Tag Archives: Richard Muller



I was labelled a heretic.  In fact, I’m sure that it’s happened more than once.  No, it wasn’t Roman Catholics or Muslims saying this, although they would/should certainly classify me as such.  It was other Reformed believers.  The particular occasion was this blog post where I shared Richard Sibbes’ answer to the question of whether saints in heaven are aware of our trials and miseries.  Some didn’t agree with that and I was therefore labelled a “heretic.”

There are at least two related issues involved here.

First, there is a popular notion amongst some Reformed believers that every theological error is a heresy.  This notion equates error with heresy, as if they are complete synonyms (words meaning the same thing).

Second, there is another popular notion (found with some) that all theological errors are essentially of the same weight.  Every theological error then becomes a matter of heaven or hell.  In such thinking, to administer the Lord’s Supper differently is virtually in the same category as denying the Trinity.  It might not ever be said that crassly, but when you look at what’s said and done, it often seems to come down to that.

The word “heresy” is not found in the Bible, although the concept is.  To really understand what’s involved, however, we need to turn to church history.  Popular misuse of the terms “heresy/heretic” trace back to a lack of understanding of how these terms have been used in church history.

In the centuries after the apostles, debates raged about certain doctrinal points.  In these debates, certain teachings were ultimately considered to be heretical.  By “heretical,” the Church understood that holding to such doctrines put one’s salvation in jeopardy.  In fact, there were certain teachings where, if one held them consistently and unrepentantly to death, one would not be saved.  The word “heresy” was reserved for these teachings that struck at the very heart of the Christian faith, attacking fundamental doctrines.

One of the most obvious examples is the doctrine of the Trinity.  Denying the doctrine of the Trinity (in various ways) is regarded as heretical.  The Athanasian Creed lays out the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and then says in article 28, “So he who desires to be saved should think thus of the Trinity.”  If in any way you deny that God is three persons in one being, you are a heretic.  Another example has to do with Christ and his two natures.  Says the Athanasian Creed, “It is necessary, however, to eternal salvation that he should also believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Now the right faith is that we should confess and believe that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is equally both God and man.”  If you deny that Christ is both true God and true man, you are a heretic.  When we say that, it should be a clear that we are making a statement about the seriousness of this error, namely that this is an error for which someone can be damned.  A heresy is a deadly error.  The biblical basis of making such strong statements is found in places like 1 John 2:22-23, “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.  No one who denies the Son has the Father.  Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.”

Another classic example of a heresy is Pelagianism.  Pelagius and his followers denied original sin and taught a synergistic view of salvation:  since humans are not dead in sin, they can cooperate with God in salvation.  The Council of Carthage in 417-418 condemned Pelagianism as a heresy and declared that those who held to it were anathema — anathema means “eternally condemned and outside of salvation.”  The Council could confidently assert that because of what Scripture itself says in passages like Galatians 1:8, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let me him be accursed.”  In Greek, Paul used the word anathema.  The Church has always regarded Pelagianism as another gospel, and therefore an accursed heresy.

Our Reformed confessions are rather careful in what they label as heresy.  Canons of Dort 3/4 article 10 reaffirms that Pelagianism is a heresy.  Belgic Confession article 9 mentions several “false Christians and heretics”:  Marcion, Mani, Praxeas, Sabellius, Paul of Samosata, and Arius.  These were in deadly error with regard to the Trinity.  Certain Anabaptists are also described as holding to heresy in Belgic Confession article 18.  Though they’re not mentioned by name, the Confession is referring to Menno Simons and Melchior Hoffmann.  They taught that Christ does not have a real human nature from Mary but that, in his incarnation, he took his human nature from heaven.  This is a heresy because it runs into serious trouble with the two natures of Christ, and specifically whether his human nature is a true human nature.  I have more about that in this article from a few years ago.

So with that in the background, let me mention two prevalent errors that are not heresies.  Theistic evolution is not a heresy.  It is a serious error which may lead to heresy, but as such, it is not a heresy.  I have never referred to it as such and I have cautioned others against describing it as such as well.  Women in ecclesiastical office is a serious error that conflicts with Scripture, and emerges from a way of interpreting the Scriptures which could lead to far more serious doctrinal trouble.  However, you should not say that it is a heresy because it does not fit with the way this term has been understood and used in church history and in our confessions.

Not every theological error is a heresy.  Certainly someone’s disagreement with you on a particular doctrinal point does not allow you to loosely throw the term “heretic” around.  The words “heresy, heretic, heretical” should be reserved for only the most serious doctrinal errors, the ones where the Church clearly confesses from the Scriptures that these views are salvation-jeopardizing.  By that, we also recognize that not all errors are of the same seriousness.  We definitely want to strive for doctrinal precision and accuracy, but we also have to realize that not all points of doctrine carry the same weight and therefore we can, even in confessional Reformed churches, have some room for disagreement.  So, if you happened to disagree with what I wrote in that blog post about the saints in heaven, I think you’re wrong, but I will never call you a heretic.  Will you afford me the same courtesy?

[For those who wish to dig deeper into this topic, I highly recommend Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, especially chapter 9, “Fundamental Articles and Basic Principles of Theology.”]

Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (1)

Petrus Van Mastricht

Though not nearly as often as previously, I still sometimes see the word “scholastic” used as a pejorative – in other words, as a nasty term.  If someone is deemed “scholastic,” then he must be one of the bad guys in the history of theology.  It’s similar to the word “Puritan” for some people.  It’s an insult.  If someone is “Puritan” or “Puritanical,” then he must be, at best, suspicious.  It’s the same with “scholastic” – a dirty word that instantly casts a dark cloud.

At one point in time, these types of notions were wide-spread.  However, in the last two or three decades, there has been a shift in the way scholasticism is discussed.  This is owing especially to the influence of scholars like Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, and Willem van Asselt.  It’s now widely recognized that scholasticism was a method of teaching theology – it did not have content as such.  There were medieval scholastics, there were Roman Catholic scholastics, there were Lutheran scholastics, and there were Reformed scholastics.  Each used the scholastic method to teach the theology they considered to be correct.

I came to better appreciate this teaching method through my doctoral research on the Belgic Confession.  Medieval scholasticism is in the background of the Belgic Confession, especially in its structure (see ch. 4 of For the Cause of the Son of God).  Protestant scholasticism is even more so in the background of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons themselves are not scholastic – and that by design – yet they bear the marks of men who benefitted from the method.  It should be no surprise.  Many of the delegates to the Synod of Dort were either theologians who used the scholastic method or pastors who had been scholastically trained.

I’ve also benefitted from studying this method.  While I think it would be inappropriate to import the scholastic method into today’s world, there is still a good deal to be learned from it, especially as it was implemented by Reformed theologians in the post-Reformation era.  Let me share ten things that I’ve learned from Reformed scholasticism.

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis

Reformed scholastics are sometimes dismissed as “proof-texters.”  Throughout their theology works, they make references to Scripture, but don’t always enter into exegetical discussions in those works (there are exceptions).  But that doesn’t mean that exegesis was completely out of the picture – far from it!  In fact, before writing works of theology, many scholastic theologians had first produced exegetical works.  Just on the book of Romans, the Post-Reformation Digital Library indicates 236 titles.  Not all of them are Reformed works, but many are.  Intensive biblical study was the foundation for Reformed theology taught using the scholastic method.

  1. History Matters

Ours is an age often indifferent to history.  As a method in the hands of Reformed theologians, scholasticism worked with the thoughts and conclusions of those long dead.  For example, I turned to a random page in an important scholastic text often referred to as The Leiden Synopsis.  Antonius Thysius is discussing what it means to be created in the image of God.  He refers to the view of Tertullian and others that “the entire man is propagated from the whole man.”  Later on the same page, he interacts with another church father, Origen.  That they were so intimately familiar with these church fathers demonstrates that their discussions were on a different level than many of ours today.

  1. System Matters

While they were not the first ones to understand this, Reformed scholastics maintained that biblical theology is an inter-connected system.  In this system, all the parts do relate in some way to all the other parts.  Moreover, it was clearly understood by most of these theologians that there is a “logic” built into Christian theology.  Therefore, when you read a text like Amandus Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, you can expect that he will begin with preliminary matters (prolegomena), move to the doctrine of Scripture, then to the doctrine of God, deal with creation, sin, redemption, and so on, up to the doctrine of the last things.  This pattern has been continued by many systematic theologians since.

  1. Asking Good Questions

If you want good answers, you have to ask good questions.  Reformed scholastic theologians were skilled at formulating questions that would lead one to helpful answers.  This was an essential part of the scholastic method of training.  Issues would be formulated in terms of either a thesis or a question.  While the Heidelberg Catechism is not a scholastic document, Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the catechism certainly is.  When he discusses QA 21 regarding true faith, he identifies six key questions that help clarify this doctrine:

  • What is faith?
  • Of how many kinds of faith do the Scriptures speak?
  • In what does faith differ from hope?
  • What are the efficient causes of justifying faith?
  • What are the effects of faith?
  • To whom is it given?

This method was also employed by Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology – as well as by many others.

  1. Using Precise Definitions

Theologians often use the same words but with different meanings.  A Roman Catholic theologian will use the word “justification,” but he means something quite different than what a Reformed theologian means.  Hence, it is always important to precisely define important terms.  Going back to justification, we can note Petrus van Mastricht as an example.  In his Theoretico-Practica Theologia (6.6), he first gives an exegetical overview of the relevant Scripture passages (see point 1 above) and then moves into a dogmatic discussion based on that.  As part of that, he provides a precise definition of justification:  on account of Christ’s righteousness, God absolves believers of all their sins and pronounces them righteous to eternal life.  Justification, according to van Mastricht, includes God’s imputation of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us.  He does not assume the definition of this key term, but makes it clear and proceeds on the basis of that.

(to be continued…)

God our Father and the Address of our Prayers

For this coming Sunday afternoon’s sermon, the Catechism lesson will be Lord’s Day 46.  This deals with the beginning of our prayers, “Our Father in heaven.”  As part of my preparatory study, I was looking through some sermons of colleagues.  One of them was quite insistent that the words of the Lord’s Prayer mean that we must not direct our prayers to Jesus himself or to the Holy Spirit.  We must only pray to the Father, which is to say, the first person of the Trinity.  I have never been convinced by this and still remain unconvinced.  There are serious exegetical problems with that position and also a fundamental category error.

The category error is explained in some detail by Richard Muller in his excellent Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms.  Under the definition of “essentialiter,” Muller writes the following:

essentialiter:  essentially; Latin equivalent of ousiados as opposed to personaliter or hypostatikos; specifically, one way of predicating names of God.  Thus “Father” can be predicated of God either essentialiter or personaliter.  “Father,” predicated of God essentially, indicates the entirety of the Godhead or divine essence, which stands over against the finite order as Creator and Regenerator, i.e., “the one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6).  In this sense, “Father” indicates, according to the scholastics, Father, Son, and Spirit, since the whole of the Triune Godhead is over all and through all and in all.  When “Father” is predicated personally of the Godhead, however, it refers to the First, Unbegotten Person of the Trinity, not in relation to creatures as such, but rather in relation to the Son and to the Spirit…  (106)

This is a crucially important distinction and losing sight of this results in theological imprecision and misguided prayer practices.

When Muller refers to “the scholastics” above, he is referring to Protestant scholastic theologians of the post-Reformation.  Among those would be Zacharias Ursinus.  Therefore, we should not be surprised to find Ursinus using this distinction in his commentary on Lord’s Day 46.  Let me quote the entire section and please note the objection to which Ursinus is responding:

Obj. 1.  We call upon the Father according to the command of Christ.  Therefore we are not to call upon the Son and the Holy Ghost.  Ans.  We deny the consequence which is here drawn; for it is no just conclusion which infers that certain attributes are withdrawn from the other persons of the Godhead, when they are attributed to one of the persons.  Again:  the name of the Father, as the name of God, when it is opposed to creatures, must be understood essentially [emphasis added here, WB]; and where it is used in connection with the other persons of the Godhead, it must be understood personally [emphasis added again].  The name Father must, therefore, here be understood essentially, the reasons of which are evident:  1. Because the name of Father is not here put in opposition to the persons of the Godhead, but in opposition to creatures by whom he is called upon.   It is in this way that Christ is called by the prophet Isaiah the everlasting Father (Is. 9:6).  2.  Because when one of the persons of the Godhead is named, the others are not excluded, when mention is made of their external operations or works.  3. We cannot think of God the Father, and draw near to him, except in his Son, our mediator.  The Son has also made us the sons of God by the Holy Spirit, who is for this reason called the Spirit of adoption.  4. Christ commands us to call upon him likewise, saying “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23).  5. Christ gives the Holy Ghost.  It is therefore, he himself from whom we are to ask the Holy Spirit.

The use of the distinction between essentialiter and personaliter could not be more clear than here!  The primary author of the Catechism asserts that, on the basis of the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, one cannot forbid Christians to pray to Jesus or to the Holy Spirit.  That prohibition cannot be justified on the basis of Scripture or our Confessions — and yet somehow it has embedded itself in some of our Reformed churches.  It would be interesting to research how that happened and trace its origins.  Was it imported from the Netherlands or did it somehow develop here in Canada?

See here for more argumentation in favour of prayer to our Lord Jesus and here for argumentation regarding praise and prayer to the Holy Spirit.


I’m quite enjoying this book of essays and reviews by Don Carson.  In chapter 2, he discusses “Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture.”  This essay was first published in 1986, so it’s not quite “recent” anymore, but it’s still relevant.  He has a section on “accommodation.”  It’s defined in this way:

If the transcendent, personal God is to communicate with us, his finite and sinful creatures, he must in some measure accommodate himself to and condescend to our capacity to receive that revelation.  (82)

This is a point that has long been recognized in biblical hermeneutics.  However, in the last 20 or 30 years, this notion of accommodation has been revised and “frequently assumed to entail error.”  In other words, accommodation rules out inerrancy.  You cannot have both.  Scholars who have followed this track include Karl Barth, Bruce Vawter, and Clark Pinnock.

One of the ways in which Carson responds to this  is by appealing to previous generations.  He maintains that this approach is distant from the understanding of accommodation “worked out both in the early church and in the Reformation.”  Then he provides this helpful quote from Richard Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms:

The Reformers and their scholastic followers all recognized that God must in some way condescend or accommodate himself to human ways of knowing in order to reveal himself.  This accommodatio occurs specifically in the use of human words and concepts for the communication of the law and the gospel, but it in no way implies the loss of truth or the lessening of scriptural authority.  The accommodatio or condescensio refers to the manner or mode of revelation, the gift of the wisdom of infinite God in finite form, not to the quality of the revelation or to the matter revealed.  A parallel idea occurs in the orthodox Protestant distinction between theologia archetypa and theologia ectypa.  Note that the sense of accommodatio that implies not only a divine condescension, but also a use of time-bound and even erroneous statements as a medium for revelation, arose in the eighteenth century in the thought of Johann Semler and his contemporaries and has no relation either to the position of the Reformers or to that of the Protestant scholastics, either Lutheran or Reformed.  (Muller, 19)

Carson strengthens his case with theological argumentation.  For example, he interacts with Pinnock’s claim that error in the Bible is restricted to the fields of history and science because of Scripture’s humanity.  Carson asks:  “Why does not human fallibility also entail error in the religious and theological spheres?  Or conversely, if someone wishes to argue that God has preserved the human authors from error in religion and theology, what prevents God from doing so in other areas of thought?” (84)

Later in that section, he also briefly discusses Calvin.  He concludes that, for Calvin, “whatever accommodation entails, it cannot entail sin or error: the costs are too high right across the spectrum of Christian theology.” (85)

In faithful biblical hermeneutics it is not a case of either accommodation or inerrancy.  It must be both…and.


“Proof-texting” is an accusation that’s sometimes thrown at various works in Reformed theology.  I think Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology has sometimes been accused of this.  What is “proof-texting”?  Stating a doctrine and then listing a series of Scriptures that allegedly support it, without providing any additional explanation.  Sometimes the texts appear to have very little (or even nothing) to do with the doctrine stated.  In that case, the practice gives the impression of having Scriptural support, but upon closer examination one sees that the dogmatic emperor has no exegetical clothes.

This accusation has sometimes been directed towards our confessions as well.  Our confessions state doctrines, and then we have footnotes to various Scripture passages that allegedly support these doctrines.  However, when you look at some of the passages, the connection sometimes seems spurious or contrived.

In my theological training, I was taught that these proof-texts should be approached with caution and humility.  It could be possible (and is even very likely) that our Reformed forefathers had better insights into Scripture than we do.  They had their reasons for including these texts, and we should carefully and cautiously inquire as to what those reasons were without jumping to conclusions.  Usually with some study, one comes to see that the proof-texts were not added thoughtlessly or superficially, but have a solid exegetical reason for being there.

I was thinking about all this recently as I read through the second volume of Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics.  The last chapter deals with “The Interpretation of Scripture.”  Muller has a lengthy and excellent discussion on dogmatic proof-texts (dicta probantia).  He points out that usually “dogmatic theologians had spent long portions of their careers as exegetes and had viewed study  of the Old or the New Testament as the proper preparation for the dogmatician” (509).

He gives the example of Johannes a Marck who began his career as an exegete and left behind large numbers of exegetical works.  It was only later in life that he became a dogmatician.  So, for example, when a Marck wrote his Medulla, he cited Matthew 19:17 as a proof for God’s goodness, but didn’t elaborate.  However, “it ought not to be assumed that the text has been wrenched out of its context or the tradition and trajectory of Protestant exegesis has been ignored” (518).

From the Reformation until late orthodoxy, there was “an intimate connection between exegesis and theology” (510).  So, “[a] text merely cited in the dogmatic systems may point toward a massive exegetical labor in commentaries and exegetical treatises” (511).  One should not rush to judgment when looking at these proof-texts and their relationship to theological statements.  Muller warns:  “We need, thus, to be wary of viewing persistent citation of chapter and verse of Scripture in these systems as mere ‘proof-texting’: rather it is a sign that reading of Scripture has contributed to the system and is recommended to the readers of the system” (511).

Today things are quite different.  Readers of systematic theologies applaud when authors make the exegesis of various texts transparent.  That’s a good development.  However, we still have our Reformed confessions of the sixteenth century, and it’s good to remember that there is a respectable exegetical corpus under-girding the proof-texts found in these confessions.  It’s good to set aside our hubris, and try to understand how our forefathers understood Scripture and how they formulated their theology from it.  They might still have a thing or two to teach us.