GIULIA GONZAGA and the Comfort of the Gospel

           Giulia Gonzaga’s early life sounds like a fairy tale. At age 20, she was already one of the most envied women in Italy. She owned large properties and her castle was a favorite meeting place for artists, poets, and musicians. She was considered the most beautiful woman in the country. Yet, she was deeply anxious and confused.

            In a fairy tale, this introduction would be followed by a quest for the answer – usually a magic talisman brought by a charming prince.

            Giulia’s story was different. Her anxiety came from a painful incapacity of obeying God’s law and no talisman could help. Her sinful tendencies, especially her fear of what people would say or her love for material things, got the best of her. Being perfectly aware of the biblical consequences of sin, she felt hopeless.

A Dangerous Beauty

            Giulia was born in 1513 in Gazzuolo, a small city in north Italy. It was the Italian Renaissance, a time of splendor and beauty as well as political struggle, as noble families fought to maintain their power and territories. It was a struggle for survival, and marital alliances provided the greatest security.

            As most noble girls of her day, 14-year old Giulia submitted to her parents’ choice of a husband: Vespasiano, Duke of Traetto and Count of Fondi, an esteemed “condottiero” (mercenary captain) from the powerful Colonna family. He was 47. In the summer of 1526, she dutifully left her home and family and moved 370 miles south with a husband old enough to be her father and a stepdaughter, Isabella, who was her same age.

            Those were troubling times for Italy (the infamous sack of Rome happened less than a year after Giulia’s wedding) and Vespasiano was often called to battle. If there were any conflicts between the two coetaneous girls, they worsened when he died in 1528, leaving all his properties to Giulia, as long as she remained unmarried. Isabella considered this decision unfair and spent her life fighting it.

            Giulia’s life as Lady of her castle in Fondi (between Rome and Naples) continued rather peacefully until, in the summer of 1534, a band of Ottoman pirates attacked her properties, apparently with the specific intent of kidnapping her as a present for Sultan Süleyman I. Warned by a servant, she managed to escape.

            Realizing she was not safe in her own castle, she moved to Naples, in a small lodging she rented within a nuns’ convent. There, she could still conduct her business and receive guests, while visiting her castle from time to time.

            Eventually, Emperor Charles V, who had been called to resolve the legal dispute between Giulia and Isabella, ended up favoring the latter, allowing her to keep the properties on condition that she gave Giulia a high yearly salary (a duty Isabella performed irregularly and begrudgingly).

Law and Gospel

            In Naples, Giulia became better acquainted with Juan de Valdés, a Spanish Reformer who had left Spain to escape the inquisition. Well-versed in legal matters, Valdés had helped her in her litigation. The two had also obviously discussed personal and religious matters, because in 1536 she felt comfortable enough to reveal to him her innermost feelings.

            The occasion was a sermon by Bernardino Ochino, a powerful preacher who had embraced some Lutheran teachings and included them carefully in his addresses. She had heard the friar before but this time his mention of God’s law terrified her, and she asked Valdés for help.

            In a long discussion that began in front of the church and ended at Giulia’s residence, Valdés explained the difference between law and gospel – a difference plainly stated in the Pauline epistles, reiterated by Augustine (mostly in his explanation of “letter” and “spirit”), and exhaustively exposed by Martin Luther, who defined the ability to distinguish it “the noblest skill in the Christian church.”.

            In a nutshell, the law is whatever God commands us to do, and the gospel is the announcement of what Christ has done for sinners who are in themselves unable to keep the law.

            Valdés explained the necessity of the law: “Without a law there wouldn’t be a conscience. Without a conscience, sin wouldn’t be known. Without a knowledge of sin, we would not humble ourselves. Without humbling ourselves, we wouldn’t know grace. Without grace, we wouldn’t be justified, and without justification our souls wouldn’t be saved. This is what I believe Saint Paul meant by saying that the law is a pedagogue or tutor who leads us to Christ so that we may be justified by faith”.[1]

            The gospel, on the other hand, is designed to “heal the wounds inflicted by the law, preach grace, peace, and remission of sins, calm and pacify consciences, impart the spirit that allows us to keep what the law shows about God’s will and to fight, conquer, and crush the enemies of our souls”[2].

            If the law terrifies us and seems burdensome, Valdés explained, it’s because we don’t understand the gospel. “There can’t be any fear in the soul that actively and effectively points his eyes on the crucified Christ, considering with full Christ’s satisfaction and payment in his stead.”[3]

            Obedience to God is then a natural fruit of justification: “We begin to fall in love with God and to obey him and serve him, not for fear of hell or love of glory, but merely because we have known that he is worthy to be loved and that he loves us without end. God sets us free, but we don’t leave his service in view of this liberty. On the contrary, we are even more subject and obedient to him, not as slaves but as free, not as mercenaries but as sons. This is the essence of Christian freedom”.[4]

            This dialogue between Valdés and Giulia, later published as Christian Alphabet, includes both Giulia’s spirited questions and Valdés patient but honest answers.

Giulia’s Contributions to the Reformation

            After Valdés’s death in 1541, 28-year old Giulia became the main preserver of his teachings, supervising the translation and distribution of his works and other similar books (such as the best seller The Benefit of Christ), and keeping a strong network of communication between Italian reformers and sympathizers of the Reformation.

            When the Roman inquisition was reinstated in 1542 with the specific purpose of eradicating “Lutheran heresies,” she assisted some Italians to find safety north of the Alps. Others, including Giulia and her closest friend Pietro Carnesecchi, a Florentine follower of Valdés, decided to wait, still hoping for a reformation of the church. These hopes fell low at the Council of Trent, where believers in justification by faith alone were declared accursed, but raised again in 1555, when Cardinal Reginald Pole, who had until then supported a reformation, came close to being elected pope. Ultimately, Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa – the brain and strong arm behind the Roman inquisition – won instead, largely because of his work of propaganda which depicted Pole as an advocate of Lutheran beliefs.

            Hope resurrected in 1559, when Carafa died and the people of Rome gave free expression to their rage against the tyrannical pope by rioting in the streets, freeing those who had been imprisoned on heresy charges, and burning the Inquisition buildings.

            Soon, however, they realized the Inquisition was there to stay. Carnesecchi was called to a trial, but was released for lack of evidence (the fire had destroyed all the papers they had collected on his case). Giulia’s also name appeared in the inquisition’s files for her support of the doctrine of sola fide, but her powerful cousins were able to intercede and avoid a trial.

            In the meantime, her health was getting worse, and she made plans for her death. Carnesecchi could hardly bear the thought of losing his best friend. “To live without you in this malign century is to navigate high seas without oars or sails.”

            His high seas became particularly turbulent shortly after Giulia’s death in 1566. Ironically, she became the cause of his turbulence by neglecting to destroy the 228 highly incriminating letters she had received from him. He was soon arrested, interrogated under torture, and executed. When the new pope, Pius V, received Giulia’s correspondence, he said, “If I had seen it while she was still breathing I would have burned her alive.”

            Other names were revealed by both Giulia’s letters and Carnesecchi’s confession. The ensuing persecution, combined with Carnesecchi’s highly publicized execution, silenced most dissenting voices in Italy. But it was not the end. The same persecution created a large number of exiles – nourished by the same gospel Giulia had helped to disseminate – who went on to join Protestant churches abroad.

            Italy had to wait centuries to see an introduction of Reformed, confessional churches. They now exist, however small, and the same gospel is circulating again.


[1] Valdés, Juan, Alfabeto cristiano : dialogo con Giulia Gonzaga, pg. 22 (my translation).

[3] ibid pg. 48

[4] Ibid, pg. 123

Benjamin B. Warfield and Inspiration Podcast

by Jeffrey Stivason

This week on Theology on the Go, our host, Dr. Jonathan Master is joined by Dr. Jeffrey Stivason.  Dr. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the Gospel since 1995.  During that time, he has planted two churches, the most recent one being Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church. He is an adjunct professor for the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the online program for Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  He has published articles and reviews in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, The Westminster Theological Journal, The Presbyterion, The Confessional Presbyterian and others. Dr. Stivason has authored, From Inscrutability to Concursus, published by  P&R Publishing.  He is also a Managing Editor for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

Today Dr. Master will talk with Dr. Stivason about Benjamin B. Warfield and his understanding of the mode of Biblical inspiration.   Over the last several years the doctrine of inspiration and its constituent parts has come under fire.  If you are looking for a safe place to enter this minefield of a discussion, then the writings of B. B. Warfield are a good place to start. 

So, grab that cup of coffee and meet us at the table! 

Just for listening, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals would like to give you a free resource. If you would like to win a copy of From Inscrutability to Concursus: Benjamin B. Warfield’s Theological Construction of Revelation’s Mode from 1880 to 1915 go to ReformedResources.org!



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Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

More on the Benefit of Christ

by Simonetta Carr

More on the Benefit of Christ

 

            My earlier post on the 16th-century booklet The Benefit of Christ has elicited many responses. Several people have pointed me to this edition https://archive.org/details/benefitchristsd00palegoog, which I had seen before. It’s not a faithful translation and is written in such an archaic language that in no means communicates the warmth and spontaneity of the Italian original.

            My readers’ interest has spurred me to do further research, and I have discovered a good modern translation, practically identical to the one I mentioned in my post. It’s included in the book Reform Thought in Sixteenth-Century Italy, edited by Elizabeth G. Gleason[1]. The book is expensive but there are a few affordable used copies out there. It’s also available in many libraries throughout the US (I checked it out through my local library).

            Is it worth the effort, given that we have so many other excellent Reformation books which are widely available? I am firmly convinced that it is. Think of a concise, but thorough exposition of basic soteriology with the warmth of the Heidelberg Catechism. It goes through sin, salvation, union with Christ, and remedies against lack of assurance. It could easily be used for a Bible study, an introduction to Christianity, or family devotions.

            My pastor says it’s his favorite book after the Bible. My favorite portions are the distinction between law and gospel and the description of Christ’s church as his bride (with the same warmth of a Samuel Rutherford).

            Here is an excerpt on assurance of salvation which is reminiscent of Martin Luther: “If I reflect on my actions, there is no doubt that I know I am sinful and condemned, and my conscience would never be quiet, if I believed that my sins were pardoned through the works that I do. But if I reflect on the promises and the covenant of God, who promises me remission of sins through the blood of Christ, I am as certain of having obtained this and of having his grace as I am confident and certain that he who has promised and made the covenant cannot lie of deceive.”[2]

            Another passage shows how predestination was at that time seen mostly as a source of comfort. “Besides prayer, the memory of baptism, and frequent use of the most holy communion, the best remedy against diffidence and fear (which is not compatible with Christian charity) is the memory of our predestination and our election to eternal life. This is founded on the Word of God, which is the sword of the Holy Spirit, and with which we can kill our enemies. ‘Rejoice,’ says the Lord, ‘that your names are written in Heaven.’”[3]

 

Italian Reform Thought

            Reform Thought in Sixteenth-Century Italy is interesting in other ways to anyone who has an interest in the 16th century religious thought. If there was every an example of heterogeneous thought, it was in Italy at this time. A Reformation of the church was clearly needed, but opinions differed as on its nature and extent.

            This book includes examples of this thought, starting with the 1497 Oratory of Divine Love, one of the many confraternities of lay people that continued to proliferate during the 16th century. They were mostly concerned about moral and spiritual issues (hence the name of spirituali given to their followers).

            Other passages in the book are authored by important figures in the Italian Reformation. There are three interesting letters by Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542), a cardinal who embraced the doctrine of sola fide but continued to support the papacy as institution. These letters, written when he was in his 40’s, highlight his spiritual dilemma. “Nobody can justify himself or purge his soul of worldly affections through works. He must have recourse to divine grace which we obtain through faith in Jesus Christ, as Saint Paul writes.”[4] At that time, Contarini could write freely of his thoughts to other cardinals and friends, because the doctrine of sola fide had not yet been condemned at the Council of Trent. Contarini’s attempt to bring a conciliation between Roman Catholic and Lutheran doctrines in 1541 failed miserably and he died the following year.

            There is also a discourse by Bernadino Ochino, the popular preacher who escaped Italy in 1542 (at the same time as Peter Martyr Vermigli). Ochino’s disagreements with Calvin prompted him to leave Geneva. From then on, he continued to wander around Europe as his ideas became more radical and unaccepted by the established Protestant churches.

            The book also includes an encouraging letter by Marcantonio Flaminio (editor of The Benefit of Christ) to a lady in Naples (pointing her to Christ), a memorial written by Gianpietro Carafa, the man behind the Roman Inquisition, and a document signed by several cardinals and archbishops (including Contarini, Carafa, Jacopo Sadoleto, and Reginald Pole) on the abuses of the church that, in their view, needed correction. These last two documents give a general idea of what type of reformation Roman Catholic Church officials wanted to sanction (most of which were discussed at the Council of Trent).

            Bookworms and history buffs will appreciate this overview of the context in which The Benefit of Christ was written. Everyone else can simply enjoy the clarity and poetry of Benedetto’s leaflet.


[1] Reform Thought in Sixteenth-Century Italy, edited by Elizabeth G. Gleason, Edwards Brothers, Michigan, 1981

[2] Ibid, 131

[3] Ibid, 148.

[4] Ibid, 33.

 



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Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

Classic Theism: Worshiping the Immutable God

by Stephen Unthank

            Beware the church that is always trying to make Christianity cool again; far more often than not, their hearts are preoccupied with what the world wants than what God wants. Of course it could be argued that Christianity has never been cool. That’s fine. St. John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ provides us with sufficient motivation to overcome the antagonism and persecution that comes with being the uncool kids of history. But many are tired of not being invited to the cool kids table and so the sufficiency of Scripture (which tells us how we’re to live and operate as the church) has been superseded by the spirit of pragmatism (doing what works in getting people to church). We’ve exchanged the weight of God’s word for being burdened over what the world thinks of us. “To the rest of you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come” (Rev. 2:24-25).

            This is why the regulative principle sounds so weird to most evangelicals today. So many of us are pragmatic Americans at heart, no matter how much we think we put God first. But today’s obsession with being relevant and being all things to all people isn’t so much the fruit of pragmatism (though it is that too) but more so the outcome of forgetting God.  We’ve forgotten the Immutable, Impassable, God only wise and so we’ve become convinced that God is OK with our neat tricks and new styles of worship and evangelism. “God didn’t say we couldn’t use strange fire as we approach Him in worship, so…”

            The Second London Baptist Confession reminds us that “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.”

            Part of their defense for understanding worship this way comes from Deuteronomy 12:29-32. There God warns the Israelites not to worship Him with borrowed means from the surrounding nations. And what becomes clear is that God views the deformed worship of those nations as coming from a deformed understanding of God. The nations have invented their own gods who are mutable and impassioned and thus the people are always sacrificing to their gods in order to mollify them. And it never dawns on them that their so called gods seem to be as hungry and in need of attention as the very men who invented them. They are gods made in the image of man.

            Hence Paul, seeing that fallen men are still inventing fallen gods, could brilliantly preach that the world is still “in every way very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:22-25).

            Do you see what Paul is saying in his understanding of God and our worship of Him? Because he has created all things, and by his very Being sustains all things, he is in need of nothing. Nothing! Most strikingly, Paul says even the Temples we build and the service we bring by our own hands in worship to Him – He doesn’t need it. He’s not changed by it or affected in a new way by it. God is complete and fully satisfied in His own Being. In fact, all that we bring to Him, even our worship, is supplied by Him. “He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”

            Carl Truman has rightly noted that “the church is not a response to the grace of God but an act of the grace of God… It is God’s creature, not the invention of human beings… And if the church is God’s creature, then the message she speaks, the rules she lives by, and the power she exerts are to be regulated by God and thus by God’s  word.”[1] And, we would want to add, that the worship she brings is not only regulated by God but even sustained and given the power to exist by God.

            In other words, when we come to church to worship on the Lord’s Day we need to be reminded that we are not doing church but rather that God is doing a work in us. We bring nothing because we have nothing to bring. From start to finish God has been about the work of drawing “what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:28-29).

            Here then is our worship: standing amazed that a thrice Holy God who is in no need of all created existence, much less our fallen and half-hearted singing, has been pleased to draw us to Himself. Oh might we do so in full wonder and joy, but always according to His authority and submitted to how he has told us to worship. Indeed, all of life and even all of worship is “from him and through him and to him.” That’s cool.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ. Foreword by Carl Trueman, xiii. (Banner of Truth Trust, 2015)

 



The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

Theology on the Go in Summary: The Sufficiency of Scripture

by Jeffrey Stivason

Theology on the Go in Summary: The sufficiency of Scripture

We here at Theology on the Go want to help you to help others.  Often we are in a conversation with someone on a topic that we know we have seen on Theology on the Go but the podcast and articles are scattered over a two-week period, which is great for slow digestion of good spiritual food but not so good for handy reference!  So, we want to help.  We are summarizing a podcast topic and its accompanying articles on a single page for easy reference.  Here is one on the Sufficiency of Scripture.

We have been described throughout history as “people of the Book.” That phrase means that we not only value the book called the Bible but we find it sufficient for faith and life.  But what does that mean?    In February of this year, we explored what it means to call Scripture sufficient.  So, take a few minutes to refresh your memory on an important truth which ought to be embraced by all Christians.

The Sufficiency of Scripture Podcast with Jonathan Master

Scripture, Sufficient for What? by Jeffrey Stivason

The Sufficiency of Scripture and the Glory of God by Jeffrey Waddington

The Sufficiency of Scripture in Decision Making by Michael Matossian

The Sufficiency of Scripture in Biblical Scholarship by David Smith

The Sufficiency of Scripture for Biblical Counseling by Martin Blocki



The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

Classic Theism: Is God Simple or Complex?

My Sunday school teacher posed this question during class a few years ago. The question surprised me because the answer seemed obvious. If God is so far beyond my comprehension, how could he be simple? Therefore, he must be complex, right? Wrong. The teacher was not referring to whether God was easily understood but rather to the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Simply stated, this doctrine teaches that there “is nothing in God that is not God.” [1] Nothing comprises God. Neither is there anything that lies behind or alongside him that provides the basis for his existence.[2] This is affirmed in the Westminster Confession 2.1 which states that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” The London Baptist Confession (LBC) 2.3 also adds “one God, who is not to be divided by nature or being.”

As a counter example, we learn in biology that all living things are composed of cells, which are made of several components. But in chemistry, we learn that those cellular components are made up of molecules, which in turn are made up of atoms of different elements. For years scientists believed that atoms were the building blocks of matter, but the search is not over. Physicists today are detecting particles smaller than a proton. Thus, we still don’t know what is the fundamental basis of matter. The physical universe also requires something outside of these necessary parts to put them together. But God is not like this. He cannot be subdivided or broken down into his essential building blocks. If that was the case, those parts would account for his being God and take the credit for his God-ness. He would also be dependent upon a maker apart from himself to combine those parts into “God,” but all that is in God is God. He just is.[3]

This may sound rather esoteric and only fit for the seminary classroom, but what about the average believer in the pew? Does simplicity make any difference at all? It does indeed, and here are a few implications of this doctrine.

– Simplicity safeguards our understanding of  God. The Trinity is not three Gods (tritheism). Neither is God comprised of 1/3 Father, 1/3 Son, and 1/3 Holy Spirit (partialism). We confess One God in Three Persons. Simplicity is also the foundation of God’s independence and immutability. Complex beings are dependent on their parts and their maker, but as a simple being, God is dependent upon nothing. He will never change because then he would cease to be himself. Change also implies a lack of perfection as though he needed any improvement.[4]

– A simple God is completely trustworthy. A complex system is only as strong as its weakest component. It takes only one gene mutation in one cell to release a potentially deadly disease. It took one failed o-ring to cause the Challenger disaster. But we will never find a weak link in God. When the world seems to be falling apart, “God is not going fall apart because he is not made up of parts… The reason you can rely upon God and depend upon God, the reason he can be your all-sufficiency is because he is his own all-sufficiency.”[5]

– God’s will cannot be thwarted because God’s will is inseparable from himself. The LBC 3.1 states “God hath decreed in Himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass.” Every single promise and every step in God’s redemptive plan is rock solid because “he eternally wills and possesses his end perfectly.” And the end of this will is his own glory and goodness.[6]

– Simplicity leads to worship. God is so other that words fail to describe him adequately. He is fully complete in himself with need of nothing. While some may think this magnifies God’s remoteness from his creation, I would respectfully disagree. This magnifies the gospel. God was under no obligation to create the universe. He was under no obligation to create man, and he was certainly under no obligation to redeem his creatures when they rebelled against their creator. “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son” (Gal. 4:4 NASB). This only makes the Christ’s condescension and his saving grace that much more wonderful.

I share these implications of divine simplicity as one average believer in the pew to another. I hope this will encourage you to learn more about the doctrine of God. I feel like I have only scratched the surface myself, but I am thankful we will have all of eternity to know and adore our God.

Persis Lorenti is a member of Grace Baptist Chapel in Hampton, VA where she serves as bookkeeper and deacon of library/resources. She blogs at triedbyfire.blogspot.com and out-of-theordinary.blogspot.com. You can follow her on Twitter @triedwfire.

1. God Without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness, James E. Dolezal, 2011, Pickwick Publications, pg. 2.

2. Ibid. pg. 1.

3. Divine Simplicity: The Theological Grammar of Orthodoxy, James P. Dolezal, 2015 Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastor’s Conference.

http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=11161516155810

4. God Without Parts, pgs. 67-68; 82-83.

5. Divine Simplicity: The Theological Grammar of Orthodoxy.

6. God Without Parts, pgs. 177, 183.

Classic Theism: Trinitarian Errors

“Let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me…” (Jeremiah 9:24a)

That verse captures the goal of Trinitarian theology: to know the amazing God that we worship. It is a task in which we must confess our impotence, for we are limited by both our own fallible reason and the extent of God’s self-revelation. We see through a glass darkly, and though the knowledge provided about God in Scripture is sufficient to meet our spiritual needs, we will always long for more.

Our desire to know God is admirable, yet we must not mistake our own misconceptions for true knowledge. In the history of the Church, there are few things that have created such seismic upheavals as our doctrine of God, and not without good reason. Many errors have crept in, some of them crossing into the realm of heresy. Here we must acknowledge that not every way of thinking about God is valid, but only that which is true: the very Word of God confessed by the Church for centuries.

Most errors fall into one of three categories. First, they deny that God exists in Trinity or diminish the Persons to such an extent that it becomes a practical Unitarianism. Second, they either explicitly state that there are three separate Gods or stress the differences so much that they essentially demote one or more of the Persons from full deity. Third, they use overly human conceptions to explain the divine, thus attempting to recreate God in their own image. (This often leads back to one of the other categories.)

The first error is known as Modalism or Sabellianism and was condemned as a heresy by the Church Fathers. The second includes views such as Arianism, which was formally declared a heresy at the Council of Nicea. As these heresies are old and well documented, there are few within orthodox Christianity who would openly assert them. Indeed, to hold to them would place one outside the bounds of orthodoxy. However, that third category is more difficult to define, and as such it tends to flourish even among respectable Christians. The tendency to explain God in purely human terms or to bend doctrine to fit our own perceived needs is the chief Trinitarian error of our age.

There are some things about the Trinity that can be known with certainty. The God we serve has invited us to know and commune with Him, and not only with one Person of the Trinity, but all three. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind two principles that have been critical in the formulation of historic Reformed theology: the Creator/creature distinction and the sufficiency of Scripture.

By distinguishing between the Creator and the created, we acknowledge that though man is made in God’s image, he is in no way equal to Him. Man is a being with limitations and failings, possessing none of the eternal glory and perfection that exists in the Godhead. Moreover, because we believe as Scripture states that God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9) and no man may see God in His glory and live (Exodus 33:20), we realize that it is not possible for human reason to comprehend God except as He has chosen to condescend to us and reveal Himself. The general knowledge we gain from observing creation may leave us without excuse (Romans 1:20), but only the special self-revelation of God allows us to truly know and have a relationship with Him. Again, the Trinity is incomprehensible except as God Himself has revealed it, and when we think about it in any other way, it is not really the Trinity we imagine but a god in our own image.

If Scripture is God’s special revelation to us, then our thinking about the Trinity must be directed by our belief in the sufficiency of the Word of God. We often speak of the sufficiency of Scripture in terms of the negative: we are not to add to God’s completed special revelation. However, believing in the sufficiency of Scripture also means accepting the whole counsel of God rather than focusing on one passage to the exclusion of others. God’s Word interprets God’s Word. He has not given that which we do not need, but all that He has given we most assuredly need like our daily bread. Therefore, any conception of the Trinity that purports to uphold one portion of Scripture while ignoring others is in fact a violation of Scripture and a failure to trust in its sufficiency.

It is through this principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture that we know that verses speaking of God changing His mind must agree with the statement “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent.” (Numbers 23:19a) On a similar note, the phrase “God is the head of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:2b) must agree with the fact that the Son is “the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power,” (Hebrews 1:3) and Paul’s own assertion that “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form…” (Colossians 2:9) In our thinking about the Trinity, we must cling to the entirety of biblical revelation. Scripture may need to be explained, but it is not to be added to with our own inventions.

We give thanks for those Christians who wrestled with the Word of God for years and came together as a united Church to formulate creeds defining the doctrine of God. The Nicene and Athanasian Creeds were eventually accepted by all orthodox Christians and serve as two of the fundamental summaries of Trinitarian theology. Let us look not to fidget spinners, comparisons to the three states of water, observations about triangles, or relationships between sinners to describe the Godhead. Let us confess with all the saints the truth that will protect us from falling into error, which was revealed by God in Scripture and handed down in our creeds and confessions.

In addition to James Dolezal’s new book, All That Is In God, I welcome readers to check out two excellent resources released by the Alliance in the past few months: Knowing the Trinity by Ryan M. McGraw and the Trinity sermon series by Liam Goligher.

Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.

A very Lutheresque Psalm

In this quincentennial year, marking Martin Luther’s memorable act of defiance in Wittenberg, much has been said regarding his famous dictum about ‘the Word doing its work’. Far from attributing the impact and success of the Reformation on his own natural abilities or dogged persistence, he humbly acknowledged the Holy Scriptures in the hand of the Holy Spirit as the key to all it accomplished.

Given Luther’s love for the psalms, it is hard not to believe that one psalm in particular would not have resonated with him in relation to his convictions concerning the Bible as the living word of God. It was the psalm traditionally held as having been composed by David during his time in Gath when he sought asylum under King Achish – Psalm 56. And the comments Luther made on this psalm give some hints as to how it well expressed his own sentiments.

The background to David’s composition was one of extreme conflict as recorded in 1Samuel 21.10-15. Calvin in his commentary on the Psalms describes it as his being ‘caught between two packs of wolves’ – ‘the Philistines who hated him and the Jews who persecuted him.’ And, given the nature of the conflict in which Martin Luther found himself embroiled for much of his life, such a setting for the psalm was one with which he could readily identify. It was not merely that he found himself opposing and being opposed by the colossus of the Roman Catholic establishment, but that he also found himself in multiple conflicts with fellow-Reformers as well as those on the fringes of the Reformation. And behind both he was all too aware of the dark adversary in whom this opposition had its origin. Like David, he knew what it was to be misperceived and opposed, to have to defend himself both verbally and physically and even what it was like to have to flee for his life.

For those in Christian ministry it is perhaps a comfort – however cold it might be – to realise that our experience as lesser mortals is not that dissimilar to other faithful servants who have blazed the trail before us: not least to that of King David himself.

It is comforting to hear this great servant of God (who had already slain a giant) admit to being afraid; so too when we explore the life of the great Reformer. Despite his honest and noble declaration en route to the Diet of Worms that he was more afraid of his own heart than he was of the Pope of Rome, he was not immune to dark thoughts, anxieties and depression. He could easily identify with the psalmist’s admission, ‘When I am afraid…’ (56.3). Likewise with what David identifies as lying behind his fears: ‘All day long they [his enemies] twist my words; they are always plotting to harm me. They conspire, they lurk, they watch my steps, eager to take my life’ (56.5-6). Little wonder that the future king could ask his ‘lament’ and ‘tears’ to be placed on record by God (56.8). In his comments on this psalm, Derek Kidner speaks of David’s decision to go to Gath of all places (home of Goliath and with Goliath’s sword in his possession as he went) as being ‘”courage” born out of desperation’.

The desperate extremes to which Luther felt himself driven at times are candidly expressed in his admission to having thrown an inkpot and torn sheets in almost tangible encounters he felt himself to have with the devil. Yet vivid as they were for this man, they were nothing in comparison to the even more intense encounters with Satan experienced by Christ in his incarnate life on earth. Even to the point of his seeing through and saying to one of his most trusted disciples, Peter, and declaring – not to him, but to the one who was manipulating him – ‘Get behind me Satan!’ (Mt 16.23). The conflict and the fear it can so easily generate is all too real.

However, no matter how real were those things that caused David to fear, he knew what it was to trust a word that was realer still. The striking refrain that provides the focal thought in this psalm could not be more forceful. Having acknowledged his fear, David goes on to aver, not once, but three times, ‘I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; will not be afraid’ (56.3-4 cf 56.10-11). It was only on account of God as he is revealed in his word – that word that is utterly unique because it is God’s word – that David can punctuate this statement with the words, ‘What can mortal man do to me?’

Luther’s comment on these words sound somewhat autobiographical: ‘He [David] encourages and supports himself, however, with a constant and undaunted faith. “I will glory in the word of God: for I have a command, a declaration and a promise of God in my favour.”’ However much David may have felt alarmed by the fears generated by those who threatened him, they were outweighed and eclipsed by the promise of God in his word. Luther goes on, ‘We have a strong and Davidic consolation – the word of God is for us.’

Nowhere does the monk-turned-reformer express this truth more eloquently than in the words of Ein Feste Burg:

The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;

his rage we can endure, for Lo! His doom is sure,

one little word shall fell him

Yet again the supreme demonstration and proof of this confidence is manifest nowhere more clearly than in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ. From the scriptures he quoted in his head-to-head encounter with Satan in the wilderness through to the words of Scripture he gasped from the cross, he not only stood firm in the face of the grim prince, but he also triumphed over him.

The fact that Jesus declared his triumph in advance of its being actually displayed on that resurrection morning is a curious echo of how David ends this psalm. He declares with surprising confidence, in the past tense, what lay beyond the horizon of time in the eternity to come: ‘For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life’ (56.13). What for David was a declaration of faith about the future, Jesus confirmed to be reality in history when ‘It is accomplished!’ was vindicated by, ‘He is risen!’

Luther left this world on 18th February 1546 repeating the words, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ over and over again. The divine word that had sustained him in life, did so even in the face of death, trusting firmly in the promise of the God whose word he, like David, praised!

Classic Theism: Basic Trinitarianism

Few doctrines are as central to Christianity as the doctrine of the Trinity. That God is Triune is not just a confession of faith but it is also at the core of our worship. We worship the true and living God and it is vital that we know who He is. To this end God has revealed who He is so that we might know Him and truly knowing Him is eternal life (John 17:3). We know and worship the one God who is three eternal persons.

Basic to Trinitarianism is monotheism. We believe that God is one (Deut. 6:4). There are not multiple gods or graduations of divinity or gods. God is the Lord of heaven and earth. He has created all things by the Word of His mighty power. No other being is like God (Is. 44:7). There is no god besides him (Is. 44:8). There is no other god before Him or after Him (Is. 43:10). God’s glory is unique and he does not share it with any other beings (Is. 42:8; 48:11).

Thus, when it comes to Trinitarianism we must be careful to distinguish the language of “being” from the language of “persons”. In human beings, our “being” and our “personhood” are unified. You are one being, and one person. There are other humans, but you yourself are only one. You have ‘human nature,’ or an essence or substance that makes you who you are. In the Creeds, in order to faithfully represent Scripture, we describe God to have one essence or substance. There is only one God. There is only one entity who has the divine nature: that is the living and true God.

However, the Bible also reveals that while there is one God, there are three eternal persons in the Godhead. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are not three gods but one. So for example, in our baptism we are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. While these three are clearly displayed as different persons in Scripture, note that Matthew 28:19 uses the singular “name”. You are not baptized three times and into three names but one time into one name.

Consider for example John 1:1-3 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” Here we have both the unity of the Godhead and the distinction of the persons. The Son of God, the Word, preexisted eternally before all of creation. Like God the Father, He is the Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8; 1:17-18; 21:6; 22:13). He is God, meaning He is of the same essence or being as God. He is by nature God.

God the Son is equal in power, glory and majesty with God the Father. Yet, he is distinct from the Father so that eternally He exists “with God” (John 1:1). In Isaiah, only God is the creator and in John 1:3; Col. 1:16; and Heb. 1:3, the Son of God is the one who creates. In Hebrews 1:3, the Son radiates the glory of God, which is a glory he had before the foundations of the world (John 17:5). He is the exact representation of God’s nature.

Describing the close personal eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, the eternal God (i.e. the Son) is describe being ‘in the Father’s bosom’ (John 1:18). The Son is described as both God but also as a distinct eternal person existing “with God” (i.e. God the Father). The Son is both God and with God (the Father) in eternal communion with Him. Thus we see both equality of the divine nature (both are God) and distinction of persons (Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Father, but they fellowshipped in union).

It is obvious in the gospels that Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit are distinct persons. This is evident in the baptism of Jesus. The Father speaks concerning the Son. The Spirit descends upon the Son. The Son is the one being baptized. Likewise in the resurrection, the God the Father declares the Son to be His Son. Later in Acts, to lie to God’s people is to lie to the Holy Spirit which is lying to God (Acts 5:3,4), indicating both the personhood and the deity of the Holy Spirit.

Basic Trinitarianism is that there are three persons in the godhead but one God. There is only one being or divine essence or divine glory. But there are three eternal persons. There are not three gods or three differing glories. In the same way: Father, Son, and Spirit are not various ways God reveals Himself. They are not modes of God’s appearing as if he sometimes manifests himself as one or the other.

One of the great summaries of this doctrine of the Trinity is the Athanasian Creed. Let us close with some excerpts from it to illustrate basic Trinitarianism:

That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.

What quality the Father has, the Son has, and the Holy Spirit has. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is immeasurable, the Son is immeasurable, the Holy Spirit is immeasurable. The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal.

And yet there are not three eternal beings; there is but one eternal being. So too there are not three uncreated or immeasurable beings; there is but one uncreated and immeasurable being.

Similarly, the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, the Holy Spirit is almighty. Yet there are not three almighty beings; there is but one almighty being. Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods; there is but one God…

On the distinctions of the persons:

The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten from anyone. The Son was neither made nor created; he was begotten from the Father alone. The Holy Spirit was neither made nor created nor begotten; he proceeds from the Father and the Son. Accordingly there is one Father, not three fathers; there is one Son, not three sons; there is one Holy Spirit, not three holy spirits…

On its importance for worship and salvation:

So in everything, as was said earlier, we must worship their trinity in their unity and their unity in their trinity. Anyone then who desires to be saved should think thus about the trinity.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

Classical Theism Podcast

This week on Theology on the Go, our host, Dr. Jonathan Master is joined by Dr. James Dolezal.  Dr. Dolezal is Assistant Professor in the School of Theology at Cairn University. He is a California native and is a graduate of The Master’s College, The Master’s Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. Prior to undertaking PhD studies at Westminster Dr. Dolezal was the pastor of a Reformed Baptist church in Alberta, Canada. He is the author of, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Pickwick, 2011), All That is in God (Reformation Heritage Books, 2017) as well as numerous articles and reviews. He and his wife Courtney live with their two children, Judah and Havah, in Warminster, PA.

Today Dr. Master will talk with Dr. Dolezal about the topic of classical theism.  If you have been watching the books, blog sites and conference circuits over the last couple of years you will know that this is a significant topic for evangelicals.  The subtitle of Dr. Dolezal’s newest book, Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, gets to the heart of the matter. 

So, grab that cup of coffee and meet us at the table!  

Just for listening, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals would like to give you a free resource. If you would like to win a copy of All That is in God by James Dolezal go to ReformedResources.org!