Review of Hodge’s 3 Volumes

Charles Hodge is the highpoint of American theology. While Dabney searched deeper into the issues, Hodge’s position (if only because the North won) allowed him a wider influence. Thornwell was the more brilliant orator and Palmer the greater preacher, but Hodge was the teacher and systematician. Of the Princetonians Hodge is supreme. His writing style is smoother than Warfield’s and he is deeper than his predecessors.

We rejoice that Hendrickson Publishing is issuing these three volumes at $30. Even with the page-length quotations in Latin, Hodge is strong where American Christianity is weak. A renaissance in Hodge would reinvigorate discussions about epistemology, the doctrine of God and God’s knowledge, justification, and God’s law. We will look at Hodge’s discussion of epistemology, doctrine of God, human nature (including both sin and free volition), soteriology, and ethics.

Common Sense Realism
Far from stultifying the gospel, Hodge’s position safeguards the reliability of “truth-speak” and if taken seriously today, adds another angle to the “convert” phenomenon. A properly basic belief is one that doesn’t need another belief for justification. I’m not so sure if Hodge is making that claim. However, he does anticipate some of Plantinga’s positions by saying that God so constituted our nature to believe x, y, and z. My aim is to show from Hodge’s own words that our cognitive faculties are (1) reliable and (2) made so by God. I will advance upon Hodge’s conclusions: a commoner can read the Bible and get the general “gist” of it apart from an infallible interpreting body. Secondly, to deny the above point attacks the image of God. Thirdly, to deny the above point is to reduce all to irrationality. The practical application: Those who deny this position often find themselves looking for “absolute” and infallible arbiters of the faith. Such a position denies a key aspect of our imago dei.

“Any doctrine [and Hodge is using this word in the technical sense of philosophic and/or scientific beliefs], therefore, which contradicts the facts of consciousness, or the laws of belief which God has impressed upon our nature, must be false” (I: 215).

“Our knowledge of mind, therefore, as a thinking substance, is the first and most certain, and the most indestructible of all forms of knowledge; because it is involved in self-knowledge…which is the indispensable condition of all knowledge” (I: 277).

It is interesting to note his reference to self-knowledge. One is reminded of Calvin’s duplex cognito dei.

Doctrine of God

…[S]tart with the revelation that God has made of himself in the constitution of our own nature and in his holy word. This method leads to the conclusion that God can think and act, that in him essence and attributes are not identical (I: 564).

It’s also interesting to note Hodge’s comment about God constituting our nature in a certain way. Shades of Thomas Reid.

“To say, as the schoolmen, and so many even of Protestant theologians, ancient and modern, were accustomed to say, that the divine attributes differ only in name, or in our conceptions, or in their effects, is to destroy all true knowledge of God…If in God knowledge is identical with eternity, knowledge with power, power with ubiquity, and ubiquity with holiness, then we are using words without meaning (I: 371-372).

The attributes of God, therefore, are not merely different conceptions in our minds, but different modes in which God reveals himself to his creatures…just as our several faculties are different modes in which the inscrutable substance self reveals itself in our consciousness and acts (I: 374).

So what do we mean by simplicity? Rome has a thorough, if ultimately chaotic, answer to this question. Orthodoxy has an outstanding response to Rome, but nothing in terms of a constructive view of Simplicity. Following Turretin, Hodge writes,

The attributes are to be distinguished not realiter, but;”virtualiter, that is, there is a real foundation in the divine nature for the several attributes attributed to him (I: 370).

What does virtualiter mean?
Richard Muller defines it as “literally, i.e., with virtue or power” (Muller 371).

It’s interesting that Muller mentioned “power.” This corresponds with Radde-Galwitz’s interpretation of Gregory of Nyssa. Alluding to Michel Barnes he notes that divine power is the causal capacity rooted in the divine nature; inseparable from the divine nature and gives rise to the divine energies (Barnes 183). Further, each “Good” (or attribute, in our case) entails another.

Human Nature
Charles Hodge’s key argument regarding the free will controversy is this: does infallible certainty of a future event destroy human liberty? He answers no. Hodge gives a lengthy explanation that the Reformed tradition can maintain free agency, yet God’s foreknowledge of future actions is not threatened (Hodge, II: 296-304). Part of his discussion is labored and a bit confusing, for he realizes that “free will” has as many glosses as it does adherents. He explains what is and is not meant by “free will.”

I do not always agree with his defining of the terms. He lists the three options: necessity (fatalism), contingency (free-willism) and certainty (Reformed and Augustinianism). My problem with Hodge’s list is that traditional Reformed orthodoxy made a distinction between the necessity of the consequent (absolute necessity as pertaining to God ad intra) and necessity of the consequent thing (conditional necessity). My problem with his term “contingency” is that it risks confusion: God is a necessary being; man is a contingent one. It is evident, though, that Hodge makes clear he means the semi-Pelagian options. He does advance the discussion forward, though, with his use of the term “certainty.” Hodge is content to show that opponents of the Reformed system cannot demonstrate a contradiction between the proposition “all events are foreknown by God and will happen with certainty,” and the proposition, “Man can make rational choices apart from absolute necessity.” Hodge lists several metaphysical and biblical examples. God is a most perfect being. This is a certainty (else we are doomed!), yet few will argue that God’s liberty is impinged. Jesus’s crucifixion was foreknown in the mind of God, yet the Roman soldiers sinned most freely.

This raises an interesting issue: many semi-Pelagians try to duck the Reformed charge by saying, “God simply foresees who will believe and elects them based on his foreseeing their believing.” Besides being a crass works-righteousness, does this really solve the problem? Is their belief any less certain? If the semi-Pelagian argues that election is God’s foreseeing their faith, then we must ask if this is a certain action? It’s hard to see how they can say no. If they do affirm that it is certain, then they must at least agree (hypothetically) with the Reformed gloss that certainty does not destroy free agency.

So what does it mean for a man to act “freely.” Few people on either side ever define this satisfactorily. Hodge loosely follows the standard Reformed gloss: the will follows the intellect (which is assumed to be fallen). Man can be said to act freely if he acts naturally: man acts according to the way he was created (II: 304).


One of the objections to the doctrine of the satisfaction of Christ is that the transfer of guilt (ours/Adam’s) and/or the transfer of righteousness (Christ’s) is morally and legally impossible. Hodge answers:

“The transfer of guilt or righteousness, as states of consciousness or forms of moral character, is indeed impossible. But the real transfer of guilt as”a responsibility to justice, and as righteousness which satisfies that justice,’ is no more impossible than that one man should pay the debt of another. All that the bible teaches on the subject is that Christ paid as a substitute our debt to the justice of God” (II: 540-541).

Vol. 3: 114ff

Hodge gives a wonderful and penetrating treatment on justification. He notes that The nature of the act of justification Does not produce subjective change. It is an Act of God not in his character of sovereign but in character of judge (speech-act?)

Includes both pardon and declaration that believer is just in the sight of the law. It is not saying that the believer is morally just in terms of character. The believer is just in relation to the law–guilt is expiated (120). It is not mere pardon: sinner’s guilt is expiated (125). Mere Pardon does not produce reconciliation (128).

Scriptural usage:
Dt 25:1. Judge pronounces a judgment. He does not effect a character change. Condemnation is the opposite of justify. A sentence of condemnation does not effect an evil character change. Thus, if sentence of condemnation is judicial act, so is justification (123).

Romanist Views
Infusion of righteousness does nothing for guilt (though possibly they would say the guilt is washed away in baptism). Accordingly, justification does nothing for the satisfaction of justice. Even if the Romanist claim that justification makes me holy were true, I would still be liable to justice (133).

Satisfaction of Justice
An adequate theory of justification must account for satisfying justice (130). Nothing “within” me can do that.

Works of the Law
Scripture never designates specifically “what kind of works” (137). The word “law” is used in a comprehensive sense. Nomos binds the heart–law of nature. Not ceremonial. Paul says “thou shalt not covet” as the law that condemns me (Romans 7). Not ceremonial. Grace and works are antithetical. It doesn’t make sense to subdivide works (138).

The Ground of justification is always what is done for us, not what is in us

  • justified by his blood (Romans 5:19)
  • by his righteousness (5:18)
  • If just means “morally good,” then it would be absurd to say that one man is just because of another (141).
  • We say that the claims against him are satisfied.
  • When God justifies the ungodly, he does not declare him morally godly, but that his sins are expiated.

Hypothetical Objections Proves Protestant View
Why object over possible antinomianism if faith alone not true (Romans 6; p. 140)?

The Law of God
Like older Reformed systematics, Hodge has a treatment of the Decalogue. Much of it is common fare. What is interesting is the way he handled it. By reading his arguments we see a commentary on problematic cultural issues. Of particular importance, which I won’t develop here, are his expositions of the 4th and 7th commandment. In the latter he specifically deals with Romanist tyranny in marriage.

Throughout the whole discussion he is combating Jesuitism. We do not see that today. Modern systematics, even conservative ones, are scared of appearing “conspiratorial.” Hodge’s age was a manlier age. They called it for what it was. They knew that Jesuits swear an oath to destroy Protestant nations by any means necessary. And they knew that only the Law of God provides spiritual and political liberty.  This is why God doesn’t take conservative, political evangelicalism seriously today.

Hodge is not entirely clear, though. When he wants to prove the Levitical prohibitions as binding today on sanguinuity and close-kin marriage, he argues like Greg Bahnsen. Almost word for word. If he did that today he would be fired. But when he wants to argue against more theocratic penalties, he sounds like a dispensationalist.

Keith Mathison’s book on Calvin’s view of the Supper is now something of a classic, and deservedly so. I am in large agreement with most of the book. I certainly lean towards Calvin. That said, I think one of the unintended consequences of the book is a slighting of Charles Hodge among the “Young Turk Calvinists.” It’s not that I disagree with Mathison or Calvin, but I am concerned about the new interest in Nevin. I used to be a hard-core Hegelian for 3 years. Nevin was also an Hegelian. Granted, Nevin pulled back from the worst of Hegel. I am not so sure Nevin’s modern interpreters fully understand that. I hope to give something of a modified defense of Hodge on the Supper:

“really conveying to the believing recipient, Christ, and all the benefits of his redemption…There must be a sense, therefore, in which believers receive the body and blood of Christ” (III: 622).


Anything is said to be present when it operates duly on our perceiving senses” (637). I am not so sure Hodge is able to dodge Mathison’s charge. I agree with Hodge’s common sense realism, but I don’t think Hodge’s next point follows: “In like manner Christ is present when he thus fills the mind, sheds abroad his love into our hearts…” (638). I suppose the question at issue is this: we grant that Christ fills the mind. We grant that sensory operations also fill the mind, but it does not necessarily follow that Christ is present in the Supper in a sensory manner. In some sense I think all Reformed would agree with that.

Hodge makes the common Reformed point that “what is affirmed to be present is not the body and blood of Christ absolutely, but his body as broken and his blood as shed” (641). This is a decisive point against High Church traditions: when they insist upon a literal reading, “This is my body,” the Reformed can point that Christ’s wasn’t sacrificed yet, so the “body” at issue can’t be the sacrificial body.

Hodge concludes his exposition of the Reformed teaching with “There is therefore a presence of Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper; not local but spiritual; not to the senses, but to the mind and to faith; and not of nearness, but of efficacy” (643).

The Problem with Nevin
Throughout the work is a running attack on Nevin’s theology. Hodge makes a point that isn’t always grasped by Nevin’s defenders today: if we accept Nevin’s platonic essentialism, especially with regard to the Eucharist and Christology, then we run into huge problems. If Christ assumed the universal humanity, then he also assumed the rules of predicating of genus: the more universal a genus, the less specific it is. If Christ is the universal humanity, then there is nothing specifically human about him!

It is superfluous to sing of Hodge’s greatness. That is a given. I do have some issues with his treatment. Hodge routinely appeals to the “received consensus of the church” for many of his doctrines. There are several problems with this. Aside from the most general teachings from the Creeds, appeals to the Patrum Consensus are problematic and question-begging. Further, the Eastern Orthodox Church, to which Hodge sometimes appeals, would not share his assumptions about Adam’s imputed guilt, for example.

Theonomy (ironically) depends on Common Sense Realism

Daniel quotes Jus Divinum on the Mosaic Judicials (the following is my inference, not necessarily his).

We answer, the Laws of the Jewish Church, whether Ceremonial or Judicial, so far forth are in force, even at this day, as they were grounded upon common equity, the principles of reason and nature, and were serving to the maintenance of the Moral Law. … The Jewish Politie is only abrogated in regard of what was in it of particular right, not of common right, so far forth as there was in their Laws either a typicalness proper to their Church, or a peculiarness of respect to their state in that Land of Promise given unto them.  Whatsoever was in their Laws of Moral concernment, or general equity is still obliging …[2]

Conclusion:  Whatever else 19.4 might mean, it clearly states that the use of the judicials in today’s society presupposes some understanding and application of natural law and common sense equity.  This doesn’t mean theonomy is necessarily right or wrong.  However, it does shed some light on how American theonomists tell the narrative.   If one adds to the mix a hyper-presuppositionalism and a fear of all things Thomistic, then there is no way he or she can read the judicials in the way that the writers of the Confession intended.

Equity is a natural law concept, full stop.  The anti-scholastic theonomist of today is borrowing from Thomistic categories in order to reject Thomistic categories (the irony of this somewhat Van Tillian sentence is thick).

Zwingli: Human Nature and God’s Clear Word

“Now, if we have found that the inward man is as stated, and that it delights in the law of God because it is created in the divine image in order to have fellowship with him, it follows necessarily that there is no law or word which will give greater delight to the inward man than the Word of God” (67).

He gives an interesting argument, though I think it needs to be modified.   His preceding discourse sought to establish that God’s image is found more closely in man’s soul than body (and here he largely follows Augustine’s view).  Zwingli does not see current, fallen man as twisted and depraved beyond rational hope.  Man is a fallen sinner, to be sure, but sin has not so marred man’s constitution to make rational discourse impossible.

An Augustinian Continuation of Zwingli’s Argument

Augustine famously said, “Thou has made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” (Confessions, I.1).    If God indeed has made us for himself, then it seems odd that he made us in such a way that he cannot communicate to us clearly.  Therefore, in some sense the Scriptures have to be clear.   To be sure, sinful man twists the Scriptures and rejects them, but he has to know God’s claim in order to suppress it.   Our consciences know this to an extent.   It seems odd that something as ephemeral as a conscience can clearly reveal God’s truth, but something as objective as words on a piece of paper is “just too mysterious and has to be interpreted by a church.”

Therefore, if God made us for himself, then he can communicate to us.  If he can communicate to us, then there must be something in our nature that can receive that communication.  Therefore, reading the Bible is not necessarily a hermeneutical free-for-all.  If God’s revelation in nature is objectively clear, then how much more so is his Word?!?

Why Have a Middle Man?

Zwingli gives a very penetrating and cogent response to those who say we can only know the Scriptures as the magisterium (or its like synonym) interprets them for us.   The problem, Zwingli notes, (and this is far more aggravated today with the myriad of exclusivist communions like RCC, EO, True Orthodox, Coptic, Nestorian, etc; asking which “true church” left the “true church” first is akin to asking which siamese twin left first after the surgery, to borrow Doug Wilson’s phrase).  I well remember my own frustration.  I kept asking God, “Show me the true path!  Reveal which communion has the proper truth for me so I can know the truth.”  I long suspected something was wrong with that, but a classicist like Zwingli exposed the irony:

“You fool, you go to God simply that he may distinguish between men, and you do not ask him to show you that way of salvation which is pleasing to him and which he himself regards  as sure and certain.  Note that you are merely asking God to confirm something which men have told you.  But why do you not say:  Oh God, they all disagree amongst themselves, but you are the only, unconcealed Good; show me the way of salvation” (84).

Review of Turretin, volume 1, part 1

Recent (that is, pre-1992 A.D.) Reformed theology can be sadly described as a generation arising “which knew not Turretin.” To paraphrase Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring: Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. Turretin’s categorical form of argumentation was one of those “things.” Turretin’s strength is in identifying precisely the issue in question. This allows him to accept and acknowledge points of agreement with his opponents,rather than simply seeing everything as “Arminian.” Recent Reformed (and Arminian-Papist) polemics have all focused on a few issues: predestination, free will, assurance, the Canon, etc.

Turretin understood that there were other issues, too: anthropology, middle knowledge, etc. which also need to be addressed. The English translation of Turretin fills a woeful lacuna.


While it might be anachronistic to label Turretin’s epistemology as “Common Sense Realism,” one can see similarities. Reason is not ultimate, but it is a reliable guide not only in matters of “nature” but also in “grace.” In using reason in theology, Turretin distinguishes between two extremes. Unlike the irrationalists (Anabaptists, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox), reason can function as a principia in theology. It is not the fundamental principia upon which all theology rests (that is the principium essendi); rather, it is an instrumental principle (I: 24).

Turretin does ascribe a functional role to “natural reason.” Natural man, whatever that phrase means, can understand axiomatic truths (29-30). Reason is of particular instrumental use in terms of inference and middle premises. For example, Christ’s ubiquity denied in the following way: “Besides, while the theologian uses arguments drawn from reason, he does it rather as a philosopher rather than as a theologian. As to the ubiquity of the body of Christ, we reject this doctrine both philosophically and theologically, because it is absurd and contradicts the first principles of theology and philosophy.” In other words, the definition of a human nature is that it isn’t ubiquitously extended into space. The Lutheran (and EO) view of the communicatio extends it ubiquitously in space. Therefore, such view is wrong.

Turretin explains:[T]he middle term [in the theological syllogism] is not taken from reason, but scripture…For example, I deny that the glorified body of Christ is everywhere, having taken from Scripture this mean, that it is a real body” (26-27)
Canon and Scripture

So did the Church create the canon? If so, doesn’t that mean the church has authority over the canon? Turretin meets this challenge head-on and notes, given what everyone accepts about principia, proves that the Protestant position is the only feasible one. If the Scriptures come primarily from God—as all must concede—then they bear God’s authority. If they bear God’s authority, then they get their primary authentication from God (85ff). That the church was instrumental in delivering aspects of a canon (I still dispute that the church gave a neat canon) no one denies. That is precisely the point: the church was instrumental, not original. Only the Protestant doctrine of magisterial and ministerial authority can make sense of this point.

Southern Presbyterianism and the Culture War

D.G. Hart has long been a whipping boy among postmillennialists and Reconstructionists.  Indeed, it took me about 8 years to warm up to his arguments.  I used to be a hard-core Recon.  I thought the highest goal in my life would be to take back city hall for Christ (okay, maybe it wasn’t really that, but you get the idea). Through various shifts and trials in my life, I have backed away from that rhetoric.  Something else appeared as superior to the culture war:  ecclesiastical statesmanship.  Christ’s promises were specifically made to his church, not to parachurch ministries and quasi-political cell groups.

Both sides in the debate, R2Kers and Kuyperians, have a troubled use with Thornwell, Dabney, and Southern Presbyterianism.  On one hand, Hart and Co. have correctly identified and applied Thornwell’s “Spirituality of the Church” doctrine.  This is a slap in the face to Kuyperians, at least modern-day ones.  On the other hand, I am not sure how thoroughly Hart can fully apply Thornwell.  Thornwell had no problem with society being governed by “right reason” in accord with a general biblical outline.  (Few Van Tillians hold to Common Sense Realism).  Further, Thornwell (and especially Dabney) are not dis-interested in political and economic questions.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if the 2Kers have a practical point: whether we ought or ought not to “transform” society for Christ, we have to look at issues on the ground.  I am not going to trumpet the typical R2K objections to Kuyperianism (e.g., the world is evil and transformation is impossible).  I think there is a far more troubling objection:  what if the  transformationalists actually succeed?  The problem is that a lot of transformationalists think they are going to go back to Patrick Henry.   More like, though, and more troubling, is that we won’t get Patrick Henry.  We will get Tim Keller.  Tim Keller is a more likely bet for transformationalism.  He is a gifted speaker, a talented organizer, and has a growing church in a large, important city.   The problem:  Tim Keller isn’t really Reformed.

And such a “reformed” society would end up looking like the broader PCA culture.

But what about the points where the transformationalists seem like they got it right?  Should they just be abandoned?  Maybe not.  This is where simply being a student of the magisterial reformation pans out:  we get the theocratic impulse behind such views but we root it in a robust ecclesiology.

Defending Hodge on the Supper

Keith Mathison’s book on Calvin’s view of the Supper is now something of a classic, and deservedly so.  I am in large agreement with most of the book.  I certainly lean towards Calvin.  That said, I think one of the unintended consequences of the book is a slighting of Charles Hodge among the “Young Turk Calvinists.”  It’s not that I disagree with Mathison or Calvin, but I am concerned about the new interest in Nevin.  I used to be a hard-core Hegelian for 3 years.   Nevin was also an Hegelian.   Granted, Nevin pulled back from the worst of Hegel.  I am not so sure Nevin’s modern interpreters fully understand that.  I hope to give something of a modified defense of Hodge on the Supper:

“really conveying to the believing recipient, Christ, and all the benefits of his redemption…There must be a sense, therefore, in which believers receive the body and blood of Christ” (III: 622).


Anything is said to be present when it operates duly on our perceiving senses” (637).  I am not so sure Hodge is able to dodge Mathison’s charge.  I agree with Hodge’s common sense realism, but I don’t think Hodge’s next point follows:  “In like manner Christ is present when he thus fills the mind, sheds abroad his love into our hearts…” (638).  I suppose the question at issue is this:  we grant that Christ fills the mind.   We grant that sensory operations also fill the mind, but it does not necessarily follow that Christ is present in the Supper in a sensory manner.   In some sense I think all Reformed would agree with that.

Hodge makes the common Reformed point that “what is affirmed to be present is not the body and blood of Christ absolutely, but his body as broken and his blood as shed” (641).  This is a decisive point against High Church traditions:  when they insist upon a literal reading, “This is my body,” the Reformed can point that Christ’s wasn’t sacrificed yet, so the “body” at issue can’t be the sacrificial body.

Hodge concludes his exposition of the Reformed teaching with “There is therefore a presence of Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper; not local but spiritual; not to the senses, but to the mind and to faith; and not of nearness, but of efficacy” (643).  Incidentally, this blunts the charge made at Orthodox Bridge that the Reformed view is Platonic.  If anything it is Aristotelian in terms of causality (though in fact it is neither).

How does this seriously work as exegesis?

When I was studying the Eastern church fathers and praxis, I would come across statements that would make me cringe.  I wanted to read theology and the Bible in light of “tradition” and the church, but even at times when I would try to give the most positive spin on a patristic gloss, I would go away thinking, “I just don’t know if that really cuts it.”  Here is an example:

“When Moses pitches his tent outside the camp – that is, when he establishes his will and mind outside the world of visible things – he begins to worship God. Then, entering into the darkness – that is, into the formless and immaterial realm of spiritual knowledge – he there celebrates the most sacred rites.” – St. Maximos the Confessor

If we are to read the Bible in light of the patrum consensus, can we really affirm the above exegetical gloss seriously?  Here are a number of questions that come to mind:

  1. On what grounds do we say that Moses’ pitching his tent = contemplating the world beyond and not something else?  Literally, the sky is the limit among options!
  2. I asked a Roman Catholic a similar question about allegorical exegesis, and he replied, “You have to read it in light of the church.”  I responded, “Well, doesn’t that give Scripture about as much authority as the British monarchy?”

This is why I hold to Common Sense Realism.

Retractare After Seven Years

My friend Daniel Ritchie has offered his own version of retractare in the past.  I want to do mine.  These are in no particular order.

The Theonomy People

I’ve listed problems with theonomy before.  They are to be commended for influencing Reformed scholars to go back to careful study of the Old Testament (Poythress said he wouldn’t have written his work if it weren’t for Rushdoony).  They are to be commended for their critique of absolute statism, but there are problems.  The post-theonomy (for lack of a better word, this would be the third generation theonomists) are probably guilty of violating the 9th commandment.  Their unceasing attacks on men like Michael Horton and others at Westminster Seminary California are uncalled for.  I disagree with Horton and Co.’s  social ethic, but the man is a minister in Christ’s church and Horton has probably done as much as anybody in spreading the Reformed faith.  I admit; it’s sometimes funny to watch D.G. Hart get riled up, but the falsely so-called “R2K” guys have majored on the majors:  The doctrine of worship and the church.  Modern American Theonomy, by contrast, has largely failed in this area.

  1. As for my own position, I believe the Old Testament law can be used today when necessary.
  2. This does not preclude natural law, but presupposes it (more below)
  3. Theonomy is not the position of the Reformers; natural law is.  Yes, Bucer used the Mosaic judicials, but only because he saw them as part of his natural law heritage.  We should do likewise.
  4. This is where I am different from most natural law amillennarians:  I do not believe common grace is sufficient as an ethical category for government.  It merely describes how unbelievers are not as bad as they could be.  I remain unconvinced that it has ethical content.

Van Til

I’ve gone back and forth on Van Til for some time now.  I think when it comes to Roman Catholicism and explaining what Reformed theology is, Van Til is as fine as anybody.  His lectures on “chain-of-being” theology are quite good.  His apologetic method, though, is completely indefensible.  I think Reformed people are better served by a mix of Reformed scholasticism and Common Sense Realism.

  1. As for my own position, I think the TAG method is an open-door to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.   It explicitly attacks the foundations of knowledge and inadvertently relativises truth-claims.  No longer having a clear revelation from God, one has Tradition (as interpreted by a certain community).
  2. As for a positive apologetic, I don’t really care.  I think Anselm is interesting and his ontological argument has some subordinate value.


This is a difficult one.  I think the Reformers (and quite frankly, the entire church) were wise never to use the “millennial” terms in explaining what they believe.  More often than not, modern Reformed eschatological questions are more political than anything else.  Saying, “I am postmil” or “common grace amil” implies more than the timing of Christ’s return.

  1. As for my own position, I am certainly a Reformed historicist.  This is the Reformed position.
  2. I appreciate a lot of what Kim Riddlebarger has to say on Covenant and New Testament eschatology.  I’ve always liked Vos and Ridderbos.
  3. Historic premillennialism, while having a respectful pedigree, simply entails too many difficulties.  Further, I have found that the deeper I dig into historic premillennialism, the harder it is to be Reformed.
  4. I think it is more important to be clear on eschatological hermeneutics than on identifying a millennial position.


For around five years I’ve been a fairly staunch defender of limited monarchy.  That’s still the case.  My only difference now is that I do not see the Bible requiring it (or any specific mode of government).  Each style of government has its strengths and weaknesses.

  1. Monarchists (like myself) need to admit that 1 Samuel 8 does place some restrictive parameters on the glory of monarchy.
  2. Republicans (small “r”) need to admit that the Torah did provide (and I think expected) a monarchy.   If that’s not the case, then why is Deuteronomy 17 in the Bible?  Nelson Kloosterman has made a fairly convincing case that there existed a possibility that Israel could have had a king and not sinned in asking so.  Here is how I think it would have worked:  the end of the book of Judges essentially begs for a monarchy.  Deuteronomy 17 had already provided for a shepherd-king (the Christological overtones are deliberate).  Had Israel wanted a shepherd to guide them, I believe God would have praised their request.  Further, biblical eschatology moves in the direction of monarchy, not republicanism.
  3. I am an adherent of an Althusian-style natural law theory.  The problem many theonomists had was that their critics (and the theonomists themselves) had said, “Natural law OR God’s law.”  But this is where theonomists and their critics were wrong.  Natural law is God’s law, provided natural law is defined as creation ordinances.  The problem here is the inferences people drew from that phrase.   I won’t go into that now.  More to the point, Reformed natural law theorists could gladly appeal (and did!) to the Mosaic judicials.   Modern Calvinism’s embarrassment over Moses doesn’t help.   God’s law is morally just and should be consulted.  Theonomists, by contrast, never provided satisfactory accounts of the New Testament’s modification of the Mosaic law.
  4. I have no problem with the two kingdoms doctrine, provided the difference between the two kingdoms is in administration, not ethical norms.

Retractare: R. Scott Clark and Natural Law

I used to be a firm critic of Scott Clark’s natural law theory, but the more I read of natural law, the more I realize that they have as many variations as do theonomists. The more I read of his understanding of natural law, the closer I realize I am to his position. The following link from his blog shows just how close I am to his position, but there are still a few differences.  As I’ve suggested elsewhere, I think the real reasons that theonomist reacted unfairly to natural law is: 1) they didn’t understand the position, 2) then-current scholarship advocating natural law was terrible (think Norman Geisler’s dispensationalism and Roman Catholicism’s pop-Thomism), and 3) many of the critics didn’t have any coherent ethical position, which led Gary North to (unwisely) call it “natural law,” thus poisoning the well.  If you read North’s Westminster’s Confession, he labels all of his critics as natural law adherents.  Of the 16 chapters in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, maybe a mere handful advocated natural law (remember this is in the late 80s/early 90s where Reformed thought hadn’t yet rediscovered Reformed natural law sources).

There are other issues involved which I do not plan to deal with right now.  RSC is a Van Tillian; I am not (not in the apologetic sense anyway.  If Reformed scholasticism is true, and Turretin and Co., held to a principia form of epistemology which sort of coincides with the Common Sense Realism of Thomas Reid, then wouldn’t it be more consistent to go with principia over TAG?  Just thinking out loud.)   Further, there are other disagreements on ethics.  I am still nervous about the Klinean intrusion ethic.  While I’ve come to appreciate more and more of Kline’s system, I just don’t think intrusionism is logically or biblically coherent.

Back to Clark’s post.

He writes,

The Bible is not intended to be used as a textbook for civil policy any more than it is intended as a “playbook” for sports. That does not mean that God’s law does not apply to contemporary social and civil issues but it is not faithful to Scripture to use it in a way that it does not intend to be used. That is one of the great differences between the confessional Reformed appropriation of Scripture and the non-confessional.

I can agree with this on surface level.   Whether the Bible is to be used as such or not, any application thereof has to take in account of current situations which suggest how the Bible is to be applied.  In any case, I would certainly agree with him that facile applications aren’t helpful.   Applying God’s law takes wisdom, even kingly wisdom, and the average Christian America evangelical does not have this.

The law obligates civil authorities to preserve and pursue civil justice as God’s ministers but Scripture does not spell out exactly how that is to be done. The Apostle Paul did not prescribe civil policy to those civil rulers with whom he spoke but he did preach the gospel of the resurrection. Nowhere does the NT advocate a particular form of civil polity nor does it advocate specific civil policies.

I mostly agree. I think a lot of American Reformed need to realize that the Bible, outside of a few suggestions in 1 Samuel, does not mandate a Constitutional Republic.   That’s why Calvin and Rutherford were fine with limited monarchies.

I did write, “that some of us really do take the Scriptures as a guide to civil government and moral renewal for American society and not chiefly as the infallible and inerrant revelation of God’s saving work and Word in history. This episode is an example of the attempt to achieve epistemic and moral certainty on questions that are properly matters of liberty.”

I agree, but I want to add something else, and this might be my conspiratorial vein:  Simply quoting 2 Chron. 7:14 is not enough.  If you want to reform America, then you need to begin with what is wrong at the systematic, foundational level:  Trilateral Commission, IRS, Council on Foreign Relations, and the list goes on.  This suggests another problem with the Christian America folk:  there are problems in American government and simply electing Reagan II without addressing these problems is putting a band-aid on a tumor.

Let’s make matters worse:  America is too big.  I realize these points aren’t germane to Clark’s article, but they point out how woefully under-thought out the average right-wing Kuyperian vision is (and I hasten to remind readers that a leading Kuyperian, Ralph Reed, speaks at Bilderberg Conferences).

I have no confidence that, after the death of Christ, God has any specific, special relationship with any nation or civil entity. Your letter seems to assume that if a nation will obey God’s law, he will bless it materially etc.

This is perhaps where I offer mild dissent.   Isaiah 19 does say that nations will covenant with God.   Is there a 1:1 causal relation on material blessings?  Kind of.  Calvin in his sermons on Deuteronomy 27 held out the possibility that God will bless, but also reminded believers that we are mature in the New Covenant and sometimes God sends us difficulties as well.  It is a fact, I think, that the land rebels when covenant-breakers reign and sin against the land (we can probably even offer a natural law argument to the effect!).  If natural law is better known as the Creation Ordinance, with its own built-in teleology, the breaking of which is sin, then it stands to reason that sinful rulers will see a cursed land.

In conclusion I think I am largely in agreement with Professor Clark.  It must be admitted that the Reformers were natural law adherents and not merely in an incidental way, as Gary North maintains.  They worked it in their system (think of all the times that the Confession refers to the light of nature).

Theonomy Files, no.4: The Van Til Problem

This post does not seek to attack or criticize Van Til.  I am simply stating that Van Til represents a dialectical problem for the modern American Reformed church.  And for the record, I like Van Til the theologian and Van Til the churchman and Van Til the preacher.  I reject Van Til the apologist.

Van Til is the default position of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, for better or worse.  I only say that to illustrate that Van Til is a mainstream, normative figure in conservative Presbyterianism (The PCA does not have the Van Tillian ties that the OPC has, as is evidenced by RTS-Jackson).  The corollary to the previous sentence:  the implications of Van Til’s thought should be normative, yet they are rejected.    In The Doctrine of Scripture Van Til said (and I am quoting from memory) that “the earth cries out from man’s sin and demands an account” (p. 6).  Now, some could say, “Yes, but he is just paraphrasing Genesis 3.”  I say he isn’t. Van Til’s larger context is not simply that Adam did this in Eden, but that covenant-breaking man does this in general.

You might ask, “So what?”  Well, this is precisely the presupposition (pun intended) behind Gary North’s and Ray Sutton’s 5 Point Covenant Paradigm, point three:  ethical sanctions.  All of the old recons had argued (and I think quite cogently) that there is a causal correlation between sin/covenant-breaking and the earth itself.  So my question to the Institutional Reformed:  how can you agree with page 6 of The Doctrine of Scripture and yet reject the idea behind point 3 of Sutton’s Covenantal Paradigm?

That’s not even the biggest problem for the Institutional Reformed.   Is natural law an application of natural theology?  Most say it is.  Yet Van Til destroyed natural theology (distinct from Common-Sense realism, as I will prove in my later review of Van Til).  But the Institutional Reformed accept Van til’s theology, so how can they accept natural law?

The above is more of a problem for northern, OPC-ish communities on Van Til.  The southern, PCA-ish communities do not have quite the problem.   The PCA was created apart and outside of the Van Til narrative.  RTS-Jackson was not Van Tillian.  They were not anti-Van Tillian, either.  They knew that Van Til was a good ole boy from up North, so they couldn’t openly attack him, and true, many of the profs I sat under didn’t care too much for natural theology.   Later, other prominent pastor-professors would come and say we need to use “Common Sense,” of which I was hostile at the time.  I never noticed any syllabi or reading lists on Common Sense epistemology.   I asked them specifically, “What is common sense?”  They couldn’t answer.  Now, I admit I was a bit wrong there, too.  There is a good answer and good use to Common Sense epistemology.  I suspect their real reason to Common Sense epistemology was two-fold:  1) too many Van Tillians were theonomists and 2) CSR was sort of Scottish and Southern Presbyterian, to which they saw themselves the rightful heirs.

So far I’ve defended CVT in this post.  I’ll point out some problems.  Most people critique his writing style.  They say he is too difficult to read.  I no longer think that is true.  CVT for the most part is saying plain things from traditional Reformed scholasticism (with a few exceptions).  The problem is that Reformed seminaries no longer teach this and so the students can’t understand basic concepts that older generations thought were foundational.  The problem isn’t Van Til; it’s the academic world.

A real problem, though, is that most of the 3rd generation recons didn’t understand Van Til (or traditional reformed theology) but thought they did and went ahead doing theology–with disastrous results.