Friday, December 19, 2014

Some Thoughts on Reading the Bible in 2015


By Dr. Benjamin Shaw

This is not another post on Bible reading plans. There are about a thousand different reading plans out there, and I have no intention of adding to the list. What I will say first is that if you really want to read through the Bible in 2015, use a plan that takes you straight through from the beginning to the end. The Bible is one great big fantastic story, and if you’re reading a little here and a little there every day, you lose the plot.

Second, get yourself a Bible for reading. What I mean is that most Bible publishers do everything they can to make it hard to read the Bible. They print it in two columns. They put cross references in there. They put notes at the bottom of the page. They print in different colors, and add pictures and drawings. All of this can be helpful if you’re studying the Bible. But if you’re reading the Bible, it all distracts. When was the last time you picked up a novel that was printed in double columns, or had footnotes, or was printed in different colors, or had cross references? Of course you wouldn’t expect cross references or footnotes in a novel. But the point is that those things distract from the task of reading.

The ESV and the NIV are both now available in what is called a reader’s edition. While I don’t much care for the NIV as a translation, if you do, look into it. What both of these editions do is eliminate the verse numbers, the cross references, and the footnotes. And they put the chapter numbers in a place where they don’t intrude on the reading.  If you don’t want to buy one of those, at least get a plain text Bible (no cross references or footnotes). You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to simply read when you don’t have all those distractions on the page.

Third, read the whole thing. By that, I mean don’t skip over the annoying parts, such as the rules for sacrifices in Leviticus, or the censuses in Numbers, of the long lists of names in 1 Chronicles. Don’t puzzle over them trying to find some secret meaning in them, but don’t ignore them either. However obscure they may be, they are part of the story. Having those things in the Bible is a little like having accounts of dish-washing and vacuuming in someone’s biography. Maybe they don’t seem important, but they constitute a regular part of daily life. So these seemingly unimportant things in the Bible have a place.

Fourth, if you miss a day or two, don’t beat yourself up. Just pick up where you left off. If you don’t quite finish in a year, that’s okay.

Here’s to getting the big picture, reading the whole story in 2015.



Editor's note: Dr. Shaw has prepared a one-year Bible reading plan. See/download it here. If you wish to order a Bible from Amazon.com, be sure to go instead to smile.amazon.com and designate Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary as your charity to receive a portion of the purchase proceeds.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Unity and Diversity in the Reformed Tradition

Emidio Campi, Shifting Patterns of Reformed Tradition, vol. 27, Reformed Historical Theology. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014. 313pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

This outstanding collection of essays illustrates unity and diversity in the Reformed tradition on a wide scale. With special emphasis on Reformers such as Calvin, Bullinger, and Vermigli, Campi does not simply regurgitate the work of others (such as Richard Muller and David Steinmetz) on this subject. He uses hitherto neglected resources, such as Vermigli’s book of prayers and Beza’s correspondence with Bullinger, to show how Reformed authors interacted with one another as they sought theological unity and consensus. This book will be useful to all who desire a broad contextual study of the shaping of Reformed theology in the early orthodox period.

Some of the best articles, in this reviewer’s opinion, include the analysis of the Consensus Tigurinus, Calvin’s impact on and relation to other Swiss Reformed churches, and the influence of the conversion story of Galeazzo Caracciolo on English Puritanism. The Consensus illustrates how early Reformers such as Calvin and Bullinger were willing to debate theological issues in pursuit of theological and ecclesiastical unity. Through this process, the Consensus resulted in a large measure of uniformity in Reformed views of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper for generations to come. This chapter is thought provoking and provides a model for proper theological debate and biblical ecumenicity, since Calvin (albeit unsuccessfully) continually tried to involve Lutherans in these debates. The story of Galeazzo Caracciolo is a juicy conversion story of a prominent Italian aristocrat who turned Protestant and fled to Geneva. His story became a paradigmatic example of leaving all to follow Christ among English Puritans. The disturbing side of this story is that Caracciolo abandoned his wife and children to do so and that the Genevan authorities permitted him to remarry after his questionable divorce. This illustrates the fact that it is unwise to idealize any period in church history. Even our heroes often have clay feet.

All of these articles originated as conference presentations and all of them have appeared in print before. While some readers will consider this a disadvantage, others (like this reviewer) will be grateful to have these materials collected in one volume instead of lost in over a dozen multi-author works. Campi is an internationally respected scholar who is published in English, French, Italian, and German. This volume makes his valuable research accessible to English students of historical theology.



This review will appear in the January 2015 edition of the Puritan Reformed Journal.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Great Commission in the Old Testament



Katekōmen recommends this article by Dr. L. Michael Morales, who is joining the Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary full-time faculty in early 2015.
The Great Commission bestowed upon Adam entailed that his kingship would be in the service of his priestly office, namely, that he would “rule and subdue” for the sake of gathering all creation to the Creator’s footstool in worship. The Sabbath consummation was the heart and goal of the sixth day’s commission. 
Once we understand the Great Commission as a function of kingship, we are in a better place to assess this agenda throughout the rest of the Old Testament. God’s reign is universal, and from the beginning, His plan of salvation aimed at all the families of the earth, never overlooking the fact that He “shall inherit all the nations” (Ps. 82:5).

Read the full article here. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Christocentric or Christomonic?



Many of us have joyfully welcomed the renaissance of Christ-centered preaching that churches in North America have undergone in recent decades. For some it has been an old practice to saturate their ministry with the person and work of the Savior. For others it is a relatively new thing to earnestly seek to proclaim their Savior in a more pervasive way in their preaching. Praise God! If Christ is being proclaimed, the church has done well. 

Yet there is a fine line between being Christocentric (i.e. preaching the Scriptures in a Christ-centered way) and being Christomonic (i.e. preaching Christ from the Scriptures to the exclusion of the Father and the Spirit). Christomonism is the act of ONLY focusing on the saving work of Christ in our reading and preaching of the Scriptures, as if every passage in the Bible leads us ONLY to the foot of the cross. Now, to be sure, all Scripture does lead to the person and work of Christ, but it does not ONLY lead us to Him. Our Lord Himself repeatedly pointed us to two other objects in the Scripture, namely, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Gospel accounts, He repeatedly stated that He had come to do the will of his Father. Additionally, at his ascension, Christ promised to send another Comforter--the Holy Spirit--to be the divine agent who would accompany and work in his church.  We must follow the lead of our Lord in preaching both the work and character of the Father and the Spirit.

It is far easier for some of us to slip into a Christomonism than we might think at first. When the law is preached in our churches (as it must be preached), and the exclusive application is “you can’t keep it, but Jesus has,” you are probably sitting under a Christomonic ministry. If you almost exclusively hear that, as a Christian, your works are not acceptable to God and do not please him, you are most likely sitting under a Christomonic ministry. If you hear little to nothing of the love of the Father in saving sinners, you are probably under a Christomonic ministry. If you rarely hear application in preaching, you are probably sitting under a Christomonic ministry. It is very easy to fall into Christomonism. At this point, you might object, “What is wrong with those messages?” The simple answer is that they are not faithfully accounting for the whole counsel of God; or, to put it another way, they do not sum up the totality of the message of “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Consider for a moment the biblical teaching on "the love of the Father." The best known passage in Scripture is often the subject of the most clear example of a Chrsitomonic abuse:“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The main subject of this passage is the Father. Everything else in the passage exegetes and qualifies the greatness of the Father’s love towards sinners. To preach this text with the exclusive emphasis laid on “whoever believes in Him (i.e. the Son) should not perish” (as vital a truth that is in the text) is to mispreach the text by missing the Father's motivation of sending the Son into the world.

Additionally, we might consider the holiness and justice of God. Consider the many texts in the Law that speak to particular sins and their corresponding sacrifices. To move quickly from the Old Covenant text to the ultimate fulfillment in Christ (sin bearing sacrifice), without dealing with the nature of the sin being spoken of, is to miss the reality of sin, the holiness of God (Hab 1:13) and His justice which requires a reckoning for sin. To pass by these truths in the Old Covenant text will not enhance our appreciation for the person and work of Christ; rather, it detracts from it. Without a thorough and biblical exposition of sin, God’s holiness and justice, Christ’s work becomes less life-saving and more band-aid-like.

Finally, for what purpose did our Lord promise to give the Spirit? In short, for the conviction of sin and to lead us into a deep knowledge of the Savior. When we hear the law preached, our first reaction ought to be to look to the Spirit in prayer, namely, that we would be convicted of sin and would flee to Christ for pardon. Then we should seek to grow more in the knowledge of Christ, thus learning to render loving and willing obedience to God. If we simply jump to “Jesus has done it all for me,” and stop at that, we are dismissing the work of the Father and the Spirit in sanctification and perseverance. For example, if we read the imperative of Philippians 2:12 “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” and leap straight to Jesus’ work at the cross in forgiving sins, we miss the rest of the Paul’s teaching – “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” The challenge of the imperative is met in the work of the Triune God, Father, Son and Spirit, working in and through the believer in sanctification. To simply state “I can’t work out my salvation, Jesus has done it for me” is to empty the imperative of 2:12, which, is a call to steadfast faith and obedience. It denies God’s ongoing work in the believer.

My great fear in all this is that in the current trend of preaching, which seeks to be faithfully Christocentric, many will end up becoming Christomonic, the Father’s great and everlasting love to sinners will be diminished and the Spirit’s ongoing work in us will be lost.  Twice in the last five years of ministry I’ve been confronted with this attitude: “I don’t want to be told what to do, I want to be told what Jesus has done for me.” That’s Christomonism, not Christocentrism. After all, it was Jesus who said “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Jesus' great work of redemption includes the Father and the Spirit working together with Him to accomplish that reality in our lives. 



Matt Holst is an alumnus of Greenville Seminary and pastor of Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Georgia. The preceding article was originally published on ChristwardCollective.org. Used by permission.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Shepherding at Home

Brian and Cara Croft, The Pastor’s Family: Shepherding Your Family Through the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. 171pp. Paperback.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan M. McGraw

Today, the phrase, “the pastor’s kid,” often conjures images in our minds of a child who make unchurched children look tame. It is too easy to blame this phenomenon on the doctrine of election. While it is true that there are Esaus in the church as well as Jacobs, it is also true (if we may believe the Crofts’ testimony) that many ministers spend little time with their wives and children, neglect family worship, and do not set parameters for the church to respect in order to protect their families. Governing his own household and training obedient children are some of the primary qualifications for any man who is called to the pastoral ministry. Brian and Cara Croft’s little book on The Pastor’s Family sets a finger on the pulse-beat of today’s ministry and offers a much-needed call to encouragement and repentance.

The Croft Family
The authors – with interspersed comments from a few of their friends along the way – divide the difficulties facing the pastor’s family into three areas: the pastor’s heart, the pastor’s wife, and the pastor’s children. The ways in which the Crofts search readers hearts is greatly needed. The way in which they describe the trials that church members unintentionally create for their pastors’ families will shock many church members. This book can also help pastors indirectly if church members take the time to read it in order to know better how to assist their ministers in this vital area. Some of the solutions that the Crofts propose, such as spending time with each child individually each week, are very much needed. Others reveal the low ebb to which the ministry has fallen. For example, the authors say they now commit to practicing family worship at least three times a week. I have found that such irregular goals with regard to family worship can exasperate children by making the practice sporadic, inconsistent, and easier to neglect. However, the basic premise of the book is that ministers are called to minister to their wives and their families, even before they are called to minister to the church. In this regard, even great men who left wives and children behind and whom God used to spread the gospel far and wide were wrong and their families suffered for it. The Crofts give us a jump-start back in the right direction.

In the late seventeenth century, William Perkins urged pastors to make the ministry attractive to their sons so that more of them would desire to serve in the ministry themselves. His desire was often realized in Reformed families multi-generationally. Now it is common for a pastor’s children in many circles not only to avoid the ministry like the plague, but perhaps even the church itself. We must always hope in the grace of God to do what we cannot do in the hearts of wayward children. But we must also take up God’s call to use the divinely appointed means of grace in the lives of our children. Woe to us if we trust those means, but woe to us if we neglect them. Brian and Cara Croft, in this book, have given the church a clear call to reset the priorities of the pastor and of the church with regard to the pastor’s family. May we listen to and build upon it.




This review first appeared in the August 2014 edition of New Horizons.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Ministry of a Pastor's Wife

Catherine J Stewart, ed., Letters to Pastors’ Wives: When Seminary Ends and Ministry Begins. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 2013. 286pp. Paperback

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Contrary to the attitude of some, being a pastor’s wife is not an official position in the church. I have always told my wife that she is not a pastor’s wife, but the wife of a man who happens to be a pastor. Her calling, as with that of all “pastor’s wives,” is to trust in the Spirit’s help, to serve the Father, where He has placed her in Christ’s church. She is to be no more, and no less, than a faithful Christian woman.

Although the “pastor’s wife” is not a church officer, women who are married to pastors face trials that result from their husband’s callings. The authors of Letter’s to Pastors’ Wives address eighteen areas that affect such women. This book presents excellent counsel in relation to all areas of ministry. It is a must-read not only for pastor’s wives, but for pastors, other members of the family, and, especially, church members, who need to realize that the unbiblical expectations they often place on these women sometimes result from a failure to practice many of the principles of godliness treated in this volume.

The book is divided into issues related to personal piety, practical counsel, and various circumstances in ministry. The resources included here are so insightful that it is difficult to summarize them effectively. The authors press readers to make the right priorities in life with humility and guarded speech. They address improper self-imposed expectations, hospitality, friendship, respect, conflict, mothering, the Lord’s Day and many other areas of practical responsibility. The last three chapters address special circumstances in life, including addressing a husband who is living in sin, ministering in a foreign culture, and life in campus ministry.

There is a subjective element to which chapters will stand out to which readers. There are flaws in some chapters, such as Betty Jane Adams suggesting that women should cut off all former friendships when their husbands take a new call. This hardly matches Paul’s description of his relationship with church members in the New Testament. However, such flaws are few. Some of the chapters that my wife and I found most helpful were those on setting our priorities straight, humility, hospitality, handling criticism, dealing with conflict in the church, and ministering to a different culture. It will be tempting for some readers to skip those chapters that do not seem to be immediately applicable to them, but this is a mistake. For example, while we have never labored in ministry in another country, the chapter treating ministry on the mission field gave us some of the best advice that we received in order to help us settle into a new pastoral charge in this country.

Reviewer Ryan McGraw and his
wife Krista
While this reviewer cannot commend this book too strongly, my wife and I have been surprised by how some others have responded to it. Some have called the practical chapters, such as those on making priorities, hospitality, and the Lord’s Day “legalistic.” How we use this term often reveals more about ourselves than it does the views that we are describing. Many of these chapters are specific and suggestive. They are specific because most of us fail to understand how to implement biblical principles without concrete examples. They are suggestive because they properly distinguish between biblical principles and a wide array of possible ways to implement these principles. Being “legalistic” does not mean specific or strict. Jesus Christ was more specific and strict in his application of the law than the Scribes and Pharisees were, yet he was not “legalistic” while they were. Do not Christ’s free grace and the Father’s great love to us demand that we should never be content with a general piety?

We should desire to bring every thought captive in obedience to Christ. This book includes wise counsel from eighteen godly women who will help you do this, both in light of Scripture and the from the suggestive wisdom that comes only through the experience of godly living under great trials.



This review was previously published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, July 2014

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How the Church is Run (or Should Be)

Guy Prentiss Waters, How Jesus Runs the Church. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2011. 178pp. Paperback.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Church government is a divisive topic. It is one factor, among others, that divide Christians into various denominations. For this reason, it is rare to find recent works that treat the government, or polity, of the Christian church. However, teaching an Ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) without a polity is like building a machine that cannot operate. It may look and sound impressive in theory, but it cannot do anything in practice. We must ask either what government Christ has appointed in His Word, or how to govern the church on our own. Waters teaches us that we must trust in the Lord with all our hearts rather than lean on our own understanding.

The premise of the book is that the Word of God is necessary and sufficient for teaching Christians what the church is and how it should be governed. Waters’ work is winsome, exegetically sound, historically informed, and eminently practical. This book shares the concision and precision that we have come to expect from this author. He is unashamedly, but humbly, Presbyterian. He is Presbyterian because he believes that he learned his Presbyterianism at the feet of Jesus Christ, and he shows us how to follow in his footsteps through the Word of God.

The book begins with the doctrine of the church and ends with the government of the church. However, following other great models such as that of James Bannerman, he weaves these subjects together seamlessly as he unfolds the text of the New Testament. He includes substantial expositions of key passages, such as the Keys of the Kingdom in Matthew 16 and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. He also addresses important contemporary issues, such as women in office. Waters includes substantial illustrations from his own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. This makes this volume particularly valuable to those in that denomination, but these illustrations will help all by giving concrete substance to what otherwise would be a theoretical skeleton.

The New Testament teaches us how the church should be governed as well as what the church is. If we do not search the Scriptures to learn how Jesus runs the church and what form of government He gave her, then we are in danger of being subjected to the tyranny of men instead of the Word of God. The form of church government affects the well-being of the church. Different forms of church polity do not necessarily destroy the being of the church. Yet do we not want Christ’s church to be well and not just to be? The fact that the government of the church is secondary does not mean that it is peripheral. Do not read this book in order simply to validate Presbyterianism and do not avoid it if you are not Presbyterian. Read it if you love the Christ of the church and the church of Christ. Let Waters lead you through the Bible’s teaching on the church and its government and, with him, seek to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.




This preceding review was previous published in the July 2014 issue of Puritan Reformed Journal.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Studies in the Development of Reformed Theology

Jordan J. Ballor, David S. Sytsma, and Jason Zuidema, eds., Church and School in Early Modern Protestantism: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Muller on the Maturation of a Theological Tradition, 2013. 800pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Historical theology cannot tell churches what they ought to believe. However, historical theology is useful in providing models of theology that make us re-evaluate ourselves and ask questions that we may be unaccustomed to.

Richard A. Muller
Richard Muller is an important and well-known name in Reformed historical theology. He is one of a handful of scholars who has created seismic shifts in how researchers understand the rise and development of what is known as Reformed orthodoxy. Though his numerous writings are often complex, yet their premise is profoundly simple. Muller drives people back to the primary sources of Reformed theology and sets these sources in the context of Medieval and early Reformed developments in theology. He leads us to ask what Reformed thinkers said and why they said it. While his contributions have primarily been scholarly, the benefits of his research have trickled down to the church by helping pastors better understand the nature and development of Reformed theology. This feschrift written in his honor promotes his goals by promoting the study of the primary sources of Reformed theology, particularly as they relate to the question of the relationship between the church and the academy. It will be useful primarily to scholars and to serious-minded pastors.

This volume includes essays by fifty-two scholars, most of whom are Muller’s former students. They honor Muller’s groundbreaking research by treating aspects of the relationship between the church and the university in early modern Protestantism. This reflects the relationship between scholastic and popular theology as much as it illustrates how Reformed theology matured and developed. The work treats first generation Reformers (mostly Lutheran or Lutheran influences), second generation Reformers, Early Orthodoxy, High Orthodoxy, and Late Orthodoxy. It concludes with a comprehensive up-to-date bibliography of Muller’s extensive publications.

A work of this nature has advantages and disadvantages. The primary advantage is that it summarizes a large body of research from a wide array of people. Even the most diligent scholarly readers will not likely read all of the books written by its fifty-two authors. A single volume multi-author work can make extensive research more accessible. The theme of the book is intriguing as well. The relationship between the church and her seminaries has always been and continues to be a pressing question. Readers find here historical models for this relationship and the theological reflection that helped shape these models. As someone who labors both in the church and in the academy, this reviewer is continually occupied by this question. It will be of similar interest to all who share a concern for the theological education of ministers.

Many of the chapters include original research based upon other works without merely summarizing them. These include the influential conversion story of Galeazzo Caracciolo (by Emidio Campi). References to this work abound in popular Puritan literature and may have even provided the basis for the conversion of Bunyan’s pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. Sebastian Rehnman develops the largely unexplored relationship between moral philosophy and moral theology in Peter Martyr Vermigli. Dariuz Bryko shows the development of Reformed theological education in seventeenth-century Poland.

Out of this small sampling of original research, three others stood out to this reviewer. Donald Sinnema and Aza Goudriaan examine (respectively) the attempt in the Netherlands to establish a chair of practical theology and to define it as a discipline. This research is useful in that it shows how the major theologians of this era self-consciously enveloped the idea of practical theology into their definitions of theology and theological method. At a time when departments of practical theology are taken for granted at theological seminaries, this material is thought provoking and fruitful. The other outstanding contribution is Henry Knapp’s essay on seventeenth-century exegetical method. Knapp’s doctoral work treated this subject in relation to John Owen, but it has never been published. His is one of the few substantial pieces of research that demonstrates the rules governing Reformed orthodox exegesis and how their exegetical labors fed into their systematic formulations of doctrine. While Muller has revived a more accurate understanding of the nature and content of Reformed orthodox theology, he has noted occasionally that the primary areas requiring further development relate to exegesis and piety. These three chapters make substantial progress in this direction.

This book has some disadvantages as well. Strengths and weaknesses often coincide. While the essays included in it usefully summarize larger works and include some substantial original research, most of them are merely condensed versions of other books. In the case of Brian Lee’s essay on Johannes Cocceius, the author does not even acknowledge the existence of his previously published material, from which this essay is clearly derived. This is unfortunate, since Lee’s work on Cocceius is outstanding and readers should be made aware of it.

Other scholars summarize previous research, but they do so less effectively than they have elsewhere. For example, Martin Klauber has written profoundly on the shift from the detailed scholastic theology of Francis Turretin at Geneva to the attempt by his son, Jean-Alphonse Turretin, to reduce theology to its fundamental articles. In his previous writings on this subject, Klauber illustrates that father and son had similar definitions of fundamental articles, but that they differed in that the son wanted to reduce theology to the fundamentals of the faith. In the essay in this volume, however, Klauber implies that Jean-Alphonse differed from his father by removing Reformed distinctives from fundamental articles, such as the order of the divine decrees and the doctrine of the sacraments (707). This reflects inaccurately Francis Turretin’s treatment of fundamental articles, since importing such things into this concept would distort the very distinction that he sought to maintain. The primary difference between father and son was that the father cautioned against reducing Christianity to its fundamental articles while the son advocated this practice. Klauber’s earlier treatments of this subject are much clearer and more accurate than his contribution here.

Another disadvantage is inherent to this field of study. Reformed orthodox theology can be complex and difficult to evaluate at times. The chapter on Cornelis Elleboogius illustrates this in that some readers will be unfamiliar with terms such as synchronic and diachronic contingency (and will be even more perplexed over how this distinction could have caused Elleboogius distress in his love life. (662). While the author explains the Scotist and Thomistic background of the debate surrounding these terms, he does not provide basic definitions of them. Even among scholars, some explanation of terms is always helpful, though it is seldom forthcoming.

Jordan Ballor’s chapter on the debate between Richard Baxter and George Kendall over justification reveals the complexity of Reformed orthodoxy in a different way. Though noting at the close of the chapter (677) that Baxter’s view of justification was neither Reformed nor Arminian, he does not reflect the extent to which Baxter diverted from the Reformed position, or that Kendall’s view has some nuances that did not line up with many Reformed authors either. For example, Kendall denied that that the covenant of grace was conditional. Other scholars (such as Mark Jones) have shown that most Reformed thinkers believed that the covenant was conditional, though Christ supplied the conditions of faith and repentance through the Spirit. Ballor also does not reflect the fact that Baxter taught the conditionality of the covenant in a unique way (as Tim Cooper demonstrates elsewhere). Baxter diverted from the Reformed by teaching that God accepts the relative obedience of believers through faith for justification and that justification is never a completed state prior to death. This shows the complexity of the seventeenth-century theological context. It is easy for historians to present a misleading view of the theological landscape of the time by under-nuancing complex theological distinctions.

This field of study requires clear and fine distinctions that even experts in the field struggle with at times. Studying Reformed orthodoxy is rewarding, but this volume illustrates that it is can be complicated as well.

This book will leave many readers with a long “to read” list. This is true especially in relation to primary source materials. It is hard to envision a more fitting tribute to Richard Muller for his vital research in historic Reformed theology. The contributors are like miners digging up precious metals from the earth and refining them for others to use. However, do not be surprised if, when we look at historical models in order to use them, we discover that we do not see our own reflection. This is the true value of historical theology. If you are interested in the relationship between church and school in early modern Protestantism, than borrow this (expensive) book from a local library, prayerfully digest it, and use it well.




This review was previously published in the Puritan Reformed Journal.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Covenant Theology in the Reformation Era

Jordan J Ballor, Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus, vol. 3, Refo500 Academic Studies. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012. 270pp. Hardcover. $117.00.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Covenant theology is a vital component of historic Reformed theology. As historians have increasingly recognized that Calvin was not the founder of a tradition, but an important figure among other significant theologians, some of these lesser-known theologians are becoming the subject of Ph.D. dissertations. Jordan Ballor contributes to this trend in his study of the theology of Wolfgang Musculus, who was the first Reformed author to include a distinct locus on the covenant in his theological system. Musculus was a well-known German contemporary of Calvin who was widely read in his time. Ballor renders a great service to English-speaking readers by writing the first book-length study of Musculus’s covenant theology in English.

As the title suggests, Ballor’s work shows the interrelation between covenant, causality, and law in Musculus’s theology. After introducing the Medieval and Reformation context of each of these ideas, the main chapters of the book trace them through Musculus’s Loci Communes and his relevant biblical commentaries treating each theme in turn. Each section compares Musculus’s exegesis primarily with one representative each from the Early Church, Medieval, and Reformed orthodox periods. He concludes that Musculus’s general and special covenant scheme was not identical to the later covenant of works and covenant of grace construction, but represented a broad covenant of nature (Noahic) and a special covenant of grace (Abrahamic). The section on “Causality” treats divine power and the divine and human wills. The last section addresses Musculus’s views of law in relation to natural law, covenant theology, and the power of civil magistrates. Musculus was a precursor to the later Erastian movement, in which the state exercised discipline and appointed ministers in the church. Ballor concludes that the connection between these topics in Musculus’ thought illustrates that some authors have wrongly pitted the categories of covenant, predestination, and law against each other in describing various strands of Reformed thought.

The general weakness of the book relates to an inadequate development of Musculus’s historical context. Ballor barely makes reference to the social and political context in seventeenth century Germany or to who Musculus was, how he became a professor of theology, etc. Neither does he define key historical terms, such as “scholastic” or “Reformed orthodox.” It would have been helpful to know if Musculus had any theological opponents or personal struggles with individuals that might have affected the topics he treated or how he treated them (For instance, like Tim Cooper’s study on why John Owen and Richard Baxter did not like each other). Ballor’s treatment of Musculus’s four divisions in his exegetical work on Genesis provides a tangible example of such contextual deficiencies. Two of these divisions included a “spiritual sense” and a “moral application” of the text (81). This would have been a fruitful opportunity to mention the fourfold interpretation of Scripture (quadriga) from the Medieval period and how Reformed authors collapsed this fourfold sense into varied applications of the single sense of Scripture. This omission is striking since he later describes Musculus’s comments as predominantly “tropological” (143), without any reference to the fact that this represented one fourth of the quadriga. Ballor explains what Musculus thought and how his thought related to the Reformed tradition in general terms, but he does not adequately demonstrate why Musculus chose to develop a distinct locus on the covenant, while Calvin and others deemed it sufficient to incorporate covenantal ideas where appropriate into their writings. He does not ignore the context entirely, but he leaves many questions unanswered.

This study introduces readers to an important figure and a key component in the development of the Reformed tradition. Readers will need to fill in the historical and theological context to some extent, but this book is a good introduction to English-speaking readers who are interested in the development of covenant theology to an under-appreciated Reformed author.



This review is also appearing in print in The Puritan Reformed Journal.

The Breath of the Soul

Eric J. Alexander, Prayer: A Biblical Perspective. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014, 91pp. Paperback. $12.00.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Prayer is essential to the Christian life. It is the breath of the soul. A living Christian, therefore, is a praying Christian. Yet prayer is, for many, the most difficult duty of the Christian life. It is relatively easy to sit and read several chapters of Scripture. It is often difficult to focus our attention on prayer exclusively, and even more difficult to “pray without ceasing.” The secret about prayer is that even the most seasoned veterans in the faith still feel as though they are only beginners when they are on their knees in prayer. We need all the biblical help we can get to learn to pray and to persevere in prayer.

For this reason, this reviewer continually seeks to read as many books on prayer as he can. This small book by Eric Alexander caught his eye, both because of its author and because of its size. It is an excellent introductory treatment that is helpful, gripping, and well-suited to use for leading prayer meetings. It is clearly outlined and lends itself easily to discussion. After introducing the subject, the book treats Christ’s teaching on and example of prayer, followed by the examples of the Apostles and others in Scripture.

The emphases on the Spirit’s work in prayer, the necessity of corporate prayer, and the interconnection between prayer and preaching are notes that most desperately need to be sounded in the church today. Alexander relates that a friend once asked a man, “‘Do you have a prayer meeting?’ … The reply was, ‘No we do not have such a meeting, but we have just invited a fine preacher to be our minister.’ My friend responded, ‘If you do not have a prayer meeting in your church, you have no business inviting a minister into your pulpit’” (90). This is why Alexander notes rightly, “the strength of a church can only be measured by its prayer meeting” (42).

For seasoned Christians, this book will not likely teach you something new about prayer. Yet experienced Christians likely know well that the most important elements of the Christian life do not consist in gaining new insights into old truths, but in fostering fresh affections for the triune God. Younger Christians should begin with a book like this to learn the ABC’s of biblical prayer. For all of us, this book is solid food to sustain our spiritual lives.



This review is also appearing in print in The Puritan Reformed Journal.

Friday, August 1, 2014

B.M. Palmer: Quintessential Pastor, Scholar and Theologian

C.N. Willborn, ed., Selected Writings of Benjamin Morgan Palmer. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014. 205pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

B.M. Palmer
Reading Benjamin Morgan Palmer is like finding a rare jewel. His gripping style, theological acuteness, pastoral brilliance, and warm sympathy with sinners combine in a way that makes his kind scarce, even among great authors. He is in the list of my top four “mighty men” in the faith whom we should prioritize reading above others (the others in that list include Calvin, Owen, and Edwards). While I read many authors who are worth reading, in my opinion, they cannot attain to these first four.

This small collection of Palmer’s writings has many strengths. It consists of short articles that Palmer wrote for the Southwestern Presbyterian from 1869-1870. These include brief sketches of pastoral conversations that he held with people in various spiritual conditions, a five-part passionate plea for foreign missions, a brief exposition of the Beatitudes, four “Christian paradoxes,” and three miscellaneous articles on Christian experience. It is impossible to convey the pathos, theological balance, and pastoral wisdom contained in these brief pieces.

My only disappointment with the book is that it is so small. For readers who hunger for more, I recommend reading Palmer’s sermons. The theological depth coupled with simplicity, warmth, and skillful application makes these the best sermons that I have read. However, his Shorter Writings uniquely reveal a more intimate side of Palmer’s personality. After reading them, you will simultaneously marvel at and understand why believers and unbelievers alike in New Orleans loved him. You will marvel that they loved him because he is so direct, but you will understand why they loved him because he is so kind and tender.

Palmer is the kind of author that, as a pastor, I need. In contrast to much of the shallow pastoral counsel and evangelistic techniques that prevail today, he gives us something great to aspire to. Palmer always drives me to pray fervently that I would learn something from his skill with people and that I would, in some measure, learn to imitate him as he imitated Christ and the apostles. We need authors that push us beyond our conception of normal ministry to prevent us from becoming satisfied with the mediocre precedent that is all too common today. May the Spirit of God richly bless this little book to stir up our compassion to dying sinners, to inflame our love to Christ, and to provide us with acute examples of how to interact with people frankly yet wisely as we seek the good of their souls.
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This review appeared in the July 2014 issue of Banner of Truth.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Home, Sweet Home

Rebecca Van Doodewaard, Uprooted: A Guide for Homesick Christians (Geanies House, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2012). 111 pp. Paperback. $8.00.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan M. McGraw

Most people have moved at some point in their lives. Many will move multiple times. This means that most people are confronted with the difficult experience known as homesickness. In Uprooted, Rebecca Van Doodewaard treats this common problem by combining biblical counsel, personal experience, and sound common-sense wisdom. This book is not only essential because of the practical nature of its subject. It is virtually the only book that addresses this common problem.

In many respects, this work is a practical treatment of biblical contentment applied intensely to one area of life. Yet this area of life involves every other area of life. In 13 short chapters, Van Doodewaard addresses pitfalls that attend homesickness, biblical remedies for them, and surrounding and complicating factors to homesickness. Her counsel includes gems such as learning to love the unique aspects of where you live, curbing your expectations about keeping old relationships the same, how to pursue and build new friendships, helping your children adjust, and how to minister to others who are homesick. Every page is filled with the insights that only come from a believer who has prayerfully wrestled through these questions with an open Bible and an honest heart.

Our family recently moved three thousand miles from home. The Lord brought this book to us at precisely the right time. He has used it by His grace to teach us how to love our new home, how to be determined to be content to settle in it, and how to use homesickness to direct our hearts heavenward. Churches should have this book on hand to give to people new to the area, and church members should read it so that they know what newcomers experience and how to minister to them more effectively.


Friday, May 30, 2014

Studies in Trinitarianism

Gilles Emery, O.P. and Matthew Levering, The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 632pp. Hardcover. $150.00.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan M. McGraw

Over the past hundred years, the Trinity has received renewed attention. This has been true across ecclesiastical lines, encompassing Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Reformed, and others. This revival of trinitarian theology has great potential to profit Reformed churches (among others), since the triune God is the lifeblood of biblical Christianity and of genuine communion with God.

The large dictionary-sized Oxford Handbook of the Trinity includes forty-three essays on the Trinity by authors of various ecclesiology backgrounds, though there are far more Roman Catholic authors than any other group. The book traces the development of this vital Christian doctrine from biblical, historical, and contemporary perspectives. The size and depth of this book brings readers up to speed on contemporary research and it is particularly helpful in grasping trends in modern Roman Catholic theology.

The exegetical and historical sections represent the strongest aspects of this book. This material occupies well over half of the volume. Specifically, chapters two and three present outstanding arguments regarding the seeds of the Trinity in the Old Testament and the Trinity in Paul’s epistles and the Book of Hebrews. The former of these chapters argues persuasively that if the Trinity were not present in the Old Testament in seed form, then the New Testament doctrine of the Trinity would not have been possible. This approach avoids the twin pitfalls of finding too little trinitarian material in the Old Testament and reading too much into the biblical text. Both of these chapters assert explicitly that the divine Author of Scripture often intended more than the inspired human authors of Scripture did when they wrote. This is a refreshing approach in an era in which many approaches to interpreting the biblical text have become a-theological and, at times, borderline a-theistical. The kind of exegesis represented here is possible only in the context of a proper view of the divinely inspired nature of the text of Scripture.

The historical sections are particularly strong in their treatment of the early church and medieval periods. The medieval period is often neglected to some extent in modern treatments of the Trinity, though the early church ordinarily draws significant attention. Due to the predominant Roman Catholic influence in this book, Thomas Aquinas features prominently, not only in this historical section, but in the dogmatic and practical segments. John Duns Scotus features as a close second in many chapters. The section on interpreting Karl Barth’s construction of the Trinity and his subsequent influence on the church is simultaneously clear and profound. This historical segment closes with a Greek orthodox perspective on recent trends in trinitarian theology and a highly complex article on the relationship of the Trinity to analytic philosophy.

The remainder of the book addresses a wide range of issues in contemporary theology and practice as well as the relationship between trinitarian theology and other religions. Some of these articles clearly reflect a liberal perspective while others represent a winsomely presented apology for ecumenical unity under the banner of the Roman Catholic Church.

The greatest weakness of The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity is its almost total neglect of the Reformed contribution to trinitarian theology. The one chapter dedicated to Reformed theology (by Scott Swain) highlights the way in which the early Reformers tried to retain the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity. However, it bypasses important questions regarding how Reformed trinitarianism became intertwined with Reformed soteriology and ecclesiology. This reviewer believes that this was the primary contribution of Reformed theology to trinitarian theology. Such developments did not come to full fruition until the seventeenth century in English authors such as John Owen and in continental authors such as Gisbertus Voetius, Petrus van Mastricht, and several others. There is a trend in recent works on trinitarian theology to take a flying leap from John Calvin to Karl Barth. This book bucks this trend to some extent by including philosophical and Catholic developments in the nineteenth century. However, these developments were either openly heretical or unremarkably orthodox. The omission of Reformed trinitarian theology represents a huge gap in the literature that modern treats appear to be almost entirely unaware of.

To be fair, trinitarian theology and piety in Reformed orthodoxy is a field that is still largely unexplored. There is a growing attraction to John Owen (who appears several times in the present volume), though he is often treated as a Reformed anomaly who fell unexpectedly out of the sky. Little work has been done on other Reformed authors on this subject. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that Reformed authors ask different questions than Catholics and Greek orthodox. As this book illustrates, Catholic and Orthodox piety tends to relegate the practical uses of the Trinity either to the doctrinal construction of the system of theology or to mystical contemplation. The Reformed view of mystical union with Christ overlaps with such uses to some extent. What is missing is the Reformed emphasis on communion with Christ in his work and benefits, which grows out of Reformed soteriology. We should expect this to result in a trinitarian theology with a distinctively Reformed cast to it.

This is likely why modern authors have treated historic Reformed authors as contributing little noteworthy material. The seventeenth century Reformed orthodox would likely have thought that modern treatments address the wrong questions. The Reformed voice needs first to be heard, then to be recovered, and finally to be developed and built upon. Reformed trinitarian theology is largely unremarkable and has a medieval feel to it in relation to what is called the ontological Trinity. What the Reformed have to add is their construction of the economic Trinity in relation to how the triune God saves us. Modern interest in this area has turned to trends such as social trinitarianism and feminist theology (both of which are treated in this book). These trends reflect preconceived ideas of what the gospel should be and how it should affect human relationships. The Reformed orthodox contribute a trinitarian theology that reflects the Reformed gospel. This gospel begins with God and ends with God in the entire order of salvation, which is subservient to the glory of God in Christ. This is both what is missing and what is needed for the modern renaissance of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity is important and its contributions are profound, but its content is complex. Most of the chapters will not likely appeal to those who are not already well-versed in the terminology and historical and contemporary contours of trinitarian theology. However, for the initiated, this massive work helps brings readers up to speed regarding the contributions of various theological traditions to contemporary debates.

Domestic Economics

Staci Eastin, The Organized Heart: A Woman’s Guide to Conquering Chaos. Cruciform Press, 2011. 103pp. Paperback. $7.99.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan M. McGraw

How we use our time reveals to us the state of our hearts. Conversely, the condition of our hearts determines whether we use time well or waste it foolishly. The Organized Heart addresses four areas of idolatry (perfectionism, busyness, possessions, and leisure) that frequently lead women into disorganization and chaos in their lives.

This book is useful to help women ask the deeper questions of what they do with their time and why. Other than a few hints in the last chapter, it does not aim to develop time management skills or scheduling. One minor fault with the book is that the author makes too many assumptions that most readers already know how to manage their time (91, for example). However, many books on household management make the opposite mistake of pressing women with model schedules that are virtually impossible to implement. We must plan our time well in order to use our time well to God’s glory. We will fail in this area by over-planning as much as by under-planning. The great strength of Eastin’s book is that she provides us with the tools needed to think through our planning in a godly and biblical manner.

Each of the four areas treated in this book search our hearts deeply. Perfectionism is not the same thing as excellence, but it cripples people from enjoying their homes and families. Being overly busy may result from the fear of man and trying to keep up with the expectations of others rather than from walking in the fear of God. Acquiring, owning, and refusing to relinquish possessions may result in a lack of trust in God’s provisions (55). Our desire for leisure time becomes idolatry when we do not plan our breaks and end up neglecting our children, finances, and other duties in order to take time for ourselves. Eastin’s counsel is wise, practical, and searching for all readers.

Chapter 6 counterbalances her treatment of how heart-idolatry affects our use of time by addressing those who are discouraged through genuinely difficult circumstances in their lives.

This book does not say all that must be said about time-management, but it provides an often neglected piece of the bigger picture. Unless we begin with the idolatry of our hearts, then we will not successfully manage our lives in a God-honoring way. This is an important resource, especially for wives and homemakers.


No Creed But Christ?

Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). 205pp. Paperback. $12.75

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan M. McGraw

Many today regard it as a virtue to have “no creed but the Bible.” While appearing to reflect a high view of Scripture, this trend has devastating consequences that threaten both the well-being and, in many cases, the very being of the church.

Carl Trueman’s primary assertion in The Creedal Imperative is that all Christians have a creed or confession, though many refuse to write theirs down. Ten people in a room may state that they believe in the Bible alone, yet when questioned, they may give us ten different versions of what they believe that the Bible says. Rejecting creeds and confessions renders the faith of the church undefinable and leaves ministers without any tangible standard of doctrinal accountability. Trueman makes a simple yet profound case from Scripture for the necessity of extra-biblical creeds. The book bears his characteristically gripping style and witty observations.

In this book, Trueman makes good use of his talent for showing the influence of culture on contemporary Christianity. Among other things, he demonstrates how culture has created a bias against drawing lessons from history and recognizing authority. While older treatments on creeds and confessions are readily accessible and biblically satisfying, this feature makes Trueman’s work stand out.

However, in one place, Trueman overstates the role of confessions. He asserts that it is difficult to argue that items excluded from the confession of a church are “of any importance” and that “the church has no more need to have an opinion on this matter than what color wallpaper is best for the fellowship hall” (179). This argument proves too much. Ministers frequently hold views that are much more important than church wallpaper while being much less important than confessional matters, such as baptism. For example, it is wise for churches not to require that their pastors be exclusively amillennial or postmillennial, or to mandate a position on head coverings in worship. Yet the Bible has something to say about both of these subjects. Everything that the Bible teaches is important, but not all that the Bible teaches should become part of a confession of faith, which is designed to unite Christians in common faith and practice.

No creed in itself can sustain the orthodoxy of a church. Only the Holy Spirit can do so by maintaining the spiritual vitality of her ministers and members. However, rejecting creeds and confessions may unintentionally denigrate the Bible that we are so eager to protect. May the triune God use this book to restore a more stable, clear, and vibrant faith in His church.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Self-existence and Eternal Generation

Brannon Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). viii + 250 pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

The growing body of literature on trinitarian theology often bypasses the period of Reformed orthodoxy. Calvin is a partial exception to this rule. However, contemporary authors frequently isolate him from his historical context within the developing Reformed tradition. Brannon Ellis treats Calvin’s contribution to the doctrine of self-existence of the Son as it relates both to Reformed orthodoxy and to contemporary theology. He corrects many appropriations and misappropriations of Calvin on this important theme. The question that he treats is how the divine attribute of aseity, or self-existence, relates to the doctrine of eternal generation, in which the Father begets the Son from all eternity. This is an issue that many continue to raise and which has caused great confusion and controversy in recent decades. This book is complex and requires some level of expertise to follow adequately, but it is a superb study that this reviewer cannot praise highly enough, both for its historical clarity and contributions to contemporary theology.

Ellis regards Calvin as neither undermining nor merely assenting to classical Trinitarian language, but developing it in a more consistent manner (7). He proposes two aims for his book: “My historical aim is to explain the autothean controversies’ basic significance for the classical trinitarian tradition and its heirs. . . . My theological aim is not to denounce or undermine classical trinitarianism, but to summon the heirs of this tradition – from within it – to consistency at this particularly significant pivot of thought and speech about the Triune God” (10-11).

While much of the language of historic Trinitarian theology appears complex and at times speculative, the matter of ultimate importance is whether it agrees with the Word of God. Both Ellis and Calvin share this concern. In light of the importance of the question of the aseity of the Son to trinitarian theology, this review will sketch the arguments of each chapter of this work, including critical interaction where needed.

Chapter 1 examines Calvin’s teaching on the aseity of the Son. He believed that the Father eternally communicated personal subsistence to the Son, but that he did not communicate the divine essence to him. He taught that terms such as eternal generation applied to personal subsistence only, or to the relationship of the persons to each other, but not to the Godhead. Orthodox trinitarians opposed Calvin’s teaching. They were willing to accept the aseity of the Son in a certain sense: “An adjectival attribution of aseity to the Son was acceptable, because he eternally is the Son who is essentially self-existent. But as an adverbial attribution – that he is self-existently God – was unintelligible, because he eternally possesses the self-existent divine essence by generation from the Father” (34). It is important to recognize that communication of the divine essence does not mean that the Father was the origin of the Son’s divinity. Most classical trinitarians rejected the idea of origin with regard to the divine nature. This reviewer has found in his own research that most Reformed orthodox authors believed that the Father eternally communicated both deity and personal subsistence to the Son on the grounds that deity and personal subsistence cannot be abstracted from one another. The idea was that the Son must possess all divine attributes, including self-existence, but that the person who is eternally begotten is a divine person. The Son has both personal subsistence and self-existence in perfect equality with the Father by eternal generation. This alternative view will be important in the discussion below.

Chapter 2 traces the theological context of Calvin’s views on the aseity of the Son. Ellis’s primary contention is that his teaching in this area developed positively upon orthodox trinitarian theology rather merely responding to “antitrinitarian heterodoxy” (38). Pierre Carol objected to Calvin’s teaching on the grounds that his views bordered on both Arianism and Sabellianism (42-43). Arians denied that Christ was God equal with the Father, which Carloli believed that the only way for the him to be fully divine was through possessing the same essence as the Father through eternal generation. Sabellianism taught that God was one person who manifested himself in three different ways. Caroli leveled this seemingly contradictory accusation simultaneously to that of Arianism because he believed that removing communication of essence from eternal generation resulted in denying the personal distinction between the Father and the Son.Calvin responded that it is equally inappropriate to deny that the Son is from the Father in relation to his personal subsistence as it is “to say that he is from the Father with respect to his essence” (46-47).

Ellis then turns to Calvin’s controversies with antitrinitarians such as Valentine Gentile. The fact that Calvin’s opponents criticized him of treating the divine essence a quaternity in that stood apart from the three persons (53) illustrates the difficulty that both orthodox and heterodox writers had with understanding his position. The question of quaternity was prominent in the Middle Ages. It entailed the idea that the divine essence was a fourth thing in the Trinity that the three persons shared among themselves rather than making the divine nature inherent to the divine persons. Both sets of opponents believed that Calvin abstracted the divine essence from the personal subsistences in the Godhead. The chapter concludes by arguing that Calvin’s modifications to the idea of the aseity of the Son was his attempt to harmonize classical trinitarian language and distinctions.

Chapter three examines historically the theological functions of the doctrine of eternal generation. Ellis helpfully reduces these functions to five categories: eternal generation secures personal distinction in the Godhead (70-78), taxis or order among the persons (78-83), consubstantiality (83-96), equality (96-97), and perichoresis or mutual indwelling (97-98). This is the clearest summary of the historical function of eternal generation that this reviewer has read. Ellis then argues that using eternal generation to undergird consubstantiality and equality “oversteps the boundaries of ‘irreducible threeness’ to which it belongs” (99). His contention is that eternal generation defines the distinction and interrelationship between the divine persons rather than their common divine essence. He adds that communication of essence inappropriately attempts to explain “the ineffable manner of divine generation.”

This reviewer tentatively raises two objections against these arguments in favor of the majority Reformed orthodox view. First, Ellis’s assertions unintentionally abstract divine personality from divine essence. The persons in question are divine persons, not personal abstractions within the divine essence. While this goes beyond the scope of this review, The New Testament consistently treats the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as divine persons, and it depicts the one true God as three persons. The divine nature is not something that the persons have, but it is what they are. If personal subsistence comes from the Father, then Godhead must come with it, yet in a way that neither implies inequality nor subordination. When the Father begets the Son through eternal generation, he begets a divine person rather than a personal quality of the generic divine nature. This was why Calvin’s opponents accused him of teaching a quaternity in the Godhead. Second, it is inaccurate to say that communication of essence contradicts the orthodox view that the manner of eternal generation is “ineffable.” Eternally communicating the divine essence from Father to Son without diminishing the self-existence of the Son is definable, but it is still ineffable. Calvin’s view still provides an “explanation” of the nature of eternal generation, albeit an eternal one. This question is ultimately incomprehensible, but to some extent it seems to be unavoidable.

Chapter 4 outlines the terms of the autothean debate and later post-Reformation approaches to this question (103). Ellis treats “five Trinitarian approaches” to the Son’s aseity (109). He introduces this section with the Catholic apologist, Robert Bellarmine’s, defense of Calvin’s orthodoxy as a trinitarian (109-112). The five approaches include the Remonstrants, Roell, the Roman Catholics and Lutherans, “the Reformed mainstream,” and “the Reformed minority report.” This chapter and the next two examine each of these views (112).

Chapter 5 introduces Belarmine’s rebuttal of Calvin’s position on the aseity of the Son (139-145), even though he believed that Calvin stood within orthodoxy. He next treats the Lutheran rejection of Calvin’s teaching (146-151). Ellis observes that some Lutheran theologians accused Calvin of Judaizing because he bypassed the Trinity in classic trinitarian passages in his commentaries and because he rarely found Christ in the Old Testament (148). In terms of Reformed authors, Ellis examines the writings of Girolomo Zanchi, Gisbertus Voetius, and Bernardinus de Moor (153). These men defended Calvin’s view regarding the Son’s aseity, but they modified it as well. They contended that the Son possessed self-existence as a divine attribute, but that he possessed this attribute through eternal communication from the Father. This did not mean that the Father was the origin of the Son’s deity, but that the Son is eternally divine through communication of the divine attributes from the Father. He concludes, “The most important thing to garner about the character of the mainstream Reformed advocacy of Calvin’s language is that the Son is autotheos or self-existent God understood quite strictly in in terms of external essential independence” (159).

In order to represent the Reformed minority who followed Calvin (Chapter 6), Ellis selected Lucas Trelcatius, Bartholomaeus Keckermann, and Johannes Maccovius (174). Ellis contends that essential communication from the Father to the Son is not necessary to affirm eternal generation (176). Keckermann questioned whether we should speak of essential communication at all (184). He believed that the idea of essential communication was improper, but not unorthodox. He concluded that debates over communication of essence were more semantic than substantive (187). Maccovius criticized the Arminians as having Socinian tendencies by making a distinction in the deity of the Father and the Son (191). His point was that any essential difference between the Father and the Son amounted to difference in nature.. He argued that claiming that the Son is God self-existently did not deny “his divine filiation” (192).

Herman Alexander Roell provoked an increased bias against Calvin’s minority view (196). The reason was while that he affirmed that God was one in essence and three in persons, he denied the eternal order of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Godhead. As a result, Ellis concludes, “Before it had a chance to take root and to flower, the environment within which this Reformed minority approach was to grow up had become inhospitable.” Until Roell, Reformed writers were less suspicious of the minority position, though the continued to defend Calvin’s orthodoxy. This highlights the fact that the differences between these views are minor.

The last chapter (7) includes Ellis’s constructive theological conclusions. He argues that aseity is a positive rather than a privative concept (199). Saying that God is self-existent is more than simply saying that he is uncaused (201). This means that aseity does not allow for possessing deity by communication. This reviewer has argued above why this is not necessarily the case. Ellis argues that communication of the divine attributes among the persons in not necessary to affirm eternal generation. He argues this point well, even though this reviewer leans in favor of the Reformed majority viewpoint. Ellis adds that the Son is the true God “without reserve” in the distinct mode of his subsistence (205). While this statement is true, communication of essence does not imply any “reserve” in regard to the Son’s full deity. This would be true only if the Father was the origin or source of the Son’s deity. Pages 222-226 treat the often neglected subject of the Trinity in relation to the covenant of redemption. This section is worth consulting for theological reflection. Ellis concludes that Calvin’s teaching on the aseity of the Son and eternal generation potentially resolves tensions within orthodox trinitarianism by picking and choosing elements within that tradition (226). Whether or not this is true, his study reminds readers that while there are clearly defined lines between orthodox trinitarianism and heresy, we must hold to some of our conclusions regarding the nature of eternal generation humbly and tentatively.


This brilliant book is complex and requires undistracted concentration to read profitably. However, it clarifies a complex historical debate about eternal generation that continues to have practical implications in the church. Some at the present day have been accused of rejecting eternal generation when they have adopted Calvin’s position. Others claim to teach Calvin’s view, but go beyond Calvin by rejecting historic Christian creeds. Ellis wonderfully helps readers discern what lies in the realm of orthodoxy. All readers should walk away from this book concluding that we have known the edges of God’s ways and we have gained a glimpse of his back parts only.



The preceding was first published in the Mid-America Journal of Theology, Volume 24, 2013.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Trinity, Natural Law and Reason

Sarah Mortimer, Reason and Religion in the English Revolution: The Challenge of Socinianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Hardcover. vii + 264pp.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Students of seventeenth-century English theology must grapple with the reality and the charge of Socinianism upon English society. Even though Socinianism is best known for denying the Trinity, it became a seventeenth-century catch-word for any teaching that elevated reason over fundamental articles of the faith. This is the first major work treating English Socinianism in over fifty years. Mortimer’s book stands out from its predecessors by showing the positive uses of Socinian theories on reason, natural law, and civil government in seventeenth-century England. This provides an intriguing contribution to the historical landscape of English theology.

Chapter 1 shows the rise and development of Socinianism. She argues that Socinianism represented a shift in the role of reason in establishing theological positions and a tendency to place Christian ethics above and even, at times, contrary to natural law. Chapter 2 expands this picture by demonstrating the different reactions of continental and English churches to Socinianism. Partly due to the fact that Arminius’ successor at the University of Leiden, Conrad Vorstius, promoted Socinian ideas, the Dutch often lumped Socinianism and Arminianism together. However, in early seventeenth-century England dissociated them more starkly. This was largely due to the Arminianizing tendencies of the English Church at the time. Chapter 3 expands the English context by showing the circulation of Socinian ideas through informal studies at the Great Tew estate of Lord Falkland (known as the Great Tew Circle). This included well-known figures such as William Chillingworth and Edward Hyde, who later became the infamous Lord Clarendon. Chapter 4 illustrates the uses of Socinian rejections of self-defense to argue against resistance to monarchs, which Royalists made good use of during the English Civil War. Particularly interesting in this connection is Francis Cheynell’s deep concern over Socinian political influences on English society (109-113, 126). Cheynell was a member of the Westminster Assembly whose writings on the Trinity have recently received increased attention. Mortimer highlights a hitherto neglected aspect of his thought.

Chapter 5 depicts the use of Socinian ideas on reason and natural law to defend episcopacy. Chapter 6 introduces attacks on the Trinity in England. This includes the oft neglected observation that Remonstrant theologians began to deny that the Trinity was an essential doctrine of the faith (152). This led to problems when the Cromwellian settlement tried to form a list of fundamental doctrines of the faith. Chapter 7 treats views on toleration with special reference to John Owen (194-204). Chapter 8 unfolds how Socinian views of nature and religion gained prominence in the 1650’s. Most of this chapter addresses Owen’s lengthy refutation of John Biddle and Hugo Grotius. The concluding chapter summarizes Socinian contributions to English theology in terms of the centrality of reason over against natural law and the importance of individual freedom (240).

Mortimer provides valuable historical insight into how Socinians altered Protestant defenses of the authority of Scripture. These alterations are more akin to modern post-Enlightenment apologetic views than to seventeenth-century Reformed assumptions. Faustus Socinus sought to prove the authority of Scripture through historical investigation in the way that one would approach any other historical source (18). This was a radical idea at the time, since it potentially mitigated the absolute authority of Scripture. The Great Tew Circle followed Grotius’ appropriation of these arguments under the assumption that “faith was similar to other branches of human knowledge” (70). These people treated faith as assent to probable propositions based on probable arguments. Though Mortimer does not mention the fact, this approach stands in stark contrast to Owen’s Reason of Faith, where he argued that faith cannot rest on probable arguments but only on divine testimony. To complicate matters, Socinians allowed for conflict – or at least non-correspondence – between the laws of nature and revealed religion (33). These features pose a greater threat to the historic Protestant view of the certainty of divine revelation than many post-Enlightenment Reformed thinkers have recognized. In this connection, Mortimer notes that Socinian ideas “still appeal today” (240).

The author displays great mastery of Socinian-influenced sources. However, she demonstrates a weak grasp of Reformed theology. For instance, she claims that Chillingworth contradicted “the standard Protestant interpretation” of denying ourselves and following Christ by teaching “that Christ’s words must be understood as commands or laws which demanded strict obedience from his followers” (80). Mortimer appears to mistake Chllingworth’s understanding of “the standard Protestant interpretation” with the reality. Later she adds, “Chillingworth had begun to move away from Reformed Christianity, suggesting that Christ demanded from his followers a sincere attempt to live according to his laws” (89). However, the “standard Protestant interpretation” included strict obedience in following Christ. The difference between the Socinian and Protestant position was the ground on which obedience rested. Reformed theologians rooted obedience in union with Christ. Chillingworth’s Socinianized version of self-denial rooted obedience in moral fortitude and free-will. Mortimer gives the impression that all Protestants were theological antinomians. Her later claim that both the Reformed and Arminians believed that “Christ was a redeemer rather than a teacher” (122) is somewhat astonishing. Both groups believed that Christ was a prophet as well as a priest and a king, even though they stressed his role as teacher differently than Socinians did. No historian can master all of the relevant sources, but this is a serious deficiency in Mortimer’s work. Rather than searching the primary sources of Reformed theology, she appears to accept Socinian caricatures of it at face value.

This volume is an important contribution to a small, but growing body of material on seventeenth-century Trinitarian theology. Its primary value consists in unfolding the story of anti-Trinitarians in their English context.



This review first appeared in the Mid-America Journal of Theology, Volume 24, 2013.