Archive for the ‘Reformers’ Category

“Worldly men imagine, that there is true excellency and true happiness in those things which they are pursuing. They think that if they could but obtain them, they should be happy; and when they obtain them, and cannot find happiness, they look for happiness in something else, and are still upon the pursuit.

“But Christ Jesus has true excellency, and so great excellency, that when they come to see it they look no further, but the mind rests there. It sees a transcendent glory and an ineffable sweetness in him; it sees that till now it has been pursuing shadows, but that now it has found the substance; that before it had been seeking happiness in the stream, but that now it has found the ocean”

Saw this at http://www.radical.net/blog/2012/04/finding-the-ocean/

God So Loved the World, Part 2.

A Classical Analysis of Puritan Preaching
ARTICLE BY JOSEPH STEELE AUGUST 2010
INTRODUCTION

Reformed Christians are indebted to the Puritans for a variety of reasons, not the least of which for their contribution to preaching. In many ways, Puritan preaching was the very heartbeat of the Puritan movement. It would be no exaggeration to say that without Puritan preaching there would have been no Puritans. To quote Irvonwy Morgan, “Puritanism in the last resort must be assessed in terms of the pulpit.”[1]

But what exactly is Puritan preaching? How may it be properly distinguished from other forms of preaching? Why has its influence been so palatably felt by succeeding generations? In answering such questions the author will invoke a somewhat atypical method of inquiry. To the author’s knowledge, no such inquiry has hitherto been attempted.

Most readers will be familiar with the trivium or three-fold classical approach to learning. As a means of conveying information to the student, the classical method employed three distinct, yet progressive stages: (1) grammar; (2) dialectic; and (3) rhetoric. According to this classical schematic, the initial phase of learning any subject necessarily involved learning the basic facts about the particular subject, otherwise known as its grammar. The next phase of learning required the student to master the principles or inter-relatedness among those basic facts, thus arriving at a “whole” picture of the individual, basic parts. This second phase is known as the dialectic phase. Lastly, the student was expected to be able to express, either vocally or literarily, the totality of what he had learned in the first two phases. This final expressive phase is known as the rhetoric phase.

We may illustrate a contemporary use of the trivium via the following example: Consider how a mother might teach her four-year old son how to read. Most would agree that she should begin by having the child learn the foundational facts about our language. This will involve memorizing the alphabet and its corresponding sounds. Over time the child will eventually learn the identification and usage of verbs, nouns, and adjectives. In short, the child will learn the grammar of our language. But grammar alone is not sufficient for knowing how to read and write. The child must eventually learn the proper relationships between nouns and verbs, between sentences and paragraphs, between words and books. In short, the child will learn the dialectics of language. But what good is knowledge of language if one is ill-equipped to convey such knowledge to others? Not much. Therefore the child must learn how to express what he has learned. He must learn how to write and speak for himself. In short, the child must eventually learn the art of rhetoric.

How may this author best convey the characteristics and importance of Puritan preaching?–perhaps by explaining them in the classical pattern of the trivium. This paper will therefore chart the foundational facts of Puritan preaching (i.e., its grammar), the principles or inter-relatedness among those facts within Puritan preaching (i.e., its dialectic), as well as the art of expressing the sum total of that knowledge (i.e., its rhetoric).[2] Ultimately, it is the author’s goal that this brief synopsis of Puritan preaching will be useful to the reader (and by extension the church) by engendering better preachers and better listeners of a most lovely gospel.

PART ONE: THE GRAMMAR OF PURITAN PREACHING

~God’s Word as Grammar~

“Think in every line you read that God is speaking to you.”
–Thomas Watson

Just as essential as phonics is for teaching a child how to read, so too the Bible was the sine qua non of Puritan preaching. The Puritans were not just Theo-centric, they were Word-centric. The full-orbed implications of the Reformation maxim sola scriptura were writ large upon the face of Puritan preaching. The lives of the Puritans were uniformly shaped by the revealed will of the Triune God contained in sixty-six books which they believed were divinely preserved for the good of God’s people. Accordingly, the Puritans “loved, lived, and breathed Scripture, relishing the power of the Spirit that accompanied the Word. They viewed Scripture as God speaking to them as their Father, giving them the truth they could trust for all eternity.” [3]

The main concern of Puritan preaching was to transmit God’s infallible word to His people. Puritan preaching was marked by an unadulterated concern to search the Scriptures, collate their findings, and apply them to all areas of life. [4] For the Puritans, all theological language was ultimately God’s language (provided it is true). To that end, how could a preacher possibly endeavor to employ God’s Word from the pulpit without making strident and vigorous effort to understand it not just generally, but particularly? The Puritans aimed simultaneously for telescopic knowledge of the Scriptures as well as for microscopic knowledge; their sermons exhibit appreciation for the texture of both systematic and biblical theology. Indeed, this is hardly surprising because, “Puritan preachers received the Bible as a coherent unit rather than a random collection of unconnected fragments.” [5]

The puritan conviction about the centrality of the Bible in preaching was reinforced by the practice of largely or exclusively limiting the details of the sermon to biblical material. [6] Puritan preaching was expository in nature, meaning that the entire sermon was to be inextricably tied to the text. The mere establishment of a connection between the sermon and the text was not sufficient for Puritan preachers. Quite the contrary, for, according to the Puritans, “The sermon is not just hinged to Scripture; it quite literally exists inside the Word of God; the text is not in the sermon, but the sermon in the text….Put summarily, listening to a sermon is being in the Bible.” [7]

~Christ as Grammar~

“Exhibit as much as you can of a glorious Christ. Yea, let the motto upon your whole ministry be: Christ is all. Let others develop the pulpit fads that come and go. Let us specialize in preaching our Lord Jesus Christ.”
–Cotton Mather

To be Word-centered is to be necessarily Christ-centered. The Puritans understood this architectonic principle and their preaching reflected it. According to Beeke, Puritan preaching “focuses on God’s written Word, the Bible, and His living Word, Jesus Christ.” [8] In accordance with scriptural data such as Luke 24:44-45 [9] and John 5:39 [10] the Puritans read their Bibles through rose-colored lenses tinted by the blood of a crucified savior and risen Lord. It was their goal in every text to solidify that the “great theme and controlling contour of experiential preaching is Jesus Christ, for he is the supreme focus, prism, and goal of God’s revelation.” [11] Hence William Perkins, the great Puritan homiletician, writes that the heart of all preaching is “to preach one Christ, by Christ, to the praise of Christ.” [12]

This twin focus upon God’s Word and the agent of that Word, namely Christ, was the essence of Puritan preaching. Every nuance and detail of their sermons was a mere reflection and out-working of those twin principles. Christ and His Word were the most basic facts of Puritan preaching–indeed they were the grammar of Puritan preaching.

PART TWO: THE DIALECTIC OF PURITAN PREACHING

We have argued that the grammar (most basic and foundational component) of Puritan preaching is the Christo-centric Word of God. This Christ-centric Word was to Puritan preaching what phonics is to the four-year old boy learning to read–it’s everything. And yet, at the same time it’s not everything. Knowing what God said in a particular text is not alone sufficient for transformative, God-exalting preaching. If God’s word, together with proper exegetical and hermeneutical principles, forms the “parts” of preaching, what may we say about the “whole” of preaching? How are preachers to bring their exegetical spade-work to bear upon an audience that, according to God’s word, is totally depraved and spiritually rent asunder by sin? It is in response to that question that our concept of dialectic becomes important. We said earlier that the dialectic addresses the inter-relatedness of foundational facts, and it is precisely within this inter-relatedness that several important dialectics emerge in Puritan preaching. These dialectics are evidential of specific ways in which the foundational facts of Puritan preaching are crystallized and brought to bear upon the parishioner’s mind.

~Organizational Dialectic~

“The receiving of the word consists of two parts: attention of mind and intention of will.”
–William Ames

The very essence of the dialectic in the trivium schematic is the organization it provides for the individual parts. Organization gives a global perspective to what would otherwise be isolated localities. Sentences and paragraphs are to the student of reading what sermon outlines are to the preacher. We might put it this way: just as Greek philosophers were expected to learn the laws of logic, so too Puritan preachers were expected to learn the laws of sermon organization. Puritan sermons were slaves (in a good sense) to methodology and organization. Puritan sermons were intentionally logical, they were–to borrow a phrase from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones–logic on fire. The Puritans were deeply concerned (perhaps too much) about form and structure within their sermons. As contemporary preachers of the gospel, we would be wise to mirror their concern.

William Perkins’ suggested preaching format that appears at the end of his The Art of Prophesying is a cogent example of the logical progression and systematic organization that marked Puritan sermons. Perkins advocates that preachers ought to:
1. Read the text distinctly out of the canonical scriptures.
2. Give the sense and understanding of it being read, by the scripture itself.
3. Collect a few and profitable points of doctrine out of the natural sense.
4. To apply, if he have the gift, the doctrines rightly collected to the life and manners of men in a simple and plain speech. [13]

Because of their deep and reverential commitment to the scriptures, the Puritans often belabored certain points of doctrine with seemingly excessive detail and scriptural proofs. They did this not because they particularly enjoyed prolixity of speech but because they “felt constrained to proceed to buttress each doctrine with the examples and testimonies of Scripture […] to ensure that the doctrine adduced from a specific text had the whole weight of Scripture behind it.” [14]

Ryken provides two very helpful windows into the organizational framework of a puritan sermon:

The Puritan sermon was planned and organized. It may have been long and detailed, but it did not ramble. It was controlled by a discernible strategy and it progressed toward a final goal. The methodology ensured that the content would be tied to Scripture, that the sermon would involve an intellectual grasp of the truth, and that theological doctrine would be applied to everyday living. [15]

The Puritan sermon quotes the text and “opens” it as briefly as possible, expounding circumstances and context, explaining its grammatical meanings, reducing its tropes and schemata to prose, and setting forth its logical implications; the sermon then proclaims in a flat, indicative sentence the “doctrine” contained in the text or logically deduced from it, and proceeds to the first reason or proof. Reason follows reason, with no other transition than a period and a number; after the last proof is stated there follow the uses or applications, also in numbered sequence, and the sermon ends when there is nothing more to be said. [16]

The Puritans stressed organization because they believed in the primacy of the intellect. They believed that grace enters the heart through the mind. According to Packer, “God does not move men to action by mere physical violence, but addresses their minds by his word, and calls for the response of deliberate consent and intelligent obedience. It follows that every man’s first duty in relation to the word of God is to understand it; and every preacher’s first duty is to explain it.” [17] It is the preacher’s job to explain the Bible in a clear, organized manner so that the sheep may approach it and feed upon it.

~Applicatory Dialectic~

“It would grieve one to the heart to hear what excellent doctrine some ministers have in hand, while yet they let it die in their hands for want of close and lively application.”
–Richard Baxter

Church pews are full of people who “know” the central tenants of the Christian faith and yet sadly remain unchanged by them. There are also people in the pews that sincerely love the doctrines of the Christian faith but remain perpetually unsure of their practical relation to daily life. The Puritans were keenly aware of both of these phenomenons. Consequently, the Puritans labored to bring the text of scripture to bear upon the individual consciences of each and every listener. Puritan preachers worked hard to be practical, for they realized that “doctrine is lifeless unless a person can ‘build bridges’ from biblical truth to everyday living.” [18] Thus Thomas Hooker can write, “When we read only of doctrines these may reach the understanding, but when we read or hear of examples, human affection doth as it were represent to us the case as our own.” [19] The puritans achieved practicality in preaching predominantly through the use of application. [20]

The breadth of Puritan application was anything but narrow. Ryken summarizes William Perkins’ seven categories of application from the Art of Prophesying, depending on the individual conditions of the listeners:

I. Unbelievers who are both ignorant and unteachable….II. Some are teachable, but yet ignorant….III. Some have knowledge, but are not as yet humbled….IV. Some are humbled….V. Some do believe….VI. Some are fallen….VII. There is a mingled people…. [21]

Perkins’ application matrix did not stop here for he devised six types of application to all seven types of listeners in any one sermon. Taken to its full extent, every doctrinal statement of the sermon would require forty-two distinct applications in order to make application to every class of listener. This was, of course, not possible. But according to Packer,

[…] anyone making an inventory of puritan sermons will soon find examples of all forty-two specific applications, often developed with very great rhetorical and moral force. Strength of application was, from one standpoint, the most striking feature of Puritan preaching, and it is arguable that the theory of discriminating application is the most valuable legacy that Puritan preachers have left to those who would preach the Bible and its gospel effectively today. [22]

It is clear that Puritan preachers were not content with the bare relaying of facts and information. Instead, their preaching was oriented toward specific goals and the best way to accomplish this, in their mind, was to strike at the center of the listener’s conscience. What better way to accomplish this than through personal application of the text? According to Beeke, “Applicatory preaching is the process of riveting truth so powerfully in people that they cannot help but see how they must change and how they can be empowered to do so.” [23] This type of preaching, as one might expect, was inherently confrontational without being cruel. Applicatory preaching is not “safe” preaching, for it involves meddling with the minds and wills of men. Beeke illustrates it well,

[…] applicatory preaching is often costly preaching. As has often been said, when John the Baptist preached generally, Herod heard him gladly. But when John applied his preaching particularly, he lost his head. Both internally in a preacher’s own conscience, as well as in the consciences of his people, a fearless application of God’s truth will cost a price. [24]

God, we suspect, would have it no other way.

~Discriminatory Dialectic~

“There is not a sermon which is heard, but it sets us nearer heaven or hell.”
–John Preston

When children are learning to spell errors are legion. One soon discovers that the discriminatory use of a dictionary is quite necessary. The discriminatory function of the gospel is similar to the discriminatory use of a dictionary–they both divide truth from error. Once all the data of scripture has been assembled for a particular text, the Puritan preacher was aware that the conclusion of that data would necessarily provoke distinctions among his audience. Truth by definition is exclusive and therefore any pulpit proclamation of the truth would divide the hearers in some way. This division in the Puritan mind was both unavoidable and absolutely necessary.

The purpose of Puritan preaching was never peripheral. Rather, it was preeminently bent toward the producing and sustaining of the new birth. Such a purpose obviously presupposed that some men were yet spiritually dead. A common theme in Puritan preaching, therefore, was the elucidation of a dividing line between the saved and the lost. If what the Bible says is true (and the Puritans believed it was) then preachers were under necessary compulsion to draw such a line in nearly every sermon. [25] And not just draw the line, but know how to influence those on either side of the line. The Puritan Joseph Hall put it this way, “The minister must discern between his sheep and wolves; in his sheep, between the sound and the unsound; in the unsound, between the weak and the tainted; in the tainted, between the nature, qualities, and degrees of the disease and infection; and to all these he must know to administer a word in season.” [26]

Discriminatory preaching, says Beeke, “clearly defines the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, opening the kingdom of heaven to one and closing it against the other.” [27]

The Puritan preachers did not follow this discriminatory model of preaching because it was faddish to do so. They followed it because they saw it in the Bible. In the Puritan mind, Jesus was the greatest of the discriminatory preachers. His sermon on the mount was the magnum opus of pulpit discrimination. Puritan preachers understood well that granting a false security to spiritual hypocrites was the most destructive of spiritual medicines.

PART THREE: THE RHETORIC OF PURITAN PREACHING

We have discussed at length both the foundational facts of Puritan preaching, namely its reliance of the Christo-centric Word of God, as well as various dialectical devices that the Puritans employed to bring those foundational facts of Scripture to bear upon the minds of men. We are now prepared to discuss various factors that shaped the actual delivery of Puritan sermons. It is not our goal to investigate the technical components of such delivery (i.e., its length, volume, syntax, etc.) as much as it is the man behind the delivery. Puritan preachers did not ascend their pulpits as mere voice boxes. They went instead as whole men, bearing the full integration of flesh, personality, and spirit. They did in fact bear a common allegiance in the science of rhetoric, but their rhetoric was not a naked science. Their proclamation of the Word of God–as heralds of Christ–gives evidence of spiritual vitality in fullest measure.

~Sanctified Rhetoricians~

“If a man teach uprightly and walk crookedly,
more will fall down in the night of his life than he built in the day of his doctrine.”
–John Owen

Puritan preachers understood well the danger of pulpit hypocrisy. Since preaching was an inherently spiritual activity, it was therefore impossible to proclaim the importance of spiritual life via a life that was itself spiritually malnourished. Both Puritan preachers and their congregations placed a high premium upon the importance of having “godly” ministers of the gospel. The Puritans understood that the relationship between the pastor and his congregation was symbiotic. If the pastor was spiritually stagnant how could the congregation expect a living flow from his mouth? William Perkins stated it well, “He [the pastor] must first be godly affected himself who would stir up godly affections in other men.” [28] The record of Perkins’ life confirms this for he was greatly loved by his congregation for his purity of life. It is said of Perkins, “He lived sermons, and as his preaching was a comment on his text, so his practice was a comment on his preaching.” [29]

Acute knowledge of the cause-and-effect relationship between the preacher’s personal character and his fruitfulness as a pastor led the Puritans in the constant pursuit of a sanctified life. They knew that their ministries depended upon it. Indeed,

A minister’s work is usually blessed in proportion to the sanctification of his heart before God. Ministers must therefore seek grace to build the house of God with sound experiential preaching and doctrine as well as with a sanctified life. Our preaching must shape our life, and our life must adorn our preaching. [30]

The Puritan David Dickson is famous for charging a minister at his ordination to study two books together: the Bible, and his own heart. [31] Packer notes, “Their strenuous exercise in meditation and prayer, their sensitiveness to sin, their utter humility, their passion for holiness, and their glowing devotion to Christ equipped them to be master-physicians of the soul. And deep called to deep when they preached, for they spoke of the black depths and high peaks of Christian experience first-hand.” [32] The Puritan John Boys summarized it timelessly, “He doth preach most who doth live best.” [33]

~Spiritual Rhetoric~

“Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts, the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door.”
–Thomas Watson

The Puritan preachers were men of robust intellect and disciplined study. History shows us that they prepared their sermons carefully with painstaking and meticulous detail. [34] Their appreciation for sound logic and intellectually stimulating argument is largely lacking for parallels in the history of humanity. The Puritans were not, however, foolish enough to depend upon their intellect and study for the gathering of souls and the perfecting of the church. They knew fundamentally that preaching, though highly dependent upon the intellect, was reaching for a goal that the intellect could not definitively move, namely a dead soul.

They prayed. In fervent prayer they sought the Spirit to accompany their work in the pulpit. Anyone who envisions Puritan preaching as devoid of spirituality and anchored in a logical quagmire has yet to understand it. Baxter writes, “Prayer must carry on our work as well as preaching; he preacheth not heartily to his people, that prayeth not earnestly for them. If we prevail not with God to give them faith and repentance, we shall never prevail with them to believe and repent.” [35] John Bunyan picks up the refrain, “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed….Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge to Satan.” [36]

In short, the Puritans believed in the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit when it came to conversion. They understood that the ultimate success of gospel preaching was not left to the man in the pulpit. Packer speaks for the Puritans when he says, “Man’s task is simply to be faithful in teaching the word; it is God’s work to convince of its truth and write it in the heart. The Puritans would have criticized the modern evangelistic appeal, with its wheeling for ‘decisions,’ as an unfortunate attempt by man to intrude into the Holy Spirit’s province. It is for God, not man, to fix the time of conversion.” [37]

~Simple Rhetoric~

“It is a by-word among us: It was a very plain sermon: And I say again, the plainer, the better.”
–William Perkins

Despite the proclivity of words that dominated the speech patterns of their day, Puritan preaching was aimed endlessly at simplicity. “Plain speech” was their consummate goal. It bears saying that our present culture’s love for verbal paucity and childish grammatical construction may make us the least qualified to evaluate the actual impact of such an aim. Our present culture seems ignorant of the fact that one can speak long and yet be simple.

It was specifically William Perkins’ The Art of Prophesying that forever changed the homiletical landscape of Puritan England. Perkins was primarily responsible for the universal adoption of the new Reformed method by the seventeenth-century Puritans, a method which was characterized by a plain style of preaching that delivered sermons in an easy to grasp progression of exegesis, doctrines, proofs, and uses. [38] Unfortunately, to be sure, this “plain” preaching was not always quite so plain. Nevertheless, Puritan preaching must be judged less by its supposed “plainness” and more by its results. According to Pipa, “In our day Puritan preaching is considered prolix and scholastic, yet in its time, Puritan preaching revolutionized England and paved the way for the Long Parliament and the Westminster Assembly.” [39]

It is the author’s conviction that current students of Puritan preaching often equate mistakenly the Puritan concept of “plainness” with lack of complexity. Puritan preachers like Perkins were aiming for simplicity of speech and unadorned logic, not necessarily brevity and anti-complexity. Their style may have been difficult as times, but its theological and practical fruit are undeniable even up to our present hour. At the end of the day we can only say that the proof is in the pudding. The plain style of preaching advocated by Perkins did not return void in Puritan England and left an indelible mark on the face of Christianity for enduring centuries.

According to Ryken, “Plain preaching was defined by what it lacked as well as by what it contained […]. What the Puritans did not want was a pastiche of quotations or an embellished style that called great attention to its own ostentatiousness.” [40] The Puritans understood the tendency for men in the pulpit to make preaching into a mere exercise of ego. Instead of rendering praise unto the Triune God, the congregations of such men would be tempted to render praise unto the medium and not the source. William Perkins was a staunch critic of such ego-centric preaching.

Contra Rome, Puritan preachers wanted the Word of God living in the minds of men and that meant communicating it in such a way so as to insure its lodging. Richard Sibbes claimed that “truth feareth nothing so much as concealment, and desireth nothing so much as clearly to be laid open to the view of all: when it is most naked, it is most lovely and powerful.” [41] Puritan preachers endeavored to reach all men with the gospel, both the learned and the unlearned. This meant writing sermons that common folk could imbibe and learned men could appreciate. William Perkins obviously understood this for it was said of his preaching, “His sermons were not so plain but that the piously learned did admire them, nor so learned but that the plain did understand them.” [42]

~Sincere Rhetoric~

“I preached, as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”
–Richard Baxter

All of the aforementioned culminated in what scholars often refer to as experiential or affective preaching. Beeke defines it as such,

preaching that seeks to explain in terms of biblical, Calvinistic truth how matters ought to go, how they do go, and the end goal of the Christian life […] it addresses the entire range of Christian living, focusing heavily on a believer’s well-being and maturity. With the Spirit’s blessing, the mission of such preaching is to transform the believer in all that he is and does to become more and more like the savior. [43]

All in all, experiential preaching characterized the Puritan preacher’s sincere desire to measure the experienced knowledge of himself and his congregation against the touchstone of Scripture. Experiential preaching was more than anything else an appeal to both the heart and minds of men, women, and children. It aimed to change them, not just land on them. Richard Baxter carries the meaning well when he says,

As man is not so prone to live according to the truth he knows except it do deeply affect him, so neither doth his soul enjoy its sweetness, except speculation do pass to affection. The understanding is not the whole soul, and therefore cannot do the whole work….The understanding must take in truths, and prepare them for the will, and it must receive them and commend them to the affections;…the affections are, as it were, the bottom of the soul. [45]

Puritan preaching was not lecturing; it was a desperate calling unto souls. It was a sincere plea to be right with God at the expense of all else. Because of its magisterial content, preaching ought to be a serious and sober engagement. According to Richard Baxter, “Of all the preaching in the world, I hate that preaching which tends to make the hearers laugh, or to move their minds with tickling levity and affect them as stage plays used to, instead of affecting them with a holy reverence for the name of God.” [46]

CONCLUSION

This paper has charted the foundational facts of Puritan preaching (i.e., its grammar), by which we refer to the Puritan’s extreme reverence for and submission to the Christo-centric Word of the Living God. We also observed three main principles of interrelation (i.e., its dialectic) which Puritan preaching used as a means of conveying the truth of that Christo-centric Word, namely organization, application, and discrimination. Lastly, we explored the Puritan art of expressing the sum total of its homiletical knowledge (i.e., its rhetoric) as seen in the spiritual character of the preachers themselves and the simple and sincere style of their preaching.

Hopefully the reader has gained a renewed appreciation for the significance of Puritan Preaching for the ultimate sake of preserving that which the modern church is far too prone to forget. If we are to avoid the eclipse of affective gospel preaching in our own day we must become students of the Puritans for they–perhaps more so than any other epoch of redemptive history since the Apostolic age–embodied the essence of biblical preaching. History has indeed validated the truthfulness of that statement because (to the author’s knowledge) preaching modeled after the Puritan method has never failed to benefit the church and thus give pleasure to Him who gave himself up for the church.

Husband to Elizabeth and father of four. Joe is a a student at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. Joe served as an active duty officer in the Marine Corps for eleven years and is currently serving as an instructor pilot in the Marine Corps Reserves. An aspiring pastor, Joe travels to Europe this summer to investigate Reformed church planting amidst American military communities stationed abroad. http://www.reformation21.org/

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther tacked up 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg. With this act, he hoped to provoke a discussion among the scholars about the abuses of the indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. He was not trying to create a public furor by any means, but within a fortnight, these theses had spread through the country like wildfire. The last thing Luther had in mind was to start some kind of major controversy, but nevertheless major controversy did begin.

From the discussions at Wittenberg, the disputations began to accelerate and escalate. Copies of the theses reached Rome and critical meetings were scheduled with the young monk. In these debates, Luther was maneuvered into proclaiming publicly that he had questions about the infallibility of church councils and also that he thought that it was possible that the pope could err. In 1520 a papal encyclical was issued which condemned Martin Luther as a heretic. Luther burned the document in a public bonfire and his defiance before the church was now a matter of record.

In response, Martin Luther picked up his pen to challenge the entire penitential system of the Roman Catholic Church, which undermined in principle the free remission of sins that is ours in the gospel. By doing so, he was unswervingly advocating his commitment to sola fide, the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

In 1521, Luther was summoned to the Imperial Diet, an authoritative meeting that involved the princes of the church, called by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to be held in the city of Worms in Germany. Luther was an outlaw. For him to appear at the Diet was to risk his very life; therefore, he was given safe conduct by the Emperor to attend. With a few friends, Luther traveled from Wittenberg to Worms. The eyewitnesses of that episode tell us that when Luther’s little covered wagon appeared around the corner of the bend, there were lookouts posted in the church tower at Worms. All the people were agog waiting for the arrival of this notorious person. When Luther’s caravan was sighted, people were throwing their hats in the air, blowing trumpets, and creating all the fanfare of the arrival of the hero. It was the 16th century answer to a ticker-tape parade.

Things, however, became very solemn in a hurry because the next day he appeared before the Diet. His books were stacked on a table in the room, and he was asked and ordered to recant of his writings. This surprised Luther because he thought he was going to have an opportunity to defend his writings; but the only question really of any importance that was asked of him was this: “Are these your writings?” And when he said yes, they said, “Are you ready to recant of them?”

Hollywood has their version of Luther standing there boldly with his fist in the air saying, “Here I stand!” and so on. But instead he dropped his chin on his chest and muttered something that nobody could understand, so they asked him to speak up. “What did you say?” He said, “May I have 24 hours to think about it.” And so Luther was granted a reprieve of 24 hours to return to his room to contemplate the seriousness of this occasion.

The prayer that Luther wrote in that ensuing 24-hour period was one of the most moving prayers I have ever read in my life. In that prayer, Luther cried out for God in his sense of total loneliness fearing that God had abandoned him, and proclaimed, “O Lord, I am Thine, and the cause is Thine, give me the courage to stand.”

And on the morrow, Luther was called once again back to the court and was told to reply to the question. He said to the Diet, “Unless I am convinced by sacred scripture or by evident reason, I cannot recant, for my conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” And with that there was an instant uproar.

The Emperor himself later indicated his regret that he even gave Luther a safe conduct, and immediately put a new price on his head. As Luther was leaving the city, his friends staged a kidnapping to protect him and took him away in a fast horse through the forest. They hid him for a year in Wartburg at the castle disguised as a knight. During that year, Luther undertook the task of translating the Bible from the biblical languages into German. And that perhaps was his most important legacy of that time – that he made the Bible available to the common people. And with that the Reformation was born.

—R.C. Sproul

(Taken from “The Institutes of Christian Religion” )

11. Perseverance is Exclusively God’s Work; It is Neither a Reward Nor a Compliment of our Individual Act

As to perseverance, it would undoubtedly have been regarded as the gratuitous gift of God, had not the very pernicious error prevailed, that it is bestowed in proportion to human merit, according to the reception which each individual gives to the first grace. This having given rise to the idea that it was entirely in our own power to receive or reject the offered grace of God, that idea is no sooner exploded than the error founded on it must fall. The error, indeed, is twofold. For, besides teaching that our gratitude for the first grace and our legitimate use of it is rewarded by subsequent supplies of grace, its abettors add that, after this, grace does not operate alone, but only co-operates with ourselves. As to the former, we must hold that the Lord, while he daily enriches his servants, and loads them with new gifts of his grace, because he approves of and takes pleasure in the work which he has begun, finds that in them which he may follow up with larger measures of grace. To this effect are the sentences, “To him that has shall be given.” “Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things,” (Matth. 25: 21, 23, 29; Luke 19: 17, 26.) But here two precautions are necessary. It must not be said that the legitimate use of the first grace is rewarded by subsequent measures of grace, as if man rendered the grace of God effectual by his own industry, nor must it be thought that there is any such remuneration as to make it cease to be the gratuitous grace of God. I admit, then, that believers may expect as a blessing from God, that the better the use they make of previous, the larger the supplies they will receive of future grace; but I say that even this use is of the Lord, and that this remuneration is bestowed freely of mere good will. The trite distinction of operating and co-operating grace is employed no less sinistrously than unhappily. Augustine, indeed, used it, but softened it by a suitable definition, viz., that God, by co-operating, perfects what he begins by operating, – that both graces are the same, but obtain different names from the different manner in which they produce their effects. Whence it follows, that he does not make an apportionment between God and man, as if a proper movement on the part of each produced a mutual concurrence. All he does is to mark a multiplication of grace. To this effect, accordingly, he elsewhere says, that in man good will precedes many gifts from God; but among these gifts is this good will itself. (August. Enchiridion ad Laurent. cap. 32.) Whence it follows, that nothing is left for the will to arrogate as its own. This Paul has expressly stated. For, after saying, “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do,” he immediately adds, “of his good pleasure,” (Philip. 2: 13;) indicating by this expression, that the blessing is gratuitous. As to the common saying, that after we have given admission to the first grace, our efforts co-operate with subsequent grace, this is my answer: – If it is meant that after we are once subdued by the power of the Lord to the obedience of righteousness, we proceed voluntarily, and are inclined to follow the movement of grace, I have nothing to object. For it is most certain, that where the grace of God reigns, there is also this readiness to obey. And whence this readiness, but just that the Spirit of God being everywhere consistent with himself, after first begetting a principle of obedience, cherishes and strengthens it for perseverance? If, again, it is meant that man is able of himself to be a fellow-labourer with the grace of God, I hold it to be a most pestilential delusion.

12. Man Cannot Ascribe to Himself Even One Single Good Work Apart From God’s Grace

In support of this view, some make an ignorant and false application of the Apostle’s words: “I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me,” (1 Cor. 15: 10.) The meaning they give them is, that as Paul might have seemed to speak somewhat presumptuously in preferring himself to all the other apostles, he corrects the expression so far by referring the praise to the grace of God, but he, at the same time, calls himself a co-operator with grace. It is strange that this should have proved a stumbling-block to so many writers, otherwise respectable. The Apostle says not that the grace of God laboured with him so as to make him a co-partner in the labour. He rather transfers the whole merit of the labour to grace alone, by thus modifying his first expression, “It was not I,” says he, “that laboured, but the grace of God that was present with me.” Those who have adopted the erroneous interpretation have been misled by an ambiguity in the expression, or rather by a preposterous translation, in which the force of the Greek article is overlooked. For to take the words literally, the Apostle does not say that grace was a fellow-worker with him, but that the grace which was with him was sole worker. And this is taught not obscurely, though briefly, by Augustine when he says, “Good will in man precedes many gifts from God, but not all gifts, seeing that the will which precedes is itself among the number.” He adds the reason, “for it is written, ‘the God of my mercy shall prevent me,’ (Ps. 59: 10,) and ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me,’ (Ps. 23: 6;) it prevents him that is unwilling, and makes him willing; it follows him that is willing, that he may not will in vain.” To this Bernard assents, introducing the Church as praying thus, “Draw me, who am in some measure unwilling, and make me willing; draw me, who am sluggishly lagging, and make me run,” (Serm. 2 in Cantic.)

A Puritan\'s Mind

The term “Molinism” was recently brought to my attention. As I was doing some research I found this article on APM’s website and it seemed to me to offer the best summary of what I had been reading. This “doctrine” is more prevalent in the church today than I had thought. Take a read and let me know what you think.

The Heresy of Middle Knowledge

by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

It is interesting to me to see what errors the Devil will keep alive during our present age in terms of the heresies many good men have put to rest by their orthodox pens. Some heresies have been thrown by the wayside; they have come and gone. Others are still in full bloom. Those who think they have a handle on Biblical theology, but have been led astray by these errors and their own twisted thinking have resurrected some again. And it is equally interesting to me that the more harmful errors and heresies at hand surround the doctrine of God or the doctrine of Christ. In this paper, the heresy I am re-refuting surrounds Theology Proper, or the doctrine of God. It is specifically in terms of the doctrine of the knowledge of God, or His Omniscience. The error is called Molinism, or Middle Knowledge (Today Open Theism is its close brother.).

It is unsure as to whether Luis de Molina (1535-1600) actually spawned the doctrine of Middle Knowledge. Others such as Fonseca and Lessius have put forth the same ideas. Whether Molina himself began it is of no consequence. What is important is that it be rejected by orthodox Christians as heresy. In 1609 the Roman Catholic church decided to allow this idea as something acceptable. However, upon close scrutiny, it is easily distinguished as something unbiblical and unorthodox.

According to Molina (as we will presume it was his idea since the term has been deemed thus by his own name) God has three kinds of knowledge: natural, middle and free. Natural knowledge is God’s knowledge of all possible worlds, i.e. all that concerns the necessary and possible in God’s understanding (this is orthodox). Free knowledge is God’s knowledge of this actual world. By a “free act,” He is able to know what He knows absolutely (this is also orthodox). Molina, however, said this knowledge is not something that is essential in God, which is ludicrous in and if itself. Lastly, middle knowledge states that God cannot know the future free acts of men in the same way He knows other things absolutely. Thus, this middle knowledge is dependent upon the free acts of what men will do. God, in His “omniscience”, waits for men to act and then will choose them to be saved based on their choice to be saved.

The real basis for this doctrine is not the Bible, but a twisted form of logic. The Molinian logician will argue that an action must first occur before it can be true. God, then, cannot know anything in this manner as true and absolute unless it has first occurred. God, then, becomes dependent upon the acts of men instead of on His own eternal decrees. And since the actions of men are contingent, the knowledge of such acts would be contingent as well. The Molinian logicians will also argue this in the manner of something being true. The free acts of men cannot be true acts until they are actually acted. Thus, God cannot know something as true until men, in time, act out their free choices. Then God’s knowledge becomes true.

It is certainly easy to see what the doctrine of Middle knowledge is attractive here. Men are ultimately their own little saviors, and every good Roman Catholic loves the idea of working for their own salvation. Secondly, it seems to provide answers to “theological conundrums” such as “hell” and the “problem of evil.” In reality, all of the above is but part of the Molinian facade.

In this position it seems that the Jesuits were simply attempting to preserve the heretical doctrines mustered up by the semi-Pelagians. Today, those who hold to Molinism simply reject the biblical data of God’s eternal decrees, His omniscience and His omnipotent power wielded in the doctrine of Continuous Creation. Molinism is not compatible with these doctrines. Molinians must simply deny most of the Bible in order to hold onto these ideas while at the same time exalt other portions of the Scriptures which they think holds their view together. They must simply deny texts such as Isaiah 46:10-11 because it is incompatible with their “logic;” “Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,’ Calling a bird of prey from the east, The man who executes My counsel, from a far country. Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it.” Whenever men are placed in the driver’s seat of the future, God is diminished in His glory and the depravity of those men bolts to the forefront; then, doctrines such as Molinism rise to the surface. In light of the Biblical data, and logical reasoning itself, this doctrine comes to naught. The only reason why anyone would continue to hold this doctrine is due to unbelief – they reject the God of the Bible.

Turretin states the heresy and objections well, “The question is not whether God knows future contingencies…Rather the question is whether they belong to a kind of middle knowledge distinct from the natural and free [knowledge He already possesses of all things]. The latter we deny…therefore the question is whether besides the natural knowledge (which is only things possible) and the knowledge of vision (which is only of things future), there may be granted in God a certain third or middle knowledge concerning conditional future things by which God knows what men or angels will freely do without a special decree preceding (if placed with these or those circumstance in such an order of things). The Jesuits, Socinians, and Remonstrants affirm this; the orthodox deny this.” (Institutio, v1, Page 214)

Middle Knowledge is a non-entity. The reasons for this are many: First, both natural and free knowledge embrace the knowing of all things for God. There is nothing left to know after these. There is nothing in the nature of any thing whatsoever which is not possible or future. God’s knowledge cannot be said to move out of these bounds. He knows all things possible or future before the foundations of the world. Middle knowledge, then, is a non-entity. Second, no future conditional thing can be knowable before the divine decree. Thus, things not true cannot be foreknown as true. Third, all things are under the power of God’s providence, and thus, no thing can be independent of that providence. Fourth, the Bible does not ascribe to God any type of knowledge this is uncertain (the author is aware of the resurgence of “Open Theism” which is adequately dealt with by Bruce Ware in his book, “God’s Lesser Glory”). Molina would have God confused about all things since God’s knowledge is dependent upon the free acts of men. Thus, any knowledge about any thing in the created order would necessitate that all knowledge God has about the universe would be contingent upon the free acts of men in that universe – which is nonsense. God, then, would simply be a resurrected kind of “Zeus” figure from ancient mythology. Fifth, middle knowledge destroys the dominion of God over creation since all acts are not preformed by God’s decree, but the acts itself. Man, then, becomes “God.”

Molina did not place truth in is proper context. God’s knowledge of reality is not based upon that which is contingent, but His own nature. This means that God’s knowledge is not contingent on the condition of the things known. It based on His asiety, or His necessary being. Since God’s being is necessary in this manner, everything in known to Him is necessary not contingent. If God’s knowledge is dependent on the free actions of men, then God is not really God at all. It would be just as well to bow down to a graven image or an idol made from your own hands. He would have no power to act independently of men, nor would he have the power to enact any change whatsoever, not even the act of creation.

There is no position in between the two poles of logic – God is the cause of all things, both primary and secondary means, (this Calvinism affirms) or, He is dependent upon other free acts (Roman Catholicism and Arminianism affirms). God is either cause, or He is effect. The epistemological nature of God’s knowledge will not allow Him to become an Olympian god who peers over the clouds to see what trickery men have played against Him that day. Efficacious salvation would be impossible with such a “god.” How could Zeus ensure the salvation of any individual if the individual is the author and finisher of his own faith? Molinism does not only deny the cardinal doctrines of Theology Proper, but also denies the depravity of man at this point (and this the usual goal of such doctrines – to relieve man of his true misery and place in his hands a form of “power” that the serpent tempted Eve by).

Turretin sums up these ideas nicely, “The cause of the existence of thing differs from the cause of their fruition. Second causes can concur with God to cause the existence of a certain thing because they exist and are active at the same time with God. But no second cause can concur with him to cause the futurition of things because futurition was made from eternity, while all second causes are only in time. Hence it is evident that the futurition of things depends upon nothing but the decree of God, and therefore can be foreknown only from the decree.” (Institutio, v1, Page 218)

Brief Scriptural Support for the infinite knowledge of God and His power, and the Biblical denial of Molinism:

Acts 17:24-25, “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.

Col. 1:17, “And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.”

Acts 17:28, “…for in Him we live and move and have our being…”

Rom. 11:33-34, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?”

Psalm 147:5, “Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite.”

Heb. 4:13, “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”

Acts 15:18, “Known to God from eternity are all His works.”

Ezekiel 11:5, “Then the Spirit of the LORD fell upon me, and said to me, “Speak! ‘Thus says the LORD: “Thus you have said, O house of Israel; for I know the things that come into your mind.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith substantiates the orthodox position on this subject in chapter 3:1-3 – On God’s Decree.

I. God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass:[1] yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin,[2] nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.[3]

1. Psa. 33:11: Eph. 1:11: Heb. 6:17

2. Psa. 5:4; James 1:13-14; I John 1:5; see Hab. 1:13

3. Acts 2:23; 4:27-28: Matt. 17:12; John 19:11; Prov. 16:33

II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions,[4] yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.[5]

4. I Sam. 23:11-12; Matt. 11:21-23

5. Rom. 9:11, 13, 16, 18

III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels[6] are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.[7]

6. I Tim 5:21; Jude 1:6; Matt. 25:31, 41

7. Eph. 1:5-6; Rom. 9:22-23; Prov. 16:4

“I frankly confess that, for myself, even if it could be, I should not want ‘free-will’ to be given me, nor anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavour after salvation; not merely because in face of so many dangers, and adversities and assaults of devils, I could not stand my ground …; but because even were there no dangers … I should still be forced to labour with no guarantee of success … But now that God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will, and put it under the control of His, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to His own grace and mercy, I have the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break Him or pluck me from Him. Furthermore, I have the comfortable certainty that I please God, not by reason of the merit of my works, but by reason of His merciful favour promised to me; so that, if I work too little, or badly, He does not impute it to me, but with fatherly compassion pardons me and makes me better. This is the glorying of all the saints in their God” – Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1957), 313-314.