For the Establishment of True Religion (Calvin)

 I realize many evangelicals do not like the term “religion” and even use it primarily in a negative way.  However, we have to remember that the word is found in Scripture (e.g. James 1:26).  Granted, we do have to define it properly, but we shouldn’t by default think of “religion” as a bad thing.  For example, John Calvin called his now famous work the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  In his work on the history of Reformed doctrine,  Richard Muller spends some time discussing “religion” and its use/definition among Reformers and Reformed scholastics.  Here’s his section on Calvin and the term “religion”:

This systematic approach to religion as the pattern of knowledge and worship directly related to faith and foundational to the elaboration of theology is profoundly evident in the successive editions of Calvin’s Institutes. In 1536 Calvin identified his work as an “institute” or instruction “of the Christian religion embracing almost the whole sum of piety and whatever it is necessary to know in the doctrine of salvation.” What is more, Calvin’s expansion of the Institutes, in which five chapters on the knowledge of God were added or developed as a kind of prologue, only serves to underscore in those introductory sections the primary emphasis on religion, piety and instruction in them.

Calvin’s 1539 expansion of this portion of the Institutes has a series of significant antecedents, not the least of which is Zwingli’s linking of the discussion of religion to the problem of the “knowledge of God” and the “knowledge of man.” Like Zwingli, moreover, Calvin rests much of his discussion on Cicero’s De Natura Deorum. Given the universal recognition, implanted in all human beings, that there is a God, Calvin argues, it would be sheer folly to claim that religion is a human invention: it is certainly true that wicked and “clever” persons have invented many superstitions designed to keep human beings in subjection, but it is equally clear that they would never have been able to do so had there not been a fundamental conviction of the existence of God and the need to worship him already present in all human beings. Given, moreover, the depth of human sinfulness and the extent of idolatry and superstition wrought by sin, Scripture is needed for the establishment of a right knowledge of God—and, by extension, for the establishment of true religion.

Although Calvin does not spell out the etymology and definition of “religion” in the detail one finds in Zwingli, the conception is quite similar: true religion must ultimately be grounded in the word of God and it is set apart from the false religions of idolatry and superstition. Nowhere is it assumed, moreover, that “religion” indicates a human phenomenon: even in its false forms, it presumes the fundamental sensus divinitatis and is grounded in the objective reality of the God who must be worshiped. This sensibility will carry over into Reformed orthodoxy.

(This quote is found on page 167 of PRRD, Volume 1)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI


Sola Scriptura: What It Isn’t (Muller)

Product Details The Reformation teaching of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) does not mean that the Christian alone reads the Bible alone and interprets it alone.  Sola Scriptura does not at all mean we should be lone rangers when studying, interpreting, and applying God’s Word.  According to sola Scriptura private devotions aren’t bad, but private interpretation is.

And historically speaking we probably shouldn’t use Luther on trial at Worms as an illustration of what sola Scriptura means unless we give it a fuller contextual explanation.  The Diet of Worms wasn’t at all “Luther alone and his Bible alone against the Roman Catholic Church.”

Here’s how Richard Muller describes it.

“…It is…entirely anachronistic to view the sola scriptura of Luther and his contemporaries as a declaration that all of theology ought to be constructed anew, without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation, by the lonely exegete confronting the naked text.”

“It is equally anachronistic to assume that Scripture functioned for the Reformers like a set of numbered facts or propositions suitable for use as ready-made solutions to any and all questions capable of arising in the course of human history.  Both the language of sola scriptura and the actual use of the text of Scripture by the Reformers can be explained only in terms of the questions of authority and interpretation posed by the developments of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  Even so, close study of the actual exegetical results of the Reformers manifests strong interpretive and doctrinal continuities with the exegetical results of the [early church] fathers and the medieval doctors.”

Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics vol. 2 p. 63-64.

(This is a repost from July 2013)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Rome and Reading Scripture (Muller)

Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (4 vols.) It’s very hard for most  Christians in the West to imagine what it would be like if they didn’t have a Bible at home to read.  It’s even harder to imagine the church telling us not to read the Bible and not wanting it to be translated into common languages.  This was the very situation before the Reformation.  The Roman Catholic church neither wanted common people to read Scriptures nor did Rome want the Scriptures to be translated into the common language of the people.  Thankfully the Reformation happened!  Here’s a paragraph about this topic from Richard Muller’s PRRD volume on Scripture (volume two):

Against the Roman objections that lay reading of the vernacular Scriptures is detrimental to the life and teaching of the church and that such reading is hardly necessary to salvation, the Reformed respond that the problem of abuse in no way undermines the command of God to read and study the Scriptures.  …The reading of Scripture is enjoined on those who are able, for the sake of strengthening them in their faith and shielding them against the enemies of God. What is more, the Roman claim that the reading of the Scripture by laity breeds heresy falls short of the mark inasmuch as heresy is founded not on reading per se, but on mistaken reading—and the careful, informed, and reverent reading of Scripture will preserve the faithful from the errors of the heretics. As for the argument that “holy things are not given to dogs,” it is quite clear from the text (Matt. 7:6) that Christ does not here refer to the reading of Scripture and does not intend to designate the children of God as dogs—rather he means that the symbols of divine grace are not to be given to the unfaithful.

Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 2: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 467–468.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

The Liberty of the Will (Muller)

“The freedom or liberty of nature; viz., the liberty that is proper to a being given its particular nature.  No being, not even omnipotent God, can act contrary to its nature.  In man, this ‘libertas naturae’ can be distinguished into four distinct categories or states:

  1. The ‘libertas Adami,’ or freedom of Adam, before the fall – this is the ability or power not to sin, potentia non peccandi, and Adam and Eve are described, in the traditional Augustinian terminology, as ‘possse non peccare’, able not to sin.
  2. The ‘libertas peccatorum’, or freedom of sinners, a freedom that is proper to and confined within the limits of fallen nature and is therefore an absolute ‘impotentia bene agendi’, inability to do good or act for the good, with the sinner described as ‘non posse non peccare’, not able not to sin,
  3. The ‘libertas fidelium’, or freedom of the faithful, a freedom of those regenerated by the Holy Spirit that is proper to the regenerate nature and is characterized by the ‘potentia peccandi et bene agendi’, the ability to sin and to do good; the regenerate, because of grace, can be described as ‘posse peccare et non peccare’, able to sin and not to sin;
  4. The ‘libertas gloriae’, or liberty of glory, a freedom proper to the fully redeemed nature of the ‘beati’, who, as residents of the heavenly kingdom, as ‘in patria’, are now characterized by ‘impotentia peccare’, inability to sin, and as ‘non posse peccare’, unable to sin.

Richard Muller, Dictionary, p. 176.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Media Gratiae (Means of Grace)

Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology In Reformed theology we talk about the ordinary means of grace.  How would we define “means of grace?”  Richard Muller answers this well:

media gratia: means of grace; i.e., Word and sacraments as the means by which the grace of God is operative in the church.  The term is used by both Lutheran and Reformed orthodox, although the Lutherans often substitute a stronger term, organa gratiae et salutis, instruments of grace and salvation.

The identification of Word and sacraments as media gratiae does not intend to exclude a general or common operation of grace but rather it indicates the function of both Word and sacraments in the regeneration (regeneratio) and sanctification (sanctificatio) of man as the instruments or objective channels of special or saving grace (gratia specialis).  Word and sacraments are thus instrumental both in the inception of salvation and in the continuance of the work of grace in the Christian life.

In addition, Word and sacraments are the sole officially ordained or instituted instruments or means of grace.  God has promised the presence of his grace to faithful hearers of the Word and faithful participants in the sacraments.  Thus the right preaching of the Word and right administration of the sacraments are the marks or identifying features of the true church (notae ecclesiae). Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, sv media gratiae

Because God has promised to bless those who with true faith hear his word and partake of his sacraments, Reformed churches stress the importance of corporate worship.  God speaks to us, blesses us, feeds us, helps us (etc.) through these means of grace, so we should want to be there every time he is graciously at work.  Louis Berkhof said it well:

“God has appointed them as the ordinary means through which He works His grace in the hearts of sinners, and their wilful neglect can only result in spiritual loss.”

Therefore, let us not forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25)!

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

“Comprehend Him Ye Cannot”

When Thomas Boston talked about the Christian’s duty to love God, he said that we need to know God in order to truly love him.  But Boston was careful to explain this knowledge by using a great phrase: “Comprehend him ye cannot, but apprehend him ye must, as he has revealed himself.” Richard Muller summarizes this doctrine well in volume three of Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics:

God is not known through his essence – but “through his effects and his names, by which he wills to reveal his virtues to us” (Cocceius, Summa Theol).  The nature of God can be known, then, “according to the manner of divine Revelation, and the measure of our knowledge” and is to be discussed in terms of the name of God and in terms of the definition (Ibid.).

The exposition of doctrine, moreover, proceeds on the premises that whatever is said or predicated of God is not God himself – for God is ineffable – but rather what the human mind in its limitation can apprehend about God. Indeed, a distinction must be made between “comprehension” and “apprehension,” inasmuch as we cannot have an “adequate” idea of God in the sense that we know and understand God fully or are able “fully to describe” the divine perfections, but we can have “some imperfect or inadequate ideas of what surpasses our understanding and we can have “a full conviction that God hath those infinite perfections, which no creature can comprehend” (Ridgley, Body of Divinity)

Thus, language about God proceeds cautiously, frequently according to a negative manner; as when God is called “incomprehensible” or “infinite.” These identifications of God are intended to “remove far from him the imperfections of creatures” (Trelcatius, Scholastic Methods).

In other words, our human minds are limited, darkened by sin, and finite. Therefore we cannot fully comprehend God nor can we perfectly describe and explain him.  Even our best theology is imperfect.  However, because he has revealed himself (in creation but more specifically in his Word and in Jesus), we can apprehend him and know him in a true and saving way.  It’s not because we deserve it or because we’re smart, super intelligent, or supremely wise.  It’s because he is gracious.  It is his good pleasure to reveal himself to his people and give them the hearts to believe his Son (cf. Matt. 11:27, Luke 10:22, & 2 Cor. 4:6)!

Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 165.

Shane Lems

Latin Lesson: Historic Protestantism on Christ’s Kingdom

Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology As a few of our readers may know, in some small pockets of Reformed Christianity there is strong opposition to making distinctions in the way Christ reigns over the world.  Some say we must not distinguish between Christ’s general rule over all and his saving rule over his church.  (FYI, if you’ve not heard of this issue, it’s probably not something you need to dig into.)  I have to admit that I’m not sure why there is such strong opposition to this distinction, since Protestant and Reformed theologians have made distinctions – based on Scripture – in this area for quite some time.  If one doesn’t agree with this teaching, that’s OK; but if one calls this teaching un-Reformed or heretical, that’s simply not acceptable.  In case you’re wondering, here’s how Richard Muller describes the historic Protestant view of Christ’s kingdom (I’ve edited it for length):

Regnum Christi: the rule or kingdom of Christ.  The Protestant scholastics recognize several distinctions that can be made with regard to the exercise of Christ’s rule.  The Lutherans tend to argue a threefold-kingdom: 1) the regnum potentai, or kingdom of power, according to which Christ, as divine Word and Second Person of the Trinity, rules the entire creation providential and is Lord of all without distinction; 2) the regnum gratiae, or kingdom of grace, in which Christ governs, blesses, and defends his church on earth; and 3) the regnum gloriae, or the kingdom of glory, in which Christ governs the church triumphant, when he will subdue his enemies and bring the whole church into her triumphal reign.  These divisions do not indicate several reigns but merely distinctions in the manner and exercise of Christ’s rule.

The Reformed scholastics express essentially the same distinctions in a twofold division of the kingdom into 1) the regnum essentiale (the essential rule, or universal/natural rule) and 2) the regnum personale (the personal rule or economic, soteriological rule).  The former set of terms (essential rule) corresponds to the Lutheran definition of the kingdom of power, and the latter set of terms (personal rule) corresponds to the Lutheran definitions of the kingdom of grace and kingdom of glory.  The kingdom of grace and kingdom of glory belong to Christ as the Mediator of salvation, and are thus both personal and economic.

Muller goes on to note that though Lutheran and Reformed theology differ on some aspects of Christology (related to the difference between the Lutheran and Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper), the Reformed and Lutherans agree on the eternal duration of the reign of Christ and the “cessation of certain modes of administration.”

The Protestant theologians that made these distinctions in the past also gave us some excellent resources on justification by faith alone and on Christian ethics – living the Christian life in light of God’s law.  Based on these things, again, I’m not sure why some are so opposed to this teaching.  It honors Christ as sovereign king over all and goes hand in hand with how live for him in this world.

As Herman Bavinck said, “To distinguish is to learn.”

For the entire article, see pages 259-261 of Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1985).

shane lems
hammond, wi