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The One and Triune God and the life of his people

Dr Rowland Ward is minister of Knox Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, Melbourne 
This is his address as Moderator of Synod 1996.


I suppose there might be the thought in the minds of some that the subject of the Trinity is hardly the one that is suitable to our present need. It might be regarded as of absolutely no practical value.1 Or another might say, “This is ‘high’ doctrine, difficult for even the best minds. Is not a rousing call to faithfulness and service the need of the hour?” But faithfulness to whom? and service for what end? As ministers and elders we are all aware of how easy it is for professionalism to characterise our activities, to be so immersed in the work that has to be done that we forget why we are doing it or for whom we are labouring.

Many of you will know of a little book by Tom Wells entitled A Vision for Missions.2 At first you think the book will be about mission strategy with lots of graphs and analysis, but in fact it advances the thesis that “God is worthy to be known and proclaimed for who he is…” and spends most of its space in speaking about the character of God and what God has done for us in Christ. There lies the true foundation and impelling motive to missionary endeavour. Similarly, I wish to relate the nature of God as Triune to the life of the church since this is the most basic means of addressing the problems of the church as we near the beginning of the 21st century.

To conceive of God other than as the Trinity is to imagine a god who has no existence. John Calvin (1509-64) writes:

But God also designates himself by another special mark [in addition to his infinity and spiritual nature] to distinguish himself more precisely from idols. For he so proclaims himself the sole God as to offer himself to be contemplated clearly in three persons. Unless we grasp these, only the bare and empty name of God flits around in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God.3

This witness is true. I am convinced that while the church can use graphs and statistics, as I did myself in addressing the 1995 Synod, our basic need is to recover and deepen our knowledge of God. Our consideration of this subject will embrace biblical, theological and historical aspects, but I trust you will also come to see the very important and practical nature of the subject as well.

Trinity as a word
The use of the term Trinity immediately reminds us we are not using a word found in Scripture. However, it is an uninformed, sectarian or latitudinarian spirit which mouths the cry, “The Bible, I say, the Bible only is the religion of Protestants.”4 In no case is this a true claim, for every group (Protestant or otherwise) claiming “the Bible only” has its own interpretation. We do not wish to quibble over words but we do wish to adhere to the true meaning of Scripture. Hence the necessity and honesty of declaring our understanding of controverted teachings of Scripture in a public Confession of Faith.5 As Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) put it: “For the Holy Scripture was not given to the church by God to be thoughtlessly repeated but to be understood in all its fulness and richness….”6

Tertullian (AD c160-c220), the Roman advocate who became a Christian about AD 197, contributed the term ‘trinitas’ to the doctrine of God as it was formulated in the 4th century. He used this term in his writings against Praxeas (AD c215), who had taught that it was the Father who suffered on the cross. But neither Tertullian nor the Councils of the 4th century supposed that they were doing other than setting out and clearing of misrepresentations the teaching about God found in the pages of Holy Scripture. That they used the language of their time was inescapable; that there were many unholy political skirmishes and worse in the conflict which raged on the subject is acknowledged; that they advanced speculations to account for the facts of Scripture is also true; but that they did correctly discern the leading points of Scripture is also our belief, and this has been succinctly incorporated in our Confession of Faith.
The essential doctrine
Well then, how do we state the doctrine? Our Shorter Catechism reminds us: “There are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”7 Such a statement is seeking to do full justice to the data of Scripture and may be otherwise expressed in three propositions:8
(i) there is only one God;
(ii) the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is each God;
(iii) the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is each a distinct person.
Now our language about God is of necessity accommodated to our capacity, and its inadequacy has always been recognised. We speak of three persons not because this language is adequate but because the Bible describes the relations of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in ways analogous to relations among human persons.9

God is one in being or essence but within the singleness of his being there are three personal distinctions. Put plainly, we may say that God’s life is not a solitary, lonely one, but has a richness and fulness reflecting the fact that God is a fellowship. Now to say God is a fellowship is not to say he is a committee, for a committee implies various individuals each with their distinctive origin, and might easily lead us to tritheism, belief in three Gods. To say God is a fellowship is to say that there is an intimacy of loving relationship, and reciprocity in the nature of God.

Some Biblical illustrations
John beautifully expresses it: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was face to face with God and the Word was God.”10 Here is distinction and here is identity: distinction of person, identity of being. Or again, referring to the incarnation of the Son, we read: “The only God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”11 Commenting on this passage, J.C.Ryle writes,

As one who lies in the bosom of another is fairly supposed to be most intimate with him, to know all his secrets, and possess all his affections, so is it, we are to understand, in the union of the Father and the Son. It is more close than man’s mind can conceive.12

Likewise the Spirit is referred to in terms of this intimacy and fellowship. Jesus says:

If you love me you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth….When the Counsellor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me…He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears…He will bring glory to me by taking what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.13

So singular and essential is the Spirit’s work in making known Christ that we have a virtual identity affirmed in the striking expression “the Lord is the Spirit” in 2 Corinthians 4:17.

While it is proper to see anticipations of the doctrine of the trinity in the Old Testament,14 it is really only as we see the redemptive action of God disclosed in the New Testament that the distinctions in the very depths of deity itself are appreciated. By the same token, the truth of the Trinity would never have gained hold if it had not been intimately connected with the Christian understanding of salvation. Thus, the strictly monotheistic disciples have no embarrassment in affirming the deity of the Son and the Spirit in such a manner that we might well call the New Testament a distinctively trinitarian volume.

Again, it was the contribution of Athanasius to the debate over the person of Christ in the 4th century that he made people see that our salvation depended on Christ’s deity. “The logic of his argument goes something like this: Only God can save. Jesus saves. Therefore Jesus is God.”15 The subsequent creedal recognition of the deity of the Spirit was inevitable.

Trinitarian vocabulary
Theological discussion of the doctrine has produced a distinct vocabulary. Some distinctions are not helpful and are overly speculative. Still, four points are worth noting here, points which safeguard the co-equality and co-eternity of the persons in the unity of the divine essence and protect from an imbalance which produces subordinationism on the one hand or modalism on the other.

1. Autotheos (God-of-himself): This refers to the self-existence of the Son as to his divine essence as maintained with much emphasis by Calvin16 and the generality of Reformed writers since. The aim is to vindicate the Nicene formulation and free explanations of it from overtones of subordinationism which might suggest, for example, that the divine essence of the Son and the Spirit was derived from the Father.

2. Idiomata: The traditional way of stating that the persons have in common the divine essence but differ from each other by personal properties of Fatherhood, Sonship and Procession is to affirm that the Father is of none neither begotten or proceeding, the Son is eternally generated or begotten of the Father and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. This is the kind of language used in our Confession of Faith17 but is very liable to be misunderstood once we seek to explain it,18 particularly because of the Nicene Fathers’ speculation that eternal generation is a constant process rather than an eternal and completed act.

Without entering the labyrinth of discussion, the important point is that the role of each divine person in redemption reflects distinctions which go back to the inner life of God himself. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each distinguished by a personal property whose nature is such that we are reminded that “God lives from all eternity as self- communicating, self-giving love and communion.”19 God wills himself to be called by these names since they reflect real and eternal relations.20 The Father eternally possesses fatherhood in relation to the Son, the Son is eternally the Son of the Father, and the Spirit is eternally from the Father and the Son.

3. Filioque (and the Son): The famous ‘filioque’ clause in the confession of the Western church ultimately refers to the role of Christ in eternal relation to the Spirit. The Western Church (Roman and Protestant) confesses that the Spirit proceeds ‘from the Father and the Son.’ The Eastern (or Greek) Church, in its interpretation of John 15:26, refuses this ‘double procession’ clause both because of the way it was promulgated and because the more ardent objectors suppose that it implies two sources of deity in the Godhead, the Father and the Son.21

Not all Greeks accept this argument, and perhaps we have some confusion of thought, for even the Father’s deity is not caused nor does he give deity to the Son or to the Spirit. The One and Triune God simply is. His essence is one and underived, but there is an eternal distinction of persons, the Father being first in order.

4. Perichoresis: This term refers to the mutual indwelling in love of the divine persons, perhaps reflected most strikingly in Jesus’ statement “I in the Father and the Father in me,” or again, “All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.”22

One does not expect every believer to be able to articulate the nuances of trinitarian theology, but every healthy part of the church has convictions of trinitarian character since the Christian experience of salvation is never satisfied apart from recognition of the Father as the author of salvation, the Son as the purchaser and the Spirit as the applier. Indeed, we might say that only in the Reformed conception of salvation is justice done to the doctrine of the Trinity. This is as much as to say that where there is not this conception the doctrine of the Trinity is imperilled in practice if not in theory also.

Trinitarian theology today
Liberal theology rejected the Trinity along with other dogmas it believed to have been imposed on the simple religion of Jesus. But classical liberalism is virtually dead now. Beginning in the 1920s with Karl Barth (1886-1968), the Swiss neo-orthodox theologian, there has been a steady increase of interest in trinitarian theology in all sections of Christendom. The first volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics was published in 1932. In 1944 the Russian Vladimir Lossky (1903-58) wrote an influential volume from the Eastern perspective, while Karl Rahner (1904-84), influenced by Barth, although a Roman Catholic, published in 1967. Since then many other names must be added, including Thomas Torrance, the Scottish theologian.

Characteristic of much recent theological discussion is a reluctance to discuss the person of Christ in terms of his pre-existent life, but a readiness to affirm a purely functional view. In other words, Christ is not regarded as God the Son from eternity but is regarded as functioning on earth as God’s agent or representative in whom God is revealed.23

Insofar as this approach stresses the importance of special revelation to our knowledge of God, and thus reasons from the facts of redemption as disclosed in Scripture, it is welcome, but it is too generally associated with a rejection of any validity in what has commonly been termed natural revelation and, more especially, an unwillingness to accept all the Biblical data as authoritative and normative. The influential Jürgen Moltmann describes his view as “trinitarian panentheism.”24 Apparently, following the process theology, he is not prepared to accept that God’s trinitarian life has any existence in eternity but is to be regarded as constituted solely within history. In this way God is subject to limitation and suffering in a manner which does not agree with Biblical teaching.25 Nevertheless, there are passages of considerable insight in writers such as Rahner, Moltmann and La Cugna.

The Gender of God
Of recent years we have heard much about the gender of God, and of the efforts of the more extreme feminists to legitimise the addressing of God as our Father-Mother God or the like. While the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are metaphors yet it does not follow that they are without significance. In this connection the words of Bavinck a century ago are relevant:

The name of God in Scripture does not designate him as he is in himself, but in his manifold revelation and relation to the creature. Nevertheless, this name is not arbitrary, but God reveals himself as he is…In Scripture ‘to be’ and ‘to be called’ indicate the same thing from different angles. God is that which he calls himself, and he calls himself that which he is.26

The Son had glory with the Father before the world was (John 17:5). While some feminist theology involves reaction from inadequately expressed teaching about God, its fundamental approach can be characterised as one which does not take proper account of what is revealed in Scripture. The attempt by some to ascribe gender to God is quite misguided.

The Biblical presentation
The Biblical presentation of the Trinity is both specific and pervasive. There are succinct statements of the doctrine (e.g.: 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 13:14; 1 Timothy 1:2-5; 1 Peter 1:2; Jude 20-21), extended passages which presuppose it and interweave it into practical instruction, as well as all those passages which affirm deity of the Son (eg. John 5:18) or of the Spirit (eg. 1 Cor 2:10-11).

1. A specific passage: Matthew 28:19-20 (The Great Commission)
Several points may be made in reference to the Great Commission passage:
(1) In response to the argument that this must be a later addition, since elsewhere baptism is administered only in Jesus’ name (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; 1 Cor 1:13,15), it must be said that the textual witness in Matthew is not in any doubt.

(2) In any event, I would argue that Matthew 28:19 in its original intention does not prescribe a formula so much as succinctly sum up the fact that through the work of redemption the character of God has been declared definitively and he is to be recognised accordingly. Hence the initiatory rite of baptism as well as the teaching conveyed is to occur in just such a trinitarian context. This explanation fully corresponds with the situation in the early church as reflected in Acts and the Epistles. Where the gospel is rightly preached, people believe Jesus is the way to the Father, and rely upon him through the work of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:3).

(3) The passage shows the importance of the truth of the Trinity. Bavinck correctly affirms that

the confession of the trinity is the sum of the Christian religion. Without it neither the creation nor the redemption nor the sanctification can be purely maintained….We can truly proclaim the mighty works of God only when we recognise and confess them as the one great work of Father, Son and Spirit. In the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is contained the whole salvation of men.27

In line with this approach we find very pervasive teaching throughout the New Testament.

2. An extended passage: The Ephesian Letter
Ephesians strikingly employs the truth of the Trinity. Chapter 1 verses 3-14 forms one sentence in the Greek, and was written by a man who had not separated ‘amazing’ and ‘grace’. Verse 3 – “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing [ie. blessings which come from the presence and power of the Spirit] in Christ” – is expanded in verses 4-6 in reference to the Father’s election; in verses 7 to 12 in reference to the redemptive work of the Son, and in verses 13-14 in reference to the sealing work of the Spirit.28

It is important to note the tone of doxology and devotion throughout the passage. There is nothing cold, hard and rationalistic about it. Similarly, although there is very strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God it is the sovereignty of the Triune God and not of some despot or arbitrary deity.

The action of the Triune God for our salvation is regarded as involving a new creation (1:3-2:10), the fruit of the incomparable riches of God’s grace in Christ Jesus (2:8), a bringing from death to life. It results in a new community (2:11-3:21) which transcends barriers of race and background and, as the church, is the Heavenly Father’s family on earth, characterised by new conduct ((4:1-6:20). This new humanity in Christ, this new community, lives a life worthy of its calling (4:1), and imitates God in its life of love (5:2), with Christ as the great exemplar (5:2).

Characteristic, therefore, is unity in the truth (4:1-16 cf. John 17:20-23), a unity which allows for the diversity of gifts implicit in the metaphor of the body (4:16 cf. 1 Cor 12-14) and the pursuit of holiness (4:17ff): the old self put off and the new self put on (4:22-24). This is applied particularly to truth-telling, anger, stealing, purity of speech and behaviour.

In further application (5:15ff), the rejection of the drinking which results in uncontrolled, unwise and ungodly behaviour is contrasted with the Spirit whose constant infilling is seen in controlled, wise and godly conduct. The presence of the Spirit is seen from the four key imperatives which depend on the exhortation “Go on being filled with the Spirit”: speaking, singing (5:19), giving thanks (5:20), submitting (5:21), the last-named being expanded and applied in marriage, family and economic areas (5:22-6:9). In short, we have fellowship, worship, thankfulness and right relationships as a result of the work of the Triune God for and in his people.

The truth of the Trinity helps us understand the nature of personhood. The modern world thinks in terms of self-contained individuality and thus of the separation of one person from another. However, the Biblical presentation would encourage us to understand personhood as individuality realised adequately only in community. God is supremely personal, and his own trinitarian life is characterised by fellowship and communion, an intimacy of loving relationship and reciprocity.

We are made in God’s image and thus made for communion in relationship with God and with others who bear his image. It was not good for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:18) and the communion of marriage and family reflects a fundamental requirement of real human life. Ephesians 3:15 suggests that God is not merely like a human father but “the pattern and archetype of all fatherhood”.29 Over against the individualism which promotes the ego, alienates and separates, we must affirm and demonstrate the life that is self-giving, which reconciles and includes, while at the same time recognising the distinctiveness of each individual.

Already we are implying the fall that progresses to utter isolation in hell, and the redemption that leads to the embrace of God’s people in the fellowship of God’s trinitarian life here and now (cf. 1 John 1:3) with its climax in the world to come, “a world of love”.30 Peter affirms the believer’s participation in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) not as if the Creator/creature distinction is lost, but to affirm that the unbegun and unending circle of the divine life is, as it were, opened to embrace his people.

Despotism and Coercion?
The correct understanding of the truth of the Trinity balances our belief in the sovereign power of God so that we see most clearly that it is not of a high-handed or arbitrary character. The God who predestines is the God who is love, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God and so he readily may represent God as a “standover merchant”.31 However, believers should not contribute to harsh and unloving portraits of God, or even to a tendency to regard Biblical predestination as fatalism, let alone disregard the call to community and self-giving relationship in the body of Christ. We need a focus on God himself, on the God who wills that we are eternally embraced in his fellowship so that we might share in the glory the Son had with the Father before the world was. The Son has given us the pattern (Philippians 2:1-18). Well might we say that lovelessness is the most contradictory aspect of the Christian life.

The belief in God as Triune, and thus in mutual self-giving and reciprocity, is also fundamental in anchoring a proper doctrine of atonement. Any suggestion of coercion on the part of the Father towards his Son is completely ruled out. There is never any conflict of will or purpose but a perfect harmony of love: it not only pleased the Father to put his Son to grief, but it was the delight of the Son to drink the cup the Father had given him (John 18:11), because it was the loving desire of both Father and Son, together with the Spirit, to bring many sons to glory. Sometimes we can give the impression that redemption is a mere legal arrangement of almost impersonal character, when it is the loving purpose of God who himself is the way back to himself.

Abraham was stopped from sacrificing his son, his only son, whom he loved, by the voice of God from heaven (Genesis 22), and the Genesis account is noteworthy in indicating no resistance on the part of Isaac. But God the Father’s love was so great and the Son’s love so great that the Father did not stay the knife from his Son, his only Son, whom he loved, and the Son, because of the joy that was set before him – the joy of fellowship with redeemed sinners! – endured the cross, despising the shame. While the Son knew terrible fear as he anticipated his suffering, and his sweat was like drops of blood (Luke 22:44) he did not resist but willingly and lovingly went to the cross. Instead of a voice from heaven or a legion of angels, there was a loud cry from the earth which still resonates through the ages and expresses the impenetrable mystery of the immeasurable love of God: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

It is that mysterious breach in communion, that utter isolation, that endurance of hell, if you will, in an intensity that cannot be fathomed, which constitutes the ground of our reconciliation, our inclusion, our assurance of eternal life with God. We are called to realise our life in communion, a communion of love through him who loved us. Whatever disagreements we may have, may it be said: “Behold how these Christians love one another!” We love God and we love one another because God first loved us with a love so amazing, so divine that it demands my life, my soul, my all.#

End Notes

* The substance of an address as Moderator to the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, Armidale, New South Wales, on 27 March 1996. This Synod commemmorated the 150th anniversary of the Church’s founding.
1. So Immanuel Kant as cited in J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Minneapolis 1993) 6.
2. Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh 1985.
3. Institutes, I, xiii, 2 (trans. F.L.Battles).
4. William Chillingworth (1602-44), Anglican latitudinarian scholar, was the populariser of the phrase in his The Religion of Protestants a Sure Way to Salvation (London 1638) pt. i, ch. vi., 56.
5. Cf. J.Calvin, Institutes, I, xiii, 3-5.
6. H.Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids 1956) 157.
7. Q & A #6.
8. Cf. B.B.Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia 1952) 36.
9. The Latin word persona has a range of meanings from ‘face’ or ‘mask’ to ‘person’ in the modern sense of a self-contained individual. In trinitarian thinking it means much more than a mask such as was worn by an actor in a play – the modalistic explanation – but less than the modern sense of self-contained individuality.
10. John 1:1. The Greek preposition I have rendered ‘face to face with’ is pros, which implies movement towards.
11. John 1:18. The preferred reading, which certainly does not weaken the truth of the essential Deity of Jesus, is ‘only God’ or ‘God the one and only’ rather than ‘only Son’ or ‘only begotten Son’. The translation ‘only begotten’ arises from interpreting the compound word monogenes in terms of its two component elements, and is followed by the older lexicons, but more recent study has shown that the word has the sense of ‘only’ or ‘unique’. [The use of the phrase ‘begotten not made’ in the 4th century is distinct and legitimate in its place.] The expression ‘in the bosom’ is literally ‘into the bosom’ (eis ton kalpon), cf. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids 1971) 114, n.118.
12. J.C.Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John, Volume 1 (London 1869) 42.
13. John 14:15-17; 15:26; 16:13-15.
14. Cf. B.B.Warfield, ‘The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity’ in Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia 1952) 28-31.
15. Alister McGrath, A Cloud of Witnesses: Ten Great Christian Thinkers (Leicester 1990) 20.
16. Institutes, I, xiii, 25: ‘Therefore we say that deity in an absolute sense exists in itself; whence likewise we confess that the Son since he is God, exists of himself, but not in respect of his Person; indeed, since he is the Son, we say that he exists from the Father. Thus his essence is without beginning; while the beginning of his person is God himself.’ For discussion see B.B.Warfield, ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity’ in Calvin and Augustine (Philadelphia 1956) 189-284.
17. Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) 2:3.
18. Cf. Ambrose (c.339-397) “For here the voice is silent, the mind fails; not only my mind, but even that of angels.’ [Of the Christian Faith, NPNF II: 10.212]. The explanations of the Nicene Fathers concerning the nature of the act which they called ‘eternal generation’ were not subscribed by Calvin (or Charles Hodge) nor are they endorsed by WCF 2:3; cf. B.B.Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, 250.
19. C.M.LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco 1993) 354.
20. Note the discussion in John Murray, Collected Writings 4 (Edinburgh 1982) 58-81.
21. A good survey from the Eastern viewpoint is in T. Ware, The Orthodox Church (Harmondsworth 1993) 210-218.
22. John 17:21; 16:11.
23. For a helpful survey see K. Runia, The Present-day Christological Debate (Leicester 1984).
24. Cf. J.Moltmann, God in Creation (San Francisco 1985) 98-103. Biblical theism distinguishes God the Creator from his finite creation, while pantheism identifies God and the universe. Panentheism (or process theology) holds that while there is a sense in which God exists beyond the universe, essentially the cosmic process is God.
25. Cf. J.Moltmann, The Crucified God (San Francisco 1974) 207. Note John Murray’s assessment of Claude Welch’s 1952 volume In This Name: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Contemporary Theology : ‘Our doctrine of the Trinity must be that of which God is, in and of himself, immanently and eternally, irrespective of creation and redemption. If our doctrine of the Trinity is not that, then the God whom we conceive of is not the eternal, self-existent, and self-sufficient God, but a God of whom temporality is an attribute.’ [J. Murray, Collected Writings 4: 281]
26. H. Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids 1951) 85.
27. H.Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith 161. Notice also B.B.Warfield’s perceptive remarks on Matthew 28:19 in ‘The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity’ Biblical and Theological Studies, 42.
28. The KJV does not render the Greek aorist participle (believing/having believed) correctly at this point and conveys the false idea of a time interval or second blessing, a sealing after believing. The truth is that, if we do not have the Spirit, we do not have God’s seal of ownership, and we are not in Christ at all.
29. John Macpherson, Commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (Edinburgh 1892) 262, cf. also John R.W.Stott, The Message of Ephesians (Leicester 1979) 134. Interestingly, the standard 19th century works on the Fatherhood of God by R.S.Candlish and T.J.Crawford do not appear to discuss Ephesians 3:15.
30. Note the article by A.P.Pauw: ‘Heaven is a World of Love’: Edwards on Heaven and the Trinity, Calvin Theological Journal 30 (1995): 392-401.
31. John Smith, Advance Australia Where? (Sydney 1988) 225.
# The last part of the address was expanded in delivery ex tempore and cannot now be reproduced. Last Updated on Monday, 23 June 2008 23:10

Review: Robert L. Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith

By Robert L. Reymond (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), xxxvi + 1210pp.,
hbk., $AU75 approx.


Reviewed by Rowland S. Ward, Reformed Theological Review, August 2001

Considering that some 60 systematic theologies have been published in the last 20 years, another volume is not surprising. However, this book is both substantial in size and orthodox Reformed in content. Reymond taught theology at Covenant Seminary, St Louis for more than 20 years and more recently at Knox Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Reymond’s work challenges the market niche occupied for more than a generation by Louis Berkhof. Berkhof’s work is now about 65 years old and perhaps due for retirement. Reymond gives us both warmth and exegesis, elements not so prominent in Berkhof’s work. In this regard he begs comparison with Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (1994). Grudem is Baptistic, moderately charismatic and pre-millennial, although he writes with a view to the whole spectrum of the evangelical community, so the market is not quite the same as for Reymond’s book. Reymond, as perhaps befits a Presbyterian enthusiast, largely follows the structure of the Westminster Confession and is post-millennial. Both books run to more than 500,000 words plus indices.

Reymond’s work is characterised by extensive exegesis of key passages. A 128 page introduction is followed by over 300 pages on God and his works of creation and providence, a similar number on election, covenant and the work of Christ, some 170 on the Church and the means of grace, and over 100 on eschatology. There are good indices.

First, the book is orthodox and Calvinistic. It involves much direct interaction with the text of Scripture. For example, the discussion of Romans 1:3-4 in the context of the Trinity occupies 8 pages (pp.238-245). He advocates the two natures view rather than two successive stages in the history of the eternal Son. He makes the case with clarity and grace although not convincing this reviewer. His discussion on Philippians 2:6-11 extends to 11 pages.
Second, it has an American orientation. It most frequently cites theologians in the Princeton and Southern Presbyterian tradition, although it breaks with the Princeton evidentialist whilst also criticising Cornelius Van Til, and, like Gruden too, has relatively less interest in European and British theological thinkers. You won’t find Moltmann mentioned and Pannenberg receives only several passing references. Similarly, subjects like dispensationalism, still influential in the US context, receive considerable attention.
Third, the work reflects independence of judgment and some indiosyncracies. For example, Reymond, while recognising infra and supra-lapsarian views of the order of divine decrees are defensible, argues for a modified supralapsarian order. His extended discussion of Philippians 2:6-11 seeks to remove the difficulties he perceives in explaining the kenosis by positing a movement in Christ’s self-emptying beginning not from the Son pre-incarnate in eternity but from the already incarnate Son. This is surprising exposition, to put it very mildly. A comment (p.417) that ‘breath of life’ in Genesis 7:21-22 applies only to humans is interesting and grammatically possible, I would say, but has minimal support among the commentators as the meaning in the context.
Fourth, Reymond interacts with some current issues rather unevenly. For example, the question of human freedom as raised by Clark Pinnock, is covered extensively on pp. 346-381. However, the important subject of the image of God is covered briefly and rather inadequately on pages 427-429. Summaries of the positions of influential modem thinkers lile Moltmann and Pannenberg would have been very helpful.

Unquestionably the book is a useful resource, but I could have wished it were better. It is overly long, which may reflect its origin as class lectures. Its emphasis on exegesis is a good step although the execution could be improved. Personally I would have been more succinct in the exegesis, citing standard commentaries for much of the detail and concentrating on the significance of the conclusions. I would also provide some kind of historical framework to help the student appreciate past approaches and current views in context. On the whole Grudem’s work will appeal more to the average student as it is more user friendly and has a more pronounced devotional tone. Unhappily, given the price of either book, few students will buy both.

Review: Perspectives Old and New on Paul: the ‘Lutheran’ Paul and his Critics

by Stephen Westerholm (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) lge. pbk., xix & 448 pp. US$35.

This Review by Rowland S. Ward appeared in The Confessional Presbyterian 1 (2005)

Another contribution to Pauline studies from the associate professor of biblical studies at McMaster University is to be welcomed. In this case it is the revision and expansion of his Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith, published in 1988. It has all the hallmarks of Westerholm’s work: wide-reading, clarity, humour and informed orthodoxy. It deserves a wide readership.

As the quotation marks around ‘Lutheran’ in the book’s title suggest, Westerholm is not arguing that Paul was a Lutheran but he does make the case for the essential correctness of Luther’s reading of Paul. At the same time he recognises the importance of a good understanding of Judaism in the first century.

In the first part (pages 3-97) Westerholm offers four portraits of Christian leaders who held an essentially Lutheran understanding of Paul – Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Wesley. While each is only about 20 pages, they sufficiently illustrate that people of different temperament and in different situations concurred in the meaning of justification in Paul. Westerholm closes with a review of Paul’s teaching, and lays down 7 helpful points in his summary of it.

After this fitting introduction, we have a lengthy second part of about 160 pages in which the views of 26 twentieth century scholars are surveyed, grouped according to basic emphasis. This does not critique their views but seeks to encapsulate them in a succinct and fair manner. In beginning with William Wrede’s Paul, issued in 1908, Westerholm provides an important reminder that views of Paul’s theology in which justification by faith is a secondary issue are not new. According to Wrede, Paul believed that Christ has accomplished redemption from hostile powers effective for all and appropriated by faith. Justification by faith was a side issue, an effective polemic against those who insisted Gentiles should adopt Jewish ritual practices and/or observe the commandments in order to salvation, but not the heart of his teaching.

Westerholm steadily progresses through Schweitzer, Montefiore, Schoeps, Sanders, Kümmel, Stendahl, Bultmann, Wilkens, Drane, Hübner, Räisänen, Wright, Dunn and Donaldson until he comes to the ‘Lutheran’ responses of Cranfield, Shreiner and Das, Thielman and Seifrid. He closes looking at Laato’s consideration of Paul’s anthropology, Thurén and Aletti’s emphasis on rhetoric, Martyns’ study of Paul’s apocalyptic world view and Jürgen Becker’s understanding of Paul’s theology of the cross. These scholars find coherence of thought in a ‘Lutheran’ reading of Paul taken along with the other aspects they have studied. A selection of quotable quotes from the anti- ‘Lutheran’ perspectives concludes the part.

The survey provided of a century of scholarship is of value for its own sake. Readers of this review may be particularly interested in Westerholm’s summary of N.T.Wright, since he is the most conservative of writers on the new perspective, and the one most likely to impact Reformed circles. In fact, four pages are sufficient to summarise Wright’s position in which justification is regarded as God’s vindication of his people at the end of history, anticipated in the present, and determined not on the basis of ‘works of the law,’ considered as boundary markers, such as circumcision, Sabbath and the food laws, but on faith in the gospel. Paul was not opposing the notion of earning one’s salvation by good deeds, but a nationalism that insisted on the observance by Gentiles of the boundary markers that set apart Jews from Gentiles. Justification is about identifying who belongs to God’s people not about declaring a person righteous. Thus N.T.Wright.

The third part (pages 261-445) is of great importance for here Westerholm deals with the key issues. He first takes up the dikaio word group (righteous, righteousness, justify, justification etc.) and distinguishes an ordinary meaning in which, in contrast with sin, righteousness is what one ought to do: the one who does righteousness is righteous, and the justified are those declared to be innocent of wrongdoing. It is not the hearers of the law but the doers of the law who are justified in God’s sight (Rom 2:13). ‘Paul insists that the good spelled out in the law is the responsibility of Jews and non-Jews alike, and that all will be judged by whether or not they have done this good.’ (p. 273)

But there is also an extraordinary usage for the acquittal of those heretofore sinful, by which sinners are made righteous through the obedience of Christ (Rom 5:19). Westerholm puts it well (p.275): ‘No one has better grasped the absurdity of “receiving righteousness” than N.T.Wright: “Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom” (Founder, 98). But the absurdity of it all in no way alters the fact that Paul speaks of “receiving the abundant overflow of grace and of the gift of righteousness” (Rom 5:17); and both 1 Cor 1:30 and Phil 3:9 speak explicitly of a righteousness “from God.”’ Further, God’s righteousness is referred to in a manner which shows God maintains the moral order at the same time as he declares sinners righteous (Rom 3:25-26).

When writers on the new perspective claim that righteousness refers to membership of the covenant community they fly in the face of the evidence. Ordinary righteousness is what sinners as sinners lack and need, whether Jew or Gentile. Extraordinary righteousness granted to sinners is what Jew and Gentile lack and need, whether or not they have an outward covenant relationship with God. God’s righteousness could refer to God’s faithfulness to his promises, but in fact righteousness itself does not mean covenant faithfulness. Indeed, Paul never explicitly links righteousness and covenant, but does stress that God’s righteousness reverses human unrighteousness so that all who have faith a ‘righteous.’ For Paul, though not for Judaism, all men were fundamentally lost in sin and became members of God’s covenant by the extraordinary act of grace which declared them righteous.

Westerholm then takes up the definition of law. He shows that while Paul sometimes uses the term nomos to refer to part or all of the Old Testament scriptures, his more common use is to refer to the body of law given to Israel by the hand of Moses at Mt Sinai. The broad and narrow uses need to be clearly distinguished. ‘The law that can be kept, done, fulfilled or transgressed is clearly “the legal parts” of the Pentateuch. The law given 430 years after the Abrahamic promise (Gal 3:17,19) was not the Pentateuch as a whole but the Sinaitic legislation…’ (p.299) As far as Paul is concerned the essence of law in this sense is that it requires works, and justification by faith is the antithesis of this.

If justification by faith was simply a useful polemic against those Jews whose nationalism made them insist that Gentiles observe certain Jewish boundary markers, then it is not something Jews need, or, if they do, it arises from their racism. But Paul insists all people – Jews, whether or not racists, and Gentiles – are under sin and all need to be declared righteous through faith. Nor is it legalistic works done out of self-righteousness that Paul rejects as the path to righteousness but all works.

Westerholm turns briefly to the definition of grace (pages 341-351). While it is indeed wrong to view Judaism as typically preoccupied with gaining enough merit to pass the Divine scrutiny in the judgement, rabbinic Judaism is not unequivocal in its rejection of merit and works. Judaism did not see grace and works as opposed to each other as Paul did. Judaism thought of God’s choice of Israel as according to grace, but that grace had a reason in, for instance, the merit of the patriarchs or Israel’s willingness to submit to the law before God would grant it to them. Judaism was really very much in a Pelagian mould, and thus in some way thought one could contribute to salvation, whereas Paul’s understanding of grace excludes any and all of our works absolutely.

A survey of justification by faith in Paul’s thought (pages 352-407) and a discussion of the law summarised in nine theses (408-439) complete this stimulating volume. The new perspective’s presentation tends to say the difference between Jews and Christian was not on grace but only on who was the Messiah. But Paul does not say that Gentiles should become like Jews (except for Jewish boundary markers) to enjoy God’s blessings. Rather, he insists that Jews and Gentiles alike are sinners and need to follow stop pursuing righteousness by law but receive righteousness through faith in Jesus.

The volume is quite demanding but repays careful study. It is probably the best introduction to the issue for theological students currently available. Some issues remain, for further discussion, including how one may best state the nature of the Mosaic covenant, the proper interpretation of Romans 7, and aspects of imputation. The effect of Westerholm’s study is to give a substantial rebuttal of the distinguishing marks of the new perspective, of which only the general lines have been indicated in this review, and so set us to the heart of the Gospel of Christ.

Clark Pinnock and Open Theism

On 4 September 2002 I attended a lecture at Whitley Baptist College, Melbourne at which Dr Clark Pinnock, recently retired professor at McMaster University, USA, was the lecturer. Perhaps happily the attendance was only about 30.
His subject was open theism, the view that God gives up some power to his creatures so that they can have room to be. Pinnock is one of several major figures in the openness of God debate. It is a major issue in the USA at present, and will undoubtedly have influence here too. The Australian Presbyterian ran several good articles on the subject in their August 2002 issue.

Openness theology was presented by Pinnock as classic Arminianism ‘with a twist’. Arminianism, named after Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), is that view which believes God’s sovereignty is limited by the choice of the creature. God does what he can, but ultimately he must bow before the free will of the creature.

Now ‘freedom’ can be a bit of a weasel word, meaning different things to different people. The Biblical viewpoint is that freedom is not the ability to act contrary to our nature but to act in accordance with our nature. As we are spiritually dead toward God, spiritual life is the result of God’s powerful renewing work in our lives. God is in total control, yet we always have freedom within the bounds of our nature, and we are always fully responsible to God since our spiritual inability is our own fault.

Pinnock wanted to call this the determinist position and characterised it as God treating us as puppets. Doing what we are programmed to do is hold an unworthy view of God, he said. Indeed, on Calvinist principles we could not say ‘an enemy has done this’, when expounding the parable of the tares. Orthodox Calvinists such as John Frame were dismissed as hyper-Calvinists. [A hyper Calvinist is a person who denies human responsibility in the interest of maintain Divine sovereignty, and so is the opposite error to Arminianism.] If we believe God is responsive to prayer and does guide us, we couldn’t believe the nonsense of the determinist position, argued Pinnock. God is not frozen in time, but ever responsive to his creatures. He cited Aquinas (1225-74) who describes God as like a stone pillar: we move in relation to him but he does not move. I haven’t located the Aquinas reference but whatever Aquinas meant by it, assuming he is correctly quoted, he did not mean to exclude God’s responsiveness to petitionary prayer.

Pinnock argued that 85% of what he believes is not controversial to non-determinist Christians, but the new twist is in the 15%. The new twist is the belief that God knows everything current but not all of the future. The future is partly settled and partly not settled since it depends on the entirely free and undetermined acts of his creatures. God cannot know these, otherwise they would not be free acts. He argued that the strategy to further this view should not be to insist that it alone is correct, but to advocate it as an option that should be considered. Hopefully this would ultimately bring over the Arminian evangelicals, who have mostly not accepted openness teaching yet.  Calvinists hold that God knows the future because he has planned it and brings it to pass without violating the true freedom of his creatures. Arminians say that God has not planned the future but foresees what men will choose to do. Openness theology says creation is God’s project, and only some parts are settled.

The strength of this position is found in stressing those passages of Scripture which speak of the future as uncertain, of God repenting etc. Philosophically, it is argued that genuine interactions, libertarian free actions, cannot be exhaustively foreknown. Scientifically, novelty and chance are features of the world we know. Confidence in God should rest on the competence and resourcefulness of God who knows every possibility and is ready with a response.

The weakness of this position is its failure to take all the Scripture data into consideration, its philosophical (rather than biblical) notion of freedom, its failure to reckon with chance as a valid concept yet still under the sovereignty of God (Proverbs 16:33), and its inability to meet the practical reality of suffering. Indeed, how can you be sure that the unsettled things won’t unsettle the settled things? How can God speak about a happy ending if he has no control over the free decisions of human agents? When trouble or trial afflicts is it the case that God could do nothing?

Pinnock himself climbed down from his dismissive rhetorical flourishes after the morning tea break (I claim some responsibility for that). He moved from describing good Presbyterian theology as nonsense to saying it had some great positives, and that John Frame was not a hyper-Calvinist after all, just a strict Calvinist. He even acknowledged we had 400 years of rather impressive reflection on these important issues. All this, however, only illustrated that Pinnock, though an interesting enough speaker, is no careful theologian, knowledgeable in historical theology and scrupulous in presenting the issues.

Over the years his theology has changed a lot. It may be doubted if Pinnock has reached his final point. Those who wish to acquaint themselves with the issues may, however, follow one piece of advice offered by Pinnock: read Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views edited by James K.Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001). This is not light reading but Gregory Boyd, a more able man than Pinnock, gives a presentation of openness theology, Paul Helm the orthodox Reformed view, with David Hunt and William Lane Craig respectively offering simple-foreknowledge and middle-knowledge views. For a direct critique of open theism, Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000) is recommended.

From The Presbyterian Banner, October 2002