takes away all your holiness, no matter how pious you are on earth; again, forgiveness takes away all sin and wrath. Therefore your sin cannot cast you into hell, nor can your piety elevate you into heaven.

Therefore, when the devil disturbs your conscience, and tries to bring despair to your heart by saying: ”Have you not learned that one must be pious?” then answer courageously and say: Yes, you are right; I am a sinner, that I have known before; for this article, called the forgiveness of sins, has taught me this long ago. I am to be pious and do what I can before the world; but before God I am willing to be a sinner, and to be called nothing else, that this article may remain true, else there would not be forgiveness or grace; but it must needs be called a crown of righteousness and of merits. Therefore, although I feel nothing but many and great sins, yet they are no longer sins; for I have for them a precious panacea and drug which takes away the power and poison of sin and wholly destroys it. It is this word, ”Forgiveness,” before which sin disappears like stubbles before the fire. Without it no work, suffering, or martyrdom avails against the smallest sin. For without forgiveness sin is and remains pure sin, which condemns us.

Therefore only confess this article heartily and boldly and say: Before the world I may be pious and do everything that is required, but before God it is only sin according to this article. Therefore I am a sinner, but a sinner who now has forgiveness and who sits at the throne where grace rules supreme, Ps. 116. If this were not so I would be a sinner like Judas, who saw only his sin, but no forgiveness. But Christians, no matter how much sin they feel in themselves, in that word forgiveness see much more abundant grace presented to them, and poured out over them.

Thus learn then to magnify this article and spread it as far as Christ reaches and rules, that you may elevate it far above everything in heaven and on earth. For as the Word soars over all this, so must also faith, which comprehends the Word and keeps the heart steadfast in it, overcome sin, conscience, death and the devil.

Consider now what kind of a person a Christian is, who lords it over death and the devil, and before whom all sin is as a withered leaf. Now examine yourself and see how far you have learned this lesson, and whether it is such an insignificant and easy matter as some inexperienced souls think. For if you have learned and believed it, all misfortune, death, and the devil will be as nothing. But since you are still so vexed with sin, and since you are still frightened and in despair on account of death, hell and God’s judgment, humble yourself, give honor to the Word and confess that you have never yet understood this matter.

In short let every man examine his own heart, and he will find a false Christian who imagines that he knows all about this subject before he has learned the first principles of it. The words are soon heard, read and repeated, but to carry out the principle in practice and in character, so that it may live within us, and our conscience may be founded upon it and rest in it, is not in the art of man. Therefore I say and admonish, that those who wish to be Christians may always keep it in mind, assimilate it, practice it, and chastise themselves with it, that we may at least have a taste of it, and as James says, 1, 18, be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. For we shall never advance so far in this life as to come to a perfect understanding of it; nor did even the blessed Apostles full of the Spirit and of faith, advance so far.

Thus far I have explained the first part, what Christian righteousness is and in what it consists. But if you ask further, whence it comes, or how it has been brought about or gained, I answer: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come from heaven and has been made man, has suffered and died for our sins. This is the cause, the means, and the treasure, through which we obtain the forgiveness of sin and for the sake of which the grace of God is bestowed upon us; for such a treasure does not come to us without means or merit. But since all of us are born in sin and are the enemies of God, we have deserved only eternal wrath and punishment. All that we are and have is condemned, and there is no help or way out of it. For sin is so grievous that no creature can quench it, the wrath so great that no man can appease and conciliate it. Therefore another man must take our place, namely Jesus Christ, God and man, and through his suffering and death make satisfaction for our sins and pay for them. This is the price that has been set, and has been expended for us, by which sin has been quenched and the wrath of God appeased, the Father has been reconciled and made our friend.

Christians alone know this and believe it, and are in this respect different from those of every other faith and worship on earth. For the Jews, Turks, false Christians, and those who would be righteous by works, also boast that God is merciful; and there is no man on earth but knows something of the grace of God, and yet all of them fail to obtain it, or in other words, they do not have the treasure in which it lies and from which it flows. They continue in their blindness and imagine they can acquire it by their works, rigid life, and their own holiness, with which they only make the wrath and displeasure of God the more grievous.

Therefore it is necessary that we rightly learn to know this treasure, and seek forgiveness where it may be found; that is, that we thoroughly learn to know, comprehend, and keep the Lord Jesus Christ. For it is ordained that no one shall come into God’s presence, find grace, nor obtain forgiveness of the least sin except through Christ. Because you are a sinner, and will always remain one, your conscience is ever present, condemns and threatens you with God’s wrath and punishment, so that you cannot see the grace of God. With reference to the forgiveness of sins let me say, that you will not find anything in your heart with which you can pay them off, nor raise any funds for which God might recognize you and cancel the debt in the ledger. But if you seize Christ as the one who has become your substitute, who has taken your sin upon himself, and who has given himself with all his merit and worthiness for you, no sin can avail anything against you. If I am a sinner, he is holy, and is Lord over sin, death, Satan and hell, so that no sin can harm me, because he has been given me as my righteousness and salvation.

Therefore we have, indeed, pure grace and forgiveness of all sins, but nowhere except in and through Christ alone, and in him only it must be sought and obtained. Therefore whoever will come before God with any kind of work, that God shall recognize and regard as meritorious for obtaining grace, will be disappointed and undeceived, yea, instead of grace he will heap wrath upon himself. Thus you see that all other ways and means are condemned as the doctrines of devils; by which men are led and directed to their own works, or to the holiness and merits of others, as for example, of the saints who have led ascetic lives and followed the rules of their orders, and have suffered and expiated a great deal; or as those have done who have comforted people in the throes of death and have admonished them to suffer death willingly for their sins. Whoever dares to offer anything else for sin or to atone for it himself does nothing else than deny the Lord Jesus Christ, yea, disgrace and slander him, as if the blood of Christ were of no more consequence than our repentance and satisfaction, or as if his blood were not sufficient to take away all the sins of the earth.

Therefore, would you be freed from your sins, cease to seek works and satisfaction, and to bring them before God; but simply creep under the wings and into the bosom of Christ, as the one who has taken away your sins, and has laid them upon himself. Thus you need not chastise yourself with them, nor have anything to do with them! For he is the Lamb of God, says John 1, 29, which taketh away the sins of the world; and Peter says, Acts 4, 12, There is none other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved. The reason we are Christians is because we have Christ with all His merit and worthiness, not because of our efforts and works, which indeed make a St. Carthusius, a St. Francis, or an Augustinian monk, an obedient servant and extremist as they are called; but such works can never make a Christian. Behold, this is the second part which belongs to the sermon on this article.

The third thought is how and by what means we may appropriate such righteousness, so that we may receive the treasure acquired by Christ. Here also we need to give heed that we take the right way, and not make the mistake, which certain heretics have made in times past, and many erroneous minds still set forth, who think that God ought to do something special with them. These imagine that God will deal separately with each one by some special internal light and mysterious revelation, and give him the Holy Ghost, as though there was no need of the written Word or the external sermon. Consequently we are to know that God has ordained that no one shall come to the knowledge of Christ, nor obtain the forgiveness acquired by him, nor receive the Holy Ghost, without the use of external and public means; but God has embraced this treasure in the oral word or public ministry, and will not perform his work in a corner or mysteriously in the heart, but will have it heralded and distributed openly among the people, even as Christ commands, Mark 16, 15: Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature, etc.

He does this in order that we may know how and where to seek and expect his grace, so that in all Christendom there may be the same custom and order, and not every man follow his own mind and act according to his own notions, and so deceive himself and others, which would certainly happen. As we cannot look into the heart of any man, each one might boast of having the Holy Ghost and set forth his own thoughts as divine revelation which God had inspired and taught him in a special manner; as a result, no one would know whom or what to believe.

Therefore this part also, namely the external word or preaching, belongs to Christianity as a channel or means through which we attain unto the forgiveness of sins, or the righteousness of Christ, with which Christ reveals and offers us his grace or lays it into our bosom, and without which no one would ever come to a knowledge of this treasure. For whence should any man know, or in what man’s heart would it ever come, that Christ, the Son of God, came from heaven for our sake, died for us, and rose from the dead, acquired the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and offers the same to us, without publicly having it announced and preached? And although he acquired this treasure for us through his suffering and death, no one could obtain or receive it, if Christ did not have it offered, presented, and applied. And all that he had done and suffered would be to no purpose, but would be like some great and precious treasure buried in the earth, which no one could find or make use of.

Therefore I have always taught that the oral word must precede everything else, must be comprehended with the ears, if the Holy Ghost is to enter the heart, who through the Word enlightens it and works faith. Consequently faith does not come except through the hearing and oral preaching of the Gospel, in which it has its beginning, growth and strength. For this reason the Word must not be despised, but held in honor. We must familiarize and acquaint ourselves with it, and constantly practice it, so that it never ceases to bear fruit; for it can never be understood and learned too well. Let every man beware of the shameless fellows who have no more respect for the Word than if it were unnecessary for faith; or of those who think they know it all, become tired of it, eventually fall from it, and retain nothing of faith or of Christ.

Behold, here you have all that belongs to this article of the righteousness of Christ. It consists in the forgiveness of sins, offered to us through Christ, and received by faith in and through the Word, purely and simply without any works on our part. Yet I do not mean that Christians should not and must not do good works, but that they are not to be mingled and entwined in the doctrine of faith, and decorated with the shameless delusion that they avail before God as righteousness, whereby both the doctrine of works and of faith are besmirched and destroyed. For everything possible must be done to keep this article pure, unadulterated and separate from all our own doings. But after we have this righteousness by faith, works are to follow and continue here on earth, so that there may be civil righteousness, and that both be maintained, each in its proper place, but separate in their nature and efficacy – the former before God in faith over and above all works, the latter works in love to our neighbor, as we said plainly enough above and always taught.

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Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin on the Lord’s Supper


It is sad that the sacrament that should most express the unity of the Body of Christ became, over the centuries, a major point of division, but grieving over the division doesn’t resolve or annihilate it. We must do our best to understand and practice it scripturally—and practice charity toward those who disagree with us about it, lovingly correcting particularly those whose doctrine jeopardizes the gospel by turning the Supper into a repeated sacrifice of Christ and so undermining the value of His once-and-for-all sacrifice on the cross.

Primary New Testament texts related to it:

  1. Matthew 26:26-29 Now as they were eating [the Passover meal], Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”  27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you,  28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
  2. Mark 14:22-25 And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.”  23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.  24 And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.  25 Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
  3. Luke 22:14-20 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him.  15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.  16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”  17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.  18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
  4. 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread,  24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.  28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

All of the Reformers rejected the following four elements of the dominant view of the Lord’s Supper in the Roman Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation, established by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215):

  1. Transubstantiation: “the body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the species of bread and wined, the bread being transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood by the power of God.” Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) attempted, in Summa Theologica75.2, to explain it:
    1. Though the substance of the bread and wine are not annihilated, they are no longer present in the Eucharist because they have been converted into flesh and blood.
    2. The conversion is a miracle wrought by God.
    3. Christ is not “locally” in the sacrament, because He is present “by way of substance, not of spatial dimension” (Article 6, Bromiley’s paraphrase). (But if the substance is flesh and blood it necessarily has size and shape, and therefore also necessarily location.)
  2. Mass: the Eucharist was a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice to God to satisfy for sins.
  3. Because by transformation the bread and wine became the literal body and blood of Christ locally present, believers could and should adore them as they adore God Himself, since Christ is God.
  4. The laity should receive only the body (the “transubstantiated” bread), not also the blood (the “transubstantiated” wine).

But the Reformers had their own disagreements over how Christ was present in the Lord’s Supper.

  1. Zwingli’s view
    1. The word “is” in “This is my body” and “This is my blood” expresses not identity but representation. Excerpt from Zwingli’s Letter to Matthew Alber, November 16, 1524:

      In response to the dream of Pharaoh, Joseph said, “The seven good cows are seven fertile years” (Genesis 41:26). And yet it cannot be argued that seven cows are seven years. Clearly the word “are” must mean “signify” or “foretell.” So the meaning is, “The seven good cows you saw when you slept foretell or signify seven fertile years.” Christ said, “I am the vine” (John 15:1). Yet He was not a vine, but looked upon Himself as having the characteristics of the vine. Again He said, “The seed is the Word of God” (Luke 8:11). Yet the seed is not the Word of God. Here again, “is” cannot mean “to be,” but is used to mean “signify.” For with these words Christ was explaining to the apostles the parable he had set forth concerning the sowing of the seed, saying, “the seed of which I speak is”—that is, signifies—“the Word of God.” We can find such phrases throughout the Bible, so there is no need for me to emphasize this point any further.

      Now let me examine Christ’s word [at the Last Supper]. Jesus took bread, and so on, with these words, “Take this and eat. This is My body which is given for you.” Here I interpret “is” to mean “signifies.” So, “Take this and eat. This signifies My body which is given for you.” Surely, then, the words must mean, “Take and eat. For this, which I now command you to do, will signify or call back to your minds My body which is given for you.” For He immediately added, “Do this as a memorial of Me.” Behold the purpose for which He commanded them to eat—as a commemoration of Himself. Paul puts it like this: “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death” (1 Corinthians 11:26). What else is Paul commanding but a public remembering of the Lord’s death? This feast of our Lord, or in Paul’s words the Lord’s Supper, was instituted in order that we should call to mind the death which Christ endured for us. Clearly this is the sign by which those who rely on Christ’s death and blood show forth their common faith with their brothers. Let the meaning of Christ’s words, then, be transparently clear: this meal is a symbol by which you call back into your minds the body of God’s true Son, your Lord and Master—the body that was given for you.”

    2. The Apostles Creed, which says that Christ “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God. From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead,” implies, by “is seated,” that Christ’s human nature is locally confined to heaven at the right hand of God.
    3. Zwingli identifies three misinterpretations of Christ’s words of institution of the Lord’s Supper:
      1. The Roman Catholic view: we literally eat Christ’s incarnate and crucified body and drink His blood because the bread and wine were transubstantiated into them.
      2. Luther’s view: we eat Christ’s body and drink His blood under the bread and wine because they are physically present there due to what Luther called the “communication of attributes” between the divine and human natures—each nature taking on attributes of the other.
      3. A further Roman Catholic view: we literally eat the resurrected body and drink the resurrected blood of Christ because the bread and wine were transubstantiated into them.
    4. Zwingli embraces Augustine’s statement: “What need of teeth and stomach? Believe and thou hast eaten. … He who believes in Him feeds on Him.”
    5. Nonetheless Zwingli affirmed that Christ was present in the Lord’s Supper in His divine nature. Geoffrey Bromiley summarizes Zwingli’s view: “… the whole Christ both ascends and is present always, but his ascension involved the human nature and his presence involves the divine. Since the human nature has ascended, Christ’s body is not eaten naturally and literally …. It is eaten sacramentally and spiritually …. To eat spiritually is to trust ‘with heart and soul upon the mercy and goodness of God through Christ,’ while to eat sacramentally is ‘to eat … with heart and mind in conjunction with the sacrament.’ Those who eat without faith may be said improperly to eat sacramentally, but in no sense do they eat spiritually ….”
    6. Further, Zwingli believes the Supper, as Bromiley summarizes, “because it was instituted by Christ, testifies to historical facts, has the name of what it signifies, represents a high thing, and stands in analogy to the thing signified—Christ, our food, and ourselves, the one fellowship …. It also augments faith … even though it cannot give it …. It does this by claiming the four most important senses, indeed, all of them for the obedience of faith. We hear, see, taste, touch, and smell in it the goodness of Christ, and as we do so the soul’ tastes the sweet savor of heavenly hope.’ Finally, the sacrament as a pledge binds us together as ‘one body by the sacramental partaking of his body, for we are one body with him.’”
  1. Luther’s view
    1. In Blessed Sacrament of the True Body and Blood of Christ (1519), Luther seemed still to affirm transubstantiation and the Eucharistic sacrifice.
    2. In Treatise on the New Testament (1520), he rejects the sacrifice and no longer expresses his view of the presence of Christ in the sacrament by the term transubstantiation.
    3. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), he calls transubstantiation mere human opinion.
    4. In This is my Body (1527) and Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528), he opposes Zwingli’s view.
    5. Luther’s argument:
      1. Those who think “is” in “This is my body” expresses representation rather than identity must prove it, not just assert it.
        1. Yet his own interpretation, involved in his doctrine of consubstantiation, namely, that the body and blood of Christ are locally present “in” and “under” the bread and wine is itself not a literal reading of “is.”
      2. Further, the representation view involves great grammatical difficulties.
      3. Christ can be present in heaven, as the Creed affirms, and still be present on earth in the Supper, by the communication of attributes that results in the “ubiquity” of Christ’s body.
      4. To deny the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is to fall into the heresy of Nestorianism—failing to recognize the union of the two natures, divine and human, in the one Person of Christ.
  • Calvin’s view (from Institutes, 4.17)
    1. Transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic view, is neither scriptural nor logical and is to be rejected along with the doctrine of the mass, which is that the Eucharist is a repeated propitiatory sacrifice of Christ.
    2. Consubstantiation (Luther’s view that Christ’s body and blood are locally present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine by reason of the ubiquity of His body, which is entailed in the “communication of attributes”) is neither scriptural nor logical, for it is contrary to the nature of bodies to be ubiquitous. “For here it is not a question of what God could do, but what he willed to do. Now, we affirm that what was pleasing to him was done. But it pleased him that Christ be made like his brethren in all things except sin [Heb. 4:15; cf. ch. 2:17]. What is the nature of our flesh? Is it not something that has its own fixed dimension, is contained in a place, is touched, is seen? And why (they say) cannot God make the same flesh occupy many and divers places, be contained in no place, so as to lack measure and form? Madman, why do you demand that God’s power make flesh to be and not to be flesh at the same time! It is as if you insisted that he make light to be both light and darkness at the same time! But he wills light to be light; darkness, darkness; and flesh, flesh. Indeed, when he pleases he will turn darkness into light and light into darkness; but when you require that light and darkness not differ, what else are you doing than perverting the order of God’s wisdom? Flesh must therefore be flesh; spirit, spirit—each thing in the state and condition wherein God created it. But such is the condition of flesh that it must subsist in one definite place, with its own size and form. With this condition Christ took flesh, giving to it, as Augustine attests, incorruption and glory, and not taking away from it nature and truth.”
    3. Consubstantiation and the ubiquity through the communication of attributes on which it is based also contradict orthodox Christology, embraced at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, of the union of two distinct natures in Christ, “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood,” “in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.”
    4. Yet Calvin affirms the real presence of Christ in the Supper: “But we must establish such a presence of Christ in the Supper as may neither fasten him to the element of bread, nor enclose him in bread, nor circumscribe him in any way (all which things, it is clear, detract from his heavenly glory); finally, such as may not take form him his own stature, or parcel him out to many places at once, or invest him with boundless magnitude to be spread through heaven and earth. For these things are plainly in conflict with a nature truly human. … But when these absurdities have been set aside, I freely accept whatever can be made to express the true and substantial partaking of the body and blood of the Lord, which is shown to believers under the sacred symbols of the Supper—and so to express it that they may be understood not to receive it solely by imagination or understanding of mind, but to enjoy the thing itself as nourishment of eternal life.”
    5. The Lord’s Supper, with signs of bread and wine, provides spiritual food.
      1. The Supper is a “spiritual banquet wherein Christ attests himself to be the life-giving bread, upon which our souls feed unto true and blessed immortality.”
        1. It is a “high mystery” and “sacred food” the benefit of which Satan seeks to steal from us by instituting confusion and discord.
        2. “First, the signs are bread and wine, which represent [not transubstantiate into, and not contain in and under them] for us the invisible food that we receive from the flesh and blood of Christ.”
        3. “Since, however, this mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible, he shows its figure and image in visible signs best adapted to our small capacity.
          1. Indeed, by giving guarantees and tokens he makes it as certain for us as if we had seen it with our own eyes. For this very familiar comparison penetrates into even the dullest minds: just as bread and wine sustain physical life, so are souls fed by Christ.
          2. We now understand the purpose of this mystical blessing, namely, to confirm for us the fact that the Lord’s body was once for all so sacrificed for us that we may now feed upon it, and by feeding feel in ourselves the working of that unique sacrifice; and that his blood was once so shed for us in order to be our perpetual drink. … in order that when we see ourselves made partakers in it, we may assuredly conclude that he power of his life-giving death will be efficacious in us.”
        4. “As a consequence, we may dare assure ourselves that eternal life, of which he is the heir, is ours; and that the Kingdom of Heaven, into which he has already entered, can no more be cut off from us than from him; again, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from whose guilt he has absolved us, since he willed to take them upon himself as if they were his own. This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.”
        5. “… from the physical things set forth in the Sacrament, we are led by a sort of analogy to spiritual things. Thus, when bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps the life of our body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul. When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden.”
        6. “It is not, therefore, the chief function of the Sacrament simply and without higher consideration to extend to us the body of Christ. Rather, it is to seal and confirm that promise by which he testifies that his flesh is food indeed and his blood is drink [John 6:56], which feed us unto eternal life [John 6:55].”
          1. My comment: So the Word is the real essence of the sacrament.
        7. In the Sacrament Christ “offers himself with all his benefits to us, and we receive him by faith. Therefore, the Sacrament does not cause Christ to begin to be the bread of life; but when it reminds us that he was made the bread of life, which we continually eat, and which gives us a relish and savor of that bread, it causes us to feel the power of that bread. For it assures us that all that Christ did or suffered was done to quicken us; and again, that this quickening is eternal, we being ceaselessly nourished, sustained, and preserved throughout life by it.”
        8. “We admit, meanwhile, that this is no other eating than of faith, as no other can be imagined. But here is the difference between my words and [Zwingli’s and Luther’s]: for them to eat is only to believe; I say that we eat Christ’s flesh in believing, because it is made ours by faith, and that this eating is the result and effect of faith. Or if you want it said more clearly, for them eating is faith; for me it seems rather to follow from … by true partaking of him, his life passes into us and is made ours—just as bread when taken as food imparts vigor to the body.”
        9. “This life-giving communion is brought about by the Holy Spirit.”
        10. “Now, that sacred partaking of his flesh and blood, by which Christ pours his life into us, as if it penetrated into our bones and marrow, he also testifies and seals in the Supper—not by presenting a vain and empty sign, but by manifesting there the effectiveness of his Spirit to fulfill what he promises. And truly he offers and shows the reality there signified to all who sit at that spiritual banquet, although it is received with benefit by believers alone, who accept such great generosity with true faith and gratefulness of heart.”
        11. On the relation of the outward sign and the invisible reality: “… the sacred mystery of the Supper consists in two things: physical signs, which, thrust before our eyes, represent to us, according to our feeble capacity, things invisible; and spiritual truth, which is at the same time represented and displayed through the symbols themselves.”
        12. “… whenever this matter is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither them mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express.”



Featured image “At the Table,” by David Mulder, Flickr Creative Commons

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Evangelizing Our Children: A Reformed and Covenantal Practice

Part One: Theological Foundations

Christians of Reformed persuasion, like myself, have always taken great comfort from the words of the Apostle Peter to the crowd in Jerusalem on Pentecost. “The promise,” he told them in Acts 2:39, “is for you and your children.” Our federal, or covenantal, theology recognizes in that statement a wonderful truth: that God’s promises are multi-generational, that fathers represent their children in God’s sight, and that therefore the children of believers enjoy a tremendous privilege that the children of unbelievers don’t. Paul’s assurance in 1 Corinthians 7:14 that the children even of just one believing parent are “holy,” set apart, reinforces our confidence as we think of our children, as does his statement to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31).
We find the root of this comfort in the covenant between God and Abraham. In Genesis 17:7, God said to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [literally, seed, singular, as Paul insists in Galatians 3:16]–I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you.” We recognize that this federal teaching lies at the root of our practice of infant baptism, as it lay at the root of the Old Testament saints’ practice of infant circumcision. The covenant child is to have the covenant sign.
He is also to be raised faithfully in the covenant signified by his baptism, reflecting God’s comment in Genesis 18:19, “I have chosen [Abraham], so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.” Thus covenantal believers take very seriously God’s instructions in Deuteronomy 6:6-9: “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” We attend carefully–or we should, anyway–to the words of Psalm 78:1-7:
Listen, O my people, to my instruction; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, Which we have heard and known, And our fathers have told us. We will not conceal them from their children, But tell to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, And His strength and His wondrous works that He has done. For He established a testimony in Jacob And appointed a law in Israel, Which He commanded our fathers That they should teach them to their children, That the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born, That they may arise and tell them to their children, That they should put their confidence in God And not forget the works of God, But keep His commandments.
But lately in some Reformed circles now widely known as the “Federal Vision” movement, this covenantal teaching is twisted so that it becomes a guarantee–or nearly a guarantee?–of salvation to every child born to a believer–or at least to every baptized child born to a believer. In addressing the problem of how one is to have assurance of salvation, Reverend Steve Wilkins of Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America), in Monroe, Louisiana, said, “Don’t get all tangled up trying to see whether you have sincere faith in Christ. Look to your baptism!” Then he explained,
when we say . . . ‘Look to your baptism,’ we’re talking about looking to Christ in the covenant, and realizing what you can know for certain. You cannot know if you were ever sincere. You cannot know if you really meant it when you asked Jesus into your heart and threw the pine cone into the fire. You can’t know those. Those questions are unanswerable. Were you really given a new heart? Well, you can’t answer that question. God knows. You don’t know. What you can know is that you have been baptized and you have the Lord’s Supper.
This view helps pastorally, he said, in that “It makes our standing before God and that of our children plain, and yet it prevents presumption. . . . We belong to Christ. Baptism is the infallible sign and seal of this . . . .”[1] More conclusively, Wilkins wrote elsewhere, “If [someone] has been baptized, he is in covenant with God”; “covenant is union with Christ. Thus, being in covenant gives all the blessings of being united to Christ. . . . Because being in covenant with God means being in Christ, those who are in covenant have all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places.”[2]
Similarly, Reverend John Barach, now pastor of Reformation Covenant Church (a congregation of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelicals) in Medford, Oregon, said,
There is nothing better, nothing more glorious than living in covenant with God, being brought right into the family life of the Triune God . . . . Because we are united with Christ, because He is our covenantal representative, when He was raised from the dead and vindicated by God, we were vindicated by God, justified. In Christ we have sanctification. . . ., we have new life . . . [and] the Spirit . . . [and] have been glorified. . . . But who shares in those blessings? . . . who is in Christ? . . . those people are in Christ who have been baptized into Christ. . . . there is an objective covenant made with believers and their children. Every baptized person is in covenant with God and is in union then with Christ and with the Triune God. The Bible doesn’t know about a distinction between being internally in the covenant, really in the covenant, and being only externally in the covenant . . . . Every baptized person is truly a member of God’s covenant. . . . every baptized person is in Christ and therefore shares in his new life . . . .[3]
Steve Schlissel, pastor of the independent Messiah’s Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, wrote on a whiteboard during a colloquium on Federal Vision theology in August 2003 hosted by Knox Theological Seminary, “The children of believers are saved.” Showing a little more restraint, popular pastor and author Reverend Douglas Wilson of Christ Church (another congregation of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelicals, a denomination Wilson founded) of Moscow, Idaho, wrote,
In faith, we want to say that children of believers are saved. But we are not making a categorical statement of the “All P are Q” kind. We are saying that we believe God’s statements and promises concerning covenant children, and we think others should believe them, too. Now these promises (in all our theological systems) have apparent instances of non-fulfillment. How are we to account for this? We all acknowledge that some of our children grow up and depart from the living God. We see the same kind of thing with adult converts. Many of them have fallen away also. Have the promises of God fallen to the ground in either instance?
The question of levels of discourse is central in understanding this. On one level, all of us confess that some children of believers are reprobate, and will eventually fall away. On another level of discourse, we say that God is God to our children. In preaching, in catechesis, in liturgy, the second level of discourse is operative. This level is operative because faith in the promises requires it. But an important point to note is that we are not saying contradictory things within one level of discourse. Nor are we denying the first level of discourse.[4]
Wilson, recognizing that some baptized children of believers will spend eternity in hell, tries to escape the logical consequences of statements like those by his fellow Federal Visionists Wilkins and Barach by a logical sleight of hand, saying that when he and his comrades “say that children of believers are saved” they “are not making a categorical statement of the ‘All P are Q’ kind. We are saying that we believe God’s statements and promises concerning covenant children.” But Wilson ought to know that children of believers are saved simply is a categorical statement.
Between the categories (a) children of believers and (b) people who are saved, there can be only four relationships:
  1. All children of believers are people who are saved [All a are b.].
  2. No children of believers are people who are saved [No a are b.].
  3. Some children of believers are people who are saved [Some a are b.].
  4. Some children of believers are not people who are saved [Some a are not b.].
If, when the Federal Visionists, as part of their strategy to deliver people from “unanswerable” questions about whether they are true believers and direct them instead to the objectivity of the covenant, insist that the children of believers are saved, then they must be asserting one of these relationships. If they are asserting (1), “All children of believers are people who are saved,” then it follows logically (by the type of immediate deduction called obversion) that no children of believers are not people who are saved, and consequently that (2), “No children of believers are people who are saved,” and (4), “Some children of believers are not people who are saved,” are false, for they are the contrary and the contradictory to “All children of believers are people who are saved.” If that is what they mean, then they have provided (rightly or wrongly–but at least validly) the assurance they intend. But if they are asserting only (3), “Some children of believers are people who are saved,” then they can infer absolutely nothing about the truth of (4), “Some children of believers are not people who are saved,” and their attempt to provide assurance by appeal to the objectivity of the covenant collapses.
Wilson’s attempt to justify such inconsistencies by appeal to “levels of discourse” does not suffice. What it really leads to is precisely the sort of upper-story/lower-story dualism against which the late Francis Schaeffer indefatigably warned. Does Wilson, after all, mean to tell us that at one “level of discourse”–whatever that means–all children of believers are saved, while at another “level of discourse” some are not saved? What parents crave regarding their children is not “Well, on this level of discourse, your child is saved, but on another level, he might not be.” What fretting church members crave regarding their own assurance is not “Well, on this level of discourse, your baptism assures you that you’re saved, but on another level it doesn’t.” Such equivocation is not the responsibility of the minister of the Word of God, who is called to sound a clear trumpet (1 Corinthians 14:8), whose “Yes” should be “Yes” and whose “No” should be “No” (Matthew 5:37), whose message is to be “not Yes and No, but . . . always Yes” because in Christ “all [not just some!] of the promises of God” are “Yes” and “Amen” (2 Corinthians 1:19-20). No one will spend eternity blessed in heaven in one “level of discourse” and cursed in hell in another.
The trouble–the reason their effort to provide assurance of salvation by telling people to “look to their baptism,” or to their parentage–is that the Federal Visionists have not provided any promises of God of type (1), “All children of believers–or all baptized persons–are people who are saved.” Consequently it is of no use for Wilson to say, “we believe God’s statements and promises concerning covenant children, and we think others should believe them, too,” and think that is adequate ground for assuring believers, because of the objectivity of the covenant, of their children’s salvation (or for assuring baptized persons of their own).
A major part of the debate over the Federal Vision is precisely over whether indeed the Bible does teach that all children of believers (or all baptized persons) are saved. It will not do simply to assume that conclusion as a premise. Neither is it of use for Wilson to say, “these promises (in all our theological systems) have apparent instances of non-fulfillment.” That in itself assumes what the Federal Visionists must prove–that God has promised the salvation of all children of believers (or all baptized persons). For if instead God has promised the salvation of only some children of believers (and of some baptized persons), then the damnation of some (of either) cannot be raised as an instance of the non-fulfillment of His promises. Indeed, if He has not promised the salvation of any children of believers or baptized persons simply because they are children of believers or baptized persons, then it is possible for any or even all children of believers, or baptized persons, to be damned.
Scripture clearly teaches us that all God’s promises are perfectly fulfilled (2 Corinthians 1:20; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:13-20). If it appears to us that one of them goes finally unfulfilled, then we have misunderstood either the promise (and this is what the Federal Visionists do) or the phenomena (i.e., the child’s parents or the baptized were not really believers). That is, we have mistaken either the major or the minor premise (or both). Take the syllogism,
  1. All children of believers are saved.
  2. Richard is a child of believers.
  3. Therefore Richard is saved.
In their attempt to comfort parents by reference to the objectivity of the covenant, the Federal Visionists want to affirm this. But they know that, as Wilson put it, “some of our children grow up and depart from the living God.” Consequently, when challenged, they (rightly, though inconsistently!) shrink from the conclusion. But they can avoid that conclusion only if they deny one of the premises. That Richard is a child of believers (the minor premise) is assumed, so they can’t deny the minor premise. They must then deny the major and admit that some children of believers are not saved. Once they have done that, however, nothing follows, for the resulting argument,
  1. Some children of believers are saved.
  2. Richard is a child of believers.
  3. Therefore Richard is saved.
commits the fallacy of undistributed middle. It tells us only about some children of believers, not about all of them.[5]
It is clear, then, that simply being the child of believers, or even being the baptized child of believers, does not guarantee salvation. As Paul explained in Romans 2:12-29, it is not sufficient simply to “bear the name ‘Jew’” (that is, to be a covenant child) and to be circumcised.(that is, to bear the mark of the covenant).
For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.
What then are we to make of those precious passages with which we began? What of Peter’s statement, “The promise is for you and your children”? What of Paul’s that the child of even just one believing parent is “holy”? What of his promise to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household”? What of God’s promise to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [seed] after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you”? Perhaps we need to look at them a little more carefully.
Consider first Peter’s comment in Acts 2:39. Thus far we have quoted only part of it. The whole of it is, “the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” Are those who insist that here is a promise of the salvation of the children of believers as quick to say that here is a promise of salvation “for all who are far off”? Those are not simply the children of believers; those include all men everywhere in the world. But does God promise salvation to all men everywhere in the world. Certainly not. Neither, then, does He promise salvation to all the children of believers. What does He promise, then, to all the children of believers and to all people everywhere? Look at verse 38–and I’m going to use my own very literal translation here to make clear the grammatical cause-and-effect relationship that is clear in the Greek but ordinarily gets obscured in English translations: “Y’all repent for the remission of y’all’s sins, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and y’all will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (As an aside, let me explain: The command to repent is in second person plural, while the command to be baptized is in third person singular; the “your” modifying the sins to be remitted is second person plural, not singular. The grammatical connection, therefore, is between repentance and remission, not between baptism and remission. But refuting baptismal remission isn’t the topic of today’s talk, so we’ll leave that alone now and return to the point.) The promise is conditional: If you repent and believe in Jesus Christ, you’ll be forgiven. That promise does indeed apply to each and every child of each and every believer; and it also applies to each and every other person who ever lived or ever will live.
Consider Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7:14 that the child of even one believer is “holy.” Does this mean no such child will go to hell? Certainly not. The Greek word hagioi, “holy,” means simply “set apart,” or “devoted to the gods” or, of course, in the Bible, “to God.” Elsewhere the Bible tells us that “He who believes in [Christ] is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). Granted this, it follows that the unbelieving spouse of 1 Corinthians 7:14 is not saved. Yet Paul says the unbelieving spouse is “sanctified,” the Greek verb hagiazo, that is, “made holy.” It must be possible, then, for someone to be “holy” without being saved.
Consider Paul’s promise to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Does that imply that whenever a head of household believes, every one of his household will be saved along with him, regardless of his or her faith? Certainly not. Clearly Paul’s point is that the same promise that applies to the jailer applies to everyone in his family: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” But there is no promise at all here to one who doesn’t believe.
And finally consider God’s promise to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [seed] after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you.” Does this imply that every physical descendant of Abraham–or even every one of his own direct, first-generation offspring–would be saved, that none of them would go to hell, all would go to heaven? Certainly not. As Paul explained in Romans 9:6-8,
. . . they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “Through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.
Likewise he wrote in Galatians 4:22-31:
. . . it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in labor; for more numerous are the children of the desolate than of the one who has a husband.” And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.
Notice that: “it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise.” Notice again: “the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. . . . [and] he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit.” Paul equates being born of the flesh with being born of the bondwoman, and being born of the promise with being born of the Spirit and of the free woman. He who is born only of the flesh is not a child of God; he who is born of the promise, of the Spirit, of the free woman, is a child of God.
Haven’t we heard some similar phrases somewhere else? Yes! In John 1:10-13, John tells us that the incarnate Word, Jesus, “was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world”–those who had no special relationship to Abraham–did not know Him. He came to His own”–that is, to the Jews, the children of Abraham according to the flesh, “and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them”–whether those of the world, or those of Abraham according to the flesh–“as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
But if all this is so–if indeed there is no blanket promise of salvation to the children of believers–then what advantage is there to being born to Christian parents? Is covenant theology irrelevant? Certainly not! Haven’t you heard that question before, but slightly revised? Of course you have. In Romans 3:1-2, Paul wrote, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
That is it! “First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.” That is an advantage that must not be minimized. It is a tremendous advantage!
. . . for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the lord endures forever.” And this is the word which was preached to you. [1 Peter 1:23-25]
Stop and think about that for a moment. Linger over it. “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off.” That is true of each and every believing parent. Every believing father is like grass. Every believing mother is like grass. Every one of us will wither and die, not only when the blood stops coursing through our veins but also every day when we sin and show our children that we, unlike the Word, are fallible. “But the Word of the Lord endures forever.” “The Scripture cannot be broken.” Unlike us, “the law of the Lord is perfect.” “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still!” It is not on our birth to a believing father or mother that our salvation rests, but on the living and abiding Word of God, that powerful Word that created the universe and can make a new creation out of any human being. My children’s salvation depends not on me, and not on my wife, but on God Himself speaking the gospel to them in His Word–that gospel that “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16), that is, whether he is a child of Abraham according to the flesh or a child of the world according to the flesh; whether he is a child of a believer, or a child of a pagan. The message to everyone is the same: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”
Indeed, everyone’s salvation depends–whether he is born of believers or of unbelievers–not on bloodline, or on the will of the flesh, or on the will of man, but on the will and Word of God. Is there then no advantage to being born to believers? Of course there is! Who is more likely to be exposed to the life-giving Word of God day by day? The child of a Muslim, or the child of two faithful Christians? The child of a humanist, or the child of a faithful Baptist? The child of a neo-pagan, or the child of a faithful Lutheran? The child of a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Shintoist, a Taoist, or even of an irreligious American consumerist, or the child of a godly Presbyterian? Of course there is an advantage to being born of Christian parents! What other children have such a privilege as to hear the Word in the home, to be brought up in the church where they are exposed to the preaching and teaching of the Word week in and week out and where their friends and Sunday school teachers and friends’ parents all encourage them to believe and obey the Word? Where they learn the great hymns of the faith and soon have them in memory? Where all around them strive to live as Scripture teaches them to live?
That is the great advantage of being born in the faith. Yet even that does not entail that every child of believers will be saved. In Part Two I will look specifically at Christian parents’ responsibility.

Part Two: Practical Application

In Part One I argued that while the Scriptures do not guarantee the salvation of every child of believers, any more than they guarantee the salvation of every baptized person, nonetheless they do teach that the children of believers have a great advantage over the children of nonbelievers. Still, however, the promise of salvation is to all who believe, and only to them. Does either this shared promise, universally applicable to everyone–“Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved”–or the fact that believers’ children have that advantage–particularly that they are in church and Sunday school and, one hopes, Christian school rather than public school–relieve Christian parents of responsibility for their salvation? Can we say, “Oh, I take my children to church and Sunday school. They hear the gospel there. That’s enough. I don’t need to do more”? Or can we say, “Oh, I want my child to make up his own mind, so we know he’s sincere. So I’m not going to push the gospel on him”? Or can we say, “After all, God is sovereign. If my child is predestined to believe, he will. I don’t have to worry about it. In fact, I can’t make any difference I God’s plan”?
Does any of this relieve Christian parents of responsibility for our children’s salvation? Certainly not! Our responsibility is rooted not in what we are able to achieve but in what we are commanded by God to do. He tells us to command our children to keep the way of the Lord, and certainly that “way of the Lord” includes faith in Jesus Christ. We are to command our children–not beg them, but command them–to trust in the Lord Jesus for their salvation. And when we do so, we are also to teach them the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” and its implication, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). “Child, God tells you to obey me, and I tell you to trust in Christ.”
The words of God, both law and gospel, are to be on our hearts. We are to teach them diligently to our sons and talk of them when we sit in our houses and when we walk by the way and when we lie down and when we rise up. We are to wear them as signs on our hands and make them frontals on our foreheads. We are to write them on the doorposts of our houses and on our gates.
What I have said thus far has been meant to drive home one main point and one sub point.
First, the main point: We must evangelize our children. Doing so doesn’t mean treating them like pagans, as some hyper-federalists would have us believe. It means treating them like children according to the flesh–covenant children, yes, just like both Isaac and Esau–but children according to the flesh, and calling them to be children according to the promise. It means telling them the basic facts of the gospel at every opportunity, before and after they ever profess to believe: that Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, and that He rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures. It means teaching them, time after time, before and after their apparent conversions, that through the law comes the knowledge of sin and that therefore no flesh will be justified by the works of the law, but that we are justified by faith apart from the works of the law. It means repeating to them over and over again, before and after they are admitted to the Lord’s Table, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
It doesn’t mean my wife and I must assume our child doesn’t believe until he offers us some sophisticated testimony adequate to convince the most jaundiced board of credobaptist elders that he’s ready for baptism, or the most jaundiced session of Scottish or Dutch paedobaptist elders that he’s ready for the Lord’s Supper. Far from it! We want every one of our children to be able to testify, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love Jesus and know He loves me and trust in Him alone for my salvation.”
We teach our children the law and that they are sinners. We teach them the gospel and that if they will trust in Christ, their sins will be forgiven. We command them to believe. For incentive we convey to them God’s marvelous promise that if they believe they will have eternal life, reconciliation with God, justification, God’s preserving and sanctifying power, and finally glorification in heaven, and if they don’t, they will suffer in hell forever. And when they join us in expressing their faith in Jesus, and in singing
  • “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”—or
  • “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee. Let the water and the blood, from Thy riven side which flowed, be of sin the double cure–cleanse me from its guilt and power”–or
  • or “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain, for me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”—or
  • when they recite with us and the whole church the Apostles’ Creed—or
  • when they join us in reciting the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, “What is thy only comfort in life and death?” “That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.”—
When they sing those hymns and recite that creed and that catechism with us, we don’t say, “Sorry, kids, but we don’t believe you. We think you’re little liars. You don’t really believe. You don’t really love Jesus. Tell us again next year, when your life measures up a little better, and we’ll see if you can convince us then.” No, no, no! We realize that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked and that we don’t know it, but we also realize that we have no right to presume our children guilty of lying about their faith without convincing evidence. And so we treat them as truth tellers until they give us reason to do otherwise.
Second, the sub point: We can evangelize our children, and we can have confidence that our labor will not be in vain. Although the Bible nowhere guarantees to any parent the salvation of any child, it does encourage us to believe that God works through means to achieve His ends and that we are among His most prominent means in the salvation of our children. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” says Proverbs 22:6; “even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Being a proverb, this is to be understood as a generalization, stating not a universal truth but a usual truth, but it still gives great comfort to those parents who diligently, prayerfully, consistently, persistently, humbly, trustingly, fervently, zealously raise their children in the faith. It gives no comfort whatever to the lazy, careless parent who neglects to instruct his child in law and gospel, but it gives great hope to the faithful, who can say, “Though I am like grass, and I’ll wither and fade, nonetheless the Word of the Lord endures forever!”
That there is normally a connection between a parent’s faithful teaching of law and gospel to his child and that child’s believing is implicit in one of the qualifications of an elder. He must have “children who believe” (Titus 1:6). Believing children are evidence of this elder’s ability to manage his own household well, to “[hold] fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”–His child raises an objection to the truth of the gospel, and this man, qualified to be an elder, is able to answer it, “to refute” that child who contradicts!–Believing children are evidence of this elder’s being “above reproach.” Indeed, they are even evidence of his being “the husband of one wife,” or literally, “a onewoman man,” because his own love for his wife, and his faithfulness to her, will testify to his children of Christ’s love for and faithfulness to His bride, the church.
Recognizing this connection between faithful parenting and the salvation of our children no more compromises the sovereignty of God in salvation, or the uniqueness of Christ as Savior, than does Paul’s writing to Timothy, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16). It no more compromises the sovereignty of God than Paul’s asking, “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). God works through means. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Whether that Word is spoken to the whole congregation by the minister or to the children by believing parents, it remains the Word by which God begets people to new life.
These two points being made, let me conclude by speaking to how we can evangelize our children. And honestly, brothers and sisters, it isn’t all that difficult, at least not in principle. It is difficult in execution, because it requires self-discipline, patience, consistency, hard work, diligence, persistence, zeal, and prayer, sometimes for many long years. But in concept, it isn’t difficult, and I hope to persuade you that even in execution it is within your reach.
The fundamental thing is this: Your children will be more likely to embrace your faith in direct proportion to the extent to which you embrace your faith. The more they see that you, though you know yourself to be a guilty sinner fully deserving God’s wrath, nonetheless “[believe] to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and [act] differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come,” but principally that you “[accept, receive, and rest] upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace,” as the Westminster Confession of Faith describes the acts of saving faith, the more your children will be likely to follow in your footsteps, for it is ordinarily the case, as Jesus put it about Himself and His own Father, “whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner” (John 5:19).
Now for three concrete, practical things you can do to ensure that your children frequently, regularly encounter the saving gospel in a context that will encourage them to believe it.
First–and I believe this is foremost in the children’s younger years–involve them regularly, frequently, preferably daily, indeed if at all possible twice a day, in family worship. I understand that not every family is able to schedule morning and evening family devotions every day. But I do believe that far more families could do it if they would. It requires making choices, setting priorities, realizing that there is no higher calling for Christian parents than raising their own children in the faith, ministering the Word of God to them, day in and day out. For about the first sixteen or seventeen years after the birth of the first of our seven children, we were able. As he and his first two sisters got older and older and took on more and more responsibilities outside the home, and as we took a grandparent suffering from Alzheimer’s disease into our home, we had to modify that. Still we managed to gather for family worship morning and evening most days, but we had to be flexible about when, where, and sometimes whether. Even so, the children recognize that family worship is top priority for us, so that even though we don’t do it as consistently today as we once did, nonetheless we make great sacrifices to ensure that we can do it whenever possible. That in itself testifies to them of its importance.
Many parents are intimidated by the idea of trying to have family worship. I believe this usually stems from trying to make it too complicated. It should be simple, but we don’t always approach it that way. We husbands, I think, have a macho tendency to figure that we’re going to do family worship, and we’re going to do it right! And so we set a standard way too high, and predictably we fail.
In the first year of our marriage, my wife and I tried to begin having devotions together. I got out Matthew Henry’s Commentary, and we would read a chapter from the Bible, and then read aloud through the commentary. That worked–about once or twice! We were overwhelmed, and in short order we quit. We didn’t try anything else for a while. Each time we tried, we bit off more than we could chew. It wasn’t until our first child was three or four that we finally hit on what has worked for our family ever since, and it’s simple.
We sit down together, we read a chapter (sometimes more, sometimes less, but usually a chapter) of the Bible aloud, we might make a few comments on it but more often don’t, we pray, and then we sing a hymn or chorus or children’s Bible song together. That’s it. I don’t try to play expert Bible teacher every day, or even once a week. We just read the Word, working our way through whole books of the Bible, and pray, and sing, and we let God minister to us. While we make a special point of reading repeatedly through the Psalms, the Proverbs, the Gospels, and Romans, we make sure that we read through the whole Bible over and over through the years.
Occasionally, for certain periods, we have added catechism to our family worship–teaching the children, by daily repetition, to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism. That has been a tremendously effective way to give them a solid, basic, systematic understanding of the Christian faith. But catechizing has come and gone, as one batch of children has completed the Catechism and another waits to become old enough to follow it well. (We have also found the Children’s Catechism, based on the Shorter, helpful.) What doesn’t come and go is the three-step basic of family worship: read the Bible, pray, and sing.
Many families find the idea of trying to sing together intimidating. Our daughter Susan, when she was about 19, set out to pull the fangs from that monster. A fine pianist, she produced an album of four CDs of piano accompaniment to eighty-eight fine hymns, with a brief musical introduction to each hymn, followed by playing it as many times as it has verses, just as if she were accompanying our own family worship or a church congregation singing. The CD insert includes a list of the hymns by title and a table telling the page numbers in several widely used hymnals. Called “Listen While We Sing,” the album is available from Great Commission Publishers or over the web at, along with several single-CD albums: “Redeeming Love,” “Chiefest Joy,” and “Silent Word,” all of them meditative piano treatments of hymns or psalms.
Now let me insert two comments on the side: First, notice that I said hymns. I didn’t say shallow worship choruses. The great hymns of the faith have for centuries been among the most important media for transmitting the faith. Our children have been brought up on such hymns, and through them they have learned much of their systematic theology. Susan has gone so far as to say that she has never encountered an orthodox doctrine for the first time outside a hymn. Second, we must not let our children’s formal schooling undermine what they’re taught at home. There is no justification for Christian parents’ sending their children to Pharaoh’s academy when they have the legal option of either home schooling or private Christian schooling.
Second—and this becomes increasingly important as children grow older and nearer to going out on their own—we need to inculcate the discipline and habit of personal devotions among our children. Again, simplicity is key. Simply reading a chapter of the Bible and praying are all the children need to do. If they want to keep some kind of journal, a prayer list, or write notes on what they’ve read, that’s fine, but it isn’t necessary, and if pushing for it intimidates them, it’s best not to. Several of our children have taken up blogging, and frequently they write about Bible passages they’ve read, or Christian books they’ve read, or sermons they’ve heard. The blogging technology seems attractive to them, and it’s also a way for them to share their thoughts with their friends. (One caution, however: the blogosphere can be dangerous, so, when they were young and in our home, we required our children to keep their blogs private, with only certain invited persons, with passwords, permitted to enter and comment.)
Third—and this remains most important from birth to leaving the nest to raising their own families—it is absolutely essential to have our children, every Lord’s day, in the worship of God, under the preaching of the Word, in the fellowship of the saints, partaking regularly of the Lord’s Supper from their earliest ability to confess their faith. While personal and family devotions are important, we must face the fact that the Bible puts much more emphasis on corporate worship, on the church gathered, than on personal or family worship.
Notice that I said the children should be in the worship service. In principle, we don’t believe in “children’s church.” As illustrated in the great worship service during the restoration of Jerusalem under Nehemiah, not only men and women (adults) but all who can understand (down to little children) should be gathered together in worship for the hearing of the Word (Nehemiah 8:3). We believe the youngest children need to learn to show reverence to God by sitting still and quietly in worship service. We believe that very early on they begin to be able to follow some of the Scripture reading, some of the preaching, and some of the hymns and prayers of the worship service. At a far younger age than many people think, they become able to participate intelligently in the whole worship service. And the age at which they reach that point only gets delayed, we believe, by sending them to “children’s church.” Further, we are not raising children. We are raising adults. They just happen to be children at the moment, but they’re going to become adults, and that’s our goal. Consequently, we want our children to emulate adults, or at least significantly older children, not other children of their own ages. That’s one reason why we home school. It’s also another reason why we keep them in worship service, and generally also in adult Sunday school classes, with us.
You might be wondering, “So what’s been the result in your own family?”
I wish I could just say, “All seven of our children clearly and credibly profess faith in Christ alone for their salvation.” But I can’t. Some question that. As I look back on my practice, I think sometimes my actions contradicted my words. I taught them the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But I think sometimes I treated them in a way that implied that they needed, somehow, to earn my love. In other words, sometimes I didn’t live the gospel for them very well. So today, about a decade after I first wrote this essay, some are walking securely in that faith. Some are debating in their minds what the gospel really is. Some have reacted to sins they’ve observed in me, or in our churches, by distancing themselves. That causes me no end of grief, but they’re all adults now, and while I can pray for them and, when they welcome it, talk with them about such things, they’re no longer under my authority, and I can’t, and must not, treat them as if they were. So I pray for them.
But this much I know: They all know their Bibles well. They know how to pray, how to sing God’s praises. For most of them, the Lord’s Day remains the high point of their week, when they get to enjoy corporate worship and then fellowship with their brothers and sisters in Christ. All are mature, thoughtful, loving, wonderful adults for whom I thank God over and over again, even while I continue to pray for them to grow in the faith once for all delivered to the saints, for “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).
Postscript: Notice that I’ve said nothing here about vacation Bible school or any similar programs like that depicted in the photograph above. Does God use them to reach children? Undoubtedly. Should Christian parents rely on them? No.
Featured image: Children in Vacation Bible School, U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, South Korea (Photo credit: U.S. Army via Flickr Creative Commons)
[1] Steve Wilkins, “Covenant and Baptism,” taped lecture at the 2003 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference, transcript, 11-12, italicized emphases original to the transcript and reflecting the speaker’s voice in delivery; boldfaced emphasis added.
[2] Steve Wilkins, “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation,” in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros & Cons: Debating the Federal Vision, edited by E. Calvin Beisner (Ft. Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 254-269, at 267, 262.
[3] John Barach, “Covenant and History,” 2002 AAPC lecture transcript, pp. 45-48, boldfaced emphasis added; compare Barach, “Covenant and Election,” 2002 AAPC lecture transcript, p. 86, lines 15-27, for the same point.
[4] Douglas Wilson, “Union with Christ: An Overview of the Federal Vision,” in Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros & Cons, 1-8, at 7.
[5] The interaction above with Wilkins, Barach, Schlissel, and Wilson is adapted from my “Concluding Comments on the Federal Vision,” in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros & Cons, 304-325, at 307-309 and 321-323.
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How did the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church Define Justification, and Why?


Olli-Pekka Vainio, in “Martin Luther and Justification,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia:

The common understanding of the Reformers was that the doctrine of justification is the one by which the church stands or falls (doctrina stantis et cadentis ecclesiae), even though this particular phrase did not become widely used until the 17th century. Nevertheless, the doctrine of justification was without doubt among the most important themes debated during, and long after, the Reformation. For Lutherans, the doctrine of justification is the central doctrine; everything else flows from it, and all the other doctrines can be referred to it. Luther teaches in his Smalcald Articles (1537): “On this article [i.e., justification] stands all that we teach and practice against the pope, the devil, and the world. Therefore, we must be quite certain and have no doubt about it. Otherwise everything is lost, and the pope and the devil and whatever opposes us will gain victory and be proved right.”

  1. Biblical background

    1. That God justifies sinners is a core teaching of Scripture.
      1. Isaiah 45:22-25 “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.  23 By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’  24 Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him.  25 In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.”
      2. Romans 4:5 And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness
      3. Romans 8:33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
      4. Romans 3:30 He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
      5. Galatians 3:8 the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”
      6. Romans 3:20-26 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.  21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
      7. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,  10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
    2.  On what grounds might God justify people?
      1. On the grounds of their own righteousness, that is, obedience to the law?
        1. On the one hand, Romans 2:13 it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified
        2. But on the other hand, Romans 3:20 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
      2. On the grounds of God’s/Christ’s own righteousness credited/imputed to them.
        1. Romans 3:20-24 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.  21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus
        2. Romans 5:9-19 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.  12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.  14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.  15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.  16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought   17 If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.  18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.  19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
    3. How do we receive this justification?
      1. By obedience to the law—by doing righteousness and being righteous ourselves and so meriting our being justified—our justification?
        1. Romans 3:20 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
        2. Romans 4:1-2 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?  2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
        3. Galatians 5:4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
      2. By faith receiving as a gift of grace the righteousness of Christ as our own and in the place of our unrighteousness.
        1. Romans 3:20-24 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.  21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
        2. Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
        3. Romans 4:2-8  if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.  5 And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,  6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:  7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;  8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
        4. Romans 4:22-25 faith was “counted to him [Abraham] as righteousness.”  23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone,  24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,  25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our
        5. Romans 5:1 since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
        6. Romans 5:9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.
        7. Romans 10:10 For with the heart one believes and is justified,
        8. Galatians 2:16 a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be
        9. Galatians 3:11 no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”
        10. Galatians 3:24 the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
        11. Titus 3:4-7 when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,  5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,  6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,  7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
      3. What about what James says about Abraham and Rahab?
        1. James 2:20-26 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?  21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?  22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;  23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”- and he was called a friend of God.  24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.  25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?  26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
        2. The context: James 2:14-20 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe- and shudder!  20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?
          1. Paul addresses the ground on which God justifies us: Christ’s righteousness imputed to us by faith, which God sees directly.
          2. James addresses the ground on which other men justify us: the works, which men can see, that are the fruit of faith, which men cannot see.
          3. Second Helvetic Confession (1536), XV: “in this matter we are not speaking of a fictitious, empty, lazy and dead faith, but of a living, quickening faith. It is and is called a living faith because it apprehends Christ who is life and makes alive, and shows that it is alive by living works. And so James does not contradict anything in this doctrine of ours. For he speaks of an empty, dead faith of which some boasted but who did not have Christ living in them by faith”
          4. Formula of Concord (1577) III.42: “when we speak of faith, how it justifies, the doctrine of St. Paul is that faith alone, without works, justifies, Rom. 3:28, inasmuch as it applies and appropriates to us the merit of Christ, as has been said. But if the question is, wherein and whereby a Christian can perceive and distinguish, either in himself or in others, a true living faith from a feigned and dead faith (since many idle, secure Christians imagine for themselves a delusion in place of faith, while they nevertheless have no true faith), the Apology [Defense of the Augsburg Confession] gives this answer: James calls that dead faith where good works and fruits of the Spirit of every kind do not follow.”
    4. What is justification? What does it mean to justify someone?
      1. In the Old Testament
        1. Job 32:2 Then Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, burned with anger. He burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God.
        2. Job 33:31-32 [Elihu says to Job:] Pay attention, O Job, listen to me; be silent, and I will speak.  32 If you have any words, answer me; speak, for I desire to justify
        3. Psalm 51:4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
        4. Isaiah 45:23-25 By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’  24 “Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him.  25 In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.”
        5. Proverbs 17:15 He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.
      2. In the New Testament
        1. Matthew 11:19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
        2. Matthew 12:36-37 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,  37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
        3. Luke 7:35 wisdom is justified by all her children.
        4. Luke 10:25-37 behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”  27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”  29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.  31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.  32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.  34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’  36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”  37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
          1. Note that the lawyer who wanted to “justify” himself wound up justifying the Samaritan by his answer to Jesus’ question, “Which … proved to be a neighbor?”—“The one who showed him mercy.”
        5. Luke 16:14-15 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.  15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.
        6. Luke 18:10-14 Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
        7. Acts 19:40 [In the midst of a riot against Paul’s preaching, the town clerk of Ephesus said to the crowd:] we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.
        8. Romans 3:4 Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”
        9. Romans 8:28-34 for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.  31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?  33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.  34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died- more than that, who was raised- who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
        10. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,  10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
          1. Note the aorist tense, denoting a punctiliar, instantaneous act, and the passive voice, denoting an action received, not done, by the subjects: you were washed, were sanctified, were justified—all having to denote not an ongoing process but instantaneous events that are past for these people.
        11. Romans 3:21-26 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
          1. Paul contrasts God as “justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” with God as the One who “in his divine forbearance … had passed over former sins,” i.e., not condemned those who committed them. So justifying is the opposite of condemning.
  2.  How did the Roman Catholic Church define justification? We’ll consider separately their definition and the process by which they reached it.

    1. Note: Remember that Roman Catholicism didn’t officially define justification or how it is received until the Council of Trent, Sixth Session, January, 1547, after the Lutherans and Reformed had defined it.
    2. Their definition
      1. Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter 7: “…Justification … is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.”
    3. Their process
      1. Jerome (347–420) used the Latin verb iustificare to translate Hebrew words meaning “to be righteous” or “to declare or be declared righteous.” E.g.:
        1. Psalm 51:4, David confesses his sin to God, saying, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified [Hebrew tsadaq] in your words and blameless in your judgment.” Of course David’s sin against God didn’t make God righteous; God already was righteous.
        2. Proverbs 17:15, “He who justifies [Hebrew tsadaq] the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” Of course, someone who literally made the wicked righteous—transformed them from wicked to righteous—would not be an abomination to the Lord at all.
        3. Jerome chose iustificare to translate these and similar instances from Hebrew.
          1. He seems not to have thought of iustificare as “to make righteous.”
          2. But later Roman Catholic thinkers did, assuming that the word was constructed from two Latin roots, ius, just, and facere, to make.
          3. So the Roman Catholic definitions of justify and justification are rooted in Jerome’s mistranslation of the Hebrew and Greek terms.
  3.  How did the Reformers define justification? We’ll consider separately their definition and the process by which they reached it.

    1. Their definition
      1. Augsburg Confession (1530), by Luther and his colleagues in Wittenberg, Article IV: “1] … men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.”
      2. Second Helvetic Confession (1536), by Heinrich Bullinger and colleagues in Basel, Article XV: “According to the apostle in his treatment of justification, to justify means to remit sins, to absolve from guilt and punishment, to receive into favor, and to pronounce a man just.”
      3. John Calvin, Institutes, 1543 edition, 3.11.2: “… we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”
      4. Formula of Concord (1577)
        1. 9: “poor sinful man is justified before God, that is, absolved and declared free and exempt from all his sins, and from the sentence of well-deserved condemnation”
        2. 17: “the word justify … means to declare righteous and free from sins, and to absolve one from eternal punishment for the sake of Christ’s righteousness”
        3. 22: “when we teach that through the operation of the Holy Ghost we are born anew and justified, the sense is not that after regeneration no unrighteousness clings any more to the …, but that Christ covers all their sins … with His complete obedience. But irrespective of this they are declared and regarded godly and righteous by faith and for the sake of Christ’s obedience …, although, on account of their corrupt nature, they still are and remain sinners”
        4. 23: “the righteousness of faith before God consists in the gracious imputation of the righteousness of Christ, without the addition of our works, so that our sins are forgiven us and covered, and are not imputed, Rom. 4:6ff”
      5. Westminster Larger Catechism (1648), Q. 70: “What is justification?” A: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners,[286] in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight ….”
    2. Their process
      1. Some Roman Catholics think that the Reformers defined justification “by fiat,” that is, without any good reason, as declaring someone righteous, acquitting him. The Reformers’ own writings show clearly that that wasn’t the case. Here are a few examples.
      2. Second Helvetic Confession (1536), XV: “For in his epistle to the Romans the apostle says: “It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?” (Rom. 8:33). To justify and to condemn are opposed. And in The Acts of the Apostles the apostle states: “Through Christ forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38 f.). For in the Law and also in the Prophets we read: “If there is a dispute between men, and they come into court…the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty” (Deut. 25:1). And in Isa., ch. 5: “Woe to those…who aqcuit the guilty for a bribe.”
      3. Formula of Concord (1577), III.17: “the word justify here means to declare righteous and free from sins, and to absolve one from eternal punishment for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, which is imputed by God to faith, Phil. 3:9. For this use and understanding of this word is common in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and the New Testament. Prov. 17:15: He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the Lord. Is. 5:23: Woe unto them which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him! Rom. 8:33: Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth, that is, absolves from sins and acquits.”
      4. John Calvin, Institutes, 1559 edition, 3.11.3: “First, when Luke relates that the people, having heard Christ, justified God [Luke 7:29], and when Christ declares that ‘wisdom is justified by … her children’ [Luke 7:35], Luke in the former passage (v. 29) does not mean that they confer righteousness. For righteousness always remains undivided with God, although the whole world tries to snatch it away from him. Nor does he, in v. 35, intend to justify the doctrine of salvation, which is righteous in itself. Rather, both expressions have the same force—to render to God and his teaching the praise they deserve. On the other hand, when Christ upbraids the Pharisees for justifying themselves [Luke 16:15], he does not mean that they acquire righteousness by well-doing but that they ambitiously seize upon a reputation for righteousness of which they are devoid. Those skilled in the Hebrew language better understand this sense: where not only those who are conscious of their crime but those who undergo the judgment of damnation are called ‘wicked.’ For when Bathsheba says that she and Solomon will be wicked [I Kings 1:21], she does not acknowledge any offense. But she complains that she and her son are going to be put to shame, to be counted among the wicked and condemned.”
      5. Martin Chemnitz (1522–1586), known as “the Second Martin,” lecturer in theology at Wittenberg and then at Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, spent many pages in his Examination of the Council of Trent (1565–1573) demonstrating the forensic sense of justification in Scripture.
      6. Francis Turretin (1623–1687), professor of theology at the Academy of Geneva beginning in 1653, Institutes of Elenctic Theology:
        1. 1.4: “The word htsdyq, to which the Greek dikaioun answers and the Latin justificare, is used in two ways in the Scriptures—properly and improperly. Properly the verb is forensic [relating to a pronunciation of judgment], put for ‘to absolve’ anyone in a trial or ‘to hold’ and to declare ‘just’; as opposed to the verb ‘to condemn’ and ‘to accuse’ (Ex. 23:7; Dt. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Lk. 18:14; Rom. 3–5).”
        2. 1.5–8: “… we maintain that it is never taken for an infusion of righteousness, but as often as the Scriptures speak professedly about our justification, it always must be explained as a forensic term. [6] The reason are: (1) the passages which treat of justification admit no other than a forensic sense (cf. Job 9:3; Ps. 143:2; Rom. 3:28; 4:1–3; Acts 13:39 and elsewhere). A judicial process is set forth and mention is made of an accusing ‘law,’ of ‘accused persons’ who are guilty (hypodikoi, Rom. 3:19), of a ‘hand-writing’ contrary to us (Col. 2:14), of divine ‘justice’ demanding punishment (Rom. 3:24, 26), of an ‘advocate’ pleading the cause (1 Jn. 2:1), of ‘satisfaction’ and imputed righteousness (Rom. 4 and 5), of a ‘throne of grace’ before which we are absolved (Heb. 4:16), of a ‘judge’ pronouncing sentence (Rom. 3:20) and absolving sinners (Rom. 4:5). [7] Justification is opposed to condemnation … [Romans 8:33–34]. [8] The equivalent phrases by which our justification is described are judicial: such as ‘not to come into judgment’ (Jn. 5:24), ‘not to be condemned” (Jn. 3:18), ‘to remit sins’, ‘to impute righteousness’ (Rom. 4), ‘to be reconciled’ (Rom. 5:10;2 Cor. 5:19) and the like.”


In his Commentary on Galatians, 1:3, Luther wrote: “The article of justification must be sounded in our ears incessantly because the frailty of our flesh will not permit us to take hold of it perfectly and to believe it with all our heart.” And on 4:8–9, he wrote: “Whoever gives up the article of justification does not know the true God. It is one and the same thing whether a person reverts to the Law or to the worship of idols. When the article of justification is lost, nothing remains except error, hypocrisy, godlessness, and idolatry. God will and can be known in no other way than in and through Christ according to the statement of John 1:18, ‘The only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.; Christ is the only means whereby we can know God and His will. In Christ we perceive that God is not a cruel judge, but a most loving and merciful Father who to bless and to save us ‘spared not his own Son, but gave him up for us all.’ This is truly to know God.”


Featured image “Reformation Wall in Geneva,” by Mark Gstohl, via Flickr Creative Commons