Sunday, June 29, 2008

Looking for substantive alternatives to Newman’s ‘Theory of Development’.

The last few threads here at AF have been explorations into the complex issue of the development of doctrine. As with virtually every theological construct, one is confronted with numerous competing theories, the range of which lies between two radically different conceptions. Joseph F. Kelly eloquently sums up these two extremes:

On the right, some Christians claim that all the Church can do is adhere strictly to the plain meaning of the biblical texts and eschew any notion of development of doctrine or even of ministry, since development is merely a euphemism for abandoning rigid biblicism.

On the left, other Christians claim that the gap between the modern world and the world in which the Bible came into existence is so vast that modern Christians cannot truly understand the Bible and they are thus not bound by it. For these people, Christian doctrine or teaching is what modern Christians determine it to be, with no normative reference to the Bible, or, for that matter, any earlier period of Christian history
. (Joseph F. Kelly, “Introduction” in R.P.C. Hanson, The Continuity of Christian Doctrine, p. ix.)

We have explored an advocate of the extreme right (Darby), as well as some interesting thoughts from Cunningham and Calvin, and are waiting for Chris to present an example, or examples, of the extreme left. In between the two extremes lies Newman’s famous theory, which, since its publication in 1845, has had more than its fair share of critiques (especially outside of the RCC, though not exclusively). I have read a good number of these critiques (e.g. Brownson, Cunningham, Darby, Faber, Moberly, Mozley, Palmer, Salmon), and via these readings have come to an understanding that Newman’s theory is in need of some improvement and ‘development’ (though Karl Rahner has made some important contributions in this area which I hope to explore in a subsequent post). However, I think it is important to point out that while I have come to appreciate some of the “difficulties” which have been raised by Newman’s critics, I could not help but notice that none of them provided an even remotely adequate replacement theory. And I am not alone in this assessment. The noted patristic scholar, R.P.C. Hanson observed:

Mozley not only does not solve Newman’s problem; he does not even realize it exists. He is still in the world of thought of in which Bishop Bull in the seventeenth century answered Petavious...On this point of development, however, Newman looks like a man of the modern day, whereas Mozley seems not yet to have to left the seventeenth century. The same can be said of George Salmon’s book The Infallibility of the Church (1888). In destructive criticism of Newman’s arguments in favor of the Roman Catholic Church, it is superb. In advancing a constructive alternative to Catholic doctrines of development, Newman’s or any other, it is rudimentary. (R.P.C. Hanson, The Continuity of Christian Doctrine, pp. 24, 25.)

A little bit later in the book, Hanson states an important dictum that all of us need to keep in mind: “If doctrine can be repudiated, there must be some norm whereby that repudiation takes place” (Ibid., p. 32).

So, with this in mind, I am going to request from my readers alternatives to Newman’s theory of development. The said alternatives can be submitted in three different forms: first, as a post in the combox of this thread; second, as a new thread sent to me via email that if approved will be posted under the author's name here at AF; and third, as a link to a thread in another blog.

Eagerly looking forward to your alternatives.

Grace and peace,


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Calvin on the visible Church—or, Don’t Do As I Do, Do As I Say!

I have often wondered why it is so many Reformed apologists resort to the use of double standards in their polemical writings. I think I may have gained some insight into this phenomenon during today’s studies—I suspect that it stems from the polemics of the earliest Reformers attempts to justify their break from the Catholic Church, while at the same time attacking the Anabaptists (and other dissenters) as schismatics.

John Calvin had the following to say concerning the visible Church [bold emphasis mine]:

But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels [Matthew 22:30]. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation, as Isaiah [Isaiah 37:32] and Joel [ Joel 2:32] testify. Ezekiel agrees with them when he declares that those whom God rejects from heavenly life will not be enrolled among God’s people [Ezekiel 13:9]. On the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true godliness are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem [cf. Isaiah 56:5; Psalm 87:6]. For this reason, it is said in another psalm: “Remember me, O Jehovah, with favor toward thy people; visit me with salvation: that I may see the well-doing of thy chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the joy of thy nation, that I may be glad with thine inheritance” [Psalm 106:4-5 p.; cf. Psalm 105:4,Vg., etc.]. By these words God’s fatherly favor and the especial witness of spiritual life are limited to his flock, so that it is always disastrous to leave the church. (Institutes, 4.1.4 – The Westminster Press edition: edited by McNeil, trans. by Battles, p. 1016.)

Christ himself, the apostles, and almost all the prophets have furnished us examples of this. Fearful are those descriptions with which Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Habakkuk, and others bewail the afflictions of the Jerusalem church. In people, in magistracy, and in priesthood all things had been so far corrupted that Isaiah does not hesitate to liken Jerusalem to Sodom and Gomorrah [Isaiah 1:10]. Religion was in part despised, in part besmirched. In morals one frequently notes theft, robbery, treachery, slaughter, and like evil deeds. Still the prophets did not because of this establish new churches for themselves, or erect new altars on which to perform separate sacrifices. But whatever men were like, because the prophets considered that the Lord had set his word among them and had instituted rites wherewith he was worshiped there, they stretched out clean hands to him in the midst of the assembly of the wicked. Surely, if they had thought they would become contaminated from these rites, they would have died a hundred times rather than allow themselves to be dragged thither. Nothing, consequently, kept them from creating a schism save their zeal to maintain unity. But if the holy prophets had scruples against separating themselves from the church because of many great misdeeds, not of one man or another but of almost all the people, we claim too much for ourselves if we dare withdraw at once from the communion of the church just because the morals of all do not meet our standard or even square with the profession of Christian faith.

Now what was the world like in the time of Christ and the apostles? Even then the desperate impiety of the Pharisees and the dissolute life which commonly prevailed could not prevent them from practicing the same rites along with the people, and from assembling in one temple with the rest for public exercises of religion. How did this happen, except that those who participated in these same rites with a clean conscience knew that they were not at all contaminated by association with the wicked?

If anyone is not convinced by prophets and apostles, let him at least yield to Christ’s authority. Cyprian, then, has put it well: “Even though there seem to be tares or unclean vessels in the church, there is no reason why we ourselves should withdraw from the church; rather, we must toil to become wheat; we must strive as much as we can to be vessels of gold and silver. But the breaking of earthen vessels belongs solely to the Lord, to whom has also been entrusted an iron rod [Psalm 2:9; Revelation 2:27]. And let no one so claim for himself what is the Son’s alone, that it is enough to winnow the chaff and thresh the straw [cf. Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:17] and by human judgment to separate out all the tares [cf. Matthew 13:38-41]. Proud, indeed, is this stubbornness and impious presumption, which wicked madness takes upon itself,” etc. [Ibid. 4.18.19a, pp. 1032, 1033.]

Amazing, simply amazing. And yes, I have read Calvin’s defense of his schism; his reply to Cardinal Sadolet’s letter, and his “The Necessity of Reforming the Church.” They are certainly eloquent attempts, but ultimately do not irradiate what is clearly the use of a double standard on his part. It seems the apple has not fallen far from the tree…

Grace and peace,


The Church, development and apostasy—A Reformed View.

In my last thread I presented Darby’s theory on apostasy, development and the church. In this thread, I shall do the same for the Reformed theologian William Cunningham. Though Cunningham’s position is quite close to that of Darby’s, there are some important and subtle differences. I see no need to point out the differences myself, for they are quite evident via Cunningham’s own pen. The following quotes are from Cunningham’s Historical Theology, The Banner of Truth 1979 reprint [all bold emphasis will be mine].

Romanists say the church is indefectible, or will never cease to exist. Protestants admit this; and hence Bellarmine says, “notandum est multos ex nostris tempus terere, dum probant absolute Ecclesiam non posse deficere: nam Calvinus, et caiteri hæretici id concedunt: sed dicunt, intelligi debere de Ecclesia invisibili.” It is true Bellarmine says, Calvin and other heretics concede this, but say that it is to be understood of the invisible church ; i.e., they contend that the only sense in which the indefectibility of the church can be proved from Scripture is this, that from the time when Christ ascended to the right hand of His Father, there have always been, and until He come again there will always be, upon earth, some persons who have been chosen to salvation, and who, during their earthly career, are prepared for it. More than this may have, in point of fact, been realized in providence, with respect to the standing and manifestation of the church on earth in every age ; but Protestants contend that nothing more than this can be proved to be implied in the statements and promises of Scripture upon this subject, i.e., that for aught that can be proved, all the statements of Scripture may be true, and all its predictions and promises may have been fulfilled, though nothing more than this had been realized.

The Romanists go on to assert that this indefectible church is visible, and, while it exists, must possess visibility. Protestants while conceding the existence of visible churches, not composed exclusively of elect or believing persons, and of “a catholic visible church, consisting of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children,” deny that there is anything in Scripture which guarantees the constant existence at all times, or in any one particular country, of an organized ecclesiastical society standing out visibly and palpably to the eyes of men as the true church of Christ ; and, on the contrary, they think that there are pretty plain intimations in Scripture, that in some periods the true church under the New Testament, as happened with the church under the law when there were still, though the prophet could not discern them, seven thousand men in secret, who had not bowed the knee to the image of Baal might be reduced so low as not to possess anything that could with propriety be called visibility
. (William Cunningham, Historical Theology, 1.17.)

These observations serve to explain the meaning and application, and the scriptural ground of the doctrine of our Confession of Faith [Cunningham is referring to the Westminster Confession of Faith] upon this subject, as expressed in the following words: “This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less, visible ; and particular Churches which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some of them have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.” (1.18)

The corruption into which the visible church after the apostolic age so speedily and so extensively fell, and the desire to defend or to palliate all this, soon introduced very lax and erroneous views concerning the nature and objects of the church in general, concerning its constituent elements and qualities, and the standard by which it ought to be judged. (1.26.)

Protestants believe, as a matter of unquestionable historical certainty, that at a very early period error and corruption i.e., deviations from the scriptural standard in matters of doctrine, government, worship, and discipline manifested themselves in the visible church gradually, but rapidly; that this corruption deepened and increased, till it issued at length in a grand apostasy—in a widely extended and well-digested system of heresy, idolatry, and tyranny, which involved in gross darkness nearly the whole of the visible church for almost a thousand years, until it was to some extent dispelled by the light of the Reformation. (1.34.)

The Bible, and the Bible alone, is the religion of Protestants; and when the divine origin and authority of the Bible are conceded or proved, Protestants are quite able to deduce from it all the doctrines which they maintain, and to establish them in such a way that no assault from any other quarter, such as the testimony of history, could competently be brought to bear upon them. (1.39.)

There is, indeed, something dark and mysterious in the survey of the history of the church of Christ, in its so soon losing its purity, and falling into error and corruption ; and in this error and corruption gaining such an ascendency, and virtually overspreading the visible church for nearly a thousand years. (1.41.)

Though not quite as bleak as Darby’s position, (I suspect Cunningham wishes to stave off his “grand apostasy” until after the Council of Chalcedon to protect the development of the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology), Cunningham’s theory still presents quite a dark picture for the Church that our Lord instituted. Viewed from a Calvinistic position, one would have to say that God “regenerated” very few individuals for well over 1,000 years; and the Holy Spirit’s promise to lead the Church into all truth had to wait until the 16th for its fruition.

Grace and peace,


Monday, June 9, 2008

Searching for a consistent theory of the Church, development and apostasy.

Newman’s theory of development when it first appeared in print was attacked from three different positions. First, was the attack from a few fellow Catholics who saw Newman’s theory as a threat to what I shall term the “traditionalist” position. Second, there was the attack from those who embraced the via media position of the High Anglicans, also called the Tractarians (which, as most know, was Newman’s position before entering the RCC). And finally, there was the Evangelical attack. This post is going to focus on this last position. I briefly touched on this position with the quote from Darby in THIS THREAD. I shall now delve a bit deeper into this viewpoint.

John Nelson Darby’s most detailed articulation of his theory of development (or lack there of) appears in his lengthy essay, “Christianity Not Christendom”. This essay is available online (HERE). [The following quotes will reflect the page numbers from my hard copy (volume #18 of “The Collected Writings of J.N. Darby”) which I believe are the same as the online version.]

“…is any church as now understood, coming down from ages past, however reformed and arranged, a thing of God? Is it to pass in some shape on this descendible principle? Is there that which, calling itself a church, exercises authority over the mind of man according to the mind of God? We are forced to look the whole question in the face: is the existing professing church, whatever shape it may assume, a thing which God owns? Is a successional body, in any shape, true or right according to God? I repeat, this question is forced upon us, the whole question; not, Is this or that church right?” (Page 250.)

Now I look all this in the face, and take the question up, not on the disputed claims of churches, who mutually disprove their respective claims, but on the question of the church, as man looks at it now, as we see it in every time as the subject of ecclesiastical history; and I say it never was, as a system, the institution of God, or what God established; but at all times, from its first appearance in ecclesiastical history, the departure, as a system, from what God established, and nothing else; primitive church and all; and the more it was formally established, the more it was corrupt. Saints, beloved of God I do not doubt were and are in it; but it was a corruption offensive to God from the beginning of its history. Take a history, any history, of the church, it is a history, not of God's institution, but of man's corruption. History and scripture both testify of this, and no man can speak of the church of ecclesiastical history, if he be an honest man, without admitting that it was man's corruption, not God's institution, or denying history and scripture alike; I say, from its outset as the subject of ecclesiastical records, or scripture statements.” (Pages 251, 252.)

Darby’s theory of the “true” Church is summed up with:

Two great principles lie at the base of Christianity, God's righteousness, Christ sitting at the right hand of God, and the presence of the Holy Ghost. Paul tells us (2 Cor. 3) that Christianity (or the gospel) was the ministration of righteousness and the ministration of the Spirit: these are the two great essential elements.” (Page 254.)

He then goes on to write:

But such was Christianity as presented to us in scripture in its essential features. Has it preserved them? Is what is now called the church that Christianity, the system I find there?” (Page 260.)

The church, as understood in modern times in all its compartments, is constituted, has its existence by, and is based on, the clergy and its sacraments, not on an accomplished redemption and the presence and power of the Holy Ghost-a clergy which is called the ministry, and even the church. I take, as a plain popular proof of the truth of this, the Evangelical Alliance. It abhors the corruption that has entered into the church, but it would not admit Quakers and Plymouth Brethren: the former reject clergy and sacraments, the latter clergy only, holding baptism and the Lord's supper, both insisting on ministry by the Spirit. I am not insisting now on their being right or wrong; I merely take it as a popular proof of the basis of the universal system, even where gross corruptions are resisted. It results in this, that the recognition of a clergy is the basis of the church, the sine qua non, the essential condition.” (Page 261.)

My thesis is, not that the church as now held historically was corrupted, but that the church so held was itself the total departure in principle from scripture, from what Christ set up by the Holy Ghost. The doctrine of full justification by faith, founded on accomplished redemption, and the recognition of the Holy Ghost as present and a directing power, were lost, and the clergy and sacraments substituted for them. The Reformation removed many corruptions which had grown intolerable, and many false principles; but the notion of the church was still based on the clergy and the sacraments. It is hard to prove a negative; but it is quite certain that neither a full redemption, nor, though the words be used once or twice, a complete possessed justification by faith, as Paul teaches it, a perfecting for ever by its one offering, a known personal acceptance in Christ, is ever found in any ecclesiastical writings after the canonical scriptures for long centuries.” (Page 262 – bold emphasis mine.)

He then asks:

Was this departure from Christ to be expected at once? or was the successional continuance of the outward body that which was secured by the Lord's promise? What does the word declare? Heresy fully contributed its part; but whatever was the cause, was the continuance of the body under God's approbation contemplated or not?” (Page 272.)

To these questions he gives a round of resounding yeses (with “proof” texts). And towards the end of the essay states:

The historical church is man's system, from the beginning, in contrast with God's: that system has been corrupted, but what has been corrupted is man's system, not God's. No doubt God had gathered the first materials into unity, but the principles on the which He founded His assembly resisted, specially by Judaism, during the life of the apostles, were given up when they were gone; and the system they had resisted became that which stood before men's eyes as the church. The free power of the Spirit, and known acceptance in an exalted Christ, ceased to be the constituent principles of those gathered; the clerical principle denying the Spirit, making elders the ministry as a clergy, that is, ordained teachers, not the gift and power of the Holy Ghost. This was first developed in local episcopacy, then in diocesan episcopacy and the hierarchy, and then in popery.” (Page 274.)

And there you have Darby’s theory of the Church, development and apostasy.
Next thread, the reformed scholar, William Cunningham’s view.

Grace and peace,


Friday, June 6, 2008

The Trinity and the Development of Doctrine

In countless books on the Trinity (countless in the sense that I do not wish to devote the considerable amount of time it would take to actually count them) that I read during my in depth study of the faith I was born into (JWs), I was constantly reminded that the doctrine of the Trinity was CLEARLY taught in the Bible. Some of the same books also maintained that the pre-Nicene Church Fathers also taught the doctrine. However, when I began my own studies into the ECFs, a different picture emerged. The following brief paper that I composed about a decade ago pretty much sums up my studies into the issue:

My understanding of the Evangelical doctrine of perspicuity is that the Scriptures are clear on the “essentials”. It is also my understanding that Evangelicals believe the doctrine of the Trinity is one of those “essentials”. Now, I would like to explore this issue—is the doctrine of the Trinity clearly (i.e. explicitly) contained in the Scriptures?

All serious scholars of Christian history know that the particular doctrine of the Trinity held to by many, but not all, Evangelicals was not developed until after the Council of Nicea. Bettenson writes, “‘Subordinationism’, it is true was pre-Nicene orthodoxy...”[1]. Hanson wrote the following, “Indeed, until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism. It could, about the year 300, have been described as a fixed part of catholic theology.”[2] And again, “With the exception of Athanasius virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355”.[3] Newman writes, “If we limit our view of the teaching of the Fathers by what they expressly state, St. Ignatius may be considered Patripassian, St. Justin arianizes, and St. Hippolytus is a Photinian...Tertullian is heterodox on the Lord’s divinity...Origen is, at the very least suspected, and must be defended and explained rather than cited as a witness of orthodoxy; and Eusebius was a Semi-Arian.”[4]

The following are a few examples from the early Church Fathers. First, Justin, “Our teacher is Jesus Christ...and we reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third...”[5] The Son is, “...the first-born of the unbegotten God...”[6] And, “ to God, we worship and love the Word, who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God...”[7] Justin then says to Trypho the Jew, “I shall attempt to persuade you...that there is said to be, another God and Lord subject to the Maker of all things...”[8] The Son, “...was begotten of the Father by an act of will...”[9] And, “...this Offspring, which was truly brought forth from the Father, was with the Father before all the creatures(i.e. creation)...”[10]

Tatian, a disciple of Justin, in his Address to the Greeks, wrote that God, was alone”; that the Logos “was in Him” and “by His simple will the Logos springs forth” and becomes “the first-begotten work of the Father”; and that “the Logos, begotten in the beginning, begat in turn our world”.[11] Theophilus, wrote that, “ first God was alone and the Word was in Him…The Word then, being God, and being naturally produced from God, whenever the Father of the universe wills...”[12] Athenagoras, “...we acknowledge one God, uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassible, whom the universe has been created through His Logos...Nor let anyone think it ridiculous that God should have a Son...the Son of God is the Logos of the Father...the Son, I will state briefly, that He is the first product of the Father...”[13]

Leaving the second century Fathers, and moving on to the third, we will examine what Origen had to say on our subject. From his work De Principiis we read, “That there is one God, who created and arranged all things...This just and good God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...Jesus Christ Himself, who came (into the world), was born of the Father before all creatures...”[14] In Against Celsus we read, “We therefore charge the Jews with not acknowledging Him (Jesus) to be God, to whom testimony was borne in many passages by the prophets, to the effect that He was a mighty power, and a God next to the God[15] and Father of all things.”[16] Origen in his Commentary On John wrote, “He (John) uses the article, when the name of God refers to the uncreated cause of all things, and omits it when the Logos is named God...God on the one hand is Very God (Autotheos, God himself); and so the the Saviour says in His prayer to the Father, ‘That they may know Thee the only true God;’ but all beyond the Very God is made God by participation in His divinity, and is not to be called simply God (with the article), but rather God (without the article). And thus the first-born of all creation, who is the first to be with God, and to attract to Himself divinity, is a being of exalted rank than the other gods beside Him...The true God, then is ‘The God’, and those who are formed after Him are gods, images as it were of Him the prototype.”[17] The following quote is from Origen’s Dialogue With Heraclides and His Fellow Bishops On The Father, The Son and, and the Soul:

Origen said: “Since the beginning of a debate is the time to declare what the topic the debate is, I will speak. The whole Church is here listening. It is not fitting for doctrinal differences to exist from church to church, for you are not a Church of falsehood. I call upon you, Father Heraclides: God is the almighty, the uncreated One, who is above all things. Do you agree to this?” Heraclides said: “I agree; for this is what I too believe.” Origen said: “Jesus Christ, though he was in the form of God (Phil. 2.6), while still being distinct from God in whose form He was, was God before He came into the body: yes or no?” Heraclides said: “He was God before.” Origen said: “Was He God distinct from this God in whose form He was?” Heraclides said: “Obviously distinct from the other and , while being in the form of the other, distinct from the Creator of all.” Origen said: “ It not true, then, that there was a God, the Son of God, and only begotten of God, the first born of all creation (Col. 1:15), and that we do not hesitate to speak in one sense fo two Gods, and in another sense of one God?” Heraclides said: “What you say is evident. But we too say that God is the almighty, god without beginning, without end, who encompasses all and is encompassed by nothing, and this Word is the Son of the living God, God and man, through whom all things were made, God according to the Spirit, and man from being born of Mary.” Origen said: “You don’t seem to have answered my question. Explain what you mean, for perhaps I didn’t follow you. The Father is god?” Heraclides said: “Of course.” Origen said: “The Son is distinct from the Father?” Heraclides said: “Of course, for how could He be son if He were also father?” Origen said: And while being distinct from the Father, the Son is Himself also God?” Heraclides said: “He Himself isalso God.” Origen said: “And the two Gods become a unity?” Heraclides said: “Yes.” Origen said: “We profess two Gods?” Heraclides said: “Yes, [but] the power is one.”[18]

Before leaving Origen, it is important to note what he had to say about prayer. The following is from Origen’s treatise Prayer:

If we understand what prayer really is, we shall know that we may never pray to anything generated–not even Christ–but only to God and the Father of all, to whom even Our Saviour Himself prayed, as we have already said, and teaches us to pray...For if the Son, as shown elsewhere, is distinct from the Father in nature and person, then we must pray either to the Son, and not to the Father, or to both, or to the Father only...There remains, then, to pray to God alone, the Father of all, but not apart from the High Priest who was appointed with on oath by the Father...The saints, then, in their prayers of thanks to God acknowledge their thanks to Him through Christ Jesus.[19]

Next, we shall look at Tertullian whose writings are late second century through the first two decades of the third. From one his polemical works, Against Praxeas, we read that “before all things God was alone, and the Word “proceeds forth from God”. The Word which is also called Wisdom was “created or formed” by God and is His “first-begotten”[20]. From Against Praxeas we also read:

I should not hesitate, indeed, to call the tree the son or offspring of the root, and the river of the fountain, and the ray of the sun; because every original source is a parent, and everything which issues from the origin is an offspring...I confess that I call God and His word–the Father and His Son–two...there must be two; and where there is a third, there must be three. Now the Spirit indeed is third from God and the Son; just as the fruit of the tree is third from the root, or as the stream out of the river is third from the fountain, or as the apex of the ray is third from the sun...Now, observe, my assertion is that the Father is one, and the Son one, and the Spirit one, and that They are distinct from Each other...Thus the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the indeed definitively declare that Two beings are God, the Father and the Son, and, with the addition of the Holy Spirit, even Three...[21]

Tertullian, like Origen, can speak of two, and three in one sense, and in another sense, of just One God. Eusebius, too, strongly asserts this same theme. We read the following in his Proof of the Gospel:

Remember how Moses calls the Being, Who appeared to the patriarchs, and often delivered to them the oracles afterwards written down in Scripture sometimes God and Lord, and sometimes the Angel of the Lord. He clearly implies that this was not the Omnipotent God, but a secondary Being...This same being who appeared to Abraham is called Lord and God. He teaches the saint mysteriously of His Father’s rule, and speaks some things, as it were, of another God...surely there are Two...we have, by thirty prophetic quotations in all, learned that our Lord and Saviour the Word of God is God, a second God after the Most High...[22]

With the above examples from the Pre-Nicene Fathers in mind, to which dozens more could be added, we can objectively concur with Bettenson and Hanson that subordinationism was in fact Pre-Nicene orthodoxy.

As we move into the Nicene period, we are going find that the theme of subordinationism is not abandoned, in fact, it will be demonstrated that it continues as a dominant theme well into the fifth century. Evangelical apologists strongly suggest that when the term homoousion was put into the Nicene creed we have the triumph of “orthodoxy” over subordinationism. This “orthodoxy” is the affirmation that homoousios teaches the Godhead is one, single, identical substance shared by three Persons. But is this really the case? Concerning the subject at hand, Philip Schaff wrote:

The term homoousion, in its strict grammatical sense, differs from monoousion...and signifies not numerical identity, but equality of essence or community of nature among several beings. It is clearly used thus in the Chalcedonian symbol, where it is said that Christ is “consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father as touching the Godhead, and consubstantial with us [and yet individually distinct from us] as touching the manhood.” The Nicene Creed does not expressly assert the singleness or numerical unity of the divine essence...and the main point with the Nicene fathers was to urge against Arianism the strict divinity and essential equality of the Son and the Holy Ghost with the Father.[23]

The great Reformed theologian Charles Hodge admits that the term homoousios, “...may express either specific sameness, or numerical identity. In the former sense, all spirits, whether God, angels, or men, are homoousioi*.”[24] Although Hodge believes that the Nicene Creed teaches the latter sense, he cites a German theologian who disagrees with him:

Gieseler goes much further, and denies that the Nicene fathers held numerical identity of essence in the persons of the Trinity. The Father, Son and Spirit were the same in substance as having the same nature, or same kind of substance. This he infers was their doctrine not only from the general style of their teaching, and from special declarations, but from the illustrations which they habitually employed. The Father and the Son are the same in substance as among men father and son have the same nature; or as Basil says, Father and Son differ in rank, as do the angels, although they are the same in nature. Gieseler says that the numerical sameness of nature in the three divine persons, was first asserted by Augustine. It was he, according to Gieseler, who first excluded all idea of subordination in the Trinity.[25]

Note that Gieseler made the assertion that it was Augustine “who first excluded all idea of subordination in the Trinity”. As we know from history, it was Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity that eventually became the dominant view of Catholic theology. The reformers inherited, and for the most part embraced Augustine’s view.

Now, when we look at “the” Evangelical doctrine of the Trinty, one is forced to conclude that it is “doctrines”, not “the doctrine”, for the following are but a few examples of the different forms of Trinitarianism held within Evangelicalism. 1.) The Son and the Spirit are generated from the Father’s essence, who is the source, fountain-head of the Trinity (Melanchthon, Jonathan Edwards). 2.) It is the person alone, not the essence which is generated from the Father (John Calvin, Francis Turrettin, and most Reformed theologians). 3.) There is no generation of persons within the Godhead; the Logos became the Son at the incarnation (Oliver Buswell, Walter Martin, early writings of John MacArthur). 4.) The Godhead is one person, and within the being of this one person there are three personal subsistences (Cornelius Van Til). 5.) The Trinity is not composed of persons in the modern sense (i.e. three distinct centers of conscious personal beings), but rather of three modes of existence (Donald Bloesch). 6.) Social Trinitarianism (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Millard Erickson, Edward Wierenga).

So, are the scriptures “clear” concerning the doctrine of the Trinity? When one honestly examines history, and the current state of Evangelical theology, one must conclude that it is not “clear”. IHMO, to maintain that the scriptures are “clear” on this issue is to radically change the meaning of the word “clear”.

[*Note: Greek in the original document has been transliterated.]


[1] Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers (London, England: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978 4th impression) p. 239.

[2] RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.

[3] RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988, p. xix.

[4] John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, (6th edition 1989) p. 17.

[5] Justin Martyr, The First Apology, ch. 13, in Roberts & Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers volume 1(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979 edition) p. 167.

[6] Ibid., ch. 53, p. 180.

[7] Justin, The Second Apology, ch.13, ANF1 -p. 193.

[8] Justin, Dialogue With Trypho, ch. 56, ANF1 -p. 223.

[9] Ibid., ch. 61, p. 227.

[10] Ibid., ch. 62, p. 228.

[11] Tatian, Address of Tatian to the Greeks, ch. 5, in Roberts & Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1979 edition) p. 67.

[12] Theophilus, Theophilus to Autolycus, ch. 22, ibid. p. 103.

[13] Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, ch. 10, ibid., p. 133.

[14] Origen, De Principiis, preface, chapter 4, in Roberts & Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers volume 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1979 edition) p. 240.

[15] This is but one instance where Origen contrasts Jesus Christ as “a God” (theos) with the Father who is “the God” (ho theos).

[16] Origen, Against Celsus, book 2.9, ibid. p. 433.

[17] Origen, Commentary On John, book 2.2, in Roberts & Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers volume 10 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1979 edition) p. 323.

[18] Origen, Dialogue With Heraclides, chapters 1-2, Ancient Christian Writers volume 54 (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1992) pp. 57-59.

[19] Origen, Prayer, chapter 15.1-2, Ancient Christian Writers volume 19 (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1954) pp. 57-58.

[20] Tertullian, Against Praxeas, chapters 5, 7, in Roberts & Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1979 edition) pp. 600, 601.

[21] Ibid., chapters 8, 9, 13, pp. 602, 603, 604, 608.

[22] Eusebius, Proof of the Gospel, books 1.5, 5.25, 30 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981 reprint) pp. 26, 27, 267, 271.

[23] Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673.

[24] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 reprint) p. 460.

[25] Ibid., p. 463.

In addition to my short paper, I would like to bring into the mixture the following comments from the pen of Raymond Brown:

In the “olden” days (before Vatican II) it was apparent, even against the background of a sometimes unsophisticated biblical exegesis, that certain doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church were not easily detectable in the NT. In a widely held thesis of two sources of revelation, Scripture and Tradition, it could be maintained that such doctrines were passed on orally as part of the living tradition of the church, and were simply not mentioned until a much later era because no one questioned them. A more nuanced thesis was that such doctrines could be logically derived in an almost syllogistic manner from ideas of affirmations that were in the Bible. Vatican II changed the focus of the discussion significantly. The draft of the schema on the sources (plural) of revelation to the Council in November 1962 was rejected…doctrines for which there is no sufficient witness in the Bible are dealt with in another manner. A more sophisticated theory of hermeneutics argues that the written books of the Bible, as literary artifacts, had a life of their own and so their “meaning” involves the ongoing interpretation of them the Christian community. (Raymond E. Brown, Biblical Exegesis & Church Doctrine, 1985, p. 30.)Brown then goes on to discuss to 3 distinct categories concerning the “relationships between scripture and doctrine”: first, “Doctrines for which There is Abundant but Incipient Basis in Scripture”; second, “Doctrines for which There is Slender Basis in Scripture”; and third, “Doctrines about which the Scriptures are Virtually Silent(in which he places the Marian dogmas, including the Assumption).

Concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, Brown wrote:

Nevertheless, in no NT passage, not even in Matt. 28:19 (“Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”) is there precision about three divine Persons, co-equal but distinct, and one divine Nature—the core dogma of the Trinity. Greek philosophy, sharpened by continuing theological disputes in the church from the 2nd to the 5th centuries, contributed to the classical formulation of the dogma…If ‘tradition’ implies that first-century Christianity already understood three coequal but distinct divine Persons and one divine Nature but had not developed the precise terminology, I would dissent. Neither the terminology nor the basic ideas had reached clarity in the first century; problems and disputes were required before the clarity came…Precisely because the “Trinitarian” line of development was not the only line of thought detectable in the NT, one must posit the guidance of the Spirit and intuition of faith as the church came to its decision. (Ibid. pp. 31-33.)

In summation, doctrine develops, even the so-called “clear” and “essential” doctrines were in need of development. Now, with this in mind, it seems to me that if one takes orthodoxy seriously, then it is Newman’s theory of development which is the most consistent, for to date, I have not come across a theory of DD that poses less difficulties. But, I am certainly open to the possibility that one does exist…

Grace and peace,


Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Development of Doctrine

A very interesting, and timely THREAD, was brought to my attention yesterday via a new participant (Kepha) here at AF.

Though Michael Liccione’s opening post primarily focuses on inconsistencies he perceives to exist among Orthodox theologians concerning the issue of the development of doctrine (hereafter DD)—with, of course, the Catholic concept of DD in focus—a good portion his reflections also to apply to the various concepts of DD that exist within the Protestant paradigm.

Dr. Liccione brings to our attention certain Orthodox theologians (e.g. Behr, Louth, and Reardon) who deny that DD actually exists. But the Orthodox communion is not only branch of Christendom with theologians who reject the notion of DD, for we find such denials within Protestantism and among pre-Vatican II Catholic theologians. Since Dr. Liccione does such a masterful job of refuting those Orthodox theologians who deny DD, I shall focus on Protestantism. Within the Protestant paradigm one will find various positions concerning DD that range from those who in essence deny that DD truly exists, to those who hold to a position that approaches Newman’s view. An example of the former is John Nelson Darby, who penned the following:

What finally led Dr. Newman to be satisfied with Romanism, which has confessedly a multitude of doctrines unknown to the primitive Church, was the principle of development. He was far down the hill, no doubt, long before, but that plunged him into its waters. Now in the person of Christ, and the value of His work before God, there can be no development. He is the same—and so is the efficacy of His work—yesterday, today, and for ever. I or Dr. Newman may grow in the knowledge of Christ. Faithful zeal may resist and dispel errors which arise, and by which Satan seeks to cloud the truth and overthrow faith; but there cannot be development of the infinitely perfect and completely revealed person of the Son of God, in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. Dr. Newman may find, in spite of Bishop Bull, and as Pettau has admitted, that the ante-Nicene fathers were worse than obscure as to the divinity of the blessed Lord; but Paul is not, who declares that the fullness of the Godhead (theotēs* not theiotēs* that is, proper Deity, not divine character simply) dwells in Him bodily; John is not, who declares, He is the true God, was with God, and was God; and the New Testament, so plainly and blessedly making Christ known to us, is not. There He is Immanuel, Jesus, —Jehovah the Saviour. He may rejoice that the Nicene council reaffirmed this truth. But to say that this was development, and that the Church of God for three centuries did not know the true divinity of Christ, is high treason against Christ and the truth. It is the folly of a mind who, to excuse itself, and make out a point, gives up all fundamental truth—does not possess it. It may lead to Romanism—I dare say it does; I am sure it does not lead to God. (John Nelson Darby, Analysis of Dr. Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, pp. 27, 28).

Now, my readings and interactions with so many of our Protestant brothers strongly suggests to me, that though willing to affirm some sense of DD, the foundation of their paradigm (formal sufficiency/perspicuity of scriptures, coupled with doctrinal corruption immediately following the death of the apostles), in essence, affirms Darby’s position.

Proceeding on with the above in mind, I cannot help but think that though Darby certainly raises some important questions concerning Newman’s view of development that need to be addressed, Darby’s own view of DD presents even greater difficulties—difficulties that are inherent to any Protestant concept of DD.

Have I missed something in the overall equation?

Grace and peace,


*Note: I have transliterated the Greek for my readers.