Saturday, May 20, 2023

Tim Keller (1950 - 2023)

World renown pastor Timothy J. Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, NY, and a giant within certain segments of Evangelical and Reformed circles, has passed away on May 19 2023. While I am sure he has a positive influence on many, he leaves behind a very mixed legacy.

On the positive side, he has run the race and kept the faith. His works has positively impacted the lives of many. Yet, on the other, he is a known theistic evolutionist compromiser, he obfuscates on basic Christian morality like the wickedness of homosexuality, and his promotion of "contextualization" corrodes biblical orthodoxy among the less informed. While perhaps the positive legacy is of those won to Christ through his ministry, yet how many I wonder will fall away from biblical orthodoxy because of these three compromises of his?

Obviously, Keller plays little part, if any, in the development of my Christian faith. Let us thank God for his ministry, while rejecting the problematic aspects of his legacy.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

God and Time: The aeon and the pre-aeonial state

Before the formation of the world, when there was no sun dividing day from night; there was only the aeon that is coextensive with the things that are eternal like some temporal movement or interval. In this sense there is a single aeon, in according with which God is said to be aoenial, but also pre-aeonial, for he himself also made this aeon. (John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, 97-98)

What is before creation? It seems that, in the history of Christian thought, the idea of "time" before creation was explored in the concept of the "aeon" (αἰων), a Greek term normally translated as "age." John of Damascus explored this concept of the "aoen" as God's first "creation" (in Section 15) before the actual creation of the universe in Section 16, which were followed by discussions of the "invisible world" (Sections 17 and 18), the visible creation (Section 19), then the various frames and elements of the material world as understood at that time (Sections 20 to 24b). Therefore, the idea of "time" before creation, even an eternal "time" before creation, was held at least by John of Damascus. The "aeon" is made by God, yet it has a derivative "eternity" not linked to the essence of the eternal God.

It is this manner of talking that is interesting for our modern times, if only for the fact that much of the polemics coming from modern classical theists imply that anything that is eternal must be linked with God's essence. Yet, as we can see, this does not seem to be the view held to by John of Damascus, who is considered one of the later church fathers. We can speak of an "eternity" that is "aeonic" in nature, and this is not a heretical or heterodox position but a perfectly orthodox one.

Apophaticism and the limits of human reason

The divine, being incomprehensible, is also necessarily nameless. [St John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith: A New Translation of An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Popular Patristics Series 62; trans. Norman Russell; Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2022, 88]

… [God's essence - DHC] it is superessential and beyond beings, beyond the divine, beyond the good, beyond fullness, and is set apart from all principles and classes as a whole, and is superior to every principle and class, since it is more than essence, life, word, and concepts; it is light itself, goodness itself, life itself, essence itself, since it does not have its being, or anything in the category of existents, from another, being the source itself of the being of that which exists, of the life of that which lives, of the rationality of that which participates in reason, .... (Ibid., 71)

… ὡς ὑπερούσιον καὶ ὑπὲρ τὰ ὄντα οὖσαν, ὑπέρθεον, ὑπεράγαθον, ὑπερπλήρη, τὰς ὅλας ἀρχὰς καὶ τάξεις ἀφορίζουσαν καὶ πάσης ἀρχῆς και τάξεως ὑπεριδρυμένην ὑπερ οὐσίαν καὶ λόγον καὶ ἔννοιαν, αὐτοφῶς, αὐτοαγαθότητα, αὐτοζωήν, αὐτοουσίαν ὡς μὴ παρ' ἑτέρου τὸ εἶναι τοῖς οὖσι, τοῖς ζῶσι τῆς ζωῆς, τοῖς λόγου μετέχουσι τοῦ λογου , … (Ibid., 71)

Apophatism is the manner of deriving truths about God through negation. God is stated as being "not X." Apophatism comes about through influence from Neo-Platonic philosophy as it meditates upon the one "beyond (or above) being" (ὑπερούσιον). Simply stated, Neoplatonic philosophy finds the inadequacy its philosophy to comprehend the One, which is appropriated by Christians as the one God.

There can be many things that a Christian can find problematic about apophaticism, since it seems to make God unknowable. Absolute apophaticism seems to imply agnosticism on the one side (we cannot know anything about God since "we cannot say anything true about God") and mysticism on the other (we cannot know anything about God so we must bypass the mind and approach God through mystical encounter). Or we can go the "classical theist" route and use apophaticism to reject any ideas or implications of cataphatic ("positive") theology that we do not like. Thus, in the case of much of "classical theism," certain dogmas of what they deem to be orthodoxy is maintained to be true. But if pressed and if any contradictions are shown, they retreat to "mystery" and apophatic language, claiming that the objector is being a "rationalist" and embracing "univocity," thus evading any examination of their system by attacking the opposition.

There is therefore a prima facie reason to reject apophaticism. But if one thinks about the issues, there is another way to embrace apophaticism despite its questionable legacy, and despite its origin in Neo-Platonism. If one sees apophaticism as the realization of the finitude of human reason and human philosophy to truly grasp the nature of God, thus needing the revelation of God to truly reveal who He is, then we can embrace this form of apophaticism. We can say that God is "beyond being," meaning by that He is beyond all philosophical discussions of ontology. God is thus sui generis in this sense: Any discussion of God and His being must be from Scripture, and Scripture alone. All objections based upon Man's philosophy are necessarily corrupted, including those found in "classical theism," a system which is very much Aristotelian in its philosophy. This is not to deny that we can "spoil the Egyptians" of their philosophical riches, both Platonism and Aristotelianism, but to deny that any one philosophy should be considered definitive for the Christian doctrine of God, and that includes both Plato and Aristotle.

Saturday, May 06, 2023

The London Lyceum Symposium on "Christian Platonism"

Back in 2022, the London Lyceum did a symposium of sorts on the issue of "Christian Platonism" as promoted by Craig Carter - what it is and is it a helpful term. The posts are as follows:

  1. Paul M. Gould, “On Classical Christian Platonism: A Philosopher’s Reply to Carter,” (August 1 2022), here
  2. Willemien Otten, “Christian Platonism: Some Comments on Its Past and the Need for Its Future,” (August 3 2022), here
  3. R.T. Mullins, “Craig Carter’s Christian Platonism,” (August 5 2022), here
  4. Grant Sutherland, “Is Arius a Christian Platonist?,” (August 8 2022), here
  5. Hunter Hindsman, “Plato is not the point: A Critical Defense of Craig Carter’s Proposal,” (August 10 2022), here
  6. Jordan Steffaniak, “Whose Plato? Whose Platonism? Summarizing the Christian Platonism Symposium,” (September 2 2022), here

After reflecting on the issues and reviewing Carter's book promoting "Christian Platonism," I can more clearly understand the issues, and agree with the main thrust of the articles. That said, I still find it illuminating how people like Steffaniak continue to think there is one metaphysic at Nicaea, or that Classical Theism is necessitated by Nicaea or even Chalcedon.

Fanciful history and Dubious Hermeneutics: A review of Craig Carter's Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition

Craig Carter is one of the foremost proponents of the ressourcement happening in current Reformed and Evangelical circles. His books on the subject have been promoted as showing us the way forward towards embracing Classical Theism and 'Great Tradition' exegesis. I have finally gotten around to review his book on exegesis, and it has been a real doozy. Here is my review of Craig Carter's book Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, laid out in three main sections interacting with his narrative of church history, his idea of "Christian Platonism" or "Ur-Platonism," and his hermeneutics or embrace of the medieval Quadriga. An excerpt:

How does one interpret the Scriptures? In Craig Carter’s view, the correct way to interpret the Scriptures is to read them the “premodern” way. Taking us on a tour through the history of exegesis, as retold by Carter, we are told a history of the rise and fall of good exegesis. There was a ‘golden age’ of premodern exegesis based upon ‘Christian Platonism,’ which at the advent of the Enlightenment caused the downfall of this glorious age of exegesis into the broken shards of unbelieving scholarship. The way back is to recover the ‘Great Tradition’ based upon ‘Christian Platonism,’ and in so doing we learn how to interpret Scripture alright. In Carter’s words, “academic theory needs to be reformed according to church practice when it comes to biblical interpretation.”


Monday, May 01, 2023

The history of modern science and the revisionist view of the history of modern science

Since the awe-inspiring rise of modern technological science based on the so-called hard sciences, including physics, chemistry, and biology, many other academic disciplines have aspired to be regarded as objective sciences. One way they have sought to do so is by imitating the methods of the empirical sciences in what Andrew Louth (following George Steiner) referred to as “the fallacy of imitative form.” So historians have tried to model their methods as far as possible on those of physics, which has led to historians adopting a modern, neopagan set of metaphysical beliefs (Epicurean naturalism), whose prestige depends on its association with modern technological science, even though that association is merely accidental. Modern science did not grow out of. Epicureanism. It grew out of a medieval Christian worldview in which the doctrine of creation made it plausible to think two things about the world: (1) that events in nature are not random, purposeless, or temporary but rather reliable, purposeful, and permanent; and (2) that the human mind is capable of grasping the laws of nature that govern events in the world because the same Logos by which the universe was created is part of our minds insofar as we have been created in the image of God. Epicurean metaphysics undercuts both of these assumptions. The identification of philosophical naturalism with the success of technological science is therefore unwarranted and the result of Enlightenment propaganda rather than clear thinking. (Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, 218)

Unfortunately, in the early stages of modern science, the goal of technological control of nature was seen as being hindered by the existence of teleology in nature. Teleology is a bedrock assumption of Christian Platonism. But if things have inbuilt natures, and if they flourish only when those natures are fulfilled, then there are definite limits to how far we should go in manipulating nature (including human nature). The problem was that such limits were seen by early modern science and philosophy as undesirable constraints to be shaken off by the triumphant and sovereign will of the autonomous individual. So teleology was out, and so was the Christian Platonism of the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy. Scientists sawed off the branch on which science was perched, although the full implications of this move did not become visible right away. (Ibid., 219)

The history of the world, and the history of ideas, is often messy. There is always a tendency to simplify and over-simplify narratives, and we can see such narrative construction at work in Criag Carter's retelling of the history of the Western world:

A long time ago, the Christian faith conquered the Roman Empire. With the rise of Emperor Constantine and his heirs (with the exception of Julian the Apostate), Christianity became the favored, and eventually, the only tolerated religion. In the 2nd century, the Alexandrian school had figured out the natural affinity of the Christian faith with Platonism. Now, with the legalization of Christianity in the 4th century, Christian theologians have more time to consider philosophical issues, and they discovered that Platonism showed the natural revelation of God in nature. The subsequent centuries saw the widespread adoption, adaptation, and synthesis of Christian Platonism with the Christian faith, resulting in the formation of the Great Tradition, manifesting a glorious time of Christian civilization.

Sadly, all this would fade away. Late medieval nominalism had assaulted the metaphysical foundations of the Great Tradition, but thankfully they were not successful in destroying it. However, the successor movement of the Enlightenment came onto the scene. Beginning in the 18th century, the Enlightenment was a time of great abandonment of the Great Tradition and of Christian Platonism, resulting in the devastating collapse of the Christian faith, most clearly seen in the rise of theological liberalism (Carter, 85-9). The churches have been a veritable desert of feeble pietistic platitudes from the advent of the Enlightenment until the early 21st century. Now, at long last, post tenebrax lux! Thanks to the actions of scholars like Craig Carter, we have sought theological retrieval and have recovered the Great Tradition which we have lost. Now, we can finally Make the Church Great Again!

Alongside Carter's simplistic history of Christendom is his reframing of the rise of modern science. According to Carter, modern science has its origin in Christian Platonism (the "medieval Christian worldview"). However, in "the early stages of modern science," Christian Platonism was rejected and science was placed onto a "neopagan" route, where the branch of modern science was "sawed off" from its foundation. Modern science has therefore lost its way, and must be re-oriented towards "Christian Platonism" in order to be truly science.

As with his simplistic retelling of the history of Christendom, this history of science is an exercise in fiction. The whole idea that scientists came around and malevolently cut off science from its true Platonic roots because they wish to be fully autonomous with a will triumphant over nature is ludicrous. There was indeed a shift away from teleology, and thus a rejection of the medieval view of science, but that is where the actual history of science diverges from Carter's imaginative retelling of its history.

Now, Carter is right to state that modern science has its roots in medieval natural philosophy [See James Hamman, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2011)]. However, modern science has its roots not in Platonism but in Aristotelianism, and the focus of science was discovery, not any specific fidelity to any one philosophy. We note that what allowed modern science to progress: the regularity of nature, and the fact that nature is not divine and thus open to investigation, are specficially Christian premises, not Platonic or Aristotelian premises. Carter is therefore in error to state that the foundation of modern science is Christian Platonism, for the medieval worldview is broader than "Christian Platonism."

In the history of science, what is known as the "Scientific Revolution" coincides with a shift from the deductive method of science to the inductive method of science, as pioneered by Francis Bacon. This shift basically sounded the death knell for any Platonic or Aristotelian view of science, because the issue of "final causes" or teleology cannot be discerned with the inductive method. Thus, "Platonism" or "Aristotelianism" was "sawed off," not because of some malevolent actors at work but purely because of a shift in how science is done.

If science is the discovery of the workings of the world, then deductivism is limited to things which we can deduce from prior knowledge. Inductivism however expanded the range of things available for investigation, and allows for scientific experimentation to be done alongside much hypothesizing of scientific theories. Teleology is dropped because teleology cannot be discovered inductively. Furthermore, since deductivism is done from a larger metaphysical system, the question is asked why any one system should be adopted to make sense of the natural world.

Carter's last attack on modern science is to call it "neopagan" and based on "Epicurean naturalism." Given that no scientist in their role as scientists are explicitly calling for a return to the gods, and given that no scientists is trying to resurrect "Epicureanism" as a true philosophy, this attack by Carter is mere guilt by association. First, any similarity to Epicureanism is found in the radical "New Atheists" and "Scientific materialist" camps, not "modern science," which in itself takes no position on metaphysical entities. Therefore, besides the radical materialists, it is false to claim that "modern science" is "Epicurean naturalism." Speaking of which, Epicureanism is not the only materialistic philosophy around, so it is false to claim that scientific materialists are necessarily "Epicurean" just because both scientific materialism and Epicureanism are materialistic in nature.

Carter's history of the modern sciences therefore is revisionist in nature. It is false that modern science stems from Christian Platonism. It is false that modern science explicitly cut itself from its own roots, although he would be correct if he applied that to naturalistic modern science. It is false that modern science, even scientific materialism, is "Epicurean naturalism." And lastly, Carter is false to assert that there is a malevolent rejection of "Christian Platonism" in the history of science, which causes its "fall." In short, Carter shows ignorance of the actual history and development of science, in service of his grand project of promoting what he holds to be "Christian Platonism."

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Craig Carter on John Calvin

Another Christian Platonist, John Calvin, makes a very similar point in the opening lines of his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves” (Acts 17: 28). For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God.

Here we see the linking of the true knowledge of ourselves with the true knowledge of God; advance in one brings advance in the other, while mistakes in one cause mistakes in the other. Calvin sees our being as subsisting in God, and contemplation of ourselves occasions thoughts of God; for the entire Great Tradition, this explains why no human being can ever be neutral with regard to God, oceans of Enlightenment sophistry notwithstanding.

[Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018), 134-5]

Craig Carter is one of the prime architects of the entrance of Platonism into Evangelical and Reformed circles, mediating the false retreival of history through the Roman Catholic ressourcement, as mediated through radical orthodoxy proponents like John Millbank. Whatever the merits of his ressourcement project or lack thereof, a disturbing pattern can be seen in his reading of historical sources. One such reading can be seen in how Carter reads the Institues of John Calvin.

In pages 134-5 of his book on reading the Scriptures, Carter cited John Calvin to promote his vision of "Christian Patonism." Citing the first part of the Institutes where Calvin argued that to know ourselves and to know God are two intricately connected things (Institues, 1.1), Carter latches onto one part of Calvin's sentence, to claim that John Calvin teaches that "our being [subsists] in God, and contemplation of ourselves occasions thoughts of God." In context, Calvin was making the statement that we know from God's gifts that our being subsists because of the one God. Notice that "subsistence in the one God" does not necessarily mean "our being subsists in the one God." The former merely state that our being depends on God for its subsistence, without stating how this dependence relation works. Carter however reads Calvin as a Platonist, and therefore excludes any other type of dependence relationship man has with God.

We can see immediately that Carter's manner of interpreting historical sources is to interpret the "good sources" as Platonists, rather than let the historical sources interpret themselves. That is most certainly not the way to actually interpret historical sources. Whether Calvin is a Platonist or not is irrelevant for the topic at hand, because firstly there is no such thing as one type of "Platonist," so even if it were granted that Calvin was a "Platonist" in some aspects, it does not mean he is a "Platonist" in certain other aspects. Secondly, one must focus on the context and what Calvin was trying to convey in 1.1 of his Institutes. The text builds towards a thesis, certain conclusions, and that is the "authorial intent" of the passage. Even if Calvin were a Platonist on the issue of the "subsistence" of the soul, this is most certainly not what he was driving at in 1.1 of his Institutes, which is focused on the knowedge of God and driving home our dependence upon Him for our very being, not on the Platonic view of being (whichever version Carter has in mind; probably the Christian Neo-Platonic view of being).

Carter's hermeneutics on historical sources in the case of John Calvin is flawed, and we look at this source from John Calvin because it has been read and studied so many times, and this is the first time I have read anyone try to claim that Calvin is teaching a Christian Neo-Platonic ontology in this passage. Carter's manner of reading texts is disturbing, but probably perfectly in line with the ressourcement's way of interpreting historical sources, as texts addressing ecclesiastical concerns instead of historically-situated documents.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

We have the prophetic word made more sure: Natural Theology, Hermeneutics, and Sola Scriptura

It has been some time, but I have completed my response to Jordan Steffaniak's article in Modern Reformation on Natural Theology and Sola Scriptura, and have decided to just publish it on my website, here.

At a time when the term "biblicism" is thrown around as a term of derision, and where Reformed confessionalists have veered hard towards Roman Catholicism in her fascination with the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, it is hard for those of us who are Reformed and still hold to the Reformed Confessions to stand on the truths of Scripture. I offer this response here therefore as a way forward between the "biblicist" position and the new ressourcement position, which I am convinced is bringing the churches back towards the epistemic position of Roman Catholicism, and a rejection of Sola Scriptura for a position that can be described as "Scripture Plus": Scripture is supreme, but we also need X or Scripture cannot be properly interpreted.

Here is an excerpt from my paper, entitled "We have the prophetic Word made more sure: Natural Theology, Hermeneutics, and Sola Scriptura":

It is along this trajectory that Jordon Steffaniak, co-founder of the website The London Lyceum, wrote an article for Modern Reformation arguing for the use of Natural Theology in reading and interpreting Scripture. Steffaniak’s main point is that there is an errant view of Sola Scriptura within Evangelism, a “disordered variation,” called “biblicism.” As opposed to “biblicism,” the correct view of Sola Scriptura is one that must utilize external sources like Natural Theology as a guide to understand Scripture, although Scripture remains the “supreme source” of the Christian faith.

Steffaniak contrasts what he claims to be the true Sola Scriptura with biblicism’s supposed distorted view of Sola Scriptura. But is Steffaniak’s contrast legitimate? How does one rightly interpret the Scriptures? ...


Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Book Review: The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin

Some time back, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) had a free PDF book giveaway of Rebecca McLaughlin's book The Secular Creed. I therefore came to possess a book that I might not have read. I have recently finished the book, and while the book is orthodox in the positions taken, there is much here that is disturbing and undermines those same biblical positions. I have therefore decided to write a review of the book, which can be found here. An excerpt:

How should the Christian Church think about the various movements happening in the Western world in late modernity? In her book, Rebecca McLaughlin seeks to address five movements, five claims, in the contemporary American context: “Black Lives Matter” (On BLM and racism), “Love is Love” (On homosexuality and the supposed validity of all love), “The Gay-Rights Movement is the New Civil-Rights Movement” (On Intersectional Political LGBTQ+ movement), “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” (Feminism), and “Transgender women are women” (Transgenderism). McLaughlin attempts to deal with these issues from what she sees as the biblical perspective, and is supported in this endeavor by The Gospel Coalition (TGC), which published this book and promotes her work.


Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The American captivity of the Reformed Church

Those who think that they have no traditions, are often the ones who are most blinded by tradition. In the same way, those who think they are above culture, are often blinded by their own cultures.

While working on and completing a project, this tweet by Craig Carter, Mr. "Great Tradition," alongside the promotion of Christian Smith's understanding of "biblicism" in The Bible Made Impossible by Josh Sommers, has been fascinating, if only for the fact that the current crusade against "biblicism" has taken on a life of its own. As opposed to dealing with the term academically, the term has become a proverbial slur by certain Reformed people against the inferior "evangelicals" who are obviously "so stupid" they have no idea how to actually read the Bible correctly. An honest analysis of the term "biblicism" must deal with the term impartially. However, in the hands of certain "Reformed" and especially ressourcement polemicists, the term has become a slur in a culture war waged by the ressourcement "historical Christians" versus the rubes in what they see as "modern American Evangelicalism."

It is certainly a major blind spot, but it is surely illustrative that, in a time when cultural analyses of "evangelicalism" is in vogue, little attention is paid to the cultural elements of the war against "evangelicalism." This is not to suggest that "evangelicalism" is spotless. Rather, it is to make the claim that the reaction to "evangelicalism" however defined has also its cultural elements, and this particular reaction is very American. Of the various cultural movements in American Christianity, perhaps nothing is more tied to culture than that of the current ressourcement movement, influenced by the Roman Catholic impetus of ressourcement, mediated by Hans Boersma to Craig Carter, and fueled by Richard Muller's disciples. It is also noted that the animus against "Evangelicalism" is mostly centered in America, where a backlash against "Evangelicalism" driven partly by partisan American politics provides the impetus to inweigh against "Evangelicalism" in America. In other words, it has become cool to be against "evangelicalism" in America.

Now, there is nothing wrong to analyze American Evangelicalism and notes its flaws. There is certainly nothing wrong with analyzing "biblicism." But it is surely revealing that the critiques of Evangelicalism and of "biblicism" in the American Reformed churches nowadays are less about doctrine and history, and more about cultural animus. "Evangelicals" and "biblicism" are attacked, misrepresented, and spat on with vitriol, showing forth that, for all the vaunted ideas of being "historical," "scholarly" and "churchly," many parts of the Reformed churches in American are in fact under cultural captivity, unable to see things objecticely and totally ignorant of global Christianity.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Babel babble: A review of Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible

The term "biblicism" has been floating around for quite some time. What is it, and is it really bad?

In this light, I have recently finished a book review of Christian Smith's book attacking "biblicism." Entitled The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not truly an Evangelical Reading of Scripture, Smith thinks that biblicism is wrong and not a biblical hermeneutic. If Smith is true, then evangelicalism has been reading the Bible wrongly for a long time, but is that so? I would assert not. In the process of my review, I addressed the issue of "biblicism" in some detail. An excerpt of the review is here given:

How should a person read the Bible? In the Reformation, the emphasis was on placing the Bible in the hands of the laity, so that God’s people can read God’s Word for themselves. Whatever one can say about the Reformation, one must be able to say that putting the Bible into the hands of the laity, into “untrained hands” as it were, is a good thing. But is that really the case?

Sociologist Christian Smith, in his new book, demurred against this approach. Smith’s central thesis is that a plain reading of the Bible is impossible, and that one has to approach the Bible differently from that “biblicist” approach. Smith does not advocate for removing the Bible from the hands of the laity, but he thinks the typical approach they take in reading it is not correct. Given that the “biblicist” approach is the approach of the unwashed masses, what Smith’s argument implies is that, while the laity can have the Bible, they cannot read it for themselves, because they will otherwise read it with a “biblicist” and hence wrong hermeneutic. Rather, they must be taught to read it differently from what they have been doing by default.


Friday, December 30, 2022

Geerhardus Vos and Natural Theology

"Natural Theology" continues to be a topic of concern. In this light, I have bought and read the translated book Natural Theology by Geerhardus Vos. From advice given by others, I have read Vos' book first before the introduction by Dr. Fesko. With no disrepect intended to Dr. Fesko, the two are quite different, with Fesko's introduction reading like his reflection and criticism of Vos on the topic of Natural Theology instead of a true introduction. I further note that, alongside the beginning section introducing Natural Theology, Vos continus with what he see as its application in the various theistic arguments, and then he moves to a taxonomy of theism and religion itself, before ending with the immortality of the soul. Evidently, all of these especially the "systems of religion" are much less important in an introduction compared to to overview of the history of Natural Theology.

One helpful thing about Vos' book is his clarity in stating that natural theology is for unbelievers to condemn them, and thus the main application of natural theology is stated to be in the theistic proofs. (Questions 2, 10; Vos, pp. 3, 5). Against Jordan Steffaniak, whose definition of Natural Theology is rather idiosyncratic, for Vos, Natural Theology is about the Theistic Proofs. Therefore, "Natural Theology" for Vos is all about establishing how God is shown to from nature to be God, without appeal to Scripture, yet such is non salvific in nature.

The Reformation and Natural Theology

25. Was the Reformation favorable to the development of natural theology?

No, for it opposed the Roman Catholic doctrine of tradition as well as the semi-Pelagianism of the Roman Catholic Church. For that reason, it preferred to stick to Scripture alone and wanted people not to rely on their own powers for their knowledge of God or to seek Him by their own means, but rather simply to believe in God.

[Geerhardus Vos, Natural Theology, 10)

That the Reformation was not favorable to Natural Theology is stated by Vos, and even grudgingly acknowledged by Fesko (J.V. Fesko, "Introduction," in Vos, xxv), albeit Fesko made the astonishing claim that this silence does not imply outright rejection of Natural Theology, and thus argue for an essential continuity of the church on the topic of Natural Theology. As opposed to the supposed continuity between Thomas Aquinas and Geergardus Vos, Lane Tipton has instead argued for a deeper natural theology by Vos in line with Reformed doctrines of sin and salvation (Lane Tipton, "The Deeper Protestant Conception of Natural Theology: Natural Theology in Light of Vos' Reformed Dogmatics," Reformed Forum (Fall/ Winter 2022): 3-13), a really interesting article indeed.

Reflections on Natural Theology

Now, while all that is interesting and helpful, I struggled to see why Natural Theology itself is necessary. Vos' focus on the Theistic Proofs tie Natural Theology with apologetics. Yet, it is clear after thinking it through that the theistic proofs do not work. The ontological argument fails because it assumes certain views on ontology that many people today reject as simply not true (e.g. something can have more "being"), the cosmological argument fails because it at best establishes a cause which could be anything including an impersonal principle, the moral argument assumes objective morality apart apart from God, and so on. None of the theistic arguments truly work as they are advertised, as sound arguments irrefutably proving the existence of God. If that is all Natural Theology can offer, then certainly we should throw away Natural Theology as a concept, since it is useless even if it is true. However, after more thought, perhaps the trascendental method of the theistic proofs work. In this case, they work not because the arguments are sound; they are not, but because the mere fact of their existence and their resonance with various peoples show that all men have the sensus divinitatis and thus God is real.

All in all, Vos' book on Natural Theology is indeed helpful. That said, if this is all Natural Theology is, it retains its place in the apologetics section, as methods by which people have historically thought that the existence of God could be proved.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

On Theological Method: A Review and response to Matthew Emerson and Luke Stamps on "Trinitarian Theological Method"

In 2019, a book was written showcasing an in-house debate among Baptists on the doctrine of God. In that book, Matthew Emerson and Luke Stamps wrote a chapter on it promoting the concept of "trinitarian theological method."[1] The reason for "departures from classical Christian doctrine," according to them, is due to faulty theological method.[2] Fidelity to Scripture as sole and final authority alone is insufficient, unless paired with a theological method that they believe to be true. Those who do not accept the need of their theological method are "biblicists," defined as those who "seeks to interpret the biblical text, as far as is possible, without any outside any outside influence, particularly any undue creedal or confessional influence."[3]

As someone troubled by this ressourcement happening within professing conservative Protestant circles, I read the chapter (and the book), and have written a review and response to Emerson's and Stamps' proposal. Briefly in response, I find their proposal vague and confusing, and liable to be interpreted either in an orthodox manner or a heterodox manner. Ultimately, I hold that Emerson's and Stamp's proposal is actually dangerous for Christians, as it opens them up to possible deception under the guise of theological retreival.

My review and response to Emerson's and Stamps' proposal can be found here. An exceprt:

Evangelicals are committed to Scripture as the sole and final authority. However, does this guarantee fidelity to biblical truth? Emerson and Stamps argue that it does not. Pointing to examples of what they see as departures from “classic Christian doctrine,” Emerson and Stamps assert that the reason for these departures is due to a difference in theological method. In other words, a commitment to Scripture as the sole and final authority is insufficient for any theology to be truly biblical unless it adopts a certain theological method which will ensure that it would be truly biblical.


[1] Matthew Y. Emerson and Luke Stamps, “On Trinitarian Theological Method,” In Keith S. Whitfield, ed., Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2019), 95-128

[2] Ibid., 97

[3] Ibid.

Friday, November 04, 2022

Does God have libertarian free will?

(3) Issue: Is the Son free in his willing to obey the will of the Father? Some might think if the Son must embrace the Father's will, then he cannot truly be free in accepting to do the Father's will. ... Response: This objection stands only if the kind of freedom one is considering is libertarian freedom, the so-called power of contrary choice. That is, Butner's criticism works only if the freedom by which the Son is said to "freely obey" the Father is one in which he can equally obey or disobey the Father (i.e., The Son has libertarian freedom which requires the power of contrary choice). I have argued elsewhere that libertarian freedom is a failed concept that neither explains why moral agents choose precisely what they do nor accords with the strong sovereignty of God we see throughout the Scriptures. If we adopt instead the concept of freedom in which our freedom consists in our unconstrained ability to do what we most want or to act according to our highest inclination— sometimes referred to as a "freedom of inclination"—then this problem is resolved. The Son's willing submission is his free and unconstrained expression of what he most wants to do when he receives the authoritative will of the Fahter, which is always, without exception, to embrace and carry out precisely what the Father gives him to do. (Bruce A. Ware, "Unity and Discintion of the Trinitarian Persons," in Keith S. Whitefield, Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application, pp. 49-50)

Does God have libertarian free will? Professor Bruce Ware would certainly reject the notion, as he uses his rejection of divine libertarian free will to respond to Glen Butner's objection to EFS based on the issue of the divine will. But in order to truly answer the question, we must ask what the idea of divine libertarian free will actually mean.

When it comes to God, who is omnipotent and sovereign, the "power of contrary choice" seems to be a vacuous concept, since by definition, God being sovereign means He can choose to do whatever He wants to do, and His omnipotence means He will most certainly have the ability to do whatever He chooses to do. What does "contrary choice" mean to an infinite and all-powerful being? Perhaps we might consider the issue from another angle. We could therefore focus not so much on God considered absolutely (Dei potentia absoluta), but rather the relation between God considered absolutely and God as He has revealed Himself, in the ordination of all things (Dei potentia ordinata). Is God free to do anything whatsoever even if it goes against His plan or His nature, and is there anything that constrains what God would do, not by force but by principle? Now, if God is the only true God who is a se, then nothing can constrain God at all from the outside, because God is before all things. Therefore, any constraint if present must be within God. Most people might think that God's nature would "constrain" God, and, speaking anthropomorphically, it does. In a certain sense, it is impossible for God to go against His own nature, because God is God, a simple being.

With two dead ends, is there a way we can talk sensibly about a "divine libertarian free will"? In order for that category to make sense, we must construe freedom differently. Freedom cannot refer to choice or nature in the case of God, but rather we must turn to the issue of modality. In other words, we must ask ourselves whether God is free to bring to pass any possible world that can be conceived, with any permutation He so chooses. In other words, it is not about God's choices, or His power, or His nature, but wholly on the circumstances that befit each possible world. God has "libertarian free will" only if He can make any possible world actual, and He does not have "libertarian free will" if there are certain constraints that restrict the existence of any possible world. The issue here is one of modality, not of actuality. Put mathematically, is the probabiity that God can make a possible conceivable world X not zero, or are there some mentally conceivable possible world of which its probability of existence is zero?

Phrased in this manner, we can see that God does not truly have libertarian free will, but not because He does not have the "power of contrary choice." Rather, God's plan and decree acts as further constraints on which conceivable world is a possibly actual world, above that exercised by the divine nature. In Butner's example here, the Son voluntarily and freely obeys the will of the Father. Being free, there is no compulsion for the Son to actually obey the Father. In Classical Theism, the unity of the singular divine will ensures that the Son and the Father are not at loggerheads with each other. In Ware's system on the other hand, the Son must obey the Father because the Son does not have libertarian free will, but His freedom of inclination ensures He always obeys the Father. In a certain sense, both explanations are correct. Yet, if we are to consider the issue of free will in a way that makes sense for a sovereign and omnipotent being, then the answer for why the Son always obeys the Father is this: That is the way God's plan will work in any possible existent world. The freedom of the Son means that it is mentally (hypothetically) conceivable for the Son not to always obey the Father, but that world can never exist. The Son always obey the Father because God's plan and decree acts as constraints upon what worlds are available to actualize.

Therefore, does God have libertarian free will? If we define it as the "power of contrary choice," then yes. If we define that as being able to act contrary to the divine nature, then no. These two definitions however are not helpful because it tells us nothing about the nature of divine freedom. But if we define it in terms of modality, then we can say profitably that no, God does not have libertarian free will, because God is not free to actualize all mentally conceivable worlds. Using the language of the divine energies, we can say that the divine energies act to restrict the exercise of the divine will. Thus, in conclusion, God does not have libertarian free will, but rather energetic free will.