The Liberation of the Triune God

exodusOne of the helpful emphases of the Reformed tradition is its acknowledgment of the continuity as well as discontinuity of Old and New Testaments. This comes through very strongly in Turretin’s Institutes and even makes an appearance in his doctrine of the Trinity. After a couple of clarifying questions, as well as a lengthy question devoted to proving the doctrine of the Trinity from New Testament Scripture, he moves on to try and demonstrate the revelation of the Trinity in the Old Testament. For while it is admittedly true that God reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with greater clarity in New Testament, that does not at all mean that we cannot see him revealed as such in the Old as well.

He then proceeds to do some careful lexical and exegetical work in some of the usual places such as Genesis 1:26, and other references to the Divine plural in the manner of the Fathers, as well as some other surprises. The passage that caught my eye was his treatment of the salvation of Israel from Egypt. Here argues from the works of Father, Son, and Spirit in the Exodus to their unified of the Triune action in the Old Testament.

…the same may be proved from the deliverance of the people out of Egyptian bondage, the guidance of them through the wilderness, and introduction into Canaan. He is that true God whom the Israelite. He is that true God whom the Israelites acknowledged and worshipped, who brought them out of Egypt, lead them through wilderness and introduced them into the land of promise. For no other besides God could have performed so great a work, as he himself testifies in the preface to the Law. “I am the Lord thy God who brough thee out of the land of Egypt.” Also, he often claims this as his prerogative (Ex. 3:2; 23:20; 32:34), in which this work is ascribed to the three persons of the Trinity–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Concerning the Father, the adversaries do not doubt; concerning the Son, the following passages prove (Ex. 3:2; 23:20; 32:34), in which this work is ascribed to the “angel of Jehovah.” That this angel is not a created angel, but the uncreated Son of God himself, sent by God for this work and often manifesting himself under this form to the patriarchs, is evident from the description of him and the various attributes given to him (which are such as cannot apply to a creature, but belong to God alone). (1) He says he is the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob (Ex. 3:6); calls the Israelites his people (Ex. 3:7); sends Moses to Pharaoh (Ex. 3:10); promises himself divine worship after their deliverance from Egypt (Ex. 3:12). (2) He is said to have gone before the Israelites in a pillar of cloud and fire (Ex. 4:19), which is expressly attributed to Jehovah (Ex. 13:21; Num. 11:25; 14:14). (3) It is said that “the name of God” will be in himso that they will not escape unpunished who rebel against him (Exd. 23:20, 21). (4) He is called “the very presence of God” (“My presence shall go with thee,” Ex. 33:14) because he is the image of the invisible God, the express image of the person of the Father.

That the Holy Spirit also here concurred as a person with the others is evident from the noted passage: “I will mention the lovingkindesses of the Lord” (Is. 63:7-14). He said “surely they are my people, so he was their Savior.” “The angel of his presence saved them in his love, but they rebelled and vexed his Holy Spirit,” Here three distinct person are enumerated: “Jehovah,” “the angel of his presence,” and “the Holy Spirit.” Distinct operations are ascribed to each: to Jehovah, lovingkindness towards the people; to the angel of his presence, redemption; and to the Holy Spirit, vexation and contention with the people, which he was turned to be their enemy. Since, then, a truly divine work is ascribed to these three, it is necessary that they should be one true God essentially (although mutually distinguished in mode of subsisting and personall). –Third Topic, Q. XXV, sec. IX

There are a number of features worth noting in this treatment. The first is Turretin’s view of the Angel of the LORD, or the Angel of YHWH. As he makes clear in a number of places, Turretin views this as an appearance of the pre-incarnate Son. It is an appearance in angelic/human form that is, nonetheless, distinct from his incarnation in that there is no hypostatic union, but only concrete manifestation. Still, this is a thesis that Christian theologians have long appealed to in order to explain the way the Angel is both identified as a distinct agent who nonetheless is identified as the LORD somehow.

Connected with that is the issue of narrative identification of God by his works. The idea is that God is to be identified by his activities in history. God’s being is not constituted by his activity in history. Nonetheless, he is known and identified by his activity in history. YHWH is the God who rescued Israel from Egypt. That is YHWH’s activity and YHWH’s identity. Therefore, if an actor is identified as an actor in that same salvation, then they are identified with YHWH himself. In other words, if someone is doing what Scripture says only God does, then we must be dealing with God.

At the same time, there is clearly a distinction of the persons in their working of the one work of redeeming Israel from Egypt. The Fathers had a phrase that summed up this principle that while “the external works of the Trinity are undivided”–in other words, Father, Son, and Spirit are at work in the same work–nonetheless, the order and distinction among the persons should be observed. Father, Son, and Spirit are at work in the Incarnation of the Son, but only the Son becomes incarnate. The same is true here. While it is true that Father, Son, and Spirit are identified as agents of Israel liberation and are therefore identified as God, their particular activities are not lost to view. The God who is Father, Son, and Spirit acts Triunely to bring about Israel’s salvation.

Finally, the issue of “canonical” interpretation pops up in the passage. Turretin practices what might be called a form of canonical interpretation, taking the whole of the Old Testament to be the proper context for the interpretation of the Exodus event. Though the Exodus texts might not explicitly mention the activity of the Spirit, the LORD’s words in Isaiah about the same event illuminates it theologically. While we see Turretin employing this canonical reading within the Old Testament, the same principle holds true for the New Testament and the Old Testament. The New Testament’s clearer light is normative for how Christians are to read the Old Testament. Of course, that also takes some careful examination of the way that the New Testament is actually using an Old Testament text. Still, the principle holds. Jesus tells us what divorce law was about (Mark 10). Paul’s reading of the events of Exodus 34 in 1 Corinthians 10 actually helps us read Exodus 34. Hebrews tells us what the sacrificial system was really all about.

This is why I keep reading dead types. There’s gold in them thar hills. Turretin reminds us that our liberating God is our Triune God and our Triune God is a liberating God.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Does God Care if Your Favorite Football Team Wins?” and Other Theological Concerns

footballTheology is everywhere; even football players venture on theological territory. Witness Packers QB Aaron Rodgers’ response to a fan question after the Packers’ recent loss:

I always find it a little off-putting when athletes, actors and anybody says, “This is what God wanted,” or “I want to thank God for helping us win today,” anything along those lines when a game or award is won. I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the gist. Personally, with all the chaos in the world, I’m not sure God really cares about the outcome of a game or an awards show. What do you think of statements such as these? You’ve obviously got your faith. Does what happens on Sunday impact your relationship with God or your faith at all?

Rodgers’ response:

I agree with her. I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.

Of course, the puckish reply is, “Well, he did just lose.” At a deeper level, though, it’s fascinating to consider how sports reveals our theology of God’s will, providence, pleasure, and even the problem of evil. How we answer the question, “Does God care a whole lot about the outcome of football games?” reveals much about how we understand God’s love, sovereignty, and care for the world.

I don’t want to pick on Aaron Rodgers because, let’s be honest, he wasn’t trying to write a theological treatise on the subject. Also, he’s a professional football player, not a trained theologian. Still, I think it would be useful to think through in just what senses we might say that God does, or does not, care about who wins a football game.

You can read the rest of my analysis at Christ and Pop Culture.

Soli Deo Gloria

Four Helpful Words Before You Preach That Awkward Word

awkwardEvery pastor has sermons that they hate to preach, especially when it comes to cultural flashpoints. Unless you’re a glutton for conflict, or you’ve got nerves of steel, the thought of misunderstanding, rejection, or turning someone off from the Gospel because you’ve got to preach on that subject this week when Joe happens to be bringing his 10 unsaved, unchurched friends might just cause you some nerves.

The tension is there for various reasons. First, you want to be faithful to God’s word. You don’t want to hem or hedge or cover over what God has spoken. It’s God’s word and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s truth that, even when it cuts, leads to the beautiful healing brought about by the Spirit. Then again, you also want people to properly hear what was actually spoken, as opposed to what they’ve been culturally-trained to hear as soon as a couple of key buzzwords are dropped. As wonderful as the Word is, aside from our own natural resistance, people have mishandled it, creating a natural, understandable hesitation about certain hot-button topics.

In these situations, I have found that it’s helpful to say a few words before, or with, or after, those words we’re a little worried to utter or expound. Consider them framing words. They help set up, frame, or prepare your people to process what you’re about to say. To use an odd, distracting image, it’s like trying to clear some wax out of the ears before putting in headphones. You want as little hindering your people as possible. What’s more, these are the kinds of helpful conversation-framers that teach your people how to talk to outsiders beyond Sunday morning in the pews. By the way, at the outset, you need to know that I probably got all of these from Tim Keller at some point.

So what are these ‘words’?

1. Culture changes, so do our presuppositions. The first point is that our moral intuitions, while there for our good, are culturally-shaped, and therefore pretty malleable. Things that just “felt wrong” to people 60 years ago, didn’t feel wrong 60 years before that, and vice versa. Or again, things that just “seem obviously right” to someone in the Middle East, will “seem obviously wrong” to someone in downtown Chicago. Yes, there is a fundamental human nature, with instincts for the basic shape of right and wrong, but like our sense of fashion it’s got a certain sense drift. We’ve worn jeans for a while now, but in the 90s they were baggy and under your butt. Now, they’re skinny compressed. At both times, they “feel right” as pants, despite their wide difference.

In a similar way, some of the Bible’s answers will make intuitive sense to people out in the culture and sometimes they won’t. Right now the Bible’s answers about grounding the nature of human rights, cultivating empathy, compassion and forgiveness, all resonate with our culture even if they don’t buy the story. In other areas like sex and money, the Bible’s message is going to grate. Sometimes, then, the Bible’s answers are like an odd image on puzzle-piece. It’s only when you’ve placed it in the broader picture, that it will make any sense.

2. The Unchanging Cultural Universal. The next truth that goes hand in hand with the last point is that no culture has ever been universally right on every point. Every culture has blind spots. As Lewis has pointed out before, we might look back on the Medievals and judge them for their violence and love of marshall conquest, while they would look at an age like ours and wonder at our cheap view of sex, or physical cowardice. Compassion towards outsiders might be a premium we champion, but our lack of loyalty in marriage, or our workaholism and materialistic consumerism are things that other ages and cultures would look at us and shake their heads at. Just like human individuals, the Bible teaches that human cultures are both filled with common grace truth and yet broken by sin. If that’s the case, if the Bible is the transcultural truth of God, wouldn’t we expect for it to affirm and challenge each culture and age in different spots?

3. First Things First.  Next, and this one is mostly for the skeptics or newbies checking out the faith, keep first things first. As Keller asks in The Reason for God, “Surely you don’t want to say that just because you don’t like what the Bible says about, issue x (women, same-sex marriage, etc) you don’t believe Jesus rose from dead? You wouldn’t want to make such a non-sequitur.” The point is this: Figure out the main things first and then come back for the tough, but peripheral stuff. There is an order of importance in the Christian faith for which beliefs ground other beliefs. In other words, who cares what the Bible says about contraception or gender roles if Jesus never rose from the dead? If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then, as Paul says, “your faith is futile and you’re still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:12-20), so who cares right? So, if you’re troubled and new and don’t know what to think, that’s okay. Read and learn. But first, tackle the bigger issues like God, Christ, the nature of salvation, and then wrestle with what the Bible says about your pet issue.

4. If Jesus Did Rise… Now, for those of us who have come to the conclusion that Jesus did rise from the dead and he’s the Creator of all things and Cosmic Lord of the Universe, well, then it’s time to wrestle with the Bible he affirmed as true and authoritative. It’s not possible to say to him, “Jesus, you’re my Lord, my Savior, and I trust you with my eternal destiny when I die” and then turn around and add “but right there, what you said about my bank account (sex life, marriage, time, etc), is kind of off, so I’ll have to pass.” It just doesn’t work. Now, you may take a while to study and figure out what the Bible is saying, but after you’ve said yes to Jesus, straight-up disagreement is not an option.

So there you go. Obviously, you don’t have to frame them the way I did. And, it would probably be a good idea to go cruise through Keller’s Reason for God at some point if you haven’t, just to get the clearer version of all of these. Still, points like these are worth making. And now that I think about it, they’re good, not only during the particular sermon in question, but regularly, during all sorts of sermons. You often need to be tilling the soil long before planting season if it’s going to be ready to receive the more difficult seed you want to sow.

Of course, above all, trust God himself to be at work in the Word by his Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria

Unchanging and Promise-keeping: A Reformed Metaphysics of the Exodus

burning bushFew texts in the Bible have been as metaphysically-significant as Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush. With the giving the Divine Name “I am that I am” in Exodus 3:14, the stage was set, not only for covenantal history, but philosophical reflection in the West for millennia to come. When the Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint (LXX), rendered that phrase something along the lines, “I am that which is”, a door was opened for philosophically-inclined Jewish and especially later Christian theologians to attempt an identification with the God of Israel, with the philosophical category of being. Beginning with Justin Martyr down on through Augustine and Aquinas, this text became important for developing a Christian theology of the being and attributes of God. If God is the one who supremely is, then certain corollary attributes follow: independence, eternity, unchangeability, infinity, and so forth. Etienne Gilson famously dubbed this tradition of philosophical reflection “the Metaphysics of Exodus.”

Of course, not everybody has been sanguine about this history. From various angles, the tradition has been attacked. Lexically, the Septuagint’s rendering has been called into question, and various alternative renderings of the complicated Hebrew have been offered. Theologically, metaphysical interpretation of this sort has been rubbished as one more, if not the chief, example of the Greek captivity of Christian theology, imposing foreign categories upon the text in order to arrive at foregone philosophical conclusions. Others have argued that the text is nowhere near philosophical categories. Connected with this, certain modern theologians assert that God is testifying to his faithfulness, or his consistency of action, not his mode of being. Biblical thought is concerned with God’s character, not his ontology.

While some of these arguments have some weight to them, especially the exegetical ones, I thought it might be worth presenting a chunk of Turretin’s exposition of the divine name as a prime example of the tradition. It’s instructive in itself, not because everything in it holds up, but because many haven’t taken the time to look at what this type of argumentation looks like. Also, because it makes a key point that, whatever you do with the rest of it, still needs to be heard: ontology and character are bound up with each other. There can be no simple bifurcation between being and doing.

The etymology and signification of the word is such as agrees with God alone. From Scripture, it is evident that it implies most especially three things which are seen to be connected (Is. 44:24-26):

(a) The eternity and independence of God, inasmuch as he is a necessary being, and existing of himself, independent of any other, self-existent (autoon)–“I am that I am” (Ex. 3:14). Hence he is called simply the being (ho on, as the ancient philosophers and Plato especially acknowledged). John describes him by the three distinctions of time: “which is, and which was, and which is to come” (ho on kai ho en kai ho erchomenos, Rev. 1:4). In reference to this we have that expression of the ancient heathen: “Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus will be, O great Zeus” (Zeus hen, Zeus esti, Zeus essetai o megale Zeu, Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.12.10).

(b) It implies causality and efficiency because what is the first and most perfect in each genus is the cause of the rest (for God is by himself so that he is the cause of being to all others, Is. 44:24).

(c) It implies immutability and constancy in promises because he really performs and does what he has promised by giving to his promises being (to einai), not only self-existent (autoon), but also essentially existent (ousion) and essence-making (ousiopoios). In this sense, he says that he had not been known to the patriarch by his name Jehovah (Ex. 6:3), not as to the signifying word (for the contrary is evident from the book of Genesis), but as to the thing signified (because he had not as yet given being to his promises concerning the multiplication of seed, the bringing of people out of Egypt, their introduction to Canaan, etc.). He had made himself known to the patriarch by his power in the creation of the world, in its government and in the bestowal of many blessings and their wonderful defense; but he had not as yet really declared himself to be Jehovah, by fulfilling the promises given to the patriarchs. But since eternal existence, omnipotent power and immutable truth belong to God alone, the name Jehovah (which embraces these three) ought to be peculiar to him alone. –Institutes of Elenctic Theology Volume 1, Third Topic, Q. IV, Sec. V

As I said, there are a few things that are instructive about this passage. For one thing, the diversity of sources appealed to is always enlightening to note, simply because at certain times Christians, or especially Evangelicals, have been accused (and been guilty) of intellectual ghettoization. Turretin can comfortably appeal to pagan philosophical and literary tradition in order to supplement his point.

Even more important is the point we see in subsection “c”. Turretin engages in some theological exegesis by appealing to the acts of God, the character of God, in order to ensure the point about the being of God. As Vanhoozer has argued, metaphysics is unavoidable because we must give an account what God is like in order to account for who he has shown himself to be. What must the God who acts in this story be like in order to do and say the kinds of things we see in the biblical narrative?

Well, Turretin answers that a promise-keeping God must be an unchanging God, who is in no way dependent on creation for his being or power. Otherwise, his promise-keeping God’s promise-keeping is tentative, questionable, and contested. It would not be grounded solely in God’s own, unwavering power, but in the vagaries of history and chance. So even if we reject the identification of God with being in the text, and link the name with issues of God’s covenant-keeping character, it’s clear that some level of metaphysical, or ontological reflection on the Name of God is warranted, even demanded by the text.

As the Psalmist says, “You are good and do good” (Psalm 119:68). Turretin would simply remind us to link and properly emphasize the verbs: He does good because He is good.

Soli Deo Gloria

Selma and the Sufferings of Christ

SELMAI went to go see the movie Selma with my wife yesterday and, as I predicted, I was wrecked. I do not cry often, nor especially in films, but along with the stories of the martyrs, the history of the struggle against slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation move on my heart. I wept as I have not wept in years. The kind of tears that wrench your gut and stick in your throat for hours. As I went home that evening, just thinking of the various injustices and degradations depicted threaten to bring on another torrent. I was exhausted with the grief and, yes, the heaviness of hope.

I am no film critic, but suffice it to say, the film was powerful. I really do suggest you go watch it. It is not just Black history, or American history, but our history, as Christians and humans made in the Image of God. The depth of human depravity, the height of human courage, and the slow, but inevitable coming of justice–however partial, however incomplete–is a story that will not sit easy, but builds you and blesses you nonetheless.

While there are any number of spiritual and theological themes I could profitably take up in this post, I want to talk about Jesus and Selma. Or rather, I want to ask a specific question about what our Christology, our view of Jesus, has to do with our view of what happened in Selma and what happens in the suffering of God’s people around the world. Admittedly, this is not the only question, and maybe not even the most important Christological question raised by the film, and yet I want to briefly address it nonetheless, because I think there is comfort and challenge involved here.

Does God Cry?

In the middle of the film, when Martin Luther King Jr. is out of town, a small band of Selma protesters engage in a night march. The police get wind of it and decide to teach them a lesson by ambushing them with a wave of brutality and violence. In the middle of it all, one young protestor, Jimmie Lee Jackson, is shot and killed trying to protect his mother and grandfather. It is wrenching and heartbreaking. When he hears the news, King comes to visit Jackson’s grandfather and speak some words of comfort. King addresses him and assures him that Jimmie will not have died in vain, but the very first words he says, are something to the effect of:

“I want you to know that when Jimmie died, God was the first to cry. He was the first to shed a tear.”

It is a powerful moment, especially as you watch Jimmie’s grandfather look at King with an expression of humility, comfort, and deep pain and say, “Oh yes, I believe that. I know that.” The words are so appropriately-timed and attuned to speak a message that provides balm for the soul. God knows your pain. He is not distant from your cares and woes. They are his cares and woes. Your tears do not fall to the ground alone but join with those shed from heaven above, by the God of all creation.

Of course, the question that struck me in the theater was, “Is that true? Does God shed a tear for Jimmie?”

A God Who Cannot Suffer Becomes A Redeemer Who Can

I asked the question because, as Wesley Hill recently reminded us, for most of her history the church has taught the doctrine of impassibility. The nearly unified confession of church history until about the 20th Century was that, strictly speaking, God does not and cannot in “suffer” passions–be overwhelmed by irrational or uncontrollable feelings, etc–or be acted upon in his divine nature. The Triune God is the author of life whose own glory is that of perfect, unchanging glory. He is incapable of being overwhelmed or overcome in his divine life. So does God cry? Well, in a sense, no. God is spiritual, not physical. In himself he cannot be overwhelmed as we are, have an adrenaline rush with a flush of the face, a flaring of the nostrils, or an unbidden moistening of the tear-ducts. God does not cry.

At the same time, though, as Ben Myers reminded the attendees of last week’s LA Theology conference, for the Church Fathers the presupposition of impassibility is precisely the logic behind the cross. As I’ve explained before, God’s impassibility should not be taken to mean that God does not care, or that he has no emotional life–he does. It’s just that we should not think of it precisely as we do our own. In fact, this is the glory of the God of the gospel: we find a God who cares so much that the one who cannot suffer and die in his own nature, takes on human nature in order to suffer and die with us and for us. The Impassible God is the one who loves so implacably that he overcomes the obstacle of his own perfect life in order to participate in our life, so marred with pain and sin, to redeem us from it. In other words, the God who could not suffer, became a Redeemer who could.

Jesus is the God who became human so he could shed tears with us at the tomb of Lazarus.

Eternal Mediator

What now, though? The Scriptures teach that this Godman is the one who, after his Resurrection, was exalted to the right hand of the Father in order to intercede for us even now. According to Hebrews, like Melchizedek, Christ “continues a priest forever” (Heb. 7:3). The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity is currently a human seated on the throne of the universe. If it is not too speculative, I would hazard the courage to say that Jesus is the God who can still shed human tears for his people in this world racked with sin and injustice.

I say this on the basis of Acts 9, when the Resurrected Christ comes to Saul, the marauder of the church and says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The Risen Christ so identifies with his people that any assault on them is an assault on him. Their suffering is his. Their tears are his. As Calvin writes about this passage:

…the godly may gather great comfort by this, in that they hear that the Son of God is partner with them of the cross, when as they suffer and labor for the testimony of the gospel, and that he doth, as it were, put under his shoulders, that he may bear some part of the burden. For it is not for nothing that he saith that he suffereth in our person; but he will have us to be assuredly persuaded of this, that he suffereth together with us, as if the enemies of the gospel should wound us through his side. Wherefore Paul saith, that that is wanting in the sufferings of Christ what persecutions soever the faithful suffer at this day for the defense of the gospel, (Colossians 1:24.) –Comment on Acts 9:4

Though impassible in his own nature, in Christ, God suffers in and with his people. Jesus is the God who cries for Jimmie Lee Jackson.

This is an unspeakable comfort for those suffering under grave oppression around the world. Whether it be the marchers in Selma, laboring for the justice of God’s kingdom, or the persecuted church around the world, God’s joy and impassible life does not mean he is separated from our pain and struggle. He is there in the heart of it, working to redeem it.

Yet the Gospel moves us beyond the tears of Christ to remind us that by his once and for all suffering on the Cross and victorious Resurrection, Christ has secured the day when “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

May we look forward to that day as we look about our world filled with injustice and pain. May that hope gird us up as we shed the tears that will inevitably come as we follow Christ in looking the brokenness of the world, in order to meet it with the gospel of our justice-loving God.

Soli Deo Gloria

One Simple Meaning, Multiple Meanings, Or One Complex Meaning? A Little Typology

abraham and isaacMonday we looked at Turretin’s argument for the continuing doctrinal authority of the Old Testament for Christians. Many of his answers depended on the idea that the Old Testament contains by way of prophecy, type, and shadow, the same substance as the New Testament. Today I want to look at a section in related question that may shed some light on Turretin’s understanding of prophecy, types, and shadows.

In question 19 he takes up the issue of whether or not Scripture has more than one meaning. Or rather, whether the classic fourfold meaning–literal, allegorical, anagogical, and tropological–was admissable. For those unfamiliar with the distinction, Turretin explains:

In order that the Roman Catholics may force upon us another, visible, judge of controversies-the church and the pope-besides the Scripture and the Holy Spirit speaking in it, they invent a multiple meaning in Scripture, and from this conclude that the meaning is doubtful and ambiguous. So they distinguish between literal and mystical meaning, and further divide the mystical into three parts: allegorical, tropological, and anagogical. They call it allegorical when the sacred history is applied to doctrines of the faith, like what is said in Galatians 4:22 concerning the two covenants or Sarah and Hagar; anagogical when the words of Scripture are applied to events of future ages, like what is said in Hebrews 4:3 concerning rest; tropological when applied to conduct. All this is expressed in the familiar jingle:

Facts the letter teaches; what you’ll believe, the allegory;
What you’ll do, the moral meaning; and where you’re bound, the anagogy.

Now, whether that’s an accurate take on Roman Catholic usage, I’ll leave it for others to decide, but it gives you an idea of what he’s worried about. Turretin goes on to explain that the Reformed hold to a single meaning per text. Now, while that may initially sound like a recipe for flat readings, he goes on to explain that this single meaning might be “simple or composite”:

A simple and historical meaning is one which consists of the statement of one fact without any further significance either as commandment or as dogma or as history. This can be one of two kinds, either strict and grammatical or figurative. The strict meaning depends on the exact words; the trope on the figurative language. A composite or mixed meaning is found in oracles containing typology, part of which [oracle] is type and part antitype. This does not constitute two meanings, but two parts of one and the same meaning intended by the Holy Spirit, who covered the mystery with literal meaning.

So the literal meaning is the only meaning, but that does not rule out that the Holy Spirit may have intended that same single meaning to have layers and dimensions to it. What’s more, the “literal” meaning does not mean a literalistic, or idiot-literal meaning. The literal meaning can comprehend metaphors, figures of speech, differing genres, etc. Indeed he quotes Aquinas and Salmeron here:

“literal meaning” describes not only that which is based on the strict, not figurative, meaning of the words, by which it is distinguished from “figurative meaning,” as was often done by the Fathers, but it also describes the meaning intended by the Holy Spirit and expressed either strictly or in figurative language; thus Thomas [Aquinas] defines the literal meaning as “what the Holy Spirit or author intends,” and Salmeron “what the Holy Spirit, the author of Scripture, wishes primarily to say, whether by the strict meaning of the language or by tropes and metaphors” (1.7)

His intention is to rule out the sort of exegesis that appealed to the “mystical” meaning that included allegories that were not governed by the literal meaning. Allegorical meanings hidden underneath the literal meanings, to be revealed by the discerning or authorized teachers made it easier to twist texts to fit doctrines, rather than norm doctrines by texts:

The mystical meaning may be either sacred or ecclesiastical. The sacred is that which the Holy Spirit sets forth through the Holy Scriptures, and which is therefore based on Scripture itself. Of this sort are John 3:13[14], concerning the bronze serpent; I Corinthians 10:1 – 4, concerning the baptism of the cloud and the sea, and the Israelites’ spiritual food and drink; Galatians 4:22, concerning the allegory of Abraham’s two wives; and I Peter 3:[20 – ]21, concerning the ark and baptism. The ecclesiastical is that which is developed by ecclesiastical writers, either for the sake of illustration, or of embellishment, which Philo Judaeus first attempted, in two books of allegories. Many of the Fathers followed him, especially Origen, who used this form of interpretation more than any other, so that he often fell into extremes, for which reason Jerome, in his letter to Avitus and Amabilis, rightly rebuked him: “Origen thinks that the brilliance of his mind is a sacrament of the church.” In the latter sense, although it can be used for illustration, [the mystical meaning] has no force for proving [doctrine], because it is a human interpretation, not divine [teaching], which can suggest probabilities but not convince (probabiliter suadere, sed non persuadere). But the former sense has the force of proof in the teachings of the faith, because it has the Holy Spirit as author and hence is part of his intention. Therefore what is said popularly, that theology is symbolic but not scientifically demonstrative (argumentivus), is true only of allegories and of parables that are of human, not divine, origin.

He clarifies:

It is not a question whether there is only one idea (conceptus) in the meaning of Scripture; we grant that the one meaning often yields several ideas, but they are mutually dependent, especially in the composite sense composed of type and antitype. The question is whether there are in the same pericope (locus) different meanings not dependent upon each other, as is the opinion of Azorius (Institutio moralis 1.82), Thomas (1.1.10), Lyra, Gretserus, Becanus, Salmeron, Bellarmine, and others.

Even more, Scripture having a single meaning does not mean that it cannot be applied in several ways, whether at one time for apologetics, others instruction, and still others for comfort. Scripture might have one meaning, but its significance in application can be varied.

So the allegorical, anagogical, and tropological are not different meanings, but applications of the single literal meaning; allegory and anagogy apply to instruction, and tropology applies to discipline.

So how does all of this cash out with respect to typology? What does this look like in Turretin’s mind? Well, in a stunning passage, Turretin gives us a crash-course in exegetically- and contextually-sensitive typological exegesis.

Since Scripture, which contains much more than words, is very rich in meaning, it is not absurd to say that the Holy Spirit wanted to give many teachings to us in the same word, but [always] one subordinated to the other so that one is the sign and figure of the other, or that they have some connection and dependency. Thus the promise given Abraham concerning his descendants refers both to Isaac as type and to Christ as antitype (Gal. 3:16). The oracle forbidding the breaking of the bones of the lamb (Exod.12[:46]) refers both to the paschal lamb as a figure and to Christ in mystery (John 19[:36]). The promise given David, “I will be a father to him” (II Sam. 7[:14]), refers both to Solomon and to Christ (Heb. 1[:5]). The prediction in Psalm 16[:10] that the holy one will not see corruption applies both to David, although incompletely, and to Christ, completely (Acts 2:29 – 30). There are any number of such texts in Scripture, which have various aspects (sceceis) which must be held together in order to have the full meaning of the oracle, and they are fulfilled not all at once, but in stages over a period of time. Thus many of the ancient oracles had three aspects: for the dispensation (status) of the law in the Jewish church, for the dispensation of grace in the Christian church, and for the dispensation of glory in heaven. Thus Isaiah 9:1, about the people who walked in darkness and saw a great light, has three stages of fulfillment: the liberation from Babylon, the proclamation of the gospel (Matt. 4:[14 -16]), and the final resurrection, through which those who were living in the valley of the shadow of death will see the great light of the glory of God. Likewise in Ezekiel 37, it can be observed concerning the dry bones that the oracle had already been fulfilled when the people went out from their most bitter captivity in Babylon as from the tomb (v. 12), it is being fulfilled today in the spiritual resurrection (Eph. 5:14), and it will be perfectly fulfilled in the final resurrection (John 5:25).

Here we see Turretin’s approach to typology on full display. In each case, he has a clear view of the multiple layers of meaning within the single “literal” meaning. The mystical, or typological significance is married to and dependent on the initial, contextually-defined, historical base. All the same, it rich, textured and sensitive to the Christological and redemptive-historical import of each text. Reading through a passage like this, we see a couple things worth highlighting.

Paying careful attention to the structure of types and shadows helps demonstrate the clear unity of Scripture from Old to New Testament. Yes, the Bible is 66 books and thousands of micro-stories and texts, but it is one grand drama authored by the Lord of History, recorded under the inspiration of the Spirit.

Second, once again, a “literal” reading of Scripture according to the Reformers and the tradition that followed them did not mean “flat”, rough, or literalistic. This is not mere proof-texting that runs rough-shod over context. Reformed scholastics like Turretin were actually sophisticated and careful exegetes. Systematic theologians can be responsible interpreters of the text no matter the style of theological argumentation they engage in.

May we learn to walk in their footsteps.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rules for Reading Calvin After Reading Muller

unaccommodated CalvinStudent of Calvin that I am, I was very excited to receive Richard Muller’s The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition. It’s supposed to be the book when it comes to Calvin that you have to reckon with, if you’re going to get an accurate and adequate picture of Calvin. As soon as I got it, I broke down and put it the front of the list and began reading. Soon, though, I realized that this was not the book I expected, but maybe the one I needed. 

In his work, Muller points out that Calvin has been accommodated over the years to any number of widely diverging portraits designed, intentionally or not, to fit him into their own current theological program or grid. Depending on the theologian, Calvin comes out as the rigid systematician, or the scornful humanist who wouldn’t approach anything like a scholastic system. The problem is that most have done so without any serious care to set him deeply within his 16th-Century historical and intellectual context, or dealt properly with the variety of source material when it comes to Calvin’s works. Muller wants to set the record to straight and do the kind of historical work necessary to set Calvin in his proper context and trace out the shape of Calvin’s program. It’s not so much a study in Calvin’s theology (for that, I’d recommend Billings or Horton), so much as a study in Calvin the theologian; his method, more than his results; how to read him, not so much what you’ll find when you do.

So what should we learn about Calvin the theologian? What should we avoid and what should we expect? Well, I can’t give you everything because that would take the couple of hundred pages, plus the eighty pages of endnotes (yes, endnotes) to do what Muller did. Still, I’ll try to summarize a few highlight takeaways. As always, this is rough.

Yes, Calvin was trained as a humanist. Does that make him “anti-scholastic”? Well, yes and no. Muller makes a very convincing case that Calvin was mostly directly acquainted with the ‘scholastic’ theologians of the Sorbonne of his day and that most of his harsh polemics is aimed at them. Indeed, the French translation of the Institutes especially makes the case as the term scholastic is often translated “Sorbonnist theologians.” Beyond that, he probably wasn’t deeply as acquainted with scholastic theology personally as some have imagined. Calvin learned theology as he studied and taught, in the thick of ministry. That said, there are strong evidences of its influences in his theology in terms of classical distinctions he used, and argument forms he deployed.

The same thing is true, apparently, of Aristotle. While most of his references to Aristotle are negative, Aristotelian thought-forms and categories are still present in his work, because they were shared by a lot of the common intellectual culture at the time. Actually, a lot of what you see in Calvin is a shift in his form of argument influenced by Agricolan logic, and the greater emphasis on rhetoric and persuasion that the humanists had. When you compare him to what came before and what followed, he actually makes a lot of sense as something of an in-between figure, because really, it’s historically anachronistic to separate out ‘humanism’ as a theology and method too cleanly from ‘scholasticism’ as a theology and method at the time.

Does that make him anti-systematic? We should also scrap any idea that Calvin was, therefore, as a humanist, totally anti-systematic. Muller makes the case that Institutes are something in-between a full-blown, modern system, and something else. Instead, they are arranged as a set of loci communes, or commonplaces. In other words, it’s a work where special topics addressed and arranged to provide a gateway into Scripture. It’s not supposed to be a total system of doctrine, or Calvin’s final or only word on any issue. This was the place where Calvin wanted to address key topics, issues, arguments, and disputed doctrines so that he wouldn’t have to clutter up his commentaries with lengthy appendices or sections devoted to them. He wanted his commentaries to be marked by ‘clarity’ and brevity, following the logic of the text, unlike some of his contemporaries. Also, we should know that our modern translations kind of muck with the work a bit. A lot of the technical theological terms of argument that scholastically and humanistically trained types would have picked up on are no longer there, making it feel less systematic than it would have to an early reader.  So yes, it’s clearly a system, but maybe not the kind of system that many of us are used to now.

How to Read The Institutes. Here are a few tips on how to read the Institutes, or, well–you’ll see.

Read Him With Paul in Mind. There’s been a lot of argument about how Calvin organized his Institutes, or whether there is some correct order that makes sense of the way Calvin placed the topics, especially since he rearranged it a few times through various editions. After a lot of very detailed reading and argumentation, Muller basically comes out saying there are three noted organizing themes. First, and most important, Calvin, influenced by Philip Melancthon and his own reading, organized along the Pauline order of salvation as it is found in the book of Romans. If you look at the two books, there’s a generally recognizable flow and similarity to structure. So, if you want to understand Calvin’s logic in presenting the subjects in the order he does, go read Romans a few times and it will start to make more sense.

Second, yes, there is a bit of a credal structure as Calvin does base a lot of his exposition on the Apostles’ Creed, but that is broken up a lot over the course of the editions. Finally, you can see the structural theme of the duplex cognitio Dei, or the twofold knowledge of God. This is not so much the knowledge of God as Creator and then as Redeemer, although that’s there. It’s the “knowledge of God and ourselves”, insofar as we can only know our nature and our sin in light God’s nature and revelation.

Read the Commentaries too. I’ve talked a bit about this before over at The Gospel Coalition, but Calvin never wanted the Institutes to be read alone. Calvin’s magnum opus was developed through various editions, starting from a brief exposition of the creed, the commandments, etc. into the work we currently have through his life-long conversation with Scripture, churchly theological disputes, and so forth. Again, if you recognize that it was supposed to be a collection of topics in order to leave his commentaries uncluttered, then you realize that you really need to read the commentaries on relevant texts in order to get Calvin’s “theology” on a given subject.

In that sense, you have to read the Institutes knowing that Calvin’s many “proof-texts” are more like footnotes. Calvin wrote commentaries on over 2/3 of the books of the Bible. So when he cites a text, odds are, tucked away somewhere is a discussion on the subject in his commentary, or, also, the commentaries of contemporary or classical exegetes like Chrystostom. He’s kind of like the Westminster divines that way. One more tidbit there. You need to know that not all the proof-texts cited in modern editions are his but have been added by editors. So, if you do go check the commentary and there’s nothing there on the subject, Calvin may not be to blame.

Point is, read the Institutes, but don’t read them alone.

Read the Sermons. On a similar note, we need to remember to read Calvin’s sermons. Calvin preached multiple sermons per week through various books of the Bible for years. Often the commentaries are the fruit of his labor in the sermons. What’s more, the sermons are usually thicker and more theologically developed than the commentaries, at least the early ones (Calvin got a bit more long-winded in his later, post-1559 Institutes commentaries).

Read Developmentally. Calvin almost never cut stuff out, but he did a heck of a lot of re-organizing of his Institutes, and often that did change the shape of his exposition enough. Also, you have to know that while Calvin was fairly solid throughout his career, he was human, so his thought did develop. In which case, comparing commentaries and Institutes without respect for when the commentary was written might skew your perception.


My big conclusion when it comes to reading Calvin after Muller? Well, it’s something I sort of already knew, but now begin to grasp in a way I couldn’t before: Calvin was a complex, historically-situated theologian, pastor, and commentator. In other words, before you go making sweeping claims about Calvin’s work, do your homework. As an example, Muller read William J. Bousma the riot act for his reading of Calvin as being some unsystematic thinker driven by anxieties based on his (misreading) of Calvin’s use of few phrases like “abyss” and “labyrinth.” Muller goes on to show that Calvin wasn’t suffering some grave anxiety–at least, you can’t come to that conclusion based on those texts. Instead, he was using common literary tropes as they were appropriate to discussing the texts he was commenting on, and they served specific polemical purposes in his writing. Indeed, words like “way” and “order” were far more common in his work, indicating a mind concerned to illustrate the sure, comforting path offered by the light of Scripture. But it takes more than quick, cursory, or even broad readings of Calvin to see that. It needs the patience to set Calvin in his proper historical and theological context, to appreciate him for the thinker he was, instead the accommodated intellectual prop we’d like him to be.

Soli Deo Gloria