Tag Archives: Richard Muller

We Distinguish: Knowledge/Assent/Confidence

The Bible teaches that true faith in Jesus Christ is essential for salvation.  If you’re going to have eternal life, you must have this vital faith connection to Christ.  In Acts 16, Paul and Silas were in the prison in Philippi.  God sent a great earthquake and all the doors were opened and the chains fell away from the prisoners.  The jailer was about to end himself, but Paul stopped him.  The jailer then said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  And the simple answer from the apostles was:  “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved…”

Given that faith is essential for salvation, it follows that clarity about the definition of faith is also essential.  When it comes to the definition of saving faith, Reformed theology has historically distinguished between three different components: knowledge, assent, and confidence.  While these three can be distinguished, they must never be separated.  All true saving faith has all three of these components.

The first component of true saving faith is knowledge.  With the intellect, one has to know the basics of what is to be believed.  One has to comprehend the basics of what the Bible says about God, about ourselves, our sin, our Saviour, the gospel, and so on.  Knowledge of the essentials of God’s Word is crucially important.

True faith takes that knowledge and works with it.  Faith includes not only knowing the knowledge, having it up there in your head, but also accepting it as being true.  This is what we call assent.  Let me give you an example of what the difference is between knowledge and assent.  I find Islam fascinating.  It’s a false religion, but its intricacies are an amazing (and sad) testimony to human creativity.  I can read the Qur’an and I know what it says.  I may have a basic knowledge of the message of the Qur’an.  But that doesn’t make me a Muslim.  For one thing, I don’t accept it as being true.  Similarly, someone could read the Bible and intellectually know the basic teachings of the Christian faith.  Someone could even conceivably go to catechism and go to church each Sunday and have an intellectual interest in Christian doctrine.  But they don’t accept it as being true.  They may have the knowledge of a Christian, but without accepting it as true, that person isn’t a Christian.  He or she doesn’t have saving faith.

According to Richard Muller (Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms), these first two components of knowledge and assent belong to that human faculty known as the intellect.  This is our mind which comprehends and assesses data presented to us.  Together knowledge (notitia) and assent (assensus) make up “sure knowledge” (cognitio certa).  That term is found in Lord’s Day 7 of our Heidelberg Catechism:  “True faith is a sure knowledge…”  At first glance, it may appear that the Catechism only describes two components of faith:  sure knowledge and firm confidence.  However, historically the first component divides into knowledge and assent.  There’s a strong hint of that in the Catechism itself when it goes on to say that this knowledge involves accepting as true “all that God has revealed to us in his Word.”  “Accepting as true” is the essence of assent.

The third component in saving faith is confidence or trust (fiducia).   This element belongs to the human faculty known as the will.  The will is that part of a human being that desires.  Saving faith must see the person desiring for themselves what the gospel offers in Jesus Christ and then taking hold of him, trusting in him.

The Heidelberg Catechism, in Lord’s Day 7, describes this as a “firm confidence.”  A true faith has firm confidence that all the truths of the gospel are not just for other people, but also for me, personally.  When I hear a gospel minister say that “God has granted you forgiveness of sins out of mere grace for the sake of Christ’s merits,” I say to myself, “Yes, that’s true for me too!”  When I hear a gospel minister say that “God has granted you everlasting righteousness and salvation out of mere grace all because of Christ,” I say, “Amen.  That’s my God.  That’s my Saviour.  This good news is for me!”  So true saving faith must include personal appropriation of what the Bible teaches.  It’s not enough to know what the Bible says.  It’s also not enough to be able to say the Bible is true.  You have to go all the way and say that what God offers in the gospel is also for you personally and individually.  You must trust in it for yourself.   

According to historic Reformed theology then, saving faith consists of knowledge, assent, and confidence.  That approach comes straight from Scripture.  Think of Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  How can we be sure of what we hope for if we don’t know what the Bible teaches?  How can we be certain of what we don’t see, if we don’t know anything about what the Bible says and don’t agree that it’s true?

Why does all this matter?  There are at least two good reasons. 

First, if true faith is essential to salvation, you’d want to make sure you have it.  You would want to make sure that you haven’t left out any of those components.  After all, there are people who convince themselves that they’re Christians merely because they have some intellectual knowledge of what the Bible teaches.

Second, it’s crucial to notice what’s not included in saving faith.  One thing that’s definitely not present in the biblical definition of a true saving faith is good works.  Listen to Paul in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  In that passage “works of the law” are set against “faith.”  It’s impossible that Paul meant that faith includes works of the law.  Everywhere Scripture teaches about salvation in general and justification in particular, we find that the word “faith” is used in the sense of looking outward to Christ, not looking inward to trust in one’s good works. Biblical, Reformed theology recognizes how salvation is entirely by grace – undeserved from first to last.  That includes our faith.  While humans are called to faith, while humans are involved in faith (knowing, assenting, trusting), ultimately faith is something worked in us by the Holy Spirit.  Faith is therefore not our contribution to salvation.  Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Praise God for his gift of faith!


We Distinguish: Essentially/Personally

Theological distinctions matter.  We need them for sound theology.  That theology then goes on to inform how we think and live as Christians.  Today I want to look at a key theological distinction that can have a significant impact on how we pray.

The name “Father” appears in relation to God numerous times in Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments.   For many Reformed church members, basic Trinitarian theology has been drummed into us from childhood.  We’re taught that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Thus conditioned, whenever we see the word “Father” in reference to God, we all too quickly conclude that this is speaking about the first person of the Trinity.  This is true with the Old Testament, but also with some key passages in the New Testament.

One of those passages is the Lord’s Prayer.  In the Lord’s Prayer, Christ teaches us to begin our prayers by saying, “Our Father in heaven…”  Many conclude that our Lord Jesus is teaching us to address the first person of the Trinity, even to the exclusion of the Son and the Holy Spirit.  After all, it seems obvious:  he uses the word “Father,” and we’ve been conditioned to see God the Father. 

A child or someone immature in the faith can be forgiven for reaching such a conclusion.  But for older and more mature disciples of Christ, familiar with a broader range of teaching in Scripture, this ought not to be.  The reason is that, in the Old Testament context, “Father” is often used to describe God in his unity (Yahweh); it’s used to describe the one true God.  It’s not being used in reference to God the Father as distinct from the Son or the Holy Spirit.  The classic example of this is in Isaiah 9:6 where the child to be born is called, among other things, “Everlasting Father.”  This is a prophecy about Christ’s incarnation.  The second person of the Trinity is denominated “Everlasting Father” by virtue of his divinity.  He can be called that because he is God.

There’s every reason to think that Christ was using the term “Father” in the same way in the Lord’s Prayer.  He was teaching us to pray to God, the one true God, as our Father.  That makes the most sense in that context where our Lord Jesus was speaking to Jews familiar with the Old Testament.  You could think also of Malachi 2:10, “Have we not all one Father?  Has not one God created us?” 

To put it in theological terms, we have to distinguish between the uses of the word “Father” in Scripture.  Sometimes it is used personally.  In passages like John 17:2-3, the reference is clearly to the first person of the Trinity, God the Father as distinct from God the Son.  At other times, “Father” is used essentially.  In passages like Isaiah 9:6, the reference is to the Triune God together in his essence.  To determine which is which in any given place requires careful consideration of context.  Specifically, if the context includes references to the other persons of the Trinity, then it is likely the term “Father” is being used personally.  For example, Matthew 28:19 mentions baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There “Father” clearly means the first person of the Trinity.

This is a well-accepted distinction in Reformed theology.  According to Richard Muller (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics), you’ll find it used by John Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus, Amandus Polanus, Herman Witsius, and a host of Puritans.  It’s important for us to be aware of it today too, especially since it can inform how we pray.  The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t teach us to pray to God the Father, but to God as Father.  The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t teach us to pray only to the person of God the Father to the exclusion of the Son and Holy Spirit.  Our Saviour’s intent was never to tell us we can’t pray to him or to the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, elsewhere in Scripture we do hear believers praying to Christ (e.g. Acts 7:59).  When you understand this distinction, it frees you to do likewise.


Heretic!

inquisition

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.

To really understand what’s involved here 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.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2


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.