Bible Core Lessons

I. The Existence of God
WORKS on dogmatic or systematic theology generally begin with the doctrine of
God. The prevailing opinion has always recognized this as the most logical procedure
and still points in the same direction. In many instances even they whose fundamental
principles would seem to require another arrangement, continue the traditional
practice. There are good reasons for starting with the doctrine of God, if we proceed on
the assumption that theology is the systematized knowledge of God, of whom, through
whom, and unto whom, are all things. Instead of being surprised that Dogmatics should
begin with the doctrine of God, we might well expect it to be a study of God throughout
in all its ramifications, from the beginning to the end. As a matter of fact, that is exactly
what it is intended to be, though only the first locus deals with God directly, while the
succeeding ones treat of Him more indirectly. We start the study of theology with two
presuppositions, namely (1) that God exists, and (2) that He has revealed Himself in His
divine Word. And for that reason it is not impossible for us to start with the study of
God. We can turn to His revelation, in order to learn what He has revealed concerning
Himself and concerning His relation to His creatures. Attempts have been made in the
course of time to distribute the material of Dogmatics in such a way as to exhibit clearly
that it is, not merely in one locus, but in its entirety, a study of God. This was done by
the application of the trinitarian method, which arranges the subject-matter of
Dogmatics under the three headings of (1) the Father (2) the Son, and (3) the Holy Spirit.
That method was applied in some of the earlier systematic works, was restored to favor
by Hegel, and can still be seen in Martensen’s Christian Dogmatics. A similar attempt
was made by Breckenridge, when he divided the subject-matter of Dogmatics into (1)
The Knowledge of God Objectively Considered, and (2) The Knowledge of God
Subjectively Considered. Neither one of these can be called very successful.
Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century the practice was all but general to
begin the study of Dogmatics with the doctrine of God; but a change came about under
the influence of Schleiermacher, who sought to safeguard the scientific character of
theology by the introduction of a new method. The religious consciousness of man was
substituted for the Word of God as the source of theology. Faith in Scripture as an
authoritative revelation of God was discredited, and human insight based on man’s
own emotional or rational apprehension became the standard of religious thought.
Religion gradually took the place of God as the object of theology. Man ceased to
recognize the knowledge of God as something that was given in Scripture, and began to
pride himself on being a seeker after God. In course of time it became rather common to
speak of man’s discovering God, as if man ever discovered Him; and every discovery
that was made in the process was dignified with the name of “revelation.” God came in
at the end of a syllogism, or as the last link in a chain of reasoning, or as the cap-stone of
a structure of human thought. Under such circumstances it was but natural that some
should regard it as incongruous to begin Dogmatics with the study of God. It is rather
surprising that so many, in spite of their subjectivism, continued the traditional
Some, however, sensed the incongruity and struck out in a different way.
Schleiermacher’s dogmatic work is devoted to a study and analysis of the religious
consciousness and of the doctrines therein implied. He does not deal with the doctrine
of God connectedly, but only in fragments, and concludes his work with a discussion of
the Trinity. His starting point is anthropological rather than theological. Some of the
mediating theologians were influenced to such an extent by Schleiermacher that they
logically began their dogmatic treatises with the study of man. Even in the present day
this arrangement is occasionally followed. A striking example of it is found in the work
of O. A. Curtis on The Christian Faith. This begins with the doctrine of man and
concludes with the doctrine of God. Ritschlian theology might seem to call for still
another starting point, since it finds the objective revelation of God, not in the Bible as
the divinely inspired Word, but in Christ as the Founder of the Kingdom of God, and
considers the idea of the Kingdom as the central and all-controlling concept of theology.
However, Ritschlian dogmaticians, such as Herrmann. Haering, and Kaftan follow, at
least formally, the usual order. At the same time there are several theologians who in
their works begin the discussion of dogmatics proper with the doctrine of Christ or of
His redemptive work. T. B. Strong distinguishes between theology and Christian theology,
defines the latter as “the expression and analysis of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ,” and
makes the incarnation the dominating concept throughout his Manual of Theology.
For us the existence of God is the great presupposition of theology. There is no sense
in speaking of the knowledge of God, unless it may be assumed that God exists. The
presupposition of Christian theology is of a very definite type. The assumption is not
merely that there is something, some idea or ideal, some power or purposeful tendency,
to which the name of God may be applied, but that there is a self-existent, selfconscious,
personal Being, which is the origin of all things, and which transcends the
entire creation, but is at the same time immanent in every part of it. The question may
be raised, whether this is a reasonable assumption, and this question may be answered
in the affirmative. This does not mean, however, that the existence of God is capable of a
logical demonstration that leaves no room whatever for doubt; but it does mean that,
while the truth of God’s existence is accepted by faith, this faith is based on reliable
information. While Reformed theology regards the existence of God as an entirely
reasonable assumption, it does not claim the ability to demonstrate this by rational
argumentation. Dr. Kuyper speaks as follows of the attempt to do this: “The attempt to
prove God’s existence is either useless or unsuccessful. It is useless if the searcher
believes that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him. And it is unsuccessful if it is an
attempt to force a person who does not have this pistis by means of argumentation to an
acknowledgment in a logical sense.”1
The Christian accepts the truth of the existence of God by faith. But this faith is not a
blind faith, but a faith that is based on evidence, and the evidence is found primarily in
Scripture as the inspired Word of God, and secondarily in God’s revelation in nature.
Scripture proof on this point does not come to us in the form of an explicit declaration,
and much less in the form of a logical argument. In that sense the Bible does not prove
the existence of God. The closest it comes to a declaration is perhaps in Heb. 11:6 . . .
“for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them
that seek after Him.” It presupposes the existence of God in its very opening statement,
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Not only does it describe
God as the Creator of all things, but also as the Upholder of all His creatures, and as the
1 Dict. Dogm., De Deo I, p. 77 (translation mine — L. B.).
Ruler of the destinies of individuals and nations. It testifies to the fact that God works
all things according to the counsel of His will, and reveals the gradual realization of His
great purpose of redemption. The preparation for this work, especially in the choice and
guidance of the old covenant people of Israel, is clearly seen in the Old Testament, and
the initial culmination of it in the Person and work of Christ stands out with great
clarity on the pages of the New Testament. God is seen on almost every page of Holy
Writ as He reveals Himself in words and actions. This revelation of God is the basis of
our faith in the existence of God, and makes this an entirely reasonable faith. It should
be remarked, however, that it is only by faith that we accept the revelation of God, and
that we obtain a real insight into its contents. Jesus said, “If any man will do his will, he
shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself,” John
7:17. It is this intensive knowledge, resulting from intimate communion with God,
which Hosea has in mind when he says, “And let us know, let us follow on to know the
Lord,” Hos. 6:3. The unbeliever has no real understanding of the Word of God. The
words of Paul are very much to the point in this connection: “Where is the wise? where
is the scribe? where is the disputer of this age (world)? Hath not God made foolish the
wisdom of the world? For, seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its
wisdom knew not God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the
preaching to save them that believe,” I Cor. 1:20,21.
Students of Comparative Religion and missionaries often testify to the fact that the
idea of God is practically universal in the human race. It is found even among the most
uncivilized nations and tribes of the world. This does not mean, however, that there are
no individuals who deny the existence of God altogether, nor even that there is not a
goodly number in Christian lands who deny the existence of God as He is revealed in
Scripture, a self-existent and self-conscious Person of infinite perfections, who works all
things according to a pre-determined plan. It is the latter denial that we have in mind
particularly here. This may and has assumed various forms in the course of history.
1. ABSOLUTE DENIAL OF THE EXISTENCE OF GOD. As stated above, there is strong
evidence for the universal presence of the idea of God in the human mind, even among
tribes which are uncivilized and have not felt the impact of special revelation. In view of
this fact some go so far as to deny that there are people who deny the existence of God,
real atheists; but this denial is contradicted by the facts. It is customary to distinguish
two kinds, namely, practical and theoretical atheists. The former are simply godless
persons, who in their practical life do not reckon with God, but live as if there were no
God. The latter are, as a rule, of a more intellectual kind, and base their denial on a
process of reasoning. They seek to prove by what seem to them conclusive rational
arguments, that there is no God. In view of the semen religionis implanted in every man
by his creation in the image of God, it is safe to assume that no one is born an atheist. In
the last analysis atheism results from the perverted moral state of man and from his
desire to escape from God. It is deliberately blind to and suppresses the most
fundamental instinct of man, the deepest needs of the soul, the highest aspirations of
the human spirit, and the longings of a heart that gropes after some higher Being. This
practical or intellectual suppression of the operation of the semen religionis often
involves prolonged and painful struggles.
There can be no doubt about the existence of practical atheists, since both Scripture
and experience testify to it. Psalm 10:4b declares of the wicked, “All his thoughts are,
There is no God.” According to Ps. 14:1 “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no
God.” And Paul reminds the Ephesians that they were formerly “without God in the
world,” Eph. 2:12. Experience also testifies abundantly to their presence in the world.
They are not necessarily notoriously wicked in the eyes of men, but may belong to the
so-called “decent men of the world,” though respectably indifferent to spiritual things.
Such people are often quite conscious of the fact that they are out of harmony with God,
dread to think of meeting Him, and try to forget about Him. They seem to take a secret
delight in parading their- atheism when they have smooth sailing, but have been
known to get down on their knees for prayer when their life was suddenly endangered.
At the present time thousands of these practical atheists belong to the American
Association for the Advancement of Atheism.
Theoretical atheists are of a different kind. They are usually of a more intellectual
type and attempt to justify the assertion that there is no God by rational argumentation.
Prof. Flint distinguishes three kinds of theoretical atheism, namely, (1) dogmatic atheism,
which flatly denies that there is a Divine Being; (2) sceptical atheism, which doubts the
ability of the human mind to determine, whether or not there is a God; and (3) critical
atheism, which maintains that there is no valid proof for the existence of God. These
often go hand in hand, but even the most modest of them really pronounces all belief in
God a delusion.2 In this division, it will be noticed, agnosticism also appears as a sort of
atheism, a classification which many agnostics resent. But it should be borne in mind
that agnosticism respecting the existence of God, while allowing the possibility of His
reality, leaves us without an object of worship and adoration just as much as dogmatic
2 Anti-Theistic Theories, p. 4 f.
atheism does. However the real atheist is the dogmatic atheist, the man who makes the
positive assertion that there is no God. Such an assertion may mean one of two things:
either that he recognizes no god of any kind, sets up no idol for himself, or that he does
not recognize the God of Scripture. Now there are very few atheists who do not in
practical life fashion some sort of god for themselves. There is a far greater number who
theoretically set aside any and every god; and there is a still greater number that has
broken with the God of Scripture. Theoretical atheism is generally rooted in some
scientific or philosophical theory. Materialistic Monism in its various forms and atheism
usually go hand in hand. Absolute subjective Idealism may still leave us the idea of
God, but denies that there is any corresponding reality. To the modern Humanist “God”
simply means “the Spirit of humanity,” “the Sense of wholeness,” “the Racial Goal” and
other abstractions of that kind. Other theories not only leave room for God, but also
pretend to maintain His existence, but certainly exclude the God of theism, a supreme
personal Being, Creator, Preserver, and Ruler of the universe, distinct from His creation,
and yet everywhere present in it. Pantheism merges the natural and supernatural, the
finite and infinite, into one substance. It often speaks of God as the hidden ground of
the phenomenal world, but does not conceive of Him as personal, and therefore as
endowed with intelligence and will. It boldly declares that all is God, and thus engages
in what Brightman calls “the expansion of God,” so that we get “too much of God,”
seeing that He also includes all the evil of the world. It excludes the God of Scripture,
and in so far is clearly atheistic. Spinoza may be called “the God-intoxicated man,” but
his God is certainly not the God whom Christians worship and adore. Surely, there can
be no doubt about the presence of theoretical atheists in the world. When David Hume
expressed doubt as to the existence of a dogmatic atheist, Baron d’Holbach replied, “My
dear sir, you are at this moment sitting at table with seventeen such persons.” They who
are agnostic respecting the existence of God may differ somewhat from the dogmatic
atheist, but they, as well as the latter, leave us without a God.
There are several false conceptions of God current in our day, which involve a denial of
the theistic conception of God. A brief indication of the most important of these must
suffice in this connection.
a. An immanent and impersonal God. Theism has always believed in a God who is both
transcendent and immanent. Deism removed God from the world, and stressed His
transcendence at the expense of His immanence. Under the influence of Pantheism,
however, the pendulum swung in the other direction. It identified God and the world,
and did not recognize a Divine Being, distinct from, and infinitely exalted above, His
creation. Through Schleiermacher the tendency to make God continuous with the world
gained a footing in theology. He completely ignores the transcendent God, and
recognizes only a God that can be known by human experience and manifests Himself
in Christian consciousness as Absolute Causality, to which a feeling of absolute
dependence corresponds. The attributes we ascribe to God are in this view merely
symbolical expressions of the various modes of this feeling of dependence, subjective
ideas without any corresponding reality. His earlier and his later representations of God
seem to differ somewhat, and interpreters of Schleiermacher differ as to the way in
which his statements must be harmonized. Brunner would seem to be quite correct,
however, when he says that with him the universe takes the place of God, though the
latter name is used; and that he conceives of God both as identical with the universe
and as the unity lying behind it. It often seems as if his distinction between God and the
world is only an ideal one, namely, the distinction between the world as a unity and the
world in its manifold manifestations. He frequently speaks of God as the “Universum”
or the “Welt-All,” and argues against the personality of God; though, inconsistently,
also speaking as if we could have communion with Him in Christ. These views of
Schleiermacher, making God continuous with the world, largely dominated the
theology of the past century, and it is this view that Barth is combatting with his strong
emphasis on God as “the Wholly Other.”
b. A finite and personal God. The idea of a finite god or gods is not new, but as old as
Polytheism and Henotheism. The idea fits in with Pluralism, but not with philosophical
Monism or theological Monotheism. Theism has always regarded God as an absolute
personal Being of infinite perfections. During the nineteenth century, when monistic
philosophy was in the ascendant, it became rather common to identify the God of
theology with the Absolute of philosophy. Toward the end of the century, however, the
term “Absolute,” as a designation of God, fell into disfavor, partly because of its
agnostic and pantheistic implications, and partly as the result of the opposition to the
idea of the “Absolute” in philosophy, and of the desire to exclude all metaphysics from
theology. Bradley regarded the God of the Christian religion as a part of the Absolute,
and James pleaded for a conception of God that was more in harmony with human
experience than the idea of an infinite God. He eliminates from God the metaphysical
attributes of self-existence, infinity, and immutability, and makes the moral attributes
supreme. God has an environment, exists in time, and works out a history just like
ourselves. Because of the evil that is in the world, He must be thought of as limited in
knowledge or power, or in both. The condition of the world makes it impossible to
believe in a good God infinite in knowledge and power. The existence of a larger power
which is friendly to man and with which he can commune meets all the practical needs
and experiences of religion. James conceived of this power as personal, but was not
willing to express himself as to whether he believed in one finite God or a number of
them. Bergson added to this conception of James the idea of a struggling and growing
God, constantly drawing upon his environment. Others who defended the idea of a
finite God, though in different ways, are Hobhouse, Schiller, James Ward, Rashdall, and
H. G. Wells.
c. God as the personification of a mere abstract idea. It has become quite the vogue in
modern liberal theology to regard the name “God” as a mere symbol, standing for some
cosmic process, some universal will or power, or some lofty and comprehensive ideal.
The statement is repeatedly made that, if God once created man in His image, man is
now returning the compliment by creating God in his (man’s) image. It is said of Harry
Elmer Barnes that he once said in one of his laboratory classes: “Gentlemen, we shall
now proceed to create God.” That was a very blunt expression of a rather common idea.
Most of those who reject the theistic view of God still profess faith in God, but He is a
God of their own imagination. The form which He assumes at any particular time
depends, according to Shailer Mathews, on the thought patterns of that day. If in prewar
times the controlling pattern was that of an autocratic sovereign, demanding
absolute obedience, now it is that of a democratic ruler eager to serve all his subjects.
Since the days of Comte there has been a tendency to personify the social order of
humanity as a whole and to worship this personification. The so-called Meliorists or
Social Theologians reveal a tendency to identify God in some way with the social order.
And the New Psychologists inform us that the idea of God is a projection of the human
mind, which in its early stages is inclined to make images of its experiences and to
clothe them with quasi-personality. Leuba is of the opinion that this illusion of God has
served a useful purpose, but that the time is coming when the idea of God will be no
more needed. A few definitions will serve to show the present day trend. “God is the
immanent spirit of the community” (Royce). He is “that quality in human society which
supports and enriches humanity in its spiritual quest” (Gerald Birney Smith). “God is
the totality of relations constituting the whole social order of growing humanity” (E. S.
Ames). “The word ‘god’ is a symbol to designate the universe in its ideal forming
capacity” (G. B. Foster). “God is our conception, born of social experience, of the
personality-evolving and personally responsive elements of our cosmic environment
with which we are organically related” (Shailer Mathews). It need hardly be said that
the God so defined is not a personal God and does not answer to the deepest needs of
the human heart.
In course of time certain rational arguments for the existence of God were
developed, and found a foothold in theology especially through the influence of Wolff.
Some of these were in essence already suggested by Plato and Aristotle, and others were
added in modern times by students of the Philosophy of Religion. Only the most
common of these arguments can be mentioned here.
1. THE ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT. This has been presented in various forms by
Anselm, Descartes, Samuel Clarke, and others. It has been stated in its most perfect
form by Anselm. He argues that man has the idea of an absolutely perfect being; that
existence is an attribute of perfection; and that therefore an absolutely perfect being
must exist. But it is quite evident that we cannot conclude from abstract thought to real
existence. The fact that we have an idea of God does not yet prove His objective
existence. Moreover, this argument tacitly assumes, as already existing in the human
mind, the very knowledge of God’s existence which it would derive from logical
demonstration. Kant stressed the untenableness of this argument, but Hegel hailed it as
the one great argument for the existence of God. Some modern Idealists suggested that
it might better be cast into a somewhat different form, which Hocking called “the report
of experience.” By virtue of it we can say, “I have an idea of God, therefore I have an
experience of God.”
2. THE COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT. This has also appeared in several forms. In
general it runs as follows: Every existing thing in the world must have an adequate
cause; and if this is so, the universe must also have an adequate cause, that is a cause
which is indefinitely great. However, the argument did not carry general conviction.
Hume called the law of causation itself in question, and Kant pointed out that, if every
existing thing has an adequate cause, this also applies to God, and that we are thus led
to an endless chain. Moreover, the argument does not necessitate the assumption that
the cosmos had a single cause, a personal and absolute cause, — and therefore falls
short of proving the existence of God. This difficulty led to a slightly different
construction of the argument, as, for instance, by B. P. Bowne. The material universe
appears as an interacting system, and therefore as a unit, consisting of several parts.
Hence there must be a unitary Agent that mediates the interaction of the various parts
or is the dynamic ground of their being.
3. THE TELEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT. This is also a causal argument, and is really but an
extension of the preceding one. It may be stated in the following form: The world
everywhere reveals intelligence, order, harmony, and purpose, and thus implies the
existence of an intelligent and purposeful being, adequate to the production of such a
world. Kant regards this argument as the best of the three which were named, but
claims that it does not prove the existence of God, nor of a Creator, but only of a great
architect who fashioned the world. It is superior to the cosmological argument in that it
makes explicit what is not stated in the latter, namely, that the world contains evidences
of intelligence and purpose, and thus leads on to the existence of a conscious, and
intelligent, and purposeful being. That this being was the Creator of the world does not
necessarily follow. “The teleological evidence,” says Wright,3 “merely indicates the
probable existence of a Mind that is, at least in considerable measure, in control of the
world process, — enough to account for the amount of teleology apparent in it.” Hegel
treated this argument as a valid but subordinate one. The Social Theologians of our day
reject it along with all the other arguments as so much rubbish, but the New Theists
retain it.
4. THE MORAL ARGUMENT. Just as the other arguments, this too assumed different
forms. Kant took his starting point in the categorical imperative, and from it inferred the
existence of someone who, as lawgiver and judge, has the absolute right to command
man. In his estimation this argument is far superior to any of the others. It is the one on
which he mainly relies in his attempt to prove the existence of God. This may be one of
the reasons why it is more generally recognized than any other, though it is not always
cast into the same form. Some argue from the disparity often observed between the
moral conduct of men and the prosperity which they enjoy in the present life, and feel
that this calls for an adjustment in the future which, in turn, requires a righteous arbiter.
Modern theology also uses it extensively, especially in the form that man’s recognition
of a Highest Good and his quest for a moral ideal demand and necessitate the existence
of a God to give reality to that ideal. While this argument does point to the existence of
a holy and just being, it does not compel belief in a God, a Creator, or a being of infinite
following form: Among all the peoples and tribes of the earth there is a sense of the
divine, which reveals itself in an external cultus. Since the phenomenon is universal, it
must belong to the very nature of man. And if the nature of man naturally leads to
3 A Student’s Philosophy of Religion, p. 341.
religious worship, this can only find its explanation in a higher Being who has
constituted man a religious being. In answer to this argument, however, it may be said
that this universal phenomenon may have originated in an error or misunderstanding
of one of the early progenitors of the human race, and that the religious cultus referred
to appears strongest among primitive races, and disappears in the measure in which
they become civilized.
In evaluating these rational arguments it should be pointed out first of all that
believers do not need them. Their conviction respecting the existence of God does not
depend on them, but on a believing acceptance of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. If
many in our day are willing to stake their faith in the existence of God on such rational
arguments, it is to a great extent due to the fact that they refuse to accept the testimony
of the Word of God. Moreover, in using these arguments in an attempt to convince
unbelievers, it will be well to bear in mind that none of them can be said to carry
absolute conviction. No one did more to discredit them than Kant. Since his day many
philosophers and theologians have discarded them as utterly worthless, but to-day they
are once more gaining favor and their number is increasing. And the fact that in our day
so many find in them rather satisfying indications of the existence of God, would seem
to indicate that they are not entirely devoid of value. They have some value for
believers themselves, but should be called testimonia rather than arguments. They are
important as interpretations of God’s general revelation and as exhibiting the
reasonableness of belief in a divine Being. Moreover, they can render some service in
meeting the adversary. While they do not prove the existence of God beyond the
possibility of doubt, so as to compel assent, they can be so construed as to establish a
strong probability and thereby silence many unbelievers.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. Why is modern theology inclined to give the study
of man rather than the study of God precedence in theology? Does the Bible prove the
existence of God or does it not? If it does, how does it prove it? What accounts for the
general sensus divinitatis in man? Are there nations or tribes that are entirely devoid of
it? Can the position be maintained that there are no atheists? Should present day
Humanists be classed as atheists? What objections are there to the identification of God
with the Absolute of philosophy? Does a finite God meet the needs of the Christian life?
Is the doctrine of a finite God limited to Pragmatists? Why is a personified idea of God a
poor substitute for the living God? What was Kant’s criticism on the arguments of
speculative reason for the existence of God? How should we judge of this criticism?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 52-74; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm. De Deo I, pp. 77-123;
Hodge, Syst. Theol. I, pp. 202-243; Shedd. Dogm. Theol. I, pp. 221-248; Dabney, Syst. and
Polem. Theol., pp. 5-26; Macintosh, Theol. as an Empirical Science, pp. 90-99; Knudson, The
Doctrine of God, pp. 203-241; Beattie, Apologetics, pp. 250-444; Brightman, The Problem of
God, pp. 139-165; Wright, A Student’s Phil. of Rel., pp. 339-390; Edward, The Philosophy of
Rel., pp. 218-305; Beckwith, The Idea of God, pp. 64-115; Thomson, The Christian Idea of
God, pp. 160-189; Robinson, The God of the Liberal Christian, pp. 114-149; Galloway, The
Phil. of Rel., pp. 381-394.
II. The Knowability of God
The Christian Church confesses on the one hand that God is the Incomprehensible
One, but also on the other hand, that He can be known and that knowledge of Him is an
absolute requisite unto salvation. It recognizes the force of Zophar’s question, “Canst
thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?” Job
11:7. And it feels that it has no answer to the question of Isaiah, “To whom then will ye
liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto Him?” Isa. 40:18. But at the same time
it is also mindful of Jesus’ statement, “And this is life eternal, that they should know
Thee, the only true God, and Him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ,” John 17:3.
It rejoices in the fact that “the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding,
that we know Him that is true, and we are in Him that is true, even in His Son Jesus
Christ.” I John 5:20. The two ideas reflected in these passages were always held side by
side in the Christian Church. The early Church Fathers spoke of the invisible God as an
unbegotten, nameless, eternal, incomprehensible, unchangeable Being. They had
advanced very little beyond the old Greek idea that the Divine Being is absolute
attributeless existence. At the same time they also confessed that God revealed Himself
in the Logos, and can therefore be known unto salvation. In the fourth century
Eunomius, an Arian, argued from the simplicity of God, that there is nothing in God
that is not perfectly known and comprehended by the human intellect, but his view was
rejected by all the recognized leaders of the Church. The Scholastics distinguished
between the quid and the qualis of God, and maintained that we do not know what God
is in His essential Being, but can know something of His nature, of what He is to us, as
He reveals Himself in His divine attributes. The same general ideas were expressed by
the Reformers, though they did not agree with the Scholastics as to the possibility of
acquiring real knowledge of God, by unaided human reason, from general revelation.
Luther speaks repeatedly of God as the Deus Absconditus (hidden God), in distinction
from Him as the Deus Revelatus (revealed God). In some passages he even speaks of the
revealed God as still a hidden God in view of the fact that we cannot fully know Him
even through His special revelation. To Calvin, God in the depths of His being is past
finding out. “His essence,” he says, “is incomprehensible; so that His divinity wholly
escapes all human senses.” The Reformers do not deny that man can learn something of
the nature of God from His creation, but maintain that he can acquire true knowledge of
Him only from special revelation, under the illuminating influence of the Holy Spirit.
Under the influence of the pantheizing theology of immanence, inspired by Hegel and
Schleiermacher, a change came about. The transcendence of God is soft-pedaled,
ignored, or explicitly denied. God is brought down to the level of the world, is made
continuous with it, and is therefore regarded as less incomprehensible, though still
shrouded in mystery. Special revelation in the sense of a direct communication of God
to man is denied. Sufficient knowledge of God can be obtained without it, since man
can discover God for himself in the depths of his own being, in the material universe,
and above all in Jesus Christ, since these are all but outward manifestations of the
immanent God. It is over against this trend in theology that Barth now raises his voice
and points out that God is not to be found in nature, in history, or in human experience
of any kind, but only in the special revelation that has reached us in the Bible. In his
strong statements respecting the hidden God he uses the language of Luther rather than
of Calvin.
Reformed theology holds that God can be known, but that it is impossible for man to
have a knowledge of Him that is exhaustive and perfect in every way. To have such a
knowledge of God would be equivalent to comprehending Him, and this is entirely out
of the question: “Finitum non possit capere infinitum.” Furthermore, man cannot give a
definition of God in the proper sense of the word, but only a partial description. A
logical definition is impossible, because God cannot be subsumed under some higher
genus. At the same time it is maintained that man can obtain a knowledge of God that is
perfectly adequate for the realization of the divine purpose in the life of man. However,
true knowledge of God can be acquired only from the divine self-revelation, and only
by the man who accepts this with childlike faith. Religion necessarily presupposes such
a knowledge. It is the most sacred relation between man and his God, a relation in
which man is conscious of the absolute greatness and majesty of God as the supreme
Being, and of his own utter insignificance and subjection to the High and Holy One.
And if this is true, it follows that religion presupposes the knowledge of God in man. If
man were left absolutely in the dark respecting the being of God, it would be impossible
for him to assume a religious attitude. There could be no reverence, no piety, no fear of
God, no worshipful service.
The possibility of knowing God has been denied on various grounds. This denial is
generally based on the supposed limits of the human faculty of cognition, though it has
been presented in several different forms. The fundamental position is that the human
mind is incapable of knowing anything of that which lies beyond and behind natural
phenomena, and is therefore necessarily ignorant of supersensible and divine things.
Huxley was the first to apply to those who assume this position, himself included, the
name “agnostics.” They are entirely in line with the sceptics of former centuries and of
Greek philosophy. As a rule agnostics do not like to be branded as atheists, since they
do not deny absolutely that there is a God, but declare that they do not know whether
He exists or not, and even if He exists, are not certain that they have any true
knowledge of Him, and in many cases even deny that they can have any real
knowledge of Him.
Hume has been called the father of modern agnosticism. He did not deny the
existence of God, but asserted that we have no true knowledge of His attributes. All our
ideas of Him are, and can only be, anthropomorphic. We cannot be sure that there is any
reality corresponding to the attributes we ascribe to Him. His agnosticism resulted from
the general principle that all knowledge is based on experience. It was especially Kant,
however, who stimulated agnostic thought by his searching inquiry into the limits of
the human understanding and reason. He affirmed that the theoretical reason knows
only phenomena and is necessarily ignorant of that which underlies these phenomena,
— the thing in itself. From this it followed, of course, that it is impossible for us to have
any theoretical knowledge of God. But Lotze already pointed out that phenomena,
whether physical or mental, are always connected with some substance lying back of
them, and that in knowing the phenomena we also know the underlying substance, of
which they are manifestations. The Scotch philosopher, Sir William Hamilton, while not
in entire agreement with Kant, yet shared the intellectual agnosticism of the latter. He
asserts that the human mind knows only that which is conditioned and exists in various
relations, and that, since the Absolute and Infinite is entirely unrelated, that is exists in
no relations, we can obtain no knowledge of it. But while he denies that the Infinite can
be known by us, he does not deny its existence. Says he, “Through faith we apprehend
what is beyond our knowledge.” His views were shared in substance by Mansel, and
were popularized by him. To him also it seemed utterly impossible to conceive of an
infinite Being, though he also professed faith in its existence. The reasoning of these two
men did not carry conviction, since it was felt that the Absolute or Infinite does not
necessarily exist outside of all relations, but can enter into various relations; and that the
fact that we know things only in their relations does not mean that the knowledge so
acquired is merely a relative or unreal knowledge.
Comte, the father of Positivism, was also agnostic in religion. According to him man
can know nothing but physical phenomena and their laws. His senses are the sources of
all true thinking, and he can know nothing except the phenomena which they
apprehend and the relations in which these stand to each other. Mental phenomena can
be reduced to material phenomena, and in science man cannot get beyond these. Even
the phenomena of immediate consciousness are excluded, and further, everything that
lies behind the phenomena. Theological speculation represents thought in its infancy.
No positive affirmation can be made respecting the existence of God, and therefore both
theism and atheism stand condemned. In later life Comte felt the need of some religion
and introduced the so-called “religion of Humanity.” Even more than Comte, Herbert
Spencer is recognized as the great exponent of modern scientific agnosticism. He was
influenced very much by Hamilton’s doctrine of the relativity of knowledge and by
Mansel’s conception of the Absolute, and in the light of these worked out his doctrine of
the Unknowable, which was his designation of whatever may be absolute, first or
ultimate in the order of the universe, including God. He proceeds on the assumption
that there is some reality lying back of phenomena, but maintains that all reflection on it
lands us in contradictions. This ultimate reality is utterly inscrutable. While we must
accept the existence of some ultimate Power, either personal or impersonal, we can form
no conception of it. Inconsistently he devotes a great part of his First Principles to the
development of the positive content of the Unknowable, as if it were well known
indeed. Other agnostics, who were influenced by him, are such men as Huxley, Fiske,
and Clifford. We meet with agnosticism also repeatedly in modern Humanism. Harry
Elmer Barnes says: “To the writer it seems quite obvious that the agnostic position is the
only one which can be supported by any scientifically-minded and critically-inclined
person in the present state of knowledge.”4
Besides the forms indicated in the preceding the agnostic argument has assumed
several others, of which the following are some of the most important. (1) Man knows
only by analogy. We know only that which bears some analogy to our own nature or
experience: “Similia similibus percipiuntur.” But while it is true that we learn a great deal
by analogy, we also learn by contrast. In many cases the differences are the very things
that arrest our attention. The Scholastics spoke of the via negationis by which they in
thought eliminated from God the imperfections of the creature. Moreover, we should
not forget that man is made in the image of God, and that there are important analogies
between the divine nature and the nature of man. (2) Man really knows only what he can
grasp in its entirety. Briefly stated the position is that man cannot comprehend God, who
is infinite, cannot have an exhaustive knowledge of Him, and therefore cannot know
Him. But this position proceeds on the unwarranted assumption that partial knowledge
4 The Twilight of Christianity, p. 260.
cannot be real knowledge, an assumption which would really invalidate all our
knowledge, since it always falls far short of completeness. Our knowledge of God,
though not exhaustive, may yet be very real and perfectly adequate for our present
needs. (3) All predicates of God are negative and therefore furnish no real knowledge. Hamilton
says that the Absolute and the Infinite can only be conceived as a negation of the
thinkable; which really means that we can have no conception of them at all. But though
it is true that much of what we predicate to God is negative in form, this does not mean
that it may not at the same time convey some positive idea. The aseity of God includes
the positive idea of his self-existence and self-sufficiency. Moreover, such ideas as love,
spirituality, and holiness, are positive. (4) All our knowledge is relative to the knowing
subject. It is said that we know the objects of knowledge, not as they are objectively, but
only as they are related to our senses and faculties. In the process of knowledge we
distort and colour them. In a sense it is perfectly true that all our knowledge is
subjectively conditioned, but the import of the assertion under consideration seems to
be that, because we know things only through the mediation of our senses and faculties,
we do not know them as they are. But this is not true; in so far as we have any real
knowledge of things, that knowledge corresponds to the objective reality. The laws of
perception and thought are not arbitrary, but correspond to the nature of things.
Without such correspondence, not only the knowledge of God, but all true knowledge
would be utterly impossible.
Some are inclined to look upon the position of Barth as a species of agnosticism.
Zerbe says that practical agnosticism dominates Barth’s thinking and renders him a
victim of the Kantian unknowableness of the Thing-in-Itself, and quotes him as follows:
“Romans is a revelation of the unknown God; God comes to man, not man to God. Even
after the revelation man cannot know God, for He is always the unknown God. In
manifesting Himself to us He is farther away than ever before. (Rbr. p. 53)”.5 At the
same time he finds Barth’s agnosticism, like that of Herbert Spencer, inconsistent. Says
he: “It was said of Herbert Spencer that he knew a great deal about the ‘Unknowable’;
so of Barth, one wonders how he came to know so much of the ‘Unknown God’.”6
Dickie speaks in a similar vein: “In speaking of a transcendent God, Barth seems
sometimes to be speaking of a God of Whom we can never know anything.”7 He finds,
however, that in this respect too there has been a change of emphasis in Barth. While it
5 The Karl Barth Theology, p. 82.
6 Ibid, p. 84.
7 Revelation and Response, p. 187.
is perfectly clear that Barth does not mean to be an agnostic, it cannot be denied that
some of his statements can readily be interpreted as having an agnostic flavor. He
strongly stresses the fact that God is the hidden God, who cannot be known from
nature, history, or experience, but only by His self-revelation in Christ, when it meets
with the response of faith. But even in this revelation God appears only as the hidden
God. God reveals Himself exactly as the hidden God, and through His revelation makes
us more conscious of the distance which separates Him from man than we ever were
before. This can easily be interpreted to mean that we learn by revelation merely that
God cannot be known, so that after all we are face to face with an unknown God. But in
view of all that Barth has written this is clearly not what he wants to say. His assertion,
that in the light of revelation we see God as the hidden God, does not exclude the idea
that by revelation we also acquire a great deal of useful knowledge of God as He enters
into relations with His people. When He says that even in His revelation God still
remains for us the unknown God, he really means, the incomprehensible God. The revealing
God is God in action. By His revelation we learn to know Him in His operations, but
acquire no real knowledge of His inner being. The following passage in The Doctrine of
the Word of God,8 is rather illuminating: “On this freedom (freedom of God) rests the
inconceivability of God, the inadequacy of all knowledge of the revealed God. Even the
three-in-oneness of God is revealed to us only in God’s operations. Therefore the threein-
oneness of God is also inconceivable to us. Hence, too, the inadequacy of all our
knowledge of the three-in-oneness. The conceivability with which it has appeared to us,
primarily in Scripture, secondarily in the Church doctrine of the Trinity, is a creaturely
conceivability. To the conceivability in which God exists for Himself it is not only
relative: it is absolutely separate from it. Only upon the free grace of revelation does it
depend that the former conceivability, in its absolute separation from its object, is vet
not without truth. In this sense the three-in-oneness of God, as we know it from the
operation of God, is truth.”
the fact that theology as the knowledge of God differs in an important point from all
other knowledge. In the study of all other sciences man places himself above the object
of his investigation and actively elicits from it his knowledge by whatever method may
8 p. 426.
seem most appropriate, but in theology he does not stand above but rather under the
object of his knowledge. In other words, man can know God only in so far as the latter
actively makes Himself known. God is first of all the subject communicating knowledge
to man, and can only become an object of study for man in so far as the latter
appropriates and reflects on the knowledge conveyed to him by revelation. Without
revelation man would never have been able to acquire any knowledge of God. And
even after God has revealed Himself objectively, it is not human reason that discovers
God, but it is God who discloses Himself to the eye of faith. However, by the
application of sanctified human reason to the study of God’s Word man can. under the
guidance of the Holy Spirit, gain an ever-increasing knowledge of God. Barth also
stresses the fact that man can know God only when God comes to him in an act of
revelation. He asserts that there is no way from man to God, but only from God to man,
and says repeatedly that God is always the subject, and never an object. Revelation is
always something purely subjective, and can never turn into something objective like
the written Word of Scripture, and as such become an object of study. It is given once for
all in Jesus Christ, and in Christ comes to men in the existential moment of their lives.
While there are elements of truth in what Barth says, his construction of the doctrine of
revelation is foreign to Reformed theology.
The position must be maintained, however, that theology would be utterly
impossible without a self-revelation of God. And when we speak of revelation, we use
the term in the strict sense of the word. It is not something in which God is passive, a
mere “becoming manifest,” but something in which He is actively making Himself
known. It is not, as many moderns would have it, a deepened spiritual insight which
leads to an ever-increasing discovery of God on the part of man; but a supernatural act
of self-communication, a purposeful act on the part of the Living God. There is nothing
surprising in the fact that God can be known only if, and in so far as, He reveals
Himself. In a measure this is also true of man. Even after Psychology has made a rather
exhaustive study of man, Alexis Carrell is still able to write a very convincing book on
Man the Unknown. “For who among men,” says Paul, “knoweth the things of a man,
save the spirit of the man, which is in him? even so the things of God none knoweth,
save the Spirit of God.” I Cor. 2:11. The Holy Spirit searcheth all things, even the deep
things of God, and reveals them unto man. God has made Himself known. Alongside of
the archetypal knowledge of God, found in God Himself, there is also an ectypal
knowledge of Him, given to man by revelation. The latter is related to the former as a
copy is to the original, and therefore does not possess the same measure of clearness
and perfection. All our knowledge of God is derived from His self-revelation in nature
and in Scripture. Consequently, our knowledge of God is on the one hand ectypal and
analogical, but on the other hand also true and accurate, since it is a copy of the
archetypal knowledge which God has of Himself.
distinction is usually made between innate and acquired knowledge of God. This is not
a strictly logical distinction, because in the last analysis all human knowledge is
acquired. The doctrine of innate ideas is philosophical rather than theological. The seeds
of it are already found in Plato’s doctrine of ideas, while it occurs in Cicero’s De Natura
Deorum in a more developed form. In modern philosophy it was taught first of all by
Descartes, who regarded the idea of God as innate. He did not deem it necessary to
consider this as innate in the sense that it was consciously present in the human mind
from the start, but only in the sense that man has a natural tendency to form the idea
when the mind reaches maturity. The doctrine finally assumed the form that there are
certain ideas, of which the idea of God is the most prominent, which are inborn and are
therefore present in human consciousness from birth. It was in this form that Locke
rightly attacked the doctrine of innate ideas, though he went to another extreme in his
philosophical empiricism. Reformed theology also rejected the doctrine in that
particular form. And while some of its representatives retained the name “innate ideas,”
but gave it another connotation, others preferred to speak of a cognitio Dei insita
(ingrafted or implanted knowledge of God). On the one hand this cognitio Dei insita
does not consist in any ideas or formed notions which are present in man at the time of
his birth; but on the other hand it is more than a mere capacity which enables man to
know God. It denotes a knowledge that necessarily results from the constitution of the
human mind, that is inborn only in the sense that it is acquired spontaneously, under
the influence of the semen religionis implanted in man by his creation in the image of
God, and that is not acquired by the laborious process of reasoning and argumentation.
It is a knowledge which man, constituted as he is, acquires of necessity, and as such is
distinguished from all knowledge that is conditioned by the will of man. Acquired
knowledge, on the other hand, is obtained by the study of God’s revelation. It does not
arise spontaneously in the human mind, but results from the conscious and sustained
pursuit of knowledge. It can be acquired only by the wearisome process of perception
and reflection, reasoning and argumentation. Under the influence of the Hegelian
Idealism and of the modern view of evolution the innate knowledge of God has been
over-emphasized; Barth on the other hand denies the existence of any such knowledge.
3. GENERAL AND SPECIAL REVELATION. The Bible testifies to a twofold revelation of
God: a revelation in nature round about us, in human consciousness, and in the
providential government of the world; and a revelation embodied in the Bible as the
Word of God. It testifies to the former in such passages as the following: “The heavens
declare the glory of God; and the firmanent showeth His handiwork. Day unto day
uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge,” Ps. 19:1,2. “And yet He left
not Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you from heaven rains and
fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness,” Acts 14:17. “Because that
which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them. For the
invisible things of Him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived
through the things that are made, even His everlasting power and divinity,” Rom. 1:19,
20. Of the latter it gives abundant evidence in both the Old and the New Testament.
“Yet Jehovah testified unto Israel, and unto Judah, by every prophet, and every seer,
saying, Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes,
according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by
my servants the prophets,” I Kings 17:13. “He hath made known His ways unto Moses,
His doings unto the children of Israel,” Ps. 103:7. “No man hath seen God at any time;
the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him,” John
1:18. “God, having of old time spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by divers
portions and in divers manners, hath at the end of these days spoken to us in His Son,”
Heb. 1:1,2.
On the basis of these scriptural data it became customary to speak of natural and
supernatural revelation. The distinction thus applied to the idea of revelation is
primarily a distinction based on the manner in which it is communicated to man; but in
the course of history it has also been based in part on the nature of its subject-matter.
The mode of revelation is natural when it is communicated through nature, that is,
through the visible creation with its ordinary laws and powers. It is supernatural when
it is communicated to man in a higher, supernatural manner, as when God speaks to
him, either directly, or through supernaturally endowed messengers. The substance of
revelation was regarded as natural, if it could be acquired by human reason from the
study of nature; and was considered to be supernatural when it could not be known
from nature, nor by unaided human reason. Hence it became quite common in the
Middle Ages to contrast reason and revelation. In Protestant theology natural revelation
was often called a revelatio realis, and supernatural revelation a revelatio verbalis, because
the former is embodied in things, and the latter in words. In course of time, however,
the distinction between natural and supernatural revelation was found to be rather
ambiguous, since all revelation is supernatural in origin and, as a revelation of God,
also in content. Ewald in his work on Revelation: its Nature and Record9 speaks of the
revelation in nature as immediate revelation, and of the revelation in Scripture, which he
regards as the only one deserving the name “revelation” in the fullest sense, as mediate
revelation. A more common distinction, however, which gradually gained currency, is
that of general and special revelation. Dr. Warfield distinguishes the two as follows: “The
one is addressed generally to all intelligent creatures, and is therefore accessible to all
men; the other is addressed to a special class of sinners, to whom God would make
known His salvation. The one has in view to meet and supply the natural need of
creatures for knowledge of their God; the other to rescue broken and deformed sinners
from their sin and its consequences.”10 General revelation is rooted in creation, is
addressed to man as man, and more particularly to human reason, and finds its purpose
in the realization of the end of his creation, to know God and thus enjoy communion
with Him. Special revelation is rooted in the redemptive plan of God, is addressed to
man as sinner, can be properly understood and appropriated only by faith, and serves
the purpose of securing the end for which man was created in spite of the disturbance
wrought by sin. In view of the eternal plan of redemption it should be said that this
special revelation did not come in as an after-thought, but was in the mind of God from
the very beginning.
There was considerable difference of opinion respecting the relation of these two to
each other. According to Scholasticism natural revelation provided the necessary data
for the construction of a scientific natural theology by human reason. But while it
enabled man to attain to a scientific knowledge of God as the ultimate cause of all
things, it did not provide for the knowledge of the mysteries, such as the Trinity, the
incarnation, and redemption. This knowledge is supplied by special revelation. It is a
knowledge that is not rationally demonstrable but must be accepted by faith. Some of
the earlier Scholastics were guided by the slogan “Credo ut intelligam,” and, after
accepting the truths of special revelation by faith, considered it necessary to raise faith
to understanding by a rational demonstration of those truths, or at least to prove their
rationality. Thomas Aquinas, however, considered this impossible, except in so far as
special revelation contained truths which also formed a part of natural revelation. In his
opinion the mysteries, which formed the real contents of supernatural revelation, did
not admit of any logical demonstration. He held, however, that there could be no
conflict between the truths of natural and those of supernatural revelation. If there
9 p. 5 f.
10 Revelation and Inspiration, p. 6.
appears to be a conflict, there is something wrong with one’s philosophy. The fact
remains, however, that he recognized, besides the structure reared by faith on the basis
of supernatural revelation, a system of scientific theology on the foundation of natural
revelation. In the former one assents to something because it is revealed, in the latter
because it is perceived as true in the light of natural reason. The logical demonstration,
which is out of the question in the one, is the natural method of proof in the other.
The Reformers rejected the dualism of the Scholastics and aimed at a synthesis of
God’s twofold revelation. They did not believe in the ability of human reason to
construct a scientific system of theology on the basis of natural revelation pure and
simple. Their view of the matter may be represented as follows: As a result of the
entrance of sin into the world, the handwriting of God in nature is greatly obscured,
and is in some of the most important matters rather dim and illegible. Moreover, man is
stricken with spiritual blindness, and is thus deprived of the ability to read aright what
God had originally plainly written in the works of creation. In order to remedy the
matter and to prevent the frustration of His purpose, God did two things. In His
supernatural revelation He republished the truths of natural revelation, cleared them of
misconception, interpreted them with a view to the present needs of man, and thus
incorporated them in His supernatural revelation of redemption. And in addition to
that He provided a cure for the spiritual blindness of man in the work of regeneration
and sanctification, including spiritual illumination, and thus enabled man once more to
obtain true knowledge of God, the knowledge that carries with it the assurance of
eternal life.
When the chill winds of Rationalism swept over Europe, natural revelation was
exalted at the expense of supernatural revelation. Man became intoxicated with a sense
of his own ability and goodness, refused to listen and submit to the voice of authority
that spoke to him in Scripture, and reposed complete trust in the ability of human
reason to lead him out of the labyrinth of ignorance and error into the clear atmosphere
of true knowledge. Some who maintained that natural revelation was quite sufficient to
teach men all necessary truths, still admitted that they might learn them sooner with the
aid of supernatural revelation. Others denied that the authority of supernatural
revelation was complete, until its contents had been demonstrated by reason. And
finally Deism in some of its forms denied, not only the necessity, but also the possibility
and reality of supernatural revelation. In Schleiermacher the emphasis shifts from the
objective to the subjective, from revelation to religion, and that without any distinction
between natural and revealed religion. The term “revelation” is still retained, but is
reserved as a designation of the deeper spiritual insight of man, an insight which does
not come to him, however, without his own diligent search. What is called revelation
from one point of view, may be called human discovery from another. This view has
become quite characteristic of modern theology. Says Knudson: “But this distinction
between natural and revealed theology has now largely fallen into disuse. The present
tendency is to draw no sharp line of distinction between revelation and the natural
reason, but to look upon the highest insights of reason as themselves divine revelations.
In any case there is no fixed body of revealed truth, accepted on authority, that stands
opposed to the truths of reason. All truth to-day rests on its power of appeal to the
human mind.”11
It is this view of revelation that is denounced in the strongest terms by Barth. He is
particularly interested in the subject of revelation, and wants to lead the Church back
from the subjective to the objective, from religion to revelation. In the former he sees
primarily man’s efforts to find God, and in the latter “God’s search for man” in Jesus
Christ. Barth does not recognize any revelation in nature. Revelation never exists on any
horizontal line, but always comes down perpendicularly from above. Revelation is
always God in action, God speaking, bringing something entirely new to man,
something of which he could have no previous knowledge, and which becomes a real
revelation only for him who accepts the object of revelation by a God-given faith. Jesus
Christ is the revelation of God, and only he who knows Jesus Christ knows anything
about revelation at all. Revelation is an act of grace, by which man becomes conscious of
his sinful condition, but also of God’s free, unmerited, and forgiving condescension in
Jesus Christ. Barth even calls it the reconciliation. Since God is always sovereign and free
in His revelation, it can never assume a factually present, objective form with definite
limitations, to which man can turn at any time for instruction. Hence it is a mistake to
regard the Bible as God’s revelation in any other than a secondary sense. It is a witness
to, and a token of, God’s revelation. The same may be said, though in a subordinate
sense, of the preaching of the gospel. But through whatever mediation the word of God
may come to man in the existential moment of his life, it is always recognized by man as
a word directly spoken to him, and coming perpendicularly from above. This
recognition is effected by a special operation of the Holy Spirit, by what may be called
an individual testimonium Spiritus Sancti. The revelation of God was given once for all in
Jesus Christ: not in His historical appearance, but in the superhistorical in which the
powers of the eternal world become evident, such as His incarnation and His death and
resurrection. And if His revelation is also continuous — as it is —, it is such only in the
11 The Doctrine of God, p. 173.
sense that God continues to speak to individual sinners, in the existential moment of
their lives, through the revelation in Christ, mediated by the Bible and by preaching.
Thus we are left with mere flashes of revelation coming to individuals, of which only
those individuals have absolute assurance; and fallible witnesses to, or tokens of, the
revelation in Jesus Christ, — a rather precarious foundation for theology. It is no
wonder that Barth is in doubt as to the possibility of constructing a doctrine of God.
Mankind is not in possession of any infallible revelation of God, and of His unique
revelation in Christ and its extension in the special revelations that come to certain men
it has knowledge only through the testimony of fallible witnesses.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: In what sense can we speak of the hidden or
unknown God in spite of the fact that He has revealed Himself? How did the
Scholastics and the Reformers differ on this point? What is the position of modern
theology? Why is revelation essential to religion? How does agnosticism differ
theoretically from atheism? Is the one more favorable to religion than the other? How
did Kant promote agnosticism? What was Sir William Hamilton’s doctrine of the
relativity of knowledge? What form did agnosticism take in Positivism? What other
forms did it take? Why do some speak of Barth as an agnostic? How should this charge
be met? Is “revelation” an active or a passive concept? Is theology possible without
revelation? If not, why not? Can the doctrine of innate ideas be defended? What is
meant by “cognitio Dei insita?” How do natural and supernatural revelation differ? Is
the distinction between general and special revelation an exact parallel of the preceding
one? What different views were held as to the relation between the two? How does
revelation differ from human discovery? Does Barth believe in general revelation? How
does he conceive of special revelation?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 1:74; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Deo I, pp.
1-76; Hodge, Syst. Theol. I, pp. 191-240; 335-365; Shedd, Dogm. Theol. I, pp. 195-220;
Thornwell, Collected Works I, pp. 74-142; Dorner, System of Chr. Doct., I, pp. 79-159;
Adeney, The Christian Conception of God, pp. 19-57; Steenstra, The Being of God as Unity
and Trinity, pp. 1-25; Hendry, God the Creator; Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle
Ages; Baillie and Martin, Revelation (a Symposium of Aulen, Barth, Bulgakoff, D’Arcy, Eliot,
Horton, and Temple; Warfield, Revelation and Inspiration, pp. 3-48; Orr, Revelation and
Inspiration, pp.1-66; Camfield, Revelation and the Holy Spirit, pp. 11-127; Dickie, Revelation
and Response, Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism (Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God).
III. Relation of the Being and Attributes of
Some dogmaticians devote a separate chapter or chapters to the Being of God, before
taking up the discussion of His attributes. This is done, for instance, in the works of
Mastricht, Ebrard, Kuyper, and Shedd. Others prefer to consider the Being of God in
connection with His attributes in view of the fact that it is in these that He has revealed
Himself. This is the more common method, which is followed in the Synopsis Purioris
Theologiae, and in the works of Turretin, à Marck, Brakel, Bavinck, Hodge, and Honig.
This difference of treatment is not indicative of any serious fundamental disagreement
between them. They are all agreed that the attributes are not mere names to which no
reality corresponds, nor separate parts of a composite God, but essential qualities in
which the Being of God is revealed and with which it can be identified. The only
difference would seem to be that some seek to distinguish between the Being and the
attributes of God more than others do.
It is quite evident that the Being of God does not admit of any scientific definition. In
order to give a logical definition of God, we would have to begin by going in search of
some higher concept, under which God could be co-ordinated with other concepts; and
would then have to point out the characteristics that would be applicable to God only.
Such a genetic-synthetic definition cannot be given of God, since God is not one of
several species of gods, which can be subsumed under a single genus. At most only an
analytical-descriptive definition is possible. This merely names the characteristics of a
person or thing, but leaves the essential being unexplained. And even such a definition
cannot be complete but only partial, because it is impossible to give an exhaustive
positive (as opposed to negative) description of God. It would consist in an
enumeration of all the known attributes of God, and these are to a great extent negative
in character.
The Bible never operates with an abstract concept of God, but always describes Him
as the Living God, who enters into various relations with His creatures, relations which
are indicative of several different attributes. In Kuyper’s Dictaten Dogmatiek12 we are
12 De Deo I, p. 28.
told that God, personified as Wisdom, speaks of His essence in Prov. 8:14, when He
ascribes to Himself tushiyyach, a Hebrew word rendered “wezen” in the Holland
translation. But this rendering is very doubtful, and the English rendering “counsel”
deserves preference. It has also been pointed out that the Bible speaks of the nature of
God in II Pet. 1:4, but this can hardly refer to the essential Being of God, for we are not
made partakers of the divine essence. An indication of the very essence of God has been
found in the name Jehovah, as interpreted by God Himself, “I am that I am.” On the
basis of this passage the essence of God was found in being itself, abstract being. And
this has been interpreted to mean self-existence or self-contained permanence or
absolute independence. Another passage is repeatedly quoted as containing an
indication of the essence of God, and as the closest approach to a definition that is found
in the Bible, namely, John 4:24, “God is Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship
in spirit and truth.” This statement of Christ is clearly indicative of the spirituality of
God. The two ideas derived from these passages occur repeatedly in theology as
designations of the very Being of God. On the whole it may be said that Scripture does
not exalt one attribute of God at the expense of the others, but represents them as
existing in perfect harmony in the Divine Being. It may be true that now one, and then
another attribute is stressed, but Scripture clearly intends to give due emphasis to every
one of them. The Being of God is characterized by a depth, a fullness, a variety, and a
glory far beyond our comprehension, and the Bible represents it as a glorious
harmonious whole, without any inherent contradictions. And this fullness of life finds
expression in no other way than in the perfections of God.
Some of the early Church Fathers were clearly under the influence of Greek
philosophy in their doctrine of God and, as Seeberg expresses it, did not advance
“beyond the mere abstract conception that the Divine Being is absolute attributeless
Existence.” For some time theologians were rather generally inclined to emphasize the
transcendence of God, and to assume the impossibility of any adequate knowledge or
definition of the divine essence. During the trinitarian controversy the distinction
between the one essence and the three persons in the Godhead was strongly
emphasized, but the essence was generally felt to be beyond human comprehension.
Gregory of Nazianze, however, ventures to say: “So far as we can discern, ho on and ho
theos are somehow more than other terms the names of the (divine) essence, and of these
ho on is the preferable.” He regards this as a description of absolute being. Augustine’s
conception of the essence of God was closely akin to that of Gregory. In the Middle Ages
too there was a tendency, either to deny that man has any knowledge of the essence of
God, or to reduce such knowledge to a minimum. In some cases one attribute was
singled out as most expressive of the essence of God. Thus Thomas Aquinas spoke of
His aseity or self-existence, and Duns Scotus, of His infinity. It became quite common
also to speak of God as actus purus in view of His simplicity. The Reformers and their
successors also spoke of the essence of God as incomprehensible, but they did not
exclude all knowledge of it, though Luther used very strong language on this point.
They stressed the unity, simplicity, and spirituality of God. The words of the Belgic
Confession are quite characteristic: “We all believe with the heart, and confess with the
mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God.”13 Later on
philosophers and theologians found the essence of God in abstract being, in universal
substance, in pure thought, in absolute causality, in love, in personality, and in majestic
holiness or the numinous.
From the preceding it already appears that the question as to the possibility of
knowing God in His essential Being engaged the best minds of the Church from the
earliest centuries. And the consensus of opinion in the early Church, during the Middle
Ages, and at the time of the Reformation, was that God in His inmost Being is the
Incomprehensible One. And in some cases the language used is so strong that it
seemingly allows of no knowledge of the Being of God whatsoever. At the same time
they who use it, at least in some cases, seem to have considerable knowledge of the
Being of God. Misunderstanding can easily result from a failure to understand the exact
question under consideration, and from neglecting to discriminate between “knowing”
and “comprehending.” The Scholastics spoke of three questions to which all the
speculations respecting the Divine Being could be reduced, namely: An sit Deus? Quid
sit Deus? and Qualis sit Deus? The first question concerns the existence of God, the
second, His nature or essence, and the third, His attributes. In this paragraph it is
particularly the second question that calls for attention. The question then is, What is
God? What is the nature of His inner constitution? What makes Him to be what He is?
In order to answer that question adequately, we would have to be able to comprehend
God and to offer a satisfactory explanation of His Divine Being, and this is utterly
impossible. The finite cannot comprehend the Infinite. The question of Zophar, “Canst
thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto
perfection?” (Job 11:7) has the force of a strong negative. And if we consider the second
question entirely apart from the third, our negative answer becomes even more
13 Art. I.
inclusive. Apart from the revelation of God in His attributes, we have no knowledge of
the Being of God whatsoever. But in so far as God reveals Himself in His attributes, we
also have some knowledge of His Divine Being, though even so our knowledge is
subject to human limitations.
Luther uses some very strong expressions respecting our inability to know
something of the Being or essence of God. On the one hand he distinguishes between
the Deus absconditus (hidden God) and the Deus revelatus (revealed God); but on the
other hand he also asserts that in knowing the Deus revelatus, we only know Him in his
hiddenness. By this he means that even in His revelation God has not manifested
Himself entirely as He is essentially, but as to His essence still remains shrouded in
impenetrable darkness. We know God only in so far as He enters into relations with us.
Calvin too speaks of the Divine essence as incomprehensible. He holds that God in the
depths of His Being is past finding out. Speaking of the knowledge of the quid and of
the qualis of God, he says that it is rather useless to speculate about the former, while
our practical interest lies in the latter. Says he: “They are merely toying with frigid
speculations whose mind is set on the question of what God is (quid sit Deus), when
what it really concerns us to know is rather what kind of a person He is (qualis sit) and
what is appropriate to His nature.”14 While he feels that God cannot be known to
perfection, he does not deny that we can know something of His Being or nature. But
this knowledge cannot be obtained by a priori methods, but only in an a posteriori
manner through the attributes, which he regards as real determinations of the nature of
God. They convey to us at least some knowledge of what God is, but especially of what
He is in relation to us.
In dealing with our knowledge of the Being of God we must certainly avoid the
position of Cousin, rather rare in the history of philosophy, that God even in the depths
of His Being is not at all incomprehensible but essentially intelligible; but we must also
steer clear of the agnosticism of Hamilton and Mansel, according to which we can have
no knowledge whatsoever of the Being of God. We cannot comprehend God, cannot
have an absolute and exhaustive knowledge of Him, but we can undoubtedly have a
relative or partial knowledge of the Divine Being. It is perfectly true that this knowledge
of God is possible only, because He has placed Himself in certain relations to His moral
creatures and has revealed Himself to them, and that even this knowledge is humanly
conditioned; but it is nevertheless real and true knowledge, and is at least a partial
knowledge of the absolute nature of God. There is a difference between an absolute
14 Inst. I. 2.2.
knowledge, and a relative or partial knowledge of an absolute being. It will not do at all
to say that man knows only the relations in which God stands to His creatures. It would
not even be possible to have a proper conception of these relations without knowing
something of both God and man. To say that we can know nothing of the Being of God,
but can know only relations, is equivalent to saying that we cannot know Him at all and
cannot make Him the object of our religion. Dr. Orr says: “We may not know God in the
depths of His absolute being. But we can at least know Him in so far as He reveals
Himself in His relation to us. The question, therefore, is not as to the possibility of a
knowledge of God in the unfathomableness of His being, but is: Can we know God as
He enters into relations with the world and with ourselves? God has entered into relations
with us in His revelations of Himself, and supremely in Jesus Christ; and we Christians
humbly claim that through this Self-revelation we do know God to be the true God, and
have real acquaintance with His character and will. Neither is it correct to say that this
knowledge which we have of God is only a relative knowledge. It is in part a knowledge
of the absolute nature of God as well.”15 The last statements are probably intended to
ward off the idea that all our knowledge of God is merely relative to the human mind,
so that we have no assurance that it corresponds with the reality as it exists in God.
From the simplicity of God it follows that God and His attributes are one. The
attributes cannot be considered as so many parts that enter into the composition of God,
for God is not, like men, composed of different parts. Neither can they be regarded as
something added to the Being of God, though the name, derived from ad and tribuere,
might seem to point in that direction, for no addition was ever made to the Being of
God, who is eternally perfect. It is commonly said in theology that God’s attributes are
God Himself, as He has revealed Himself to us. The Scholastics stressed the fact that
God is all that He has. He has life, light, wisdom, love, righteousness, and it may be said
on the basis of Scripture that He is life, light, wisdom, love, and righteousness. It was
further asserted by the Scholastics that the whole essence of God is identical with each
one of the attributes, so that God’s knowing is God, God’s willing is God, and so on.
Some of them even went so far as to say that each attribute is identical with every other
attribute, and that there are no logical distinctions in God. This is a very dangerous
extreme. While it may be said that there is an interpenetration of the attributes in God,
and that they form a harmonious whole, we are moving in the direction of Pantheism,
15 Side-Lights on Christian Doctrine, p. 11.
when we rule out all distinctions in God, and say that His self-existence is His infinity,
His knowing is His willing, His love is His righteousness, and vice versa. It was
characteristic of the Nominalists that they obliterated all real distinctions in God. They
were afraid that by assuming real distinctions in Him, corresponding to the attributes
ascribed to God, they would endanger the unity and simplicity of God, and were
therefore motivated by a laudable purpose. According to them the perfections of the
Divine Being exist only in our thoughts, without any corresponding reality in the
Divine Being. The Realists, on the other hand, asserted the reality of the divine
perfections. They realized that the theory of the Nominalists, consistently carried out,
would lead in the direction of a pantheistic denial of a personal God, and therefore
considered it of the utmost importance to maintain the objective reality of the attributes
in God. At the same time they sought to safeguard the unity and simplicity of God by
maintaining that the whole essence is in each attribute: God is All in all, All in each.
Thomas Aquinas had the same purpose in mind, when he asserted that the attributes do
not reveal what God is in Himself, in the depths of His Being, but only what He is in
relation to His creatures.
Naturally, we should guard against separating the divine essence and the divine
attributes or perfections, and also against a false conception of the relation in which
they stand to each other. The attributes are real determinations of the Divine Being or, in
other words, qualities that inhere in the Being of God. Shedd speaks of them as “an
analytical and closer description of the essence.”16 In a sense they are identical, so that it
can be said that God’s perfections are God Himself as He has revealed Himself to us. It
is possible to go even farther and say with Shedd, “The whole essence is in each
attribute, and the attribute in the essence.”17 And because of the close relation in which
the two stand to each other, it can be said that knowledge of the attributes carries with it
knowledge of the Divine Essence. It would be a mistake to conceive of the essence of
God as existing by itself and prior to the attributes, and of the attributes as additive and
accidental characteristics of the Divine Being. They are essential qualities of God, which
inhere in His very Being and are co-existent with it. These qualities cannot be altered
without altering the essential Being of God. And since they are essential qualities, each
one of them reveals to us some aspect of the Being of God.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: How can we distinguish between the being, the
nature, and the essence of God? How do the philosophical views of the essential Being
16 Dogm. Theol. I, p. 334.
17 Ibid. p. 334.
of God generally differ from the theological views? How about the tendency to find the
essence of God in the absolute, in love, or in personality? What does Otto mean when
he characterizes it as “the Holy” or “the Numinous”? Why is it impossible for man to
comprehend God? Has sin in any way affected man’s ability to know God? Is there any
difference between Luther’s and Barth’s conception of the “hidden God”? Does Calvin
differ from them on this point? Did Luther share the Nominalist views of Occam, by
whom he was influenced in other respects? How did the Reformers, in distinction from
the Scholastics, consider the problem of the existence of God? Could we have any
knowledge of God, if He were pure attributeless being? What erroneous views of the
attributes should be avoided? What is the proper view?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. I, pp. 91-113,; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Deo I, pp.
124-158; Hodge, Syst. Theol. I, pp. 335-374; Shedd, Dogm. Theol. I, pp. 152-194; Thornwell,
Collected Works, I, pp. 104-172; Dorner, Syst. of Chr. Doct. I, pp. 187-212; Orr, Chr. View of
God and the World, pp. 75-93; Otten, Manual of the Hist. of Dogmas I, pp. 254-260; Clarke,
The Chr. Doct. of God, pp. 56-70; Steenstra, The Being of God as Unity and Trinity, pp. 1-88;
Thomson, The Christian Idea of God, pp. 117-159; Hendry, God the Creator (from the
Barthian standpoint); Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism, pp. 131-185 (Calvin’s Doctrine of
IV. The Names of God
While the Bible records several names of God, it also speaks of the name of God in
the singular as, for instance in the following statements: “Thou shalt not take the name
of the Lord thy God in vain,” Ex. 20:7; “How excellent is thy name in all the earth,” Ps.
8:1; “As is thy name, O God, so is thy praise,” Ps. 48:10; “His name is great in Israel,” Ps.
76:2; “The name of Jehovah is a strong tower; the righteous runneth into it and is safe,”
Prov. 18:10. In such cases “the name” stands for the whole manifestation of God in His
relation to His people, or simply for the person, so that it becomes synonymous with
God. This usage is due to the fact that in oriental thought a name was never regarded as
a mere vocable, but as an expression of the nature of the thing designated. To know the
name of a person was to have power over him, and the names of the various gods were
used in incantations to exercise power over them. In the most general sense of the word,
then, the name of God is His self-revelation. It is a designation of Him, not as He exists
in the depths of His divine Being, but as He reveals Himself especially in His relations
to man. For us the one general name of God is split up into many names, expressive of
the many-sided Being of God. It is only because God has revealed Himself in His name
(nomen editum), that we can now designate Him by that name in various forms
(nomina indita). The names of God are not of human invention, but of divine origin,
though they are all borrowed from human language, and derived from human and
earthly relations. They are anthropomorphic and mark a condescending approach of
God to man.
The names of God constitute a difficulty for human thought. God is the
Incomprehensible One, infinitely exalted above all that is temporal; but in His names He
descends to all that is finite and becomes like unto man. On the one hand we cannot
name Him, and on the other hand He has many names. How can this be explained? On
what grounds are these names applied to the infinite and incomprehensible God? It
should be borne in mind that they are not of man’s invention, and do not testify to his
insight into the very Being of God. They are given by God Himself with the assurance
that they contain in a measure a revelation of the Divine Being. This was made possible
by the fact that the world and all its relations is and was meant to be a revelation of
God. Because the Incomprehensible One revealed Himself in His creatures, it is possible
for man to name Him after the fashion of a creature. In order to make Himself known to
man, God had to condescend to the level of man, to accommodate Himself to the
limited and finite human consciousness, and to speak in human language. If the naming
of God with anthropomorphic names involves a limitation of God, as some say, then
this must be true to an even greater degree of the revelation of God in creation. Then the
world does not reveal, but rather conceals, God; then man is not related to God, but
simply forms an antithesis to Him; and then we are shut up to a hopeless agnosticism.
From what was said about the name of God in general it follows that we can include
under the names of God not only the appellatives by which He is indicated as an
independent personal Being and by which He is addressed, but also the attributes of
God; and then not merely the attributes of the Divine Being in general, but also those
that qualify the separate Persons of the Trinity. Dr. Bavinck bases his division of the
names of God on that broad conception of them, and distinguishes between nomina
propria (proper names), nomina essentialia (essential names, or attributes), and nomina
personalia (personal names, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). In the present chapter we
limit ourselves to the discussion of the first class.
1. ’EL, ’ELOHIM, and ’ELYON. The most simple name by which God is designated in
the Old Testament, is the name ’El, which is possibly derived from ’ul, either in the
sense of being first, being lord, or in that of being strong and mighty. The name ’Elohim
(sing. ’Eloah) is probably derived from the same root, or from ’alah, to be smitten with
fear; and therefore points to God as the strong and mighty One, or as the object of fear.
The name seldom occurs in the singular, except in poetry. The plural is to be regarded as
intensive, and therefore serves to indicate a fulness of power. The name ’Elyon is
derived from ’alah, to go up, to be elevated, and designates God as the high and exalted
One, Gen. 14:19,20; Num. 24:16; Isa. 14:14. It is found especially in poetry. These names
are not yet nomina propria in the strict sense of the word, for they are also used of idols,
Ps. 95:3; 96:5, of men, Gen. 33:10; Ex. 7:1, and of rulers, Judg. 5:8; Ex. 21:6; 22:8-10; Ps.
2. ’ADONAI. This name is related in meaning to the preceding ones. It is derived from
either dun (din) or ’adan, both of which mean to judge, to rule, and thus points to God as
the almighty Ruler, to whom everything is subject, and to whom man is related as a
servant. In earlier times it was the usual name by which the people of Israel addressed
God. Later on it was largely supplanted by the name Jehovah (Yahweh). All the names so
far mentioned describe God as the high and exalted One, the transcendent God. The
following names point to the fact that this exalted Being condescended to enter into
relations with His creatures.
3. SHADDAI and ’EL-SHADDAI. The name Shaddai is derived from shadad, to be
powerful, and points to God as possessing all power in heaven and on earth. Others,
however, derive it from shad, lord. It differs in an important point from ’Elohim, the God
of creation and nature, in that it contemplates God as subjecting all the powers of nature
and making them subservient to the work of divine grace. While it stresses the
greatness of God, it does not represent Him as an object of fear and terror, but as a
source of blessing and comfort. It is the name with which God appeared unto Abraham,
the father of the faithful, Ex. 6:2.
4. YAHWEH and YAHWEH TSEBHAOTH. It is especially in the name Yahweh, which
gradually supplanted earlier names, that God reveals Himself as the God of grace. It has
always been regarded as the most sacred and the most distinctive name of God, the
incommunicable name. The Jews had a superstitious dread of using it, since they read
Lev. 24:16 as follows: “He that nameth the name of Yahweh shall surely be put to death.”
And therefore in reading the Scriptures they substituted for it either ’Adonai or ’Elohim;
and the Massoretes, while leaving the consonants intact, attached to them the vowels of
one of these names, usually those of ’Adonai. The real derivation of the name and its
original pronunciation and meaning are more or less lost in obscurity. The Pentateuch
connects the name with the Hebrew verb hayah, to be, Ex. 3:13,14. On the strength of
that passage we may assume that the name is in all probability derived from an archaic
form of that verb, namely, hawah. As far as the form is concerned, it may be regarded as
a third person imperfect qal or hiphil. Most likely, however, it is the former. The meaning
is explained in Ex. 3:14, which is rendered “I am that I am,” or “I shall be what I shall
be.” Thus interpreted, the name points to the unchangeableness of God. Yet it is not so
much the unchangeableness of His essential Being that is in view, as the
unchangeableness of His relation to His people. The name contains the assurance that
God will be for the people of Moses’ day what He was for their fathers, Abraham, Isaac,
and Jacob. It stresses the covenant faithfulness of God, is His proper name par excellence,
Ex. 15:3; Ps. 83:19; Hos. 12:6; Isa. 42:8, and is therefore used of no one but Israel’s God.
The exclusive character of the name appears from the fact that it never occurs in the
plural or with a suffix. Abbreviated forms of it, found especially in composite names,
are Yah and Yahu.
The name Yahweh is often strengthened by the addition of tsebhaoth. Origen and
Jerome regard this as an apposition, because Yahweh does not admit of a construct state.
But this interpretation is not sufficiently warranted and hardly yields an intelligible
sense. It is rather hard to determine to what the word tsebhaoth refers. There are
especially three opinions:
a. The armies of Israel. But the correctness of this view may well be doubted. Most of
the passages quoted to support this idea do not prove the point; only three of them
contain a semblance of proof, namely, I Sam. 4:4; 17:45; II Sam. 6:2, while one of them, II
Kings 19:31, is rather unfavorable to this view. While the plural tsebhaoth is used for the
hosts of the people of Israel, the army is regularly indicated by the singular. This
militates against the notion, inherent in this view, that in the name under consideration
the term refers to the army of Israel. Moreover, it is clear that in the Prophets at least the
name “Jehovah of hosts” does not refer to Jehovah as the God of war. And if the
meaning of the name changed, what caused the change?
b. The stars. But in speaking of the host of heaven Scripture always uses the singular,
and never the plural. Moreover, while the stars are called the host of heaven, they are
never designated the host of God.
c. The angels. This interpretation deserves preference. The name Yahweh tsebhaoth is
often found in connections in which angels are mentioned: I Sam. 4:4; II Sam. 6:2; Isa.
37:16; Hos. 12:4,5, Ps. 80:1,4 f.; Ps. 89; 6-8. The angels are repeatedly represented as a
host that surrounds the throne of God, Gen. 28:12; 32:2; Jos. 5:14; I Kings 22:19; Ps. 68:17;
103:21; 148:2; Isa. 6:2. It is true that in this case also the singular is generally used, but
this is no serious objection, since the Bible also indicates that there were several
divisions of angels, Gen. 32:2; Deut. 33:2; Ps. 68:17. Moreover, this interpretation is in
harmony with the meaning of the name, which has no martial flavor, but is expressive
of the glory of God as King, Deut. 33:2; I Kings 22:19; Ps. 24:10; Isa. 6:3; 24:23; Zech.
14:16. Jehovah of hosts, then, is God as the King of glory, who is surrounded by angelic
hosts, who rules heaven and earth in the interest of His people, and who receives glory
from all His creatures.
1. THEOS. The New Testament has the Greek equivalents of the Old Testament
names. For ’El, ’Elohim, and ’Elyon it has Theos, which is the most common name applied
to God. Like ’Elohim, it may by accommodation be used of heathen gods, though strictly
speaking it expresses essential deity. ‘Elyon is rendered Hupsistos Theos, Mark 5:7; Luke
1:32,35,75; Acts 7:48; 16:17; Heb. 7:1. The names Shaddai and ’El-Shaddai are rendered
Pantokrator and Theos Pantokrator, II Cor. 6:18; Rev. 1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7,14. More
generally, however, Theos is found with a genitive of possession, such as mou, sou,
hemon, humon, because in Christ God may be regarded as the God of all and of each one
of His children. The national idea of the Old Testament has made place for the
individual in religion.
2. KURIOS. The name Yahweh is explicated a few times by variations of a descriptive
kind, such as “the Alpha and the Omega,” “who is and who was and who is to come,”
“the beginning and the end,” “the first and the last,” Rev. 1:4,8,17; 2:8; 21:6; 22:13. For
the rest, however the New Testament follows the Septuagint, which substituted ’Adonai
for it, and rendered this by Kurios, derived from kuros, power. This name does not have
exactly the same connotation as Yahweh, but designates God as the Mighty One, the
Lord, the Possessor, the Ruler who has legal power and authority. It is used not only of
God, but also of Christ.
3. PATER. It is often said that the New Testament introduced a new name of God,
namely, Pater (Father). But this is hardly correct. The name Father is used of the
Godhead even in heathen religions. It is used repeatedly in the Old Testament to
designate the relation of God to Israel, Deut. 32:6; Ps. 103:13; Isa. 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 3:4,19;
31:9; Mal. 1:6; 2:10, while Israel is called the son of God, Ex. 4:22; Deut. 14:1; 32:19; Isa.
1:2; Jer. 31:20; Hos. 1:10; 11:1. In such cases the name is expressive of the special
theocratic relation in which God stands to Israel. In the general sense of originator or
creator it is used in the following New Testament passages: I Cor. 8:6; Eph. 3:15; Heb.
12:9; James 1:18. In all other places it serves to express either the special relation in
which the first Person of the Trinity stands to Christ, as the Son of God either in a
metaphysical or a mediatorial sense, or the ethical relation in which God stands to all
believers as His spiritual children.
V. The Attributes of God in General
The name “attributes” is not ideal, since it conveys the notion of adding or assigning
something to one, and is therefore apt to create the impression that something is added
to the divine Being. Undoubtedly the term “properties” is better, as pointing to
something that is proper to God and to God only. Naturally, in so far as some of the
attributes are communicable, the absolute character of the proprium is weakened, for to
that extent some of the attributes are not proper to God in the absolute sense of the
word. But even this term contains the suggestion of a distinction between the essence or
nature of God and that which is proper to it. On the whole it is preferable to speak of
the “perfections” or “virtues” of God, with the distinct understanding, however, that in
this case the term “virtues” is not used in a purely ethical sense. By so doing we (a)
follow the usage of the Bible, which uses the term arete, rendered virtues or excellencies,
in I Pet. 2:9; and (b) avoid the suggestion that something is added to the Being of God.
His virtues are not added to His Being, but His Being is the pleroma of His virtues and
reveals itself in them. They may be defined as the perfections which are predicated of the
Divine Being in Scripture, or are visibly exercised by Him in His works of creation, providence,
and redemption. If we still continue to use the name “attributes,” it is because it is
commonly used and with the distinct understanding that the notion of something
added to the Being of God must be rigidly excluded.
The Scholastics in their attempt to construct a system of natural theology posited
three ways in which to determine the attributes of God, which they designated as the
via causalitatis, via negationis, and via eminentiae. By the way of causality we rise from the
effects which we see in the world round about us to the idea of a first Cause, from the
contemplation of creation, to the idea of an almighty Creator, and from the observation
of the moral government of the world, to the idea of a powerful and wise Ruler. By way
of negation we remove from our idea of God all the imperfections seen in His creatures,
as inconsistent with the idea of a Perfect Being, and ascribe to Him the opposite
perfection. In reliance on that principle we speak of God as independent, infinite,
incorporeal, immense, immortal, and incomprehensible. And finally, by way of eminence
we ascribe to God in the most eminent manner the relative perfections which we discover
in man, according to the principle that what exists in an effect, pre-exists in its cause,
and even in the most absolute sense in God as the most perfect Being. This method may
appeal to some, because it proceeds from the known to the unknown, but is not the
proper method of dogmatic theology. It takes its starting point in man, and concludes
from what it finds in man to what is found in God. And in so far as it does this it makes
man the measure of God. This is certainly not a theological method of procedure.
Moreover, it bases its knowledge of God on human conclusions rather than on the selfrevelation
of God in His divine Word. And yet this is the only adequate source of the
knowledge of God. While that method might be followed in a so-called natural
theology, it does not fit in a theology of revelation.
The same may be said of the methods suggested by modern representatives of
experimental theology. A typical example of this may be found in Macintosh’s Theology
as an Empirical Science.18 He also speaks of three methods of procedure. We may begin
with our intuitions of the reality of God, those unreasoned certitudes which are firmly
rooted in immediate experience. One of these is that the Object of our religious
dependence is absolutely sufficient for our imperative needs. Especially may
deductions be drawn from the life of Jesus and the “Christlike” everywhere. We may
also take our starting point, not in man’s certainties, but in his needs. The practically
necessary postulate is that God is absolutely sufficient and absolutely dependable with
reference to the religious needs of man. On that basis man can build up his doctrine of
the attributes of God. And, finally, it is also possible to follow a more pragmatic method,
which rests on the principle that we can learn to a certain extent what things and
persons are, beyond what they are immediately perceived to be, by observing what they
do. Macintosh finds it necessary to make use of all three methods.
Ritschl wants us to start with the idea that God is love, and would have us ask what
is involved in this most characteristic thought of God. Since love is personal, it implies
the personality of God, and thus affords us a principle for the interpretation of the
world and of the life of man. The thought that God is love also carries with it the
conviction that He can achieve His purpose of love, that is, that His will is supremely
effective in the world. This yields the idea of an almighty Creator. And by virtue of this
basic thought we also affirm God’s eternity, since, in controlling all things for the
realization of His Kingdom, He sees the end from the beginning. In a somewhat similar
vein Dr. W. A. Brown says: “We gain our knowledge of the attributes by analyzing the
18 p. 159 ff.
idea of God which we already won from the revelation in Christ; and we arrange them
in such a way as to bring the distinctive features of that idea to clearest expression.”19
All these methods take their starting point in human experience rather than in the
Word of God. They deliberately ignore the clear self-revelation of God in Scripture and
exalt the idea of the human discovery of God. They who rely on such methods have an
exaggerated idea of their own ability to find out God and to determine the nature of
God inductively by approved “scientific methods.” At the same time they close their
eyes to the only avenue through which they might obtain real knowledge of God, that
is, His special revelation, apparently oblivious of the fact that only the Spirit of God can
search and reveal the deep things of God and reveal them unto us. Their very method
compels them to drag God down to the level of man, to stress His immanence at the
expense of His transcendence, and to make Him continuous with the world. And as the
final result of their philosophy we have a God made in the image of man. James
condemns all intellectualism in religion, and maintains that philosophy in the form of
scholastic theology fails as completely to define God’s attributes in a scientific way as it
does to establish His existence. After an appeal to the book of Job he says:
“Ratiocination is a relatively superficial and unreal path to the deity.” He concludes his
discussion with these significant words: “In all sincerity I think we must conclude that
the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances
of direct religious experiences is absolutely hopeless.”20 He has more confidence in the
pragmatic method which seeks for a God that meets the practical needs of man. In his
estimation it is sufficient to believe that “beyond each man and in a fashion continuous
with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals. All that
the facts require is that the power should be other and larger than our conscious selves.
Anything larger will do, if it only be large enough to trust for the next step. It need not
be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more
godlike self, of which the present self would then be the mutilated expression, and the
universe might conceivably be a collection of such selves, of different degree and
inclusiveness, with no absolute unity realized in it at all.”21 Thus we are left with the
idea of a finite God.22
19 Chr. Theol. in Outline, p. 101.
20 Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 455
21 Ibid., p. 525.
22 Cf. Baillie, Our Knowledge of God, p. 251 ff. on this matter.
The only proper way to obtain perfectly reliable knowledge of the divine attributes
is by the study of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. It is true that we can acquire some
knowledge of the greatness and power, the wisdom and goodness of God through the
study of nature, but for an adequate conception of even these attributes it will be
necessary to turn to the Word of God. In the theology of revelation we seek to learn
from the Word of God which are the attributes of the Divine Being. Man does not elicit
knowledge from God as he does from other objects of study, but God conveys
knowledge of Himself to man, a knowledge which man can only accept and
appropriate. For the appropriation and understanding of this revealed knowledge it is,
of course, of the greatest importance that man is created in the image of God, and
therefore finds helpful analogies in his own life. In distinction from the a priori method
of the Scholastics, who deduced the attributes from the idea of a perfect Being, this
method may be called a posteriori, since it takes its starting point, not in an abstract
perfect Being, but in the fulness of the divine self-revelation, and in the light of this
seeks to know the Divine Being.
The question of the classification of the divine attributes has engaged the attention of
theologians for a long time. Several classifications have been suggested, most of which
distinguish two general classes. These classes are designated by different names and
represent different points of view, but are substantially the same in the various
classifications. The following are the most important of these:
1. Some speak of natural and moral attributes. The former, such as self-existence,
simplicity, infinity, etc., belong to the constitutional nature of God, as distinguished
from His will. The latter, as truth, goodness, mercy, justice, holiness, etc., qualify Him as
a moral Being. The objection to this classification is that the so-called moral attributes
are just as truly natural (i.e. original) in God as the others. Dabney prefers this division,
but admits, in view of the objection raised, that the terms are not felicitous. He would
rather speak of moral and non-moral attributes.
2. Others distinguish between absolute and relative attributes. The former belong to the
essence of God as considered in itself, while the latter belong to the divine essence
considered in relation to His creation. The one class includes such attributes as selfexistence,
immensity, eternity; and the other, such attributes as omnipresence and
omniscience. This division seems to proceed on the assumption that we can have some
knowledge of God as He is in Himself, entirely apart from the relations in which He
stands to His creatures. But this is not so, and therefore, properly speaking, all the
perfections of God are relative, indicating what He is in relation to the world. Strong
evidently does not recognize the objection, and gives preference to this division.
3. Still others divide the divine perfections into immanent or intransitive and emanent
or transitive attributes. Strong combines this division with the preceding one, when he
speaks of absolute or immanent and relative or transitive attributes. The former are those
which do not go forth and operate outside of the divine essence, but remain immanent,
such as immensity, simplicity, eternity, etc.; and the latter are such as issue forth and
produce effects external to God, as omnipotence, benevolence, justice, etc. But if some of
the divine attributes are purely immanent, all knowledge of them would seem to be
excluded. H. B. Smith remarks that every one of them must be both immanent and
4. The most common distinction is that between incommunicable and communicable
attributes. The former are those to which there is nothing analogous in the creature, as
aseity, simplicity, immensity, etc.; the latter those to which the properties of the human
spirit bear some analogy, as power, goodness, mercy, righteousness, etc. This distinction
found no favor with the Lutherans, but has always been rather popular in Reformed
circles, and is found in such representative works as those of the Leyden Professors,23
Mastricht and Turretin. It was felt from the very beginning, however, that the distinction
was untenable without further qualification, since from one point of view every
attribute may be called communicable. None of the divine perfections are
communicable in the infinite perfection in which they exist in God, and at the same time
there are faint traces in man even of the so-called incommunicable attributes of God.
Among more recent Reformed theologians there is a tendency to discard this distinction
in favor of some other divisions. Dick, Shedd, and Vos retain the old division. Kuyper
expresses himself as dissatisfied with it, and yet reproduces it in his virtutes per
antithesin and virtutes per synthesin; and Bavinck, after following another order in the
first edition of his Dogmatics, returns to it in the second edition. Honig prefers to follow
the division given by Bavinck in his first edition. And, finally, the Hodges, H. B. Smith,
and Thornwell follow a division suggested by the Westminster Catechism. However,
the classification of the attributes under two main heads, as found in the distinction
under consideration, is really inherent in all the other divisions, so that they are all
subject to the objection that they apparently divide the Being of God into two parts, that
first God as He is in Himself, God as the absolute Being, is discussed, and then God as
23 Synopsis Purioris Theologiae.
He is related to His creatures, God as a personal Being. It may be said that such a
treatment does not result in a unitary and harmonious conception of the divine
attributes. This difficulty may be obviated, however, by having it clearly understood
that the two classes of attributes named are not strictly co-ordinate, but that the
attributes belonging to the first class qualify all those belonging to the second class, so
that it can be said that God is one, absolute, unchangeable and infinite in His
knowledge and wisdom, His goodness and love, His grace and mercy, His
righteousness and holiness. If we bear this in mind, and also remember that none of the
attributes of God are incommunicable in the sense that there is no trace of them in man,
and that none of them are communicable in the sense that they are found in man as they
are found in God, we see no reason why we should depart from the old division which
has become so familiar in Reformed theology. For practical reasons it seems more
desirable to retain it.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: What objections are there to the use of the term
attributes as applied to God? Do the same objections apply to the German
“Eigenschaften” and the Holland “eigenschappen”? What name does Calvin use for
them? What objection is there to the conception of the attributes as parts of God or as
additions to the Divine Being? What faulty conceptions of the attributes were current in
the Middle Ages? Did the Scholastics in their search for the attributes follow an a priori
or an a posteriori, a deductive or an inductive method? Why is their method inherently
foreign to the theology of revelation? What classifications of the attributes were
suggested in addition to those mentioned in the text? Why is it virtually out of the
question to give a faultless division? What division is suggested by the Westminster
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 100-123; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Deo I, pp.
268-287; Honig, Geref. Dogm., pp. 182-185; Hodge, Syst. Theol. I, pp. 368-376; Shedd,
Dogm. Theol. I, pp. 334-338; Thornwell, Collected Works, I, pp. 158-172; Dabney, Lectures
on Theol., pp. 147-151; Pieper, Christl. Dogm. I, pp. 524-536; Kaftan, Dogm., pp. 168-181;
Pope, Chr. Theol. I, pp. 287-291; Steenstra, The Being of God as Unity and Trinity, pp.
VI. The Incommunicable Attributes
(God as the Absolute Being)
It has been quite common in theology to speak of God as the absolute Being. At the
same time the term “absolute” is more characteristic of philosophy than it is of theology.
In metaphysics the term “the Absolute” is a designation of the ultimate ground of all
existence; and because the theist also speaks of God as the ultimate ground of all
existence, it is sometimes thought that the Absolute of philosophy and the God of
theism are one and the same. But that is not necessarily so. In fact the usual conception
of the Absolute renders it impossible to equate it with the God of the Bible and of
Christian theology. The term “Absolute” is derived from the Latin absolutus, a
compound of ab (from) and solvere (to loosen), and thus means free as to condition, or
free from limitation or restraint. This fundamental thought was worked out in various
ways, so that the Absolute was regarded as that which is free from all conditions (the
Unconditioned or Self-Existent), from all relations (the (Unrelated), from all
imperfections (the Perfect), or free from all phenomenal differences or distinctions, such
as matter and spirit, being and attributes, subject and object, appearance and reality (the
Real, or Ultimate Reality).
The answer to the question, whether the Absolute of philosophy can be identified
with the God of theology, depends on the conception one has of the Absolute. If Spinoza
conceives of the Absolute as the one Self-subsistent Being of which all particular things
are but transient modes, thus identifying God and the world, we cannot share his view
of this Absolute as God. When Hegel views the Absolute as the unity of thought and
being, as the totality of all things, which includes all relations, and in which all the
discords of the present are resolved in perfect unity, we again find it impossible to
follow him in regarding this Absolute as God. And when Bradley says that his Absolute
is related to nothing, and that there cannot be any practical relation between it and the
finite will, we agree with him that his Absolute cannot be the God of the Christian
religion, for this God does enter into relations with finite creatures. Bradley cannot
conceive of the God of religion as other than a finite God. But when the Absolute is
defined as the First Cause of all existing things, or as the ultimate ground of all reality,
or as the one self-existent Being, it can be considered as identical with the God of
theology. He is the Infinite One, who does not exist in any necessary relations, because
He is self-sufficient, but at the same time can freely enter into various relations with His
creation as a whole and with His creatures. While the incommunicable attributes
emphasize the absolute Being of God, the communicable attributes stress the fact that
He enters into various relations with His creatures. In the present chapter the following
perfections of God come into consideration.
God is self-existent, that is, He has the ground of His existence in Himself. This idea
is sometimes expressed by saying that He is causa sui (His own cause), but this
expression is hardly accurate, since God is the uncaused, who exists by the necessity of
His own Being, and therefore necessarily. Man, on the other hand, does not exist
necessarily, and has the cause of his existence outside of himself. The idea of God’s selfexistence
was generally expressed by the term aseitas, meaning self-originated, but
Reformed theologians quite generally substituted for it the word independentia
(independence), as expressing, not merely that God is independent in His Being, but
also that He is independent in everything else: in His virtues, decrees, works, and so on.
It may be said that there is a faint trace of this perfection in the creature, but this can
only mean that the creature, though absolutely dependent, yet has its own distinct
existence. But, of course, this falls far short of being self-existent. This attribute of God is
generally recognized, and is implied in heathen religions and in the Absolute of
philosophy. When the Absolute is conceived of as the self-existent and as the ultimate
ground of all things, which voluntarily enters into various relations with other beings, it
can be identified with the God of theology. As the self-existent God, He is not only
independent in Himself, but also causes everything to depend on Him. This selfexistence
of God finds expression in the name Jehovah. It is only as the self-existent and
independent One that God can give the assurance that He will remain eternally the
same in relation to His people. Additional indications of it are found in the assertion in
John 5:26, “For as the Father hath life in Himself, even so gave He to the Son also to
have life in Himself”; in the declaration that He is independent of all things and that all
things exist only through Him, Ps. 94:8 ff.; Isa. 40:18 ff.; Acts 7:25; and in statements
implying that He is independent in His thought, Rom. 11:33,34, and in His will, Dan.
4:35; Rom. 9:19; Eph. 1:5; Rev. 4:11. in His power, Ps. 115:3, and in His counsel, Ps. 33:11.
The Immutability of God is a necessary concomitant of His aseity. It is that
perfection of God by which He is devoid of all change, not only in His Being, but also in
His perfections, and in His purposes and promises. In virtue of this attribute He is
exalted above all becoming, and is free from all accession or diminution and from all
growth or decay in His Being or perfections. His knowledge and plans, His moral
principles and volitions remain forever the same. Even reason teaches us that no change
is possible in God, since a change is either for better or for worse. But in God, as the
absolute Perfection, improvement and deterioration are both equally impossible. This
immutability of God is clearly taught in such passages of Scripture as Ex. 3:14; Ps.
102:26-28; Isa. 41:4; 48:12; Mal. 3:6; Rom. 1:23; Heb. 1:11,12; Jas. 1:17. At the same time
there are many passages of Scripture which seem to ascribe change to God. Did not He
who dwelleth in eternity pass on to the creation of the world, become incarnate in
Christ, and in the Holy Spirit take up His abode in the Church? Is He not represented as
revealing and hiding Himself, as coming and going, as repenting and changing His
intention, and as dealing differently with man before and after conversion? Cf. Ex.
32:10-14; Jonah 3:10; Prov. 11:20; 12:22; Ps. 18:26,27. The objection here implied is based
to a certain extent on misunderstanding. The divine immutability should not be
understood as implying immobility, as if there were no movement in God. It is even
customary in theology to speak of God as actus purus, a God who is always in action.
The Bible teaches us that God enters into manifold relations with man and, as it were,
lives their life with them. There is change round about Him, change in the relations of
men to Him, but there is no change in His Being, His attributes, His purpose, His
motives of action, or His promises. The purpose to create was eternal with Him, and
there was no change in Him when this purpose was realized by a single eternal act of
His will. The incarnation brought no change in the Being or perfections of God, nor in
His purpose, for it was His eternal good pleasure to send the Son of His love into the
world. And if Scripture speaks of His repenting, changing His intention, and altering
His relation to sinners when they repent, we should remember that this is only an
anthropopathic way of speaking. In reality the change is not in God, but in man and in
man’s relations to God. It is important to maintain the immutability of God over against
the Pelagian and Arminian doctrine that God is subject to change, not indeed in His
Being, but in His knowledge and will, so that His decisions are to a great extent
dependent on the actions of man; over against the pantheistic notion that God is an
eternal becoming rather than an absolute Being, and that the unconscious Absolute is
gradually developing into conscious personality in man; and over against the present
tendency of some to speak of a finite, struggling, and gradually growing God.
The infinity of God is that perfection of God by which He is free from all limitations.
In ascribing it to God we deny that there are or can be any limitations to the divine
Being or attributes. It implies that He is in no way limited by the universe, by this timespace
world, or confined to the universe. It does not involve His identity with the sumtotal
of existing things, nor does it exclude the co-existence of derived and finite things,
to which He bears relation. The infinity of God must be conceived as intensive rather
than extensive, and should not be confused with boundless extension, as if God were
spread out through the entire universe, one part being here and another there, for God
has no body and therefore no extension. Neither should it be regarded as a merely
negative concept, though it is perfectly true that we cannot form a positive idea of it. It
is a reality in God fully comprehended only by Him. We distinguish various aspects of
God’s infinity.
1. HIS ABSOLUTE PERFECTION. This is the infinity of the Divine Being considered in
itself. It should not be understood in a quantitative, but in a qualitative sense; it
qualifies all the communicable attributes of God. Infinite power is not an absolute
quantum, but an exhaustless potency of power; and infinite holiness is not a boundless
quantum of holiness, but a holiness which is, qualitatively free from all limitation or
defect. The same may be said of infinite knowledge and wisdom, and of infinite love
and righteousness. Says Dr. Orr: “Perhaps we can say that infinity in God is ultimately:
(a) internally and qualitatively, absence of all limitation and defect; (b) boundless
potentiality.”24 In this sense of the word the infinity of God is simply identical with the
perfection of His Divine Being. Scripture proof for it is found in Job 11:7-10; Ps. 145:3;
Matt. 5:48.
2. HIS ETERNITY. The infinity of God in relation to time is called His eternity. The
form in which the Bible represents God’s eternity is simply that of duration through
endless ages, Ps. 90:2; 102:12; Eph. 3:21. We should remember, however, that in speaking
as it does the Bible uses popular language, and not the language of philosophy. We
generally think of God’s eternity in the same way, namely, as duration infinitely
prolonged both backwards and forwards. But this is only a popular and symbolical way
of representing that which in reality transcends time and differs from it essentially.
Eternity in the strict sense of the word is abscribed to that which transcends all temporal
limitations. That it applies to God in that sense is at least intimated in II Pet. 3:8. “Time,”
says Dr. Orr, “strictly has relation to the world of objects existing in succession. God fills
time; is in every part of it; but His eternity still is not really this being in time. It is rather
that to which time forms a contrast.”25 Our existence is marked off by days and weeks
24 Side-Lights on Christian Doctrine, p. 26.
25 Ibid., p. 26.
and months and years; not so the existence of God. Our life is divided into a past,
present and future, but there is no such division in the life of God. He is the eternal “I
am.” His eternity may be defined as that perfection of God whereby He is elevated above all
temporal limits and all succession of moments, and possesses the whole of His existence in one
indivisible present. The relation of eternity to time constitutes one of the most difficult
problems in philosophy and theology, perhaps incapable of solution in our present
3. HIS IMMENSITY. The infinity of God may also be viewed with reference to space,
and is then called His immensity. It may be defined as that perfection of the Divine Being
by which He transcends all spatial limitations, and yet is present in every point of space with
His whole Being. It has a negative and a positive side, denying all limitations of space to
the Divine Being, and asserting that God is above space and fills every part of it with His
whole Being. The last words are added, in order to ward off the idea that God is diffused
through space, so that one part of His Being is present in one place, and another part in
some other place. We distinguish three modes of presence in space. Bodies are in space
circumscriptively, because they are bounded by it; finite spirits are in space definitively,
since they are not everywhere, but only in a certain definite place; and in distinction
from both of these God is in space repletively, because He fills all space. He is not absent
from any part of it, nor more present in one part than in another.
In a certain sense the terms “immensity” and “omnipresence,” as applied to God,
denote the same thing, and can therefore be regarded as synonymous. Yet there is a
point of difference that should be carefully noted. “Immensity” points to the fact that
God transcends all space and is not subject to its limitations, while “omnipresence”
denotes that He nevertheless fills every part of space with His entire Being. The former
emphasizes the transcendence, and the latter, the immanence of God. God is immanent
in all His creatures, in His entire creation, but is in no way bounded by it. In connection
with God’s relation to the world we must avoid, on the one hand, the error of
Pantheism, so characteristic of a great deal of present day thinking, with its denial of the
transcendence of God and its assumption that the Being of God is really the substance
of all things; and, on the other hand, the Deistic conception that God is indeed present
in creation per potentiam (with His power), but not per essentiam et naturam (with His
very Being and nature), and acts upon the world from a distance. Though God is
distinct from the world and may not be identified with it, He is yet present in every part
of His creation, not only per potentiam, but also per essentiam. This does not mean,
however, that He is equally present and present in the same sense in all His creatures.
The nature of His indwelling is in harmony with that of His creatures. He does not
dwell on earth as He does in heaven, in animals as He does in man, in the inorganic as
He does in the organic creation, in the wicked as He does in the pious, nor in the
Church as He does in Christ. There is an endless variety in the manner in which He is
immanent in His creatures, and in the measure in which they reveal God to those who
have eyes to see. The omnipresence of God is clearly revealed in Scripture. Heaven and
earth cannot contain Him, I Kings 8:27; Isa. 66:1; Acts 7:48,49; and at the same time He
fills both and is a God at hand, Ps. 139:7-10; Jer. 23:23,24; Acts 17:27,28.
A distinction is made between the unitas singularitatis and the unitas simplicitatis.
1. THE UNITAS SINGULARITATIS. This attribute stresses both the oneness and the
unicity of God, the fact that He is numerically one and that as such He is unique. It
implies that there is but one Divine Being, that from the nature of the case there can be
but one, and that all other beings exist of and through and unto Him. The Bible teaches
us in several passages that there is but one true God. Solomon pleaded with God to
maintain the cause of His people, “that all the peoples of the earth may know that
Jehovah, He is God; there is none else,” I Kings 8:60. And Paul writes to the Corinthians,
“But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in Him; and
one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we in Him,” I Cor. 8:6. Similarly he
writes to Timothy, “For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the
man Christ Jesus,” I Tim. 2:5. Other passages do not stress the numerical unity of God
as much as they do His uniqueness. This is the case in the well known words of Deut.
6:4, “Hear, O Israel; Jehovah our God is one Jehovah.” The Hebrew word ’echad,
translated by “one” may also be rendered “an only,” the equivalent of the German
“einig” and the Dutch “eenig.” And this would seem to be a better translation. Keil
stresses that fact that this passage does not teach the numerical unity of God, but rather
that Jehovah is the only God that is entitled to the name Jehovah. This is also the
meaning of the term in Zech. 14:9. The same idea is beautifully expressed in the
rhetorical question of Ex. 15:11, “Who is like unto thee, O Jehovah, among the gods?
Who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” This excludes
all polytheistic conceptions of God.
2. THE UNITAS SIMPLICITATIS. While the unity discussed in the preceding sets God
apart from other beings, the perfection now under consideration is expressive of the
inner and qualitative unity of the Divine Being. When we speak of the simplicity of
God, we use the term to describe the state or quality of being simple, the condition of
being free from division into parts, and therefore from compositeness. It means that
God is not composite and is not susceptible of division in any sense of the word. This
implies among other things that the three Persons in the Godhead are not so many parts
of which the Divine essence is composed, that God’s essence and perfections are not
distinct, and that the attributes are not superadded to His essence. Since the two are
one, the Bible can speak of God as light and life, as righteousness and love, thus
identifying Him with His perfections. The simplicity of God follows from some of His
other perfections; from His Self-existence, which excludes the idea that something
preceded Him, as in the case of compounds; and from His immutability, which could
not be predicated of His nature, if it were made up of parts. This perfection was
disputed during the Middle Ages, and was denied by Socinians and Arminians.
Scripture does not explicitly assert it, but implies it where it speaks of God as
righteousness, truth, wisdom, light, life, love, and so on, and thus indicates that each of
these properties, because of their absolute perfection, is identical with His Being. In
recent works on theology the simplicity of God is seldom mentioned. Many theologians
positively deny it, either because it is regarded as a purely metaphysical abstraction, or
because, in their estimation, it conflicts with the doctrine of the Trinity. Dabney believes
that there is no composition in the substance of God, but denies that in Him substance
and attributes are one and the same. He claims that God is no more simple in that
respect than finite spirits.26
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. What different conceptions of the Absolute do we
meet with in philosophy? Can the Absolute of philosophy always be identified with the
God of theology? How does Bradley distinguish between the two? How is the finite
God of James, Schiller, Ward, Wells and others, related to the Absolute? How do the
incommunicable attributes of God link up with the Absolute? Does the immutability of
God exclude all movement in God? In how far does it exclude changes of action and
relations? Should the absolute perfection of God be regarded as an attribute? Why does
the Bible represent God’s eternity as endless duration? Is it possible to harmonize the
transcendence and the immanence of God? How is transcendence frequently
interpreted in modern theology? What is implied in the simplicity of God?
26 Syst. and Polem. Theol., p. 43f.
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 137-171; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., Deo I, pp.
287-318; Hodge, Syst. Theol. I, pp. 380-393; Shedd, Dogm. Theol. I, pp. 338-353; Dabney,
Syst. and Polem. Theol., pp. 151-154; Thornwell, Collected Works I, pp. 189-205; Strong,
Syst. Theol., pp. 254-260, 275-279; Pieper, Christl. Dogm. I, pp. 536-543, 547-549; Knudson,
The Doct. of God, pp. 242-284; Steenstra, God as Unity and Trinity, pp. 112-139; Charnock,
Existence and Attributes of God. pp. 276-405.
VII. The Communicable Attributes
(God as a Personal Spirit)
If the attributes discussed in the previous chapter stressed the absolute Being of
God, those that remain to be considered emphasize His personal nature. It is in the
communicable attributes that God stands out as a conscious, intelligent, free, and moral
Being, as a Being that is personal in the highest sense of the word. The question has long
engaged the attention of philosophers, and is still a subject of debate, whether personal
existence is consistent with the idea of absoluteness. The answer to that question
depends to a great extent on the meaning one ascribes to the word “absolute.” The
word has been used in three different senses in philosophy, which may be denominated
as the agnostic, the logical, and the causal sense. For the agnostic the Absolute is the
unrelated, of which nothing can be known, since things are known only in their
relations. And if nothing can be known of it, personality cannot be ascribed to it.
Moreover, since personality is unthinkable apart from relations, it cannot be identified
with an Absolute which is in its very essence the unrelated. In the logical Absolute the
individual is subordinated to the universal, and the highest universal is ultimate reality.
Such is the absolute substance of Spinoza, and the absolute spirit of Hegel. It may
express itself in and through the finite, but nothing that is finite can express its essential
nature. To ascribe personality to it would be to limit it to one mode of being, and would
destroy its absoluteness. In fact, such an absolute or ultimate is a mere abstract and
empty concept, that is barren of all content. The causal view of the Absolute represents
it as the ultimate ground of all things. It is not dependent on anything outside of itself,
but causes all things to depend on it. Moreover, it is not necessarily completely
unrelated, but can enter into various relations with finite creatures. Such a conception of
the Absolute is not inconsistent with the idea of personality. Moreover, we should bear
in mind that in their argumentation philosophers were always operating with the idea
of personality as it is realized in man, and lost sight of the fact that personality in God
might be something infinitely more perfect. As a matter of fact, perfect personality is
found only in God, and what we see in man is only a finite copy of the original. Still
more, there is a tripersonality in God, of which no analogy is found in human beings.
Several natural proofs, quite similar to those adduced for the existence of God, have
been urged to prove the personality of God. (1) Human personality demands a personal
God for its explanation. Man is not a self-existent and eternal, but a finite being that has
a beginning and an end. The cause assumed must be sufficient to account for the whole
of the effect. Since man is a personal product, the power originating him must also be
personal. Otherwise there is something in the effect which is superior to anything that is
found in the cause; and this would be quite impossible. (2) The world in general bears
witness to the personality of God. In its whole fabric and constitution it reveals the
clearest traces of an infinite intelligence, of the deepest, highest and tenderest emotions,
and of a will that is all-powerful. Consequently, we are constrained to mount from the
world to the world’s Maker as a Being of intelligence, sensibility, and will, that is, as a
person. (3) The moral and religious nature of man also points to the personality of God.
His moral nature imposes on him a sense of obligation to do that which is right, and this
necessarily implies the existence of a supreme Lawgiver. Moreover, his religious nature
constantly prompts him to seek personal communion with some higher Being; and all
the elements and activities of religion demand a personal God as their object and final
end. Even so-called pantheistic religions often testify unconsciously to belief in a
personal God. The fact is that all such things as penitence, faith and obedience,
fellowship and love, loyalty in service and sacrifice, trust in life and death, are
meaningless unless they find their appropriate object in a personal God.
But while all these considerations are true and have some value as testimonia, they
are not the proofs on which theology depends in its doctrine of the personality of God.
It turns for proof to God’s Self-revelation in Scripture. The term “person” is not applied
to God in the Bible, though there are words, such as the Hebrew panim and the Greek
prosopon, that come very close to expressing the idea. At the same time Scripture testifies
to the personality of God in more than one way. The presence of God, as described by
Old and New Testament writers, is clearly a personal presence. And the
anthropomorphic and anthropopathic representations of God in Scripture, while they
must be interpreted so as not to militate against the pure spirituality and holiness of
God, can hardly be justified, except on the assumption that the Being to whom they
apply is a real person, with personal attributes, even though it be without human
limitations. God is represented throughout as a personal God, with whom men can and
may converse, whom they can trust, who sustains them in their trials, and fills their
hearts with the joy of deliverance and victory. And, finally, the highest revelation of God
to which the Bible testifies is a personal revelation. Jesus Christ reveals the Father in
such a perfect way that He could say to Philip,” He who hath seen me hath seen the
Father,” John 14:9. More detailed proofs will appear in the discussion of the
communicable attributes.
The Bible does not give us a definition of God. The nearest approach to anything like
it is found in the word of Christ to the Samaritan woman, “God is Spirit,” John 4:24.
This is at least a statement purporting to tell us in a single word what God is. The Lord
does not merely say that God is a spirit, but that He is Spirit. And because of this clear
statement it is but fitting that we should discuss first of all the spirituality of God. By
teaching the spirituality of God theology stresses the fact that God has a substantial
Being all His own and distinct from the world, and that this substantial Being is
immaterial, invisible, and without composition or extension. It includes the thought that
all the essential qualities which belong to the perfect idea of Spirit are found in Him:
that He is a self-conscious and self-determining Being. Since He is Spirit in the most
absolute, and in the purest sense of the word, there is in Him no composition of parts.
The idea of spirituality of necessity excludes the ascription of anything like corporeity
to God, and thus condemns the fancies of some of the early Gnostics and medieval
Mystics, and of all those sectarians of our own day who ascribe a body to God. It is true
that the Bible speaks of the hands and feet, the eyes and ears, the mouth and nose of
God, but in doing this it is speaking anthropomorphically or figuratively of Him who
far transcends our human knowledge, and of whom we can only speak in a stammering
fashion after the manner of men. By ascribing spirituality to God we also affirm that He
has none of the properties belonging to matter, and that He cannot be discerned by the
bodily senses. Paul speaks of Him as “the King eternal, immortal, invisible” (I Tim.
1:17), and again as “the King of kings, and Lord of lords, who only hath immortality,
dwelling in light unapproachable; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be
honor and power eternal,” I Tim. 6:15,16.
God is represented in Scripture as Light, and therefore as perfect in His intellectual
life. This category comprises two of the divine perfections, namely, the knowledge and
the wisdom of God.
1. THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD. The knowledge of God may be defined as that perfection
of God whereby He, in an entirely unique manner, knows Himself and all things possible and
actual in one eternal and most simple act. The Bible testifies to the knowledge of God
abundantly, as, for instance, in I Sam. 2:3; Job 12:13; Ps. 94:9; 147:4; Isa. 29:15; 40:27,28. In
connection with the knowledge of God several points call for consideration.
a. Its nature. The knowledge of God differs in some important points from that of
men. It is archetypal, which means that He knows the universe as it exists in His own
eternal idea previous to its existence as a finite reality in time and space; and that His
knowledge is not, like ours, obtained from without. It is a knowledge that is
characterized by absolute perfection. As such it is intuitive rather than demonstrative or
discursive. It is innate and immediate, and does not result from observation or from a
process of reasoning. Being perfect, it is also simultaneous and not successive, so that He
sees things at once in their totality, and not piecemeal one after another. Furthermore, it
is complete and fully conscious, while man’s knowledge is always partial, frequently
indistinct, and often fails to rise into the clear light of consciousness. A distinction is
made between the necessary and free knowledge of God. The former is the knowledge
which God has of Himself and of all things possible, a knowledge resting on the
consciousness of His omnipotence. It is called necessary knowledge, because it is not
determined by an action of the divine will. It is also known as the knowledge of simple
intelligence, in view of the fact that it is purely an act of the divine intellect, without any
concurrent action of the divine will. The free knowledge of God is the knowledge which He
has of all things actual, that is, of things that existed in the past, that exist in the present,
or that will exist in the future. It is founded on God’s infinite knowledge of His own allcomprehensive
and unchangeable eternal purpose, and is called free knowledge,
because it is determined by a concurrent act of the will. It is also called scientia visionis,
knowledge of vision.
b. Its extent. The knowledge of God is not only perfect in kind, but also in its
inclusiveness. It is called omniscience, because it is all-comprehensive. In order to
promote a proper estimate of it, we may particularize as follows: God knows Himself
and in Himself all things that come from Him (internal knowledge). He knows all
things as they actually come to pass, past, present, and future, and knows them in their
real relations. He knows the hidden essence of things, to which the knowledge of man
cannot penetrate. He sees not as man sees, who observes only the outward
manifestations of life, but penetrates to the depths of the human heart. Moreover, He
knows what is possible as well as what is actual; all things that might occur under
certain circumstances are present to His mind. The omniscience of God is clearly taught
in several passages of Scripture. He is perfect in knowledge, Job 37:16, looketh not on
outward appearance but on the heart, I Sam. 16:7; I Chron. 28:9,17; Ps. 139:1-4; Jer. 17:10,
observes the ways of men, Deut. 2:7; Job 23:10; 24:23; 31:4; Ps. 1:6; 119:168, knows the
place of their habitation, Ps. 33:13, and the days of their life, Ps. 37:18. This doctrine of
the knowledge of God must be maintained over against all pantheistic tendencies to
represent God as the unconscious ground of the phenomenal world, and of those who,
like Marcion, Socinus and all who believe in a finite God, ascribe to Him only a limited
There is one question, however, that calls for special discussion. It concerns God’s
foreknowledge of the free actions of men, and therefore of conditional events. We can
understand how God can foreknow where necessity rules, but find it difficult to
conceive of a previous knowledge of actions which man freely originates. The difficulty
of this problem led some to deny the foreknowledge of free actions, and others to deny
human freedom. It is perfectly evident that Scripture teaches the divine foreknowledge
of contingent events, I Sam. 23:10-13; II Kings 13:19; Ps. 81:14,15; Isa. 42:9; 48:18; Jer.
2:2,3; 38:17-20; Ezek. 3:6; Matt. 11:21. Moreover, it does not leave us in doubt as to the
freedom of man. It certainly does not permit the denial of either one of the terms of the
problem. We are up against a problem here, which we cannot fully solve, though it is
possible to make an approach to a solution. God has decreed all things, and has decreed
them with their causes and conditions in the exact order in which they come to pass;
and His foreknowledge of future things and also of contingent events rests on His
decree. This solves the problem as far as the foreknowledge of God is concerned.
But now the question arises, Is the predetermination of things consistent with the
free will of man? And the answer is that it certainly is not, if the freedom of the will be
regarded as indifferentia (arbitrariness), but this is an unwarranted conception of the
freedom of man. The will of man is not something altogether indeterminate, something
hanging in the air that can be swung arbitrarily in either direction. It is rather something
rooted in our very nature, connected with our deepest instincts and emotions, and
determined by our intellectual considerations and by our very character. And if we
conceive of our human freedom as lubentia rationalis (reasonable self-determination),
then we have no sufficient warrant for saying that it is inconsistent with divine
foreknowledge. Says Dr. Orr: “A solution of this problem there is, though our minds fail
to grasp it. In part it probably lies, not in denying freedom, but in a revised conception
of freedom. For freedom, after all, is not arbitrariness. There is in all rational action a
why for acting — a reason which decides action. The truly free man is not the uncertain,
incalculable man, but the man who is reliable. In short, freedom has its laws — spiritual
laws — and the omniscient Mind knows what these are. But an element of mystery, it
must be acknowledged, still remains.”27
27 Side-Lights on Chr. Doct., p. 30.
Jesuit, Lutheran, and Arminian theologians suggested the so-called scientia media as
a solution of the problem. The name is indicative of the fact that it occupies a middle
ground between the necessary and the free knowledge of God. It differs from the former
in that its object is not all possible things, but a special class of things actually future; and
from the latter in that its ground is not the eternal purpose of God, but the free action of the
creature as simply foreseen.28 It is called mediate, says Dabney, “because they suppose God
arrives at it, not directly by knowing His own purpose to effect it, but indirectly by His
infinite insight into the manner in which the contingent second cause will act, under
given outward circumstances, foreseen or produced by God.”29 But this is no solution of
the problem at all. It is an attempt to reconcile two things which logically exclude each
other, namely, freedom of action in the Pelagian sense and a certain foreknowledge of
that action. Actions that are in no way determined by God, directly or indirectly, but are
wholly dependent on the arbitrary will of man, can hardly be the object of divine
foreknowledge. Moreover, it is objectionable, because it makes the divine knowledge
dependent on the choice of man, virtually annuls the certainty of the knowledge of
future events, and thus implicitly denies the omniscience of God. It is also contrary to
such passages of Scripture as Acts 2:23; Rom. 9:16; Eph. 1:11; Phil. 2:13.
2. THE WISDOM OF GOD. The wisdom of God may be regarded as a particular aspect
of His knowledge. It is quite evident that knowledge and wisdom are not the same,
though they are closely related. They do not always accompany each other. An
uneducated man may be superior to a scholar in wisdom. Knowledge is acquired by
study, but wisdom results from an intuitive insight into things. The former is theoretical,
while the latter is practical, making knowledge subservient to some specific purpose.
Both are imperfect in man, but in God they are characterized by absolute perfection.
God’s wisdom is His intelligence as manifested in the adaptation of means to ends. It
points to the fact that He always strives for the best possible ends, and chooses the best
means for the realization of His purposes. H. B. Smith defines the divine wisdom as
“that attribute of God whereby He produces the best possible results with the best
possible means.” We may be a little more specific and call it that perfection of God whereby
He applies His knowledge to the attainment of His ends in a way which glorifies Him most. It
implies a final end to which all secondary ends are subordinate; and according to
Scripture this final end is the glory of God, Rom. 11:33; 14:7,8; Eph. 1:11,12; Col. 1:16.
Scripture refers to the wisdom of God in many passages, and even represents it as
28 A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theol., p. 147.
29 Syst. and Polem. Theol., p. 156.
personified in Proverbs 8. This wisdom of God is seen particularly in creation, Ps.
19:1-7; 104:1-34; in providence, Ps. 33:10, 11; Rom. 8:28; and in redemption, Rom. 11:33; I
Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:10.
3. THE VERACITY OF GOD. Scripture uses several words to express the veracity of God:
in the Old Testament ’emeth, ’amunah, and ’amen, and in the New Testament alethes
(aletheia), alethinos, and pistis. This already points to the fact that it includes several
ideas, such as truth, truthfulness, and faithfulness. When God is called the truth, this is
to be understood in its most comprehensive sense. He is the truth first of all in a
metaphysical sense, that is, in Him the idea of the Godhead is perfectly realized; He is
all that He as God should be, and as such is distinguished from all so-called gods,
which are called vanity and lies, Ps. 96:5; 97:7; 115:4-8; Isa. 44:9,10. He is also the truth in
an ethical sense, and as such reveals Himself as He really is, so that His revelation is
absolutely reliable, Num. 23:19; Rom. 3:4; Heb. 6:18. Finally, He is also the truth in a
logical sense, and in virtue of this He knows things as they really are, and has so
constituted the mind of man that the latter can know, not merely the appearance, but
also the reality, of things. Thus the truth of God is the foundation of all knowledge. It
should be borne in mind, moreover, that these three are but different aspects of the
truth, which is one in God. In view of the preceding we may define the veracity or truth
of God as that perfection of His Being by virtue of which He fully answers to the idea of the
Godhead, is perfectly reliable in His revelation, and sees things as they really are. It is because
of this perfection that He is the source of all truth, not only in the sphere of morals and
religion, but also in every field of scientific endeavor. Scripture is very emphatic in its
references to God as the truth, Ex. 34:6; Num. 23:19; Deut. 32:4; Ps. 25:10; 31:6; Isa. 65:16;
Jer. 10:8, 10, 11; John 14:6; 17:3; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18; I John 5:20, 21. There is still another
aspect of this divine perfection, and one that is always regarded as of the greatest
importance. It is generally called His faithfulness, in virtue of which He is ever mindful
of His covenant and fulfils all the promises which He has made to His people. This
faithfulness of God is of the utmost practical significance to the people of God. It is the
ground of their confidence, the foundation of their hope, and the cause of their rejoicing.
It saves them from the despair to which their own unfaithfulness might easily lead,
gives them courage to carry on in spite of their failures, and fills their hearts with joyful
anticipations, even when they are deeply conscious of the fact that they have forfeited
all the blessings of God. Num. 23:19; Deut. 7:9; Ps. 89:33; Isa. 49:7; I Cor. 1:9; II Tim. 2:13;
Heb. 6:17, 18; 10:23.
The moral attributes of God are generally regarded as the most glorious of the
divine perfections. Not that one attribute of God is in itself more perfect and glorious
than another, but relatively to man the moral perfections of God shine with a splendor
all their own. They are generally discussed under three heads: (1) the goodness of God;
(2) the holiness of God; and (3) the righteousness of God.
1. THE GOODNESS OF GOD. This is generally treated as a generic conception, including
several varieties, which are distinguished according to their objects. The goodness of
God should not be confused with His kindness, which is a more restricted concept. We
speak of something as good, when it answers in all parts to the ideal. Hence in our
ascription of goodness to God the fundamental idea is that He is in every way all that
He as God should be, and therefore answers perfectly to the ideal expressed in the word
“God.” He is good in the metaphysical sense of the word, absolute perfection and
perfect bliss in Himself. It is in this sense that Jesus said to the young ruler: “None is
good save one, even God,” Mark 10:18. But since God is good in Himself, He is also
good for His creatures, and may therefore be called the fons omnium bonorum. He is the
fountain of all good, and is so represented in a variety of ways throughout the Bible.
The poet sings: “For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light shall we see light,” Ps.
36:9. All the good things which the creatures enjoy in the present and expect in the
future, flow to them out of this inexhaustible fountain. And not only that, but God is
also the summum bonum, the highest good, for all His creatures, though in different
degrees and according to the measure in which they answer to the purpose of their
existence. In the present connection we naturally stress the ethical goodness of God and
the different aspects of it, as these are determined by the nature of its objects.
a. The goodness of God towards His creatures in general. This may be defined as that
perfection of God which prompts Him to deal bountifully and kindly with all His creatures. It is
the affection which the Creator feels towards His sentient creatures as such. The
Psalmist sings of it in the well known words: “Jehovah is good to all; and His tender
mercies are over all His works. . . . The eyes of all wait for thee; and thou givest them
their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living
thing,” Ps. 145:9,15,16. This benevolent interest of God is revealed in His care for the
creature’s welfare, and is suited to the nature and the circumstances of the creature. It
naturally varies in degree according to the capacity of the objects to receive it. And
while it is not restricted to believers, they only manifest a proper appreciation of its
blessings, desire to use them in the service of their God, and thus enjoy them in a richer
and fuller measure. The Bible refers to this goodness of God in many passages, such as
Ps. 36:6; 104:21; Matt. 5:45; 6:26; Luke 6:35; Acts 14:17.
b. The love of God. When the goodness of God is exercised towards His rational
creatures, it assumes the higher character of love, and this love may again be
distinguished according to the objects on which it terminates. In distinction from the
goodness of God in general, it may be defined as that perfection of God by which He is
eternally moved to self-communication. Since God is absolutely good in Himself, His love
cannot find complete satisfaction in any object that falls short of absolute perfection. He
loves His rational creatures for His own sake, or, to express it otherwise, He loves in
them Himself, His virtues, His work, and His gifts. He does not even withdraw His love
completely from the sinner in his present sinful state, though the latter’s sin is an
abomination to Him, since He recognizes even in the sinner His image-bearer. John 3:16;
Matt. 5:44,45. At the same time He loves believers with a special love, since He
contemplates them as His spiritual children in Christ. It is to them that He
communicates Himself in the fullest and richest sense, with all the fulness of His grace
and mercy. John 16:27; Rom. 5:8; I John 3:1.
c. The grace of God. The significant word “grace” is a translation of the Hebrew chanan
and of the Greek charis. According to Scripture it is manifested not only by God, but also
by men, and then denotes the favor which one man shows another, Gen. 33:8,10,18; 39:4;
47:25; Ruth 2:2; I Sam. 1:18; 16:22. In such cases it is not necessarily implied that the
favor is undeserved. In general it can be said, however, that grace is the free bestowal of
kindness on one who has no claim to it. This is particularly the case where the grace
referred to is the grace of God. His love to man is always unmerited, and when shown
to sinners, is even forfeited. The Bible generally uses the word to denote the unmerited
goodness or love of God to those who have forfeited it, and are by nature under a sentence of
condemnation. The grace of God is the source of all spiritual blessings that are bestowed
upon sinners. As such we read of it in Eph. 1:6,7; 2:7-9; Tit. 2:11; 3:4-7. While the Bible
often speaks of the grace of God as saving grace, it also makes mention of it in a broader
sense, as in Isa. 26:10; Jer. 16:13. The grace of God is of the greatest practical significance
for sinful men. It was by grace that the way of redemption was opened for them, Rom.
3:24; II Cor. 8:9, and that the message of redemption went out into the world, Acts 14:3.
By grace sinners receive the gift of God in Jesus Christ, Acts 18:27; Eph. 2:8. By grace
they are justified, Rom. 3:24; 4:16; Tit. 3:7, they are enriched with spiritual blessings,
John 1:16; II Cor. 8:9; II Thess. 2:16, and they finally inherit salvation, Eph. 2:8; Tit. 2:11.
Seeing they have absolutely no merits of their own, they are altogether dependent on
the grace of God in Christ. In modern theology, with its belief in the inherent goodness
of man and his ability to help himself, the doctrine of salvation by grace has practically
become a “lost chord,” and even the word “grace” was emptied of all spiritual meaning
and vanished from religious discourses. It was retained only in the sense of
“graciousness,” something that is quite external. Happily, there are some evidences of a
renewed emphasis on sin, and of a newly awakened consciousness of the need of divine
d. The mercy of God. Another important aspect of the goodness and love of God is His
mercy or tender compassion. The Hebrew word most generally used for this is chesed.
There is another word, however, which expresses a deep and tender compassion,
namely, the word racham, which is beautifully rendered by “tender mercy” in our
English Bible. The Septuagint and the New Testament employ the Greek word eleos to
designate the mercy of God. If the grace of God contemplates man as guilty before God,
and therefore in need of forgiveness, the mercy of God contemplates him as one who is
bearing the consequences of sin, who is in a pitiable condition, and who therefore needs
divine help. It may be defined as the goodness or love of God shown to those who are in
misery or distress, irrespective of their deserts. In His mercy God reveals Himself as a
compassionate God, who pities those who are in misery and is ever ready to relieve
their distress. This mercy is bountiful, Deut. 5:10; Ps. 57:10; 86:5, and the poets of Israel
delighted to sing of it as enduring forever, I Chron. 16:34; II Chron. 7:6; Ps. 136; Ezra
3:11. In the New Testament it is often mentioned alongside of the grace of God,
especially in salutations, I Tim. 1:2; II Tim. 1:1; Titus 1:4. We are told repeatedly that it is
shown to them that fear God, Ex. 20:2; Deut. 7:9; Ps. 86:5; Luke 1:50. This does not mean,
however, that it is limited to them, though they enjoy it in a special measure. God’s
tender mercies are over all His works, Ps. 145:9, and even those who do not fear Him
share in them, Ezek. 18:23,32; 33:11; Luke 6:35,36. The mercy of God may not be
represented as opposed to His justice. It is exercised only in harmony with the strictest
justice of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ. Other terms used for it in the Bible
are “pity,” “compassion,” and “lovingkindness.”
e. The longsuffering of God. The longsuffering of God is still another aspect of His
great goodness or love. The Hebrew uses the expression ’erek ’aph, which means literally
“long of face,” and then also “slow to anger,” while the Greek expresses the same idea
by the word makrothumia. It is that aspect of the goodness or love of God in virtue of which He
bears with the froward and evil in spite of their long continued disobedience. In the exercise of
this attribute the sinner is contemplated as continuing in sin, notwithstanding the
admonitions and warnings that come to him. It reveals itself in the postponement of the
merited judgment. Scripture speaks of it in Ex. 34:6; Ps. 86:15; Rom. 2:4; 9:22; I Pet. 3:20;
II Pet. 3:15. A synonymous term of a slightly different connotation is the word
2. THE HOLINESS OF GOD. The Hebrew word for “to be holy,” quadash, is derived from
the root qad, which means to cut or to separate. It is one of the most prominent religious
words of the Old Testament, and is applied primarily to God. The same idea is
conveyed by the New Testament words hagiazo and hagios. From this it already appears
that it is not correct to think of holiness primarily as a moral or religious quality, as is
generally done. Its fundamental idea is that of a position or relationship existing between
God and some person or thing.
a. Its nature. The Scriptural idea of the holiness of God is twofold. In its original
sense it denotes that He is absolutely distinct from all His creatures, and is exalted
above them in infinite majesty. So understood, the holiness of God is one of His
transcendental attributes, and is sometimes spoken of as His central and supreme
perfection. It does not seem proper to speak of one attribute of God as being more
central and fundamental than another; but if this were permissible, the Scriptural
emphasis on the holiness of God would seem to justify its selection. It is quite evident,
however, that holiness in this sense of the word is not really a moral attribute, which can
be co-ordinated with the others, such as love, grace and mercy, but is rather something
that is co-extensive with, and applicable to, everything that can be predicated of God.
He is holy in everything that reveals Him, in His goodness and grace as well as in His
justice and wrath. It may be called the “majesty-holiness” of God, and is referred to in
such passages as Ex. 15:11; I Sam. 2:2; Isa. 57:15; Hos. 11:9. It is this holiness of God
which Otto, in his important work on Das Heilige,30 regards as that which is most
essential in God, and which he designates as “the numinous.” He regards it as part of the
non-rational in God, which cannot be thought of conceptually, and which includes such
ideas as “absolute unapproachability” and “absolute overpoweringness” or “aweful
majesty.” It awakens in man a sense of absolute nothingness, a “creature-consciousness”
or “creature-feeling,” leading to absolute self-abasement.
But the holiness of God also has a specifically ethical aspect in Scripture, and it is
with this aspect of it that we are more directly concerned in this connection. The ethical
idea of the divine holiness may not be dissociated from the idea of God’s majestyholiness.
The former developed out of the latter. The fundamental idea of the ethical
holiness of God is also that of separation, but in this case it is a separation from moral
evil or sin. In virtue of His holiness God can have no communion with sin, Job 34:10;
30 Eng. tr. The Idea of the Holy.
Hab. 1:13. Used in this sense, the word “holiness” points to God’s majestic purity, or
ethical majesty. But the idea of ethical holiness is not merely negative (separation from
sin); it also has a positive content, namely, that of moral excellence, or ethical perfection.
If man reacts to God’s majestic-holiness with a feeling of utter insignificance and awe,
his reaction to the ethical holiness reveals itself in a sense of impurity, a consciousness of
sin, Isa. 6:5. Otto also recognizes this element in the holiness of God, though he stresses
the other, and says of the response to it: “Mere awe, mere need of shelter from the
‘tremendum’, has here been elevated to the feeling that man in his ‘profaneness’ is not
worthy to stand in the presence of the Holy One, and that his entire personal
unworthiness might defile even holiness itself.”31 This ethical holiness of God may be
defined as that perfection of God, in virtue of which He eternally wills and maintains His own
moral excellence, abhors sin, and demands purity in his moral creatures.
b. Its manifestation. The holiness of God is revealed in the moral law, implanted in
man’s heart, and speaking through the conscience, and more particularly in God’s
special revelation. It stood out prominently in the law given to Israel. That law in all its
aspects was calculated to impress upon Israel the idea of the holiness of God, and to
urge upon the people the necessity of leading a holy life. This was the purpose served
by such symbols and types as the holy nation, the holy land, the holy city, the holy
place, and the holy priesthood. Moreover, it was revealed in the manner in which God
rewarded the keeping of the law, and visited transgressors with dire punishments. The
highest revelation of it was given in Jesus Christ, who is called “the Holy and Righteous
One,” Acts 3:14. He reflected in His life the perfect holiness of God. Finally, the holiness
of God is also revealed in the Church as the body of Christ. It is a striking fact, to which
attention is often called, that holiness is ascribed to God with far greater frequency in
the Old Testament than in the New, though it is done occasionally in the New
Testament, John 17:11; I Pet. 1:16; Rev. 4:8; 6:10. This is probably due to the fact that the
New Testament appropriates the term more particularly to qualify the third Person of
the Holy Trinity as the One whose special task it is, in the economy of redemption, to
communicate holiness to His people.
3. THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD. This attribute is closely related to the holiness of
God. Shedd speaks of the justice of God as “a mode of His holiness”; and Strong calls it
simply “transitive holiness.” However, these terms apply only to what is generally
called the relative, in distinction from the absolute, justice of God.
31 The Idea of the Holy, p. 56.
a. The fundamental idea of righteousness. The fundamental idea of righteousness is that
of strict adherence to the law. Among men it presupposes that there is a law to which
they must conform. It is sometimes said that we cannot speak of righteousness in God,
because there is no law to which He is subject. But though there is no law above God,
there is certainly a law in the very nature of God, and this is the highest possible
standard, by which all other laws are judged. A distinction is generally made between
the absolute and the relative justice of God. The former is that rectitude of the divine
nature, in virtue of which God is infinitely righteous in Himself, while the latter is that
perfection of God by which He maintains Himself over against every violation of His holiness,
and shows in every respect that He is the Holy One. It is to this righteousness that the term
“justice” more particularly applies. Justice mani fests itself especially in giving every
man his due, in treating him according to his deserts. The inherent righteousness of God
is naturally basic to the righteousness which He reveals in dealing with His creatures,
but it is especially the latter, also called the justice of God, that calls for special
consideration here. The Hebrew terms for “righteous” and “righteousness” are tsaddik,
tsedhek, and tsedhakah, and the corresponding Greek terms, dikaios and dikaiosune, all of
which contain the idea of conformity to a standard. This perfection is repeatedly
ascribed to God in Scripture, Ezra 9:15; Neh. 9:8; Ps. 119:137; 145:17; Jer. 12:1; Lam. 1:18;
Dan. 9:14; John 17:25; II Tim. 4:8; I John 2:29; 3:7; Rev. 16:5.
b. Distinctions applied to the justice of God. There is first of all a rectoral justice of God.
This justice, as the very name implies, is the rectitude which God manifests as the Ruler
of both the good and the evil. In virtue of it He has instituted a moral government in the
world, and imposed a just law upon man, with promises of reward for the obedient,
and threats of punishment for the transgressor. God stands out prominently in the Old
Testament as the Lawgiver of Israel, Isa. 33:22, and of people in general, Jas. 4:12, and
His laws are righteous laws, Deut. 4:8. The Bible refers to this rectoral work of God also
in Ps. 99:4, and Rom. 1:32.
Closely connected with the rectoral is the distributive justice of God. This term
usually serves to designate God’s rectitude in the execution of the law, and relates to the
distribution of rewards and punishments, Isa. 3:10,11; Rom. 2:6; I Pet. 1:17. It is of two
kinds: (1) Remunerative justice, which manifests itself in the distribution of rewards to
both men and angels, Deut. 7:9,12,13; II Chron. 6:15; Ps. 58:11; Micah 7:20; Matt. 25:21,34;
Rom. 2:7; Heb. 11:26. It is really an expression of the divine love, dealing out its
bounties, not on the basis of strict merit, for the creature can establish no absolute merit
before the Creator, but according to promise and agreement, Luke 17:10; I Cor. 4:7.
God’s rewards are gracious and spring from a covenant relation which He has
established. (2) Retributive justice, which relates to the infliction of penalties. It is an
expression of the divine wrath. While in a sinless world there would be no place for its
exercise, it necessarily holds a very prominent place in a world full of sin. On the whole
the Bible stresses the reward of the righteous more than the punishment of the wicked;
but even the latter is sufficiently prominent. Rom. 1:32; 2:9; 12:19; II Thess. 1:8, and
many other passages. It should be noted that, while man does not merit the reward
which he receives, he does merit the punishment which is meted out to him. Divine
justice is originally and necessarily obliged to punish evil, but not to reward good, Luke
17:10; I Cor. 4:7; Job 41:11. Many deny the strict punitive justice of God and claim that
God punishes the sinner to reform him, or to deter others from sin; but these positions
are not tenable. The primary purpose of the punishment of sin is the maintenance of
right and justice. Of course, it may incidentally serve, and may even, secondarily, be
intended, to reform the sinner and to deter others from sin.
The sovereignty of God is strongly emphasized in Scripture. He is represented as the
Creator, and His will as the cause of all things. In virtue of His creative work heaven
and earth and all that they contain belong to Him. He is clothed with absolute authority
over the hosts of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. He upholds all things with His
almighty power, and determines the ends which they are destined to serve. He rules as
King in the most absolute sense of the word, and all things are dependent on Him and
subservient to Him. There is a wealth of Scripture evidence for the sovereignty of God,
but we limit our references here to a few of the most significant passages: Gen. 14:19; Ex.
18:11; Deut. 10:14,17; I Chron. 29:11,12; II Chron. 20:6; Neh. 9:6; Ps. 22:28; 47:2,3,7,8; Ps.
50:10-12; 95:3-5; 115:3; 135:5,6; 145:11-13; Jer. 27:5; Luke 1:53; Acts 17:24-26; Rev. 19:6.
Two attributes call for discussion under this head, namely (1) the sovereign will of God,
and (2) the sovereign power of God.
a. The will of God in general. The Bible employs several words to denote the will of
God, namely the Hebrew words chaphets, tsebhu and ratson and the Greek words boule
and thelema. The importance of the divine will appears in many ways in Scripture. It is
represented as the final cause of all things. Everything is derived from it; creation and
preservation, Ps. 135:6; Jer. 18:6; Rev. 4:11, government, Prov. 21:1; Dan. 4:35, election
and reprobation, Rom. 9:15,16; Eph. 1:11, the sufferings of Christ, Luke 22:42; Acts 2:23,
regeneration, Jas. 1:18, sanctification, Phil. 2:13, the sufferings of believers, I Pet. 3:17,
man’s life and destiny, Acts 18:21; Rom. 15:32; Jas. 4:15, and even the smallest things of
life, Matt. 10:29. Hence Christian theology has always recognized the will of God as the
ultimate cause of all things, though philosophy has sometimes shown an inclination to
seek a deeper cause in the very Being of the Absolute. However, the attempt to ground
everything in the very Being of God generally results in Pantheism.
The word “will” as applied to God does not always have the same connotation in
Scripture. It may denote (1) the whole moral nature of God, including such attributes as
love, holiness, righteousness, etc.; (2) the faculty of self-determination, i.e. the power to
determine self to a course of action or to form a plan; (3) the product of this activity, that
is, the predetermined plan or purpose; (4) the power to execute this plan and to realize
this purpose (the will in action or omnipotence); and (5) the rule of life laid down for
rational creatures. It is primarily the will of God as the faculty of self-determination
with which we are concerned at present. It may be defined as that perfection of His Being
whereby He, in a most simple act, goes out towards Himself as the highest good (i.e. delights in
Himself as such) and towards His creatures for His own name’s sake, and is thus the ground of
their being and continued existence. With reference to the universe and all the creatures
which it contains this naturally includes the idea of causation.
b. Distinctions applied to the will of God. Several distinctions have been applied to the
will of God. Some of these found little favor in Reformed theology, such as the
distinction between an antecedent and a consequent will of God, and that between an
absolute and a conditional will. These distinctions were not only liable to
misunderstanding, but were actually interpreted in objectionable ways. Others,
however, were found useful, and were therefore more generally accepted. They may be
stated as follows: (1) The decretive and the preceptive will of God. The former is that will of
God by which He purposes or decrees whatever shall come to pass, whether He wills to
accomplish it effectively (causatively), or to permit it to occur through the unrestrained
agency of His rational creatures. The latter is the rule of life which God has laid down
for His moral creatures, indicating the duties which He enjoins upon them. The former
is always accomplished, while the latter is often disobeyed. (2) The will of eudokia and the
will of eurestia. This division was made, not so much in connection with the purpose to
do, as with respect to the pleasure in doing, or the desire to see something done. It
corresponds with the preceding, however. in the fact that the will of eudokia, like that of
the decree, comprises what shall certainly be accomplished, while the will of eurestia,
like that of the precept, embraces simply what God is pleased to have His creatures do.
The word eudokia should not mislead us to think that the will of eudokia has reference
only to good, and not to evil, cf. Matt. 11:26. It is hardly correct to say that the element of
complacency or delight is always present in it. (3) The will of the beneplacitum and the will
of the signum. The former again denotes the will of God as embodied in His hidden
counsel, until He makes it known by some revelation, or by the event itself. Any will
that is so revealed becomes a signum. This distinction is meant to correspond to that
between the decretive and the preceptive will of God, but can hardly be said to do this.
The good pleasure of God also finds expression in His preceptive will; and the decretive
will sometimes also comes to our knowledge by a signum. (4) The secret and the revealed
will of God. This is the most common distinction. The former is the will of God’s decree,
which is largely hidden in God, while the latter is the will of the precept, which is
revealed in the law and in the gospel. The distinction is based on Deut. 29:29. The secret
will of God is mentioned in Ps. 115:3; Dan. 4:17,25,32,35; Rom. 9:18,19; 11:33,34; Eph.
1:5,9,11; and His revealed will, in Matt. 7:21; 12:50; John 4:34; 7:17; Rom. 12:2. The latter
is accessible to all and is not far from us, Deut. 30:14; Rom. 10:8. The secret will of God
pertains to all things which He wills either to effect or to permit, and which are
therefore absolutely fixed. The revealed will prescribes the duties of man, and
represents the way in which he can enjoy the blessings of God.
c. The freedom of God’s will. The question is frequently debated whether God, in the
exercise of His will, acts necessarily or freely. The answer to this question requires
careful discrimination. Just as there is a scientia necessaria and a scientia libera, there is
also a voluntas necessaria (necessary will) and a voluntas libera (free will) in God. God
Himself is the object of the former. He necessarily wills Himself, His holy nature, and the
personal distinctions in the Godhead. This means that He necessarily loves Himself and
takes delight in the contemplation of His own perfections. Yet He is under no
compulsion, but acts according to the law of His Being; and this, while necessary, is also
the highest freedom. It is quite evident that the idea of causation is absent here, and that
the thought of complacency or self-approval is in the foreground. God’s creatures,
however, are the objects of His voluntas libera. God determines voluntarily what and
whom He will create, and the times, places, and circumstances, of their lives. He marks
out the path of all His rational creatures, determines their destiny, and uses them for His
purposes. And though He endows them with freedom, yet His will controls their
actions. The Bible speaks of this freedom of God’s will in the most absolute terms, Job
11:10; 33:13; Ps. 115:3; Prov. 21:1; Isa. 10:15; 29:16; 45:9; Matt. 20:15; Rom. 9:15-18,20,21; I
Cor. 12:11; Rev. 4:11. The Church always defended this freedom, but also emphasized
the fact that it may not be regarded as absolute indifference. Duns Scotus applied the
idea of a will in no sense determined to God; but this idea of a blind will, acting with
perfect indifference, was rejected by the Church. The freedom of God is not pure
indifference, but rational self-determination. God has reasons for willing as He does,
which induce Him to choose one end rather than another, and one set of means to
accomplish one end in preference to others. There is in each case a prevailing motive,
which makes the end chosen and the means selected the most pleasing to Him, though
we may not be able to determine what this motive is. In general it may be said that God
cannot will anything that is contrary to His nature, to His wisdom or love, to His
righteousness or holiness. Dr. Bavinck points out that we can seldom discern why God
willed one thing rather than another, and that it is not possible nor even permissible for
us to look for some deeper ground of things than the will of God, because all such
attempts result in seeking a ground for the creature in the very Being of God, in robbing
it of its contingent character, and in making it necessary, eternal, divine.32
d. God’s will in relation to sin. The doctrine of the will of God often gives rise to
serious questions. Problems arise here which have never yet been solved and which are
probably incapable of solution by man.
(1) It is said that if the decretive will of God also determined the entrance of sin into
the world, God thereby becomes the author of sin and really wills something that is
contrary to His moral perfections. Arminians, to escape the difficulty, make the will of
God to permit sin dependent on His foreknowledge of the course which man would
choose. Reformed theologians, while maintaining on the basis of such passages as Acts
2:23; 3:8; etc., that God’s decretive will also includes the sinful deeds of man, are always
careful to point out that this must be conceived in such a way that God does not become
the author of sin. They frankly admit that they cannot solve the difficulty, but at the
same time make some valuable distinctions that prove helpful. Most of them insist on it
that God’s will with respect to sin is simply a will to permit sin and not a will to
effectuate it, as He does the moral good. This terminology is certainly permissible,
provided it is understood correctly. It should be borne in mind that God’s will to permit
sin carries certainty with it. Others call attention to the fact that, while the terms “will”
or “to will” may include the idea of complacency or delight, they sometimes point to a
simple determination of the will; and that therefore the will of God to permit sin need
not imply that He takes delight or pleasure in sin.
(2) Again, it is said that the decretive and preceptive will of God are often
contradictory. His decretive will includes many things which He forbids in His
preceptive will, and excludes many things which He commands in His preceptive will,
cf. Gen. 22; Ex. 4:21-23; II Kings 20:1-7; Acts 2:23. Yet it is of great importance to
32 Geref. Dogm. II, p. 241.
maintain both the decretive and the preceptive will, but with the definite understanding
that, while they appear to us as distinct, they are yet fundamentally one in God. Though
a perfectly satisfactory solution of the difficulty is out of the question for the present, it
is possible to make some approaches to a solution. When we speak of the decretive and
the preceptive will of God, we use the word “will” in two different senses. By the
former God has determined what He will do or what shall come to pass; in the latter He
reveals to us what we are in duty bound to do.33 At the same time we should remember
that the moral law, the rule of our life, is also in a sense the embodiment of the will of
God. It is an expression of His holy nature and of what this naturally requires of all
moral creatures. Hence another remark must be added to the preceding. The decretive
and preceptive will of God do not conflict in the sense that in the former He does, and
according to the latter He does not, take pleasure in sin; nor in the sense that according
to the former He does not, and according to the latter He does, will the salvation of
every individual with a positive volition. Even according to the decretive will God takes
no pleasure in sin; and even according to the preceptive will He does not will the
salvation of every individual with a positive volition.
2. THE SOVEREIGN POWER OF GOD. The sovereignty of God finds expression, not only
in the divine will, but also in the omnipotence of God or the power to execute His will.
Power in God may be called the effective energy of His nature, or that perfection of His
Being by which He is the absolute and highest causality. It is customary to distinguish
between a potentia Dei absoluta (absolute power of God) and a potentia Dei ordinata
(ordered power of God). However, Reformed theology rejects this distinction in the
sense in which it was understood by the Scholastics, who claimed that God by virtue of
His absolute power could effect contradictions, and could even sin and annihilate
Himself. At the same time it adopts the distinction as expressing a real truth, though it
does not always represent it in the same way. According to Hodge and Shedd absolute
power is the divine efficiency, as exercised without the intervention of second causes;
while ordinate power is the efficiency of God, as exercised by the ordered operation of
second causes.34 The more general view is stated by Charnock as follows: “Absolute, is
that power whereby God is able to do that which He will not do, but is possible to be
done; ordinate, is that power whereby God doth that which He hath decreed to do, that
is, which He hath ordained or appointed to be exercised; which are not distinct powers,
but one and the same power. His ordinate power is a part of His absolute; for if He had
33 Cf. Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 246 ff.; Dabney, Syst. and Polem. Theol., p. 162
34 Shedd, Dogm. Theol. I, pp. 361f., Hodge, Syst. Theol. 1, pp. 410f.
not power to do everything that He could will, He might not have the power to do
everything that He doth will.”35 The potentia ordinata can be defined as that perfection of
God whereby He, through the mere exercise of His will, can realize whatsoever is present in His
will or counsel. The power of God in actual exercise limits itself to that which is
comprehended in His eternal decree. But the actual exercise of God’s power does not
represent its limits. God could do more than that, if He were so minded. In that sense
we can speak of the potentia absoluta, or absolute power, of God. This position must be
maintained over against those who, like Schleiermacher and Strauss, hold that God’s
power is limited to that which He actually accomplishes. But in our assertion of the
absolute power of God it is necessary to guard against misconceptions. The Bible
teaches us on the one hand that the power of God extends beyond that which is actually
realized, Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32:27; Zech. 8:6; Matt. 3:9; 26:53. We cannot say, therefore, that
what God does not bring to realization, is not possible for Him. But on the other hand it
also indicates that there are many things which God cannot do. He can neither lie, sin,
change, nor deny Himself, Num. 23:19; I Sam. 15:29; II Tim. 2:13; Heb. 6:18; Jas. 1:13,17.
There is no absolute power in Him that is divorced from His perfections, and in virtue
of which He can do all kinds of things which are inherently contradictory. The idea of
God’s omnipotence is expressed in the name ’El-Shaddai; and the Bible speaks of it in no
uncertain terms, Job 9:12; Ps. 115:3; Jer. 32:17; Matt. 19:26; Luke 1:37; Rom. 1:20; Eph.
1:19. God manifests His power in creation, Rom. 4:17; Isa. 44:24; in the works of
providence, Heb. 1:3, and in the redemption of sinners, I Cor. 1:24; Rom. 1:16.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. In what different senses can we speak of the
foreknowledge of God? How do the Arminians conceive of this foreknowledge? What
objections are there to the Jesuit idea of a scientia media? How must we judge of the
modern emphasis on the love of God as the central and all-determining attribute of
God? What is Otto’s conception of “the Holy” in God? What objection is there to the
position that the punishments of God simply serve to reform the sinner, or to deter
others from sin? What is the Socinian and the Grotian conception of retributive justice in
God? Is it correct to say that God can do everything in virtue of His omnipotence?
35 Existence and Attributes of God II, p. 12. Cf. also Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, p. 252: Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De
Deo I, pp. 412f.
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 171-259; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Deo I, pp.
355-417; Vos, Geref. Dogm. I, pp. 2-36; Hodge, Syst. Theol. I, pp. 393-441; Shedd, Dogm.
Theol. I, pp. 359-392; Dabney, Syst. and Polem. Theol., pp. 154-174; Pope, Chr. Theol. I, pp.
307-358; Watson, Theol. Inst. Part II, Chap. II; Wilmers, Handbook of the Chr. Religion, pp..
171-181; Harris, God, Creator and Lord of All, I, pp. 128-209; Charnock, The Existence and
Attributes of God, Discourse III, VII-IX; Bates, On the Attributes; Clarke, The Christian
Doctrine of God, pp. 56-115; Snowden, The Personality of God; Adeney, The Christian
Conception of God, pp. 86-152; Macintosh, Theology as an Empirical Science, pp. 159-194;
Strong, Syst. Theol., pp. 282-303.
VIII. The Holy Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity has always bristled with difficulties, and therefore it is no
wonder that the Church in its attempt to formulate it was repeatedly tempted to
rationalize it and to give a construction of it which failed to do justice to the Scriptural
1. THE PRE-REFORMATION PERIOD. The Jews of Jesus’ days strongly emphasized the
unity of God, and this emphasis was carried over into the Christian Church. The result
was that some ruled out the personal distinctions in the Godhead altogether, and that
others failed to do full justice to the essential deity of the second and third persons of
the Holy Trinity. Tertullian was the first to use the term “Trinity” and to formulate the
doctrine, but his formulation was deficient, since it involved an unwarranted
subordination of the Son to the Father. Origen went even farther in this direction by
teaching explicitly that the Son is subordinate to the Father in respect to essence, and that
the Holy Spirit is subordinate even to the Son. He detracted from the essential deity of
these two persons in the Godhead, and furnished a steppingstone to the Arians, who
denied the deity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit by representing the Son as the first
creature of the Father, and the Holy Spirit as the first creature of the Son. Thus the
consubstantiality of the Son and the Holy Spirit with the Father was sacrificed, in order
to preserve the unity of God; and the three persons of the Godhead were made to differ
in rank. The Arians still retained a semblance of the doctrine of three persons in the
Godhead, but this was sacrificed entirely by Monarchianism, partly in the interest of the
unity of God and partly to maintain the deity of the Son. Dynamic Monarchianism saw
in Jesus but a man and in the Holy Spirit a divine influence, while Modalistic
Monarchianism regarded the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, merely as three
modes of manifestation successively assumed by the Godhead. On the other hand there
were also some who lost sight of the unity of God to such an extent that they landed in
Tritheism. Some of the later Monophysites, such as John Ascunages and John
Philoponus, fell into this error. During the Middle Ages the Nominalist, Roscelinus, was
accused of the same error. The Church began to formulate its doctrine of the Trinity in
the fourth century. The Council of Nicea declared the Son to be co-essential with the
Father (325 A.D.), while the Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.) asserted the deity of
the Holy Spirit, though not with the same precision. As to the interrelation of the three it
was officially professed that the Son is generated by the Father, and that the Holy Spirit
proceeds from the Father and the Son. In the East the doctrine of the Trinity found its
fullest statement in the work of John of Damascus, and in the West, in Augustine’s great
work De Trinitate. The former still retains an element of subordination, which is entirely
eliminated by the latter.
2. THE POST-REFORMATION PERIOD. We have no further development of the doctrine
of the Trinity, but only encounter repeatedly some of the earlier erroneous constructions
of it after the Reformation. The Arminians, Episcopius, Curcellæus, and Limborgh,
revived the doctrine of subordination, chiefly again, so it seems, to maintain the unity of
the Godhead. They ascribed to the Father a certain pre-eminence over the other persons,
in order, dignity, and power. A somewhat similar position was taken by Samuel Clarke in
England and by the Lutheran theologian, Kahnis. Others followed the way pointed out
by Sabellius by teaching a species of Modalism, as, for instance, Emanuel Swedenborg,
who held that the eternal God-man became flesh in the Son, and operated through the
Holy Spirit; Hegel, who speaks of the Father as God in Himself, of the Son as God
objectifying Himself, and of the Holy Spirit as God returning unto Himself; and
Schleiermacher, who regards the three persons simply as three aspects of God: the
Father is God as the underlying unity of all things, the Son is God as coming to
conscious personality in man, and the Holy Spirit is God as living in the Church. The
Socinians of the days of the Reformation moved along Arian lines, but even went
beyond Arius, by making Christ merely a man and the Holy Spirit but a power or
influence. They were the forerunners of the Unitarians and also of the liberal
theologians who speak of Jesus as a divine teacher, and identify the Holy Spirit with the
immanent God. Finally, there were also some who, since they regarded the statement of
the doctrine of an ontological Trinity as unintelligible, wanted to stop short of it and rest
satisfied with the doctrine of an economic Trinity, a Trinity as revealed in the work of
redemption and in human experience, as Moses Stuart, W. L. Alexander, and W. A.
Brown. For a considerable time interest in the doctrine of the Trinity waned, and
theological discussion centered more particularly on the personality of God. Brunner
and Barth have again called attention to its importance. The latter places it very much in
the foreground, discussing it in connection with the doctrine of revelation, and devotes
220 pages of his Dogmatics to it. Materially, he derives the doctrine from Scripture, but,
formally and logically, he finds that it is involved in the simple sentence, “God speaks.”
He is Revealer (Father), Revelation (Son) and Revealedness (Holy Spirit). He reveals
Himself, He is the Revelation, and He is also the content of the Revelation. God and His
revelation are identified. He remains God also in His revelation, absolutely free and
sovereign. This view of Barth is not a species of Sabellianism, for he recognizes three
persons in the Godhead. Moreover, he does not allow for any subordination. Says he:
“Thus, to the same God who in unimpaired unity is Revealer, Revelation, and
Revealedness, is also ascribed in unimpaired variety in Himself precisely this threefold
mode of being.”36
The word “Trinity” is not quite as expressive as the Holland word “Drieeenheid,”
for it may simply denote the state of being three, without any implication as to the unity
of the three. It is generally understood, however, that, as a technical term in theology, it
includes that idea. It goes without saying that, when we speak of the Trinity of God, we
refer to a trinity in unity, and to a unity that is trinal.
1. THE PERSONALITY OF GOD AND THE TRINITY. As stated in the preceding, the
communicable attributes of God stress His personality, since they reveal Him as a
rational and moral Being. His life stands out clearly before us in Scripture as a personal
life; and it is, of course, of the greatest importance to maintain the personality of God,
for without it there can be no religion in the real sense of the word: no prayer, no
personal communion, no trustful reliance and no confident hope. Since man is created
in the image of God, we learn to understand something of the personal life of God from
the contemplation of personality as we know it in man. We should be careful, however,
not to set up man’s personality as a standard by which the personality of God must be
measured. The original form of personality is not in man but in God; His is archetypal,
while man’s is ectypal. The latter is not identical with the former, but does contain faint
traces of similarity with it. We should not say that man is personal, while God is superpersonal
(a very unfortunate term), for what is super-personal is not personal; but
rather, that what appears as imperfect in man exists in infinite perfection in God. The
one outstanding difference between the two is that man is uni-personal, while God is
tri-personal. And this tri-personal existence is a necessity in the Divine Being, and not in
any sense the result of a choice of God. He could not exist in any other than the tripersonal
form. This has been argued in various ways. It is very common to argue it
from the idea of personality itself. Shedd bases his argument on the general selfconsciousness
of the triune God, as distinguished from the particular individual selfconsciousness
of each one of the Persons in the Godhead, for in self-consciousness the
subject must know itself as an object, and also perceive that it does. This is possible in
36 The Doctrine of the Word of God, p. 344.
God because of His trinal existence. He says that God could not be self-contemplating,
self-cognitive, and self-communing, if He were not trinal in His constitution.37 Bartlett
presents in an interesting way a variety of considerations to prove that God is necessarily
tri-personal.38 The argument from personality, to prove at least a plurality in God, can
be put in some such form as this: Among men the ego awakens to consciousness only
by contact with the non-ego. Personality does not develop nor exist in isolation, but
only in association with other persons. Hence it is not possible to conceive of
personality in God apart from an association of equal persons in Him. His contact with
His creatures would not account for His personality any more than man’s contact with
the animals would explain his personality. In virtue of the tri-personal existence of God
there is an infinite fulness of divine life in Him. Paul speaks of this pleroma (fulness) of
the Godhead in Eph. 3:19 and Col. 1:9; 2:9. In view of the fact that there are three
persons in God, it is better to say that God is personal than to speak of Him as a Person.
very decidedly a doctrine of revelation. It is true that human reason may suggest some
thoughts to substantiate the doctrine, and that men have sometimes on purely
philosophical grounds abandoned the idea of a bare unity in God, and introduced the
idea of living movement and self-distinction. And it is also true that Christian
experience would seem to demand some such construction of the doctrine of God. At
the same time it is a doctrine which we would not have known, nor have been able to
maintain with any degree of confidence, on the basis of experience alone, and which is
brought to our knowledge only by God’s special self-revelation. Therefore it is of the
utmost importance that we gather the Scriptural proofs for it.
a. Old Testament proofs. Some of the early Church Fathers and even some later
theologians, disregarding the progressive character of God’s revelation, gave the
impression that the doctrine of the Trinity was completely revealed in the Old
Testament. On the other hand Socinians and Arminians were of the opinion that it was
not found there at all. Both were mistaken. The Old Testament does not contain a full
revelation of the trinitarian existence of God, but does contain several indications of it.
And this is exactly what might be expected. The Bible never deals with the doctrine of
the Trinity as an abstract truth, but reveals the trinitarian life in its various relations as a
living reality, to a certain extent in connection with the works of creation and
providence, but particularly in relation to the work of redemption. Its most
37 Dogm. Theol., I, pp. 393 f., 251 ff., 178ff.
38 The Triune God, Part Two.
fundamental revelation is a revelation given in facts rather than in words. And this
revelation increases in clarity in the measure in which the redemptive work of God is
more clearly revealed, as in the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy
Spirit. And the more the glorious reality of the Trinity stands out in the facts of history,
the clearer the statements of the doctrine become. The fuller revelation of the Trinity in
the New Testament is due to the fact that the Word became flesh, and that the Holy
Spirit took up His abode in the Church.
Proof for the Trinity has sometimes been found in the distinction of Jehovah and
Elohim, and also in the plural Elohim, but the former is entirely unwarranted, and the
latter is, to say the least, very dubious, though Rottenberg still maintains it in his work
on De Triniteit in Israels Godsbegrip.39 It is far more plausible that the passages in which
God speaks of Himself in the plural, Gen. 1:26; 11:7, contain an indication of personal
distinctions in God, though even these do not point to a trinity but only to a plurality of
persons. Still clearer indications of such personal distinctions are found in those
passages which refer to the Angel of Jehovah, who is on the one hand identified with
Jehovah, and on the other hand distinguished from Him, Gen. 16:7-13; 18:1-21; 19:1-28;
Mal. 3:1; and also in passages in which the Word or Wisdom of God is personified, Ps.
33:4, 6; Prov. 8:12-31. In some cases more than one person is mentioned, Ps. 33:6; 45:6, 7
(comp. Heb. 1:8, 9), and in others God is the speaker, and mentions both the Messiah
and the Spirit, or the Messiah is the speaker who mentions both God and the Spirit, Isa.
48:16; 61:1; 63:9, 10. Thus the Old Testament contains a clear anticipation of the fuller
revelation of the Trinity in the New Testament.
b. New Testament proofs. The New Testament carries with it a clearer revelation of the
distinctions in the Godhead. If in the Old Testament Jehovah is represented as the
Redeemer and Saviour of His people, Job. 19:25; Ps. 19:14; 78:35; 106:21; Isa. 41:14;
43:3,11,14; 47:4; 49:7,26; 60:16; Jer. 14:3; 50:14; Hos. 13:3, in the New Testament the Son of
God clearly stands out in that capacity, Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:76-79; 2:17; John 4:42; Acts 5:3;
Gal. 3:13; 4:5; Phil. 3:30; Tit. 2:13,14. And if in the Old Testament it is Jehovah that dwells
among Israel and in the hearts of those that fear Him, Ps. 74:2; 135:21; Isa. 8:18; 57:15;
Ezek. 43:7-9; Joel 3:17,21; Zech. 2:10, 11, in the New Testament it is the Holy Spirit that
dwells in the Church, Acts 2:4, Rom. 8:9,11; I Cor. 3:16; Gal. 4:6; Eph. 2:22; Jas. 4:5. The
New Testament offers the clear revelation of God sending His Son into the world, John
3:16; Gal. 4:4; Heb. 1:6; I John 4:9; and of both the Father and the Son, sending the Spirit,
John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7; Gal. 4:6. We find the Father addressing the Son, Mark 1:11; Luke
39 pp. 19ff.
3:22, the Son communing with the Father, Matt. 11:25,26; 26:39; John 11:41; 12:27,28, and
the Holy Spirit praying to God in the hearts of believers, Rom. 8:26. Thus the separate
persons of the Trinity are made to stand out clearly before our minds. At the baptism of
the Son the Father speaks from heaven, and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a
dove, Matt. 3:16,17. In the great commission Jesus mentions the three persons: “. . .
baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Matt.
28:19. They are also named alongside of each other in I Cor. 12:4-6; II Cor. 13:14; and I
Peter 1:2. The only passage speaking of tri-unity is I John 5:7 (Auth. Ver.), but this is of
doubtful genuineness, and is therefore eliminated from the latest critical editions of the
New Testament.
3. STATEMENT OF THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY. The doctrine of the Trinity can best be
discussed briefly in connection with various propositions, which constitute an epitome
of the faith of the Church on this point.
a. There is in the Divine Being but one indivisible essence (ousia, essentia). God is one in
His essential being or constitutional nature. Some of the early Church Fathers used the
term “substantia” as synonymous with “essentia,” but later writers avoided this use of it
in view of the fact that in the Latin Church “substantia” was used as a rendering of
“hupostasis” as well as of “ousia”, and was therefore ambiguous. At present the two
terms “substance” and “essence” are often used interchangeably. There is no objection
to this, provided we bear in mind that they have slightly different connotations. Shedd
distinguishes them as follows: “Essence is from esse, to be, and denotes energetic being.
Substance is from substare, and denotes the latent possibility of being. . . . The term
essence describes God as a sum-total of infinite perfections; the term substance
describes Him as the underlying ground of infinite activities. The first is, comparatively,
an active word; the last, a passive. The first is, comparatively, a spiritual, the last a
material term. We speak of material substance rather than of material essence.”40 Since
the unity of God was already discussed in the preceding, it is not necessary to dwell on
it in detail in the present connection. This proposition respecting the unity of God is
based on such passages as Deut. 6:4; Jas. 2:19, on the self-existence and immutability of
God, and on the fact that He is identified with His perfections as when He is called life,
light, truth, righteousness, and so on.
b. In this one Divine Being there are three Persons or individual subsistences, Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit. This is proved by the various passages referred to as substantiating the
doctrine of the Trinity. To denote these distinctions in the Godhead, Greek writers
40 Dogm. Theol., I, p. 271.
generally employed the term hupostasis, while Latin authors used the term persona, and
sometimes substantia. Because the former was apt to be misleading and the latter was
ambiguous, the Schoolmen coined the word subsistentia. The variety of the terms used
points to the fact that their inadequacy was always felt. It is generally admitted that the
word “person” is but an imperfect expression of the idea. In common parlance it
denotes a separate rational and moral individual, possessed of self-consciousness, and
conscious of his identity amid all changes. Experience teaches that where you have a
person, you also have a distinct individual essence. Every person is a distinct and
separate individual, in whom human nature is individualized. But in God there are no
three individuals alongside of, and separate from, one another, but only personal selfdistinctions
within the Divine essence, which is not only generically, but also
numerically, one. Consequently many preferred to speak of three hypostases in God,
three different modes, not of manifestation, as Sabellius taught, but of existence or
subsistence. Thus Calvin says: “By person, then, I mean a subsistence in the Divine
essence. — a subsistence which, while related to the other two, is distinguished from
them by incommunicable properties.”41 This is perfectly permissible and may ward off
misunderstanding, but should not cause us to lose sight of the fact that the selfdistinctions
in the Divine Being imply an “I” and “Thou” and “He,” in the Being of
God, which assume personal relations to one another. Matt. 3:16; 4:1; John 1:18; 3:16;
5:20-22; 14:26; 15:26; 16:13-15.
c. The whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons. This
means that the divine essence is not divided among the three persons, but is wholly
with all its perfection in each one of the persons, so that they have a numerical unity of
essence. The divine nature is distinguished from the human nature in that it can subsist
wholly and indivisibly in more than one person. While three persons among men have
only a specific unity of nature or essence, that is, share in the same kind of nature or
essence, the persons in the Godhead have a numerical unity of essence, that is, possess
the identical essence. Human nature or essence may be regarded as a species, of which
each man has an individual part, so that there is a specific (from species) unity; but the
divine nature is indivisible and therefore identical in the persons of the Godhead. It is
numerically one and the same, and therefore the unity of the essence in the persons is a
numerical unity. From this it follows that the divine essence is not an independent
existence alongside of the three persons. It has no existence outside of and apart from
the three persons. If it did, there would be no true unity, but a division that would lead
41 Inst. I, XIII, 6
into tetratheism. The personal distinction is one within the divine essence. This has, as it
is usually termed, three modes of subsistence. Another conclusion which follows from
the preceding, is that there can be no subordination as to essential being of the one person
of the Godhead to the other, and therefore no difference in personal dignity. This must
be maintained over against the subordinationism of Origen and other early Church
Fathers, and the Arminians, and of Clarke and other Anglican theologians. The only
subordination of which we can speak, is a subordination in respect to order and
relationship. It is especially when we reflect on the relation of the three persons to the
divine essence that all analogies fail us and we become deeply conscious of the fact that
the Trinity is a mystery far beyond our comprehension. It is the incomprehensible glory
of the Godhead. Just as human nature is too rich and too full to be embodied in a single
individual, and comes to its adequate expression only in humanity as a whole so the
divine Being unfolds itself in its fulness only in its three fold subsistence of Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit.
d. The subsistence and operation of the three persons in the divine Being is marked by a
certain definite order. There is a certain order in the ontological Trinity. In personal
subsistence the Father is first, the Son second, and the Holy Spirit third. It need hardly
be said that this order does not pertain to any priority of time or of essential dignity, but
only to the logical order of derivation. The Father is neither begotten by, nor proceeds
from any other person; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit
proceeds from the Father and the Son from all eternity. Generation and procession take
place within the Divine Being, and imply a certain subordination as to the manner of
personal subsistence, but no subordination as far as the possession of the divine essence
is concerned. This ontological Trinity and its inherent order is the metaphysical basis of
the economical Trinity. It is but natural, therefore, that the order existing in the essential
Trinity should be reflected in the opera ad extra that are more particularly ascribed to
each one of the persons. Scripture clearly indicates this order in the so-called
praepositiones distinctionales, ek, dia, and en, which are used in expressing the idea that all
things are out of the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.
e. There are certain personal attributes by which the three persons are distinguished. These
are also called opera ad intra, because they are works within the Divine Being, which do
not terminate on the creature. They are personal operations, which are not performed
by the three persons jointly and which are incommunicable. Generation is an act of the
Father only; filiation belongs to the Son exclusively; and procession can only be ascribed
to the Holy Spirit. As opera ad intra these works are distinguished from the opera ad extra,
or those activities and effects by which the Trinity is manifested outwardly. These are
never works of one person exclusively, but always works of the Divine Being as a
whole. At the same time it is true that in the economical order of God’s works some of
the opera ad extra are ascribed more particularly to one person, and some more
especially to another. Though they are all works of the three persons jointly, creation is
ascribed primarily to the Father, redemption to the Son, and sanctification to the Holy
Spirit. This order in the divine operations points back to the essential order in God and
forms the basis for what is generally known as the economic Trinity.
f. The Church confesses the Trinity to be a mystery beyond the comprehension of man. The
Trinity is a mystery, not merely in the Biblical sense that it is a truth, which was
formerly hidden but is now revealed; but in the sense that man cannot comprehend it
and make it intelligible. It is intelligible in some of its relations and modes of
manifestation, but unintelligible in its essential nature. The many efforts that were made
to explain the mystery were speculative rather than theological. They invariably
resulted in the development of tritheistic or modalistic conceptions of God, in the denial
of either the unity of the divine essence or the reality of the personal distinctions within
the essence. The real difficulty lies in the relation in which the persons in the Godhead
stand to the divine essence and to one another; and this is a difficulty which the Church
cannot remove, but only try to reduce to its proper proportion by a proper definition of
terms. It has never tried to explain the mystery of the Trinity, but only sought to
formulate the doctrine of the Trinity in such a manner that the errors which endangered
it were warded off.
earliest time of the Christian era attempts were made to shed light on the trinitarian
Being of God, on the trinity in unity and the unity in trinity, by analogies drawn from
several sources. While these are all defective, it cannot be denied that they were of some
value in the trinitarian discussion. This applies particularly to those derived from the
constitutional nature, or from the psychology, of man. In view of the fact that man was
created in the image of God, it is but natural to assume that, if there are some traces of
the trinitarian life in the creature, the clearest of these will be found in man.
a. Some of these illustrations or analogies were taken from inanimate nature or from
plant life, as the water of the fountain, the creek, and the river, or of the rising mist, the
cloud, and the rain, or in the form of rain, snow, and ice; and as the tree with its root,
trunk, and branches. These and all similar illustrations are very defective. The idea of
personality is, of course, entirely wanting; and while they do furnish examples of a
common nature or substance, they are not examples of a common essence which is
present, not merely in part, but in its entirety, in each of its constituent parts or forms.
b. Others of greater importance were drawn from the life of man, particularly from
the constitution and the processes of the human mind. These were considered to be of
special significance, because man is the image-bearer of God. To this class belong the
psychological unity of the intellect, the affections, and the will (Augustine); the logical
unity of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (Hegel); and the metaphysical unity of subject,
object, and subject-object (Olshausen, Shedd). In all of these we do have a certain trinity
in unity, but no tri-personality in unity of substance.
c. Attention has also been called to the nature of love, which presupposes a subject
and an object, and calls for the union of these two, so that, when love has its perfect
work, three elements are included. But it is easy to see that this analogy is faulty, since it
co-ordinates two persons and a relationship. It does not illustrate a tri-personality at all.
Moreover, it only refers to a quality and not at all to a substance possessed in common
by the subject and the object.
a. The name “Father” as applied to God. This name is not always used of God in the
same sense in Scripture. (1) Sometimes it is applied to the Triune God as the origin of all
created things, I Cor. 8:6; Eph. 3:15; Heb. 12:9; Jas. 1:17. While in these cases the name
applies to the triune God, it does refer more particularly to the first person, to whom the
work of creation is more especially ascribed in Scripture. (2) The name is also ascribed
to the triune God to express the theocratic relation in which He stands to Israel as His
Old Testament people, Deut. 32:6; Isa. 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 3:4; Mal. 1:6; 2:10; (3) In the New
Testament the name is generally used to designate the triune God as the Father in an
ethical sense of all His spiritual children, Matt. 5:45; 6:6-15; Rom. 8:16; I John 3:1. (4) In
an entirely different sense, however, the name is applied to the first person of the Trinity
in His relation to the second person, John 1:14,18; 5:17-26; 8:54; 14:12,13. The first person
is the Father of the second in a metaphysical sense. This is the original fatherhood of
God, of which all earthly fatherhood is but a faint reflection.
b. The distinctive property of the Father. The personal property of the Father is,
negatively speaking, that He is not begotten or unbegotten, and positively speaking, the
generation of the Son and the spiration of the Holy Spirit. It is true that spiration is also
a work of the Son, but in Him it is not combined with generation. Strictly speaking, the
only work that is peculiar to the Father exclusively is that of active generation.
c. The opera ad extra ascribed more particularly to the Father. All the opera ad extra of God
are works of the triune God, but in some of these works the Father is evidently in the
foreground, such as: (1) Designing the work of redemption, including election, of which
the Son was Himself an object, Ps. 2:7-9; 40:6-9; Isa. 53:10; Matt. 12:32; Eph. 1:3-6. (2) The
works of creation and providence, especially in their initial stages, I Cor. 8:6; Eph. 2:9.
(3) The work of representing the Trinity in the Counsel of Redemption, as the holy and
righteous Being, whose right was violated, Ps. 2:7-9; 40:6-9; John 6:37,38; 17:4-7.
a. The name “Son” as applied to the second person. The second person in the Trinity is
called “Son” or “Son of God” in more than one sense of the word. (1) In a metaphysical
sense. This must be maintained over against Socinians and Unitarians, who reject the
idea of a tri-personal Godhead, see in Jesus a mere man, and regard the name “Son of
God” as applied to Him primarily as an honorary title conferred upon Him. It is quite
evident that Jesus Christ is represented as the Son of God in Scripture, irrespective of
His position and work as Mediator. (a) He is spoken of as the Son of God from a preincarnation
standpoint, for instance in John 1:14,18; Gal. 4:4. (b) He is called the “onlybegotten”
Son of God or of the Father, a term that would not apply to Him, if He were
the Son of God only in an official or in an ethical sense, John 1:14,18; 3:16,18; I John 4:9.
Compare II Sam. 7:14; Job 2:1; Ps. 2:7; Luke 3:38; John 1:12. (c) In some passages it is
abundantly evident from the context that the name is indicative of the deity of Christ,
John 5:18-25; Heb. 1. (d) While Jesus teaches His disciples to speak of God, and to
address Him as “our Father,” He Himself speaks of Him, and addresses Him, simply as
“Father” or “my Father,” and thereby shows that He was conscious of a unique
relationship to the Father, Matt. 6:9; 7:21; John 20:17. (e) According to Matt. 11:27, Jesus
as the Son of God claims a unique knowledge of God, a knowledge such as no one else
can possess. (f) The Jews certainly understood Jesus to claim that He was the Son of
God in a metaphysical sense, for they regarded the manner in which He spoke of
Himself as the Son of God as blasphemy, Matt. 26:63; John 5:18; 10:36. —— (2) In an
official or Messianic sense. In some passages this meaning of the name is combined with
the one previously mentioned. The following passages apply the name “Son of God” to
Christ as Mediator, Matt. 8:29, 26:63 (where this meaning is combined with the other);
27:40; John 1:49; 11:27. This Messiah-Sonship is, of course, related to the original Sonship
of Christ. It was only because He was the essential and eternal Son of God, that He
could be called the Son of God as Messiah. Moreover, the Messiah-Sonship reflects the
eternal Sonship of Christ. It is from the point of view of this Messiah-Sonship that God
is even called the God of the Son, II Cor. 11:31; Eph. 1:3, and is sometimes mentioned as
God in distinction from the Lord, John 17:3; I Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:5,6. —— (3) In a nativistic
sense. The name “Son of God” is given to Jesus also in view of the fact that He owed His
birth to the paternity of God. He was begotten, according to His human nature, by the
supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit, and is in that sense the Son of God. This is
clearly indicated in Luke 1:32,35, and may probably be inferred also from John 1:13.
b. The personal subsistence of the Son. The personal subsistence of the Son must be
maintained over against all Modalists, who in one way or another deny the personal
distinctions in the Godhead. The personality of the Son may be substantiated as follows:
(1) The way in which the Bible speaks of the Father and the Son alongside of each other
implies that the one is just as personal as the other, and is also indicative of a personal
relationship existing between the two. (2) The use of the appelatives “only-begotten”
and “firstborn” imply that the relation between the Father and the Son, while unique,
can nevertheless be represented approximately as one of generation and birth. The
name “firstborn” is found in Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:6, and emphasizes the fact of the eternal
generation of the Son. It simply means that He was before all creation. (3) The
distinctive use of the term “Logos” in Scripture points in the same direction. This term
is applied to the Son, not in the first place to express His relation to the world (which is
quite secondary), but to indicate the intimate relation in which He stands to the Father,
the relation like that of a word to the speaker. In distinction from philosophy, the Bible
represents the Logos as personal and identifies Him with the Son of God, John 1:1-14; I
John 1:1-3. (4) The description of the Son as the image, or even as the very image of God
in II Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3. God clearly stands out in Scripture as a personal Being.
If the Son of God is the very image of God, He too must be a person.
c. The eternal generation of the Son. The personal property of the Son is that He is
eternally begotten of the Father (briefly called “filiation”), and shares with the Father in
the spiration of the Spirit. The doctrine of the generation of the Son is suggested by the
Biblical representation of the first and second persons of the Trinity as standing in the
relation of Father and Son to each other. Not only do the names “Father” and “Son”
suggest the generation of the latter by the former, but the Son is also repeatedly called
“the only-begotten,” John 1:14,18; 3:16,18; Heb. 11:17; I John 4:9. Several particulars
deserve emphasis in connection with the generation of the Son: (1) It is a necessary act of
God. Origen, one of the very first to speak of the generation of the Son, regarded it as an
act dependent on the Father’s will and therefore free. Others at various times expressed
the same opinion. But it was clearly seen by Athanasius and others that a generation
dependent on the optional will of the Father would make the existence of the Son
contingent and thus rob Him of His deity. Then the Son would not be equal to and
homoousios with the Father, for the Father exists necessarily, and cannot be conceived of
as non-existent. The generation of the Son must be regarded as a necessary and
perfectly natural act of God. This does not mean that it is not related to the Father’s will
in any sense of the word. It is an act of the Father’s necessary will, which merely means
that His concomitant will takes perfect delight in it. (2) It is an eternal act of the Father.
This naturally follows from the preceding. If the generation of the Son is a necessary act
of the Father, so that it is impossible to conceive of Him as not generating, it naturally
shares in the eternity of the Father. This does not mean, however, that it is an act that
was completed in the far distant past, but rather that it is a timeless act, the act of an
eternal present, an act always continuing and yet ever completed. Its eternity follows
not only from the eternity of God, but also from the divine immutability and from the
true deity of the Son. In addition to this it can be inferred from all those passages of
Scripture which teach either the pre-existence of the Son or His equality with the Father,
Mic. 5:2; John 1:14,18; 3:16; 5:17,18,30,36; Acts 13:33; John 17:5; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:3. The
statement of Ps. 2:7, “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee,” is generally
quoted to prove the generation of the Son, but, according to some, with rather doubtful
propriety, cf. Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5. They surmise that these words refer to the raising up
of Jesus as Messianic King, and to the recognition of Him as Son of God in an official
sense, and should probably be linked up with the promise found in II Sam. 7:14, just as
they are in Heb. 1:5. (3) It is a generation of the personal subsistence rather than of the divine
essence of the Son. Some have spoken as if the Father generated the essence of the Son,
but this is equivalent to saying that He generated His own essence, for the essence of
both the Father and the Son is exactly the same. It is better to say that the Father
generates the personal subsistence of the Son, but thereby also communicates to Him
the divine essence in its entirety. But in doing this we should guard against the idea that
the Father first generated a second person, and then communicated the divine essence
to this person, for that would lead to the conclusion that the Son was not generated out
of the divine essence, but created out of nothing. In the work of generation there was a
communication of essence; it was one indivisible act. And in virtue of this
communication the Son also has life in Himself. This is in agreement with the statement
of Jesus, “For as the Father hath life in Himself, even so gave He to the Son also to have
life in Himself,” John 5:26. (4) It is a generation that must be conceived of as spiritual and
divine. In opposition to the Arians, who insisted that the generation of the Son
necessarily implied separation or division in the divine Being, the Church Fathers
stressed the fact that this generation must not be conceived in a physical and creaturely
way, but should be regarded as spiritual and divine, excluding all idea of division or
change. It brings distinctio and distributio, but no diversitas and divisio in the divine
Being. (Bavinck) The most striking analogy of it is found in man’s thinking and
speaking, and the Bible itself seems to point to this, when it speaks of the Son as the
Logos. (5) The following definition may be given of the generation of the Son: It is that
eternal and necessary act of the first person in the Trinity, whereby He, within the divine Being,
is the ground of a second personal subsistence like His own, and puts this second person in
possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation, or change.
d. The deity of the Son. The deity of the Son was denied in the early Church by the
Ebionites and the Alogi, and also by the dynamic Monarchians and the Arians. In the
days of the Reformation the Socinians followed their example, and spoke of Jesus as a
mere man. The same position is taken by Schleiermacher and Ritschl, by a host of liberal
scholars, particularly in Germany, by the Unitarians, and by the Modernists and
Humanists of the present day. This denial is possible only for those who disregard the
teachings of Scripture, for the Bible contains an abundance of evidence for the deity of
Christ.42 We find that Scripture (1) explicitly asserts the deity of the Son in such passages as
John 1:1; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Phil. 2:6; Tit. 2:13; I John 5:20; (2) applies divine names to Him,
Isa. 9:6; 40:3; Jer. 23:5,6; Joel 2:32 (comp. Acts 2:21); I Tim. 3:16; (3) ascribes to Him divine
attributes, such as eternal existence, Isa. 9:6; John 1:1,2; Rev. 1:8; 22:13, omnipresence,
Matt. 18:20; 28:20; John 3:13, omniscience, John 2:24,25; 21:17; Rev. 2:23, omnipotence.
Isa. 9:6; Phil. 3:21; Rev. 1:8, immutability, Heb. 1:10-12; 13:8, and in general every
attribute belonging to the Father, Col. 2:9; (4) speaks of Him as doing divine works, as
creation, John 1:3,10; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2,10, providence, Luke 10:22; John 3:35; 17:2; Eph.
1:22; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3, the forgiveness of sins, Matt. 9:2-7; Mark 2:7-10; Col. 3:13,
resurrection and judgment, Matt. 25:31,32; John 5:19-29; Acts 10:42; 17:31; Phil. 3:21; II
Tim. 4:1, the final dissolution and renewal of all things, Heb. 1:10-12; Phil. 3:21; Rev.
21:5, and (5) accords Him divine honour, John 5:22,23; 14:1; I Cor. 15:19; II Cor. 13:13; Heb.
1:6; Matt. 28:19.
e. The place of the Son in the economic Trinity. It should be noted that the order of
existence in the essential or ontological Trinity is reflected in the economic Trinity. The
Son occupies the second place in the opera ad extra. If all things are out of the Father, they
42 This is very ably summed up in such works as Liddon’s The Divinity of Our Lord, Warfield’s The Lord of
Glory, and Wm. C. Robinson’s Our Lord.
are through the Son, I Cor. 8:6. If the former is represented as the absolute cause of all
things, the latter stands out clearly as the mediating cause. This applies in the natural
sphere, where all things are created and maintained through the Son, John 1:3,10; Heb.
1:2,3. He is the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world, John 1:9. It
applies also to the work of redemption. In the Counsel of Redemption He takes upon
Himself to be Surety for His people, and to execute the Father’s plan of redemption, Ps.
40:7,8. He works this out more particularly in His incarnation, sufferings, and death,
Eph. 1:3-14. In connection with His function the attributes of wisdom and power, I Cor.
1:24; Heb. 1:3, and of mercy and grace, are especially ascribed to Him, II Cor. 13:13; Eph.
a. The name applied to the third person of the Trinity. While we are told in John 4:24 that
God is Spirit, the name is applied more particularly to the third person in the Trinity.
The Hebrew term by which He is designated is ruach, and the Greek pneuma, both of
which are, like the Latin spiritus, derived from roots which mean “to breathe.” Hence
they can also be rendered “breath,” Gen. 2:7; 6:17; Ezek. 37:5, 6, or “wind,” Gen. 8:1; I
Kings 19:11; John 3:8. The Old Testament generally uses the term “spirit” without any
qualification, or speaks of “the Spirit of God” or “the Spirit of the Lord,” and employs
the term “Holy Spirit” only in Ps. 51:11; Isa. 63:10,11, while in the New Testament this
has become a far more common designation of the third person in the Trinity. It is a
striking fact that, while the Old Testament repeatedly calls God “the Holy One of
Israel,” Ps. 71:22; 89:18; Isa. 10:20; 41:14; 43:3; 48:17, the New Testament seldom applies
the adjective “holy” to God in general, but uses it frequently to characterize the Spirit.
This is in all probability due to the fact that it was especially in the Spirit and His
sanctifying work that God revealed Himself as the Holy One. It is the Holy Spirit that
takes up His abode in the hearts of believers, that separates them unto God, and that
cleanses them from sin.
b. The personality of the Holy Spirit. The terms “Spirit of God” or “Holy Spirit” do not
suggest personality as much as the term “Son” does. Moreover, the person of the Holy
Spirit did not appear in a clearly discernible personal form among men, as the person of
the Son of God did. As a result the personality of the Holy Spirit was often called in
question, and therefore deserves special attention. The personality of the Spirit was
denied in the early Church by the Monarchians and the Pneumatomachians. In this
denial they were followed by the Socinians in the days of the Reformation. Still later
Schleiermacher, Ritschl, the Unitarians, present-day Modernists, and all modern
Sabellians reject the personality of the Holy Spirit. It is often said in the present day that
those passages which seem to imply the personality of the Holy Spirit simply contain
personifications. But personifications are certainly rare in the prose writings of the New
Testament and can easily be recognized. Moreover, such an explanation clearly destroys
the sense of some of these passages, e.g. John 14:26; 16:7-11; Rom. 8:26. Scripture proof
for the personality of the Holy Spirit is quite sufficient: (1) Designations that are proper to
personality are given to Him. Though pneuma is neuter, yet the masculine pronoun ekeinos
is used of the Spirit in John 16:14; and in Eph. 1:14 some of the best authorities have the
masculine relative pronoun hos. Moreover, the name Parakletos is applied to Him, John
14:26; 15:26; 16:7, which cannot be translated by “comfort,” or be regarded as the name
of any abstract influence. That a person is meant is indicated by the fact that the Holy
Spirit as Comforter is placed in juxtaposition with Christ as the Comforter about to
depart, to whom the same term is applied in I John 2:1. It is true that this term is
followed by the neuters ho and auto in John 14:16-18, but this is due to the fact that
pneuma intervenes. (2) The characteristics of a person are ascribed to Him, such as
intelligence, John 14:26; 15:26; Rom. 8:16, will, Acts 16:7; I Cor. 12:11, and affections, Isa.
63:10; Eph. 4:30. Moreover, He performs acts proper to personality. He searches, speaks,
testifies, commands, reveals, strives, creates, makes intercession, raises the dead, etc.,
Gen. 1:2; 6:3; Luke 12:12; John 14:26; 15:26; 16:8; Acts 8:29; 13:2; Rom. 8:11; I Cor. 2:10,11.
What does all these things cannot be a mere power or influence, but must be a person.
(3) He is represented as standing in such relations to other persons as imply His own
personality. He is placed in juxtaposition with the apostles in Acts 15:28, with Christ in
John 16:14, and with the Father and the Son in Matt. 28:19; II Cor. 13:13; I Pet. 1:1,2; Jude
20, 21. Sound exegesis requires that in these passages the Holy Spirit be regarded as a
person. (4) There are also passages in which the Holy Spirit is distinguished from His own
power, Luke 1:35; 4:14; Acts 10:38; Rom. 15:13; I Cor. 2:4. Such passages would become
tautological, meaningless, and even absurd, if they were interpreted on the principle
that the Holy Spirit is merely a power. This can be shown by substituting for the name
“Holy Spirit” such a word as “power” or “influence.”
c. The relation of the Holy Spirit to the other persons in the trinity. The early trinitarian
controversies led to the conclusion that the Holy Spirit, as well as the Son, is of the same
essence as the Father, and is therefore consubstantial with Him. And the long drawn
dispute about the question, whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone or
also from the Son, was finally settled by the Synod of Toledo in 589 by adding the word
“Filioque” to the Latin version of the Constantinopolitan Creed: “Credimus in Spiritum
Sanctum qui a Patre Filioque procedit” (“We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from
the Father and the Son”). This procession of the Holy Spirit, briefly called spiration, is
his personal property. Much of what was said respecting the generation of the Son also
applies to the spiration of the Holy Spirit, and need not be repeated. The following
points of distinction between the two may be noted, however: (1) Generation is the
work of the Father only; spiration is the work of both the Father and the Son. (2) By
generation the Son is enabled to take part in the work of spiration, but the Holy Spirit
acquires no such power. (3) In logical order generation precedes spiration. It should be
remembered, however, that all this implies no essential subordination of the Holy Spirit
to the Son. In spiration as well as in generation there is a communication of the whole of
the divine essence, so that the Holy Spirit is on an equality with the Father and the Son.
The doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son is based
on John 15:26, and on the fact that the Spirit is also called the Spirit of Christ and of the
Son, Rom. 8:9; Gal. 4:6, and is sent by Christ into the world. Spiration may be defined as
that eternal and necessary act of the first and second persons in the Trinity whereby they, within
the divine Being, become the ground of the personal subsistence of the Holy Spirit, and put the
third person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation or
The Holy Spirit stands in the closest possible relation to the other persons. In virtue of His
procession from the Father and the Son the Spirit is represented as standing in the
closest possible relation to both of the other persons.
From I Cor. 2:10,11, we may infer, not that the Spirit is the same as the selfconsciousness
of God, but that He is as closely connected with God the Father as the
soul of man is with man. In II Cor. 3:17, we read, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where
the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Here the Lord (Christ) is identified with the
Spirit, not with respect to personality, but as to manner of working. In the same passage
the Spirit is called “the Spirit of the Lord.” The work for which the Holy Spirit was sent
into the Church on the day of Pentecost was based on His unity with the Father and the
Son. He came as the Parakletos to take the place of Christ and to do His work on earth,
that is, to teach, proclaim, testify, bear witness, etc., as the Son had done. Now in the
case of the Son this revelational work rested on His unity with the Father. Just so the
work of the Spirit is based on His unity with the Father and the Son, John 16:14,15.
Notice the words of Jesus in this passage: “He shall glorify me; for He shall take of
mine, and shall declare it unto you. All things whatsoever the Father hath are mine:
therefore said I, that He taketh of mine, and shall declare it unto you.”
d. The deity of the Holy Spirit. The deity of the Holy Spirit may be established from
Scripture by a line of proof quite similar to that employed in connection with the Son:
(1) Divine names are given to Him, Ex. 17:7 (comp. Heb. 3:7-9); Acts 5:3,4; I Cor. 3:16; II
Tim. 3:16 (comp. II Pet. 1:21). (2) Divine perfections are ascribed to Him, such as
omnipresence, Ps. 139:7-10, omniscience, Isa. 40:13,14 (comp. Rom. 11:34); I Cor. 2:10,11,
omnipotence, I Cor. 12:11; Rom. 15:19, and eternity, Heb. 9:14 (?). (3) Divine works are
performed by Him, such as creation, Gen. 1:2; Job. 26:13; 33:4, providential renovation, Ps.
104:30, regeneration, John 3:5,6; Tit. 3:5, and the resurrection of the dead, Rom. 8:11. (4)
Divine honour is also paid to Him, Matt. 28:19; Rom. 9:1; II Cor. 13:13.
e. The work of the Holy Spirit in the divine economy. There are certain works which are
more particularly ascribed to the Holy Spirit, not only in the general economy of God,
but also in the special economy of redemption. In general it may be said that it is the
special task of the Holy Spirit to bring things to completion by acting immediately upon
and in the creature. Just as He Himself is the person who completes the Trinity, so His
work is the completion of God’s contact with His creatures and the consummation of
the work of God in every sphere. It follows the work of the Son, just as the work of the
Son follows that of the Father. It is important to bear this in mind, for if the work of the
Holy Spirit is divorced from the objective work of the Son, false mysticism is bound to
result. The work of the Holy Spirit includes the following in the natural sphere: (1) The
generation of life. As being is out of the Father, and thought through the Son, so life is
mediated by the Spirit, Gen. 1:3; Job. 26:13; Ps. 33:6 (?); Ps. 104:30. In that respect He
puts the finishing touch to the work of creation. (2) The general inspiration and
qualification of men. The Holy Spirit inspires and qualifies men for their official tasks, for
work in science and art, etc., Ex. 28:3; 31:2,3,6; 35:35; I Sam. 11:6; 16:13,14.
Of even greater importance is the work of the Holy Spirit in the sphere of
redemption. Here the following points may be mentioned: (1) The preparation and
qualification of Christ for His mediatorial work. He prepared Christ a body and thus
enabled Him to become a sacrifice for sin, Luke 1:35; Heb. 10:5-7. In the words “a body
thou didst prepare for me,” the writer of Hebrews follows the Septuagint. The meaning
is: Thou hast enabled me by the preparation of a holy body to become a real sacrifice. At
His baptism Christ was anointed with the Holy Spirit, Luke 3:22, and received the
qualifying gifts of the Holy Spirit without measure, John 3:24. (2) The inspiration of
Scripture. The Holy Spirit inspired Scripture, and thus brought to men the special
revelation of God, I Cor. 2:13; II Pet. 1:21, the knowledge of the work of redemption
which is in Christ Jesus. (3) The formation and augmentation of the Church. The Holy Spirit
forms and increases the Church, the mystical body of Jesus Christ, by regeneration and
sanctification, and dwells in it as the principle of the new life, Eph. 1:22,23; 2:22; I Cor.
3:16; 12:4 ff. (4) Teaching and guiding the Church. The Holy Spirit testifies to Christ and
leads the Church in all the truth. By doing this He manifests the glory of God and of
Christ, increases the knowledge of the Saviour, keeps the Church from error, and
prepares her for her eternal destiny, John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13,14; Acts 5:32; Heb. 10:15; I
John 2:27.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. Does pagan literature contain any analogies of the
doctrine of the Trinity? Does the development of the doctrine of the Trinity start from
the ontological or from the economical Trinity? Can the economical Trinity be
understood apart from the ontological? Why is the doctrine of the Trinity discussed by
some as introductory to the doctrine of redemption? What is the Hegelian conception of
the Trinity? How did Swedenborg conceive of it? Where do we find Sabellianism in
modern theology? Why is it objectionable to hold that the Trinity is purely economical?
What objections are there to the modern Humanitarian conception of the Trinity? Why
does Barth treat of the Trinity in the Prolegomena to theology? What is the practical
significance of the doctrine of the Trinity?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref Dogm. II, pp. 260-347; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Deo II, pp.
3-255; Vos. Geref. Dogm. I, pp. 36-81; Mastricht, Godgeleerdheit I, pp. 576-662; Turretin,
Opera, Locus Tertius; Hodge, Syst. Theol. I, pp. 442-534; Dabney, Syst. and Polem. Theol.,
pp. 174-211; Curtiss, The Chr. Faith, pp. 483-510; Harris, God, Creator and Lord of All, I, pp.
194-407; Illingworth, The Doctrine of the Trinity; Adeney, The Christian Conception of God,
pp. 215-246; Steenstra, The Being of God as Unity and Trinity, pp. 159-269; Clarke, The Chr.
Doct. of God, pp. 227-248; Bartlett, The Triune God; Liddon, The Divinity of Our Lord;
Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ; Warfield, The Lord of Glory; ibid, The
Spirit of God in the Old Testament; and The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity (both in Biblical
Doctrines), pp. 101 ff.; ibid., Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity (in Calvin and Calvinism);
Kuyper, Het Werk van den Heiligen Geest, cf. Index; Owen, A Discourse Concerning the Holy
Spirit, cf. Index; Smeaton, The Doct. of the Holy Spirit; Pohle-Preuss, The Divine Trinity.
I. The Divine Decrees in General
Reformed theology stresses the sovereignty of God in virtue of which He has
sovereignly determined from all eternity whatsoever will come to pass, and works His
sovereign will in His entire creation, both natural and spiritual, according to His predetermined
plan. It is in full agreement with Paul when he says that God “worketh all
things after the counsel of His will,” Eph. 1:11. For that reason it is but natural that, in
passing from the discussion of the Being of God to that of the works of God, it should
begin with a study of the divine decrees. This is the only proper theological method. A
theological discussion of the works of God should take its starting point in God, both in
the work of creation and in that of redemption or recreation. It is only as issuing from,
and as related to, God that the works of God come into consideration as a part of
In spite of this fact, however, Reformed theology stands practically alone in its
emphasis on the doctrine of the decrees. Lutheran theology is less theological and more
anthropological. It does not consistently take its starting point in God and consider all
things as divinely pre-determined, but reveals a tendency to consider things from below
rather than from above. And in so far as it does believe in pre-determination, it is
inclined to limit this to the good that is in the world, and more particularly to the
blessings of salvation. It is a striking fact that many Lutheran theologians are silent, or
all but silent, respecting the doctrine of the decrees of God in general and discuss only
the doctrine of pre-destination, and regard this as conditional rather than absolute. In the
doctrine of predestination Lutheran theology shows strong affinity with Arminianism.
Krauth (an influential leader of the Lutheran Church in our country) even says: “The
views of Arminius himself, in regard to the five points, were formed under Lutheran
influences, and do not differ essentially from those of the Lutheran Church; but on
many points in the developed system now known as Arminianism, the Lutheran
Church has no affinity whatever with it, and on these points would sympathize far
more with Calvinism, though she has never believed that in order to escape from
Pelagianism, it is necessary to run into the doctrine of absolute predestination. The
‘Formula of Concord’ touches the five points almost purely on their practical sides, and
on them arrays itself against Calvinism, rather by the negation of the inferences which
result logically from that system, than by express condemnation of its fundamental
theory in its abstract form.”43 In so far as Lutheran theologians include the doctrine of
predestination in their system, they generally consider it in connection with Soteriology.
Naturally, Arminian theology does not place the doctrine of the decrees in the
foreground. That of the decrees in general is usually conspicuous by its absence. Pope
brings in the doctrine of predestination only in passing, and Miley introduces it as an
issue for discussion. Raymond discusses only the doctrine of election, and Watson
devotes considerable space to this in considering the extent of the atonement. One and
all reject the doctrine of absolute predestination, and substitute for it a conditional
predestination. Modern liberal theology does not concern itself with the doctrine of
predestination, since it is fundamentally anthropological. In the “theology of crisis” it is
again recognized, but in a form that is neither Scriptural nor historical. In spite of its
appeal to the Reformers, it departs widely from the doctrine of predestination, as it was
taught by Luther and Calvin.
From the purely immanent works of God (opera ad intra) we must distinguish those
which bear directly on the creatures (opera ad extra). Some theologians, in order to avoid
misunderstanding, prefer to speak of opera immanentia and opera exeuntia, and subdivide
the former into two classes, opera immanentia per se, which are the opera personalia
(generation, filiation, spiration), and opera immanentia donec exeunt, which are opera
essentialia, that is, works of the triune God, in distinction from works of any one of the
persons of the Godhead, but are immanent in God, until they are realized in the works
of creation, providence, and redemption. The divine decrees constitute this class of
divine works. They are not described in the abstract in Scripture, but are placed before
us in their historical realization. Scripture uses several terms for the eternal decree of
1. OLD TESTAMENT TERMS. There are some terms which stress the intellectual element
in the decree, such as ’etsah from ya’ats, to counsel, to give advice, Job 38:2; Isa. 14:26;
46:11; sod from yasad, to sit together in deliberation (niphal), Jer. 23:18,22; and mezimmah
43 The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology, pp. 127f.
from zamam, to meditate, to have in mind, to purpose, Jer. 4:28; 51:12; Prov. 30:32.
Besides these there are terms which emphasize the volitional element, such as chaphets,
inclination, will, good pleasure, Isa. 53:10; and ratson, to please, to be delighted, and
thus denoting delight, good pleasure, or sovereign will, Ps. 51:19; Isa. 49:8.
2. NEW TESTAMENT TERMS. The New Testament also contains a number of significant
terms. The most general word is boule, designating the decree in general, but also
pointing to the fact that the purpose of God is based on counsel and deliberation, Acts
2:23; 4:28; Heb. 6:17. Another rather general word is thelema, which, as applied to the
counsel of God, stresses the volitional rather than the deliberative element, Eph. 1:11.
The word eudokia emphasizes more particularly the freedom of the purpose of God, and
the delight with which it is accompanied, though this idea is not always present, Matt.
11:26; Luke 2:14; Eph. 1:5,9. Other words are used more especially to designate that part
of the divine decree that pertains in a very special sense to God’s moral creatures, and is
known as predestination. These terms will be considered in connection with the
discussion of that subject.
The decree of God may be defined with the Westminster Shorter Catechism as “His
eternal purpose according to the counsel of His will, whereby, for His own glory, He hath
foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.”
1. THE DIVINE DECREE IS ONE. Though we often speak of the decrees of God in the
plural, yet in its own nature the divine decree is but a single act of God. This is already
suggested by the fact that the Bible speaks of it as a prothesis, a purpose or counsel. It
follows also from the very nature of God. His knowledge is all immediate and
simultaneous rather than successive like ours, and His comprehension of it is always
complete. And the decree that is founded on it is also a single, all-comprehensive, and
simultaneous act. As an eternal and immutable decree it could not be otherwise. There
is, therefore, no series of decrees in God, but simply one comprehensive plan,
embracing all that comes to pass. Our finite comprehension, however, constrains us to
make distinctions, and this accounts for the fact that we often speak of the decrees of
God in the plural. This manner of speaking is perfectly legitimate, provided we do not
lose sight of the unity of the divine decree, and of the inseparable connection of the
various decrees as we conceive of them.
the closest relation to the divine knowledge. There is in God, as we have seen, a
necessary knowledge, including all possible causes and results. This knowledge
furnishes the material for the decree; it is the perfect fountain out of which God drew
the thoughts which He desired to objectify. Out of this knowledge of all things possible
He chose, by an act of His perfect will, led by wise considerations, what He wanted to
bring to realization, and thus formed His eternal purpose. The decree of God is, in turn,
the foundation of His free knowledge or scientia libera. It is the knowledge of things as
they are realized in the course of history. While the necessary knowledge of God
logically precedes the decree, His free knowledge logically follows it. This must be
maintained over against all those who believe in a conditional predestination (such as
Semi-Pelagians and Arminians), since they make the pre-determinations of God
dependent on His foreknowledge. Some of the words used to denote the divine decree
point to an element of deliberation in the purpose of God. It would be a mistake,
however, to infer from this that the plan of God is the result of any deliberation which
implies short-sightedness or hesitation, for it is simply an indication of the fact that
there is no blind decree in God, but only an intelligent and deliberate purpose.
3. THE DECREE RELATES TO BOTH GOD AND MAN. The decree has reference, first of all,
to the works of God. It is limited, however, to God’s opera ad extra or transitive acts, and
does not pertain to the essential Being of God, nor to the immanent activities within the
Divine Being which result in the trinitarian distinctions. God did not decree to be holy
and righteous, nor to exist as three persons in one essence or to generate the Son. These
things are as they are necessarily, and are not dependent on the optional will of God.
That which is essential to the inner Being of God can form no part of the contents of the
decree. This includes only the opera ad extra or exeuntia. But while the decree pertains
primarily to the acts of God Himself, it is not limited to these, but also embraces the
actions of His free creatures. And the fact that they are included in the decree renders
them absolutely certain, though they are not all effectuated in the same manner. In the
case of some things God decided, not merely that they would come to pass, but that He
Himself would bring them to pass, either immediately, as in the work of creation, or
through the mediation of secondary causes, which are continually energized by His
power. He Himself assumes the responsibility for their coming to pass. There are other
things, however, which God included in His decree and thereby rendered certain, but
which He did not decide to effectuate Himself, as the sinful acts of His rational
creatures. The decree, in so far as it pertains to these acts, is generally called God’s
permissive decree. This name does not imply that the futurition of these acts is not
certain to God, but simply that He permits them to come to pass by the free agency of
His rational creatures. God assumes no responsibility for these sinful acts whatsoever.
4. THE DECREE TO ACT IS NOT THE ACT ITSELF. The decrees are an internal manifestation
and exercise of the divine attributes, rendering the futurition of things certain but this
exercise of the intelligent volition of God should not be confounded with the realization
of its objects in creation, providence, and redemption. The decree to create is not
creation itself, nor is the decree to justify justification itself. A distinction must be made
between the decree and its execution. God’s so ordering the universe that man will
pursue a certain course of action, is also quite a different thing from His commanding
him to do so. The decrees are not addressed to man, and are not of the nature of a
statute law; neither do they impose compulsion or obligation on the wills of men.
1. IT IS FOUNDED IN DIVINE WISDOM. The word “counsel,” which is one of the terms by
which the decree is designated, suggests careful deliberation and consultation. It may
contain a suggestion of an intercommunion between the three persons of the Godhead.
In speaking of God’s revelation of the mystery that was formerly hid in Him, Paul says
that this was “to the intent that now unto the principalities and the powers in the
heavenly places might be made known through the Church the manifold wisdom of
God, according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord,”
Eph. 3:10,11. The wisdom of the decree also follows from the wisdom displayed in the
realization of the eternal purpose of God. The poet sings in Ps. 104:24, “O Jehovah, how
manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all.” The same idea is
expressed in Prov. 3:19, “Jehovah by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He
established the heavens.” Cf. also Jer. 10:12; 51:15. The wisdom of the counsel of the
Lord can also be inferred from the fact that it stands fast forever, Ps. 33:11; Prov. 19:21.
There may be a great deal in the decree that passes human understanding and is
inexplicable to the finite mind, but it contains nothing that is irrational or arbitrary. God
formed his determination with wise insight and knowledge.
2. IT IS ETERNAL. The divine decree is eternal in the sense that it lies entirely in
eternity. In a certain sense it can be said that all the acts of God are eternal, since there is
no succession of moments in the Divine Being. But some of them terminate in time, as,
for instance, creation and justification. Hence we do not call them eternal but temporal
acts of God. The decree, however, while it relates to things outside of God, remains in
itself an act within the Divine Being, and is therefore eternal in the strictest sense of the
word. Therefore it also partakes of the simultaneousness and the successionlessness of
the eternal, Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:4; II Tim. 1:9. The eternity of the decree also implies that
the order in which the different elements in it stand to each other may not be regarded
as temporal, but only as logical. There is a real chronological order in the events as
effectuated, but not in the decree respecting them.
3. IT IS EFFICACIOUS. This does not mean that God has determined to bring to pass
Himself by a direct application of His power all things which are included in His
decree, but only that what He has decreed will certainly come to pass; that nothing can
thwart His purpose. Says Dr. A. A. Hodge: “The decree itself provides in every case that
the event shall be effected by causes acting in a manner perfectly consistent with the
nature of the event in question. Thus in the case of every free act of a moral agent the
decree provides at the same time — (a) That the agent shall be a free agent. (b) That his
antecedents and all the antecedents of the act in question shall be what they are. (c) That
all the present conditions of the act shall be what they are. (d) That the act shall be
perfectly spontaneous and free on the part of the agent. (e) That it shall be certainly
future. Ps. 33:11; Prov. 19:21; Isa. 46:10.”44
4. IT IS IMMUTABLE. Man may and often does alter his plans for various reasons. It
may be that in making his plan he lacked seriousness of purpose, that he did not fully
realize what the plan involved, or that he is wanting the power to carry it out. But in
God nothing of the kind is conceivable. He is not deficient in knowledge, veracity, or
power. Therefore He need not change His decree because of a mistake of ignorance, nor
because of inability to carry it out. And He will not change it, because He is the
immutable God and because He is faithful and true. Job 23:13,14; Ps. 33:11; Isa. 46:10;
Luke 22:22; Acts 2:23.
5. IT IS UNCONDITIONAL OR ABSOLUTE. This means that it is not dependent in any of its
particulars on anything that is not part and parcel of the decree itself. The various
elements in the decree are indeed mutually dependent but nothing in the plan is
conditioned by anything that is not in the decree. The execution of the plan may require
means or be dependent on certain conditions, but then these means or conditions have
also been determined in the decree. God did not simply decree to save sinners without
determining the means to effectuate the decree. The means leading to the predetermined
end were also decreed, Acts 2:23; Eph. 2:8; I Pet. 1:2. The absolute character
of the decree follows from its eternity, its immutability, and its exclusive dependence on
the good pleasure of God. It is denied by all Semi-Pelagians and Arminians.
6. IT IS UNIVERSAL OR ALL-COMPREHENSIVE. The decree includes whatsoever comes to
pass in the world, whether it be in the physical or in the moral realm, whether it be
44 Outlines of Theology, p. 203.
good or evil, Eph. 1:11. It includes: (a) the good actions of men, Eph. 21:0; (b) their
wicked acts, Prov. 16:4; Acts 2:23; 4:27,28; (c) contingent events, Gen. 45:8; 50:20; Prov.
16:33; (d) the means as well as the end, Ps. 119:89-91; II Thess. 2:13; Eph. 1:4; (e) the
duration of man’s life, Job 14:5; Ps. 39:4, and the place of his habitation, Acts 17:26.
7. WITH REFERENCE TO SIN IT IS PERMISSIVE. It is customary to speak of the decree of
God respecting moral evil as permissive. By His decree God rendered the sinful actions
of man infallibly certain without deciding to effectuate them by acting immediately
upon and in the finite will. This means that God does not positively work in man “both
to will and to do,” when man goes contrary to His revealed will. It should be carefully
noted, however, that this permissive decree does not imply a passive permission of
something which is not under the control of the divine will. It is a decree which renders
the future sinful act absolutely certain, but in which God determines (a) not to hinder
the sinful self-determination of the finite will; and (b) to regulate and control the result
of this sinful self-determination. Ps. 78:29; 106:15; Acts 14:16; 17:30.
As was said in the preceding, only Reformed theology does full justice to the
doctrine of the decrees. Lutheran theologians do not, as a rule, construe it theologically
but soteriologically, for the purpose of showing how believers can derive comfort from
it. Pelagians and Socinians reject it as unscriptural; and Semi-Pelagians and Arminians
show it scant favor: some ignoring it altogether; others stating it only to combat it; and
still others maintaining only a decree conditioned by the foreknowledge of God. The
objections raised to it are, in the main, always the same.
power of rational self-determination. He can reflect upon, and in an intelligent way
choose, certain ends, and can also determine his action with respect to them. The decree
of God however, carries with it necessity. God has decreed to effectuate all things or, if
He has not decreed that, He has at least determined that they must come to pass. He has
decided the course of man’s life for him.45 In answer to this objection it may be said that
the Bible certainly does not proceed on the assumption that the divine decree is
inconsistent with the free agency of man. It clearly reveals that God has decreed the free
acts of man, but also that the actors are none the less free and therefore responsible for
their acts, Gen. 50:19,20; Acts 2:23; 4:27,28. It was determined that the Jews should bring
about the crucifixion of Jesus; yet they were perfectly free in their wicked course of
45 Cf. Watson, Theological Institutes, Part II, Chap. XXVIII; Miley, Systematic Theology II, pp. 271 ff.
action, and were held responsible for this crime. There is not a single indication in
Scripture that the inspired writers are conscious of a contradiction in connection with
these matters. They never make an attempt to harmonize the two. This may well
restrain us from assuming a contradiction here, even if we cannot reconcile both truths.
Moreover, it should be borne in mind that God has not decreed to effectuate by His
own direct action whatsoever must come to pass. The divine decree only brings certainty
into the events, but does not imply that God will actively effectuate them, so that the
question really resolves itself into this, whether previous certainty is consistent with free
agency. Now experience teaches us that we can be reasonably certain as to the course a
man of character will pursue under certain circumstances, without infringing in the
least on his freedom. The prophet Jeremiah predicted that the Chaldeans would take
Jerusalem. He knew the coming event as a certainty, and yet the Chaldeans freely
followed their own desires in fulfilling the prediction. Such certainty is indeed
inconsistent with the Pelagian liberty of indifference, according to which the will of man
is not determined in any way, but is entirely indeterminate, so that in every volition it
can decide in opposition, not only to all outward inducements, but also to all inward
considerations and judgments, inclinations and desires, and even to the whole character
and inner state of man. But it is now generally recognized that such freedom of the will
is a psychological fiction. However, the decree is not necessarily inconsistent with
human freedom in the sense of rational self-determination, according to which man
freely acts in harmony with his previous thoughts and judgments, his inclinations and
desires, and his whole character. This freedom also has its laws, and the better we are
acquainted with them, the more sure we can be of what a free agent will do under
certain circumstances. God Himself has established these laws. Naturally, we must
guard against all determinism, materialistic, pantheistic, and rationalistic, in our
conception of freedom in the sense of rational self-determination.
The decree is no more inconsistent with free agency than foreknowledge is, and yet
the objectors, who are generally of the Semi-Pelagian or Arminian type, profess to
believe in divine foreknowledge. By His foreknowledge God knows from all eternity the
certain futurition of all events. It is based on His foreordination, by which He determined
their future certainty. The Arminian will of course, say that he does not believe in a
foreknowledge based on a decree which renders things certain, but in a foreknowledge
of facts and events which are contingent on the free will of man, and therefore
indeterminate. Now such a foreknowledge of the free actions of man may be possible, if
man even in his freedom acts in harmony with divinely established laws, which again
bring in the element of certainty; but it would seem to be impossible to foreknow events
which are entirely dependent on the chance decision of an unprincipled will, which can
at any time, irrespective of the state of the soul, of existing conditions, and of the
motives that present themselves to the mind, turn in different directions. Such events
can only be foreknown as bare possibilities.
2. IT TAKES AWAY ALL MOTIVES FOR HUMAN EXERTION. This objection is to the effect that
people will naturally say that, if all things are bound to happen as God has determined
them, they need not concern themselves about the future and need not make any efforts
to obtain salvation. But this is hardly correct. In the case of people who speak after that
fashion this is generally the mere excuse of indolence and disobedience. The divine
decrees are not addressed to men as a rule of action, and cannot be such a rule, since
their contents become known only through, and therefore after, their realization. There
is a rule of action, however, embodied in the law and in the gospel, and this puts men
under obligation to employ the means which God has ordained.
This objection also ignores the logical relation, determined by God’s decree, between
the means and the end to be obtained. The decree includes not only the various issues of
human life, but also the free human actions which are logically prior to, and are
destined to bring about, the results. It was absolutely certain that all those who were in
the vessel with Paul (Acts 27) were to be saved, but it was equally certain that, in order
to secure this end, the sailors had to remain aboard. And since the decree establishes an
interrelation between means and ends, and ends are decreed only as the result of
means, they encourage effort instead of discouraging it. Firm belief in the fact that,
according to the divine decrees, success will be the reward of toil, is an inducement to
courageous and persevering efforts. On the very basis of the decree Scripture urges us
to be diligent in using the appointed means, Phil. 2:13; Eph. 2:10.
3. IT MAKES GOD THE AUTHOR OF SIN. This, if true, would naturally be an insuperable
objection, for God cannot be the author of sin. This follows equally from Scripture, Ps.
92:15; Eccl. 7:29; Jas. 1:13; I John 1:5, from the law of God which prohibits all sin, and
from the holiness of God. But the charge is not true; the decree merely makes God the
author of free moral beings, who are themselves the authors of sin. God decrees to
sustain their free agency, to regulate the circumstances of their life, and to permit that
free agency to exert itself in a multitude of acts, of which some are sinful. For good and
holy reasons He renders these sinful acts certain, but He does not decree to work evil
desires or choices efficiently in man. The decree respecting sin is not an efficient but a
permissive decree, or a decree to permit, in distinction from a decree to produce, sin by
divine efficiency. No difficulty attaches to such a decree which does not also attach to a
mere passive permission of what He could very well prevent, such as the Arminians,
who generally raise this objection, assume. The problem of God’s relation to sin remains
a mystery for us, which we are not able to solve. It may be said, however, that His
decree to permit sin, while it renders the entrance of sin into the world certain, does not
mean that He takes delight in it; but only that He deemed it wise, for the purpose of His
self-revelation, to permit moral evil, however abhorrent it may be to His nature.
II. Predestination
In passing from the discussion of the divine decree to that of predestination, we are
still dealing with the same subject, but are passing from the general to the particular.
The word “predestination” is not always used in the same sense. Sometimes it is
employed simply as a synonym of the generic word “decree.” In other cases it serves to
designate the purpose of God respecting all His moral creatures. Most frequently,
however, it denotes “the counsel of God concerning fallen men, including the sovereign
election of some and the righteous reprobation of the rest. In the present discussion it is
used primarily in the last sense, though not altogether to the exclusion of the second
Predestination does not form an important subject of discussion in history until the
time of Augustine. Earlier Church Fathers allude to it, but do not as yet seem to have a
very clear conception of it. On the whole they regard it as the prescience of God with
reference to human deeds, on the basis of which He determines their future destiny.
Hence it was possible for Pelagius to appeal to some of those early Fathers. “According
to Pelagius,” says Wiggers, “foreordination to salvation or to damnation, is founded on
prescience. Consequently he did not admit an ‘absolute predestination,’ but in every
respect a ‘conditional predestination’.”46 At first, Augustine himself was inclined to this
view, but deeper reflection on the sovereign character of the good pleasure of God led
him to see that predestination was in no way dependent on God’s foreknowledge of
human actions, but was rather the basis of the divine foreknowledge. His representation
of reprobation is not as unambiguous as it might be. Some of his statements are to the
effect that in predestination God foreknows what He will Himself do, while He is also
able to foreknow what He will not do, as all sins; and speak of the elect as subjects of
predestination, and of the reprobate as subjects of the divine foreknowledge.47 In other
passages, however, he also speaks of the reprobate as subjects of predestination, so that
there can be no doubt about it that he taught a double predestination. However, he
recognized their difference, consisting in this that God did not predestinate unto
damnation and the means unto it in the same way as He did to salvation, and that
46 Augustinism and Pelagianism, p. 252.
47 Cf. Wiggers, ibid., p. 239; Dijk. Om’t Eeuwig Welbehagen, pp. 39f.; Polman, De Praedestinatieleer van
Augustinus, Thomas van Aquino, en Calvijn, pp. 149ff.
predestination unto life is purely sovereign, while predestination unto eternal death is
also judicial and takes account of man’s sin.48
Augustine’s view found a great deal of opposition, particularly in France, where the
semi-Pelagians, while admitting the need of divine grace unto salvation, reasserted the
doctrine of a predestination based on foreknowledge. And they who took up the
defense of Augustine felt constrained to yield on some important points. They failed to
do justice to the doctrine of a double predestination. Only Gottschalk and a few of his
friends maintained this, but his voice was soon silenced, and Semi-Pelagianism gained
the upper hand at least among the leaders of the Church. Toward the end of the Middle
Ages it became quite apparent that the Roman Catholic Church would allow a great
deal of latitude in the doctrine of predestination. As long as its teachers maintained that
God willed the salvation of all men, and not merely of the elect, they could with
Thomas Aquinas move in the direction of Augustinianism in the doctrine of
predestination, or with Molina follow the course of Semi-Pelagianism, as they thought
best. This means that even in the case of those who, like Thomas Aquinas, believed in
an absolute and double predestination, this doctrine could not be carried through
consistently, and could not be made determinative of the rest of their theology.
The Reformers of the sixteenth century all advocated the strictest doctrine of
predestination. This is even true of Melanchton in his earliest period. Luther accepted
the doctrine of absolute predestination, though the conviction that God willed that all
men should be saved caused him to soft-pedal the doctrine of predestination somewhat
later in life. It gradually disappeared from Lutheran theology, which now regards it
either wholly or in part (reprobation) as conditional. Calvin firmly maintained the
Augustinian doctrine of an absolute double predestination. At the same time he, in his
defense of the doctrine against Pighius, stressed the fact that the decree respecting the
entrance of sin into the world was a permissive decree, and that the decree of
reprobation should be so construed that God was not made the author of sin nor in any
way responsible for it. The Reformed Confessions are remarkably consistent in
embodying this doctrine, though they do not all state it with equal fulness and
precision. As a result of the Arminian assault on the doctrine, the Canons of Dort
contain a clear and detailed statement of it. In churches of the Arminian type the
doctrine of absolute predestination has been supplanted by the doctrine of conditional
48 Cf. Dyk, ibid., p. 40; Polman, ibid., p. 158.
Since the days of Schleiermacher the doctrine of predestination received an entirely
different form. Religion was regarded as a feeling of absolute dependence, a Hinneigung
zum Weltall, a consciousness of utter dependence on the causality that is proper to the
natural order with its invariable laws and second causes, which predetermine all
human resolves and actions. And predestination was identified with this
predetermination by nature or the universal causal connection in the world. The
scathing denunciation of this view by Otto is none too severe: “There can be no more
spurious product of theological speculation, no more fundamental falsification of
religious conceptions than this; and it is certainly not against this that the Rationalist
feels an antagonism, for it is itself a piece of solid Rationalism, but at the same time a
complete abandonment of the real religious idea of ‘predestination’.”49 In modern
liberal theology the doctrine of predestination meets with little favor. It is either rejected
or changed beyond recognition. G. B. Foster brands it as determinism; Macintosh
represents it as a predestination of all men to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ;
and others reduce it to a predestination to certain offices or privileges.
In our day Barth has again directed attention to the doctrine of predestination, but
has given a construction of it which is not even distantly related to that of Augustine
and Calvin. With the Reformers he holds that this doctrine stresses the sovereign
freedom of God in His election, revelation, calling, and so on.50 At the same time he
does not see in predestination a predetermined separation of men, and does not
understand election like Calvin as particular election. This is evident from what he says
on page 332 of his Roemerbrief. Camfield therefore says in his Essay in Barthian Theology,
entitled Revelation and the Holy Spirit:51 “It needs to be emphasized that predestination
does not mean the selection of a number of people for salvation and the rest for
damnation according to the determination of an unknown and unknowable will. That
idea does not belong to predestination proper.” Predestination brings man into crisis in
the moment of revelation and decision. It condemns him in the relation in which he
stands to God by nature, as sinner, and in that relation rejects him, but it chooses him in
the relation to which he is called in Christ, and for which he was destined in creation. If
man responds to God’s revelation by faith, he is what God intended him to be, an elect;
but if he does not respond, he remains a reprobate. But since man is always in crisis,
unconditional pardon and complete rejection continue to apply to every one
49 The Idea of the Holy, p. 90.
50 The Doctrine of the Word of God, p. 168; Roemerbrief (2nd ed.), p. 332.
51 p. 92.
simultaneously. Esau may become Jacob, but Jacob may also become once more Esau.
Says McConnachie: “For Barth, and as he believes, for St. Paul, the individual is not the
object of election or reprobation, but rather the arena of election or reprobation. The two
decisions meet within the same individual, but in such a way that, seen from the human
side, man is always reprobate, but seen from the divine side, he is always elect. . . . The
ground of election is faith. The ground of reprobation is want of faith. But who is he
who believes? And who is he who disbelieves? Faith and unbelief are grounded in God.
We stand at the gates of mystery.”52
The following terms come into consideration here:
1. THE HEBREW WORD yada’ AND THE GREEK WORDS ginoskein, proginoskein, AND
prognosis. The word yada’ may simply mean “to know” or “to take cognizance” of
someone or something, but may also be used in the more pregnant sense of “taking
knowledge of one with loving care,” or “making one the object of loving care or elective
love.” In this sense it serves the idea of election, Gen. 18:19; Amos 3:2; Hos. 13:5. The
meaning of the words proginoskein and prognosis in the New Testament is not determined
by their usage in the classics, but by the special meaning of yada’. They do not denote
simple intellectual foresight or prescience, the mere taking knowledge of something
beforehand, but rather a selective knowledge which regards one with favor and makes
one an object of love, and thus approaches the idea of foreordination, Acts 2:23 (comp.
4:28); Rom. 8:29; 11:2; I Peter 1:2. These passages simply lose their meaning, if the words
be taken in the sense of simply taking knowledge of one in advance, for God foreknows
all men in that sense. Even Arminians feel constrained to give the words a more
determinative meaning, namely, to foreknow one with absolute assurance in a certain
state or condition. This includes the absolute certainty of that future state, and for that
very reason comes very close to the idea of predestination. And not only these words,
but even the simple ginoskein has such a specific meaning in some cases, I Cor. 8:3; Gal.
4:9; II Tim. 2:19.53
2. THE HEBREW WORD bachar AND THE GREEK WORDS eklegesthai AND ekloge. These
words stress the element of choice or selection in the decree of God respecting the
eternal destiny of sinners, a choice accompanied with good pleasure. They serve to
indicate the fact that God selects a certain number of the human race and places them in
52 The Significance of Karl Barth, pp. 240f.
53 Cf. Article of C. W. Hodge on “Foreknow, Foreknowledge” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia.
a special relation to Himself. Sometimes they include the idea of a call to a certain
privilege, or of the call to salvation; but it is a mistake to think, as some do, that this
exhausts their meaning. It is perfectly evident that they generally refer to a prior and
eternal election, Rom. 9:11; 11:5; Eph. 1:4; II Thess. 2:13.
3. THE GREEK WORDS proorizein AND proorismos. These words always refer to absolute
predestination. In distinction from the other words, they really require a complement.
The question naturally arises, Foreordained unto what? The words always refer to the
foreordination of man to a certain end, and from the Bible it is evident that the end may
be either good or bad, Acts 4:28; Eph. 1:5. However, the end to which they refer is not
necessarily the final end, but is even more frequently some end in time, which is in turn
a means to the final end, Acts 4:28; Rom. 8:29; I Cor. 2:7; Eph. 1:5,11.
4. THE GREEK WORDS protithenai AND prothesis. In these words attention is directed to
the fact that God sets before Him a definite plan to which He steadfastly adheres. They
clearly refer to God’s purpose of predestinating men unto salvation in Rom. 8:29; 9:11;
Eph. 1:9,11; II Tim. 1:9.
1. THE AUTHOR. The decree of predestination is undoubtedly in all its parts the
concurrent act of the three persons in the Trinity, who are one in their counsel and will.
But in the economy of salvation, as it is revealed in Scripture, the sovereign act of
predestination is more particularly attributed to the Father, John 17:6,9; Rom. 8:29; Eph.
1:4; I Pet. 1:2.
2. THE OBJECTS OF PREDESTINATION. In distinction from the decree of God in general,
predestination has reference to God’s rational creatures only. Most frequently it refers to
fallen men. Yet it is also employed in a wider sense, and we use it in the more inclusive
sense here, in order to embrace all the objects of predestination. It includes all God’s
rational creatures, that is:
a. All men, both good and evil. These are included not merely as groups, but as
individuals, Acts 4:28; Rom. 8:29,30; 9:11-13; Eph. 1:5,11.
b. The angels, both good and evil. The Bible speaks not only of holy angels, Mark 8:38;
Luke 9:26, and of wicked angels, which kept not their first estate, II Pet. 2:4; Jude 6; but
also makes explicit mention of elect angels, I Tim. 5:21, thereby implying that there were
also non-elect angels. The question naturally arises, How are we to conceive of the
predestination of angels? According to some it simply means that God determined in
general that the angels which remained holy would be confirmed in a state of bliss,
while the others would be lost. But this is not at all in harmony with the Scriptural idea
of predestination. It rather means that God decreed, for reasons sufficient unto Himself,
to give some angels, in addition to the grace with which they were endowed by creation
and which included ample power to remain holy, a special grace of perseverance; and to
withhold this from others. There are points of difference between the predestination of
men and that of the angels: (1) While the predestination of men may be conceived of as
infralapsarian, the predestination of the angels can only be understood as
supralapsarian. God did not choose a certain number out of the fallen mass of angels.
(2) The angels were not elected or predestined in Christ as Mediator, but in Him as
Head, that is, to stand in a ministerial relation to Him.
c. Christ as Mediator. Christ was the object of predestination in the sense that (1) a
special love of the Father, distinct from His usual love to the Son, rested upon Him from
all eternity, I Pet. 1:20; 2:4; (2) in His quality as Mediator he was the object of God’s good
pleasure, I Pet. 2:4; (3) as Mediator He was adorned with the special image of God, to
which believers were to be conformed, Rom. 8:29; and (4) the Kingdom with all its glory
and the means leading to its possession were ordained for Him, that He might pass
these on to believers, Luke 22:29.
Predestination includes two parts, namely, election and reprobation, the
predetermination of both the good and the wicked to their final end, and to certain
proximate ends which are instrumental in the realization of their final destiny. 1.
a. The Biblical Idea of Election. The Bible speaks of election in more than one sense.
There is (1) the election of Israel as a people for special privileges and for special service,
Deut. 4:37; 7:6-8; 10:15; Hos. 13:5. (2) The election of individuals to some office, or to the
performance of some special service, as Moses, Ex. 3, the priests, Deut. 18:5; the kings, I
Sam. 10:24; Ps. 78:70, the prophets, Jer. 1:5, and the apostles, John 6:70; Acts 9:15. (3) The
election of individuals to be children of God and heirs of eternal glory, Matt. 22:14; Rom.
11:5; I Cor. 1:27,28; Eph. 1:4; I Thess. 1:4; I Pet. 1:2; II Pet. 1:10. The last is the election that
comes into consideration here as a part of predestination. It may be defined as that
eternal act of God whereby He, in His sovereign good pleasure, and on account of no foreseen
merit in them, chooses a certain number of men to be the recipients of special grace and of eternal
salvation. More briefly it may be said to be God’s eternal purpose to save some of the
human race in and by Jesus Christ.
b. The characteristics of election. The characteristics of election are identical with the
characteristics of the decrees in general. The decree of election: (1) Is an expression of the
sovereign will of God, His divine good pleasure. This means among other things that Christ
as Mediator is not the impelling, moving, or meritorious cause of election, as some have
asserted. He may be called the mediate cause of the realization of election, and the
meritorious cause of the salvation unto which believers are elected, but He is not the
moving or meritorious cause of election itself. This is impossible, since He is Himself an
object of predestination and election, and because, when He took His mediatorial work
upon Him in the Counsel of Redemption, there was already a fixed number that was
given unto Him. Election logically precedes the Counsel of Peace. The elective love of
God precedes the sending of the Son, John 3:16; Rom. 5:8; II Tim. 1:9; I John 4:9. By
saying that the decree of election originates in the divine good pleasure the idea is also
excluded that it is determined by anything in man, such as foreseen faith or good
works, Rom. 9:11; II Tim. 1:9. (2) It is immutable, and therefore renders the salvation of the
elect certain. God realizes the decree of election by His own efficiency, by the saving
work which He accomplishes in Jesus Christ. It is His purpose that certain individuals
should believe and persevere unto the end, and He secures this result by the objective
work of Christ and the subjective operations of the Holy Spirit, Rom. 8:29,30; 11:29; II
Tim. 2:19. It is the firm foundation of God which standeth, “having this seal, The Lord
knoweth them that are His.” And as such it is the source of rich comfort for all believers.
Their final salvation does not depend on their uncertain obedience, but has its
guarantee in the unchangeable purpose of God. (3) It is eternal, that is, from eternity. This
divine election should never be identified with any temporal selection, whether it be for
the enjoyment of the special grace of God in this life, for special privileges and
responsible services, or for the inheritance of glory hereafter, but must be regarded as
eternal, Rom. 8:29,30; Eph. 1:4,5. (4) It is unconditional. Election does not in any way
depend on the foreseen faith or good works of man, as the Arminians teach, but
exclusively on the sovereign good pleasure of God, who is also the originator of faith
and good works, Rom. 9:11; Acts 13:48; II Tim. 1:9; I Pet. 1:2. Since all men are sinners
and have forfeited the blessings of God, there is no basis for such a distinction in them;
and since even the faith and good works of the believers are the fruit of the grace of
God, Eph. 2:8,10; II Tim. 2:21, even these, as foreseen by God, could not furnish such a
basis. (5) It is irresistible. This does not mean that man cannot oppose its execution to a
certain degree, but it does mean that his opposition will not prevail. Neither does it
mean that God in the execution of His decree overpowers the human will in a manner
which is inconsistent with man’s free agency. It does mean, however, that God can and
does exert such an influence on the human spirit as to make it willing, Ps. 110:3; Phil.
2:13. (6) It is not chargeable with injustice. The fact that God favors some and passes by
others, does not warrant the charge that He is guilty of injustice. We can speak of
injustice only when one party has a claim on another. If God owed the forgiveness of sin
and eternal life to all men, it would be an injustice if He saved only a limited number of
them. But the sinner has absolutely no right or claim on the blessings which flow from
divine election. As a matter of fact he has forfeited these blessings. Not only have we no
right to call God to account for electing some and passing others by, but we must admit
that He would have been perfectly just, if He had not saved any, Matt. 20:14,15; Rom.
c. The purpose of election. The purpose of this eternal election is twofold: (1) The
proximate purpose is the salvation of the elect. That man is chosen or elected unto salvation
is clearly taught in the Word of God, Rom. 11:7-11; II Thess. 2:13. (2) The final aim is the
glory of God. Even the salvation of men is subordinate to this. That the glory of God is
the highest purpose of the electing grace is made very emphatic in Eph. 1:6,12,14. The
social gospel of our day likes to stress the fact that man is elected unto service. In so far
as this is intended as a denial of man’s election unto salvation and unto the glory of
God, it plainly goes contrary to Scripture. Taken by itself, however, the idea that the
elect are predestined unto service or good works is entirely Scriptural, Eph. 2:10; II Tim.
2:21; but this end is subservient to the ends already indicated.
2. REPROBATION. Our confessional standards speak not only of election, but also of
reprobation.54 Augustine taught the doctrine of reprobation as well as that of election,
but this “hard doctrine” met with a great deal of opposition. Roman Catholics, the great
majority of Lutherans, Arminians, and Methodists, generally reject this doctrine in its
absolute form. If they still speak of reprobation, it is only of a reprobation based on
foreknowledge. That Calvin was deeply conscious of the seriousness of this doctrine, is
perfectly evident from the fact that he speaks of it as a “decretum horribile” (dreadful
decree).55 Nevertheless, he did not feel free to deny what he regarded as an important
Scriptural truth. In our day some scholars who claim to be Reformed balk at this
doctrine. Barth teaches a reprobation which is dependent on man’s rejection of God’s
revelation in Christ. Brunner seems to have a more Scriptural conception of election
54 Conf. Belg. Art. XVI; Canons of Dort, I, 15.
55 Inst. III. 23. 7.
than Barth, but rejects the doctrine of reprobation entirely. He admits that it logically
follows from the doctrine of election, but cautions against the guidance of human logic
in this instance, since the doctrine of reprobation is not taught in Scripture.56
a. Statement of the doctrine. Reprobation may be defined as that eternal decree of God
whereby He has determined to pass some men by with the operations of His special grace, and to
punish them for their sins, to the manifestation of His justice. The following points deserve
special emphasis: (1) It contains two elements. According to the most usual representation
in Reformed theology the decree of reprobation comprises two elements, namely,
preterition or the determination to pass by some men; and condemnation (sometimes
called precondemnation) or the determination to punish those who are passed by for their
sins. As such it embodies a twofold purpose: (a) to pass by some in the bestowal of
regenerating and saving grace; and (b) to assign them to dishonor and to the wrath of
God for their sins. The Belgic Confession mentions only the former, but the Canons of
Dort name the latter as well. Some Reformed theologians would omit the second
element from the decree of reprobation. Dabney prefers to regard the condemnation of
the wicked as the foreseen and intended result of their preterition, thus depriving
reprobation of its positive character; and Dick is of the opinion that the decree to
condemn ought to be regarded as a separate decree, and not as a part of the decree of
reprobation. It seems to us, however, that we are not warranted in excluding the second
element from the decree of reprobation, nor to regard it as a different decree. The
positive side of reprobation is so clearly taught in Scripture as the opposite of election
that we cannot regard it as something purely negative, Rom. 9:21,22; Jude 4. However,
we should notice several points of distinction between the two elements of the decree of
reprobation: (a) Preterition is a sovereign act of God, an act of His mere good pleasure,
in which the demerits of man do not come into consideration, while precondemnation is
a judicial act, visiting sin with punishment. Even Supralapsarians are willing to admit
that in condemnation sin is taken into consideration. (b) The reason for preterition is not
known by man. It cannot be sin, for all men are sinners. We can only say that God
passed some by for good and wise reasons sufficient unto Himself. On the other hand
the reason for condemnation is known; it is sin. (c) Preterition is purely passive, a
simple passing by without any action on man, but condemnation is efficient and
positive. Those who are passed by are condemned on account of their sin. (2) We should
guard against the idea, however, that as election and reprobation both determine with
absolute certainty the end unto which man is predestined and the means by which that
56 Our Faith, pp. 32f.
end is realized, they also imply that in the case of reprobation as well as in that of
election God will bring to pass by His own direct efficiency whatsoever He has decreed.
This means that, while it can be said that God is the author of the regeneration, calling,
faith, justification, and sanctification, of the elect, and thus by direct action on them
brings their election to realization, it cannot be said that He is also the responsible
author of the fall, the unrighteous condition, and the sinful acts of the reprobate by
direct action on them, and thus effects the realization of their reprobation. God’s decree
undoubtedly rendered the entrance of sin into the world certain, but He did not
predestinate some unto sin, as He did others unto holiness. And as the holy God He
cannot be the author of sin. The position which Calvin takes on this point in his
Institutes is clearly indicated in the following deliverances found in Calvin’s Articles on
“Although the will of God is the supreme and first cause of all things and God holds
the devil and all the impious subject to His will, God nevertheless cannot be called the
cause of sin, nor the author of evil, neither is He open to any blame.
“Although the devil and reprobates are God’s servants and instruments to carry out
His secret decisions, nevertheless in an incomprehensible manner God so works in them
and through them as to contract no stain from their vice, because their malice is used in
a just and righteous way for a good end, although the manner is often hidden from us.
“They act ignorantly and calumniously who say that God is made the author of sin,
if all things come to pass by His will and ordinance; because they make no distinction
between the depravity of men and the hidden appointments of God.”57 (3) It should be
noted that that with which God decided to pass some men by, is not His common but
his special, His regenerating, grace, the grace that changes sinners into saints. It is a
mistake to think that in this life the reprobate are entirely destitute of God’s favor. God
does not limit the distribution of His natural gifts by the purpose of election. He does
not even allow election and reprobation to determine the measure of these gifts. The
reprobate often enjoy a greater measure of the natural blessings of life than the elect.
What effectively distinguishes the latter from the former is that they are made recipients
of the regenerating and saving grace of God.
b. Proof for the doctrine of reprobation. The doctrine of reprobation naturally follows
from the logic of the situation. The decree of election inevitably implies the decree of
reprobation. If the all-wise God, possessed of infinite knowledge, has eternally
57 Quoted by Warfield, Studies in Theology, p. 194.
purposed to save some, then He ipso facto also purposed not to save others. If He has
chosen or elected some, then He has by that very fact also rejected others. Brunner
warns against this argument, since the Bible does not in a single word teach a divine
predestination unto rejection. But it seems to us that the Bible does not contradict but
justifies the logic in question. Since the Bible is primarily a revelation of redemption, it
naturally does not have as much to say about reprobation as about election. But what it
says is quite sufficient, cf. Matt. 11:25,26; Rom. 9:13,17,18,21,22; 11:7; Jude 4; I Pet. 2:8.
The doctrine of predestination has not always been presented in exactly the same
form. Especially since the days of the Reformation two different conceptions of it
gradually emerged, which were designated during the Arminian controversy as Infraand
Supralapsarianism. Already existing differences were more sharply defined and
more strongly accentuated as the results of the theological disputes of that day.
According to Dr. Dijk the two views under consideration were in their original form
simply a difference of opinion respecting the question, whether the fall of man was also
included in the divine decree. Was the first sin of man, constituting his fall,
predestinated, or was this merely the object of divine foreknowledge? In their original
form Supralapsarianism held the former, and Infralapsarianism, the latter. In this sense
of the word Calvin was clearly a Supralapsarian. The later development of the
difference between the two began with Beza, the successor of Calvin at Geneva. In it the
original point in dispute gradually retires into the background, and other differences are
brought forward, some of which turn out to be mere differences of emphasis. Later
Infralapsarians, such as Rivet, Walaeus, Mastricht, Turretin, à Mark, and de Moor, all
admit that the fall of man was included in the decree; and of the later Supralapsarians,
such as Beza, Gomarus, Peter Martyr, Zanchius, Ursinus, Perkins, Twisse, Trigland,
Voetius, Burmannus, Witsius and Comrie, at least some are quite willing to admit that
in the decree of Reprobation God in some way took sin into consideration. We are
concerned at present with Supra- and Infralapsarianism in their more developed form.
1. THE EXACT POINT AT ISSUE. It is quite essential to have a correct view of the exact
point or points at issue between the two.
a. Negatively, the difference is not found: (1) In divergent views respecting the temporal
order of the divine decrees. It is admitted on all hands that the decree of God is one and in
all its parts equally eternal, so that it is impossible to ascribe any temporal succession to
the various elements which it includes. (2) In any essential difference as to whether the fall of
man was decreed or was merely the object of divine foreknowledge. This may have been, as Dr.
Dijk says, the original point of difference; but, surely, anyone who asserts that the fall
was not decreed but only foreseen by God, would now be said to be moving along
Arminian rather than Reformed lines. Both Supra- and Infralapsarians admit that the
fall is included in the divine decree, and that preterition is an act of God’s sovereign
will. (3) In any essential difference as to the question, whether the decree relative to sin is
permissive. There is some difference of emphasis on the qualifying adjective.
Supralapsarians (with few exceptions) are willing to admit that the decree relative to sin
is permissive, but hasten to add that it nevertheless makes the entrance of sin into the
world a certainty. And Infralapsarians (with few exceptions) will admit that sin is
included in God’s decree, but hasten to add that the decree, in so far as it pertains to sin,
is permissive rather than positive. The former occasionally over-emphasize the positive
element in the decree respecting sin, and thus expose themselves to the charge that they
make God the author of sin. And the latter sometimes over-emphasize the permissive
character of the decree, reducing it to a bare permission, and thus expose themselves to
the charge of Arminianism. As a whole, however, Supralapsarians emphatically
repudiate every interpretation of the decree that would make God the author of sin; and
Infralapsarians are careful to point out explicitly that the permissive decree of God
relative to sin makes sin certainly future. (4) In any essential difference as to the question,
whether the decree of reprobation takes account of sin. It is sometimes represented as if God
destined some men for eternal destruction, simply by an act of His sovereign will,
without taking account of their sin; as if, like a tyrant, He simply decided to destroy a
large number of His rational creatures, purely for the manifestation of His glorious
virtues. But Supralapsarians abhor the idea of a tyrannical God, and at least some of
them explicitly state that, while preterition is an act of God’s sovereign will, the second
element of reprobation, namely, condemnation, is an act of justice and certainly takes
account of sin. This proceeds on the supposition that logically preterition precedes the
decree to create and to permit the fall, while condemnation follows this. The logic of this
position may be questioned, but it at least shows that the Supralapsarians who assume
it, teach that God takes account of sin in the decree of reprobation.
b. Positively, the difference does concern: (1) The extent of predestination. Supralapsarians
include the decree to create and to permit the fall in the decree of predestination, while
Infralapsarians refer it to the decree of God in general, and exclude it from the special
decree of predestination. According to the former, man appears in the decree of
predestination, not as created and fallen, but as certain to be created and to fall; while
according to the latter, he appears in it as already created and fallen. (2) The logical order
of the decrees. The question is, whether the decrees to create and to permit the fall were
means to the decree of redemption. Supralapsarians proceed on the assumption that in
planning the rational mind passes from the end to the means in a retrograde movement,
so that what is first in design is last in accomplishment. Thus they determine upon the
following order: (a) The decree of God to glorify Himself, and particularly to magnify
His grace and justice in the salvation of some and the perdition of other rational
creatures, which exist in the divine mind as yet only as possibilities. (b) The decree to
create those who were thus elected and reprobated. (c) The decree to permit them to fall.
(d) The decree to justify the elect and to condemn the non-elect. On the other hand the
Infralapsarians suggest a more historical order: (a) The decree to create man in holiness
and blessedness. (b) The decree to permit man to fall by the self-determination of his
own will. (c) The decree to save a certain number out of this guilty aggregate. (d) The
decree to leave the remainder in their self-determination in sin, and to subject them to
the righteous punishment which their sin deserves. (3) The extension of the personal
element of predestination to the decrees to create and to permit the fall. According to
Supralapsarians God, even in the decree to create and permit the fall, had His eye fixed
on His elect individually, so that there was not a single moment in the divine decree,
when they did not stand in a special relation to God as His beloved ones.
Infralapsarians, on the other hand, hold that this personal element did not appear in the
decree till after the decree to create and to permit the fall. In these decrees themselves
the elect are simply included in the whole mass of humanity, and do not appear as the
special objects of God’s love.
a. Arguments in favor of it: (1) It appeals to all those passages of Scripture which
emphasize the absolute sovereignty of God, and more particularly His sovereignty in
relation to sin, such as Ps. 115:3; Prov. 16:4; Isa. 10:15; 45:9; Jer. 18:6; Matt. 11:25,26; 20:15;
Rom. 9:17,19-21. Special emphasis is laid on the figure of the potter, which is found in
more than one of these passages. It is said that this figure not merely stresses the
sovereignty of God in general, but more especially His sovereignty in determining the
quality of the vessels at creation. This means that Paul in Rom. 9 speaks from a precreation
standpoint, an idea that is favored (a) by the fact that the potter’s work is
frequently used in Scripture as a figure of creation; and (b) by the fact that the potter
determines each vessel for a certain use and gives it a corresponding quality, which
might cause the vessel to ask, though without any right, Why didst Thou make me
thus? (2) Attention is called to the fact that some passages of Scripture suggest that the
work of nature or of creation in general was so ordered as to contain already
illustrations of the work of redemption. Jesus frequently derives His illustrations for the
elucidation of spiritual things from nature, and we are told in Matt. 13:35 that this was
in fulfilment of the words of the prophet, “I will utter things hidden from the
foundation of the world.” Comp. Ps. 78:2. This is taken to mean that they were hidden in
nature, but were brought to light in the parabolic teachings of Jesus. Ephesians 3:9 is also
considered as an expression of the idea that the design of God in the creation of the
world was directed to the manifestation of His wisdom, which would issue in the New
Testament work of redemption. But the appeal to this passage seems, to say the least,
very doubtful. (3) The order of the decrees, as accepted by the Supralapsarians, is
regarded as the more ideal, the more logical and unified of the two. It clearly exhibits
the rational order which exists between the ultimate end and the intermediate means.
Therefore the Supralapsarians can, while the Infralapsarians cannot, give a specific
answer to the question why God decreed to create the world and to permit the fall.
They do full justice to the sovereignty of God and refrain from all futile attempts to
justify God in the sight of men, while the Infralapsarians hesitate, attempt to prove the
justice of God’s procedure, and yet in the end must come to the same conclusion as the
Supralapsarians, namely, that, in the last analysis, the decree to permit the fall finds its
explanation only in the sovereign good pleasure of God.58 (4) The analogy of the
predestination of the angels would seem to favor the Supralapsarian position, for it can
only be conceived as supralapsarian. God decreed, for reasons sufficient to Himself, to
grant some angels the grace of perseverance and to withhold this from others; and to
connect with this righteously the confirmation of the former in a state of glory, and the
eternal perdition of the latter. This means, therefore, that the decree respecting the fall of
the angels forms a part of their predestination. And it would seem impossible to
conceive of it in any other way.
b. Objections to it: Notwithstanding its seeming pretensions, it does not give a
solution of the problem of sin. It would do this, if it dared to say that God decreed to
bring sin into the world by His own direct efficiency. Some Supralapsarians, it is true, do
represent the decree as the efficient cause of sin, but yet do not want this to be
interpreted in such a way that God becomes the author of sin. The majority of them do
not care to go beyond the statement that God willed to permit sin. Now this is no
objection to the Supralapsarian in distinction from the Infralapsarian, for neither one of
them solves the problem. The only difference is that the former makes greater
pretensions in this respect than the latter. (2) According to its representations man
58 Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, p. 400.
appears in the divine decree first as creabilis et labilis (certain to be created and to fall).
The objects of the decree are first of all men considered as mere possibilities, as nonexistent
entities. But such a decree necessarily has only a provisional character, and
must be followed by another decree. After the election and reprobation of these possible
men follows the decree to create them and to permit them to fall, and this must be
followed by another decree respecting these men whose creation and fall have now
been definitely determined, namely, the decree to elect some and to reprobate the rest of
those who now appear in the divine purpose as real men. Supralapsarians claim that
this is no insuperable objection because, while it is true that on their position the actual
existence of men has not yet been determined when they are elected and reprobated,
they do exist in the divine idea. (3) It is said that Supralapsarianism makes the eternal
punishment of the reprobate an object of the divine will in the same sense and in the
same manner as the eternal salvation of the elect; and that it makes sin, which leads to
eternal destruction, a means unto this end in the same manner and in the same sense as
the redemption in Christ is a means unto salvation. If consistently carried through, this
would make God the author of sin. It should be noted, however, that the Supralapsarian
does not, as a rule, so represent the decree, and explicitly states that the decree may not
be so interpreted as to make God the author of sin. He will speak of a predestination
unto the grace of God in Jesus Christ, but not of a predestination unto sin. (4) Again, it is
objected that Supralapsarianism makes the decree of reprobation just as absolute as the
decree of election. In other words, that it regards reprobation as purely an act of God’s
sovereign good pleasure, and not as an act of punitive justice. According to its
representation sin does not come into consideration in the decree of reprobation. But
this is hardly correct, though it may be true of some Supralapsarians. In general,
however, it may be said that, while they regard preterition as an act of God’s sovereign
good pleasure, they usually regard precondemnation as an act of divine justice which
does take sin into consideration. And the Infralapsarian himself cannot maintain the
idea that reprobation is an act of justice pure and simple, contingent on the sin of man.
In the last analysis, he, too, must declare that it is an act of God’s sovereign good
pleasure, if he wants to avoid the Arminian camp. (5) Finally, it is said that it is not
possible to construe a serviceable doctrine of the covenant of grace and of the Mediator
on the basis of the Supralapsarian scheme. Both the covenant and the Mediator of the
covenant can only be conceived as infralapsarian. This is frankly admitted by some
Supralapsarians. Logically, the Mediator appears in the divine decree only after the
entrance of sin; and this is the only point of view from which the covenant of grace can
be construed. This will naturally have an important bearing on the ministry of the
a. Arguments in favor of it. (1) Infralapsarians appeal more particularly to those
passages of Scripture in which the objects of election appear as in a condition of sin, as
being in close union with Christ, and as objects of God’s mercy and grace, such as Matt.
11:25,26; John 15:19; Rom. 8:28,30; 9:15.16; Eph. 1:4-12; II Tim. 1:9. These passages would
seem to imply that in the thought of God the fall of man preceded the election of some
unto salvation. (2) It also calls attention to the fact that in its representation the order of
the divine decrees is less philosophical and more natural than that proposed by
Supralapsarians. It is in harmony with the historical order in the execution of the
decrees, which would seem to reflect the order in the eternal counsel of God. Just as in
the execution, so there is in the decree a causal order. It is more modest to abide by this
order, just because it reflects the historical order revealed in Scripture and does not
pretend to solve the problem of God’s relation to sin. It is considered to be less offensive
in its presentation of the matter and to be far more in harmony with the requirements of
practical life.59 (3) While Supralapsarians claim that their construction of the doctrine of
the decrees is the more logical of the two, Infralapsarians make the same claim for their
position. Says Dabney: “The Supralapsarian (scheme) under the pretense of greater
symmetry, is in reality the more illogical of the two.”60 It is pointed out that the
supralapsarian scheme is illogical in that it makes the decree of election and preterition
refer to non-entities, that is, to men who do not exist, except as bare possibilities, even in
the mind of God; who do not yet exist in the divine decree and are therefore not
contemplated as created, but only as creatable. Again, it is said that the supralapsarian
construction is illogical in that it necessarily separates the two elements in reprobation,
placing preterition before, and condemnation after, the fall. (4) Finally, attention is also
called to the fact that the Reformed Churches in their official standards have always
adopted the infralapsarian position, even though they have never condemned, but
always tolerated, the other view. Among the members of the Synod of Dort and of the
Westminster Assembly there were several Supralapsarians who were held in high
honour (the presiding officer in both cases belonging to the number), but in both the
Canons of Dort and the Westminster Confession the infralapsarian view finds
59 Cf. Edwards, Works II, p. 543.
60 Syst. and Polem. Theol, p. 233.
b. Objections to it. The following are some of the most important objections raised
against Infralapsarianism: (1) It does not give, nor does it claim to give a solution of the
problem of sin. But this is equally true of the other view, so that, in a comparison of the
two, this cannot very well be regarded as a real objection, though it is sometimes raised.
The problem of the relation of God to sin has proved to be insoluble for the one as well
as for the other. (2) While Infralapsarianism may be actuated by the laudable desire to
guard against the possibility of charging God with being the author of sin, it is, in doing
this, always in danger of overshooting the mark, and some of its representatives have
made this mistake. They are averse to the statement that God willed sin, and substitute
for it the assertion that He permitted it. But then the question arises as to the exact
meaning of this statement. Does it mean that God merely took cognizance of the
entrance of sin, without in any way hindering it, so that the fall was in reality a
frustration of His plan? The moment the Infralapsarian answers this question in the
affirmative, he enters the ranks of the Arminians. While there have been some who took
this stand, the majority of them feel that they cannot consistently take this position, but
must incorporate the fall in the divine decree. They speak of the decree respecting sin as
a permissive decree, but with the distinct understanding that this decree rendered the
entrance of sin into the world certain. And if the question be raised, why God decreed
to permit sin and thus rendered it certain, they can only point to the divine good
pleasure, and are thus in perfect agreement with the Supralapsarian. (3) The same
tendency to shield God reveals itself in another way and exposes one to a similar
danger. Infralapsarianism really wants to explain reprobation as an act of God’s justice.
It is inclined to deny either explicitly or implicitly that it is an act of the mere good
pleasure of God. This really makes the decree of reprobation a conditional decree and
leads into the Arminian fold. But infralapsarians on the whole do not want to teach a
conditional decree, and express themselves guardedly on this matter. Some of them
admit that it is a mistake to consider reprobation purely as an act of divine justice. And
this is perfectly correct. Sin is not the ultimate cause of reprobation any more than faith
and good works are the cause of election, for all men are by nature dead in sin and
trespasses. When confronted with the problem of reprobation, Infralapsarians, too, can
find the answer only in the good pleasure of God. Their language may sound more
tender than that of the Supralapsarians, but is also more apt to be misunderstood, and
after all proves to convey the same idea. (4) The Infralapsarian position does not do
justice to the unity of the divine decree, but represents the different members of it too
much as disconnected parts. First God decrees to create the world for the glory of His
name, which means among other things also that He determined that His rational
creatures should live according to the divine law implanted in their hearts and should
praise their Maker. Then He decreed to permit the fall, whereby sin enters the world.
This seems to be a frustration of the original plan, or at least an important modification
of it, since God no more decrees to glorify Himself by the voluntary obedience of all His
rational creatures. Finally, there follow the decrees of election and reprobation, which
mean only a partial execution of the original plan.
4. From what was said it would seem to follow that we cannot regard Supra- and
Infralapsarianism as absolutely antithetical. They consider the same mystery from
different points of view, the one fixing its attention on the ideal or teleological; the other,
on the historical, order of the decrees. To a certain extent they can and must go hand in
hand. Both find support in Scripture. Supralapsarianism in those passages which stress
the sovereignty of God, and Infralapsarianism in those which emphasize the mercy and
justice of God, in connection with election and reprobation. Each has something in its
favor: the former that it does not undertake to justify God, but simply rests in the
sovereign and holy good pleasure of God; and the latter, that it is more modest and
tender, and reckons with the demands and requirements of practical life. Both are
necessarily inconsistent; the former because it cannot regard sin as a progression, but
must consider it as a disturbance of creation, and speaks of a permissive decree; and the
latter, since in the last analysis it must also resort to a permissive decree, which makes
sin certain. But each one of them also emphasizes an element of truth. The true element
in Supralapsarianism is found in its emphasis on the following: that the decree of God is
a unit; that God had one final aim in view; that He willed sin in a certain sense; and that
the work of creation was immediately adapted to the recreative activity of God. And the
true element in Infralapsarianism is, that there is a certain diversity in the decrees of
God; that creation and fall cannot be regarded merely as means to an end, but also had
great independent significance; and that sin cannot be regarded as an element of
progress, but should rather be considered as an element of disturbance in the world. In
connection with the study of this profound subject we feel that our understanding is
limited, and realize that we grasp only fragments of the truth. Our confessional
standards embody the infralapsarian position, but do not condemn Supralapsarianism.
It was felt that this view was not necessarily inconsistent with Reformed theology. And
the conclusions of Utrecht, adopted in 1908 by our Church, state that, while it is not
permissible to represent the supralapsarian view as the doctrine of the Reformed
churches in the Netherlands, it is just as little permissible to molest any one who
cherishes that view for himself.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. Is a foreknowledge of future events which is not
based on the decree possible in God? What is the inevitable result of basing God’s
decree on His foreknowledge rather than vice versa, his foreknowledge on His decree?
How does the doctrine of the decrees differ from fatalism and from determinism? Does
the decree of predestination necessarily exclude the possibility of a universal offer of
salvation? Are the decrees of election and reprobation equally absolute and
unconditional or not? Are they alike in being causes from which human actions proceed
as effects? How is the doctrine of predestination related to the doctrine of the divine
sovereignty;— to the doctrine of total depravity;—to the doctrine of the atonement;—to
the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints? Do the Reformed teach a predestination
unto sin?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 347-425; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Deo III,
pp. 80-258; Vos, Geref. Dogm. I, pp. 81-170; Hodge, Syst. Theol. I, pp. 535-549; II, pp.
315-321; Shedd, Dogm. Theol. I, pp. 393-462; Mastricht, Godgeleerdheit, I, pp. 670-757;
Comrie en Holtius, Examen van het Ontwerp van Tolerantie, Samenspraken VI and VII;
Turretin, Opera, I, pp. 279-382; Dabney,Syst. and Polem Theol., pp. 211-246; Miley, Syst.
Theol. II, pp. 245-266; Cunningham, Hist. Theol., II, pp. 416-489; Wiggers, Augustinism and
Pelagianism, pp. 237- 254; Girardeau, Calvinism and Evangelical Arminianism, pp. 14-412;
ibid., The Will in its Theological Relations; Warfield, Biblical Doctrines, pp. 3-67; ibid.,
Studies in Theology, pp. 117-231; Cole, Calvin’s Calvinism, pp. 25-206; Calvin, Institutes III.
Chap. XXI-XXIV; Dijk, De Strijd over Infra-en Supralapsarisme in de Gereformeerde Kerken
van Nederland; ibid., Om ‘t Eeuwig Welbehagen; Fernhout, De Leer der Uitverkiezing;
Polman, De Praedestinatieleer van Augustinus, Thomas van Aquino en Calvijn.
III. Creation in General
The discussion of the decrees naturally leads on to the consideration of their
execution, and this begins with the work of creation. This is not only first in order of
time, but is also a logical prius. It is the beginning and basis of all divine revelation, and
consequently also the foundation of all ethical and religious life. The doctrine of
creation is not set forth in Scripture as a philosophical solution of the problem of the
world, but in its ethical and religious significance, as a revelation of the relation of man
to his God. It stresses the fact that God is the origin of all things, and that all things
belong to Him and are subject to Him. The knowledge of it is derived from Scripture
only and is accepted by faith (Heb. 11:3), though Roman Catholics maintain that it can
also be gathered from nature.
While Greek philosophy sought the explanation of the world in a dualism, which
involves the eternity of matter, or in a process of emanation, which makes the world the
outward manifestation of God, the Christian Church from the very beginning taught the
doctrine of creation ex nihilo and as a free act of God. This doctrine was accepted with
singular unanimity from the start. It is found in Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian,
Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and others. Theophilus was the first Church Father to
stress the fact that the days of creation were literal days. This seems to have been the
view of Irenaeus and Tertullian as well, and was in all probability the common view in
the Church. Clement and Origen thought of creation as having been accomplished in a
single indivisible moment, and conceived of its description as the work of several days
merely as a literary device to describe the origin of things in the order of their worth or
of their logical connection. The idea of an eternal creation, as taught by Origen, was
commonly rejected. At the same time some of the Church Fathers expressed the idea
that God was always Creator, though the created universe began in time. During the
trinitarian controversy some of them emphasized the fact that, in distinction from the
generation of the Son, which was a necessary act of the Father, the creation of the world
was a free act of the triune God. Augustine dealt with the work of creation more in detail
than others did. He argues that creation was eternally in the will of God, and therefore
brought no change in Him. There was no time before creation, since the world was
brought into being with time rather than in time. The question what God did in the
many ages before creation is based on a misconception of eternity. While the Church in
general still seems to have held that the world was created in six ordinary days,
Augustine suggested a somewhat different view. He strongly defended the doctrine of
creatio ex nihilo, but distinguished two moments of creation: the production of matter
and spirits out of nothing, and the organization of the material universe. He found it
difficult to say what kind of days the days of Genesis were, but was evidently inclined
to think that God created all things in a moment of time, and that the thought of days was
simply introduced to aid the finite intelligence. The Scholastics debated a great deal
about the possibility of eternal creation; some, such as, Alexander of Hales,
Bonaventura, Albertus Magnus, Henry of Ghent, and the great majority of the
Scholastics denying this; and others, such as Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Durandus,
Biel, and others affirming it. Yet the doctrine of creation with or in time carried the day.
Erigena and Eckhart were exceptional in teaching that the world originated by
emanation. Seemingly the days of creation were regarded as ordinary days, though
Anselm suggested that it might be necessary to conceive of them as different from our
present days. The Reformers held firmly to the doctrine of creation out of nothing by a
free act of God in or with time, and regarded the days of creation as six literal days. This
view is also generally maintained in the Post-Reformation literature of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, though a few theologians (as Maresius) occasionally speak of
continuous creation. In the eighteenth century, however, under the dominating influence
of Pantheism and Materialism, science launched an attack on the Church’s doctrine of
creation. It substituted the idea of evolution or development for that of absolute
origination by a divine fiat. The world was often represented as a necessary
manifestation of the Absolute. Its origin was pushed back thousands and even millions
of years into an unknown past. And soon theologians were engaged in various attempts
to harmonize the doctrine of creation with the teachings of science and philosophy.
Some suggested that the first chapters of Genesis should be interpreted allegorically or
mythically; others, that a long period elapsed between the primary creation of Gen. 1:1,2
and the secondary creation of the following verses; and still others, that the days of
creation were in fact long periods of time.
The Scriptural proof for the doctrine of creation is not found in a single and limited
portion of the Bible, but is found in every part of the Word of God. It does not consist of
a few scattered passages of doubtful interpretation, but of a large number of clear and
unequivocal statements, which speak of the creation of the world as a historical fact. We
have first of all the extended narrative of creation found in the first two chapters of
Genesis, which will be discussed in detail when the creation of the material universe is
considered. These chapters certainly appear to the unbiased reader as a historical
narrative, and as the record of a historical fact. And the many cross-references scattered
throughout the Bible do not regard them in any other light. They all refer to creation as
a fact of history. The various passages in which they are found may be classified as
follows: (1) Passages which stress the omnipotence of God in the work of creation, Isa.
40:26,28; Amos 4:13. (2) Passages which point to His exaltation above nature as the great
and infinite God, Ps. 90:2; 102:26,27; Acts 17:24. (3) Passages which refer to the wisdom
of God in the work of creation, Isa. 40:12-14; Jer. 10:12-16; John 1:3; (4) Passages
regarding creation from the point of view of God’s sovereignty and purpose in creation,
Isa. 43:7; Rom. 1:25. (5) Passages that speak of creation as a fundamental work of God, I
Cor. 11:9; Col. 1:16. One of the fullest and most beautiful statements is that found in
Neh. 9:6: “Thou art Jehovah, even thou alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of
heavens, with all their host, the earth and all things that are thereon, the seas and all
that is in them, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee.”
This passage is typical of several other, less extensive, passages that are found in the
Bible, which emphasize the fact that Jehovah is the Creator of the universe, Isa. 42:5;
45:18; Col. 1:16; Rev. 4:11; 10:6.
The faith of the Church in the creation of the world is expressed in the very first
article of the Apostolic Confession of Faith, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker
of heaven and earth.” This is an expression of the faith of the early Church, that God by
His almighty power brought forth the universe out of nothing. The words “Maker of
heaven and earth” were not contained in the original form of the creed, but represent a
later addition. It ascribes to the Father, that is, to the first person in the Trinity, the
origination of all things. This is in harmony with the representation of the New
Testament that all things are of the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. The
word “Maker” is a rendering of the word poieten, found in the Greek form of the
Apostolic Confession, while the Latin form has creatorem. Evidently, it is to be
understood as a synonymous term for “Creator.” “To create” was understood in the
early Church in the strict sense of “to bring forth something out of nothing.” It should
be noted that Scripture does not always use the Hebrew word bara’ and the Greek term
ktizein in that absolute sense. It also employs these terms to denote a secondary creation,
in which God made use of material that was already in existence but could not of itself
have produced the result indicated, Gen. 1:21,27; 5:1; Isa. 45:7,12; 54:16; Amos 4:13; I
Cor. 11:9; Rev. 10:6. It even uses them to designate that which comes into existence
under the providential guidance of God, Ps. 104:30; Isa. 45:7,8; 65:18; I Tim. 4:4. Two
other terms are used synonymously with the term “to create,” namely, “to make” (Heb.,
’asah; Greek, poiein) and “to form” (Heb. yatsar; Greek, plasso). The former is clearly used
in all the three senses indicated in the preceding: of primary creation in Gen. 2:4; Prov.
16:4; Acts 17:24; more frequently of secondary creation, Gen. 1:7,16,26; 2:22; Ps. 89:47;
and of the work of providence in Ps. 74:17. The latter is used similarly of primary
creation, Ps. 90:2 (perhaps the only instance of this use); of secondary creation, Gen.
2:7,19; Ps. 104:26; Amos 4:13; Zech. 12:1; and of the work of providence, Deut. 32:18; Isa.
43:1,7,21; 45:7. All three words are found together in Isa. 45:7. Creation in the strict sense
of the word may be defined as that free act of God whereby He, according to His sovereign
will and for His own glory, in the beginning brought forth the whole visible and invisible
universe, without the use of preexistent material, and thus gave it an existence, distinct from His
own and yet always dependent on Him. In view of the Scriptural data indicated in the
preceding, it is quite evident, however, that this definition applies only to what is
generally known as primary or immediate creation, that is, the creation described in
Gen. 1:1. But the Bible clearly uses the word “create” also in cases in which God did
make use of pre-existing materials, as in the creation of sun, moon, and stars, of the
animals and of man. Hence many theologians add an element to the definition of
creation. Thus Wollebius defines: “Creation is that act by which God produces the world and
all that is in it, partly out of nothing and partly out of material that is by its very nature unfit,
for the manifestation of the glory of His power, wisdom, and goodness.” Even so, however, the
definition does not cover those cases, also designated in Scripture as creative work, in
which God works through secondary causes, Ps. 104:30; Isa. 45:7,8; Jer. 31:22; Amos 4:13,
and produces results which only He could produce. The definition given includes
several elements which call for further consideration.
1. CREATION IS AN ACT OF THE TRIUNE GOD. Scripture teaches us that the triune God is
the author of creation, Gen. 1:1; Isa. 40:12; 44:24; 45:12, and this distinguishes Him from
the idols, Ps. 96:5; Isa. 37:16; Jer. 10:11,12. Though the Father is in the foreground in the
work of creation, I Cor. 8:6, it is also clearly recognized as a work of the Son and of the
Holy Spirit. The Son’s participation in it is indicated in John 1:3; I Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15-17,
and the activity of the Spirit in it finds expression in Gen. 1:2; Job 26:13; 33:4; Ps. 104:30;
Isa. 40:12,13. The second and third persons are not dependent powers or mere
intermediaries, but independent authors together with the Father. The work was not
divided among the three persons, but the whole work, though from different aspects, is
ascribed to each one of the persons. All things are at once out of the Father, through the
Son, and in the Holy Spirit. In general it may be said that being is out of the Father,
thought or the idea out of the Son, and life out of the Holy Spirit. Since the Father takes
the initiative in the work of creation, it is often ascribed to Him economically.
2. CREATION IS A FREE ACT OF GOD. Creation is sometimes represented as a necessary
act of God rather than as a free act determined by His sovereign will. The old theories of
emanation and their modern counterpart, the Pantheistic theories, naturally make the
world but a mere moment in the process of divine evolution (Spinoza, Hegel), and
therefore regard the world as a necessary act of God. And the necessity which they have
in mind is not a relative necessity resulting from the divine decree, but an absolute
necessity which follows from the very nature of God, from his omnipotence (Origen) or
from His love (Rothe). However, this is not a Scriptural position. The only works of God
that are inherently necessary with a necessity resulting from the very nature of God, are
the opera ad intra, the works of the separate persons within the Divine Being: generation,
filiation, and procession. To say that creation is a necessary act of God, is also to declare
that it is just as eternal as those immanent works of God. Whatever necessity may be
ascribed to God’s opera ad extra, is a necessity conditioned by the divine decree and the
resulting constitution of things. It is a necessity dependent on the sovereign will of God,
and therefore no necessity in the absolute sense of the word. The Bible teaches us that
God created all things, according to the counsel of His will, Eph. 1:11; Rev. 4:11; and that
He is self-sufficient and is not dependent on His creatures in any way, Job 22:2,3; Acts
a. The teaching of Scripture on this point. The Bible begins with the very simple
statement, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” Gen. 1:1. As
addressed to all classes of people, it employs the ordinary language of daily life, and not
the technical language of philosophy. The Hebrew term bereshith (lit. “in beginning”) is
itself indefinite, and naturally gives rise to the question, In the beginning of what? It
would seem best to take the expression in the absolute sense as an indication of the
beginning of all temporal things and even of time itself; but Keil is of the opinion that it
refers to the beginning of the work of creation. Technically speaking, it is not correct to
assume that time was already in existence when God created the world, and that He at
some point in that existing time, called “the beginning” brought forth the universe.
Time is only one of the forms of all created existence, and therefore could not exist
before creation. For that reason Augustine thought it would be more correct to say that
the world was created cum tempore (with time) than to assert that it was created in
tempore (in time). The great significance of the opening statement of the Bible lies in its
teaching that the world had a beginning. Scripture speaks of this beginning also in other
places, Matt. 19:4,8; Mark 10;6; John 1:1,2; Heb. 1:10. That the world had a beginning is
also clearly implied in such passages as Ps. 90:2, “Before the mountains were brought
forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to
everlasting thou art God”; and Ps. 102:25, “Of old didst thou lay the foundation of the
earth; and the heavens are the work of thy hands.”
b. Difficulties which burden this doctrine. Prior to the beginning mentioned in Gen. 1:1,
we must postulate a beginningless eternity, during which God only existed. How must
we fill up these blank ages in the eternal life of God? What did God do before the
creation of the world? It is so far from possible to think of Him as a Deus otiosus (a God
who is not active), that He is usually conceived of as actus purus (pure action). He is
represented in Scripture as always working, John 5:17. Can we then say that He passed
from a state of inactivity to one of action? Moreover, how is the transition from a noncreative
to a creative state to be reconciled with His immutability? And if He had the
eternal purpose to create, why did He not carry it out at once? Why did He allow a
whole eternity to elapse before His plan was put into execution? Moreover, why did He
select that particular moment for His creative work?
c. Suggested solutions of the problem. (1) The theory of eternal creation. According to
some, such as Origen, Scotus Erigina, Rothe, Dorner, and Pfleiderer, God has been
creating from all eternity, so that the world, though a creature and dependent, is yet just
as eternal as God Himself. This has been argued from the omnipotence, the
timelessness, the immutability, and the love of God; but neither one of these necessarily
imply or involve it. This theory is not only contradicted by Scripture, but is also
contrary to reason, for (a) creation from eternity is a contradiction in terms; and (b) the
idea of eternal creation, as applied to the present world, which is subject to the law of
time, is based on an identification of time and eternity, while these two are essentially
different. (2) The theory of the subjectivity of time and eternity. Some speculative
philosophers, such as Spinoza, Hegel, and Green, claim that the distinction of time and
eternity is purely subjective and due to our finite position. Hence they would have us
rise to a higher point of vantage and consider things sub specie aeternitatis (from the
point of view of eternity). What exists for our consciousness as a time development,
exists for the divine consciousness only as an eternally complete whole. But this theory
is contradicted by Scripture just as much as the preceding one, Gen. 1:1; Ps. 90:2; 102:25;
John 1:3. Moreover, it changes objective realities into subjective forms of consciousness,
and reduces all history to an illusion. After all, time-development is a reality; there is a
succession in our conscious life and in the life of nature round about us. The things that
happened yesterday are not the things that are happening today.61
d. Direction in which the solution should be sought. In connection with the problem
under consideration, Dr. Orr correctly says, “The solution must lie in getting a proper
idea of the relation of eternity to time.” He adds that, as far as he can see, this has not
yet been satisfactorily accomplished. A great deal of the difficulty encountered here is
undoubtedly due to the fact that we think of eternity too much as an indefinite
extension of time, as, for instance, when we speak of the ages of comparative inaction in
God before the creation of the world. God’s eternity is no indefinitely extended time,
but something essentially different, of which we can form no conception. His is a
timeless existence, an eternal presence. The hoary past and the most distant future are
both present to Him. He acts in all His works, and therefore also in creation, as the
Eternal One, and we have no right to draw creation as an act of God into the temporal
sphere. In a certain sense this can be called an eternal act, but only in the sense in which
all the acts of God are eternal. They are all as acts of God, works that are done in eternity.
However, it is not eternal in the same sense as the generation of the Son, for this is an
immanent act of God in the absolute sense of the word, while creation results in a
temporal existence and thus terminates in time.62 Theologians generally distinguish
between active and passive creation, the former denoting creation as an act of God, and
the latter, its result, the world’s being created. The former is not, but the latter is,
marked by temporal succession, and this temporal succession reflects the order
determined in the decree of God. As to the objection that a creation in time implies a
change in God, Wollebius remarks that “creation is not the Creator’s but the creature’s
passage from potentiality to actuality.”63
a. The doctrine of creation is absolutely unique. There has been a great deal of
speculation about the origin of the world, and several theories have been proposed.
Some declared the world to be eternal, while others saw in it the product of an
antagonistic spirit (Gnostics). Some maintained that it was made out of pre-existing
matter which God worked up into form (Plato); others held that it originated by
emanation out of the divine substance (Syrian Gnostics, Swedenborg); and still others
regarded it as the phenomenal appearance of the Absolute, the hidden ground of all
61 Cf. Orr, Christian View of God and the World, p. 130.
62 Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, p. 452.
63 Quoted by Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism, p. 294.
things (Pantheism). In opposition to all these vain speculations of men the doctrine of
Scripture stands out in grand sublimity: “In the beginning God created the heavens and
the earth.”
b. Scriptural terms for “to create.” In the narrative of creation, as was pointed out in
the preceding, three verbs are used, namely, bara’, ’asah, and yatsar, and they are used
interchangeably in Scripture, Gen. 1:26,27; 2:7. The first word is the most important. Its
original meaning is to split, to cut, to divide; but in addition to this it also means to fashion,
to create, and in a more derivative sense, to produce, to generate, and to regenerate. The
word itself does not convey the idea of bringing forth something out of nothing, for it is
even used of works of providence, Isa. 45:7; Jer. 31:22; Amos 4:13. Yet it has a distinctive
character: it is always used of divine and never of human production; and it never has
an accusative of material, and for that very reason serves to stress the greatness of the
work of God. The word ’asah is more general, meaning to do or to make, and is therefore
used in the general sense of doing, making, manufacturing, or fashioning. The word yatsar
has, more distinctively, the meaning of fashioning out of pre-existent materials, and is
therefore used of the potter’s fashioning vessels out of clay. The New Testament words
are ktizein, Mark 13:19, poiein, Matt. 19:4; themelioun, Heb. 1:10, katartizein, Rom. 9:22,
kataskeuazein, Heb. 3:4, and plassein, Rom. 9:20. None of these words in themselves
express the idea of creation out of nothing.
c. Meaning of the term “creation out of nothing.” The expression “to create or bring
forth out of nothing” is not found in Scripture. It is derived from one of the Apocrypha,
namely, II. Macc. 7:28. The expression ex nihilo has been both misinterpreted and
criticized. Some even considered the word nihilum (nothing) as the designation of a
certain matter out of which the world was created, a matter without qualities and
without form. But this is too puerile to be worthy of serious consideration. Others took
the expression “to create out of nothing” to mean that the world came into being
without a cause, and proceeded to criticize it as conflicting with what is generally
regarded as an axiomatic truth, ex nihilo nihil fit (out of nothing comes nothing). But this
criticism is entirely unwarranted. To say that God created the world out of nothing is
not equivalent to saying that the world came into being without a cause. God Himself
or, more specifically, the will of God is the cause of the world. Martensen expresses
himself in these words: “The nothing out of which God creates the world are the eternal
possibilities of His will, which are the sources of all the actualities of the world.”64 If the
Latin phrase “ex nihilo nihil fit” be taken to mean that no effect can be without a cause,
64 Christian Dogmatics, p. 116.
its truth may be admitted, but it cannot be regarded as a valid objection against the
doctrine of creation out of nothing. But if it be understood to express the idea that
nothing can originate, except out of previously existing material, it certainly cannot be
regarded as a self-evident truth. Then it is rather a purely arbitrary assumption which,
as Shedd points out, does not even hold true of man’s thoughts and volitions, which are
ex nihilo.65 But even if the phrase does express a truth of common experience as far as
human works are concerned, this does not-yet prove its truth with respect to the work
of the almighty power of God. However, in view of the fact that the expression
“creation out of nothing” is liable to misunderstanding, and has often been
misunderstood, it is preferable to speak of creation without the use of pre-existing
d. Scriptural basis for the doctrine of creation out of nothing. Gen. 1:1 records the
beginning of the work of creation, and it certainly does not represent God as bringing
the world forth out of pre-existent material. It was creation out of nothing, creation in
the strict sense of the word, and therefore the only part of the work recorded in Gen. 1
to which Calvin would apply the term. But even in the remaining part of the chapter
God is represented as calling forth all things by the word of His power, by a simple
divine fiat. The same truth is taught in such passages as Ps. 33:6,9 and 148:5. The
strongest passage is Heb. 11:3, “By faith we understand that the worlds have been
framed by the word of God, so that what is seen hath not been made out of things
which appear.” Creation is here represented as a fact which we apprehend only by faith.
By faith we understand (perceive, not comprehend) that the world was framed or
fashioned by the word of God, that is, the word of God’s power, the divine fiat, so that
the things which are seen, the visible things of this world, were not made out of things
which do appear, which are visible, and which are at least occasionally seen. According
to this passage the world certainly was not made out of anything that is palpable to the
senses. Another passage that may be quoted in this connection is Rom. 4:7, which
speaks of God, “who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as
though they were” (Moffatt: “who makes the dead alive and calls into being what does
not exist”). The apostle, it is true, does not speak of the creation of the world in this
connection, but of the hope of Abraham that he would have a son. However, the
description here given of God is general and is therefore also of a general application. It
belongs to the very nature of God that He is able to call into being what does not exist,
and does so call it into being.
65 Dogm. Theol. I, p. 467.
a. The world has a distinct existence. This means that the world is not God nor any part
of God, but something absolutely distinct from God; and that it differs from God, not
merely in degree, but in its essential properties. The doctrine of creation implies that,
while God is self-existent and self-sufficient, infinite and eternal, the world is
dependent, finite, and temporal. The one can never change into the other. This doctrine
is an absolute barrier against the ancient idea of emanation, as well as against all
pantheistic theories. The universe is not the existence-form of God nor the phenomenal
appearance of the Absolute; and God is not simply the life, or soul, or inner law of the
world, but enjoys His own eternally complete life above the world, in absolute
independence of it. He is the transcendent God, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises,
doing wonders. This doctrine is supported by passages of Scripture which (1) testify to
the distinct existence of the world, Isa. 42:5; Acts 17:24; (2) speak of the immutability of
God, Ps. 102:27; Mal. 3:6; Jas. 1:17; (3) draw a comparison between God and the creature,
Ps. 90:2; 102:25-27; 103:15-17; Isa. 2:21; 22:17, etc.; and (4) speak of the world as lying in
sin or sinful, Rom. 1:18-32; I John 2:15-17, etc.
b. The world is always dependent on God. While God gave the world an existence
distinct from His own, He did not withdraw from the world after its creation, but
remained in the most intimate connection with it. The universe is not like a clock which
was wound up by God and is now allowed to run off without any further divine
intervention. This deistic conception of creation is neither biblical nor scientific. God is
not only the transcendent God, infinitely exalted above all His creatures; He is also the
immanent God, who is present in every part of His creation, and whose Spirit is
operative in all the world. He is essentially, and not merely per potentiam, present in all
His creatures, but He is not present in every one of them in the same manner. His
immanence should not be interpreted as boundless extension throughout all the spaces
of the universe, nor as a partitive presence, so that He is partly here and partly there.
God is Spirit, and just because He is Spirit He is everywhere present as a whole. He is
said to fill heaven and earth, Ps. 139:7-10; Jer. 23:24, to constitute the sphere in which we
live and move and have our being, Acts 17:28, to renew the face of the earth by His
Spirit, Ps. 104:30, to dwell in those that are of a broken heart, Ps. 51:11; Isa. 57:15, and in
the Church as His temple, I Cor. 3:16; 6:19; Eph. 2:22. Both transcendence and
immanence find expression in a single passage of Scripture, namely, Eph. 4:6, where the
apostle says that we have “one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all,
and in all.” The doctrine of divine immanence has been stretched to the point of
Pantheism in a great deal of modern theology. The world, and especially man, was
regarded as the phenomenal manifestation of God. At present there is a strong reaction
to this position in the so-called “theology of crisis.” It is sometimes thought that this
theology, with its emphasis on the “infinite qualitative difference” between time and
eternity, on God as the “wholly Other” and the hidden God, and on the distance
between God and man, naturally rules out the immanence of God. Brunner gives us the
assurance, however, that this is not so. Says he, “Much nonsense has been talked about
the ‘Barthian theology’ having perception only for the transcendence of God, not for His
immanence. As if we too were not aware of the fact that God the Creator upholds all
things by His power, that He has set the stamp of His divinity on the world and created
man to be His own image.”66 And Barth says, “Dead were God Himself if He moved
His world only from the outside, if He were a ‘thing in Himself’ and not the One in all,
the Creator of all things visible and invisible, the beginning and the ending.”67 These
men oppose the modern pantheistic conception of the divine immanence, and also the
idea that, in virtue of this immanence, the world is a luminous revelation of God.
6. THE FINAL END OF GOD IN CREATION. The question of the final end of God in the
work of creation has frequently been debated. In the course of history the question has
received especially a twofold answer.
a. The happiness of man or of humanity. Some of the earlier philosophers, such as Plato,
Philo, and Seneca, asserted that the goodness of God prompted Him to create the world.
He desired to communicate Himself to His creatures; their happiness was the end He
had in view. Though some Christian theologians chimed in with this idea, it became
prominent especially through the Humanism of the Reformation period and the
Rationalism of the eighteenth century. This theory was often presented in a very
superficial way. The best form in which it is stated is to the effect that God could not
make Himself the end of creation, because He is sufficient unto Himself and could need
nothing. And if He could not make Himself the end, then this can be found only in the
creature, especially in man, and ultimately in his supreme happiness. The teleological
view by which the welfare or happiness of man or humanity is made the final end of
creation, was characteristic of the thinking of such influential men as Kant,
Schleiermacher, and Ritschl, though they did not all present it in the same way. But this
theory does not satisfy for several reasons: (1) Though God undoubtedly reveals His
goodness in creation, it is not correct to say that His goodness or love could not express
itself, if there were no world. The personal relations within the triune God supplied all
66 The Word and the World, p. 7.
67 The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 291.
that was necessary for a full and eternal life of love. (2) It would seem to be perfectly
self-evident that God does not exist for the sake of man, but man for the sake of God.
God only is Creator and the supreme Good, while man is but a creature, who for that
very reason cannot be the end of creation. The temporal finds its end in the eternal, the
human in the divine, and not vice versa. (3) The theory does not fit the facts. It is
impossible to subordinate all that is found in creation to this end, and to explain all in
relation to human happiness. This is perfectly evident from a consideration of all the
sufferings that are found in the world.
b. The declarative glory of God. The Church of Jesus Christ found the true end of
creation, not in anything outside of God, but in God Himself, more particularly in the
external manifestation of His inherent excellency. This does not mean that God’s
receiving glory from others is the final end. The receiving of glory through the praises of
His moral creatures, is an end included in the supreme end, but is not itself that end.
God did not create first of all to receive glory, but to make His glory extant and
manifest. The glorious perfections of God are manifested in His entire creation; and this
manifestation is not intended as an empty show, a mere exhibition to be admired by the
creatures, but also aims at promoting their welfare and perfect happiness. Moreover, it
seeks to attune their hearts to the praises of the Creator, and to elicit from their souls the
expression of their gratefulness and love and adoration. The supreme end of God in
creation, the manifestation of His glory, therefore, includes, as subordinate ends, the
happiness and salvation of His creatures, and the reception of praise from grateful and
adoring hearts. This doctrine is supported by the following considerations: (1) It is
based on the testimony of Scripture, Isa. 43:7; 60:21; 61:3; Ezek. 36:21,22; 39:7; Luke 2:14;
Rom. 9:17; 11:36; I Cor. 15:28; Eph. 1:5,6,9,12,14; 3:9,10; Col. 1:16. (2) The infinite God
would hardly choose any but the highest end in creation, and this end could only be
found in Himself. If whole nations, as compared with Him, are but as a drop in a bucket
and as the small dust of the balance, then, surely, His declarative glory is intrinsically of
far greater value than the good of His creatures, Isa. 40:15,16. (3) The glory of God is the
only end that is consistent with His independence and sovereignty. Everyone is
dependent on whomsoever or whatsoever he makes his ultimate end. If God chooses
anything in the creature as His final end, this would make Him dependent on the
creature to that extent. (4) No other end would be sufficiently comprehensive to be the
true end of all God’s ways and works in creation. It has the advantage of comprising, in
subordination, several other ends. (5) It is the only end that is actually and perfectly
attained in the universe. We cannot imagine that a wise and omnipotent God would
choose an end destined to fail wholly or in part, Job 23:13. Yet many of His creatures
never attain to perfect happiness.
c. Objections to the doctrine that the glory of God is the end of creation. The following are
the most important of these: (1) It makes the scheme of the universe a selfish scheme. But we
should distinguish between selfishness and reasonable self-regard or self-love. The
former is an undue or exclusive care for one’s own comfort or pleasure, regardless of
the happiness or rights of others; the latter is a due care for one’s own happiness and
well-being, which is perfectly compatible with justice, generosity, and benevolence
towards others. In seeking self-expression for the glory of His name, God did not
disregard the well-being, the highest good of others, but promoted it. Moreover, this
objection draws the infinite God down to the level of finite and even sinful man and
judges Him by human standards, which is entirely unwarranted. God has no equal, and
no one can claim any right as over against Him. In making His declarative glory the end
of creation, He has chosen the highest end; but when man makes himself the end of all
his works, he is not choosing the highest end. He would rise to a higher level, if he
chose the welfare of humanity and the glory of God as the end of his life. Finally, this
objection is made primarily in view of the fact that the world is full of suffering, and
that some of God’s rational creatures are doomed to eternal destruction. But this is not
due to the creative work of God, but to the sin of man, which thwarted the work of God
in creation. The fact that man suffers the consequences of sin and insurrection does not
warrant anyone in accusing God of selfishness. One might as well accuse the
government of selfishness for upholding its dignity and the majesty of the law against
all wilful transgressors. (2) It is contrary to God’s self-sufficiency and independence. By
seeking His honour in this way God shows that He needs the creature. The world is
created to glorify God, that is, to add to His glory. Evidently, then, His perfection is
wanting in some respects; the work of creation satisfies a want and contributes to the
divine perfection. But this representation is not correct. The fact that God created the
world for His own glory does not mean that He needed the world. It does not hold
universally among men, that the work which they do not perform for others, is
necessary to supply a want. This may hold in the case of the common laborer, who is
working for his daily bread, but is scarcely true of the artist, who follows the
spontaneous impulse of his genius. In the same way there is a good pleasure in God,
exalted far above want and compulsion, which artistically embodies His thoughts in
creation and finds delight in them. Moreover, it is not true that, when God makes His
declarative glory the final end of creation, He aims primarily at receiving something.
The supreme end which He had in view, was not to receive glory, but to manifest His
inherent glory in the works of His hands. It is true that in doing this, He would also
cause the heavens to declare His glory, and the firmament to show His handiwork, the
birds of the air and the beasts of the field to magnify Him, and the children of men to
sing His praises. But by glorifying the Creator the creatures add nothing to the
perfection of His being, but only acknowledge His greatness and ascribe to Him the
glory which is due unto Him.
The Biblical doctrine is not the only view respecting the origin of the world. Three
alternative theories, which were suggested, deserve brief consideration at this point.
1. THE DUALISTIC THEORY. Dualism is not always presented in the same form, but in
its most usual form posits two self-existent principles, God and matter, which are
distinct from and co-eternal with each other. Original matter, however, is regarded as
but a negative and imperfect substance (sometimes regarded as evil), which is
subordinate to God and is made the instrument of His will (Plato, Aristotle, the
Gnostics, the Manichaeans). According to this theory God is not the creator, but only the
framer and artificer of the world. This view is objectionable for several reasons. (a) It is
wrong in its fundamental idea that there must have been some substance out of which
the world was created, since ex nihilo nihil fit. This maxim is true only as an expression
of the idea that no event takes place without a cause, and is false if it means to assert
that nothing can ever be made except out of pre-existing material. The doctrine of
creation does not dispense with a cause, but finds the all-sufficient cause of the world in
the sovereign will of God. (b) Its representation of matter as eternal is fundamentally
unsound. If matter is eternal, it must be infinite for it cannot be infinite in one way
(duration) and finite in other respects. But it is impossible that two infinites or absolutes
should exist side by side. The absolute and the relative may exist simultaneously, but
there can be only one absolute and self-existent being. (c) It is unphilosophical to
postulate two eternal substances, when one self-existent cause is perfectly adequate to
account for all the facts. For that reason philosophy does not rest satisfied with a
dualistic explanation of the world, but seeks to give a monistic interpretation of the
universe. (d) If the theory assumes — as it does in some of its forms — the existence of
an eternal principle of evil, there is absolutely no guarantee that good will triumph over
evil in the world. It would seem that what is eternally necessary is bound to maintain
itself and can never go down.
2. THE EMANATION THEORY IN VARIOUS FORMS. This theory is to the effect that the
world is a necessary emanation out of the divine being. According to it God and the
world are essentially one, the latter being the phenomenal manifestation of the former.
The idea of emanation is characteristic of all pantheistic theories, though it is not always
represented in the same way. Here, again, we may register several objections. (a) This
view of the origin of the world virtually denies the infinity and transcendence of God
by applying to Him a principle of evolution, of growth and progress, which
characterizes only the finite and imperfect; and by identifying Him and the world. All
visible objects thus become but fleeting modifications of a self-existent, unconscious,
and impersonal essence, which may be called God, Nature, or the Absolute. (b) It robs
God of His sovereignty by denuding Him of His power of self-determination in relation
to the world. He is reduced to the hidden ground from which the creatures necessarily
emanate, and which determines their movement by an inflexible necessity of nature. At
the same time it deprives all rational creatures of their relative independence, of their
freedom, and of their moral character. (c) It also compromises the holiness of God in a
very serious manner. It makes God responsible for all that happens in the world, for the
evil as well as for the good. This is, of course, a very serious consequence of the theory,
from which Pantheists have never been able to escape.
3. THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION. The theory of evolution is sometimes spoken of as if it
could be a substitute for the doctrine of creation. But this is clearly a mistake. It certainly
cannot be a substitute for creation in the sense of absolute origination, since it
presupposes something that evolves, and this must in the last resort be either eternal or
created, so that, after all, the evolutionist must choose between the theory of the eternity
of matter and the doctrine of creation. At best, it might conceivably serve as a substitute
for what is called secondary creation, by which the substance already in existence is
given a definite form. (a) Some evolutionists, as, for instance, Haeckel, believe in the
eternity of matter, and ascribe the origin of life to spontaneous generation. But belief in
the eternity of matter is not only decidedly un-Christian and even atheistic; it is also
generally discredited. The idea that matter, with force as its universal and inseparable
property, is quite sufficient for the explanation of the world, finds little favor to-day in
scientific circles. It is felt that a material universe, composed of finite parts (atoms,
electrons, and so on) cannot itself be infinite; and that that which is subject to constant
change cannot be eternal. Moreover, it has become increasingly clear that blind matter
and force or energy cannot account for life and personality, for intelligence and free will.
And the idea of spontaneous generation is a pure hypothesis, not only unverified, but
practically exploded. The general law of nature seems to be “omne vivum e vivo” or “ex
vivo.” (b) Other evolutionists advocate what they call theistic evolution. This postulates
the existence of God back of the universe, who works in it, as a rule according to the
unalterable laws of nature and by physical forces only, but in some cases by direct
miraculous intervention, as, for instance, in the case of the absolute beginning, the
beginning of life, and the beginning of rational and moral existence. This has often been
called derisively a “stop-gap” theory. It is really a child of embarrassment, which calls
God in at periodic intervals to help nature over the chasms that yawn at her feet. It is
neither the Biblical doctrine of creation, nor a consistent theory of evolution, for
evolution is defined as “a series of gradual progressive changes effected by means of
resident forces” (Le Conte). In fact, theistic evolution is a contradiction in terms. It is just
as destructive of faith in the Biblical doctrine of creation as naturalistic evolution is; and
by calling in the creative activity of God time and again it also nullifies the evolutionary
hypothesis. Besides these two views we may also mention Bergson’s Creative evolution,
and C. Lloyd Morgan’s Emergent evolution. The former is a vitalistic pantheist, whose
theory involves the denial of the personality of God; and the latter in the end comes to
the conclusion that he cannot explain his so-called emergents without positing some
ultimate factor which might be called “God.”
IV. Creation of the Spiritual World
There are clear evidences of belief in the existence of angels from the very beginning
of the Christian era. Some of them were regarded as good, and others as evil. The
former were held in high esteem as personal beings of a lofty order, endowed with
moral freedom, engaged in the joyful service of God, and employed by God to minister
to the welfare of men. According to some of the early Church Fathers they had fine
ethereal bodies. The general conviction was that all angels were created good, but that
some abused their freedom and fell away from God. Satan, who was originally an angel
of eminent rank, was regarded as their head. The cause of his fall was found in pride
and sinful ambition, while the fall of his subordinates was ascribed to their lusting after
the daughters of men. This view was based on what was then the common
interpretation of Gen. 6:2. Alongside of the general idea that the good angels ministered
to the needs and welfare of believers, the specific notion of guardian angels for
individual churches and individual men was cherished by some. Calamities of various
kinds, such as sicknesses, accidents, and losses, were frequently ascribed to the baneful
influence of evil spirits. The idea of a hierarchy of angels already made its appearance
(Clement of Alexandria), but it was not considered proper to worship any of the angels.
As time went on the angels continued to be regarded as blessed spirits, superior to
men in knowledge, and free from the encumbrance of gross material bodies. While
some still ascribed to them fine ethereal bodies, there was an ever increasing uncertainty
as to whether they had any bodies at all. They who still clung to the idea that they were
corporeal did this, so it seems, in the interest of the truth that they were subject to
spatial limitations. Dionysius the Areopagite divided the angels into three classes: the
first class consisting of Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim; the second, of Mights,
Dominions, and Powers; and the third, of Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. The
first class is represented as enjoying the closest communion with God; the second, as
being enlightened by the first; and the third, as being enlightened by the second. This
classification was adopted by several later writers. Augustine stressed the fact that the
good angels were rewarded for their obedience by the gift of perseverance, which
carried with it the assurance that they would never fall. Pride was still regarded as the
cause of Satan’s fall, but the idea that the rest of the angels fell as the result of their
lusting after the daughters of men, though still held by some, was gradually
disappearing under the influence of a better exegesis of Gen. 6:2. A beneficent influence
was ascribed to the unfallen angels, while the fallen angels were regarded as corrupting
the hearts of men, as stimulating to heresy. and as engendering diseases and calamities.
The polytheistic tendencies of many of the converts to Christianity fostered an
inclination to worship the angels. Such worship was formally condemned by a council
which convened at Laodicea in the fourth century.
During the Middle Ages there were still a few who were inclined to assume that the
angels have ethereal bodies, but the prevailing opinion was that they were incorporeal.
The angelic appearances were explained by assuming that in such cases angels adopted
temporal bodily forms for revelational purposes. Several points were in debate among
the Scholastics. As to the time of the creation of the angels the prevailing opinion was
that they were created at the same time as the material universe. While some held that
the angels were created in the state of grace, the more common opinion was that they
were created in a state of natural perfection only. There was little difference of opinion
respecting the question, whether angels can be said to be in a place. The common
answer to this question was affirmative, though it was pointed out that their presence in
space is not circumscriptive but definitive, since only bodies can be in space
circumscriptively. While all the Scholastics agreed that the knowledge of the angels is
limited, the Thomists and Scotists differed considerably respecting the nature of this
knowledge. It was admitted by all that the angels received infused knowledge at the
time of their creation, but Thomas Aquinas denied, while Duns Scotus affirmed, that
they could acquire new knowledge through their own intellectual activity. The former
held that the knowledge of the angels is purely intuitive, but the latter asserted that it
may also be discursive. The idea of guardian angels found considerable favor during
the Middle Ages.
The period of the Reformation brought nothing new respecting the doctrine of the
angels. Both Luther and Calvin had a vivid conception of their ministry, and
particularly of the presence and power of Satan. The latter stresses the fact that he is
under divine control, and that, while he is sometimes the instrument of God, he can
only work within prescribed limits. Protestant theologians generally regarded the
angels as pure spiritual beings, though Zanchius and Grotius still speak of them as
having ethereal bodies. As to the work of the good angels the general opinion was that
it is their special task to minister to the heirs of salvation. There was no general
agreement, however, respecting the existence of guardian angels. Some favored this
view, others opposed it, and still others refused to commit themselves on this point. Our
Belgic Confession says in Article XII, which deals with creation: “He also created the
angels good, to be His messengers and to serve His elect: some of whom are fallen from
that excellency, in which God created them, into everlasting perdition; and the others
have, by the grace of God, remained steadfast, and continued in their primitive state.
The devils and evil spirits are so depraved that they are enemies of God and every good
thing to the utmost of their power, as murderers watching to ruin the Church and every
member thereof, and by their wicked stratagems to destroy all; and are therefore, by
their own wickedness, adjudged to eternal damnation, daily expecting their horrible
Up to the present time Roman Catholics generally regarded the angels as pure
spirits, while some Protestants, such as Emmons, Ebrard, Kurtz, Delitzsch, and others,
still ascribe to them some special kind of bodies. But even the great majority of the latter
take the opposite view. Swedenborg holds that all angels were originally men and exist
in bodily form. Their position in the angelic world depends on their life in this world.
Eighteenth century Rationalism boldly denied the existence of angels and explained
what the Bible teaches about them as a species of accommodation. Some modern liberal
theologians consider it worthwhile to retain the fundamental idea expressed in the
doctrine of the angels. They find in it a symbolic representation of the protecting care
and helpfulness of God.
All religions recognize the existence of a spiritual world. Their mythologies speak of
gods, half-gods, spirits, demons, genii, heroes, and so on. It was especially among the
Persians that the doctrine of the angels was developed, and many critical scholars assert
that the Jews derived their angelology from the Persians. But this is an unproved and, to
say the least, very doubtful theory. It certainly cannot be harmonized with the Word of
God, in which angels appear from the very beginning. Moreover, some great scholars,
who made special study of the subject, came to the conclusion that the Persian
angelology was derived from that current among the Hebrews. The Christian Church
has always believed in the existence of angels, but in modern liberal theology this belief
has been discarded, though it still regards the angel-idea as useful, since it imprints
upon us “the living power of God in the history of redemption, His providentia
specialissima for His people, especially for the ‘little ones.’”68 Though such men as
Leibnitz and Wolff, Kant and Schleiermacher, admitted the possibility of the existence of
an angelic world, and some of them even tried to prove this by rational argumentation,
68 Foster, Christianity in Its Modern Expression, p. 114.
it is quite evident that philosophy can neither prove nor disprove the existence of
angels. From philosophy, therefore, we turn to Scripture, which makes no deliberate
attempt to prove the existence of angels, but assumes this throughout, and in its
historical books repeatedly shows us the angels in action. No one who bows before the
authority of the Word of God can doubt the existence of angels.
Under this heading several points call for consideration.
1. IN DISTINCTION FROM GOD THEY ARE CREATED BEINGS. The creation of the angels has
sometimes been denied, but is clearly taught in Scripture. It is not certain that those
passages which speak of the creation of the host of heaven (Gen. 2:1; Ps. 33:6; Neh. 9:6)
refer to the creation of the angels rather than to the creation of the starry host; but Ps.
148:2,5, and Col. 1:16 clearly speak of the creation of the angels, (comp. I Kings 22:19; Ps.
103:20,21). The time of their creation cannot be fixed definitely. The opinion of some,
based on Job 38:7, that they were created before all other things, really finds no support
in Scripture. As far as we know, no creative work preceded the creation of heaven and
earth. The passage in the book of Job (38:7) teaches, indeed, in a poetic vein that they
were present at the founding of the world just as the stars were, but not that they
existed before the primary creation of heaven and earth. The idea that the creation of the
heavens was completed on the first day, and that the creation of the angels was simply a
part of the day’s work, is also an unproved assumption, though the fact that the
statement in Gen. 1:2 applies to the earth only would seem to favor it. Possibly the
creation of the heavens was not completed in a single moment any more than that of the
earth. The only safe statement seems to be that they were created before the seventh
day. This at least follows from such passages as Gen. 2:1; Ex. 20:11; Job 38:7; Neh. 9:6.
2. THEY ARE SPIRITUAL AND INCORPOREAL BEINGS. This has always been disputed. The
Jews and many of the early Church Fathers ascribed to them airy or fiery bodies; but the
Church of the Middle Ages came to the conclusion that they are pure spiritual beings.
Yet even after that some Roman Catholic, Arminian, and even Lutheran and Reformed
theologians ascribed to them a certain corporeity, most subtle and pure. They regarded
the idea of a purely spiritual and incorporeal nature as metaphysically inconceivable,
and also as incompatible with the conception of a creature. They also appealed to the
fact that the angels are subject to spatial limitations, move about from place to place,
and were sometimes seen by men. But all these arguments are more than counterbalanced
by the explicit statements of Scripture to the effect that the angels are
pneumata, Matt. 8:16; 12:45; Luke 7:21; 8:2; 11:26; Acts 19:12; Eph. 6:12; Heb. 1:14. They
have no flesh and bone, Luke 24:39, do not marry, Matt. 22:30, can be present in great
numbers in a very limited space, Luke 8:30, and are invisible, Col. 1:16. Such passages
as Ps. 104:4 (comp. Heb. 1:7); Matt. 22:30; and I Cor. 11:10 do not prove the corporeity of
the angels. Neither is this proved by the symbolical descriptions of the angels in the
prophecy of Ezekiel and in the book of Revelation, nor by their appearance in bodily
forms, though it is difficult to say, whether the bodies which they assumed on certain
occasions were real or only apparent. It is clear, however, that they are creatures and
therefore finite and limited, though they stand in a freer relation to time and space than
man. We cannot ascribe to them an ubi repletivum, nor an ubi circumscriptivum, but only
an ubi definitivum. They cannot be in two or more places simultaneously.
personal beings endowed with intelligence and will. The fact that they are intelligent
beings would seem to follow at once from the fact that they are spirits; but it is also
taught explicitly in Scripture, II Sam. 14:20; Matt. 24:36; Eph. 3:10; I Pet. 1:12; II Pet. 2:11.
While not omniscient, they are superior to men in knowledge, Matt. 24:36. Moreover,
they are possessed of moral natures, and as such are under moral obligation; they are
rewarded for obedience, and are punished for disobedience. The Bible speaks of the
angels which remained loyal as “holy angels,” Matt. 25:31; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26; Acts
10:22; Rev. 14:10, and pictures those who fell away as lying and sinning, John 8:44; I
John 3:8-10. The good angels are also immortal in the sense that they are not subject to
death. In that respect the saints in heaven are said to be like them, Luke 20:35,36. In
addition to all this, great power is ascribed to them. They form the army of God, a host
of mighty heroes, always ready to do the Lord’s bidding, Ps. 103:20; Col. 1:16; Eph. 1:21;
3:10; Heb. 1:14; and the evil angels form the army of Satan, bent on destroying the work
of the Lord, Luke 11:21; II Thess. 2:9; I Pet. 5:8.
4. THEY ARE PARTLY GOOD AND PARTLY EVIL. The Bible furnishes very little information
respecting the original state of the angels. We read, however, that at the end of His
creative work God saw everything that He had made and, behold, it was very good.
Moreover, John 8:44; II Pet. 2:4; and Jude 6 presupposes an original good condition of all
angels. The good angels are called elect angels in I Tim. 5:21. They evidently received, in
addition to the grace with which all angels were endowed, and which was sufficient to
enable them to retain their position, a special grace of perseverance, by which they were
confirmed in their position. There has been a great deal of useless speculation about the
time and character of the fall of the angels. Protestant theology, however, was generally
satisfied with the knowledge that the good angels retained their original state, were
confirmed in their position, and are now incapable of sinning. They are not only called
holy angels, but also angels of light, II Cor. 11:14. They always behold the face of God,
Matt. 18:10, are our exemplars in doing the will of God, Matt. 6:10, and possess
immortal life, Luke 20:36.
1. THEIR NUMBER. The Bible contains no definite information respecting the number
of the angels, but indicates very clearly that they constitute a mighty army. They are
repeatedly called the host of heaven or of God, and this term itself already points to a
goodly number. In Deut. 33:2 we read that “Jehovah came from Sinai . . . from the ten
thousands of holy ones,” and in Ps. 68:17 the poet sings, “The chariots of God are
twenty thousand, even thousands upon thousands: the Lord is among them, as in Sinai,
in the sanctuary.” In reply to the question of Jesus addressed to an unclean spirit, the
answer was, “my name is legion; for we are many,” Mark 5:9,15. The Roman legion was
not always the same, but varied at different times all the way from 3000 to 6000, In
Gethsemane Jesus said to the band that came to take him captive, “Or thinkest thou that
I cannot beseech my Father, and He shall even now send me more than twelve legions
of angels?” Matt. 26:53. And, finally, we read in Rev. 5:11, “And I saw, and I heard the
voice of many angels round about the throne and the living creatures and the elders;
and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of
thousands.” In view of all these data it is perfectly safe to say that the angels constitute
an innumerable company, a mighty host. They do not form an organism like mankind,
for they are spirits, which do not marry and are not born the one out of the other. Their
full number was created in the beginning; there has been no increase in their ranks.
2. THEIR ORDERS. Though the angels do not constitute an organism, they are
evidently organized in some way. This follows from the fact that, alongside of the
general name “angel,” the Bible uses certain specific names to indicate different classes
of angels. The name “angel,” by which we designate the higher spirits generally, is not a
nomen naturae in Scripture, but a nomen officii. The Hebrew word mal’ak simply means
messenger, and serves to designate one sent by men, Job 1:14; I Sam. 11:3, or by God,
Hag. 1:13; Mal. 2:7; 3:1. The Greek term aggelos is also frequently applied to men, Matt.
11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:24; 9:51; Gal. 4:14. There is no general distinctive name for all
spiritual beings in Scripture. They are called sons of God, Job 1:6; 2:1; Ps. 29:1; 89:6,
spirits, Heb. 1:14, saints, Ps. 89:5,7; Zech. 14:5; Dan. 8:13, watchers, Dan. 4:13,17,24.
There are several specific names, however, which point to different classes of angels.
a. Cherubim. Cherubim are repeatedly mentioned in Scripture. They guard the
entrance of paradise, Gen. 3:24, gaze upon the mercy-seat, Ex. 25:18; Ps. 80:1; 99:1; Isa.
37:16; Heb. 9:5, and constitute the chariot on which God descends to the earth, II Sam.
22:11; Ps. 18:10. In Ezek. 1 and Rev. 4 they are represented as living beings in various
forms. These symbolical representations simply serve to bring out their extraordinary
power and majesty. More than other creatures they were destined to reveal the power,
the majesty, and the glory of God, and to guard His holiness in the garden of Eden, in
tabernacle and temple, and in the descent of God to the earth.
b. Seraphim. A related class of angels are the Seraphim, mentioned only in Isa. 6:2,6.
They are also symbolically represented in human form, but with six wings, two
covering the face, two the feet, and two for the speedy execution of the Lord’s
commandments. In distinction from the Cherubim, they stand as servants round about
the throne of the heavenly King, sing His praises, and are ever ready to do His bidding.
While the Cherubim are the mighty ones, they might be called the nobles among the
angels. While the former guard the holiness of God, they serve the purpose of
reconciliation, and thus prepare men for the proper approach to God.
c. Principalities, powers, thrones, and dominions. In addition to the preceding the Bible
speaks of certain classes of angels, which occupy places of authority in the angelic
world, as archai and exousiai (principalities and powers), Eph. 3:10; Col. 2:10, thronoi
(thrones), Col. 1:16, kureotetoi (dominions), Eph. 1:21; Col. 1:16, and dunameis (powers),
Eph. 1:21; I Pet. 3:22. These appellations do not point to different kinds of angels, but
simply to differences of rank or dignity among them.
d. Gabriel and Michael. In distinction from all the other angels, these two are
mentioned by name. Gabriel appears in Dan. 8:16; 9:21; Luke 1:19,26. The great majority
of commentators regard him as a created angel, but some of these deny that the name
Gabriel is a proper name and look upon it as common noun, meaning man of God, a
synonym for angel. But this is an untenable position.69 Some earlier and later
commentators see in him an uncreated being, some even suggesting that he might be
the third person of the Holy Trinity, while Michael was the second. But a simple reading
of the passages in question shows the impossibility of this interpretation. He may be
one of the seven angels that are said to stand before God in Rev. 8:2 (comp. Luke 1:19). It
seems to have been his special task to mediate and interpret divine revelations.
69 Cf. especially Kuyper, De Engelen Gods, p. 175.
The name Michael (lit., “who as God?”) has been interpreted as a designation of the
second person of the Trinity. But this is no more tenable than the identification of
Gabriel with the Holy Spirit. Michael is mentioned in Dan. 10:13,21; Jude 9; Rev. 12:7.
From the fact that he is called “the archangel” in Jude 9, and from the expression used
in Rev. 12:7 it would seem that he occupies an important place among the angels. The
passages in Daniel also point to the fact that he is a prince among them. We see in him
the valiant warrior fighting the battles of Jehovah against the enemies of Israel and
against the evil powers in the spirit-world. It is not impossible that the title “archangel”
also applies to Gabriel and a few other angels.
We can distinguish between an ordinary and an extraordinary service of the angels.
1. THEIR ORDINARY SERVICE. This consists first of all in their praising God day and
night, Job 38:7; Isa. 6; Ps. 103:20; 148:2; Rev. 5:11. Scripture gives the impression that they
do this audibly, as at the birth of Christ, though we can form no conception of this
speaking and singing of the angels. Since the entrance of sin into the world they are sent
forth to minister to them that are heirs of salvation, Heb. 1:14. They rejoice at the
conversion of a sinner, Luke 15:10, watch over believers, Ps. 34:7; 91:11, protect the little
ones, Matt. 18:10, are present in the Church, I Cor. 11:10; I Tim. 5:21, learning from her
the manifold riches of the grace of God, Eph. 3:10; I Pet. 1:12, and convey believers into
the bosom of Abraham, Luke 16:22. The idea that some of them serve as guardians of
individual believers finds no support in Scripture. The statement in Matt. 18:10 is too
general to prove the point, though it seems to indicate that there is a group of angels
who are particularly charged with the care of the little ones. Neither is it proved by Acts
12:15, for this passage merely goes to show that there were some even among the
disciples of that early day who believed in guardian angels.
2. THEIR EXTRAORDINARY SERVICE. The extraordinary service of the angels was made
necessary by the fall of man, and forms an important element in the special revelation of
God. They often mediate the special revelations of God, communicate blessings to His
people, and execute judgment upon His enemies. Their activity is most prominent in
the great turning points of the economy of salvation, as in the days of the patriarchs, the
time of the lawgiving, the period of the exile and of the restoration, and at the birth, the
resurrection, and the ascension of the Lord. When the period of God’s special revelation
closed, the extraordinary service of the angels ceased, to be resumed only at the return
of the Lord.
1. THEIR ORIGIN. Besides the good there also are evil angels, who delight in opposing
God and antagonizing His work. Though they are also creatures of God, they were not
created as evil angels. God saw everything that He had created, and it was very good,
Gen. 1:31. There are two passages in Scripture which clearly imply that some of the
angels did not retain their original position, but fell from the state in which they were
created, II Pet. 2:4; Jude 6. The special sin of these angels is not revealed, but has
generally been thought to consist in this that they exalted themselves over against God,
and aspired to supreme authority. If this ambition played an important part in the life of
Satan and led to his downfall, it would at once explain why he tempted man on this
particular point, and sought to lure him to his destruction by appealing to a possible
similar ambition in man. Some of the early Church Fathers distinguished between Satan
and the subordinate devils in explaining the cause of their fall. That of the fall of Satan
was found in pride, but that of the more general fall in the angelic world, in fleshly lust,
Gen. 6:2. That interpretation of Gen. 6:2 was gradually discarded, however, during the
Middle Ages. In view of this it is rather surprising to find that several modern
commentators are reiterating the idea in their interpretation of II Pet. 2:4 and Jude 6 as,
for instance, Meyer, Alford, Mayor, Wohlenberg. It is an explanation, however, that is
contrary to the spiritual nature of the angels, and to the fact that, as Matt. 22:30 would
seem to imply, there is no sexual life among the angels. Moreover, on that interpretation
we shall have to assume a double fall in the angelic world, first the fall of Satan, and
then, considerably later, the fall resulting in the host of devils that now serves Satan. It is
much more likely that Satan dragged the others right along with him in his fall.
2. THEIR HEAD. Satan appears in Scripture as the recognized head of the fallen angels.
He was originally, it would seem, one of the mightiest princes of the angelic world, and
became the leader of those that revolted and fell away from God. The name “Satan”
points to him as “the Adversary,” not in the first place of man, but of God. He attacks
Adam as the crown of God’s handiwork, works destruction and is therefore called
Apollyon (the Destroyer), and assaults Jesus when He undertakes the work of
restoration. After the entrance of sin into the world he became Diabolos (the Accuser),
accusing the people of God continually, Rev. 12:10. He is represented in Scripture as the
originator of sin, Gen. 3:1,4; John 8:44; II Cor. 11:3; I John 3:8; Rev. 12:9; 20:2,10, and
appears as the recognized head of those that fell away, Matt. 25:41; 9:34; Eph. 2:2. He
remains the leader of the angelic hosts which he carried with him in his fall, and
employs them in desperate resistance to Christ and His Kingdom. He is also called
repeatedly “the prince of this (not, “of the”) world, John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11, and even
“the god of this world,” II Cor. 4:4. This does not mean that he is in control of the world,
for God is in control, and He has given all authority to Christ, but it does convey the
idea that he is in control of this evil world, the world in so far as it is ethically separated
from God. This is clearly indicated in Eph. 2:2, where he is called “the prince of the
powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience.” He is
superhuman, but not divine; has great power, but is not omnipotent; wields influence
on a large but restricted scale, Matt. 12:29; Rev. 20:2, and is destined to be cast into the
bottomless pit, Rev. 20:10.
3. THEIR ACTIVITY. Like the good angels, the fallen angels, too, are possessed of
superhuman power, but their use of it contrasts sadly with that of the good angels.
While the latter perennially praise God, fight His battles, and serve Him faithfully, they
as powers of darkness are bent on cursing God, battling against Him and His Anointed,
and destroying His work. They are in constant revolt against God, seek to blind and
mislead even the elect, and encourage sinners in their evil. But they are lost and
hopeless spirits. They are even now chained to hell and pits of darkness, and though
not yet limited to one place, yet, as Calvin says, drag their chains with them wherever
they go, II Pet. 2:4; Jude 6.
V. Creation of the Material World
Other nations, as well as the Hebrews, had their accounts respecting the origin of the
material universe, and of the way in which the original chaos was changed into a
cosmos or habitable world. Some of those accounts reveal traces of similarity with the
Biblical record, but contain even more striking dissimilarities. They are as a rule
characterized by dualistic or polytheistic elements, represent the present world as the
result of a fierce struggle among the gods, and are far removed from the simplicity and
sobriety of the Biblical account. It may be advisable to preface our discussion of its
details with a few general remarks.
is a significant thing that the narrative of creation, while it mentions the creation of the
heavens, devotes no further attention to the spiritual world. It concerns the material
world only, and represents this primarily as the habitation of man and as the theater of
his activities. It deals not with unseen realities such as spirits, but with the things that
are seen. And because these things are palpable to the human senses, they come up for
discussion, not only in theology, but also in other sciences and in philosophy. But while
philosophy seeks to understand the origin and nature of all things by the light of
reason, theology takes its starting point in God, allows itself to be guided by His special
revelation respecting the work of creation, and considers everything in relation to Him.
The narrative of creation is the beginning of God’s self-revelation, and acquaints us with
the fundamental relation in which everything, man included, stands to Him. It stresses
the original position of man, in order that men of all ages might have a proper
understanding of the rest of Scripture as a revelation of redemption. While it does not
pretend to give us a complete philosophical cosmogony, it does contain important
elements for the construction of a proper cosmogony.
2. THE ORIGIN OF THE ACCOUNT OF CREATION. The question as to the origin of the
narrative of creation has been raised repeatedly, and the interest in it was renewed by
the discovery of the Babylonian story of creation. This story, as it is known to us, took
shape in the city of Babylon. It speaks of the generation of several gods, of whom
Marduk proves supreme. He only was sufficiently powerful to overcome the primeval
dragon Tiamat, and becomes the creator of the world, whom men worship. There are
some points of similarity between the narrative of creation in Genesis and this
Babylonian story. Both speak of a primeval chaos, and of a division of the waters below
and above the firmament. Genesis speaks of seven days, and the Babylonian account is
arranged in seven tablets. Both accounts connect the heavens with the fourth epoch of
creation, and the creation of man with the sixth. Some of these resemblances are of little
significance, and the differences of the two accounts are far more important. The
Hebrew order differs on many points from the Babylonian. The greatest difference is
found, however, in the religious conceptions of the two. The Babylonian account, in
distinction from that of Scripture, is mythological and polytheistic. The gods do not
stand on a high level, but scheme and plot and fight. And Marduk succeeds only after a
prolonged struggle, which taxes his strength, in overcoming the evil forces and
reducing chaos to order. In Genesis, on the other hand, we encounter the most sublime
monotheism, and see God calling forth the universe and all created things by the simple
word of His power. When the Babylonian account was discovered, many scholars
hastily assumed that the Biblical narrative was derived from the Babylonian source,
forgetting that there are at least two other possibilities, namely, (a) that the Babylonian
story is a corrupted reproduction of the narrative in Genesis; or (b) that both are derived
from a common, more primitive, source. But however this question may be answered, it
does not settle the problem of the origin of the narrative. How did the original, whether
written or oral, come into existence? Some regard it simply as the natural product of
man’s reflection on the origin of things. But this explanation is extremely unlikely in
view of the following facts: (a) the idea of creation is incomprehensible; (b) science and
philosophy both equally oppose the doctrine of creation out of nothing; and (c) it is only
by faith that we understand that the worlds have been framed by the word of God, Heb.
11:3. We therefore come to the conclusion that the story of creation was revealed to
Moses or to one of the earlier patriarchs. If this revelation was pre-Mosaic, it passed in
tradition (oral or written) from one generation to another, probably lost something of its
original purity, and was finally incorporated in a pure form, under the guidance of the
Holy Spirit, in the first book of the Bible.
3. THE INTERPRETATION OF GEN. 1:1,2. Some regard Gen. 1:1 as the superscription or
title of the whole narrative of creation. But this is objectionable for three reasons: (a)
because the following narrative is connected with the first verse by the Hebrew
conjunction waw (and), which would not be the case if the first verse were a title; (b)
because, on that supposition, there would be no account whatsoever of the original and
immediate creation; and (c) since the following verses contain no account of the creation
of heaven at all. The more generally accepted interpretation is that Gen. 1:1 records the
original and immediate creation of the universe, Hebraistically called “heaven and
earth.” In this expression the word “heaven” refers to that invisible order of things in
which the glory of God reveals itself in the most perfect manner. It cannot be regarded
as a designation of the cosmical heavens, whether of the clouds or of the stars, for these
were created on the second and on the fourth day of the creative week. Then in the
second verse the author describes the original condition of the earth (comp. Ps. 104:5,6).
It is a debatable question, whether the original creation of matter formed a part of the
work of the first day, or was separated from this by a shorter or longer period of time.
Of those who would interpose a long period between the two, some hold that the world
was originally a dwelling place of angels, was destroyed as the result of a fall in the
angelic world, and was then reclaimed and turned into a fit habitation for men. We shall
refer to this restitution theory in another connection.
After the creation of the universe out of nothing in a moment of time, the existing
chaos was gradually changed into a cosmos, a habitable world, in six successive days.
Before the work of the separate days is indicated, the. question as to the length of the
days of creation calls for a brief discussion.
scholars assume that the days of Gen. 1 were long periods of time, in order to make
them harmonize with the geological periods. The opinion that these days were not
ordinary days of twenty-four hours was not entirely foreign to early Christian theology,
as E. C. Messenger shows in detail in his learned work on Evolution and Theology. But
some of the Church Fathers, who intimated that these days were probably not to be
regarded as ordinary days, expressed the opinion that the whole work of creation was
finished in a moment of time, and that the days merely constituted a symbolical framework,
which facilitated the description of the work of creation in an orderly fashion, so
as to make it more intelligible to finite minds. The opinion that the days of creation were
long periods came to the foreground again in recent years, not, however, as the result of
exegetical studies, but under the influence of the disclosures of science. Previous to the
nineteenth century the days of Genesis were most generally regarded as literal days.
But, of course, human interpretation is fallible, and may have to be revised in the light
of later discoveries. If traditional exegesis conflicts, not merely with scientific theories —
which are themselves interpretations —, but with well established facts, re-thinking and
reinterpretation is naturally in order. It can hardly be maintained, however, that the
assumed geological periods necessitate a change of front, since they are by no means
generally recognized, even in scientific circles, as well established facts. Some Christian
scholars, such as Harris, Miley, Bettex, and Geesink, assume that the days of Genesis are
geological days, and both Shedd and Hodge call attention to the remarkable agreement
between the record of creation and the testimony of the rocks, and are inclined to regard
the days of Genesis as geological periods.
The question may be raised, whether it is exegetically possible to conceive of the
days of Genesis as long periods of time. And then it must be admitted that the Hebrew
word yom does not always denote a period of twenty-four hours in Scripture, and is not
always used in the same sense even in the narrative of creation. It may mean daylight in
distinction from darkness, Gen. 1:5,16,18; day-light and darkness together, Gen. 1:5,8,13
etc.; the six days taken together, Gen. 2:4; and an indefinite period marked in its entire
length by some characteristic feature, as trouble, Ps. 20:1, wrath, Job 20:28, prosperity,
Eccl. 7:14, or salvation II Cor. 6:2. Now some hold that the Bible favors the idea that the
days of creation were indefinite periods of time, and call attention to the following: (a)
The sun was not created until the fourth day, and therefore the length of the previous
days could not yet be determined by the earth’s relation to the sun. This is perfectly
true, but does not prove the point. God had evidently, even previous to the fourth day,
established a rhythmic alternation of light and darkness, and there is no ground for the
assumption that the days so measured were of longer duration than the later days. Why
should we assume that God greatly increased the velocity of the earth’s revolutions
after the light was concentrated in the sun? (b) The days referred to are God’s days, the
archetypal days, of which the days of men are merely ectypal copies; and with God a
thousand years are as a single day, Ps. 90:4; II Pet. 3:8. But this argument is based on a
confusion of time and eternity. God ad intra has no days, but dwells in eternity, exalted
far above all measurements of time. This is also the idea conveyed by Ps. 90:4; and II
Pet. 3:8. The only actual days of which God has knowledge are the days of this timespace
world. How does it follow from the fact that God is exalted above the limitations
of time, as they exist in this world, where time is measured by days and weeks and
months and years, that a day may just as well be a period of 100,000 years as one of
twenty-four hours? (c) The seventh day, the day in which God rested from His labours,
is said to continue up to the present time, and must therefore be regarded as a period of
thousands of years. It is God’s sabbath, and that sabbath never ends. This argument
represents a similar confusion. The whole idea of God’s beginning the work of creation
at a certain point of time, and then ceasing it after a period of six days, does not apply to
God as He is in Himself, but only to the temporal results of His creative activity. He is
unchangeably the same from age to age. His sabbath is not an indefinitely prolonged
period of time; it is eternal. On the other hand, the sabbath of the creation week was a
day equal in length to the other days. God not only rested on that day, but He also
blessed and hallowed it, setting it aside as a day of rest for man, Ex. 20:11. This would
hardly apply to the whole period from the time of creation up to the present day.
has always been that the days of Genesis 1 are to be understood as literal days. Some of
the early Church Fathers did not regard them as real indications of the time in which
the work of creation was completed, but rather as literary forms in which the writer of
Genesis cast the narrative of creation, in order to picture the work of creation — which
was really completed in a moment of time — in an orderly fashion for human
intelligence. It was only after the comparatively new sciences of geology and
palæontology came forward with their theories of the enormous age of the earth, that
theologians began to show an inclination to identify the days of creation with the long
geological ages. To-day some of them regard it as an established fact that the days of
Genesis 1 were long geological periods; others are somewhat inclined to assume this
position, but show considerable hesitation. Hodge, Sheldon, Van Oosterzee, and
Dabney, some of whom are not entirely averse to this view, are all agreed that this
interpretation of the days is exegetically doubtful, if not impossible. Kuyper and Bavinck
hold that, while the first three days may have been of somewhat different length, the
last three were certainly ordinary days. They naturally do not regard even the first three
days as geological periods. Vos in his Gereformeerde Dogmatiek defends the position that
the days of creation were ordinary days. Hepp takes the same position in his Calvinism
and the Philosophy of Nature.70 Noortzij in Gods Woord en der Eeuwen Getuigenis,71 asserts
that the Hebrew word yom (day) in Gen. 1 cannot possibly designate anything else than
an ordinary day, but holds that the writer of Genesis did not attach any importance to
the concept “day,” but introduces it simply as part of a frame-work for the narrative of
creation, not to indicate historical sequence, but to picture the glory of the creatures in
the light of the great redemptive purpose of God. Hence the sabbath is the great
culminating point, in which man reaches his real destiny. This view reminds us rather
strongly of the position of some of the early Church Fathers. The arguments adduced
for it are not very convincing, as Aalders has shown in his De Eerste Drie Hoofdstukken
van Genesis.72 This Old Testament scholar holds, on the basis of Gen. 1:5, that the term
yom in Gen. 1 denotes simply the period of light, as distinguished from that of darkness;
70 p. 215.
71 pp. 79f.
72 pp. 232-240.
but this view would seem to involve a rather unnatural interpretation of the repeated
expression “and there was evening and there was morning.” It must then be interpreted
to mean, and there was evening preceded by a morning. According to Dr. Aalders, too,
Scripture certainly favors the idea that the days of creation were ordinary days, though
it may not be possible to determine their exact length, and the first three days may have
differed somewhat from the last three.
The literal interpretation of the term “day” in Gen. 1 is favored by the following
considerations: (a) In its primary meaning the word yom denotes a natural day; and it is
a good rule in exegesis, not to depart from the primary meaning of a word, unless this is
required by the context. Dr. Noortzij stresses the fact that this word simply does not
mean anything else than “day,” such as this is known by man on earth. (b) The author
of Genesis would seem to shut us up absolutely to the literal interpretation by adding in
the case of every day the words, “and there was evening and there was morning.” Each
one of the days mentioned has just one evening and morning, something that would
hardly apply to a period of thousands of years. And if it should be said that the periods
of creation were extraordinary days, each one consisting of one long day and one long
night, then the question naturally arises, What would become of all vegetation during
the long, long night? (c) In Ex. 20:9-11 Israel is commanded to labor six days and to rest
on the seventh, because Jehovah made heaven and earth in six days and rested on the
seventh day. Sound exegesis would seem to require that the word “day” be taken in the
same sense in both instances. Moreover the sabbath set aside for rest certainly was a
literal day; and the presumption is that the other days were of the same kind. (d) The
last three days were certainly ordinary days, for they were determined by the sun in the
usual way. While we cannot be absolutely sure that the preceding days did not differ
from them at all in length, it is extremely unlikely that they differed from them, as
periods of thousands upon thousands of years differ from ordinary days. The question
may also be asked, why such a long period should be required, for instance, for the
separation of light and darkness.
3. THE WORK OF THE SEPARATE DAYS. We notice in the work of creation a definite
gradation, the work of each day leads up to and prepares for the work of the next, the
whole of it culminating in the creation of man, the crown of God’s handiwork,
entrusted with the important task of making the whole of creation subservient to the
glory of God.
a. The first day. On the first day the light was created, and by the separation of light
and darkness day and night were constituted. This creation of light on the first day has
been ridiculed in view of the fact that the sun was not created until the fourth day, but
science itself silenced the ridicule by proving that light is not a substance emanating
from the sun, but consists of ether waves produced by energetic electrons. Notice also
that Genesis does not speak of the sun as light (or), but as light-bearer (ma’or), exactly
what science has discovered it to be. In view of the fact that light is the condition of all
life, it was but natural that it should be created first. God also at once instituted the
ordinance of the alternation of light and darkness, calling the light day and the darkness
night. We are not told, however, how this alternation was effected. The account of each
day’s work closes with the words, “and there was evening and there was morning.” The
days are not reckoned from evening to evening, but from morning to morning. After
twelve hours there was evening, and after another twelve hours there was morning.
b. The second day. The work of the second day was also a work of separation: the
firmament was established by dividing the waters above and the waters below. The
waters above are the clouds, and not, as some would have it, the sea of glass, Rev. 4:6;
15:2, and the river of life, Rev. 22:1. Some have discredited the Mosaic account on the
supposition that it represents the firmament as a solid vault; but this is entirely
unwarranted, for the Hebrew word raqia does not denote a solid vault at all, but is
equivalent to our word “expanse.”
c. The third day. The separation is carried still further in the separation of the sea from
the dry land, cf. Ps. 104:8. In addition to that the vegetable kingdom of plants and trees
was established. Three great classes are mentioned, namely, deshe’, that is flowerless
plants, which do not fructify one another in the usual way; ’esebh, consisting of
vegetables and grain yielding seed; and ’ets peri or fruit trees, bearing fruit according to
their kind. It should be noted here: (1) That, when God said, “Let the earth put forth
grass” etc., this was not equivalent to saying: Let inorganic matter develop by its own
inherent force into vegetable life. It was a word of power by which God implanted the
principle of life in the earth, and thus enabled it to bring forth grass and herbs and trees.
That it was a creative word is evident from Gen. 2:9. (2) That the statement, “and the
earth brought forth grass, herbs yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit,
wherein is the seed thereof, after their kind” (vs. 12), distinctly favors the idea that the
different species of plants were created by God, and did not develop the one out of the
other. Each one brought forth seed after its kind, and could therefore only reproduce its
kind. The doctrine of evolution, of course, negatives both of these assertions; but it
should be borne in mind that both spontaneous generation and the development of one
species from another, are unproved, and now largely discredited, assumptions.73
d. The fourth day. Sun, moon, and stars, were created as light-bearers, to serve a
variety of purposes: (1) to divide the day and the night; (2) to be for signs, that is, to
indicate the cardinal points, to presage changes of weather conditions, and to serve as
signs of important future events and coming judgments; (3) to be for seasons, and for
days and years, that is, to serve the purpose of effecting the change of seasons, the
succession of years, and the regular recurrence of special festive days; and (4) to serve as
lights for the earth and thus to make the development of organic life on earth possible.
e. The fifth day. This day brings the creation of the birds and the fishes, the
inhabitants of the air and the waters. Birds and fishes belong together, because there is a
great similarity in their organic structure. Moreover, they are characterized by an
instability and mobility which they have in common with the element in which they
move, in distinction from the solid ground. They also agree in their method of
procreation. Notice that they, too, were created after their kind, that is, the species were
f. The sixth day. This day brings the climax of the work of creation. In connection with
the creation of the animals the expression is once more used, “Let the earth bring forth,”
and this should again be interpreted as was indicated under (c). The animals did not
naturally develop out of the earth, but were brought forth by the creative fiat of God.
We are told distinctly in the 25th verse that God made the beasts of the earth, the cattle
and the creeping things of the earth, after their kind. But even if the expression did refer
to natural development, it would not be in harmony with the doctrine of evolution,
since that does not teach that the animals developed directly out of the mineral world.
The creation of man is distinguished by the solemn counsel that precedes it: “Let us
make man in our own image, after our likeness”; and this is no wonder, since all that
preceded was but a preparation for the coming of man, the crowning work of God, the
king of creation; and because man was destined to be the image of God. The words
tselem and demuth do not denote exactly the same thing, but are nevertheless used interchangeably.
When it is said that man is created in the image of God, this means that
God is the archetype of which man is is the ectype; and when it is added that he is
created according to the likeness of God, this merely adds the idea that the image is in
every way like the original. In his entire being man is the very image of God.
73 Cf. O’Toole, The Case Against Evolution, p. 28.
Before passing on to the seventh day it may be well to call attention to the
remarkable parallel between the work of the first, and that of the second three days of
1. The creation of light. 4. The creation of light-bearers.
2. Creation of expanse and separation
of waters.
5. Creation of fowls of the air and
fishes of the sea.
3. Separation of waters and dry land,
and preparation of the earth as a
habitation for man and beast.
6. Creation of the beasts of the field,
the cattle, and all creeping things; and
g. The seventh day. The rest of God on the seventh day contains first of all a negative
element. God ceased from His creative work. But to this must be added a positive
element, namely, that He took delight in His completed work. His rest was as the rest of
the artist, after He has completed His masterpiece, and now gazes upon it with
profound admiration and delight, and finds perfect satisfaction in the contemplation of
His production. “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very
good.” It answered the purpose of God and corresponded to the divine ideal. Hence
God rejoices in His creation, for in it He recognizes the reflection of His glorious
perfections. His radiant countenance shines upon it and is productive of showers of
4. NO SECOND ACCOUNT OF CREATION IN GENESIS 2. It is quite common for advanced
higher criticism to assume that Gen. 2 contains a second and independent account of
creation. The first account is regarded as the work of the Elohist, and the second as that
of the Jehovist. The two, it is said, do not agree, but conflict on several points. According
to the second account, as distinguished from the first, the earth is dry before the creation
of plants; man is created before the animals, and that alone, not as man and woman;
then God created the animals, in order to see whether they will be fit companions for
man; seeing that they fail in that respect, He creates woman as a helpmeet for man; and,
finally, He places man in the garden which He had prepared for him. But this is clearly a
complete misunderstanding of the second chapter. Genesis 2 is not, and does not
pretend to be, a narrative of creation. The superscription ’eleh toledoth, which is found
ten times in Genesis, never refers to the birth or origin of things, but always to their
births, that is, their later history. The expression dates from a time when history still
consisted in the description of generations. The second chapter of Genesis begins the
description of the history of man, arranges its material to suit this purpose, and only
repeats so much of what was said in the previous chapter, without any consideration of
chronological order, as is necessary for the author’s purpose.
a. The ideal or allegorical interpretation. This gives prominence to the idea rather than
to the letter of the narrative. It regards Genesis 1 as a poetic description of the creative
work of God, representing this from different points of view. But (1) it is quite evident
that the narrative is intended as a record of history, and is clearly so regarded in
Scripture, cf. Ex. 20:11; Neh. 9:6; Ps. 33:6,9; 145:2-6; (2) the opening chapter of Genesis
“lacks nearly every element of acknowledged Hebrew poetry” (Strong); and (3) this
narrative is inseparably connected with the succeeding history, and is therefore most
naturally regarded as itself historical.
b. The mythical theory of modern philosophy. Modern philosophy has advanced beyond
the preceding position. It rejects not only the historical narrative of creation, but also the
idea of creation, and regards the contents of Genesis 1 as a myth embodying a religious
lesson. There is no intentional allegory here, it is said, but only a naive mythical
representation with a religious core or nucleus. This is also contrary to the fact that Gen.
1 certainly comes to us with the pretension of being a historical narrative, and in the
cross references, referred to above, it certainly is not regarded as a myth.
c. The restitution theory. Some theologians attempted to reconcile the narrative of
creation with the discoveries of science in the study of the earth by adopting the
restitution theory. It was advocated by Chalmers, Buckland, Wisemann, and Delitzsch,
and assumes that a long period of time elapsed between the primary creation
mentioned in Gen. 1:1 and the secondary creation described in Gen. 1:3-31. This long
period was marked by several catastrophic changes, resulting in the destruction
supposedly described in the words “waste and void.” The second verse should then
read, “And the earth became waste and void.” This destruction was followed by a
restitution, when God changed the chaos into a cosmos, a habitable world for man. This
theory might offer some explanation of the different strata of the earth, but it offers no
explanation of the fossils in the rocks, unless it is assumed that there were also
successive creations of animals, followed by mass destructions. This theory never found
favor in scientific circles, and finds no support in Scripture. The Bible does not say that
the earth became, but that it was waste and void. And even if the Hebrew verb hayetha
can be rendered “became,” the words “waste and void” denote an unformed condition,
and not a condition resulting from destruction. Delitzsch combined with this theory the
idea that the earth was originally inhabited by the angels, and that the fall in the angelic
world was the cause of the destruction which resulted in the chaos referred to in verse
2. For some reason or other this view finds considerable favor among present day
dispensationalists, who find support for it in such passages as Isa. 24:1; Jer. 4:23-26; Job.
9:4-7; II Pet. 2:4. But even a careful reading of these passages is sufficient to convince
one that they do not prove the point in question at all. Moreover, the Bible clearly
teaches us that God created heaven and earth “and all the host of them” in six days,
Gen. 2:1; Ex. 20:11.
d. The concordistic theory. This seeks to harmonize Scripture and science by assuming
that the days of creation were periods of thousands of years. In addition to what was
said about this in discussing the days of creation, we may now add that the idea that the
earth’s strata positively point to long and successive periods of development in the
history of its origin, is simply a theory of the geologists, and a theory based on
unwarranted generalizations. We would call attention to the following considerations:
(1) The science of geology is not only young, but it is still in bondage to speculative
thought. It cannot be considered as an inductive science, since it is largely the fruit of a
priori or deductive reasoning. Spencer called it “Illogical Geology” and ridiculed its
methods, and Huxley spoke of its grand hypotheses as “not proven and not provable.”74
(2) Up to the present time it has done little more than scratch the surface of the earth,
and that in a very limited number of places. As a result its conclusions are often mere
generalizations, based on insufficient data. Facts observed in some places are
contradicted by those found in others. (3) Even if it had explored large areas in all parts
of the globe, it could only increase our knowledge of the present condition of the earth,
but would never be able to give us perfectly reliable information respecting its past
history. You cannot write the history of a nation on the basis of the facts observed in its
present constitution and life. (4) Geologists once proceeded on the assumption that the
strata of rocks were found in the same order all over the globe; and that by estimating
the length of time required by the formation of each it could determine the age of the
earth. But (a) it was found that the order of the rocks differs in various localities; (b) the
experiments made to determine the time required for the formation of the different
strata, led to widely different results; and (c) the uniformitarian theory of Lyell, that the
physical and chemical action of today are safe guides in estimating those of all previous
74 Price, The Fundamentals of Geology, pp. 29, 32.
times, was found to be unreliable.75 (5) When the attempt to determine the age of the
various strata or rocks by their mineral and mechanical make-up failed, geologists
began to make the fossils the determining factor. Palaeontology became the really
important subject, and under the influence of the uniformitarian principle of Lyell
developed into one of the important proofs of evolution. It is simply assumed that
certain fossils are older than others; and if the question is asked on what basis the
assumption rests, the answer is that they are found in the older rocks. This is just plain
reasoning in a circle. The age of the rocks is determined by the fossils which they
contain, and the age of the fossils by the rocks in which they are found. But the fossils
are not always found in the same order; sometimes the order is reversed. (6) The order
of the fossils as now determined by geology does not correspond to the order which the
narrative of creation leads us to expect, so that even the acceptance of the geological
theory would not serve the purpose of harmonizing Scripture and science.
naturally arises in our day, How does the theory of evolution affect the doctrine of
a. The theory of evolution cannot take the place of the doctrine of creation. Some speak as if
the hypothesis of evolution offered an explanation of the origin of the world; but this is
clearly a mistake, for it does no such thing. Evolution is development, and all
development presupposes the prior existence of an entity or principle or force, out of
which something develops. The non-existent cannot develop into existence. Matter and
force could not have evolved out of nothing. It has been customary for evolutionists to
fall back on the nebular hypothesis, in order to explain the origin of the solar system,
though in present day science this is supplanted by the planetesimal hypothesis. But
these only carry the problem one step farther back, and fail to solve it. The evolutionist
must either resort to the theory that matter is eternal, or accept the doctrine of creation.
b. The theory of naturalistic evolution is not in harmony with the narrative of creation. If
evolution does not account for the origin of the world, does it not at least give a rational
account of the development of things out of primordial matter, and thus explain the
origin of the present species of plants and animals (including man), and also the various
phenomena of life, such as sentiency, intelligence, morality, and religion? Does it
necessarily conflict with the narrative of creation? Now it is perfectly evident that
naturalistic evolution certainly does conflict with the Biblical account. The Bible teaches
that plants and animals and man appeared on the scene at the creative fiat of the
75 Cf. More, The Dogma of Evolution, p. 148.
Almighty; but according to the evolutionary hypothesis they evolved out of the
inorganic world by a process of natural development. The Bible represents God as
creating plants and animals after their kind, and yielding seed after their kind, that is, so
that they would reproduce their own kind; but the theory of evolution points to natural
forces, resident in nature, leading to the development of one species out of another.
According to the narrative of creation, the vegetable and animal kingdoms and man
were brought forth in a single week; but the hypothesis of evolution regards them as the
product of a gradual development in the course of millions of years. Scripture pictures
man as standing on the highest plane at the beginning of his career, and then
descending to lower levels by the deteriorating influence of sin; the theory of evolution,
on the other hand, represents original man as only slightly different from the brute, and
claims that the human race has risen, through its own inherent powers, to ever higher
levels of existence.
c. The theory of naturalistic evolution is not well established and fails to account for the facts.
The conflict referred to in the preceding would be a serious matter, if the theory of
evolution were an established fact. Some think it is and confidently speak of the dogma
of evolution. Others, however, correctly remind us of the fact that evolution is still only
a hypothesis. Even so great a scientist as Ambrose Fleming says that “the close analysis
of the ideas connected with the term Evolution shows them to be insufficient as a
philosophic or scientific solution of the problems of reality and existence.”76 The very
uncertainty which prevails in the camp of the evolutionists is proof positive that
evolution is only a hypothesis. Moreover, it is frankly admitted to-day by many who
still cling to the principle of evolution that they do not understand its method of
operation. It was thought at one time that Darwin had furnished the key to the whole
problem, but that key is now rather generally discarded. The foundation pillars, on
which the Darwinian structure was reared, such as the principle of use and disuse, the
struggle for existence, natural selection, and the transmission of acquired characteristics,
have been removed one after another. Such evolutionists as Weissmann, De Vries,
Mendel, and Bateson, all contributed to the collapse of the Darwinian edifice.
Nordenskioeld, in his History of Biology, speaks of the “dissolution of Darwinism” as an
established fact. Dennert calls us to the deathbed of Darwinism, and O’Toole says,
“Darwinism is dead, and no grief of mourners can resuscitate the corpse.” Morton
speaks of “the bankruptcy of evolution,” and Price of the “phantom of organic
evolution.” Darwinism, then, has admittedly failed to explain the origin of species, and
76 Evolution or Creation, p. 29.
evolutionists have not been able to offer a better explanation. The Mendelian law
accounts for variations, but not for the origin of new species. It really points away from
the development of new species by a natural process. Some are of the opinion that the
mutation theory of De Vries or Lloyd Morgan’s theory of emergent evolution points the
way, but neither one of these has proved to be a successful explanation of the origin of
species by natural development pure and simple. It is now admitted that the mutants of
De Vries are varietal rather than specific, and cannot be regarded as the beginnings of
new species. And Morgan feels constrained to admit that he cannot explain his
emergents without falling back upon some creative power that might be called God.
Morton says: “The fact is that, besides creation, there is not even a theory of origins to
hold the field today.”77
The hypothesis of evolution fails at several points. It cannot explain the origin of life.
Evolutionists sought its explanation in spontaneous generation, an unproved
assumption, which is now discredited. It is a well established fact in science that life can
only come from antecedent life. Further, it has failed utterly to adduce a single example
of one species producing another distinct (organic as distinguished from varietal)
species. Bateson said in 1921: “We cannot see how the differentiation in species came
about. Variations of many kinds, often considerable, we daily witness, but no origin of
species. . . . Meanwhile, though our faith in evolution stands unshaken, we have no
acceptable account of the origin of species.”78 Neither has evolution been able
successfully to cope with the problems presented by the origin of man. It has not even
succeeded in proving the physical descent of man from the brute. J. A. Thomson, author
of The Outline of Science and a leading evolutionist, holds that man really never was an
animal, a fierce beastly looking creature, but that the first man sprang suddenly, by a big
leap, from the primate stock into a human being. Much less has it been able to explain
the psychical side of man’s life. The human soul, endowed with intelligence, selfconsciousness,
freedom, conscience, and religious aspirations, remains an unsolved
d. Theistic evolution is not tenable in the light of Scripture. Some Christian scientists and
theologians seek to harmonize the doctrine of creation, as taught by Scripture, and the
theory of evolution by accepting what they call theistic evolution. It is a protest against
the attempt to eliminate God, and postulates Him as the almighty worker back of the
whole process of development. Evolution is regarded simply as God’s method of
77 The Bankruptcy of Evolution, p. 182.
78 Science, Jan. 20, 1922.
working in the development of nature. Theistic evolution really amounts to this, that
God created the world (the cosmos) by a process of evolution, a process of natural
development, in which He does not miraculously intervene, except in cases where this
is absolutely necessary. It is willing to admit that the absolute beginning of the world
could only result from a direct creative activity of God; and, if it can find no natural
explanation, will also grant a direct intervention of God in the origination of life and of
man. It has been hailed as Christian evolution, though there is not necessarily anything
Christian about it. Many, otherwise opposed to the theory of evolution, have welcomed
it, because it recognizes God in the process and is supposed to be compatible with the
Scriptural doctrine of creation. Hence it is freely taught in churches and Sunday
Schools. As a matter of fact, however, it is a very dangerous hybrid. The name is a
contradiction in terms, for it is neither theism nor naturalism, neither creation nor
evolution in the accepted sense of the terms. And it does not require a great deal of
penetration to see that Dr. Fairhurst is right in his conviction “that theistic evolution
destroys the Bible as the inspired book of authority as effectively as does atheistic
evolution.”79 Like naturalistic evolution it teaches that it required millions of years to
produce the present habitable world; and that God did not create the various species of
plants and animals, and that, so that they produced their own kind; that man, at least on
his physical side, is a descendant of the brute and therefore began his career on a low
level; that there has been no fall in the Biblical sense of the word, but only repeated
lapses of men in their upward course; that sin is only a weakness, resulting from man’s
animal instincts and desires, and does not constitute guilt; that redemption is brought
about by the ever-increasing control of the higher element in man over his lower
propensities; that miracles do not occur, either in the natural or in the spiritual world;
that regeneration, conversion, and sanctification are simply natural psychological
changes, and so on. In a word, it is a theory that is absolutely subversive of Scripture
Some Christian scholars of the present day feel that Bergson’s theory of Creative
Evolution commends itself to those who do not want to leave God out of consideration.
This French philosopher assumes an élan vital, a vital impulse in the world, as the
ground and animating principle of all life. This vital principle does not spring from
matter, but is rather the originating cause of matter. It pervades matter, overcomes its
inertia and resistance by acting as a living force on that which is essentially dying, and
ever creates, not new material, but new movements adapted to ends of its own, and
79 Theistic Evolution, p. 7.
thus creates very much as the artist creates. It is directive and purposive and yet,
though conscious, does not work according to a preconceived plan, however that may
be possible. It determines evolution itself as well as the direction in which evolution
moves. This ever creating life, “of which every individual and every species is an
experiment,” is Bergson’s God, a God who is finite, who is limited in power, and who is
seemingly impersonal, though Hermann says that “we shall, perhaps, not go far wrong
in believing that he will be ‘the ideal tendency of things’ made personal.”80 Haas speaks
of Bergson as a vitalistic pantheist rather than a theist. At any rate, his God is a God that
is wholly within the world. This view may have a special appeal for the modern liberal
theologian, but is even less in harmony with the narrative of creation than theistic
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. What is the real alternative to the doctrine of
creation? Wherein lies the importance of the doctrine of creation? Should the first
chapters of Genesis be allowed to have any bearing on the scientific study of the origin
of things? Does the Bible in any way determine the time when the world was created?
What extremes should be avoided as to the relation of God and the world to each other?
Should the Bible always be interpreted in harmony with widely accepted scientific
theories? What is the status of the hypothesis of evolution in the scientific world today?
What is the characteristic element in the Darwinian theory of evolution? How do you
account for its widespread repudiation at the present time? How does Bergson’s
Creative Evolution or the Neo-vitalism of Hans Driesch affect the mechanistic view of
the universe? In what respect is theistic evolution an improvement over naturalistic
80 Eucken and Bergson, p. 163.
LITERATURE. Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II. pp. 426-543; ibid., Schepping of Ontwikkeling;
Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Creatione, pp. 3-127; De Creaturis A, pp. 5-54; B. pp. 3-42; ibid.,
Evolutie; Vos Geref. Dogm. I, De Schepping; Hodge. Syst. Theol. I, pp. 550-574; Shedd,
Dogm. Theol. I, pp. 463-526; McPherson, Chr. Dogm., pp. 163-174; Dabney, Syst. and
Polemic Theol., pp. 247-274; Harris, God, Creator and Lord of All, I, pp. 463-518; Hepp,
Calvinism and the Philosophy of Nature, Chap. V; Honig, Geref. Dogm., pp. 281-324;
Noordtzij, God’s Woord en der Eeuwen Getuigenis, pp. 77-98; Aalders, De Goddelijke
Openbaring in de Eerste Drie Hoofdstukken van Genesis; Geesink, Van’s Heeren Ordinantien,
Inleidend Deel, pp. 216-332; various works of Darwin, Wallace, Weissman, Osborne,
Spencer, Haeckel, Thomson, and others on Evolution; Dennert, The Deathbed of
Darwinism; Dawson, The Bible Confirmed by Science; Fleming, Evolution and Creation;
Hamilton, The Basis of Evolutionary Faith; Johnson, Can the Christian Now Believe in
Evolution? McCrady, Reason and Revelation; More, The Dogma of Evolution; Morton, The
Bankruptcy of Evolution; O’Toole, The Case Against Evolution; Price, The Fundamentals of
Geology; ibid., The Phantom of Organic Evolution; Messenger, Evolution and Theology;
Rimmer, The Theory of Evolution and the Facts of Science.
VI. Providence
Christian theism is opposed to both a deistic separation of God from the world and a
pantheistic confusion of God with the world. Hence the doctrine of creation is
immediately followed by that of providence, in which the Scriptural view of God’s
relation to the world is clearly defined. While the term “providence” is not found in
Scripture, the doctrine of providence is nevertheless eminently Scriptural. The word is
derived from the Latin providentia, which corresponds to the Greek pronoia. These words
mean primarily prescience or foresight, but gradually acquired other meanings.
Foresight is associated, on the one hand, with plans for the future, and on the other
hand, with the actual realization of these plans. Thus the word “providence” has come
to signify the provision which God makes for the ends of His government, and the
preservation and government of all His creatures. This is the sense in which it is now
generally used in theology, but it is not the only sense in which theologians have
employed it. Turretin defines the term in its widest sense as denoting (1)
foreknowledge, (2) foreordination, and (3) the efficacious administration of the things
decreed. In general usage, however, it is now generally restricted to the last sense.
1. HISTORY OF THE DOCTRINE OF PROVIDENCE. With its doctrine of providence the
Church took position against both, the Epicurean notion that the world is governed by
chance, and the Stoic view that it is ruled by fate. From the very start theologians took
the position that God preserves and governs the world. However, they did not always
have an equally absolute conception of the divine control of all things. Due to the close
connection between the two, the history of the doctrine of providence follows in the
main that of the doctrine of predestination. The earliest Church Fathers present no
definite views on the subject. In opposition to the Stoic doctrine of fate and in their
desire to guard the holiness of God, they sometimes over-emphasized the free will of
man, and to that extent manifested a tendency to deny the absolute providential rule of
God with respect to sinful actions. Augustine led the way in the development of this
doctrine. Over against the doctrines of fate and chance, he stressed the fact that all
things are preserved and governed by the sovereign, wise, and beneficent will of God.
He made no reservations in connection with the providence of God, but maintained the
control of God over the good and the evil that is in the world alike. By defending the
reality of second causes. he safeguarded the holiness of God and upheld the
responsibility of man. During the Middle Ages there was very little controversy on the
subject of divine providence. Not a single council expressed itself on this doctrine. The
prevailing view was that of Augustine, which subjected everything to the will of God.
This does not mean, however, that there were no dissenting views. Pelagianism limited
providence to the natural life, and excluded the ethical life. And Semi-Pelagians moved
in the same direction, though they did not all go equally far. Some of the Scholastics
considered the conservation of God as a continuation of His creative activity, while
others made a real distinction between the two. Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of divine
providence follows in the main that of Augustine, and holds that the will of God, as
determined by His perfections, preserves and governs all things; while Duns Scotus and
such Nominaltists as Biel and Occam made everything dependent on the arbitrary will
of God. This was a virtual introduction of the rule of chance.
The Reformers on the whole subscribed to the Augustinian doctrine of divine
providence, though they differed somewhat in details. While Luther believed in general
providence, he does not stress God’s preservation and government of the world in
general as much as Calvin does. He considers the doctrine primarily in its soteriological
bearings. Socinians and Arminians, though not both to the same degree, limited the
providence of God by stressing the independent power of man to initiate action and
thus to control his life. The control of the world was really taken out of the hands of
God, and given into the hands of man. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
providence was virtually ruled out by a Deism which represented God as withdrawing
Himself from the world after the work of creation; and by a Pantheism which identified
God and the world, obliterated the distinction between creation and providence, and
denied the reality of second causes. And while Deism may now be considered as a thing
of the past, its view of the control of the world is continued in the position of natural
science that the world is controlled by an iron-clad system of laws. And modern liberal
theology, with its pantheistic conception of the immanence of God, also tends to rule
out the doctrine of divine providence.
2. THE IDEA OF PROVIDENCE. Providence may be defined as that continued exercise of the
divine energy whereby the Creator preserves all His creatures, is operative in all that comes to
pass in the world, and directs all things to their appointed end. This definition indicates that
there are three elements in providence, namely, preservation (conservatio, sustentatio),
concurrence or cooperation (concursus, co-operatio), and government (gubernatio) Calvin,
the Heidelberg Catechism, and some of the more recent dogmaticians (Dabney, the
Hodges, Dick, Shedd, McPherson) speak of only two elements, namely, preservation
and government. This does not mean, however, that they want to exclude the element
of concurrence but only that they regard it as included in the other two as indicating the
manner in which God preserves and governs the world. McPherson seems to think that
only some of the great Lutheran theologians adopted the threefold division; but in this
he is mistaken, for it is very common in the works of Dutch dogmaticians from the
seventeenth century on (Mastricht, à Marck, De Moor, Brakel, Francken, Kuyper,
Bavinck, Vos, Honig). They departed from the older division, because they wanted to
give the element of concurrence greater prominence, in order to guard against the
dangers of both Deism and Pantheism. But while we distinguish three elements in
providence, we should remember that these three are never separated in the work of
God. While preservation has reference to the being, concurrence to the activity, and
government to the guidance of all things, this should never be understood in an
exclusive sense. In preservation there is also an element of government, in government
an element of concursus, and in concursus an element of preservation. Pantheism does
not distinguish between creation and providence, but theism stresses a twofold
distinction: (a) Creation is the calling into existence of that which did not exist before,
while providence continues or causes to continue what has already been called into
existence. (b) In the former there can be no cooperation of the creature with the Creator,
but in the latter there is a concurrence of the first Cause with second causes. In Scripture
the two are always kept distinct.
a. Limiting it to prescience or prescience plus foreordination. This limitation is found in
some of the early Church Fathers. The fact is, however, that when we speak of the
providence of God, we generally have in mind neither His prescience nor His
foreordination, but simply His continued activity in the world for the realization of His
plan. We realize that this cannot be separated from His eternal decree, but also feel that
the two can and should be distinguished. The two have often been distinguished as
immanent and transeunt providence.
b. The deistic conception of divine providence. According to Deism God’s concern with
the world is not universal, special and perpetual, but only of a general nature. At the
time of creation He imparted to all His creatures certain inalienable properties, placed
them under invariable laws, and left them to work out their destiny by their own
inherent powers. Meanwhile He merely exercises a general oversight, not of the specific
agents that appear on the scene, but of the general laws which He has established. The
world is simply a machine which God has put in motion, and not at all a vessel which
He pilots from day to day. This deistic conception of providence is characteristic of
Pelagianism, was adopted by several Roman Catholic theologians, was sponsored by
Socinianism, and was only one of the fundamental errors of Arminianism. It was
clothed in a philosophic garb by the Deists of the eighteenth century, and appeared in a
new form in the nineteenth century, under the influence of the theory of evolution and
of natural science, with its strong emphasis on the uniformity of nature as controlled by
an inflexible system of iron-clad laws.
c. The pantheistic view of divine providence. Pantheism does not recognize the
distinction between God and the world. It either idealistically absorbs the world in God,
or materialistically absorbs God in the world. In either case it leaves no room for
creation and also eliminates providence in the proper sense of the word. It is true that
Pantheists speak of providence, but their so-called providence is simply identical with
the course of nature, and this is nothing but the self-revelation of God, a self-revelation
that leaves no room for the independent operation of second causes in any sense of the
word. From this point of view the supernatural is impossible, or, rather, the natural and
the supernatural are identical, the consciousness of free personal self-determination in
man is a delusion, moral responsibility is a figment of the imagination, and prayer and
religious worship are superstition. Theology has always been quite careful to ward off
the dangers of Pantheism, but during the last century this error succeeded in
entrenching itself in a great deal of modern liberal theology under the guise of the
doctrine of the immanence of God.81
a. The teachings of Scripture on this point. The Bible clearly teaches God’s providential
control (1) over the universe at large, Ps. 103:19; Dan. 5:35; Eph. 1:11; (2) over the
physical world, Job 37:5,10; Ps. 104:14; 135:6; Matt. 5:45; (3) over the brute creation, Ps.
104:21,28; Matt. 6:26; 10:29; (4) over the affairs of nations, Job 12:23; Ps. 22:28; 66:7; Acts
17:26; (5) over man’s birth and lot in life, I Sam. 16:1; Ps. 139:16; Isa. 45:5; Gal. 1:15,16; (6)
over the outward successes and failures of men’s lives, Ps. 75:6,7; Luke 1:52; (7) over
things seemingly accidental or insignificant, Prov. 16:33; Matt. 10:30; (8) in the protection
of the righteous, Ps. 4:8; 5:12; 63:8; 121:3; Rom. 8:28; (9) in supplying the wants of God’s
people, Gen. 22:8,14; Deut. 8:3; Phil. 4:19; (10) in giving answers to prayer, I Sam. 1:19;
Isa. 20:5,6; II Chron. 33:13; Ps. 65:2; Matt. 7:7; Luke 18:7,8; and (11) in the exposure and
punishment of the wicked, Ps. 7:12,13; 11:6.
b. General and special providence. Theologians generally distinguish between general
and special providence, the former denoting God’s control of the universe as a whole,
81 Cf. Randall, The Making of the Modern Mind, p. 538.
and the latter, His care for each part of it in relation to the whole. These are not two
kinds of providence, but the same providence exercised in two different relations. The
term “special providence,” however, may have a more specific connotation, and in some
cases refers to God’s special care for His rational creatures. Some even speak of a very
special providence (providentia specialissima) with reference to those who stand in the
special relationship of sonship to God. Special providences are special combinations in
the order of events, as in the answer to prayer, in deliverance out of trouble, and in all
instances in which grace and help come in critical circumstances.
c. The denial of special providence. There are those who are willing to admit a general
providence, an administration of the world under a fixed system of general laws, but
deny that there is also a special providence in which God concerns Himself with the
details of history, the affairs of human life, and particularly the experiences of the
righteous. Some hold that God is too great to concern Himself with the smaller things of
life, while others maintain that He simply cannot do it, since the laws of nature bind His
hands, and therefore smile significantly when they hear of God’s answering man’s
prayers. Now it need not be denied that the relation of special providence to the
uniform laws of nature constitutes a problem. At the same time it must be said that it
involves a very poor, superficial, and un-Biblical view of God to say that He does not
and cannot concern Himself with the details of life, cannot answer prayer, give relief in
emergencies, or intervene miraculously in behalf of man. A ruler that simply laid down
certain general principles and paid no attention to particulars, or a business man who
failed to look after the details of his business, would soon come to grief. The Bible
teaches that even the minutest details of life are of divine ordering. In connection with
the question, whether we can harmonize the operation of the general laws of nature and
special providence, we can only point to the following: (1) The laws of nature should
not be represented as powers of nature absolutely controlling all phenomena and
operations. They are really nothing more than man’s, often deficient, description of the
uniformity in variety discovered in the way in which the powers of nature work. (2) The
materialistic conception of the laws of nature as a close-knit system, acting
independently of God and really making it impossible for Him to interfere in the course
of the world, is absolutely wrong. The universe has a personal basis, and the uniformity
of nature is simply the method ordained by a personal agent. (3) The so-called laws of
nature produce the same effects only if all the conditions are the same. Effects are not
generally the results of a single power, but of a combination of natural powers. Even a
man can vary the effects by combining one power of nature with some other power or
powers, while yet each one of these powers works in strict accordance with its laws.
And if this is possible for man, it is infinitely more possible for God. By all kinds of
combinations He can bring about the most varied results.
1. BASIS FOR THE DOCTRINE OF PRESERVATION. Proof for the doctrine of preservation is
both direct and inferential.
a. Direct proof. The divine preservation of all things is clearly and explicitly taught in
several passages of Scripture. The following are but a few of the many passages that
might be mentioned: Deut. 33:12,25-28; I Sam. 2:9; Neh. 9:6; Ps. 107:9; 127:1; 145:14,15;
Matt. 10:29; Acts 17:28; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3. Very numerous are the passages that speak of
the Lord as preserving His people, such as, Gen. 28:15; 49:24; Ex. 14:29,30; Deut. 1:30,31;
II Chron. 20:15,17; Job 1:10; 36:7; Ps. 31:20; 32:6; 34:15,17,19; 37:15, 17,19,20;
91:1,3,4,7,9,10,14; 121:3,4,7,8; 125:1,2; Isa. 40:11; 43:2; 63:9; Jer. 30:7,8,11; Ezek.
34:11,12,15,16; Dan. 12:1; Zech. 2:5; Luke 21:18; I Cor. 10:13; I. Pet. 3:12; Rev. 3:10.
b. Inferential proof. The idea of divine preservation follows from the doctrine of the
sovereignty of God. This can only be conceived of as absolute; but it would not be
absolute, if anything existed or occurred independently of His will. It can be maintained
only on condition that the whole universe and all that is in it, is in its being and action
absolutely dependent on God. It follows also from the dependent character of the
creature. It is characteristic of all that is creature, that it cannot continue to exist in virtue
of its own inherent power. It has the ground of its being and continuance in the will of
its Creator. Only He who created the world by the word of His power, can uphold it by
His omnipotence.
proceeds on the assumption that all created substances, whether they be spiritual or
material, possess real and permanent existence, distinct from the existence of God, and
have only such active and passive properties as they have derived from God; and that
their active powers have a real, and not merely an apparent, efficiency as second causes,
so that they are able to produce the effects proper to them. Thus it guards against
Pantheism, with its idea of a continued creation, which virtually, if not always expressly,
denies the distinct existence of the world, and makes God the sole agent in the universe.
But it does not regard these created substances as self-existent, since self-existence is the
exclusive property of God, and all creatures have the ground of their continued
existence in Him and not in themselves. From this it follows that they continue to exist,
not in virtue of a merely negative act of God, but in virtue of a positive and continued
exercise of divine power. The power of God put forth in upholding all things is just as
positive as that exercised in creation. The precise nature of His work in sustaining all
things in being and action is a mystery, though it may be said that, in His providential
operations, He accommodates Himself to the nature of His creatures. With Shedd we
say: “In the material world, God immediately works in and through material properties
and laws. In the mental world, God immediately works in and through the properties of
mind. Preservation never runs counter to creation. God does not violate in providence
what He has established in creation.”82 Preservation may be defined as that continuous
work of God by which He maintains the things which He created, together with the properties
and powers with which He endowed them.
is not always properly understood. There are two views of it which ought to be
avoided: (a) That it is purely negative. According to Deism divine preservation consists in
this, that God does not destroy the work of His hands. By virtue of creation God
endowed matter with certain properties, placed it under invariable laws, and then left it
to shift for itself, independently of all support or direction from without. This is an
unreasonable, irreligious, and an un-Biblical representation. It is unreasonable, because
it implies that God communicated self-subsistence to the creature, while self-subsistence
and self-sustenation are incommunicable properties, which characterize only the
Creator. The creature can never be self-sustaining, but must be upheld from day to day
by the almighty power of the Creator. Hence it would not require a positive act of
omnipotence on the part of God to annihilate created existences. A simple withdrawal
of support would naturally result in destruction. — This view is irreligious, because it
removes God so far from His creation that communion with Him becomes a practical
impossibility. History plainly testifies to the fact that it uniformly spells death for
religion. — It is also un-Biblical, since it puts God altogether outside of His creation,
while the Bible teaches us in many passages that He is not only transcendent but also
immanent in the works of His hands. (b) That it is a continuous creation. Pantheism
represents preservation as a continuous creation, so that the creatures or second causes
are conceived as having no real or continuous existence, but as emanating in every
successive moment out of that mysterious Absolute which is the hidden ground of all
things. Some who were not Pantheists had a similar view of preservation. Descartes laid
the basis for such a conception of it, and Malebranche pushed this to the farthest
extreme consistent with theism. Even Jonathan Edwards teaches it incidentally in his
82 Dogm. Theol. I, p. 528.
work on Original Sin, and thus comes dangerously near to teaching Pantheism. Such a
view of preservation leaves no room for second causes, and therefore necessarily leads
to Pantheism. It is contrary to our original and necessary intuitions, which assure us
that we are real, self-determining causes of action, and consequently moral agents.
Moreover, it strikes at the very root of free agency, moral accountability, moral
government, and therefore of religion itself. Some Reformed theologians also use the
term “continuous creation,”83 but do not thereby mean to teach the doctrine under
consideration. They simply desire to stress the fact that the world is maintained by the
same power which created it. In view of the the fact that the expression is liable to
misunderstanding, it is better to avoid it.
a. Definition and explanation. Concurrence may be defined as the co-operation of the
divine power with all subordinate powers, according to the pre-established laws of their
operation, causing them to act and to act precisely as they do. Some are inclined to limit its
operation, as far as man is concerned. to human actions that are morally good and
therefore commendable; others. more logically, extend it to actions of every kind. It
should be noted at the outset that this doctrine implies two things: (1) That the powers
of nature do not work by themselves, that is, simply by their own inherent power, but
that God is immediately operative in every act of the creature. This must be maintained
in opposition to the deistic position. (2) That second causes are real, and not to be
regarded simply as the operative power of God. It is only on condition that second
causes are real, that we can properly speak of a concurrence or co-operation of the First
Cause with secondary causes. This should be stressed over against the pantheistic idea
that God is the only agent working in the world.
b. Scripture proof for divine concurrence. The Bible clearly teaches that the providence
of God pertains not only to the being but also to the actions or operations of the
creature. The general truth that men do not work independently, but are controlled by
the will of God, appears from several passages of Scripture. Joseph says in Gen. 45:5
that God rather than his brethren had sent him to Egypt. In Ex. 4:11,12 the Lord says
that He will be with Moses’ mouth and teach him what to say; and in Jos. 11:6 He gives
Joshua the assurance that He will deliver the enemies to Israel. Proverbs 21:1 teaches us
that “the king’s heart is in the hand of Jehovah. . . . He turneth it whithersoever He
83 Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, p. 654; Heppe, Dogm., p. 190; McPherson, Chr. Dogm., p. 177.
will”; and Ezra 6:22, that Jehovah “had turned the heart of the king of Assyria” unto
Israel. In Deut 8:18 Israel is reminded of the fact that it was Jehovah that gave it power
to get wealth. More particularly, it is also evident from Scripture that there is some kind
of divine co-operation in that which is evil. According to II Sam. 16:11 Jehovah bade
Shimei to curse David. The Lord also calls the Assyrian “the rod of mine anger, the staff
in whose hand is mine indignation,” Isa. 10:5. Moreover, He provided for a lying spirit
in the mouth of the prophets of Ahab, I Kings 22:20-23.
2. ERRORS THAT SHOULD BE AVOIDED. There are several errors against which we
should guard in connection with this doctrine.
a. That it consists merely in a general communication of power, without determining the
specific action in any way. Jesuits, Socinians, and Arminians maintain that the divine
concurrence is only a general and indifferent co-operation, so that it is the second cause
that directs the action to its particular end. It is common alike to all causes, quickening
them into action, but in a way that is entirely indeterminate. While it stimulates the
second cause, it leaves this to determine its own particular kind and mode of action. But
if this were the situation, it would be in the power of man to frustrate the plan of God,
and the First Cause would become subservient to the second. Man would be in control,
and there would be no divine providence.
b. That it is of such a nature that man does part of the work and God a part. The cooperation
of God and man is sometimes represented as if it were something like the
joint efforts of a team of horses pulling together, each one doing his part. This is a
mistaken view of the distribution of the work. As a matter of fact each deed is in its
entirety both a deed of God and a deed of the creature. It is a deed of God in so far as
there is nothing that is independent of the divine will, and in so far as it is determined
from moment to moment by the will of God. And it is a deed of man in so far as God
realizes it through the self-activity of the creature. There is interpenetration here, but no
mutual limitation.
c. That the work of God and that of the creature in concurrence are co-ordinate. This is
already excluded by what was said in the preceding. The work of God always has the
priority, for man is dependent on God in all that he does. The statement of Scripture,
“Without me ye can do nothing,” applies in every field of endeavor. The exact relation
of the two is best indicated in the following characteristics of the divine concurrence.
a. It is previous and pre-determining, not in a temporal but in a logical sense. There is no
absolute principle of self-activity in the creature, to which God simply joins His activity.
In every instance the impulse to action and movement proceeds from God. There must
be an influence of divine energy before the creature can work. It should be noted
particularly that this influence does not terminate on the activity of the creature, but on
the creature itself. God causes everything in nature to work and to move in the direction
of a pre-determined end. So God also enables and prompts His rational creatures, as
second causes, to function, and that not merely by endowing them with energy in a
general way, but by energizing them to certain specific acts. He worketh all things in all,
I Cor. 12:6, and worketh all things, also in this respect, according to the counsel of His
will, Eph. 1:11. He gave Israel power to get wealth, Deut. 8:18, and worketh in believers
both to will and to do according to His good pleasure, Phil. 2:13. Pelagians and Semi-
Pelagians of all kinds are generally willing to admit that the creature cannot act apart
from an influx of divine power, but maintain that this is not so specific that it
determines the character of the action in any way.
b. It is also a simultaneous concurrence. After the activity of the creature is begun, the
efficacious will of God must accompany it at every moment, if it is to continue. There is
not a single moment that the creature works independently of the will and the power of
God. It is in Him that we live and move and have our being, Acts 17:28. This divine
activity accompanies the action of man at every point, but without robbing man in any
way of his freedom. The action remains the free act of man, an act for which he is held
responsible. This simultaneous concurrence does not result in an identification of the
causa prima and the causa secunda. In a very real sense the operation is the product of
both causes. Man is and remains the real subject of the action. Bavinck illustrates this by
pointing to the fact that wood burns, that God only causes it to burn, but that formally
this burning cannot be ascribed to God but only to the wood as subject. It is evident that
this simultaneous action cannot be separated from the previous and pre-determining
concurrence, but should be distinguished from it. Strictly speaking it, in distinction
from the previous concurrence, terminates, not on the creature, but on its activity. Since
it does not terminate on the creature, it can in the abstract be interpreted as having no
ethical bearings. This explains that the Jesuits taught that the divine concurrence was
simultaneous only, and not previous and pre-determining, and that some Reformed
theologians limited the previous concurrence to the good deeds of men, and for the rest
satisfied themselves with teaching a simultaneous concurrence.
c. It is, finally, an immediate concurrence. In His government of the world God employs
all kinds of means for the realization of His ends; but He does not so work in the divine
concurrence. When He destroys the cities of the plain by fire, this is an act of divine
government in which He employs means. But at the same time it is His immediate
concurrence by which He enables the fire to fall, to burn, and to destroy. So God also
works in man in endowing him with power, in the determination of his actions, and in
sustaining his activities all along the line.
4. THE DIVINE CONCURRENCE AND SIN. Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, and Arminians raise
a serious objection to this doctrine of providence. They maintain that a previous
concurrence, which is not merely general but predetermines man to specific actions, makes
God the responsible author of sin. Reformed theologians are well aware of the difficulty
that presents itself here, but do not feel free to circumvent it by denying God’s absolute
control over the free actions of His moral creatures, since this is clearly taught in
Scripture, Gen. 45:5; 50:19,20; Ex. 10:1,20; II Sam. 16:10.11; Isa. 10:5-7; Acts 2:23; 4:27,28.
They feel constrained to teach: (a) that sinful acts are under divine control and occur
according to God’s pre-determination and purpose, but only by divine permission, so
that He does not efficiently cause men to sin, Gen. 45:5; 50:20; Ex. 14:17; Isa. 66:4; Rom.
9:22; II Thess. 2:11; (b) that God often restrains the sinful works of the sinner, Gen. 3:6;
Job 1:12; 2:6; Ps. 76:10; Isa. 10:15; Acts 7:51; and (c) that God in behalf of His own
purpose overrules evil for good, Gen. 50:20; Ps. 76:10; Acts. 3:13.
This does not mean, however, that they all agree in answering the question. whether
there is a direct, immediate and physical energizing of the active power of the creature,
disposing and pre-determining it efficaciously to the specific act, and also enabling it to
do that act. Dabney, for instance, while admitting such a physical concurrence in the
lower creation, denies it with respect to free agents. The great majority, however,
maintain it also in the case of free moral beings. Even Dabney agrees that God’s control
over all of the acts of His creatures is certain, sovereign, and efficacious; and therefore
must, along with the others, face the question as to the responsibility of God for sin. He
gives his conclusion in the following words: “This, then, is my picture of the
providential evolution of God’s purpose as to sinful acts; so to arrange and group
events and objects around free agents by his manifold wisdom and power, as to place
each soul, at every step, in the presence of those circumstances, which, He knows, will
be a sufficient objective inducement to it to do, of its own native, free activity, just the
thing called for by God’s plan. Thus the act is man’s alone, though its occurrence is
efficaciously secured by God. And the sin is man’s only. God’s concern in it is holy, first,
because all His personal agency in arranging to secure its occurrence was holy; and
second, His ends or purposes are holy. God does not will the sin of the act, for the sake
of its sinfulness; but only wills the result to which the act is a means, and that result is
always worthy of His holiness.”84 The vast majority of Reformed theologians, however,
maintain the concursus in question, and seek the solution of the difficulty by
distinguishing between the materia and the forma of the sinful act, and by ascribing the
latter exclusively to man. The divine concursus energizes man and determines him
efficaciously to the specific act, but it is man who gives the act its formal quality, and
who is therefore responsible for its sinful character. Neither one of these solutions can
be said to give entire satisfaction, so that the problem of God’s relation to sin remains a
1. NATURE OF THE DIVINE GOVERNMENT. The divine government may be defined as
that continued activity of God whereby He rules all things teleologically so as to secure the
accomplishment of the divine purpose. This government is not simply a part of divine
providence but, just as preservation and concurrence, the whole of it, but now
considered from the point of view of the end to which God is guiding all things in
creation, namely, to the glory of His name.
a. It is the government of God as King of the universe. In the present day many regard
the idea of God as King to be an antiquated Old Testament notion, and would substitute
for it the New Testament idea of God as Father. The idea of divine sovereignty must
make place for that of divine love. This is thought to be in harmony with the
progressive idea of God in Scripture. But it is a mistake to think that divine revelation,
as it rises to ever higher levels, intends to wean us gradually from the idea of God as
King, and to substitute for it the idea of God as Father. This is already contradicted by
the prominence of the idea of the Kingdom of God in the teachings of Jesus. And if it be
said that this involves merely the idea of a special and limited kingship of God, it may
be replied that the idea of the Fatherhood of God in the Gospels is subject to the same
restrictions and limitations. Jesus does not teach a universal Fatherhood of God.
Moreover, the New Testament also teaches the universal kingship of God in such
passages as Matt. 11:25; Acts 17:24; I Tim. 1:17; 6:15; Rev. 1:6; 19:6. He is both King and
Father, and is the source of all authority in heaven and on earth, the King of kings and
the Lord of lords.
84 Syst. and Polemic Theol., p. 288.
b. It is a government adapted to the nature of the creatures which He governs. In the
physical world He has established the laws of nature, and it is by means of these laws
that He administers the government of the physical universe. In the mental world He
administers His government mediately through the properties and laws of mind, and
immediately, by the direct operation of the Holy Spirit. In the government and control
of moral agents He makes use of all kinds of moral influences, such as circumstances,
motives, instruction, persuasion, and example, but also works directly by the personal
operation of the Holy Spirit on the intellect, the will, and the heart.
2. THE EXTENT OF THIS GOVERNMENT. Scripture explicitly declares this divine
government to be universal, Ps. 22:28,29; 103:17-19; Dan. 4:34,35; I Tim. 6:15. It is really
the execution of His eternal purpose, embracing all His works from the beginning, all
that was or is or ever shall be. But while it is general, it also descends to particulars. The
most insignificant things, Matt. 10:29-31, that which is seemingly accidental, Prov. 16:33,
the good deeds of men, Phil. 2:13, as well as their evil deeds, Acts 14:16, — they are all
under divine control. God is King of Israel, Isa. 33:22, but He also rules among the
nations, Ps. 47:9. Nothing can be withdrawn from His government.
1. THE NATURE OF MIRACLES. A distinction is usually made between providentia
ordinaria and providentia extraordinaria. In the former God works through second causes
in strict accordance with the laws of nature, though He may vary the results by different
combinations. But in the latter He works immediately or without the mediation of
second causes in their ordinary operation. Says McPherson: “A miracle is something
done without recourse to the ordinary means of production, a result called forth directly
by the first cause without the mediation, at least in the usual way, of second causes.”85
The distinctive thing in the miraculous deed is that it results from the exercise of the
supernatural power of God. And this means, of course, that it is not brought about by
secondary causes that operate according to the laws of nature. If it were, it would not be
supernatural (above nature), that is, it would not be a miracle. If God in the performance
of a miracle did sometimes utilize forces that were present in nature, He used them in a
way that was out of the ordinary, to produce unexpected results, and it was exactly this
that constituted the miracle.86 Every miracle is above the established order of nature,
but we may distinguish different kinds, though not degrees, of miracles. There are
85 Chr. Dogm., p. 183. Cf. also Hodge, Outlines of Theol., p. 275.
86 Cf. Mead, Supernatural Revelation, p. 110.
miracles which are altogether above nature, so that they are in no way connected with
any means. But there are also miracles which are contra media, in which means are
employed, but in such a way that something results which is quite different from the
usual result of those means.
2. THE POSSIBILITY OF MIRACLES. Miracles are objected to especially on the ground that
they imply a violation of the laws of nature. Some seek to escape the difficulty by
assuming with Augustine that they are merely exceptions to nature as we know it,
implying that, if we had a fuller knowledge of nature, we would be able to account for
them in a perfectly natural way. But this is an untenable position, since it assumes two
orders of nature, which are contrary to each other. According to the one the oil in the
cruse would decrease, but according to the other it did not diminish; according to the
one the loaves would gradually be consumed, but according to the other they
multiplied. It must further suppose that the one system is superior to the other, for if it
were not, there would merely be a collision and nothing would result; but if it were, it
would seem that the inferior order would gradually be overcome and disappear.
Moreover, it robs the miracle of its exceptional character, while yet miracles stand out as
exceptional events on the pages of Scripture.
There is undoubtedly a certain uniformity in nature; there are laws controlling the
operation of second causes in the physical world. But let us remember that these merely
represent God’s usual method of working in nature. It is His good pleasure to work in
an orderly way and through secondary causes. But this does not mean that He cannot
depart from the established order, and cannot produce an extraordinary effect, which
does not result from natural causes, by a single volition, if He deems it desirable for the
end in view. When God works miracles, He produces extraordinary effects in a
supernatural way. This means that miracles are above nature. Shall we also say that they
are contrary to nature? Older Reformed theologians did not hesitate to speak of them as
a breach or a violation of the laws of nature. Sometimes they said that in the case of a
miracle the order of nature was temporarily suspended. Dr. Bruin maintains that this
view is correct in his Het Christelijk Geloof en de Beoefening der Natuur-wetenschap, and
takes exception to the views of Woltjer, Dennert, and Bavinck. But the correctness of that
older terminology may well be doubted. When a miracle is performed the laws of
nature are not violated, but superseded at a particular point by a higher manifestation
of the will of God. The forces of nature are not annihilated or suspended, but are only
counteracted at a particular point by a force superior to the powers of nature.
3. THE PURPOSE OF THE MIRACLES OF SCRIPTURE. It may be assumed that the miracles
of Scripture were not performed arbitrarily, but with a definite purpose. They are not
mere wonders, exhibitions of power, destined to excite amazement, but have
revelational significance. The entrance of sin into the world makes the supernatural
intervention of God in the course of events necessary for the destruction of sin and for
the renewal of creation. It was by a miracle that God gave us both, His special verbal
revelation in Scripture, and His supreme factual revelation in Jesus Christ. The miracles
are connected with the economy of redemption, a redemption which they often
prefigure and symbolize. They do not aim at a violation, but rather at a restoration of
God’s creative work. Hence we find cycles of miracles connected with special periods in
the history of redemption, and especially during the time of Christ’s public ministry
and of the founding of the Church. These miracles did not yet result in the restoration of
the physical universe. But at the end of time another series of miracles will follow,
which will result in the renewal of nature to the glory of God, — the final establishment
of the Kingdom of God in a new heaven and on a new earth.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. Is the doctrine of divine providence an articulus
purus or an articulus mixtus? Who was the first one of the Church Fathers to develop this
doctrine? How do Luther and Calvin differ in their conception of divine providence?
What accounts for the fact that the Arminians accept the Socinian position on this point?
How must we judge of the assertion of some Reformed theologians that God is the only
true cause in the world? What are second causes, and why is it important to maintain
that they are real causes? Does the doctrine of divine concursus conflict with the free
agency of man? What was Augustine’s conception of miracles? Why is it important to
maintain the miraculous? Do miracles admit of a natural explanation? Do they imply a
suspension of the laws of nature? What is the special significance of the miracles of the
Bible? Can miracles happen even now? Do they still happen? What about the miracles
of the Roman Catholic Church?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 635-670; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De
Providentia, pp. 3-246; Vos, Geref. Dogm., I, De Voorzienigheid; Hodge, Syst. Theol. I, pp.
575-636; Shedd, Dogm. Theol. I, pp. 527-545; Dabney, Syst. and Polem. Theol., pp. 276-291;
McPherson, Chr. Dogm., pp. 174-184; Drummond, Studies in Chr. Doct., pp. 187-202;
Pope, Chr. Theol., I, pp. 437-456; Raymond, Syst. Theol., I, pp. 497-527; Valentine, Chr.
Theol., pp. 363-382; Pieper, Christl. Dogm., I, pp. 587-600; Schmidt, Doct. Theol. of the Ev.
Luth. Church, pp. 179-201; Dijk, De Voorzienigheid Gods; Mozley, On Miracles; Thomson,
The Christian Miracles and the Conclusions of Science; Mead, Supernatural Revelation;
Harris, God, Creator and Lord of All, I, pp. 519-579; Bruin, Het Christelijke Geloof en de
Beoefening der Natuurwetenschap, pp. 108-138.
I. The Origin of Man
The transition from Theology to Anthropology, that is, from the study of God to the
study of man, is a natural one. Man is not only the crown of creation, but also the object
of God’s special care. And God’s revelation in Scripture is a revelation that is not only
given to man, but also a revelation in which man is vitally concerned. It is not a
revelation of God in the abstract, but a revelation of God in relation to His creatures,
and particularly in relation to man. It is a record of God’s dealings with the human race,
and especially a revelation of the redemption which God has prepared for, and for
which He seeks to prepare, man. This accounts for the fact that man occupies a place of
central importance in Scripture, and that the knowledge of man in relation to God is
essential to its proper understanding. The doctrine of man must follow immediately
after the doctrine of God, since the knowledge of it is presupposed in all the following
loci of Dogmatics. We should not confuse the present subject of study with general
Anthropology or the science of mankind, which includes all those sciences which have
men as the object of study. These sciences concern themselves with the origin and
history of mankind, with the physiological structure and the psychical characteristics of
man in general and of the various races of mankind in particular, with their
ethnological, linguistic, cultural and religious development, and so on. Theological
Anthropology is concerned only with what the Bible says respecting man and the
relation in which he stands and should stand to God. It recognizes Scripture only as its
source, and reads the teachings of human experience in the light of God’s Word.
Scripture offers us a twofold account of the creation of man, the one in Gen. 1:26,27,
and the other in Gen. 2:7,21-23. Higher criticism is of the opinion that the writer of
Genesis pieced together two creation narratives, the first found in Gen. 1:1—2:3, and the
second in Gen. 2:4-25; and that these two are independent and contradictory. Laidlaw in
his work on The Bible Doctrine of Man1 is willing to admit that the author of Genesis
made use of two sources, but refuses to find here two different accounts of creation. He
very properly denies that in the second chapter we have “a different account of creation,
for the plain reason that it takes no account of the creation at large.” In fact, the
introductory words of the narrative beginning with Gen. 2:4, “These are the generations
of the heavens and of the earth, when they were created,” seen in the light of the
repeated use of the words “these are the generations” in the book of Genesis, point to
the fact that we have something quite different here. The expression invariably points,
not to the origin or beginning of those named, but to their family history. The first
narrative contains the account of the creation of all things in the order in which it
occurred, while the second groups things in their relation to man, without implying
anything respecting the chronological order of man’s appearance in the creative work of
God, and clearly indicates that everything preceding it served to prepare a fit habitation
for man as the king of creation. It shows us how man was situated in God’s creation,
surrounded by the vegetable and animal world, and how he began his history. There are
certain particulars in which the creation of man stands out in distinction from that of
other living beings:
writer records the creation of man, he leads us back, as it were, into the council of God,
acquainting us with the divine decree in the words, “Let us make man in our image,
after our likeness,” Gen. 1:26. The Church has generally interpreted the plural “us” on
the basis of the trinitarian existence of God. Some scholars, however, regard it as a
plural of majesty; others, as a plural of communication, in which God includes the
angels with Himself; and still others, as a plural of self-exhortation. Of these three
suggestions the first is very unlikely, since the plural of majesty originated at a much
later date; the second is impossible, because it would imply that the angels were co-
1 pp. 25f.
creators with God, and that man is also created in the image of the angels, which is an
un-Scriptural idea; and the third is an entirely gratuitous assumption, for which no
reason can be assigned. Why should such a self-exhortation be in the plural, except for
the reason that there is a plurality in God.
OF GOD. Some of the expressions used in the narrative preceding that of the creation of
man indicate mediate creation in some sense of the word. Notice the following
expressions: “And God said, Let the earth put forth grass, herbs, yielding seed, and
fruit-trees bearing fruit after their kind” — “Let the waters swarm with swarms of
living creatures” . . . and, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind”;
and compare these with the simple statement, “And God created man.” Whatever
indication of mediacy in the work of creation is contained in the former expressions, is
entirely wanting in the latter. Evidently the work of God in the creation of man was not
mediated in any sense of the word. He did make use of pre-existent material in forming
the body of man, but even this was excluded in the creation of the soul.
With respect to fishes, birds, and beasts we read that God created them after their kind,
that is, on a typical form of their own. Man, however, was not so created and much less
after the type of an inferior creature. With respect to him God said, “Let us make man in
our image, after our likeness.” We shall see what this implies, when we discuss the original
condition of man, and merely call attention to it here, in order to bring out the fact that
in the narrative of creation the creation of man stands out as something distinctive.
Gen. 2:7 a clear distinction is made between the origin of the body and that of the soul.
The body was formed out of the dust of the ground; in the production of it God made
use of pre-existing material. In the creation of the soul, however, there was no
fashioning of pre-existing materials, but the production of a new substance. The soul of
man was a new production of God in the strict sense of the word. Jehovah “breathed
into his (man’s) nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” In these
simple words the twofold nature of man is clearly asserted, and their teaching is
corroborated by other passages of Scripture, such as, Eccl. 12:7; Matt. 10:28; Luke 8:55; II
Cor. 5:1-8; Phil. 1:22-24; Heb. 12:9. The two elements are the body and the breath or
spirit of life breathed into it by God, and by the combination of the two man became “a
living soul,” which means in this connection simply “a living being.”
5. MAN IS AT ONCE PLACED IN AN EXALTED POSITION. Man is represented as standing at
the apex of all the created orders. He is crowned as king of the lower creation, and is
given dominion over all the inferior creatures. As such it was his duty and privilege to
make all nature and all the created beings that were placed under his rule, subservient
to his will and purpose, in order that he and his whole glorious dominion might
magnify the almighty Creator and Lord of the universe, Gen. 1:28; Ps. 8:4-9.
Among the various theories that have been broached to explain the origin of man,
the theory of evolution at present holds the field, and therefore deserves brief
1. STATEMENT OF THE THEORY. The theory of evolution is not always stated in the
same form. It is sometimes represented as if man is a direct descendant of one of the
species of anthropoid apes now in existence, and then again, as if man and the higher
apes have a common ancestry. But whatever difference of opinion there may be on this
point, it is certain that, according to thorough-going naturalistic evolution, man
descended from the lower animals, body and soul, by a perfectly natural process,
controlled entirely by inherent forces. One of the leading principles of the theory is that
of strict continuity between the animal world and man. It cannot allow for discontinuity
anywhere along the line, for every break is fatal to the theory. Nothing that is absolutely
new and unpredictable can appear in the process. What is now found in man must have
been potentially present in the original germ out of which all things developed. And the
whole process must be controlled from start to finish by inherent forces. Theistic
evolution, which seems more acceptable to many theologians, simply regards evolution
as God’s method of working. It is sometimes represented in a form in which God is
merely called in to bridge the gaps between the inorganic and the organic, and between
the irrational and the rational, creation. But to the extent to which a special operation of
God is assumed, gaps are admitted which evolution cannot bridge, and something new
is called into being, the theory naturally ceases to be a pure theory of evolution. It is
sometimes held that only the body of man is derived by a process of evolution from the
lower animals, and that God endowed this body with a rational soul. This view meets
with considerable favor in Roman Catholic circles.
2. OBJECTIONS TO THE THEORY. Several objections can be raised against the theory of
the evolutionary descent of man from the lower animals.
a. From the point of view of the theologian the greatest objection to this theory is, of
course, that it is contrary to the explicit teachings of the Word of God. The Bible could
hardly teach more clearly than it does that man is the product of a direct and special
creative act of God, rather than of a process of development out of the simian stock of
animals. It asserts that God formed man out of the dust of the ground, Gen. 2:7. Some
theologians, in their eagerness to harmonize the teachings of Scripture with the theory
of evolution, suggest that this may be interpreted to mean that God formed the body of
man out of the body of the animals, which is after all but dust. But this is entirely
unwarranted, since no reason can be assigned why the general expression “of the dust
of the ground” should be used after the writer had already described the creation of the
animals and might therefore have made the statement far more specific. Moreover, this
interpretation is also excluded by the statement in Gen. 3:19, “In the sweat of thy face
shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground: for out of it wast thou taken: for
dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” This certainly does not mean that man
shall return to his former animal state. Beast and man alike return again to the dust.
Eccl. 3:19,20. Finally, we are told explicitly in I Cor. 15:39 that “All flesh is not the same
flesh: but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts.” As to the spirit of man
the Bible teaches explicitly that it came directly from God, Gen. 2:7, and therefore
cannot be regarded as a natural development of some previously existing substance. In
perfect harmony with this Elihu says, “The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath
of the Almighty giveth me life,” Job 33:4. Furthermore, Scripture also teaches that man
was at once separated from the lower creation by an enormous chasm. He at once stood
on a high intellectual, moral, and religious level, as created in the image of God and was
given dominion over the lower creation, Gen. 1:26,27,31; 2:19,20; Ps. 8:5-8. By his fall in
sin, however, he fell from his high estate and became subject to a process of
degeneration which sometimes results in bestiality. This is quite the opposite of what
the evolutionary hypothesis teaches us. According to it man stood on the lowest level at
the beginning of his career, but slightly removed from the brute, and has been rising to
higher levels ever since.
b. The second great objection is that the theory has no adequate basis in well
established facts. It should be borne in mind that, as was pointed out before, the
evolutionary theory in general, though often represented as an established doctrine, is
up to the present time nothing but an unproved working hypothesis, and a hypothesis
that has not yet given any great promise of success in demonstrating what it set out to
prove. Many of the most prominent evolutionists frankly admit the hypothetical
character of their theory. They still avow themselves to be firm believers in the doctrine
of descent, but do not hesitate to say that they cannot speak with any assurance of its
method of operation. When Darwin published his works, it was thought that the key to
the process was found at last, but in course of time it was found that the key did not fit
the lock. Darwin truly said that his theory depended entirely on the possibility of
transmitting acquired characteristics, and it soon became one of the corner-stones of
Weismann’s biological theory that acquired characteristics are not inherited. His opinion
received abundant confirmation by the later study of genetics. On the basis of the
assumed transmission of acquired characteristics, Darwin spoke with great assurance of
the transmutation of species and envisaged a continuous line of development from the
primordial cell to man; but the experiments of De Vries, Mendel, and others tended to
discredit his view. The gradual and imperceptible changes of Darwin made place for the
sudden and unexpected mutations of De Vries. While Darwin assumed endless
variation in several directions, Mendel pointed out that the variations or mutations
never take the organism outside of the species and are subject to a definite law. And
modern cytology in its study of the cell, with its genes and chromosones as the carriers
of the inherited characters, confirmed this idea. The so-called new species of the
evolutionists were proved to be no true species at all, but only varietal species, that is
varieties of the same species. Nordenskioeld in his History of Biology quotes the
following sentence from a popular account of the results of heredity research, as
reflecting the true state of affairs: “For the very reason of the great number of facts that
modern heredity-research has brought to light, chaos prevails at present in regard to the
views on the formation of species,” p. 613. Prominent evolutionists now frankly admit
that the origin of species is a complete mystery to them. And as long as that is so, there
is not much chance of their explaining the origin of man.
Darwin in his attempt to prove the descent of man from a species of anthropoid
apes relied on (1) the argument from the structural similarity between man and the
higher animals; (2) the embryological argument; and (3) the argument from
rudimentary organs. To these three were added later on, (4) the argument derived from
blood tests; and (5) the palaeontological argument. But none of these arguments furnish
the desired proof. The argument from structural likeness unwarrantably assumes that
the similarity can be explained in only one way. Yet it can very well be accounted for by
the assumption that God in creating the animal world made certain typical forms basic
throughout, so as to have unity in variety, just as a great musician builds up his mighty
composition on a single theme, which is repeated time and again, and at each repetition
introduces new variations. The principle of preformation gives an adequate explanation
of the similarities under consideration. The embryological similarity, such as it is, can be
explained on the same principle. Moreover recent biological studies would seem to
indicate that no structural similarity but only a genetic relationship can prove affinity or
descent. As far as the rudimentary organs are concerned, more than one scientist has
expressed doubt as to their vestigial character. Instead of being the useless remains of
animal organs, it may very well be that they serve a definite purpose in the human
organism. The blood tests in their original form, while pointing to a certain likeness
between the blood of animals and man, do not prove genetic relationship, since in these
tests only part of the blood, the sterile serum which contains no living matter, was used,
while it is an established fact that the solid portion of the blood, containing the red and
white cells, is the carrier of hereditary factors. Later tests, in which the spectroscope was
called into use and the entire blood was examined, proved conclusively that there is an
essential difference between the blood of animals and that of man. The palaeontological
argument is equally inconclusive. If man really descended from the anthropoid apes, it
might be expected that the intermediate forms would be in existence somewhere. But
Darwin was not able to find this missing link any more than the thousands of missing
links between the various species of animals. We are told that the early progenitors of
man have long since died out. This being so, it was still possible that they might be
found among the fossil remains. And to-day scientists actually claim that they have
found some bones of very ancient men. They have reconstructed these men for us, and
we can now enjoy looking at the imaginary photos of the reconstructed Java man
(Pithecanthropus erectus), the Heidelberg man (Homo Heidelbergensis), the Neanderthal
man (Homo Neanderthalensis), the Cro-Magnon, the Piltdown man, and others. These
reconstructions seem to be taken seriously by some, but really have very little value.
Since only a few bones were found of each, and even these were scattered in some cases,
so that it is not certain that they belong to the same body, they merely testify to the
ingenuity of the scientists who reconstructed them. In some cases the specialists are by
no means agreed as to whether the bones in question belonged to a man or to an
animal. Dr. Wood, professor of anatomy in the University of London, says in a booklet
on the Ancestry of Man: “I find no occupation less worthy of the science of Anthropology
than the not unfashionable business of modelling, painting, or drawing these nightmare
pictures of the imagination, and lending them in the process, an utterly false value of
apparent reality.”2 Fleming, one of the most prominent present day scientists, says: “The
upshot of it all is that we cannot arrange all the known fossil remains of supposed ‘man’
in a lineal series gradually advancing in type or form from that of any anthropoid ape,
or other mammal, up to the modern and now existing types of true man. Any
2 Quoted by Allen, Evolution in the Balances, p. 110.
supposition or statement that it can be done, and is true, is certainly incorrect. It is
certainly misleading and unspeakably pernicious to put forward in popular magazines
or other publications read by children pictures of gorillas or chimpanzees labelled
‘Man’s cousin’ or ‘Man’s nearest relative,’ or to publish perfectly imaginary and
grotesque pictures of a supposed ‘Java man’ with brutish face as an ancestor of modern
man, as is occasionally done. Those who do such things are guilty of ignorance or
deliberate mis-representation. Neither is it justifiable for preachers in the pulpit to tell
their congregations that there is general agreement among scientific men as to the
evolutionary origin of Man from an animal ancestor.”3 But the body of man does not
even present the greatest difficulties to the evolutionist. These arise from the
consideration of the spiritual element in man, or what is usually called “the origin of
mind.” It is at this point that his helplessness becomes most painfully apparent. In spite
of all his attempts, he has signally failed to give a plausible explanation of the origin of
the human mind, or intelligence (progressiveness), language, conscience, and religion.
This might be pointed out in detail, but we do not deem it necessary. There are many
who, like Dennert and Batison, still profess to believe in the doctrine of descent, but
disown the Darwinian method of evolution and regard it as a well-nigh complete
failure. Yet they know of no other method which might take its place. This means that
for them evolution has ceased to be a science, and has become once more a mere
philosophical theory. Batison said: “We read his (Darwin’s) scheme of evolution as we
would those of Lucretius or of Lamarck. . . . We are just about where Boyle was in the
seventeenth century.” The testimony of Dr. D. H. Scott is very similar. In a presidential
address before the British Association for the Advancement of Science he made the
following statements: “All is again in the melting-pot. . . . Is evolution, then, not a
scientifically established fact? No, it is not . . . It is an act of faith — because there is no
alternative.” Creation, of course, is not to be thought of. He further said that there is in
natural science “a return to pre-Darwinian chaos.” Dr. Fleischmann of Erlangen writes:
“The Darwinian theory has not a single fact to support it . . . is purely the product of the
imagination.” Even stronger is the assertion of Dr. B. Kidd: “Darwinism is a compound
of astonishing presumption and incomparable ignorance.”4 Such scientists as Fleming,
Dawson, Kelly, and Price do not hesitate to reject the theory of evolution and to accept
the doctrine of creation. Respecting the origin of man, Sir William Dawson says: “I
know nothing about the origin of man, except what I am told in the Scripture — that
God created him. I do not know anything more than that, and I do not know of anyone
3 The Origin of Mankind, p. 75.
4 Quotations taken from Zerbe, Christianity and False Evolution, pp. 271f.
who does.”5 Fleming says: “All that science can say at present in the light of definitely
ascertained and limited human knowledge is that it does not know, and has no certain
proof how, where, and when man was originated. If any true knowledge of it is to come
to us, it must come from some source other than present modern anthropology.”6
1. SCRIPTURE TESTIMONY TO THE UNITY OF THE RACE. Scripture teaches that the whole
human race descended from a single pair. This is the obvious sense of the opening
chapters of Genesis. God created Adam and Eve as the beginning of the human species,
and commanded them to be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth. Moreover,
the subsequent narrative in Genesis clearly shows that the following generations down
to the time of the flood stood in unbroken genetic relation with the first pair, so that the
human race constitutes not only a specific unity, a unity in the sense that all men share
the same human nature, but also a genetic or genealogical unity. This is also taught by
Paul in Acts 17:26, “And God made of one every nation of man to dwell on all the face
of the earth.” The same truth is basic to the organic unity of the human race in the first
transgression, and of the provision for the salvation of the race in Christ, Rom. 5:12,19; I
Cor. 15:21,22. This unity of the race is not to be understood realistically, as it is
represented by Shedd, who says: “Human nature is a specific or general substance
created in and with the first individuals of a human species, which is not yet
individualized, but which by ordinary generation is subdivided into parts, and those
parts are formed into distinct and separate individuals of the species. The one specific
substance, by propagation, is metamorphosed into millions of individual substances, or
persons. An individual is a fractional part of human nature separated from the common
mass, and constituted a particular person, having all the essential properties of human
nature.”7 The objections to this view will be stated in another connection.
confirms the testimony of Scripture as to the unity of the human race. Scientific men
have not always believed in this. The ancient Greeks had their theory of autochtonism,
to the effect that men sprang from the earth by a sort of spontaneous generation, a
theory that has no solid foundation whatever, since spontaneous generation has never
5 Quoted by W. Bell Dawson, The Bible Confirmed by Science, p. 146. Cf. also what the later Dawson says in
Chap. VIII.
6 The Origin of Mankind, p. 76.
7 Dogm. Theol. II, p. 72.
been proved but rather discredited. Agassiz propounded the theory of the Coadamites,
which assumes that there were different centers of creation. As early as 1655 Peyrerius
developed the theory of the Preadamites, which proceeds on the assumption that there
were men before Adam was created. This theory was revived by Winchell, who did not
deny the unity of the race, but regarded Adam as the first ancestor of the Jews rather
than as the head of the human race. And in recent years Fleming, without being
dogmatic in the matter, says that there are reasons to assume that there were inferior
races of man preceding the appearance of Adam on the scene about 5500 B.C. While
inferior to the Adamites, they already had powers distinct from those of the animals.
The later Adamic man was endowed with greater and nobler powers and probably
destined to bring the whole of the other existing humanity into allegiance to the Creator.
He failed to preserve his own allegiance to God, and therefore God provided for the
coming of a descendant who was human and yet far more than man, in order that He
might accomplish what the Adamic man failed to do. The view which Fleming has been
led to hold is “that the unquestionably Caucasian branch is alone the derivation by
normal generation from the Adamic race, namely, from the God-worshipping members
of the Adamic race which survived the flood — Noah and his sons and daughters.”8 But
these theories, one and all, find no support in Scripture, and are contrary to Acts 17:26
and to all that the Bible teaches concerning the apostasy and deliverance of man.
Moreover, science presents several arguments in favor of the unity of the human race,
such as:
a. The argument from history. The traditions of the race of men point decisively to a
common origin and ancestry in Central Asia. The history of the migrations of man tends
to show that there has been a distribution from a single center.
b. The argument from philology. The study of the languages of mankind indicates a
common origin. The Indo-Germanic languages are traced to a common primitive
tongue, an old remnant of which still exists in the Sanskrit language. Moreover, there is
evidence which goes to show that the old Egyptian is the connecting link between the
Indo-European and the Semitic tongue.
c. The argument from psychology. The soul is the most important part of the
constitutional nature of man, and psychology clearly reveals the fact that the souls of all
men, to whatever tribes or nations they may belong, are essentially the same. They have
in common the same animal appetites, instincts, and passions, the same tendencies and
8 Cf. The Origin of Mankind, Chaps. VI and VII.
capacities, and above all the same higher qualities, the mental and moral characteristics
that belong exclusively to man.
d. The argument from natural science or physiology. It is now the common judgment of
comparative physiologists that the human race constitutes but a single species. The
differences that exist between the various families of mankind are regarded simply as
varieties of this one species. Science does not positively assert that the human race
descended from a single pair, but nevertheless demonstrates that this may have been
the case and probably is.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: What can be said against the view that we have in
Gen. 1 and 2 two different and more or less contradictory accounts of creation? Does it
seem reasonable to think that the world existed millions of years before man appeared
on the scene? Is the hypothesis of theistic evolution in harmony with the Scriptural
account of the origin of man? Is the notion that the body of man at least is derived from
the animals tenable in the light of Scripture? Has evolution established its case on this
point? What has it proved in connection with the far more difficult question of the
derivation of the human soul? What becomes of the doctrine of the fall in the theory of
evolution? What is the theological significance of the doctrine of the unity of the human
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II pp. 543-565,; Hodge, Syst. Theol. II, pp. 3-41;
Litton, Introd. to Dogm. Theol., pp. 107-113; Miley, Syst. Theol. I, pp. 355-392; Alexander,
Syst. of Bibl. Theol. I, pp. 156-167; Laidlaw, The Bible Doct. of Man, pp. 24-46; Darwin,
Descent of Man; Drummond, The Ascent of Man; Fleming, The Origin of Mankind; O’Toole,
The Case Against Evolution, Part II, Chaps. II and III. Cf. further the works on Evolution
referred to at the end of the previous chapter.
II. The Constitutional Nature of Man
The previous chapter is of a more or less introductory nature, and does not, strictly
speaking, form an integral part of the systematic presentation of the doctrine of man in
dogmatics. This explains why many treatises on systematic theology fail to devote a
separate chapter to the origin of man. Yet it seemed desirable to insert it here, since it
furnishes a fitting background for what follows. Under the present caption we shall
consider the essential constituents of human nature, and the question of the origin of
the soul in the individuals that constitute the race.
TRICHOTOMY. It is customary, especially in Christian circles, to conceive of man as
consisting of two. and only two, distinct parts, namely, body and soul. This view is
technically called dichotomy. Alongside of it, however, another made its appearance, to
the effect that human nature consists of three parts, body, soul, and spirit. It is
designated by the term trichotomy. The tri-partite conception of man originated in Greek
philosophy, which conceived of the relation of the body and the spirit of man to each
other after the analogy of the mutual relation between the material universe and God. It
was thought that, just as the latter could enter into communion with each other only by
means of a third substance or an intermediate being, so the former could enter into
mutual vital relationships only by means of a third or intermediate element, namely, the
soul. The soul was regarded as, on the one hand, immaterial, and on the other, adapted
to the body. In so far as it appropriated the nous or pneuma, it was regarded as
immortal, but in so far as it was related to the body, as carnal and mortal. The most
familiar but also the crudest form of trichotomy is that which takes the body for the
material part of man’s nature, the soul as the principle of animal life, and the spirit as
the God-related rational and immortal element in man. The trichotomic conception of
man found considerable favor with the Greek or Alexandrian Church Fathers of the
early Christian centuries. It is found, though not always in exactly the same form, in
Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa. But after Apollinaris employed it
in a manner impinging on the perfect humanity of Jesus, it was gradually discredited.
Some of the Greek Fathers still adhered to it, though Athanasius and Theodoret
explicitly repudiated it. In the Latin Church the leading theologians distinctly favored
the twofold division of human nature. It was especially the psychology of Augustine
that gave prominence to this view. During the Middle Ages it had become a matter of
common belief. The Reformation brought no change in this respect, though a few lesser
lights defended the trichotomic theory. The Roman Catholic Church adhered to the
verdict of Scholasticism, but in the circles of Protestantism other voices were heard.
During the nineteenth century trichotomy was revived in some form or other by certain
German and English theologians, as Roos, Olshausen, Beck, Delitzsch, Auberlen,
Oehler, White, and Heard; but it did not meet with great favor in the theological world.
The recent advocates of this theory do not agree as to the nature of the psuche, nor as to
the relation in which it stands to the other elements in man’s nature. Delitzsch conceives
of it as an efflux of the pneuma, while Beck, Oehler, and Heard, regard it as the point of
union between the body and the spirit. Delitzsch is not altogether consistent and
occasionally seems to waver, and Beck and Oehler admit that the Biblical representation
of man is fundamentally dichotomic. Their defense of a Biblical trichotomy can hardly
be said to imply the existence of three distinct elements in man. Besides these two
theological views there were, especially in the last century and a half, also the
philosophical views of absolute Materialism and of absolute Idealism, the former
sacrificing the soul to the body, and the latter, the body to the soul.
The prevailing representation of the nature of man in Scripture is clearly dichotomic. On
the one hand the Bible teaches us to view the nature of man as a unity, and not as a
duality, consisting of two different elements, each of which move along parallel lines
but do not really unite to form a single organism. The idea of a mere parallelism
between the two elements of human nature, found in Greek philosophy and also in the
works of some later philosophers, is entirely foreign to Scripture. While recognizing the
complex nature of man, it never represents this as resulting in a twofold subject in man.
Every act of man is seen as an act of the whole man. It is not the soul but man that sins;
it is not the body but man that dies; and it is not merely the soul, but man, body and
soul, that is redeemed in Christ. This unity already finds expression in the classical
passage of the Old Testament — the first passage to indicate the complex nature of man
— namely, Gen. 2:7: “And Jehovah God formed man of the dust of the ground, and
breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” The whole
passage deals with man: “God formed man . . . and man became a living soul.” This
work of God should not be interpreted as a mechanical process, as if He first formed a
body of clay and then put a soul into it. When God formed the body, He formed it so
that by the breath of His Spirit man at once became a living soul. Job 33:4; 32:8. The
word “soul” in this passage does not have the meaning which we usually ascribe to it
— a meaning rather foreign to the Old Testament — but denotes an animated being,
and is a description of man as a whole. The very same Hebrew term, nephesh chayyah
(living soul or being) is also applied to the animals in Gen. 1:21,24,30. So this passage,
while indicating that there are two elements in man, yet stresses the organic unity of
man. And this is recognized throughout the Bible.
At the same time it also contains evidences of the dual composition of man’s nature.
We should be careful, however, not to expect the later distinction between the body as
the material element, and the soul as the spiritual element, of human nature, in the Old
Testament. This distinction came into use later on under the influence of Greek
philosophy. The antithesis — soul and body — even in its New Testament sense, is not
yet found in the Old Testament. In fact, the Hebrew has no word for the body as an
organism. The Old Testament distinction of the two elements of human nature is of a
different kind. Says Laidlaw in his work on The Bible Doctrine of Man:9 “The antithesis is
clearly that of lower and higher, earthly and heavenly, animal and divine. It is not so
much two elements, as two factors uniting in a single and harmonious result, — ‘man
became a living soul.’” It is quite evident that this is the distinction in Gen. 2:7. Cf. also
Job 27:3; 32:8; 33:4; Eccl. 12:7. A variety of words is used in the Old Testament to denote
the lower element in man or parts of it, such as “flesh,” “dust,” “bones,” “bowels,”
“kidneys,” and also the metaphorical expression “house of clay,” Job 4:19. And there are
also several words to denote the higher element, such as “spirit,” “soul,” “heart,” and
“mind.” As soon as we pass from the Old to the New Testament, we meet with the
antithetic expressions that are most familiar to us, as “body and soul,” “flesh and
spirit.” The corresponding Greek words were undoubtedly moulded by Greek
philosophical thought, but passed through the Septuagint into the New Testament, and
therefore retained their Old Testament force. At the same time the antithetic idea of the
material and the immaterial is now also connected with them.
Trichotomists seek support in the fact that the Bible, as they see it, recognizes two
constituent parts of human nature in addition to the lower or material element, namely,
the soul (Heb., nephesh; Greek, psuche) and the spirit (Heb., ruach; Greek, pneuma). But
the fact that these terms are used with great frequency in Scripture does not warrant the
conclusion that they designate component parts rather than different aspects of human
nature. A careful study of Scripture clearly shows that it uses the words interchangeably.
Both terms denote the higher or spiritual element in man, but contemplate it from
different points of view. It should be pointed out at once, however, that the Scriptural
distinction of the two does not agree with that which is rather common in philosophy,
that the soul is the spiritual element in man, as it is related to the animal world, while
the spirit is that same element in its relation to the higher spiritual world and to God.
The following facts militate against this philosophical distinction: Ruach-pneuma, as well
as nephesh-psuche, is used of the brute creation, Eccl. 3:21; Rev. 16:3. The word psuche is
even used with reference to Jehovah, Isa. 42:1; Jer. 9:9; Amos 6:8 (Heb.); Heb 10:38. The
disembodied dead are called psuchai, Rev. 6:9;20:4. The highest exercises of religion are
ascribed to the psuche, Mark 12:30; Luke 1:46; Heb. 6:18,19; Jas. 1:21. To lose the psuche is
to lose all. It is perfectly evident that the Bible uses the two words interchangeably.
Notice the parallelism in Luke 1:46,47: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit
hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” The Scriptural formula for man is in some passages
9 p. 60.
“body and soul,” Matt. 6:25; 10:28; and in others, “body and spirit,” Eccl. 12:7; I Cor.
5:3,5. Death is sometimes described as the giving up of the soul, Gen. 35:18; I Kings
17:21; Acts 15:26; and then again as the giving up of the spirit, Ps. 31:5; Luke 23:46; Acts
7:59. Moreover both “soul” and “spirit” are used to designate the immaterial element of
the dead, I Pet. 3:19; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 6:9; 20:4. The main Scriptural distinction is as
follows: the word “spirit” designates the spiritual element in man as the principle of life
and action which controls the body; while the word “soul” denominates the same
element as the subject of action in man, and is therefore often used for the personal
pronoun in the Old Testament, Ps. 10:1,2; 104:1; 146:1; Is. 42:1; cf. also Luke 12:19. In
several instances it, more specifically, designates the inner life as the seat of the
affections. All this is quite in harmony with Gen. 2:7, “And Jehovah God . . . breathed
into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Thus it may be said
that man has spirit, but is soul. The Bible therefore points to two, and only two,
constitutional elements in the nature of man, namely, body and spirit or soul. This
Scriptural representation is also in harmony with the self-consciousness of man. While
man is conscious of the fact that he consists of a material and a spiritual element, no one
is conscious of possessing a soul in distinction from a spirit.
There are two passages, however, that seem to conflict with the usual dichotomic
representation of Scripture, namely, I Thess. 5:23, “And the God of peace Himself
sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire,
without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”; and Heb. 4:12, “For the word of
God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to
the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the
thoughts and intents of the heart.” But it should be noted that: (a) It is a sound rule in
exegesis that exceptional statements should be interpreted in the light of the analogia
Scriptura, the usual representation of Scripture. In view of this fact some of the
defenders of trichotomy admit that these passages do not necessarily prove their point.
(b) The mere mention of spirit and soul alongside of each other does not prove that,
according to Scripture, they are two distinct substances, any more than Matt. 22:37
proves that Jesus regarded heart and soul and mind as three distinct substances. (c) In I
Thess. 5:23 the apostle simply desires to strengthen the statement, “And the God of
peace Himself sanctify you wholly,” by an epexigetical statement, in which the different
aspects of man’s existence are summed up, and in which he feels perfectly free to
mention soul and spirit alongside of each other, because the Bible distinguishes between
the two. He cannot very well have thought of them as two different substances here,
because he speaks elsewhere of man as consisting of two parts, Rom. 8:10; I Cor. 5:5;
7:34; II Cor. 7:1; Eph. 2:3; Col. 2:5. (d) Heb. 4:12 should not be taken to mean that the
word of God, penetrating to the inner man, makes a separation between his soul and his
spirit, which would naturally imply that these two are different substances; but simply
as declaring that it brings about a separation in both between the thoughts and intents
of the heart.10
3. THE RELATION OF BODY AND SOUL TO EACH OTHER. The exact relation of body and
soul to each other has been represented in various ways, but remains to a great extent a
mystery. The following are the most important theories relating to this point:
a. Monistic. There are theories which proceed on the assumption that body and soul
are of the same primitive substance. According to Materialism this primitive substance
is matter, and spirit is a product of matter. And according to absolute Idealism and
Spiritualism the primitive substance is spirit, and this becomes objective to itself in what
is called matter. Matter is a product of the spirit. The objection to this monistic view is
that things so different as body and soul cannot be deduced the one from the other.
b. Dualistic. Some theories proceed on the assumption that there is an essential
duality of matter and spirit, and present their mutual relations in various ways: (1)
Occasionalism. According to this theory, suggested by Cartesius, matter and spirit each
works, according to laws peculiar to itself, and these laws are so different that there is
no possibility of joint action. What appears to be such can only be accounted for on the
principle that, on the occasion of the action of the one, God by His direct agency
produces a corresponding action in the other. (2) Parallelism. Leibnitz proposed the
theory of pre-established harmony. This also rests on the assumption that there is no
direct interaction between the material and the spiritual, but does not assume that God
produces apparently joint actions by continual interference. Instead it holds that God
made the body and the soul so that the one perfectly corresponds to the other. When a
motion takes place in the body, there is a corresponding movement in the soul,
according to a law of pre-established harmony. (3) Realistic Dualism. The simple facts to
which we must always return, and which are embodied in the theory of realistic
dualism, are the following: body and soul are distinct substances, which do interact,
though their mode of interaction escapes human scrutiny and remains a mystery for us.
The union between the two may be called a union of life: the two are organically
related, the soul acting on the body and the body on the soul. Some of the actions of the
10 Cf. for a discussion of the psychology of Scripture especially, Bavinck, Bijbelsche en Religionize
Psychologie; Laidlaw, The Bible Doctrine of Man, pp. 49-138; H. Wheeler Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of
Man, pp. 4-150; Delitzsch, System of Biblical Psychology; Dickson, St. Paul’s Use of Terms Flesh and Spirit.
body are dependent on the conscious operation of the soul, while others are not. The
operations of the soul are connected with the body as its instrument in the present life;
but from the continued conscious existence and activity of the soul after death it
appears that it can also work without the body. This view is certainly in harmony with
the representations of Scripture on this point. A great deal of present day psychology is
definitely moving in the direction of materialism. Its most extreme form is seen in
Behaviorism with its denial of the soul, of the mind, and even of consciousness. All that
it has left as an object of study is human behavior.
considerable attention to the problem of the human soul and did not fail to make its
influence felt in Christian theology. The nature, the origin, and the continued existence
of the soul, were all subjects of discussion. Plato believed in the pre-existence and
transmigration of the soul. In the early Church the doctrine of the pre-existence of the
soul was practically limited to the Alexandrian school. Origen was the chief
representative of this view and combined it with the notion of a pre-temporal fall. Two
other views at once made their appearance and proved to be far more popular in
Christian circles. The theory of creationism holds that God creates a new soul at the
birth of every individual. It was the dominant theory in the Eastern Church, and also
found some advocates in the West. Jerome and Hilary of Pictavium were its most
prominent representatives. In the Western Church the theory of Traducianism gradually
gained ground. According to this view the soul as well as the body of man originates by
propagation. It is usually wedded to the realistic theory that human nature was created
in its entirety by God and is ever-increasingly individualized as the human race
multiplies. Tertullian was the first to state this theory of Traducianism and under his
influence it continued to gain favor in the North African and Western Church. It seemed
to fit in best with the doctrine of the transmission of sin that was current in those circles.
Leo the Great called it the teaching of the catholic faith. In the East it found no favorable
reception. Augustine hesitated to choose between the two views. Some of the earlier
Scholastics were somewhat undecided, though they regarded creationism as the more
probable of the two; but in course of time it became the consensus of opinion among the
Schoolmen that the individual souls were created. Says Peter the Lombard: “The
Church teaches that souls are created at their infusion into the body.” And Thomas
Aquinas went even further by saying: “It is heretical to say that the intellectual soul is
transmitted by way of generation.” This remained the prevailing view in the Roman
Catholic Church. From the days of the Reformation there was a difference of opinion
among the Protestants. Luther expressed himself in favor of Traducianism, and this
became the prevailing opinion in the Lutheran Church. Calvin, on the other hand,
decidedly favored creationism. Says he in his commentary on Gen. 3:16: “Nor is it
necessary to resort to that ancient figment of certain writers, that souls are derived by
descent from our first parents.” Ever since the days of the Reformation this has been the
common view in Reformed circles. This does not mean that there were no exceptions to
the rule. Jonathan Edwards and Hopkins in New England theology favored
Traducianism. Julius Mueller in his work on The Christian Doctrine of Sin again put up an
argument in favor of the pre-existence of the soul, coupled with that of a pre-temporal
fall, in order to explain the origin of sin.
2. PRE-EXISTENTIANISM. Some speculative theologians, among whom Origen, Scotus
Erigena, and Julius Mueller are the most important, advocated the theory that the souls
of men existed in a previous state, and that certain occurrences in that former state
account for the condition in which those souls are now found. Origen looks upon man’s
present material existence, with all its inequalities and irregularities, physical and
moral, as a punishment for sins committed in a previous existence. Scotus Erigena also
holds that sin made its entrance into the world of humanity in the pre-temporal state,
and that therefore man begins his career on earth as a sinner. And Julius Mueller has
recourse to the theory, in order to reconcile the doctrines of the universality of sin and of
individual guilt. According to him each person must have sinned willingly in that
previous existence.
This theory is open to several objections. (a) It is absolutely devoid of both
Scriptural and philosophical grounds, and is, at least in some of its forms, based on the
dualism of matter and spirit as taught in heathen philosophy, making it a punishment
for the soul to be connected with the body. (b) It really makes the body something
accidental. The soul was without the body at first, and received this later on. Man was
complete without the body. This virtually wipes out the distinction between man and
the angels. (c) It destroys the unity of the human race, for it assumes that all individual
souls existed long before they entered the present life. They do not constitute a race. (d)
It finds no support in the consciousness of man. Man has absolutely no consciousness of
such a previous existence; nor does he feel that the body is a prison or a place of
punishment for the soul. In fact, he dreads the separation of body and soul as
something that is unnatural.
3. TRADUCIANISM. According to Traducianism the souls of men are propagated along
with the bodies by generation, and are therefore transmitted to the children by the
parents. In the early Church Tertullian, Rufinus, Apollinarus, and Gregory of Nvssa
were Traducianists. From the days of Luther Traducianism has been the prevailing view
of the Lutheran Church. Among the Reformed it is favored by H. B. Smith and Shedd.
A. H. Strong also prefers it.
a. Arguments in favor of Traducianism. Several arguments are adduced in favor of this
theory. (1) It is said to be favored by the Scriptural representation (a) that God but once
breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life, and then left it to man to propagate the
species, Gen. 1:28; 2:7; (b) that the creation of Eve’s soul was included in that of Adam,
since she is said to be “of the man” (I Cor. 11:8), and nothing is said about the creation of
her soul, Gen. 2:23; (c) that God ceased from the work of creation after He had made
man, Gen. 2:2; and (d) that descendants are said to be in the loins of their fathers, Gen.
46:26; Heb. 7:9,10. Cf. also such passages as John 3:6; 1:13; Rom. 1:3; Acts 17:26. (2) It is
supported by the analogy of vegetable and animal life, in which the increase in numbers
is secured, not by a continually increasing number of immediate creations, but by the
natural derivation of new individuals from a parent stock. But cf. Ps. 104:30. (3) It also
seeks support in the inheritance of mental peculiarities and family traits, which are so
often just as noticeable as physical resemblances, and which cannot be accounted for by
education or example, since they are in evidence even when parents do not live to bring
up their children. (4) Finally, it seems to offer the best basis for the explanation of the
inheritance of moral and spiritual depravity, which is a matter of the soul rather than of
the body. It is quite common to combine with Traducianism the realistic theory to
account for original sin.
b. Objections to Traducianism. Several objections may be urged against this theory. (1)
It is contrary to the philosophical doctrine of the simplicity of the soul. The soul is a
pure spiritual substance that does not admit of division. The propagation of the soul
would seem to imply that the soul of the child separates itself in some way from the
soul of the parents. Moreover, the difficult question arises, whether it originates from
the soul of the father or from that of the mother. Or does it come from both; and if so, is
it not a compositum? (2) In order to avoid the difficulty just mentioned, it must resort to
one of three theories: (a) that the soul of the child had a previous existence, a sort of preexistence;
(b) that the soul is potentially present in the seed of man or woman or both,
which is materialism; or (c) that the soul is brought forth, that is, created in some way,
by the parents, thus making them in a sense creators. (3) It proceeds on the assumption
that, after the original creation, God works only mediately. After the six days of creation
His creative work ceased. The continued creation of souls, says Delitzsch, is inconsistent
with God’s relation to the world. But the question may be raised, What, then, becomes
of the doctrine of regeneration, which is not effected by second causes? (4) It is generally
wedded to the theory of realism, since this is the only way in which it can account for
original guilt. By doing this it affirms the numerical unity of the substance of all human
souls, an untenable position; and also fails to give a satisfactory answer to the question,
why men are held responsible only for the first sin of Adam, and not for his later sins,
nor for the sins of the rest of their forebears. (5) Finally, in the form just indicated it leads
to insuperable difficulties in Christology. If in Adam human nature as a whole sinned,
and that sin was therefore the actual sin of every part of that human nature, then the
conclusion cannot be escaped that the human nature of Christ was also sinful and guilty
because it had actually sinned in Adam.
4. CREATIONISM. This view is to the effect that each individual soul is to be regarded
as an immediate creation of God, owing its origin to a direct creative act, of which the
time cannot be precisely determined. The soul is supposed to be created pure, but
united with a depraved body. This need not necessarily mean that the soul is created
first in separation from the body, and then polluted by being brought in contact with the
body, which would seem to assume that sin is something physical. It may simply mean
that the soul, though called into being by a creative act of God, yet is pre-formed in the
psychical life of the foetus, that is, in the life of the parents, and thus acquires its life not
above and outside of, but under and in, that complex of sin by which humanity as a
whole is burdened.11
a. Arguments in favor of Creationism. The following are the more important
considerations in favor of this theory: (1) It is more consistent with the prevailing
representations of Scripture than Traducianism. The original account of creation points
to a marked distinction between the creation of the body and that of the soul. The one is
taken from the earth, while the other comes directly from God. This distinction is kept
up throughout the Bible, where body and soul are not only represented as different
substances, but also as having different origins, Eccl. 12:7; Isa 42:5; Zech. 12:1; Heb. 12:9.
Cf. Num. 16:22. Of the passage in Hebrews even Delitzsch, though a Traducianist, says,
“There can hardly be a more classical proof text for creationism.”12 (2) It is clearly far
more consistent with the nature of the human soul than Traducianism. The immaterial
and spiritual, and therefore indivisible nature of the soul of man, generally admitted by
11 Cf. Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 630 f.
12 Bibl. Psych., p. 137.
all Christians, is clearly recognized by Creationism. The traducian theory on the other
hand, posits a derivation of essence, which, as is generally admitted, necessarily implies
separation or division of essence. (3) It avoids the pitfalls of Traducianism in
Christology and does greater justice to the Scriptural representation of the person of
Christ. He was very man, possessing a true human nature, a real body and a rational
soul, was born of a woman, was made in all points like as we are, — and yet, without
sin. He did not, like all other men, share in the guilt and pollution of Adam’s
transgression. This was possible, because he did not share the same numerical essence
which sinned in Adam.
b. Objections to Creationism. Creationism is open to the following objections: (1) The
most serious objection is stated by Strong in the following words: “This theory, if it
allows that the soul is originally possessed of depraved tendencies, makes God the
direct author of moral evil; if it holds the soul to have been created pure, it makes God
indirectly the author of moral evil, by teaching that He put this pure soul into a body
which will inevitably corrupt it.” This is undoubtedly a serious difficulty, and is
generally regarded as the decisive argument against Creationism. Augustine already
called attention to the fact that the Creationist should seek to avoid this pitfall. But it
should be borne in mind that the Creationist does not, like the Traducianist, regard
original sin entirely as a matter of inheritance. The descendants of Adam are sinners,
not as a result of their being brought into contact with a sinful body, but in virtue of the
fact that God imputes to them the original disobedience of Adam. And it is for that
reason that God withholds from them original righteousness, and the pollution of sin
naturally follows. (2) It regards the earthly father as begetting only the body of his child,
— certainly not the most important part of the child, — and therefore does not account
for the re-appearance of the mental and moral traits of the parents in the children.
Moreover, by taking this position it ascribes to the beast nobler powers of propagation
than to man, for the beast multiplies itself after its kind. The last consideration is one of
no great importance. And as far as mental and moral similarities of parents and children
are concerned, it need not necessarily be assumed that these can be accounted for only
on the basis of heredity. Our knowledge of the soul is still too deficient to speak with
absolute assurance on this point. But this similarity may find its explanation partly in
the example of the parents, partly in the influence of the body on the soul, and partly in
the fact that God does not create all souls alike, but creates in each particular case a soul
adapted to the body with which it will be united and the complex relationship into
which it will be introduced. (3) It is not in harmony with God’s present relationship to
the world and His manner of working in it, since it teaches a direct creative activity of
God, and thus ignores the fact that God now works through secondary causes and
ceased from His creative work. This is not a very serious objection for those who do not
have a deistic conception of the world. It is a gratuitous assumption that God has ceased
from all creative activity in the world.
a Caution required in speaking on the subject. It must be admitted that the arguments
on both sides are rather well balanced. In view of this fact it is not surprising that
Augustine found it rather hard to choose between the two. The Bible makes no direct
statement respecting the origin of the soul of man, except in the case of Adam. The few
Scriptural passages that are adduced as favoring the one theory or the other, can hardly
be called conclusive on either side. And because we have no clear teaching of Scripture
on the point in question, it is necessary to speak with caution on the subject. We ought
not to be wise above that which is written. Several theologians are of the opinion that
there is an element of truth in both of these theories, which must be recognized.13
Dorner even suggests the idea that each one of the three theories discussed represents
one aspect of the whole truth: “Traducianism, generic consciousness; Preexistentianism,
self-consciousness or the interest of the personality as a separate eternal
divine thought; Creationism, God-consciousness.”14
b. Some form of Creationism deserves preference. It seems to us that Creationism
deserves the preference, because (1) it does not encounter the insuperable philosophical
difficulty with which Traducianism is burdened; (2) it avoids the Christological errors
which Traducianism involves; and (3) it is most in harmony with our covenant idea. At
the same time we are convinced that the creative activity of God in originating human
souls must be conceived as being most closely connected with the natural process in the
generation of new individuals. Creationism does not claim to be able to clear up all
difficulties, but at the same time it serves as a warning against the following errors: (1)
that the soul is divisible; (2) that all men are numerically of the same substance; and (3)
that Christ assumed the same numerical nature which fell in Adam.15
13 Cf. Smith, Chr. Theol., p. 169; Dabney, Syst. and Polemic Theol., pp. 320 f.; Martensen, Chr. Dogm., p. 141;
Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. II, p. 630; Raymond, Syst. Theol. II, pp. 35 f.
14 Syst. of Chr. Doct. II, p. 94.
15 For further study of this subject confer especially the study of Dr. Honig on Creatianisme en
III. Man as the Image of God
According to Scripture man was created in the image of God, and is therefore Godrelated.
Traces of this truth are found even in Gentile literature. Paul pointed out to the
Athenians that some of their own poets have spoken of man as the offspring of God,
Acts 17:28. The early Church Fathers were quite agreed that the image of God in man
consisted primarily in man’s rational and moral characteristics, and in his capacity for
holiness; but some were inclined to include also bodily traits. Irenæus and Tertullian
drew a distinction between the “image” and the “likeness” of God, finding the former
in bodily traits, and the latter in the spiritual nature of man. Clement of Alexandria and
Origen, however, rejected the idea of any bodily analogy, and held that the word
“image” denoted the characteristics of man as man, and the word “likeness,” qualities
which are not essential to man, but may be cultivated or lost. This view is also found in
Athanasius, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, and John of Damascus. According to Pelagius
and his followers the image consisted merely in this, that man was endowed with
reason, so that he could know God; with free will, so that he was able to choose and do
the good; and with the necessary power to rule the lower creation. The distinction
already made by some of the early Church Fathers between the image and the likeness
of God, was continued by the Scholastics, though it was not always expressed in the
same way. The former was conceived of as including the intellectual powers of reason
and freedom, and the latter as consisting of original righteousness. To this was added
another point of distinction, namely, that between the image of God as a natural gift to
man, something belonging to the very nature of man as man, and the likeness of God,
or original righteousness, as a supernatural gift, which served as a check on the lower
nature of man. There was a difference of opinion as to whether man was endowed with
this original righteousness at once at creation, or received it later on as a reward for a
temporary obedience. It was this original righteousness that enabled man to merit
eternal life. The Reformers rejected the distinction between the image and the likeness,
and considered original righteousness as included in the image of God, and as
belonging to the very nature of man in its original condition. There was a difference of
opinion, however, between Luther and Calvin. The former did not seek the image of
God in any of the natural endowments of man, such as his rational and moral powers,
but exclusively in original righteousness, and therefore regarded it as entirely lost by
sin. Calvin, on the other hand, expresses himself as follows, after stating that the image
of God extends to everything in which the nature of man surpasses that of all other
species of animals: “Accordingly, by this term (‘image of God’) is denoted the integrity
with which Adam was endued when his intellect was clear, his affections subordinated
to reason, all his senses duly regulated, and when he truly ascribed all his excellence to
the admirable gifts of his Maker. And though the primary seat of the divine image was
in the mind and the heart, or in the soul and its powers, there was no part even of the
body in which some rays of glory did not shine.”16 It included both natural
endowments and those spiritual qualities designated as original righteousness, that is,
true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. The whole image was vitiated by sin, but
only those spiritual qualities were completely lost. The Socinians and some of the earlier
Arminians taught that the image of God consisted only in man’s dominion over the
lower creation. Schleiermacher rejected the idea of an original state of integrity and of
original righteousness as a necessary doctrine. Since, as he sees it, moral perfection or
righteousness and holiness can only be the result of development, he regards it as a
contradiction in terms to speak of man as being created in a state of righteousness and
holiness. Hence the image of God in man can only be a certain receptivity for the divine,
a capacity to answer to the divine ideal, and to grow into God-likeness. Such modern
theologians as Martensen and Kaftan are quite in line with this idea.
Scriptural teachings respecting the image of God in man warrant the following
1. The words “image” and “likeness” are used synonymously and interchangeably,
and therefore do not refer to two different things. In Gen. 1:26 both words are used, but
in the twenty-seventh verse only the first. This is evidently considered sufficient to
express the whole idea. In Gen. 5:1 only the word “likeness” occurs, but in the third
verse of that chapter both terms are again found. Gen. 9:6 contains only the word
“image” as a complete expression of the idea. Turning to the New Testament, we find
“image” and “glory” used in I Cor. 11:7, “image” alone in Col. 3:10, and “likeness” only
in Jas. 3:9. Evidently the two are used interchangeably in Scripture. This naturally
implies that man was created also in the likeness of God, and that this likeness was not
something with which he was endowed later on. The usual opinion is that the word
“likeness” was added to “image” to express the idea that the image was most like, a
perfect image. The idea is that by creation that which was archetypal in God became
16 Inst. I. 15:3.
ectypal in man. God was the original of which man was made a copy. This means, of
course, that man not only bears the image of God, but is His very image. This is clearly
stated in I Cor. 11:7, but does not mean that he cannot also be said to bear the image of
God, cf. I Cor. 15:49. Some have considered the change of prepositions in Gen. 1:27, “in
our image, after our likeness,” as significant. Böhl even based on it the idea that we are
created in the image as a sphere, but this is entirely unwarranted. While the first
meaning of the Hebrew preposition be (rendered “in” here) is undoubtedly “in,” it can
also have the same meaning as the preposition le (rendered “after”), and evidently has
that meaning here. Notice that we are said to be renewed “after the image” of God in
Col. 3:10; and also that the prepositions used in Gen. 1:26 are reversed in Gen. 5:3.
2. The image of God in which man was created certainly includes what is generally
called “original righteousness,” or more specifically, true knowledge, righteousness,
and holiness. We are told that God made man “very good,” Gen. 1:31, and “upright,”
Eccl. 7:29. The New Testament indicates very specifically the nature of man’s original
condition where it speaks of man as being renewed in Christ, that is, as being brought
back to a former condition. The condition to which he is restored in Christ is clearly not
one of neutrality, neither good nor bad, in which the will is in a state of perfect
equilibrium, but one of true knowledge, Col. 3:10, righteousness and holiness, Eph. 4:24.
These three elements constitute the original righteousness, which was lost by sin, but is
regained in Christ. It may be called the moral image of God, or the image of God in the
more restricted sense of the word. Man’s creation in this moral image implies that the
original condition of man was one of positive holiness, and not a state of innocence or
moral neutrality.
3. But the image of God is not to be restricted to the original knowledge,
righteousness, and holiness which was lost by sin, but also includes elements which
belong to the natural constitution of man. They are elements which belong to man as
man, such as intellectual power, natural affections, and moral freedom. As created in the
image of God man has a rational and moral nature, which he did not lose by sin and
which he could not lose without ceasing to be man. This part of the image of God has
indeed been vitiated by sin, but still remains in man even after his fall in sin. Notice that
man even after the fall, irrespective of his spiritual condition, is still represented as the
image of God, Gen. 9;6; I Cor. 11:7; Jas. 3:9. The crime of murder owes its enormity to the
fact that it is an attack on the image of God. In view of these passages of Scripture it is
unwarranted to say that man has completely lost the image of God.
4. Another element usually included in the image of God is that of spirituality. God
is Spirit, and it is but natural to expect that this element of spirituality also finds
expression in man as the image of God. And that this is so is already indicated in the
narrative of man’s creation. God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man
became a living soul.” Gen. 2:7. The “breath of life” is the principle of his life, and the
“living soul” is the very being of man. The soul is united with and adapted to a body,
but can, if need be, also exist without the body. In view of this we can speak of man as a
spiritual being, and as also in that respect the image of God. In this connection the
question may be raised, whether the body of man also constitutes a part of the image.
And it would seem that this question should be answered in the affirmative. The Bible
says that man — not merely the soul of man — was created in the image of God, and
man, the “living soul,” is not complete without the body. Moreover, the Bible represents
murder as the destruction of the body, Matt. 10:28, and also as the destruction of the
image of God in man, Gen. 9:6. We need not look for the image in the material substance
of the body; it is found rather in the body as the fit instrument for the self-expression of
the soul. Even the body is destined to become in the end a spiritual body, that is, a body
which is completely spirit-controlled, a perfect instrument of the soul.
5. Still another element of the image of God is immortality. The Bible says that God
only hath immortality, I Tim. 6:16, and this would seem to exclude the idea of human
immortality. But it is perfectly evident from Scripture that man is also immortal in some
sense of the word. The meaning is that God alone hath immortality as an essential
quality, has it in and of Himself, while man’s immortality is an endowment, is derived
from God. Man was created immortal, not merely in the sense that his soul was
endowed with an endless existence, but also in the sense that he did not carry within
himself the seeds of physical death, and in his original condition was not subject to the
law of death. Death was threatened as a punishment for sin, Gen. 2:17, and that this
included bodily or physical death is evident from Gen. 3:19. Paul tells us that sin
brought death into the world, Rom. 5:12; I Cor. 15:20,21; and that death must be
regarded as the wages of sin, Rom. 6:23.
6. There is considerable difference of opinion as to whether man’s dominion over
the lower creation also formed a part of the image of God. This is not surprising in view
of the fact that Scripture does not express itself explicitly on this point. Some regard the
dominion in question simply as an office conferred on man, and not as a part of the
image. But notice that God mentions man’s creation in the divine image and his
dominion over the lower creation in a single breath, Gen. 1:26. It is indicative of the
glory and honour with which man is crowned, Ps. 8:5,6.
According to Scripture the essence of man consists in this, that he is the image of
God. As such he is distinguished from all other creatures and stands supreme as the
head and crown of the entire creation. Scripture asserts that man was created in the
image and after the likeness of God, Gen. 1:26,27; 9:6; Jas. 3:9, and speaks of man as
being and as bearing the image of God, I Cor. 11:7; 15:49. The terms “image” and
“likeness” have been distinguished in various ways. Some were of the opinion that
“image” had reference to the body, and “likeness,” to the soul. Augustine held that the
former referred to the intellectual, and the latter, to the moral faculties of the soul.
Bellarmin regarded “image” as a designation of the natural gifts of man, and “likeness”
as a description of that which was supernaturally added to man. Still others asserted
that “image” denoted the inborn, and “likeness,” the acquired conformity to God. It is
far more likely, however, as was pointed out in the preceding, that both words express
the same idea, and that “likeness” is merely an epexegetical addition to designate the
image as most like or very similar. The idea expressed by the two words is that of the
very image of God. The doctrine of the image of God in man is of the greatest importance
in theology, for that image is the expression of that which is most distinctive in man and
in his relation to God. The fact that man is the image of God distinguishes him from the
animal and from every other creature. As far as we can learn from Scripture even the
angels do not share that honor with him, though it is sometimes represented as if they
do. Calvin goes so far as to say that “it cannot be denied that the angels also were
created in the likeness of God, since, as Christ declares (Matt. 22:30), our highest
perfection will consist in being like them.”17 But in this statement the great Reformer
does not have due regard for the point of comparison in the statement of Jesus. In many
cases the assumption that the angels were also created in the image of God results from
a conception of the image which limits it to our moral and intellectual qualities. But the
image also includes the body of man and his dominion over the lower creation. The
angels are never represented as lords of creation, but as ministering spirits sent out for
the service of those that inherit salvation. The following are the most important
conceptions of the image of God in man.
1. THE REFORMED CONCEPTION. The Reformed Churches, following in the footsteps
of Calvin, have a far more comprehensive conception of the image of God than either
the Lutherans or the Roman Catholics. But even they do not all agree as to its exact
contents. Dabney, for instance, holds that it does not consist in anything absolutely
17 Inst. I. 15.3.
essential to man’s nature, for then the loss of it would have resulted in the destruction
of man’s nature; but merely in some accidens.18 McPherson, on the other hand, asserts
that it belongs to the essential nature of man, and says that “Protestant theology would
have escaped much confusion and many needless and unconvincing doctrinal
refinements, if it had not encumbered itself with the idea that it was bound to define sin
as the loss of the image, or of something belonging to the image. If the image were lost
man would cease to be man.”19 These two, then, would seem to be hopelessly at
variance. Other differences are also in evidence in Reformed theology. Some would limit
the image to the moral qualities of righteousness and holiness with which man was
created, while others would include the whole moral and rational nature of man, and
still others would also add the body. Calvin says that the proper seat of the image of
God is in the soul, though some rays of its glory also shine in the body. He finds that the
image consisted especially in that original integrity of man’s nature, lost by sin, which
reveals itself in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. At the same time he adds
further “that the image of God extends to everything in which the nature of man
surpasses that of all other species of animals.”20 This broader conception of the image of
God became the prevalent one in Reformed theology. Thus Witsius says: “The image of
God consisted antecendenter, in man’s spiritual and immortal nature; formaliter, in his
holiness; consequenter, in his dominion.”21 A very similar opinion is expressed by
Turretin.22 To sum up it may be said that the image consists: (a) In the soul or spirit of
man, that is, in the qualities of simplicity, spirituality, invisibility, and immortality. (b) In
the psychical powers or faculties of man as a rational and moral being, namely, the
intellect and the will with their functions. (c) In the intellectual and moral integrity of
man’s nature, revealing itself in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, Eph. 4:24;
Col. 3:10. (d) In the body, not as a material substance, but as the fit organ of the soul,
sharing its immortality; and as the instrument through which man can exercise
dominion over the lower creation. (e) In man’s dominion over the earth. In opposition
to the Socinians, some Reformed scholars went too far in the opposite direction, when
they regarded this dominion as something that did not belong to the image at all but
was the result of a special disposal of God. In connection with the question, whether the
18 Syst. and Polem. Theol., p. 293.
19 Chr. Dogm., p. 203.
20 Inst. I. 15.308.
21 On the Covenants, 1. 2. 11.
22 Opera, De Creatione, Quaestio X.
image of God belongs to the very essence of man, Reformed theology does not hesitate
to say that it constitutes the essence of man. It distinguishes, however, between those
elements in the image of God which man cannot lose without ceasing to be man,
consisting in the essential qualities and powers of the human soul; and those elements
which man can lose and still remain man, namely, the good ethical qualities of the soul
and its powers. The image of God in this restricted sense is identical with what is called
original righteousness. It is the moral perfection of the image, which could be, and was,
lost by sin.
2. THE LUTHERAN CONCEPTION. The prevailing Lutheran conception of the image of
God differs materially from that of the Reformed. Luther himself sometimes spoke as if
he had a broad conception of it, but in reality he had a restricted view of it.23 While there
were during the seventeenth century, and there are even now, some Lutheran
theologians who have a broader conception of the image of God, the great majority of
them restrict it to the spiritual qualities with which man was originally endowed, that
is, what is called original righteousness. In doing this they do not sufficiently recognize
the essential nature of man as distinct from that of the angels on the one hand, and from
that of the animals on the other hand. In the possession of this image men are like the
angels, who also possess it; and in comparison with what the two have in common,
their difference is of little importance. Man lost the image of God entirely through sin,
and what now distinguishes him from the animals has very little religious or theological
significance. The great difference between the two lay in the image of God, and this man
has lost entirely. In view of this it is also natural that the Lutherans should adopt
Traducianism, and thus teach that the soul of man originates like that of the animal, that
is, by procreation. It also accounts for the fact that the Lutherans hardly recognize the
moral unity of the human race, but emphasize strongly its physical unity and the
exclusively physical propagation of sin. Barth comes closer to the Lutheran than to the
Reformed position when he seeks the image of God in “a point of contact” between God
and man, a certain conformity with God, and then says that this was not only ruined
but even annihilated by sin.24
3. THE ROMAN CATHOLIC VIEW. Roman Catholics do not altogether agree in their
conception of the image of God. We limit ourselves here to a statement of the prevailing
view among them. They hold that God at creation endowed man with certain natural
gifts, such as the spirituality of the soul, the freedom of the will, and the immortality of
23 Koestlin, The Theology of Luther II, pp. 339-342.
24 The Doctrine of the Word of God, p. 273.
the body. Spirituality, freedom, and immortality, are natural endowments, and as such
constitute the natural image of God. Moreover, God “attempered” (adjusted) the natural
powers of man to one another, placing the lower in due subordination to the higher. The
harmony thus established is called justitia — natural righteousness. But even so there
remained in man a natural tendency of the lower appetites and passions to rebel against
the authority of the higher powers of reason and conscience. This tendency, called
concupiscence, is not itself sin, but becomes sin when it is consented to by the will and
passes into voluntary action. In order to enable man to hold his lower nature in check,
God added to the dona naturalia certain dona supernaturalia. These included the donum
superadditum of original righteousness (the supernatural likeness to God), which was
added as a foreign gift to the original constitution of man, either immediately at the
time of creation, or at some later point as a reward for the proper use of the natural
powers. These supernatural gifts, including the donum superadditum of original
righteousness, were lost by sin, but their loss did not disrupt the essential nature of
4. OTHER VIEWS OF THE IMAGE OF GOD. According to the Socinians and some of the
earlier Arminians the image of God consists in man’s dominion over the lower creation,
and in this only. Anabaptists maintained that the first man, as a finite and earthly
creature, was not yet the image of God, but could become this only by regeneration.
Pelagians, most of the Arminians, and Rationalists all, with little variation, find the
image of God only in the free personality of man, in his rational character, his ethicoreligious
disposition, and his destiny to live in communion with God.
There is a very close connection between the image of God and the original state of
man, and therefore the two are generally considered together. Once again we shall have
to distinguish between different historical views as to the original condition of man.
1. THE PROTESTANT VIEW. Protestants teach that man was created in a state of relative
perfection, a state of righteousness and holiness. This does not mean that he had
already reached the highest state of excellence of which he was susceptible. It is
generally assumed that he was destined to reach a higher degree of perfection in the
way of obedience. He was, something like a child, perfect in parts, but not yet in degree.
His condition was a preliminary and temporary one, which would either lead on to
greater perfection and glory or terminate in a fall. He was by nature endowed with that
original righteousness which is the crowning glory of the image of God, and
consequently lived in a state of positive holiness. The loss of that righteousness meant
the loss of something that belonged to the very nature of man in its ideal state. Man
could lose it and still remain man, but he could not lose it and remain man in the ideal
sense of the word. In other words, its loss would really mean a deterioration and
impairment of human nature. Moreover, man was created immortal. This applies not
only to the soul, but to the whole person of man; and therefore does not merely mean
that the soul was destined to have a continued existence. Neither does it mean that man
was raised above the possibility of becoming a prey to death; this can only be affirmed
of the angels and the saints in heaven. It does mean, however, that man, as he was
created by God, did not bear within him the seeds of death and would not have died
necessarily in virtue of the original constitution of his nature. Though the possibility of
his becoming a victim of death was not excluded, he was not liable to death as long as
he did not sin. It should be borne in mind that man’s original immortality was not
something purely negative and physical, but was something positive and spiritual as
well. It meant life in communion with God and the enjoyment of the favor of the Most
High. This is the fundamental conception of life in Scripture, just as death is primarily
separation from God and subjection to His wrath. The loss of this spiritual life would
spell death, and would also result in physical death.25
2. THE ROMAN CATHOLIC VIEW. Roman Catholics naturally have a somewhat
different view of the original condition of man. According to them original
righteousness did not belong to the nature of man in its integrity, but was something
supernaturally added. In virtue of his creation man was simply endowed with all the
natural powers and faculties of human nature as such, and by the justitia naturalis these
powers were nicely adjusted to each other. He was without sin and lived in a state of
perfect innocency. In the very nature of things, however, there was a natural tendency of
the lower appetites and passions to rebel against the higher powers of reason and
conscience. This tendency, called concupiscence, was not itself sin, but could easily
become the occasion and fuel for sin. (But cf. Rom. 7:8; Col. 3:5; I Thess. 4:5, Auth. Ver.).
Man, then, as he was originally constituted, was by nature without positive holiness,
but also without sin, though burdened with a tendency which might easily result in sin.
But now God added to the natural constitution of man the supernatural gift of original
righteousness, by which he was enabled to keep the lower propensities and desires in
due subjection. When man fell, he lost that original righteousness, but the original
constitution of human nature remained intact. The natural man is now exactly where
25 Cf. especially, Kennedy, St. Paul’s Conceptions of the Last Things, Chap. III.
Adam was before he was endowed with original righteousness, though with a
somewhat stronger bias towards evil.
3. RATIONALIZING VIEWS. Pelagians, Socinians, Arminians, Rationalists, and
Evolutionists, all discount the idea of a primitive state of holiness altogether. The first
four are agreed that man was created in a state of innocence, of moral and religious
neutrality, but was endowed with a free will, so that he could turn in either direction.
Evolutionists assert that man began his career in a state of barbarism, in which he was
but slightly removed from the brute. Rationalists of all kinds believe that a concreated
righteousness and holiness is a contradiction in terms. Man determines his character by
his own free choice; and holiness can only result from a victorious struggle against evil.
From the nature of the case, therefore, Adam could not have been created in a state of
holiness. Moreover. Pelagians. Socinians, and Rationalists hold that man was created
mortal. Death did not result from the entrance of sin into the world, but was simply the
natural termination of human nature as it was constituted. Adam would have died in
virtue of the original constitution of his nature.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: What is the precise distinction which Delitzsch
makes between the soul and the spirit in man? How does Heard make use of the
tripartite conception of man in the interpretation of original sin, conversion, and
sanctification? What accounts for the fact that Lutherans are prevailingly Traducianists,
and Reformed prevailingly Creationists? How about the objection that Creationism
virtually destroys the unity of the human race? What objections are there against
realism with its assumption of the numerical unity of human nature? What criticism
would you offer on Dorner’s view, that the theories of Pre-existentianism,
Traducianism, and Creationism, are simply three different aspects of the whole truth
respecting the origin of the soul? How do Roman Catholics generally distinguish
between the “image” and the “likeness” of God? Do they believe that man lost his
justitia or natural righteousness by the fall or not? How do those Lutherans who restrict
the image of God to man’s original righteousness explain Gen. 9:6 and Jas. 3:9?
LITERATURE. Bavinck, Geref. Dogm., II, pp. 566-635; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Creaturis
C. pp. 3-131; Vos, Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 1-21; Hodge, Syst. Theol. II, pp. 42-116; Dabney,
Syst. and Polem. Theol., pp. 292-302; Shedd, Dogm. Theol. II, pp. 4-114; Litton, Introd. to
Dogm. Theol., pp. 107-122; Dorner, Syst, of Chr. Doct. II, pp. 68-96; Schmidt, Doct. Theol. of
the Ev. Luth. Church, pp. 225-238; Martensen, Chr. Dogm., pp. 136-148; Pieper, Chr. Dogm.
I, pp. 617-630; Valentine, Chr. Theol. I, pp. 383-415; Pope, Chr. Theol. I, pp. 421-436;
Raymond, Syst. Theol. II, pp. 7-49; Wilmers, Handbook of the Chr. Rel., pp. 219-233; Orr,
God’s Image in Man, pp. 3-193; A. Kuyper, Jr., Het Beeld Gods, pp. 8-143; Talma, De
Anthropologie van Calvijn, pp. 29-68; Heard, The Tri-partite Nature of Man; Dickson, St.
Paul’s Use of the Terms Flesh and Spirit, chaps. V-XI; Delitzsch, Syst. of Bibl. Psych., pp.
103-144; Laidlaw, The Bibl. Doct. of Man, pp. 49-108; H. W. Robinson, The Chr. Doct. of
Man, pp. 4-150.
IV. Man in the Covenant of Works
The discussion of the original state of man, the status integritatis, would not be
complete without considering the mutual relationship between God and man, and
especially the origin and nature of the religious life of man. That life was rooted in a
covenant, just as the Christian life is today, and that covenant is variously known as the
covenant of nature, the covenant of life, the Edenic covenant, and the covenant of
works. The first name, which was rather common at first, was gradually abandoned,
since it was apt to give the impression that this covenant was simply a part of the
natural relationship in which man stood to God. The second and third names are not
sufficiently specific, since both of them might also be applied to the covenant of grace,
which is certainly a covenant of life, and also originated in Eden, Gen. 3:15.
Consequently the name “Covenant of Works” deserves preference.
The history of the doctrine of the covenant of works is comparatively brief. In the
early Church Fathers the covenant idea is seldom found at all, though the elements
which it includes, namely, the probationary command, the freedom of choice, and the
possibility of sin and death, are all mentioned. Augustine in his de Civitates Dei speaks
of the relation in which Adam originally stood to God as a covenant (testamentum,
pactum), while some others inferred the original covenant relationship from the well
known passage of Hos. 6:7. In the scholastic literature and in the writings of the
Reformers, too, all the elements which later on went into the construction of the
doctrine of the covenant of works were already present, but the doctrine itself was not
yet developed. Though they contain some expressions which point to the imputation of
Adam’s sin to his descendants, it is clear that on the whole the transmission of sin was
conceived realistically rather than federally. Says Thornwell in his analysis of Calvin’s
Institutes: “Federal representation was not seized as it should be, but a mystic realism in
place of it.”26 The development of the doctrine of the covenant of grace preceded that of
the doctrine of the covenant of works and paved the way for it. When it was clearly
seen that Scripture represented the way of salvation in the form of a covenant, the
parallel which Paul draws in Rom. 5 between Adam and Christ soon gave occasion for
thinking of the state of integrity also as a covenant. According to Heppe the first work
which contained the federal representation of the way of salvation, was Bullinger’s
26 Collected Writings I, p. 619. Cf. Calvin, Institutes II, 1.
Compendium of the Christian Religion; and Olevianus was the real founder of a well
developed federal theology, in which the concept of the covenant became for the first
time the constitutive and determinative principle of the entire system.27 From the
Reformed Churches of Switzerland and Germany federal theology passed over to the
Netherlands and to the British Isles, especially Scotland. Its earliest representatives in
the Netherlands were Gomarus, Trelcatius, Ravensperger, and especially Cloppenburg.
The latter is regarded as the forerunner of Coccejus, who is often mistakenly called “the
father of federal theology.” The real distinction of Coccejus lies, at least partly, in the fact
that he sought to substitute for the usual scholastic method of studying theology, which
was rather common in his day, what he considered a more Scriptural method. He was
followed in that respect by Burmannus and Witsius. Coccejus and his followers were
not the only ones to embrace the doctrine of the covenant of works. This was done by
others as well, such as Voetius, Mastricht, à Marck, and De Moor. Ypeij and Dermout
point out that in those days a denial of the covenant of works was regarded as a
heresy.28 The Socinians rejected this doctrine altogether, since they did not believe in the
imputation of Adam’s sin to his descendants; and some of the Arminians, such as
Episcopius, Limborgh, Venema, and J. Alting, who called it a human doctrine, followed
suit. About the middle of the eighteenth century, when the doctrine of the covenant in
the Netherlands had all but passed into oblivion, Comrie and Holtius in their Examen
van het Ontwerp van Tolerantie once more brought it to the attention of the Church. In
Scotland several important works were written on the covenants, including the
covenant of works, such as those of Fisher (Marrow of Modern Divinity), Ball, Blake, Gib,
and Boston. Says Walker: “The old theology of Scotland might be emphatically
described as covenant theology.”29 The doctrine found official recognition in the
Westminster Confession, and in the Formula Consensus Helvetica. It is significant that the
doctrine of works met with very little response in Roman Catholic and Lutheran
theology. This finds its explanation in their attitude to the doctrine of the immediate
imputation of the sin of Adam to his descendants. Under the influence of Rationalism
and of Placæus’ theory of mediate imputation, which also found acceptance in New
England theology, the doctrine of the covenant gradually suffered eclipse. Even such
conservative scholars as Doedes and Van Oosterzee in the Netherlands rejected it; and
in New England theology it was short-lived. In Scotland the situation is not much
27 Cf. the valuable chapter on Die Foederaltheologie der Reformirten Kirche in Heppe’s Geschichte des
Pietismus, pp. 204-240.
28 Geschiedenis der Ned. Herv. Kerk, Aanteekeningen I-11, p. 315.
29 Scottish Theology and Theologians, p. 73.
better. Hugh Martin already wrote in his work on The Atonement (published in 1887): “It
has come to pass, we fear, that the federal theology is at present suffering a measure of
neglect which does not bode well for the immediate future of the Church amongst us.”30
And while in our own country such Presbyterian scholars as the Hodges, Thornwell,
Breckenridge, and Dabney, take due account of the doctrine in their theological works,
in the Churches which they represent it has all but lost its vitality. In the Netherlands
there has been a revival of federal theology under the influence of Kuyper and Bavinck,
and through the grace of God it still continues to be a living reality in the hearts and
minds of the people.
The widespread denial of the covenant of works makes it imperative to examine its
Scriptural foundation with care.
admitted that the term “covenant” is not found in the first three chapters of Genesis, but
this is not tantamount to saying that they do not contain the necessary data for the
construction of a doctrine of the covenant. One would hardly infer from the absence of
the term “trinity” that the doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the Bible. All the
elements of a covenant are indicated in Scripture, and if the elements are present, we are
not only warranted but, in a systematic study of the doctrine, also in duty bound to
relate them to one another, and to give the doctrine so construed an appropriate name.
In the case under consideration two parties are named, a condition is laid down, a
promise of reward for obedience is clearly implied, and a penalty for transgression is
threatened. It may still be objected that we do not read of the two parties as coming to
an agreement, nor of Adam as accepting the terms laid down, but this is not an
insuperable objection. We do not read of such an explicit agreement and acceptance on
the part of man either in the cases of Noah and Abraham. God and man do not appear
as equals in any of these covenants. All God’s covenants are of the nature of sovereign
dispositions imposed on man. God is absolutely sovereign in His dealings with man,
and has the perfect right to lay down the conditions which the latter must meet, in order
to enjoy His favor. Moreover Adam was, even in virtue of his natural relationship, in
duty bound to obey God; and when the covenant relation was established, this
obedience also became a matter of self-interest. When entering into covenant relations
30 P. 25.
with men, it is always God who lays down the terms, and they are very gracious terms,
so that He has, also from that point of view, a perfect right to expect that man will
assent to them. In the case under consideration God had but to announce the covenant,
and the perfect state in which Adam lived was a sufficient guarantee for his acceptance.
2. THERE WAS A PROMISE OF ETERNAL LIFE. Some deny that there is any Scripture
evidence for such a promise. Now it is perfectly true that no such promise is explicitly
recorded, but it is clearly implied in the alternative of death as the result of
disobedience. The clear implication of the threatened punishment is that in the case of
obedience death would not enter, and this can only mean that life would continue. It
has been objected that this would only mean a continuation of Adam’s natural life, and
not what Scripture calls life eternal. But the Scriptural idea of life is life in communion
with God; and this is the life which Adam possessed, though in his case it was still
amissible. If Adam stood the test, this life would be retained not only, but would cease
to be amissible, and would therefore be lifted to a higher plane. Paul tells us explicitly in
Rom. 7:10 that the commandment, that is the law, was unto life. In commenting on this
verse Hodge says: “The law was designed and adapted to secure life, but became in fact
the cause of death.” This is also clearly indicated in such passages as Rom. 10:5; Gal.
3:13. Now it is generally admitted that this glorious promise of unending life was in no
way implied in the natural relation in which Adam stood to God, but had a different
basis. But to admit that there is something positive here, a special condescension of
God, is an acceptance of the covenant principle. There may still be some doubt as to the
propriety of the name “Covenant of Works,” but there can be no valid objection to the
covenant idea.
AGREEMENT BY CHRIST AS OUR SURETY. He undertook freely to carry out the will of God.
He placed Himself under the law, that He might redeem them that were under the law,
and were no more in a position to obtain life by their own fulfilment of the law. He
came to do what Adam failed to do, and did it in virtue of a covenant agreement. And if
this is so, and the covenant of grace is, as far as Christ is concerned, simply the carrying
out of the original agreement, it follows that the latter must also have been of the nature
of a covenant. And since Christ met the condition of the covenant of works, man can
now reap the fruit of the original agreement by faith in Jesus Christ. There are now two
ways of life, which are in themselves ways of life, the one is the way of the law: “the
man that doeth the righteousness which is of the law shall live thereby,” but it is a way
by which man can no more find life; and the other is the way of faith in Jesus Christ,
who met the demands of the law, and is now able to dispense the blessing of eternal life.
4. THE PARALLEL BETWEEN ADAM AND CHRIST. The parallel which Paul draws
between Adam and Christ in Rom. 5:12-21, in connection with the doctrine of
justification, can only be explained on the assumption that Adam, like Christ, was the
head of a covenant. According to Paul the essential element in justification consists in
this, that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, without any personal work on
our part to merit it. And he regards this as a perfect parallel to the manner in which the
guilt of Adam is imputed to us. This naturally leads to the conclusion that Adam also
stood in covenant relationship to his descendants.
5. THE PASSAGE IN HOS. 6:7. In Hos. 6:7 we read: “But they like Adam have
transgressed the covenant.” Attempts have been made to discredit this reading. Some
have suggested the reading “at Adam,” which would imply that some well-known
transgression occurred at a place called Adam. But the preposition forbids this
rendering. Moreover, the Bible makes no mention whatever of such a well-known
historical transgression at Adam. The Authorized Version renders “like men,” which
would then mean, in human fashion. To this it may be objected that there is no plural in
the original, and that such a statement would be rather inane, since man could hardly
transgress in any other way. The rendering “like Adam” is after all the best. It is favored
by the parallel passage in Job 31:33; and is adopted by the American Revised Version.
The following elements must be distinguished:
1. THE CONTRACTING PARTIES. On the one hand there was the triune God, the Creator
and Lord, and on the other hand, Adam as His dependent creature. A twofold
relationship between the two should be distinguished:
a. The natural relationship. When God created man, He by that very fact established a
natural relationship between Himself and man. It was a relationship like that between
the potter and the clay, between an absolute sovereign and a subject devoid of any
claim. In fact, the distance between the two was so great that these figures are not even
an adequate expression of it. It was such that a life in communion with each other
seemed to be out of the question. As the creature of God man was naturally under the
law, and was in duty bound to keep it. And while transgression of the law would render
him liable to punishment, the keeping of it would not constitute an inherent claim to a
reward. Even if he did all that was required of him, he would still have to say, I am but
an unprofitable servant, for I have merely done that which it was my duty to do. Under
this purely natural relationship man could not have merited anything. But though the
infinite distance between God and man apparently excluded a life of communion with
each other, man was created for just such communion, and the possibility of it was
already given in his creation in the image of God. In this natural relationship Adam was
the father of the human race.
b. The covenant relationship. From the very beginning, however. God revealed
Himself, not only as an absolute Sovereign and Lawgiver, but also as a loving Father,
seeking the welfare and happiness of His dependent creature. He condescended to
come down to the level of man, to reveal Himself as a Friend, and to enable man to
improve his condition in the way of obedience. In addition to the natural relationship
He, by a positive enactment, graciously established a covenant relationship. He entered
into a legal compact with man, which includes all the requirements and obligations
implied in the creaturehood of man, but at the same time added some new elements. (1)
Adam was constituted the representative head of the human race, so that he could act
for all his descendants. (2) He was temporarily put on probation, in order to determine
whether he would willingly subject his will to the will of God. (3) He was given the
promise of eternal life in the way of obedience, and thus by the gracious disposition of
God acquired certain conditional rights. This covenant enabled Adam to obtain eternal
life for himself and for his descendants in the way of obedience.
2. THE PROMISE OF THE COVENANT. The great promise of the covenant of works was
the promise of eternal life. They who deny the covenant of works generally base their
denial in part on the fact that there is no record of such a promise in the Bible. And it is
perfectly true that Scripture contains no explicit promise of eternal life to Adam. But the
threatened penalty clearly implies such a promise. When the Lord says, “for in the day
that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,” his statement clearly implies that, if
Adam refrains from eating, he will not die, but will be raised above the possibility of
death. The implied promise certainly cannot mean that, in the case of obedience, Adam
would be permitted to live on in the usual way, that is, to continue the ordinary natural
life, for that life was his already in virtue of his creation, and therefore could not be held
out as a reward for obedience. The implied promise evidently was that of life raised to
its highest development of perennial bliss and glory. Adam was indeed created in a
state of positive holiness, and was also immortal in the sense that he was not subject to
the law of death. But he was only at the beginning of his course and did not yet possess
the highest privileges that were in store for man. He was not yet raised above the
possibility of erring, sinning, and dying. He was not yet in possession of the highest
degree of holiness, nor did he enjoy life in all its fulness. The image of God in man was
still limited by the possibility of man’s sinning against God, changing from good to evil,
and becoming subject to the power of death. The promise of life in the covenant of
works was a promise of the removal of all the limitations of life to which Adam was still
subject, and of the raising of his life to the highest degree of perfection. When Paul says
in Rom. 7:10 that the commandment was unto life, he means life in the fullest sense of
the word. The principle of the covenant of works was: the man that does these things
shall live thereby; and this principle is reiterated time and again in Scripture, Lev. 18:5;
Ezek. 20:11,13,20; Luke 10:28; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12.
3. THE CONDITION OF THE COVENANT. The promise in the covenant of works was not
unconditional. The condition was that of implicit and perfect obedience. The divine law
can demand nothing less than that, and the positive command not to eat of the fruit of
the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, relating as it did, to a thing indifferent in
itself, was clearly a test of pure obedience in the absolute sense of the word. Man was, of
course, also subject to the moral law of God, which was written on the tablets of his
heart. He knew this by nature, so that it did not have to be revealed supernaturally, as
the special test was. Essentially, the moral law, as Adam knew it, was undoubtedly like
the ten commandments, but the form was different. In its present form the moral law
presupposes a knowledge of sin, and is therefore primarily negative; in Adam’s heart,
however, it must have had a positive character. But just because it was positive, it did
not bring to his consciousness the possibility of sin. Therefore a negative commandment
was added. Moreover, in order that the test of Adam might be a test of pure obedience,
God deemed it necessary to add to the commandments of which Adam perceived the
naturalness and reasonableness, a commandment which was in a certain sense arbitrary
and indifferent. Thus the demands of the law were, so to say, concentrated on a single
point. The great question that had to be settled was, whether man would obey God
implicitly or follow the guidance of his own judgment. Dr. Bavinck says: “Het
proefgebod belichaamde voor hem (Adam) het dilemma: God of de mensch, Zijn gezag
of eigen inzicht, onvoorwaardelijke gehoorzaamheid of zelfstandig onderzoek, geloof of
4. THE PENALTY OF THE COVENANT. The penalty that was threatened was death, and
what this means can best be gathered from the general meaning of the term as it is used
in Scripture, and from the evils that came upon the guilty in the execution of the
penalty. Evidently death in the most inclusive sense of the word is meant, including
physical, spiritual, and eternal death. The fundamental Scriptural idea of death is not
that of extinction of being, but that of separation from the source of life, and the
31 Geref. Dog., II, p. 618.
resulting dissolution or misery and woe. Fundamentally, it consists in the separation of
the soul from God, which manifests itself in spiritual misery, and finally terminates in
eternal death. But it also includes the separation of body and soul and the consequent
dissolution of the body. Undoubtedly the execution of the penalty began at once after
the first transgression. Spiritual death entered instantly, and the seeds of death also
began to operate in the body. The full execution of the sentence, however, did not follow
at once, but was arrested, because God immediately introduced an economy of grace
and restoration.
5. THE SACRAMENT(S) OF THE COVENANT. We have no definite information in
Scripture respecting the sacrament(s) or seal(s) of this covenant. Hence there is a great
variety of opinions on the subject. Some speak of four: the tree of life, the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil, paradise, and the sabbath; others of three: the two trees
and paradise; still others of two: the tree of life and paradise; and still others of one: the
tree of life. The last opinion is the most prevalent one, and would seem to be the only
one to find any support in Scripture. We should not think of the fruit of this tree as
magically or medically working immortality in Adam’s frame. Yet it was in some way
connected with the gift of life. In all probability it must be conceived of as an appointed
symbol or seal of life. Consequently, when Adam forfeited the promise, he was
debarred from the sign. So conceived the words of Gen. 3:22 must be understood
With respect to the question, whether the covenant of works is still in force or was
abrogated at the time of Adam’s fall, there is considerable difference of opinion between
Arminian and Reformed theologians.
1. THE ARMINIAN VIEW. Arminians claim that this legal covenant was wholly
abrogated at the fall of Adam, and argue this as follows: (a) The promise was then
revoked and thus the compact annulled, and where there is no compact there can be no
obligation. (b) God could not continue to exact obedience of man, when the latter was
by nature unable, and was not enabled by the grace of God, to render the required
service. (c) It would be derogatory to God’s wisdom, holiness, and majesty to call the
depraved creature to a service of holy and undivided love. They maintain that God
established a new covenant and enacted a new law, the law of faith and evangelical
obedience, which man in spite of his impaired powers can keep when assisted by the
enabling helps of common or sufficient grace. However, the following considerations
militate against this view: (a) Man’s obligation to God was never rooted merely in the
covenant requirement, but fundamentally in the natural relation in which he stood to
God. This natural relationship was incorporated in the covenant relationship. (b) Man’s
inability is self-induced, and therefore does not relieve him of his just obligation. His
self-imposed limitations, his criminal and voluntary hostility to God did not deprive the
sovereign Ruler of the universe of the right to demand the hearty and loving service
which is His due. (c) The reductio ad absurdum of the Arminian view is that the sinner
can gain complete emancipation from righteous obligations by sinning. The more a man
sins, the more he becomes a slave of sin, unable to do that which is good; and the
deeper he sinks into this slavery which robs him of his capacity for good, the less
responsible he becomes. If man continues to sin long enough, he will in the end be
absolved of all moral responsibility.
2. THE REFORMED VIEW. Even some Reformed theologians speak of the abrogation of
the legal covenant, and seek proof for this in such passages as Heb. 8:13. This naturally
raised the question, whether, and in how far, the covenant of works can be considered
as a thing of the past; or whether, and in how far, it must be regarded as still in force. It
is generally agreed that no change in the legal status of man can ever abrogate the
authority of the law; that God’s claim to the obedience of His creatures is not terminated
by their fall in sin and its disabling effects; that the wages of sin continues to be death;
and that a perfect obedience is always required to merit eternal life. This means with
respect to the question under consideration:
a. That the covenant of works is not abrogated: (1) in so far as the natural relation of man
to God was incorporated in it, since man always owes God perfect obedience; (2) in so
far as its curse and punishment for those who continue in sin are concerned; and (3) in
so far as the conditional promise still holds. God might have withdrawn this promise,
but did not, Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12. It is evident, however, that after the fall no
one can comply with the condition.
b. That the covenant of works is abrogated: (1) in so far as it contained new positive
elements, for those who are under the covenant of grace; this does not mean that it is
simply set aside and disregarded, but that its obligations were met by the Mediator for
His people; and (2) as an appointed means to obtain eternal life, for as such it is
powerless after the fall of man.
I. The Origin of Sin
THE PROBLEM of the origin of the evil that is in the world has always been
considered as one of the profoundest problems of philosophy and theology. It is a
problem that naturally forces itself upon the attention of man, since the power of evil is
both great and universal, is an ever present blight on life in all its manifestations, and is
a matter of daily experience in the life of every man. Philosophers were constrained to
face the problem and to seek an answer to the question as to the origin of all the evil,
and particularly of the moral evil, that is in the world. To some it seemed to be so much
a part of life itself that they sought the solution for it in the natural constitution of
things. Others, however, were convinced that it had a voluntary origin, that is, that it
originated in the free choice of man, either in the present or in some previous existence.
These are much closer to the truth as it is revealed in the Word of God.
The earliest Church Fathers do not speak very definitely on the origin of sin, though
the idea that it originated in the voluntary transgression and fall of Adam in paradise is
already found in the writings of Irenæus. This soon became the prevailing view in the
Church, especially in opposition to Gnosticism, which regarded evil as inherent in
matter, and as such the product of the Demiurge. The contact of the human soul with
matter at once rendered it sinful. This theory naturally robbed sin of its voluntary and
ethical character. Origen sought to maintain this by his theory of pre-existentianism.
According to him the souls of men sinned voluntarily in a previous existence, and
therefore all enter the world in a sinful condition. This Platonic view was burdened
with too many difficulties to meet with wide acceptance. During the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, however, it was advocated by Mueller and Rueckert, and by such
philosophers as Lessing, Schelling, and J. H. Fichte. In general the Greek Church Fathers
of the third and fourth centuries showed an inclination to discount the connection
between the sin of Adam and those of his descendants, while the Latin Church Fathers
taught with ever-increasing clearness that the present sinful condition of man finds its
explanation in the first transgression of Adam in paradise. The teachings of the Eastern
Church finally culminated in Pelagianism, which denied that there was any vital
connection between the two, while those of the Western Church reached their
culmination in Augustinianism which stressed the fact that we are both guilty and
polluted in Adam. Semi-Pelagianism admitted the Adamic connection, but held that it
accounted only for the pollution of sin. During the Middle Ages the connection was
generally recognized. It was sometimes interpreted in an Augustinian, but more often in
a Semi-Pelagian manner. The Reformers shared the views of Augustine, and the
Socinians those of Pelagius, while the Arminians moved in the direction of Semi-
Pelagianism. Under the influence of Rationalism and evolutionary philosophy the
doctrine of the fall of man and its fatal effects on the human race was gradually
discarded. The idea of sin was replaced by that of evil, and this evil was explained in
various ways. Kant regarded it as something belonging to the supersensible sphere,
which he could not explain. For Leibnitz it was due to the necessary limitations of the
universe. Schleiermacher found its origin in the sensuous nature of man, and Ritschl, in
human ignorance, while the evolutionist ascribes it to the opposition of the lower
propensities to a gradually developing moral consciousness. Barth speaks of the origin
of sin as the mystery of predestination. Sin originated in the fall, but the fall was not a
historical event; it belongs to superhistory (Urgeschichte). Adam was indeed the first
sinner, but his disobedience cannot be regarded as the cause of the sin of the world. The
sin of man is in some manner bound up with his creatureliness. The story of paradise
simply conveys to man the cheering information that he need not necessarily be a
In Scripture the moral evil that is in the world stands out clearly as sin, that is, as
trangression of the law of God. Man ever appears in it as a transgressor by nature, and
the question naturally arises, How did he acquire that nature? What does the Bible
reveal on that point?
1. GOD CANNOT BE REGARDED AS ITS AUTHOR. God’s eternal decree certainly rendered
the entrance of sin into the world certain, but this may not be interpreted so as to make
God the cause of sin in the sense of being its responsible author. This idea is clearly
excluded by Scripture. “Far be it from God, that He should do wickedness, and from the
Almighty, that He should commit iniquity,” Job 34:10. He is the holy God, Isa. 6:3, and
there is absolutely no unrighteousness in Him, Deut. 32:4; Ps. 92:16. He cannot be
tempted with evil, and He Himself tempteth no man, Jas. 1:13. When He created man,
He created Him good and in His image. He positively hates sin, Deut. 25:16; Ps. 5:4;
11:5; Zech. 8:17; Luke 16:15, and made provision in Christ for man’s deliverance from
sin. In the light of all this it would be blasphemous to speak of God as the author of sin.
And for that reason all those deterministic views which represent sin as a necessity
inherent in the very nature of things should be rejected. They by implication make God
the author of sin, and are contrary, not only to Scripture, but also to the voice of
conscience, which testifies to the responsibility of man.
2. SIN ORIGINATED IN THE ANGELIC WORLD. The Bible teaches us that in the attempt to
trace the origin of sin, we must even go back of the fall of man as described in Gen. 3,
and fix the attention on something that happened in the angelic world. God created a
host of angels, and they were all good as they came forth from the hand of their Maker,
Gen. 1:31. But a fall occurred in the angelic world, in which legions of angels fell away
from God. The exact time of this fall is not designated, but in John 8:44 Jesus speaks of
the devil as a murderer from the beginning (kat’ arches), and John says in I John 3:8, that
he sins from the beginning. The prevailing opinion is that this kat’ arches means from the
beginning of the history of man. Very little is said about the sin that caused the fall of
the angels. From Paul’s warning to Timothy, that no novice should be appointed as
bishop, “lest being puffed up he fall into the condemnation of the devil,” I Tim. 3:6, we
may in all probability conclude that it was the sin of pride, of aspiring to be like God in
power and authority. And this idea would seem to find corroboration in Jude 6, where it
is said that the fallen angels “kept not their own principality, but left their proper
habitation.” They were not satisfied with their lot, with the government and power
entrusted to them. If the desire to be like God was their peculiar temptation, this would
also explain why they tempted man on that particular point.
3. THE ORIGIN OF SIN IN THE HUMAN RACE. With respect to the origin of sin in the
history of mankind, the Bible teaches that it began with the transgression of Adam in
paradise, and therefore with a perfectly voluntary act on the part of man. The tempter
came from the spirit world with the suggestion that man, by placing himself in
opposition to God, might become like God. Adam yielded to the temptation and
committed the first sin by eating of the forbidden fruit. But the matter did not stop
there, for by that first sin Adam became the bond-servant of sin. That sin carried
permanent pollution with it, and a pollution which, because of the solidarity of the
human race, would affect not only Adam but all his descendants as well. As a result of
the fall the father of the race could only pass on a depraved human nature to his
offspring. From that unholy source sin flows on as an impure stream to all the
generations of men, polluting everyone and everything with which it comes in contact.
It is exactly this state of things that made the question of Job so pertinent, “Who can
bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one.” Job 14:4. But even this is not all. Adam
sinned not only as the father of the human race, but also as the representative head of
all his descendants; and therefore the guilt of his sin is placed to their account, so that
they are all liable to the punishment of death. It is primarily in that sense that Adam’s
sin is the sin of all. That is what Paul teaches us in Rom. 5:12: “Through one man sin
entered into the world, and death through sin; and so death passed unto all men, for
that all sinned.” The last words can only mean that they all sinned in Adam, and sinned
in such a way as to make them all liable to the punishment of death. It is not sin
considered merely as pollution, but sin as guilt that carries punishment with it. God
adjudges all men to be guilty sinners in Adam, just as He adjudges all believers to be
righteous in Jesus Christ. That is what Paul means, when he says: “So then as through
one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act
of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life. For as through the
one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of
the one shall the many be made righteous,” Rom. 5:18,19.
1. ITS FORMAL CHARACTER. It may be said that, from a purely formal point of view,
man’s first sin consisted in his eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We
do not know what kind of tree this was. It may have been a date or a fig tree, or any
other kind of fruit tree. There was nothing injurious in the fruit of the tree as such.
Eating of it was not per se sinful. for it was not a transgression of the moral law. This
means that it would not have been sinful, if God had not said, “Of the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat.” There is no unanimous opinion as to
the reason why the tree was called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A rather
common view is that the tree was so called, because the eating of it would impart a
practical knowledge of good and evil; but this is hardly in keeping with the Scriptural
representation that man by eating it would become like God in knowing good and evil,
for God does not commit evil, and therefore has no practical knowledge of it. It is far
more likely that the tree was so called, because it was destined to reveal (a) whether
man’s future state would be good or evil; and (b) whether man would allow God to
determine for him what was good and evil, or would undertake to determine this for
himself. But whatever explanation may be given of the name, the command given by
God not to eat of the fruit of the tree simply served the purpose of testing the obedience
of man. It was a test of pure obedience, since God did not in any way seek to justify or
to explain the prohibition. Adam had to show his willingness to submit his will to the
will of his God with implicit obedience.
2. ITS ESSENTIAL AND MATERIAL CHARACTER. The first sin of man was a typical sin,
that is, a sin in which the real essence of sin clearly reveals itself. The essence of that sin
lay in the fact that Adam placed himself in opposition to God, that he refused to subject
his will to the will of God, to have God determine the course of his life; and that he
actively attempted to take the matter out of God’s hand, and to determine the future for
himself. Man, who had absolutely no claim on God, and who could only establish a
claim by meeting the condition of the covenant of works, cut loose from God and acted
as if he possesed certain rights as over against God. The idea that the command of God
was really an infringement on the rights of man seems to have been present already in
the mind of Eve when, in answer to the question of Satan, she added the words,
“Neither shall ye touch it,” Gen. 3:3. She evidently wanted to stress the fact that the
command had been rather unreasonable. Starting from the pre-supposition that he had
certain rights as over against God, man allowed the new center, which he found in
himself, to operate against his Maker. This explains his desire to be like God and his
doubt of the good intention of God in giving the command. Naturally different
elements can be distinguished in his first sin. In the intellect it revealed itself as unbelief
and pride, in the will, as the desire to be like God, and in the affections, as an unholy
satisfaction in eating of the forbidden fruit.
1. THE PROCEDURE OF THE TEMPTER. The fall of man was occasioned by the
temptation of the serpent, who sowed in man’s mind the seeds of distrust and unbelief.
Though it was undoubtedly the intention of the tempter to cause Adam, the head of the
covenant, to fall, yet he addressed himself to Eve, probably because (a) she was not the
head of the covenant and therefore would not have the same sense of responsibility; (b)
she had not received the command of God directly but only indirectly, and would
consequently be more susceptible to argumentation and doubt; and (c) she would
undoubtedly prove to be the most effective agent in reaching the heart of Adam. The
course followed by the tempter is quite clear. In the first place he sows the seeds of
doubt by calling the good intention of God in question and suggesting that His
command was really an infringement of man’s liberty and rights. When he notices from
the response of Eve that the seed has taken root, he adds the seeds of unbelief and
pride, denying that transgression will result in death, and clearly intimating that the
command was prompted by the selfish purpose of keeping man in subjection. He
asserts that by eating from the tree man would become like God. The high expectations
thus engendered induced Eve to look intently at the tree, and the longer she looked, the
better the fruit seemed to her. Finally, desire got the upper hand, and she ate and also
gave unto her husband, and he ate.
2. INTERPRETATION OF THE TEMPTATION. Frequent attempts have been made and are
still being made to explain away the historical character of the fall. Some regard the
whole narrative in Gen. 3 as an allegory, representing man’s self-depravation and
gradual change in a figurative way. Barth and Brunner regard the narrative of man’s
original state and of the fall as a myth. Creation and the fall both belong, not to history,
but to super-history (Urgeschichte), and therefore both are equally incomprehensible.
The story in Genesis merely teaches us that, though man is now unable to do any good
and is subject to the law of death, this is not necessarily so. It is possible for a man to be
free from sin and death by a life in communion with God. Such is the life portrayed for
us in the story of paradise, and it prefigures the life that will be granted to us in Him of
whom Adam was but a type, namely, Christ. But it is not the kind of life that man now
lives or ever has lived from the beginning of history. Paradise is not a certain locality to
which we can point, but is there where God is Lord, and man and all other creatures are
His willing subjects. The paradise of the past lies beyond the pale of human history.
Says Barth: “When the history of man began; when man’s time had its beginning; when
time and history commenced where man has the first and the last word, paradise had
disappeared.”32 Brunner speaks in a similar vein when he says: “Just as in respect of the
Creation we ask in vain. How, where and when has this taken place, so also is it with
the Fall. The Creation and the Fall both lie behind the historical visible reality.”33
Others who do not deny the historical character of the narrative in Genesis,
maintain that the serpent at least should not be regarded as a literal animal, but merely
as a name or a symbol for covetousness, for sexual desire, for erring reason, or for Satan.
Still others assert that, to say the least, the speaking of the serpent should be understood
figuratively. But all these and similar interpretations are untenable in the light of
Scripture. The passages preceding and following Gen. 3:1-7 are evidently intended as a
plain historical narrative. That they were so understood by the Biblical authors, can be
proved by many cross-references, such as Job 31:33; Eccl. 7:29; Isa. 43:27; Hos. 6:7; Rom.
5:12,18,19; I Cor. 5:21; II Cor. 11:3; I Tim. 2:14, and therefore we have no right to hold that
these verses, which form an integral part of the narrative, should be interpreted
32 God’s Search for Man, p. 98.
33 Man in Revolt, p. 142.
figuratively. Moreover, the serpent is certainly counted among the animals in Gen. 3:1,
and it would not yield good sense to substitute for “serpent” the word “Satan.” The
punishment in Gen. 3:14,15 presupposes a literal serpent, and Paul conceives of the
serpent in no other way, II Cor. 11:3. And while it may be possible to conceive of the
serpent as saying something in a figurative sense by means of cunning actions, it does
not seem possible to think of him as carrying on the conversation recorded in Gen. 3 in
that way. The whole transaction, including the speaking of the serpent, undoubtedly
finds its explanation in the operation of some superhuman power, which is not
mentioned in Gen. 3. Scripture clearly intimates that the serpent was but the instrument
of Satan, and that Satan was the real tempter, who was working in and through the
serpent, just as at a later time he worked in men and swine, John 8:44; Rom. 16:20; II
Cor. 11:3; Rev. 12:9. The serpent was a fit instrument for Satan, for he is the
personification of sin, and the serpent symbolizes sin (a) in its cunning and deceptive
nature, and (b) in its poisonous sting by which it kills man.
3. THE FALL BY TEMPTATION AND MAN’S SALVABILITY. It has been suggested that the
fact that man’s fall was occasioned by temptation from without, may be one of the
reasons why man is salvable, in distinction from the fallen angels, who were not subject
to external temptation, but fell by the promptings of their own inner nature. Nothing
certain can be said on this point, however. But whatever the significance of the
temptation in that respect may be, it certainly does not suffice to explain how a holy
being like Adam could fall in sin. It is impossible for us to say how temptation could
find a point of contact in a holy person. And it is still more difficult to explain the origin
of sin in the angelic world.
Naturally, a consistent theory of evolution cannot admit the doctrine of the fall, and
a number of liberal theologians have rejected it as incompatible with the theory of
evolution. It is true, there are some rather conservative theologians, such as Denney,
Gore, and Orr, who accept, though with reservations, the evolutionary account of the
origin of man, and feel that it leaves room for the doctrine of the fall in some sense of
the word. But it is significant that they all conceive of the story of the fall as a mythical
or allegorical representation of an ethical experience or of some actual moral
catastrophe at the beginning of history which resulted in suffering and death. This
means that they do not accept the narrative of the fall as a real historical account of
what occurred in the garden of Eden. Tennant in his Hulsean Lectures on The Origin and
Propagation of Sin34 gave a rather detailed and interesting account of the origin of sin
from the evolutionary point of view. He realizes that man could not very well derive sin
from his animal ancestors, since these had no sin. This means that the impulses,
propensities, desires, and qualities which man inherited from the brute cannot
themselves be called sin. In his estimation these constitute only the material of sin, and
do not become actual sins until the moral consciousness awakens in man, and they are
left in control in determining the actions of man, contrary to the voice of conscience, and
to ethical sanctions. He holds that in the course of his development man gradually
became an ethical being with an indeterminate will, without explaining how such a will
is possible where the law of evolution prevails, and regards this will as the only cause of
sin. He defines sin “as an activity of the will expressed in thought, word, or deed
contrary to the individual’s conscience. to his notion of what is good and right, his
knowledge of the moral law and the will of God.”35 As the human race develops, the
ethical standards become more exacting and the heinousness of sin increases. A sinful
environment adds to the difficulty of refraining from sin. This view of Tennant leaves
no room for the fall of man in the generally accepted sense of the word. As a matter of
fact, Tennant explicitly repudiates the doctrine of the fall, which is recognized in all the
great historical confessions of the Church. Says W. H. Johnson: “Tennant’s critics are
agreed that his theory leaves no room for that cry of the contrite heart which not only
confesses to separate acts of sin, but declares; ‘I was shapen in iniquity; there is a law of
death in my members.’”36
The first transgression of man had the following results:
1. The immediate concomitant of the first sin, and therefore hardly a result of it in
the strict sense of the word, was the total depravity of human nature. The contagion of
his sin at once spread through the entire man, leaving no part of his nature untouched,
but vitiating every power and faculty of body and soul. This utter corruption of man is
clearly taught in Scripture, Gen. 6:5; Ps. 14:3; Rom. 7:18. Total depravity here does not
mean that human nature was at once as thoroughly depraved as it could possibly
become. In the will this depravity manifested itself as spiritual inability.
34 Chap. III.
35 p. 163.
36 Can the Christian Now Believe in Evolution? p. 136.
2. Immediately connected with the preceding was the loss of communion with God
through the Holy Spirit. This is but the reverse side of the utter corruption mentioned in
the preceding paragraph. The two can be combined in the single statement that man
lost the image of God in the sense of original righteousness. He broke away from the
real source of life and blessedness, and the result was a condition of spiritual death,
Eph. 2:1,5,12; 4:18.
3. This change in the actual condition of man also reflected itself in his
consciousness. There was, first of all, a consciousness of pollution, revealing itself in the
sense of shame, and in the effort of our first parents to cover their nakedness. And in the
second place there was a consciousness of guilt, which found expression in an accusing
conscience and in the fear of God which it inspired.
4. Not only spiritual death, but physical death as well resulted from the first sin of
man. From a state of posse non mori he descended to a state of non posse non mori. Having
sinned, he was doomed to return to the dust from which he was taken, Gen. 3:19. Paul
tells us that by one man death entered the world and passed on to all men, Rom. 5:12,
and that the wages of sin is death, Rom. 6:23.
5. This change also resulted in a necessary change of residence. Man was driven
from paradise, because it represented the place of communion with God, and was a
symbol of the fuller life and greater blessedness in store for man, if he continued
steadfast. He was barred from the tree of life, because it was the symbol of the life
promised in the covenant of works.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. What different theories are there as to the origin of
sin? What Scriptural proof is there that sin originated in the angelic world? Can the
allegorical interpretation of the narrative of the fall be maintained in the light of
Scripture? Is there any place for the fall in the theory of evolution? Did God will the fall
of man or did He merely permit it? Does our Reformed doctrine make God the author
of sin? What objections are there to the notion that the souls of men sinned in a previous
existence? Was God justified in making the spiritual state of mankind in general
contingent on the obedience or non-obedience of the first man? What do Barth and
Brunner mean when they speak of the fall of man as super-historical? Why is it that the
doctrine of the covenant of works finds so little acceptance outside of Reformed circles?
What accounts for the widespread neglect of this doctrine in our day? Why is it
important to maintain this doctrine?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. III, pp. 605-624; III, pp. 1-60; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm.,
De Foedere, pp. 23-117; De Peccato, pp. 17-26; Vos. Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 32-54; Hodge, Syst.
Theol., pp. 117-129; Dabney, Syst. and Polem Theol., pp. 332-339; Alexander, Syst. of Bibl.
Theol. I, pp. 183-196; 216-232; Schmid, Doct. Theol. of the Ev. Luth. Ch., pp. 239-242;
Valentine, Chr. Theol. I, pp. 416-420; Litton, Introd. to Dogm. Theol., pp. 133-136; Pope, Chr.
Theol., II, pp. 3-28; II, p. 108; Raymond, Svst. Theol. II, pp. 50-63; 99;111; Macintosh, Theol.
as an Empirical Science, pp. 216-229; McPherson, Chr. Dogm., pp. 220-242; Orr, God’s Image
in Man; pp. 197-240; Candlish, The Bibl. Doct. of Sin, pp. 82-89; Talma, De Anthropologie
van Calvijn, pp. 69-91; Kuyper, Uit het Woord, De Leer der Verbonden, pp. 3-221; Tennant,
The Origin and Propagation of Sin; ibid, The Concept of Sin.
II. The Essential Character of Sin
Sin is one of the saddest but also one of the most common phenomena of human
life. It is a part of the common experience of mankind, and therefore forces itself upon
the attention of all those who do not deliberately close their eyes to the realities of
human life. Some may for a time dream of the essential goodness of man and speak
indulgently of those separate words and actions that do not measure up to the ethical
standards of good society as mere foibles and weaknesses, for which man is not
responsible, and which readily yield to corrective measures; but as time goes on, and all
measures of external reform fail, and the suppression of one evil merely serves to
release another, such persons are inevitably disillusioned. They become conscious of the
fact that they have merely been fighting the symptoms of some deep-seated malady,
and that they are confronted, not merely with the problem of sins, that is, of separate
sinful deeds, but with the much greater and deeper problem of sin. of an evil that is
inherent in human nature. This is exactly what we are beginning to witness at the
present time. Many Modernists at present do not hesitate to say that the doctrine of
Rousseau respecting the inherent goodness of man has proved to be one of the most
pernicious teachings of the Enlightenment, and now call for a greater measure of
realism in the recognition of sin Thus Walter Horton, who pleads for a realistic theology
and believes that this calls for the acceptance of some Marxian principles, says: “I
believe that orthodox Christianity represents a profound insight into the whole human
predicament. I believe that the basic human difficulty is that perversion of the will, that
betrayal of divine trust, which is called sin; and I believe that sin is in a sense a racial
disease, transmissible from generation to generation In affirming these things the
Christian Fathers and the Protestant Reformers spoke as realists, and could have
assembled masses of empirical evidence to support their views.”37 In view of the fact
that sin is real and that no man can get away from it in this present life, it is no wonder
that philosophers as well as theologians undertook to grapple with the problem of sin,
though in philosophy it is known as the problem of evil rather than as the problem of
sin. We shall briefly consider some of the most important philosophical theories of evil
before we state the Scriptural doctrine of sin.
37 Realistic Theology, p. 56.
1. THE DUALISTIC THEORY. This is one of the views that were current in Greek
philosophy. In the form of Gnosticism it found entrance into the early Church. It
assumes the existence of an eternal principle of evil, and holds that in man the spirit
represents the principle of good, and the body, that of evil. It is objectionable for several
reasons: (a) The position is philosophically untenable, that there is something outside of
God that is eternal and independent of His will. (b) This theory robs sin of its ethical
character by making it something purely physical and independent of the human will,
and thereby really destroys the idea of sin. (c) It also does away with the responsibility
of man by representing sin as a physical necessity. The only escape from sin lies in
deliverance from the body.
2. THE THEORY THAT SIN IS MERELY PRIVATION. According to Leibnitz the present world
is the best possible one. The existence of sin in it must be considered as unavoidable. It
cannot be referred to the agency of God, and therefore must be regarded as a simple
negation or privation, for which no efficient cause is needed. The limitations of the
creature render it unavoidable. This theory makes sin a necessary evil, since creatures
are necessarily limited, and sin is an unavoidable consequence of this limitation. Its
attempt to avoid making God the author of sin is not successful, for even if sin is a mere
negation requiring no efficient cause, God is nevertheless the author of the limitation
from which it results. Moreover, it tends to obliterate the distinction between moral and
physical evil, since it represents sin as little more than a misfortune which has befallen
man. Consequently, it has a tendency to blunt man’s sense of the evil or pollution of sin,
to destroy the sense of guilt, and to abrogate man’s moral responsibility.
3. THE THEORY THAT SIN IS AN ILLUSION. For Spinoza, as for Leibnitz, sin is simply a
defect, a limitation of which man is conscious; but while Leibnitz regards the notion of
evil, arising from this limitation, as necessary, Spinoza holds that the resulting
consciousness of sin is simply due to the inadequacy of man’s knowledge, which fails to
see everything sub specie aeternitatis, that is, in unity with the eternal and infinite essence
of God. If man’s knowledge were adequate, so that he saw everything in God, he would
have no conception of sin; it would simply be non-existent for him. But this theory,
representing sin as something purely negative, does not account for its terrible positive
results, to which the universal experience of mankind testifies in the most convincing
manner. Consistently carried through, it abrogates all ethical distinctions, and reduces
such concepts as “moral character” and “moral conduct” to meaningless phrases. In
fact, it reduces the whole life of man to an illusion: his knowledge, his experience, the
testimony of conscience, and so on, for all his knowledge is inadequate. Moreover, it
goes contrary to the experience of mankind, that the greatest intellects are often the
greatest sinners, Satan being the greatest of all.
NATURE. This is the view of Schleiermacher. According to him man’s consciousness of
sin is dependent on his God-consciousness. When the sense of God awakens in man, he
is at once conscious of the opposition of his lower nature to it. This opposition follows
from the very constitution of his being, from his sensuous nature, from the soul’s
connection with a physical organism. It is therefore an inherent imperfection, but one
which man feels as sin and guilt. Yet this does not make God the author of sin, since
man wrongly conceives of this imperfection as sin. Sin has no objective existence, but
exists only in man’s consciousness. But this theory makes man constitutionally evil. The
evil was present in man even in his original state, when the God-consciousness was not
sufficiently strong to control the sensuous nature of man. It is in flagrant opposition to
Scripture, when it holds that man wrongly adjudges this evil to be sin, and thus makes
sin and guilt purely subjective. And though Schleiermacher wishes to avoid this
conclusion, it does make God the responsible author of sin, for He is the creator of
man’s sensuous nature. It also rests upon an incomplete induction of facts, since it fails
to take account of the fact that many of the most hateful sins of man do not pertain to
his physical but to his spiritual nature, such as avarice, envy, pride, malice, and others.
Moreover, it leads to the most absurd conclusions as, for instance, that asceticism, by
weakening the sensuous nature, necessarily weakens the power of sin; that man
becomes less sinful as his senses fail with age; that death is the only redeemer; and that
disembodied spirits, including the devil himself, have no sin.
TO IGNORANCE. Like Schleiermacher, Ritschl too stresses the fact that sin is understood
only from the standpoint of the Christian consciousness. They who are outside of the
pale of the Christian religion, and they who are still strangers to the experience of
redemption, have no knowledge of it. Under the influence of the redemptive work of
God man becomes conscious of his lack of trust in God and of his opposition to the
Kingdom of God, which is the highest good. Sin is not determined by man’s attitude to
the law of God, but by his relation to the purpose of God, to establish the Kingdom.
Man imputes his failure to make the purpose of God his own to himself as guilt, but
God regards it merely as ignorance, and because it is ignorance, it is pardonable. This
view of Ritschl reminds us by way of contrast of the Greek dictum that knowledge is
virtue. It fails completely to do justice to the Scriptural position that sin is above all
transgression of the law of God, and therefore renders man guilty in the sight of God
and worthy of condemnation. Moreover, the idea that sin is ignorance goes contrary to
the voice of Christian experience. The man who is burdened with the sense of sin
certainly does not feel that way about it. He is grateful, too, that not only the sins which
he committed in ignorance are pardonable, but all the others as well, with the single
exception of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
6. THE THEORY THAT SIN IS SELFISHNESS. This position is taken among others by
Mueller and A. H. Strong. Some who take this position conceive of selfishness merely as
the opposite of altruism or benevolence; others understand by it the choice of self rather
than God as the supreme object of love. Now this theory, especially when it conceives of
selfishness as a putting of self in the place of God, is by far the best of the theories
named. Yet it can hardly be called satisfactory. Though all selfishness is sin, and there is
an element of selfishness in all sin, it cannot be said that selfishness is the essence of sin.
Sin can be properly defined only with reference to the law of God, a reference that is
completely lacking in the definition under consideration. Moreover, there is a great deal
of sin in which selfishness is not at all the governing principle. When a poverty-stricken
father sees his wife and children pine away for lack of food, and in his desperate desire
to help them finally resorts to theft, this can hardly be called pure selfishness. It may
even be that the thought of self was entirely absent. Enmity to God, hardness of heart,
impenitence, and unbelief, are all heinous sins, but cannot simply be qualified as
selfishness. And certainly the view that all virtue is disinterestedness or benevolence,
which seems to be a necessary corollary of the theory under consideration, at least in
one of its forms, does not hold. An act does not cease to be virtuous, when its
performance meets and satisfies some demand of our nature. Moreover, justice, fidelity,
humility, forbearance, patience, and other virtues may be cultivated or practiced, not as
forms of benevolence, but as virtues inherently excellent, not merely as promoting the
happiness of others, but for what they are in themselves.
developed, as we pointed out in the preceding, by Tennant in his Hulsean Lectures. It is
the doctrine of sin constructed according to the theory of evolution. Natural impulses
and inherited qualities, derived from the brute, form the material of sin, but do not
actually become sin until they are indulged in contrary to the gradually awakening
moral sense of mankind. The theories of McDowall and Fiske move along similar lines.
The theory as presented by Tennant halts somewhat between the Scriptural view of man
and that presented by the theory of evolution, inclining now to the one and anon to the
other side. It assumes that man had a free will even before the awakening of his moral
consciousness, so that he was able to choose when he was placed before a moral ideal;
but does not explain how we can conceive of a free and indeterminate will in a process
of evolution. It limits sin to those transgressions of the moral law, which are committed
with a clear consciousness of a moral ideal and are therefore condemned by conscience
as evil. As a matter of fact, it is merely the old Pelagian view of sin grafted into the
theory of evolution, and is therefore open to all the objections with which Pelagianism is
The radical defect in all these theories is that they seek to define sin without taking
into consideration that sin is essentially a breaking away from God, opposition to God,
and transgression of the law of God. Sin should always be defined in terms of man’s
relation to God and to His will as expressed in the moral law.
In giving the Scriptural idea of sin it is necessary to call attention to several
1. SIN IS A SPECIFIC KIND OF EVIL. At the present time we hear a great deal about evil,
and comparatively little about sin; and this is rather misleading. Not all evil is sin. Sin
should not be confused with physical evil, with that which is injurious or calamitous. It
is possible to speak not only of sin but also of sickness as an evil, but then the word
“evil” is used in two totally different senses. Above the physical lies the ethical sphere,
in which the contrast between moral good and evil applies, and it is only in this sphere
that we can speak of sin. And even in this sphere it is not desirable to substitute the
word “evil” for “sin” without any further qualification, for the latter is more specific
than the former. Sin is a moral evil. Most of the names that are used in Scripture to
designate sin point to its moral character. Chatta’th directs attention to it as an action
that misses the mark and consists in a deviation from the right way. ’Avel and ’avon
indicate that it is a want of integrity and rectitude, a departure from the appointed path.
Pesha’ refers to it as a revolt or a refusal of subjection to rightful authority, a positive
transgression of the law, and a breaking of the covenant. And resha’ points to it as a
wicked and guilty departure from the law. Furthermore, it is designated as guilt by
’asham, as unfaithfulness and treason, by ma’al, as vanity, by ’aven, and as perversion or
distortion of nature (crookedness) by ’avah. The corresponding New Testament words,
such as hamartia, adikia, parabasis, paraptoma, anomia, paranomia, and others, point to the
same ideas. In view of the use of these words, and of the way in which the Bible usually
speaks of sin, there can be no doubt about its ethical character. It is not a calamity that
came upon man unawares, poisoned his life, and ruined his happiness, but an evil
course which man has deliberately chosen to follow and which carries untold misery
with it. Fundamentally, it is not something passive, such as a weakness, a fault, or an
imperfection, for which we cannot be held responsible, but an active opposition to God,
and a positive transgression of His law, which constitutes guilt. Sin is the result of a free
but evil choice of man. This is the plain teaching of the Word of God, Gen. 3:1-6; Isa.
48:8; Rom. 1:18-32; I John 3:4. The application of the philosophy of evolution to the
study of the Old Testament led some scholars to the conviction that the ethical idea of
sin was not developed until the time of the prophets, but this view is not borne out by
the way in which the earliest books of the Bible speak of sin.
2. SIN HAS AN ABSOLUTE CHARACTER. In the ethical sphere the contrast between good
and evil is absolute. There is no neutral condition between the two. While there are
undoubtedly degrees in both, there are no gradations between the good and the evil.
The transition from the one to the other is not of a quantitative, but of a qualitative
character. A moral being that is good does not become evil by simply diminishing his
goodness, but only by a radical qualitative change, by turning to sin. Sin is not a lesser
degree of goodness, but a positive evil. This is plainly taught in the Bible. He who does
not love God is thereby characterized as evil. Scripture knows of no position of
neutrality. It urges the wicked to turn to righteousness, and sometimes speaks of the
righteous as falling into evil; but it does not contain a single indication that either the
one or the other ever lands in a neutral position. Man is either on the right side or on the
wrong side, Matt. 10:32,33; 12:30; Luke 11:23; Jas. 2:10.
3. SIN ALWAYS HAS RELATION TO GOD AND HIS WILL. The older dogmaticians realized
that it was impossible to have a correct conception of sin without contemplating it in
relation to God and His will, and therefore emphasized this aspect and usually spoke of
sin as “lack of conformity to the law of God.” This is undoubtedly a correct formal
definition of sin. But the question arises, Just what is the material content of the law?
What does it demand? If this question is answered, it will be possible to determine what
sin is in a material sense. Now there is no doubt about it that the great central demand of
the law is love to God. And if from the material point of view moral goodness consists in
love to God, then moral evil must consist in the opposite. It is separation from God,
opposition to God, hatred of God, and this manifests itself in constant transgression of
the law of God in thought, word, and deed. The following passages clearly show that
Scripture contemplates sin in relation to God and His law, either as written on the
tablets of the heart, or as given by Moses, Rom. 1:32; 2:12-14; 4:15; Jas. 2:9; I John 3:4.
4. SIN INCLUDES BOTH GUILT AND POLLUTION. Guilt is the state of deserving
condemnation or of being liable to punishment for the violation of a law or a moral
requirement. It expresses the relation which sin bears to justice or to the penalty of the
law. But even so the word has a twofold meaning. It may denote an inherent quality of
the sinner, namely, his demerit, ill-desert, or guiltiness, which renders him worthy of
punishment. Dabney speaks of this as “potential guilt.” It is inseparable from sin, is
never found in one who is not personally a sinner, and is permanent, so that once
established, it cannot be removed by pardon. But it may also denote the obligation to
satisfy justice, to pay the penalty of sin, “actual guilt,” as Dabney calls it.38 It is not
inherent in man, but is the penal enactment of the lawgiver, who fixes the penalty of the
guilt. It may be removed by the satisfaction of the just demands of the law personally or
vicariously. While many deny that sin includes guilt, this does not comport with the fact
that sin was threatened and is indeed visited with punishment, and clearly contradicts
the plain statements of Scripture, Matt. 6:12; Rom. 3:19; 5:18; Eph. 2:3. By pollution we
understand the inherent corruption to which every sinner is subject. This is a reality in
the life of every individual. It is not conceivable without guilt, though guilt as included
in a penal relationship, is conceivable without immediate pollution. Yet it is always
followed by pollution. Every one who is guilty in Adam is, as a result, also born with a
corrupt nature. The pollution of sin is clearly taught in such passages as Job 14:4; Jer.
17:9; Matt. 7:15-20; Rom. 8:5-8; Eph. 4:17-19.
5. SIN HAS ITS SEAT IN THE HEART. Sin does not reside in any one faculty of the soul,
but in the heart, which in Scriptural psychology is the central organ of the soul, out of
which are the issues of life. And from this center its influence and operations spread to
the intellect, the will, the affections, in short, to the entire man, including his body. In his
sinful state the whole man is the object of God’s displeasure. There is a sense in which it
can be said that sin originated in the will of man, but then the will does not designate
some actual volition as much as it does the volitional nature of man. There was a
tendency of the heart underlying the actual volition when sin entered the world. This
view is in perfect harmony with the representations of Scripture in such passages as the
following: Prov. 4:23; Jer. 17:9; Matt. 15:19,20; Luke 6:45; Heb. 3:12.
overt acts, but also in sinful habits and in a sinful condition of the soul. These three are
related to one another as follows: The sinful state is the basis of the sinful habits, and
these manifest themselves in sinful deeds. There is also truth, however, in the
38 Christ Our Penal Substitute, pp. 10 f.
contention that repeated sinful deeds lead to the establishment of sinful habits. The
sinful acts and dispositions of man must be referred to and find their explanation in a
corrupt nature. The passages referred to in the preceding paragraph substantiate this
view, for they clearly prove that the state or condition of man is thoroughly sinful. And
if the question should still be raised, whether the thoughts and affections of the natural
man, called “flesh” in Scripture, should be regarded as constituting sin, it might be
answered by pointing to such passages as the following: Matt. 5:22,28; Rom. 7:7; Gal.
5:17,24, and others. In conclusion it may be said that sin may be defined as lack of
conformity to the moral law of God, either in act, disposition, or state.
The Pelagian view of sin is quite different from that presented above. The only point
of similarity lies in this that the Pelagian also considers sin in relation to the law of God,
and regards it as a transgression of the law. But in all other particulars his conception
differs widely from the Scriptural and Augustinian view.
1. STATEMENT OF THE PELAGIAN VIEW. Pelagius takes his startingpoint in the natural
ability of man. His fundamental proposition is: God has commanded man to do that
which is good; hence the latter must have the ability to do it. This means that man has a
free will in the absolute sense of the word, so that it is possible for him to decide for or
against that which is good, and also to do the good as well as the evil. The decision is
not dependent on any moral character in man, for the will is entirely indeterminate.
Whether a man will do good or evil simply depends on his free and independent will.
From this it follows, of course, that there is no such thing as a moral development of the
individual. Good and evil are located in the separate actions of man. From this
fundamental position the doctrinal teaching of Pelagius respecting sin naturally follows.
Sin consists only in the separate acts of the will. There is no such thing as a sinful
nature, neither are there sinful dispositions. Sin is always a deliberate choice of evil by a
will which is perfectly free, and can just as well choose and follow the good. But if this
is so, then the conclusion inevitably follows that Adam was not created in a state of
positive holiness, but in a state of moral equilibrium. His condition was one of moral
neutrality. He was neither good nor bad, and therefore had no moral character; but he
chose the course of evil, and thus became sinful. Inasmuch as sin consists only in
separate acts of the will, the idea of its propagation by procreation is absurd. A sinful
nature, if such a thing should exist, might be passed on from father to son, but sinful
acts cannot be so propagated. This is in the nature of the case an impossibility. Adam
was the first sinner, but his sin was in no sense passed on to his descendants. There is no
such thing as original sin. Children are born in a state of neutrality, beginning exactly
where Adam began, except that they are handicapped by the evil examples which they
see round about them. Their future course must be determined by their own free choice.
The universality of sin is admitted, because all experience testifies to it. It is due to
imitation and to the habit of sinning that is gradually formed. Strictly speaking, there
are, on the Pelagian standpoint, no sinners, but only separate sinful acts. This makes a
religious conception of the history of the race utterly impossible.
2. OBJECTIONS TO THE PELAGIAN VIEW. There are several weighty objections to the
Pelagian view of sin, of which the following are the most important:
a. The fundamental position that man is held responsible by God only for what he is
able to do, is absolutely contrary to the testimony of conscience and to the Word of God.
It is an undeniable fact that, as a man increases in sin, his ability to do good decreases.
He becomes in an ever greater measure the slave of sin. According to the theory under
consideration this would also involve a lessening of his responsibility. But this is
equivalent to saying that sin itself gradually redeems its victims by relieving them of
their responsibility. The more sinful a man, the less responsible he is. Against this
position conscience registers a loud protest. Paul does not say that the hardened sinners,
which he describes in Rom. 1:18-32 were virtually without responsibility, but regards
them as worthy of death. Jesus said of the wicked Jews who gloried in their freedom,
but manifested their extreme wickedness by seeking to kill Him, that they were bondservants
of sin, did not understand His speech, because they could not hear His word,
and would die in their sins, John 8:21,22,34,43. Though slaves of sin, they were yet
b. To deny that man has by nature a moral character, is simply bringing him down
to the level of the animal. According to this view everything in the life of man that is not
a conscious choice of the will, is deprived of all moral quality. But the consciousness of
men in general testifies to the fact that the contrast between good and evil also applies
to man’s tendencies, desires, moods, and affections, and that these also have a moral
character. In Pelagianism sin and virtue are reduced to superficial appendages of man,
in no way connected with his inner life. That the estimate of Scripture is quite different
appears from the following passages: Jer. 17:9; Ps. 51:6,10; Matt. 15:19; Jas. 4:1,2.
c. A choice of the will that is in no way determined by man’s character, is not only
psychologically unthinkable, but also ethically worthless. If a good deed of man simply
happens to fall out as it does, and no reason can be given why it did not turn out to be
the opposite, in other words, if the deed is not an expression of man’s character, it lacks
all moral value. It is only as an exponent of character that a deed has the moral value
that is ascribed to it.
d. The Pelagian theory can give no satisfactory account of the universality of sin.
The bad example of parents and grandparents offers no real explanation. The mere
abstract possibility of man’s sinning, even when strengthened by the evil example, does
not explain how it came to pass that all men actually sinned. How can it be accounted
for that the will invariably turned in the direction of sin, and never in the opposite
direction? It is far more natural to think of a general disposition to sin.
Though the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent are somewhat ambigious in
the doctrine of sin, the prevailing Roman Catholic view of sin may be expressed as
follows: Real sin always consists in a conscious act of the will. It is true that the
dispositions and habits that are not in accord with the will of God, are of a sinful
character; yet they cannot be called sins in the strict sense of the word. The indwelling
concupiscence, which lies back of sin, gained the upper hand in man in paradise, and
thus precipitated the loss of the donum superadditum of original righteousness, cannot be
regarded as sin, but only as the fomes or fuel of sin. The sinfulness of Adam’s
descendants is primarily only a negative condition, consisting in the absence of
something that ought to be present, that is, of original righteousness, which is not
essential to human nature. Something essential is wanting only if, as some hold, the
justitia naturalis was also lost.
The objections to this view are perfectly evident from what was said in connection
with the Pelagian theory. A bare reminder of them would seem to be quite sufficient. In
so far as it holds that real sin consists only in a deliberate choice of the will and in overt
acts, the objections raised against Pelagianism are pertinent. The idea that original
righteousness was supernaturally added to man’s natural constitution, and that its loss
did not detract from human nature, is an un-Scriptural idea, as was pointed out in our
discussion of the image of God in man. According to the Bible concupiscence is sin, real
sin, and the root of many sinful actions. This was brought out when the Biblical view of
sin was considered.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. Has philosophy succeeded in explaining the origin
of sin? Does Scripture bear out the view that sin originally had no ethical quality? What
objection is there to the view that sin is mere privation? Must we conceive of sin as a
substance? With whose name is this view associated? Does this sin exist apart from the
sinner? How can we prove that sin must always be judged by the law of God? Did Paul
favor the old Greek dualism, when he spoke of “the body of sin” and used the term
“flesh” to denote man’s sinful nature? Is the present tendency to speak of ‘evil’ rather
than of ‘sin’ commendable? What is meant by the social interpretation of sin? Does this
recognize sin for what it is fundamentally?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. III, pp. 121-158; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Peccato,
pp. 27-35; Hodge, Syst. Theol. II, pp. 130-192; Vos, Geref. Dogm, II, pp. 21-32; Dabney,
Syst. and Polem. Theol., pp. 306-317; McPherson, Chr. Dogm., pp. 257-264; Pope, Chr. Theol.
II, pp. 29-42; Orchard, Modern Theories of Sin; Moxon, The Doctrine of Sin; Alexander, Syst.
of Bibl. Theol. I. pp. 232-265; Brown, Chr. Theol. in Outline, pp. 261-282; Clarke, An Outline
of Chr. Theol. pp. 227-239; Orr, God’s Image in Man, pp. 197-246; Mackintosh, Christianity
and Sin, cf. Index; Candlish, The Bibl. Doct. of Sin. pp. 31-44; Talma, De Anthropologie van
Calvijn, pp. 92-117; Tennant, The Concept of Sin.
III. The Transmission of Sin
Scripture and experience both teach us that sin is universal, and according to the
Bible the explanation for this universality lies in the fall of Adam. These two points, the
universality of sin, and the connection of Adam’s sin with that of mankind in general,
now call for consideration. While there has been rather general agreement as to the
universality of sin, there have been different representations of the connection between
the sin of Adam and that of his descendants.
1. BEFORE THE REFORMATION. The writings of the Apologists contain nothing definite
respecting original sin, while those of Irenaeus and Tertullian clearly teach that our
sinful condition is the result of Adam’s fall. But the doctrine of the direct imputation of
Adam’s sin to his descendants is foreign even to them. Tertullian had a realistic
conception of mankind. The whole human race was potentially and numerically present
in Adam, and therefore sinned when he sinned and became corrupt when he became
corrupt. Human nature as a whole sinned in Adam, and therefore every
individualization of that nature is also sinful. Origen, who was profoundly influenced
by Greek philosophy, had a different view of the matter, and scarcely recognized any
connection between the sin of Adam and that of his descendants. He found the
explanation of the sinfulness of the human race primarily in the personal sin of each
soul in a pre-temporal state, though he also mentions some mystery of generation.
Augustine shared the realistic conception of Tertullian. Though he also spoke of
“imputation,” he did not yet have in mind the direct or immediate imputation of the
guilt of Adam to his posterity. His doctrine of original sin is not entirely clear. This may
be due to the fact that he hesitated to choose between Traducianism and Creationism.
While he stresses the fact that all men were seminally present in Adam and actually
sinned in him, he also comes very close to the idea that they sinned in Adam as their
representative. However, his main emphasis was on the transmission of the corruption of
sin. Sin is passed on by propagation, and this propagation of Adam’s sin is at the same
time a punishment for his sin. Wiggers states the idea very briefly in these words: “The
corruption of human nature, in the whole race, was the righteous punishment of the
transgression of the first man, in whom all men already existed.”39 Augustine’s great
opponent, Pelagius, denied such a connection between the sin of Adam and those of his
39 Augustinism and Pelagianism, p. 88.
posterity. As he saw it, the propagation of sin by generation involved the Traducianist
theory of the origin of the soul, which he regarded as a heretical error; and the
imputation of Adam’s sin to anyone but himself would be in conflict with the divine
The Pelagian view was rejected by the Church, and the Scholastics in general
thought along the lines indicated by Augustine, the emphasis all the while being on the
transmission of the pollution of Adam’s sin rather than on that of his guilt. Hugo St.
Victor and Peter the Lombard held that actual concupiscence stains the semen in the act
of procreation, and that this stain in some way defiles the soul on its union with the
body. Anselm, Alexander of Hales, and Bonaventura stressed the realistic conception of
the connection between Adam and his posterity. The whole human race was seminally
present in Adam, and therefore also sinned in him. His disobedience was the
disobedience of the entire human race. At the same time generation was regarded as the
sine qua non of the transmission of the sinful nature. In Bonaventura and others after
him the distinction between original guilt and original pollution was more clearly
expressed. The fundamental idea was, that the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed to all his
descendants. Adam suffered the loss of original righteousness, and thereby incurred the
divine displeasure. As a result all his descendants are deprived of original
righteousness, and as such the objects of divine wrath. Moreover, the pollution of
Adam’s sin is in some way passed on to his posterity, but the manner of this
transmission was a matter of dispute among the Scholastics. Since they were not
Traducianists, and therefore could not say that the soul, which is after all the real seat of
evil, was passed on from father to son by generation, they felt that something more had
to be said to explain the transmission of inherent evil. Some said that it is passed on
through the body, which in turn contaminates the soul as soon as it comes in contact
with it. Others, sensing the danger of this explanation sought it in the mere fact that
every man is now born in the state in which Adam was before he was endowed with
original righteousness, and thus subject to the struggle between the unchecked flesh
and the spirit. In Thomas Aquinas the realistic strain again appears rather strongly,
though in a modified form. He pointed out that the human race constitutes an
organism, and that, just as the act of one bodily member — say, the hand — is regarded
as the act of the person, so the sin of one member of the organism of humanity is
imputed to the whole organism.
2. AFTER THE REFORMATION. While the Reformers did not agree with the Scholastics
as to the nature of original sin, their view of its transmission did not contain any new
elements. The ideas of Adam as the representative of the human race, and of the
“immediate” imputation of his guilt to his descendants are not yet clearly expressed in
their works. According to Luther we are accounted guilty by God because of the
indwelling sin inherited from Adam. Calvin speaks in a somewhat similar vein. He
holds that, since Adam was not only the progenitor but the root of the human race, all
his descendants are born with a corrupt nature; and that both the guilt of Adam’s sin
and their own inborn corruption are imputed to them as sin. The development of the
federal theology brought the idea of Adam as the representative of the human race to
the foreground, and led to a clearer distinction between the transmission of the guilt
and of the pollution of Adam’s sin. Without denying that our native corruption also
constitutes guilt in the sight of God, federal theology stressed the fact that there is an
“immediate” imputation of Adam’s guilt to those whom he represented as the head of
the covenant.
Socinians and Arminians both rejected the idea of the imputation of Adam’s sin to
his descendants. Placeus, of the school of Saumur, advocated the idea of “mediate”
imputation. Denying all immediate imputation, he held that because we inherit a sinful
nature from Adam, we are deserving of being treated as if we had committed the
original offense. This was something new in Reformed theology, and Rivet had no
difficulty in proving this by collecting a long line of testimonies. A debate ensued in
which “immediate” and “mediate” imputation were represented as mutually exclusive
doctrines; and in which it was made to appear as if the real question was, whether man
is guilty in the sight of God solely on account of Adam’s sin, imputed to him, or solely
on account of his own inherent sin. The former was not the doctrine of the Reformed
Churches, and the latter was not taught in them before the time of Placeus. The
teachings of the latter found their way into New England theology, and became
especially characteristic of the New School (New Haven) theology. In modern liberal
theology the doctrine of the transmission of sin from Adam to his posterity is entirely
discredited. It prefers to seek the explanation of the evil that is in the world in an animal
inheritance, which is not itself sinful. Strange to say, even Barth and Brunner, though
violently opposed to liberal theology, do not regard the universal sinfulness of the
human race as the result of Adam’s sin. Historically, the latter occupies a unique place
merely as the first sinner.
Few will be inclined to deny the presence of evil in the human heart, however much
they may differ as to the nature of this evil and as to the way in which it originated.
Even Pelagians and Socinians are ready to admit that sin is universal. This is a fact that
forces itself upon the attention of every one.
religions testifies to the universality of sin. The question of Job, “How shall a man be
just with God?” is a question that was asked not merely in the realm of special
revelation, but also outside of it in the Gentile world. The heathen religions testify to a
universal consciousness of sin and of the need of reconciliation with a Supreme Being.
There is a general feeling that the gods are offended and must be propitiated in some
way. There is a universal voice of conscience, testifying to the fact that man falls short of
the ideal and stands condemned in the sight of some higher Power. Altars reeking with
the blood of sacrifices, often the sacrifices of dear children, repeated confessions of
wrongdoing, and prayers for deliverance from evil, — all point to the consciousness of
sin. Missionaries find this wherever they go. The history of philosophy is indicative of
the same fact. Early Greek philosophers were already wrestling with the problem of
moral evil, and since their day no philosopher of name was able to ignore it. They were
all constrained to admit the universality of it, and that in spite of the fact they were not
able to explain the phenomenon. There was, it is true, a superficial optimism in the
eighteenth century, which dreamt of the inherent goodness of man, but in its stupidity
flew in the face of the facts and was sharply rebuked by Kant. Many liberal theologians
were induced to believe and to preach this inherent goodness of man as gospel truth,
but to-day many of them qualify it as one of the most pernicious errors of the past.
Surely, the facts of life do not warrant such optimism.
2. THE BIBLE CLEARLY TEACHES IT. There are direct statements of Scripture that point
to the universal sinfulness of man, such as I Kings 8:46; Ps. 143:2; Prov. 20:9; Eccl. 7:20;
Rom. 3:1-12,19,20,23; Gal. 3:22; Jas. 3:2; I John 1:8,10. Several passages of Scripture teach
that sin is the heritage of man from the time of his birth, and is therefore present in
human nature so early that it cannot possibly be considered as the result of imitation,
Ps. 51:5; Job 14:4; John 3:6. In Ephesians 2:3 Paul says of the Ephesians that they “were
by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” In this passage the term “by nature”
points to something inborn and original, as distinguished from what is subsequently
acquired. Sin, then, is something original, in which all men participate, and which
makes them guilty before God. Moreover, according to Scripture, death is visited even
upon those who have never exercised a personal and conscious choice, Rom. 5:12-14.
This passage implies that sin exists in the case of infants prior to moral consciousness.
Since infants die, and therefore the effect of sin is present in their case, it is but natural
to assume that the cause is also present. Finally, Scripture also teaches that all men are
under condemnation and therefore need the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
Children are never made an exception to this rule, cf. the preceding passages and also
John 3:3,5; I John 5:12. This is not contradicted by those passages which ascribe a certain
righteousness to man, such as, Matt. 9:12,13; Acts 10:35; Rom. 2:14; Phil. 3:6; I Cor. 1:30,
for this may be either civil righteousness, ceremonial or covenant righteousness, the
righteousness of the law, or the righteousness which is in Christ Jesus.
1. THE DENIAL OF THIS CONNECTION. Some deny the causal connection of the sin of
Adam with the sinfulness of the human race either wholly or in part.
a. Pelagians and Socinians deny absolutely that there is any necessary connection
between our sin and the sin of Adam. The first sin was Adam’s sin only and does not
concern his posterity in any way. The most they will admit is that the evil example of
Adam led to imitation.
b. Semi-Pelagians and the earlier Arminians teach that man inherited a natural
inability from Adam, but is not responsible for this inability, so that no guilt attaches to
it, and it may even be said that God is somewhat under obligation to provide a cure for
it. The Wesleyan Arminians admit that this inborn corruption also involves guilt.
c. The New School (New Haven) theory teaches that man is born with an inherent
tendency to sin, in virtue of which his moral preference is invariably wrong; but that
this tendency cannot itself be called sin, since sin always consists exclusively in
conscious and intentional transgression of the law.
d. The Theology of crisis stresses the solidarity of sin in the human race, but denies
that sin originated in an act of Adam in paradise. The fall belongs to pre- or superhistory,
and is already a thing of the past when the historical Adam appears upon the
scene. It is the secret of God’s predestination. The story of the fall is a myth. Adam
appears as the type of Christ in so far as it can be seen in him that life without sin is
possible in communion with God. Says Brunner: “In Adam all have sinned — that is the
Biblical statement; but how? The Bible does not tell us that. The doctrine of original sin
is read into it.”40
40 Man in Revolt, p. 142.
a. The realistic theory. The earliest method of explaining the connection between the
sin of Adam and the guilt and pollution of all his descendants was the realistic theory.
This theory is to the effect that human nature constitutes, not only generically but
numerically as well, a single unit. Adam possessed the whole human nature, and in him
it corrupted itself by its own voluntary apostatizing act in Adam. Individual men are
not separate substances, but manifestations of the same general substance; they are
numerically one. This universal human nature became corrupt and guilty in Adam, and
consequently every individualization of it in the descendants of Adam is also corrupt
and guilty from the very beginning of its existence. This means that all men actually
sinned in Adam before the individualization of human nature began. This theory was
accepted by some of the early Church Fathers and by some of the Scholastics, and was
defended in more recent times by Dr. Shedd. However, it is open to several objections:
(1) By representing the souls of men as individualizations of the general spiritual
substance that was present in Adam, it would seem to imply that the substance of the
soul is of a material nature, and thus to land us inevitably in some sort of materialism.
(2) It is contrary to the testimony of consciousness and does not sufficiently guard the
interests of human personality. Every man is conscious of being a separate personality,
and therefore far more than a mere passing wave in the general ocean of existence. (3) It
does not explain why Adam’s descendants are held responsible for his first sin only, and
not for his later sins, nor for the sins of all the generations of forefathers that followed
Adam. (4) Neither does it give an answer to the important question, why Christ was not
held responsible for the actual commission of sin in Adam, for He certainly shared the
same human nature, the nature that actually sinned in Adam.
b. The doctrine of the covenant of works. This implies that Adam stood in a twofold
relationship to his descendants, namely, that of the natural head of all mankind, and
that of the representative head of the entire human race in the covenant of works. (1) The
natural relationship. In his natural relationship Adam was the father of all mankind. As
he was created by God he was subject to change, and had no rightful claim to an
unchangeable state. He was in duty bound to obey God, and this obedience did not
entitle him to any reward. On the other hand, if he sinned, he would become subject to
corruption and to punishment, but the sin would be only his own, and could not be
placed to the account of his descendants. Dabney holds that, according to the law that
like begets like, his corruption would have passed on to his descendants. But however
this may be — and it is rather useless to speculate about it — they certainly could not
have been held responsible for this corruption. They could not have been considered
guilty in Adam merely in virtue of the natural relationship in which Adam stood to the
race. The usual Reformed representation is a different one. (2) The covenant relationship.
To the natural relationship in which Adam stood to his descendants God graciously
added a covenant relationship containing several positive elements: (a) An element of
representation. God ordained that in this covenant Adam should not stand for himself
only, but as the representative of all his descendants. Consequently, he was the head of
the race not only in a parental, but also in a federal sense. (b) An element of probation.
While apart from this covenant Adam and his descendants would have been in a
continual state of trial, with a constant danger of sinning, the covenant guaranteed that
persistent perseverance for a fixed period of time would be rewarded with the
establishment of man in a permanent state of holiness and bliss. (c) An element of reward
or punishment. According to the terms of the covenant Adam would obtain a rightful
claim to eternal life, if he fulfilled the conditions of the covenant. And not only he, but
all his descendants as well would have shared in this blessing. In its normal operation,
therefore, the covenant arrangement would have been of incalculable benefit for
mankind. But there was a possibility that man would disobey, thereby reversing the
operation of the covenant, and in that case the results would naturally be
correspondingly disastrous. Transgression of the covenant commandment would result
in death. Adam chose the course of disobedience, corrupted himself by sin, became
guilty in the sight of God, and as such subject to the sentence of death. And because he
was the federal representative of the race, his disobedience affected all his descendants.
In His righteous judgment God imputes the guilt of the first sin, committed by the head
of the covenant, to all those that are federally related to him. And as a result they are
born in a depraved and sinful condition as well, and this inherent corruption also
involves guilt. This doctrine explains why only the first sin of Adam, and not his
following sins nor the sins of our other forefathers, is imputed to us, and also
safeguards the sinlessness of Jesus, for He was not a human person and therefore not in
the covenant of works.
c. The theory of mediate imputation. This theory denies that the guilt of Adam’s sin is
directly imputed to his descendants, and represents the matter as follows: Adam’s
descendants derive their innate corruption from him by a process of natural generation,
and only on the basis of that inherent depravity which they share with him are they also
considered guilty of his apostasy. They are not born corrupt because they are guilty in
Adam, but they are considered guilty because they are corrupt. Their condition is not
based on their legal status, but their legal status on their condition. This theory, first
advocated by Placeus, was adopted by the younger Vitringa and Venema, by several
New England theologians, and by some of the New School theologians in the
Presbyterian Church. This theory is objectionable for several reasons: (1) A thing cannot
be mediated by its own consequences. The inherent depravity with which the
descendants of Adam are born is already the result of Adam’s sin, and therefore cannot
be considered as the basis on which they are guilty of the sin of Adam. (2) It offers no
objective ground whatsoever for the transmission of Adam’s guilt and depravity to all
his descendants. Yet there must be some objective legal ground for this. (3) If this theory
were consistent, it ought to teach the mediate imputation of the sins of all previous
generations to those following, for their joint corruption is passed on by generation. (4)
It also proceeds on the assumption that there can be moral corruption that is not at the
same time guilt, a corruption that does not in itself make one liable to punishment. (5)
And finally, if the inherent corruption which is present in the descendants of Adam can
be regarded as the legal ground for the explanation of something else, there is no more
need of any mediate imputation.
IV. Sin in the Life of the Human Race
The sinful state and condition in which men are born is designated in theology by
the name peccatum originale, which is literally translated in the English “original sin.”
This term is better than the Holland name “erfzonde,” since the latter, strictly speaking,
does not cover all that belongs to original sin. It is not a proper designation of original
guilt, for this is not inherited but imputed to us. This sin is called “original sin,” (1)
because it is derived from the original root of the human race; (2) because it is present in
the life of every individual from the time of his birth, and therefore cannot be regarded
as the result of imitation; and (3) because it is the inward root of all the actual sins that
defile the life of man. We should guard against the mistake of thinking that the term in
any way implies that the sin designated by it belongs to the original constitution of
human nature, which would imply that God created man as a sinner.
1. HISTORICAL REVIEW. The early Church Fathers contain nothing very definite about
original sin. According to the Greek Fathers there is a physical corruption in the human
race, which is derived from Adam, but this is not sin and does not involve guilt. The
freedom of the will was not affected directly by the fall, but is affected only indirectly by
the inherited physical corruption. The tendency apparent in the Greek Church finally
culminated in Pelagianism, which flatly denied all original sin. In the Latin Church a
different tendency appeared especially in Tertullian, according to whom the
propagation of the soul involves the propagation of sin. He regarded original sin as a
hereditary sinful taint or corruption, which did not exclude the presence of some good
in man. Ambrose advanced beyond Tertullian by regarding original sin as a state and by
distinguishing between the inborn corruption and the resulting guilt of man. The free
will of man was weakened by the fall. It is especially in Augustine that the doctrine of
original sin comes to fuller development. According to him the nature of man, both
physical and moral, is totally corrupted by Adam’s sin, so that he cannot do otherwise
than sin. This inherited corruption or original sin is a moral punishment for the sin of
Adam. It is such a quality of the nature of man, that in his natural state, he can and will
do evil only. He has lost the material freedom of the will, and it is especially in this
respect that original sin constitutes a punishment. In virtue of this sin man is already
under condemnation. It is not merely corruption, but also guilt. Semi-Pelagianism
reacted against the absoluteness of the Augustinian view. It admitted that the whole
human race is involved in the fall of Adam, that human nature is tainted with
hereditary sin, and that all men are by nature inclined to evil and not able, apart from
the grace of God, to complete any good work; but denied the total depravity of man, the
guilt of original sin, and the loss of the freedom of the will. This became the prevalent
view during the Middle Ages, though there were some prominent Scholastics who were
on the whole Augustinian in their conception of original sin. Anselm’s view of original
sin was altogether in harmony with that of Augustine. It represents original sin as
consisting of the guilt of nature (the nature of the entire human race), contracted by a
single act of Adam, and the resulting inherent corruption of human nature, handed
down to posterity and manifesting itself in a tendency to sin. This sin also involves the
loss of the power of self-determination in the direction of holiness (material freedom of
the will), and renders man a slave of sin. The prevailing opinion among the Scholastics
was that original sin is not something positive, but rather the absence of something that
ought to be present, particularly the privation of original righteousness, though some
would add a positive element, namely, an inclination to evil. Thomas Aquinas held that
original sin, considered in its material element, is concupiscence, but considered in its
formal element, is the privation of original justice. There is a dissolution of the harmony
in which original justice consisted, and in this sense original sin can be called a languor
of nature. Speaking generally, the Reformers were in agreement with Augustine, though
Calvin differed from him especially on two points, by stressing the fact that original sin
is not something purely negative, and is not limited to the sensuous nature of man. At
the time of the Reformation the Socinians followed the Pelagians in the denial of
original sin, and in the seventeenth century the Arminians broke with the Reformed
faith, and accepted the Semi-Pelagian view of original sin. Since that time various
shades of opinion were advocated in the Protestant Churches both in Europe and in
2. THE TWO ELEMENTS OF ORIGINAL SIN. Two elements must be distinguished in
original sin, namely:
a. Original guilt. The word “guilt” expresses the relation which sin bears to justice or,
as the older theologians put it, to the penalty of the law. He who is guilty stands in a
penal relation to the law. We can speak of guilt in a twofold sense, namely, as reatus
culpae and as reatus poenae. The former, which Turretin calls “potential guilt,” is the
intrinsic moral ill-desert of an act or state. This is of the essence of sin and is an
inseparable part of its sinfulness. It attaches only to those who have themselves
committed sinful deeds, and attaches to them permanently. It cannot be removed by
forgiveness, and is not removed by justification on the basis of the merits of Jesus
Christ, and much less by mere pardon. Man’s sins are inherently ill-deserving even after
he is justified. Guilt in this sense cannot be transferred from one person to another. The
usual sense, however, in which we speak of guilt in theology, is that of reatus poenae. By
this is meant desert of punishment, or obligation to render satisfaction to God’s justice
for self-determined violation of the law. Guilt in this sense is not of the essence of sin,
but is rather a relation to the penal sanction of the law. If there had been no sanction
attached to the disregard of moral relations, every departure from the law would have
been sin, but would not have involved liability to punishment. Guilt in this sense may
be removed by the satisfaction of justice, either personally or vicariously. It may be
transferred from one person to another, or assumed by one person for another. It is
removed from believers by justification, so that their sins, though inherently illdeserving,
do not make them liable to punishment. Semi-Pelagians and the older
Arminians or Remonstrants deny that original sin involves guilt. The guilt of Adam’s
sin, committed by him as the federal head of the human race, is imputed to all his
descendants. This is evident from the fact that, as the Bible teaches, death as the
punishment of sin passes on from Adam to all his descendants. Rom. 5:12-19; Eph. 2:3; I
Cor. 15:22.
b. Original pollution. Original pollution includes two things, namely, the absence of
original righteousness, and the presence of positive evil. It should be noted: (1) That
original pollution is not merely a disease, as some of the Greek Fathers and the
Arminians represent it, but sin in the real sense of the word. Guilt attaches to it; he who
denies this does not have a Biblical conception of original corruption. (2) That this
pollution is not to be regarded as a substance infused into the human soul, nor as a
change of substance in the metaphysical sense of the word. This was the error of the
Manichæans and of Flacius Illyricus in the days of the Reformation. If the substance of
the soul were sinful, it would have to be replaced by a new substance in regeneration;
but this does not take place. (3) That it is not merely a privation. In his polemic with the
Manichæans, Augustine not merely denied that sin was a substance, but also asserted
that it was merely a privation. He called it a privatio boni. But original sin is not merely
negative; it is also an inherent positive disposition toward sin. This original pollution
may be considered from more than one point of view, namely, as total depravity and as
total inability.
c. Total depravity. In view of its pervasive character, inherited pollution is called total
depravity. This phrase is often misunderstood, and therefore calls for careful
discrimination. Negatively, it does not imply: (1) that every man is as thoroughly
depraved as he can possibly become; (2 that the sinner has no innate knowledge of the
will of God, nor a conscience that discriminates between good and evil; (3) that sinful
man does not often admire virtuous character and actions in others, or is incapable of
disinterested affections and actions in his relations with his fellow-men; nor (4) that
every unregenerate man will, in virtue of his inherent sinfulness, indulge in every form
of sin; it often happens that one form excludes the other. Positively, it does indicate: (1)
that the inherent corruption extends to every part of man’s nature, to all the faculties
and powers of both soul and body; and (2) that there is no spiritual good, that is, good
in relation to God, in the sinner at all, but only perversion. This total depravity is denied
by Pelagians, Socinians, and seventeenth century Arminians, but is clearly taught in
Scripture, John 5:42; Rom. 7:18,23; 8:7; Eph. 4:18; II Tim. 3:2-4; Tit. 1:15; Heb. 3:12.
d. Total inability. With respect to its effect on man’s spiritual powers, it is called total
inability. Here, again, it is necessary to distinguish. By ascribing total inability to the
natural man we do not mean to say that it is impossible for him to do good in any sense
of the word. Reformed theologians generally say that he is still able to perform: (1)
natural good; (2) civil good or civil righteousness; and (3) externally religious good. It is
admitted that even the unrenewed possess some virtue, revealing itself in the relations
of social life, in many acts and sentiments that deserve the sincere approval and
gratitude of their fellow-men, and that even meet with the approval of God to a certain
extent. At the same time it is maintained that these same actions and feelings, when
considered in relation to God, are radically defective. Their fatal defect is that they are
not prompted by love to God, or by any regard for the will of God as requiring them.
When we speak of man’s corruption as total inability, we mean two things: (1) that the
unrenewed sinner cannot do any act, however insignificant, which fundamentally meets
with God’s approval and answers to the demands of God’s holy law; and (2) that he
cannot change his fundamental preference for sin and self to love for God, nor even
make an approach to such a change. In a word, he is unable to do any spiritual good.
There is abundant Scriptural support for this doctrine: John 1:13; 3:5; 6:44; 8:34; 15:4,5;
Rom. 7:18,24; 8:7,8; 1 Cor. 2:14; II Cor. 3:5; Eph. 2:1,8-10; Heb. 11:6. Pelagians, however,
believe in the plenary ability of man, denying that his moral faculties were impaired by
sin. Arminians speak of a gracious ability, because they believe that God imparts His
common grace to all men, which enables them to turn to God and believe. The New
School theologians ascribe to man natural as distinguished from moral ability, a
distinction borrowed from Edwards’ great work On the Will. The import of their
teaching is that man in his fallen state is still in possession of all the natural faculties
that are required for doing spiritual good (intellect, will, etc.), but lacks moral ability,
that is, the ability to give proper direction to those faculties, a direction well-pleasing to
God. The distinction under consideration is advanced, in order to stress the fact that
man is wilfully sinful, and this may well be emphasized. But the New School theologians
assert that man would be able to do spiritual good if he only wanted to do it. This
means that the “natural ability” of which they speak, is after all an ability to do real
spiritual good.41 On the whole it may be said that the distinction between natural and
moral ability is not a desirable one, for: (1) it has no warrant in Scripture, which teaches
consistently that man is not able to do what is required of him; (2) it is essentially
ambiguous and misleading: the possession of the requisite faculties to do spiritual good
does not yet constitute an ability to do it; (3) “natural” is not a proper antithesis of
“moral,” for a thing may be both at the same time; and the inability of man is also
natural in an important sense, that is, as being incident to his nature in its present state
as naturally propagated; and (4) the language does not accurately express the important
distinction intended; what is meant is that it is moral, and not either physical or
constitutional; that it has its ground, not in the want of any faculty, but in the corrupt
moral state of the faculties, and of the disposition of the heart.
3. ORIGINAL SIN AND HUMAN FREEDOM. In connection with the doctrine of the total
inability of man the question naturally arises, whether original sin then also involves
the loss of freedom, or of what is generally called the liberum arbitrium, the free will.
This question should be answered with discrimination for, put in this general way, it
may be answered both negatively and positively. In a certain sense man has not, and in
another sense he has, lost his liberty. There is a certain liberty that is the inalienable
possession of a free agent, namely, the liberty to choose as he pleases, in full accord with
the prevailing dispositions and tendencies of his soul. Man did not lose any of the
constitutional faculties necessary to constitute him a responsible moral agent. He still
has reason, conscience, and the freedom of choice. He has ability to acquire knowledge,
and to feel and recognize moral distinctions and obligations; and his affections,
tendencies, and actions are spontaneous, so that he chooses and refuses as he sees fit.
Moreover, he has the ability to appreciate and do many things that are good and
amiable, benevolent and just, in the relations he sustains to his fellow-beings. But man
did lose his material freedom, that is, the rational power to determine his course in the
direction of the highest good, in harmony with the original moral constitution of his
nature. Man has by nature an irresistible bias for evil. He is not able to apprehend and
love spiritual excellence, to seek and do spiritual things, the things of God that pertain
to salvation. This position, which is Augustinian and Calvinistic, is flatly contradicted
41 Cf. Hodge, Syst. Theol. II, p. 266.
by Pelagianism and Socinianism, and in part also by Semi-Pelagianism and
Arminianism. Modern liberalism, which is essentially Pelagian, naturally finds the
doctrine, that man has lost the ability to determine his life in the direction of real
righteousness and holiness, highly offensive, and glories in the ability of man to choose
and do what is right and good. On the other hand the dialectical theology (Barthianism)
strongly reasserts the utter inability of man to make even the slightest move in a
Godward direction. The sinner is a slave of sin and cannot possibly turn in the opposite
4. THE THEOLOGY OF CRISIS AND ORIGINAL SIN. It may be well at this point to define
briefly the position of the Theology of Crisis or of Barthianism with respect to the
doctrine of original sin. Walter Lowrie correctly says: “Barth has much to say about the
Fall — but nothing about ‘original sin.’ That man is fallen we can plainly see; but the Fall
is not an event we can point to in history, it belongs decidedly to pre-history,
Urgeschichte, in a metaphysical sense.”42 Brunner has something to say about it in his
recent work on Man in Revolt.43 He does not accept the doctrine of original sin in the
traditional and ecclesiastical sense of the word. The first sin of Adam was not and could
not be placed to the account of all his descendants; nor did this sin result in a sinful
state, which is passed on to his posterity, and which is now the fruitful root of all actual
sin. “Sin is never a state, but it is always an act. Even being a sinner is not a state but an
act, because it is being a person.” In Brunner’s estimation the traditional view has an
undesirable element of determinism in it, and does not sufficiently safeguard the
responsibility of man. But his rejection of the doctrine of original sin does not mean that
he sees no truth in it at all. It rightly stresses the solidarity of sin in the human race, and
the transmission “of the spiritual nature, of the ‘character,’ from parents to children.”
However, he seeks the explanation of the universality of sin in something else than in
“original sin.” The man whom God created was not simply some one man, but a
responsible person created in and for community with others. The isolated individual is
but an abstraction. “In the Creation we are an individualized, articulated unity, one
body with many members.” If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it. He
goes on to say: “If that is our origin, then our opposition to this origin cannot be an
experience, an act, of the individual as an individual…. Certainly each individual is a
sinner as an individual; but he is at the same time the whole in its united solidarity, the
body, actual humanity as a whole.” There was therefore solidarity in sinning; the
42 Our Concern with the Theology of Crisis, p. 187.
43 Chap. 6.
human race fell away from God; but it belongs to the very nature of sin that we deny
this solidarity in sin. The result of this initial sin is that man is now a sinner; but the fact
that man is now a sinner should not be regarded as the cause of his individual sinful
actions. Such a causal connection cannot be admitted, for every sin which man commits
is a fresh decision against God. The statement that man is a sinner does not mean that
he is in a state or condition of sin, but that he is actually engaged in rebellion against
God. As Adam we turned away from God, and “he who commits this apostasy can do
no other than repeat it continually, not because it has become a habit, but because this is
the distinctive character of this act.” Man cannot reverse the course, but continues to sin
right along. The Bible never speaks of sin except as the act of turning away from God.
“But in the very concept of ‘being a sinner’ this act is conceived as one which
determines man’s whole existence.” There is much in this representation that reminds
one of the realistic representation of Thomas Aquinas.
a. It is inconsistent with moral obligation. The most obvious and the most plausible
objection to the doctrine of total depravity and total inability, is that it is inconsistent
with moral obligation. It is said that a man cannot be held justly responsible for
anything for which he has not the required ability. But the general implication of this
principle is a fallacy. It may hold in cases of disability resulting from a limitation which
God has imposed on man’s nature; but it certainly does not apply in the sphere of
morals and religion, as already pointed out in the preceding. We should not forget that
the inability under consideration is self-imposed, has a moral origin, and is not due to
any limitation which God has put upon man’s being. Man is unable as a result of the
perverted choice made in Adam.
b. It removes all motives for exertion. A second objection is that this doctrine removes
all motives for exertion and destroys all rational grounds for the use of the means of
grace. If we know that we cannot accomplish a given end, why should we use the
means recommended for its accomplishment? Now it is perfectly true that the sinner,
who is enlightened by the Holy Spirit and is truly conscious of his own natural inability,
ceases from work-righteousness. And this is exactly what is necessary. But it does not
hold with respect to the natural man, for he is thoroughly self-righteous. Moreover, it is
not true that the doctrine of inability naturally tends to foster neglect in the use of the
means of grace ordained by God. On this principle the farmer might also say, I cannot
produce a harvest; why should I cultivate my fields? But this would be utter folly. In
every department of human endeavor the result depends on the co-operation of causes
over which man has no control. The Scriptural grounds for the use of means remain:
God commands the use of means; the means ordained by God are adapted to the end
contemplated; ordinarily the end is not attained, except by the use of the appointed
means; and God has promised to bless the use of those means.
c. It encourages delay in conversion. It is also asserted that this doctrine encourages
delay in conversion. If a man believes that he cannot change his heart, cannot repent
and believe the gospel, he will feel that he can only passively abide the time when it will
please God to change the direction of his life. Now there may be, and experience teaches
that there are, some who actually adopt that attitude; but as a rule the effect of the
doctrine under consideration will be quite different. If sinners, to whom sin has grown
very dear, were conscious of the power to change their lives at will, they would be
tempted to defer it to the last moment. But if one is conscious of the fact that a very
desirable thing is beyond the compass of his own powers, he will instinctively seek help
outside of himself. The sinner who feels that way about salvation, will seek help with
the great Physician of the soul, and thus acknowledge his own disability.
Roman Catholics and Arminians minimized the idea of original sin, and then
developed doctrines, such as those of the washing away of original sin (though not only
that) by baptism, and of sufficient grace, by which its seriousness is greatly obscured.
The emphasis is clearly altogether on actual sins. Pelagians, Socinians, modern liberal
theologians, and — strange as it may seem — also the Theology of Crisis, recognize
only actual sins. It must be said, however, that this theology does speak of sin in the
singular as well as in the plural, that is, it does recognize a solidarity in sin, which some
of the others have not recognized. Reformed theology has always given due recognition
to original sin and to the relation in which it stands to actual sins.
1. THE RELATION BETWEEN ORIGINAL AND ACTUAL SIN. The former originated in a free
act of Adam as the representative of the human race, a transgression of the law of God
and a corruption of human nature, which rendered him liable to the punishment of
God. In the sight of God his sin was the sin of all his descendants, so that they are born
as sinners, that is in a state of guilt and in a polluted condition. Original sin is both a
state and an inherent quality of pollution in man. Every man is guilty in Adam, and is
consequently born with a depraved and corrupt nature. And this inner corruption is the
unholy fountain of all actual sins. When we speak of actual sin or peccatum actuale, we
use the word “actual” or “actuale” in a comprehensive sense. The term “actual sins”
does not merely denote those external actions which are accomplished by means of the
body, but all those conscious thoughts and volitions which spring from original sin.
They are the individual sins of act in distinction from man’s inherited nature and
inclination. Original sin is one, actual sin is manifold. Actual sin may be interior, such as
a particular conscious doubt or evil design in the mind, or a particular conscious lust or
desire in the heart; but they may also be exterior, such as deceit, theft, adultery, murder,
and so on. While the existence of original sin has met with widespread denial, the
presence of actual sin in the life of man is generally admitted. This does not mean,
however, that people have always had an equally profound consciousness of sin. We
hear a great deal nowadays about the “loss of the sense of sin,” though Modernists
hasten to assure us that, while we have lost the sense of sin, we have gained the sense of
sins, in the plural, that is, of definite actual sins. But there is no doubt about it that
people have to an alarming extent lost the sense of the heinousness of sin, as committed
against a holy God, and have largely thought of it merely as an infringement on the
rights of one’s fellow-men. They fail to see that sin is a fatal power in their lives which
ever and anon incites their rebellious spirits, which makes them guilty before God, and
which brings them under a sentence of condemnation. It is one of the merits of the
Theology of Crisis that it is calling attention once more to the seriousness of sin as a
revolt against God, as a revolutionary attempt to be like God.
2. CLASSIFICATION OF ACTUAL SINS. It is quite impossible to give a unified and
comprehensive classification of actual sins. They vary in kind and degree, and can be
differentiated from more than one point of view. Roman Catholics make a well-known
distinction between venial and mortal sins, but admit that it is extremely difficult and
dangerous to decide whether a sin is mortal or venial. They were led to this distinction
by the statement of Paul in Gal. 5:21 that they “who do such things (as he has
enumerated) shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” One commits a mortal sin when
one willfully violates the law of God in a matter which one believes or knows to be
important. It renders the sinner liable to eternal punishment. And one commits a venial
sin when one transgresses the law of God in a matter that is not of grave importance, or
when the transgression is not altogether voluntary. Such a sin is forgiven more easily,
and even without confession. Forgiveness for mortal sins can be obtained only by the
sacrament of penance. The distinction is not a Scriptural one, for according to Scripture
every sin is essentially anomia (unrighteousness), and merits eternal punishment.
Moreover, it has a deleterious effect in practical life, since it engenders a feeling of
uncertainty, sometimes a feeling of morbid fear on the one hand, or of unwarranted
carelessness on the other. The Bible does distinguish different kinds of sins, especially in
connection with the different degrees of guilt attaching to them. The Old Testament
makes an important distinction between sins committed presumptuously (with a high
hand), and sins committed unwittingly, that is, as the result of ignorance, weakness, or
error, Num. 15:29-31. The former could not be atoned by sacrifice and were punished
with great severity, while the latter could be so atoned and were judged with far greater
leniency. The fundamental principle embodied in this distinction still applies. Sins
committed on purpose, with full consciousness of the evil involved, and with
deliberation, are greater and more culpable than sins resulting from ignorance, from an
erroneous conception of things, or from weakness of character. Nevertheless the latter
are also real sins and make one guilty in the sight of God, Gal. 6:1; Eph. 4:18; I Tim 1:13;
5:24. The New Testament further clearly teaches us that the degree of sin is to a great
extent determined by the degree of light possessed. The heathen are guilty indeed, but
they who have God’s revelation and enjoy the privileges of the gospel ministry are far
more guilty, Matt. 10:15; Luke 12:47,48; 23:34; John 19:11; Acts 17:30; Rom. 1:32; 2:12; I
Tim. 1:13,15,16.
3. THE UNPARDONABLE SIN. Several passages of Scripture speak of a sin that cannot
be forgiven, after which a change of heart is impossible, and for which it is not
necessary to pray. It is generally known as the sin or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
The Saviour speaks of it explicitly in Matt. 12:31,32 and parallel passages; and it is
generally thought that Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26,27, and John 5:16 also refer to this sin.
a. Unwarranted opinions respecting this sin. There has been quite a variety of opinions
respecting the nature of the unpardonable sin. (1) Jerome and Chrysostom thought of it
as a sin that could be committed only during Christ’s sojourn on earth, and held that it
was committed by those who were convinced in their hearts that Christ performed His
miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit, but in spite of their conviction refused to
recognize these miracles as such and ascribed them to the operation of Satan. However,
this limitation is entirely unwarranted, as the passages in Hebrews and I John would
seem to prove. (2) Augustine, the Melanchtonian dogmaticians of the Lutheran Church,
and a few Scottish theologians (Guthrie, Chalmers) conceived of it as consisting in
impoenitentia finalis, that is, impenitence persisted in to the end. A related view is that
expressed by some in our own day, that it consists in continued unbelief, a refusal up to
the very end to accept Jesus Christ by faith. But on this supposition it would follow that
every one who died in a state of impenitence and unbelief had committed this sin, while
according to Scripture it must be something of a very specific nature. (3) In connection
with their denial of the perseverance of the saints, later Lutheran theologians taught
that only regenerate persons could commit this sin, and sought support for this view in
Heb. 6:4-6. But this is an un-Scriptural position, and the Canons of Dort reject, among
others, also the error of those who teach that the regenerate can commit the sin against
the Holy Spirit.
b. The Reformed conception of this sin. The name “sin against the Holy Spirit” is too
general, for there are also sins against the Holy Spirit that are pardonable, Eph. 4:30. The
Bible speaks more specifically of a “speaking against the Holy Spirit,” Matt. 12:32; Mark
3:29; Luke 12:10. It is evidently a sin committed during the present life, which makes
conversion and pardon impossible. The sin consists in the conscious, malicious, and
willful rejection and slandering, against evidence and conviction, of the testimony of the
Holy Spirit respecting the grace of God in Christ, attributing it out of hatred and enmity
to the prince of darkness. It presupposes, objectively, a revelation of the grace of God in
Christ, and a powerful operation of the Holy Spirit; and, subjectively, an illumination
and intellectual conviction so strong and powerful as to make an honest denial of the
truth impossible. And then the sin itself consists, not in doubting the truth, nor in a
simple denial of it, but in a contradiction of it that goes contrary to the conviction of the
mind, to the illumination of the conscience, and even to the verdict of the heart. In
committing that sin man willfully, maliciously, and intentionally attributes what is
clearly recognized as the work of God to the influence and operation of Satan. It is
nothing less than a decided slandering of the Holy Spirit, an audacious declaration that
the Holy Spirit is the spirit of the abyss, that the truth is the lie, and that Christ is Satan.
It is not so much a sin against the person of the Holy Spirit as a sin against His official
work in revealing, both objectively and subjectively, the grace and glory of God in
Christ. The root of this sin is the conscious and deliberate hatred of God and of all that
is recognized as divine. It is unpardonable, not because its guilt transcends the merits of
Christ, or because the sinner is beyond the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, but
because there are also in the world of sin certain laws and ordinances, established by
God and maintained by Him. And the law in the case of this particular sin is, that it
excludes all repentance, sears the conscience, hardens the sinner, and thus renders the
sin unpardonable. In those who have committed this sin we may therefore expect to
find a pronounced hatred to God, a defiant attitude to Him and all that is divine, delight
in ridiculing and slandering that which is holy, and absolute unconcern respecting the
welfare of their soul and the future life. In view of the fact that this sin is not followed
by repentance, we may be reasonably sure that they who fear that they have committed
it and worry about this, and who desire the prayers of others for them, have not
committed it.
c. Remarks on the passages in the Epistles that speak of it. Except in the Gospels, this sin
is not mentioned by name in the Bible. Thus the question arises, whether the passages
in Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26,27,29, and I John 5:16 also refer to it. Now it is quite evident that
they all speak of an unpardonable sin; and because Jesus says in Matt. 12:31, “Therefore
I say unto you, Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy
against the Spirit shall not be forgiven,” thereby indicating that there is but one
unpardonable sin, it is but reasonable to think that these passages refer to the same sin.
It should be noted, however, that Heb. 6 speaks of a specific form of this sin, such as
could only occur in the apostolic age, when the Spirit revealed itself in extraordinary
gifts and powers. The fact that this was not borne in mind, often led to the erroneous
opinion that this passage, with its unusually strong expressions, referred to such as
were actually regenerated by the Spirit of God. But Heb. 6:4-6, while speaking of
experiences that transcend those of the ordinary temporal faith, yet do not necessarily
testify to the presence of regenerating grace in the heart.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. What objections are raised to the idea of the federal
headship of Adam? What Scriptural ground is there for the imputation of Adam’s sin to
his descendants? Was Placeus’ theory of mediate imputation in any way connected with
Amyraldus’ view of universal atonement? What objection does Dabney raise to the
doctrine of immediate imputation? Is the doctrine of inherited evil the same as the
doctrine of original sin, and if not, how do they differ? How do Pelagians, Semi-
Pelagians, and Arminians differ in their view of original sin? How does the doctrine of
original sin affect the doctrine of infant salvation? Does the Bible teach that one can be
lost purely as the result of orginal sin? What is the connection between the doctrine of
original sin and that of baptismal regeneration? What becomes of the doctrine of
original sin in modern liberal theology? How do you account for the denial of original
sin in Barthian theology? Can you name some additional classes of actual sins?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. III, pp. 61-120; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Peccato,
pp. 36-50, 119-144; Vos, Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 31-76; Hodge, Syst. Theol. II, pp. 192-308;
McPherson, Chr. Dogma, pp. 242-256; Dabney, Syst. and Polem. Theol., pp. 321-351; Litton,
Intro. to Dogm. Theol., pp. 136-174; Schmid, Doct. Theol. of the Ev. Luth. Ch., pp. 242-276;
Valentine, Chr. Theol. I, pp. 420-476; Pope, Chr. Theol. II, pp. 47-86; Raymond, Syst. Theol.
II, pp. 64-172; Wilmers, Handbook of the Chr. Religion, pp. 235-238; Mackintosh,
Christianity and Sin, cf. Index; Girardeau,The Will in its Theological Relations; Wiggers,
Augustinism and Pelagianism; Candlish, The Bibl. Doct. of Sin, pp. 90-128; Brunner, Man in
Revolt, pp. 114-166.
V. The Punishment of Sin
Sin is a very serious matter, and is taken seriously by God, though men often make
light of it. It is not only a transgression of the law of God, but an attack on the great
Lawgiver Himself, a revolt against God. It is an infringement on the inviolable
righteousness of God, which is the very foundation of His throne (Ps. 97:2), and an
affront to the spotless holiness of God, which requires of us that we be holy in all
manner of living (I Pet. 1:16). In view of this it is but natural that God should visit sin
with punishment. In a word of fundamental significance He says: “I the Lord thy God
am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third
and fourth generation of them that hate me,” Ex. 20:5. The Bible abundantly testifies to
the fact that God punishes sin both in this life and in the life to come.
A rather common distinction applied to the punishments for sin, is that between
natural and positive penalties. There are punishments which are the natural results of
sin, and which men cannot escape, because they are the natural and necessary
consequences of sin. Man is not saved from them by repentance and forgiveness. In
some cases they may be mitigated and even checked by the means which God has
placed at our disposal, but in other cases they remain and serve as a constant reminder
of past transgressions. The slothful man comes to poverty, the drunkard brings ruin
upon himself and his family, the fornicator contracts a loathsome and incurable disease,
and the criminal is burdened with shame and even when leaving the prison walls finds
it extremely hard to make a new start in life. The Bible speaks of such punishments in
Job 4:8; Ps. 9:15; 94:23; Prov. 5:22; 23:21; 24:14; 31:3. But there are also positive
punishments, and these are punishments in the more ordinary and legal sense of the
word. They presuppose not merely the natural laws of life, but a positive law of the
great Lawgiver with added sanctions. They are not penalties which naturally result
from the nature of the transgression, but penalties which are attached to the
transgressions by divine enactments. They are superimposed by the divine law, which
is of absolute authority. It is to this type of punishment that the Bible usually refers. This
is particularly evident in the Old Testament. God gave Israel a detailed code of laws for
the regulation of its civil, moral, and religious life, and clearly stipulated the
punishment to be meted out in the case of each transgression, cf. Ex. 20-23. And though
many of the civil and religious regulations of this law were, in the form in which they
were couched, intended for Israel only, the fundamental principles which they embody
also apply in the New Testament dispensation. In a Biblical conception of the penalty of
sin we shall have to take into account both the natural and necessary outcome of wilful
opposition to God and the penalty legally affixed and adjusted to the offense by God.
Now there are some Unitarians, Universalists, and Modernists who deny the existence
of any punishment of sin, except such consequences as naturally result from the sinful
action. Punishment is not the execution of a sentence pronounced by the divine Being
on the merits of the case, but simply the operation of a general law. This position is
taken by J. F. Clarke, Thayer, Williamson, and Washington Gladden. The latter says:
“The old theology made this penalty (penalty of sin) to consist in suffering inflicted
upon the sinner by a judicial process in the future life . . . The penalty of sin, as the new
theology teaches, consists in the natural consequences of sin. . . . The penalty of sin is
sin. Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap.”44 The idea is not new; it was
present to the mind of Dante, for in his famous poem the torments of hell symbolize the
consequences of sin; and Schelling had it in mind, when he spoke of the history of the
world as the judgment of the world. It is abundantly evident from Scripture, however,
that this is an entirely un-Biblical view. The Bible speaks of penalties, which are in no
sense the natural result or consequences of the sin committed, for instance in Ex. 32:33;
Lev. 26:21; Num. 15:31; I Chron. 10:13; Ps. 11:6; 75:8; Isa. 1:24,28; Matt. 3:10; 24:51. All
these passages speak of a punishment of sin by a direct act of God. Moreover, according
to the view under consideration there is really no reward or punishment; virtue and
vice both naturally include their various issues. Furthermore, on that standpoint there is
no good reason for considering suffering as punishment, for it denies guilt, and it is
exactly guilt that constitutes suffering a punishment. Then, too, it is in many cases not
the guilty that receives the severest punishment, but the innocent as, for instance, the
dependents of a drunkard or a debauchee. And, finally, on this view, heaven and hell
are not places of future punishment, but states of mind or conditions in which men find
themselves here and now. Washington Gladden expresses this very explicitly.
The word “punishment” is derived from the Latin poena, meaning punishment,
expiation, or pain. It denotes pain or suffering inflicted because of some misdeed. More
specifically, it may be defined as that pain or loss which is directly or indirectly inflicted
by the Lawgiver, in vindication of His justice outraged by the violation of the law. It
originates in the righteousness or punitive justice of God, by which He maintains
44 Present Day Theology, pp. 78-80.
Himself as the Holy One and necessarily demands holiness and righteousness in all His
rational creatures. Punishment is the penalty that is naturally and necessarily due from
the sinner because of his sin; it is, in fact, a debt that is due to the essential justice of
God. The punishments of sin are of two different kinds. There is a punishment that is
the necessary concomitant of sin, for in the nature of the case sin causes separation
between God and man, carries with it guilt and pollution, and fills the heart with fear
and shame. But there is also a kind of punishment that is superimposed on man from
without by the supreme Lawgiver, such as all kinds of calamities in this life and the
punishment of hell in the future.
Now the question arises as to the object or the purpose of the punishment of sin.
And on this point there is considerable difference of opinion. We should not regard the
punishment of sin as a mere matter of vengeance and as inflicted with the desire to
harm one who has previously done harm. The following are the three most important
views respecting the purpose of punishment.
1. TO VINDICATE DIVINE RIGHTEOUSNESS OR JUSTICE. Turretin says: “If there be such an
attribute as justice belonging to God, then sin must have its due, which is punishment.”
The law requires that sin be punished because of its inherent demerit, irrespective of all
further considerations. This principle applies in the administration of both human and
divine laws. Justice requires the punishment of the transgressor. Back of the law stands
God, and therefore it may also be said that punishment aims at the vindication of the
righteousness and holiness of the great Lawgiver. The holiness of God necessarily reacts
against sin, and this reaction manifests itself in the punishment of sin. This principle is
fundamental to all those passages of Scripture that speak of God as a righteous Judge,
who renders unto every man according to his deserts. “He is the rock, His work is
perfect: for all His ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and
right is He,” Deut. 32:4. “Far be it from God, that He should do wickedness; and from
the Almighty, that He should commit iniquity. For the work of a man shall He render
unto him, and cause every man to find according to his ways,” Job. 34:10,11. “Thou
renderest to every man according to his work,” Ps. 62:12. “Righteous art thou, O Lord,
and upright are thy judgments,” Ps. 119:37. “I am the Lord which exercise
lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth,” Jer. 9:24. “And if ye call on
the Father, who without respect of persons judgest according to every man’s work, pass
the time of your sojourning here in fear,” I Pet. 1:17. The vindication of the
righteousness and holiness of God, and of that just law which is the very expression of
His being, is certainly the primary purpose of the punishment of sin. There are two
other views, however, which erroneously put something else in the foreground.
2. TO REFORM THE SINNER. The idea is very much in the foreground at the present
time that there is no punitive justice in God which inexorably calls for the punishment
of the sinner, and that God is not angry with the sinner but loves him, and only inflicts
hardships upon him, in order to reclaim him and to bring him back to his Father’s
home. This is an un-Scriptural view, which obliterates the distinction between
punishment and chastisement. The penalty of sin does not proceed from the love and
mercy of the Lawgiver, but from His justice. If reformation follows the infliction of
punishment, this is not due to the penalty as such, but is the fruit of some gracious
operation of God by which He turns that which is in itself an evil for the sinner into
something that is beneficial. The distinction between chastisement and punishment
must be maintained. The Bible teaches us on the one hand that God loves and chastens
His people, Job 5:17; Ps. 6:1; Ps. 94:12; 118:18; Prov. 3:11; Isa. 26:16; Heb. 12:5-8; Rev. 3:19;
and on the other hand, that He hates and punishes evil-doers, Ps. 5:5; 7:11; Nah. 1:2;
Rom. 1:18; 2:5,6; 11 Thess. 1:6; Heb. 10:26,27. Moreover, a punishment must be
recognized as just, that is, as according to justice, in order to be reformatory. According
to this theory a sinner who has already reformed could no more be punished; nor could
one beyond the possibility of reformation, so that there could be no punishment for
Satan; the death penalty would have to be abolished, and eternal punishment would
have no reason for existence.
3. TO DETER MEN FROM SIN. Another theory rather prevalent in our day is that the
sinner must be punished for the protection of society, by deterring others from the
commission of similar offenses. There can be no doubt about it that this end is often
secured in the family, in the state, and in the moral government of the world, but this is
an incidental result which God graciously effects by the infliction of the penalty. It
certainly cannot be the ground for the infliction of the penalty. There is no justice
whatever in punishing an individual simply for the good of society. As a matter of fact
the sinner is always punished for his sin, and incidentally this may be for the good of
society. And here again it may be said that no punishment will have a deterring effect, if
it is not just and right in itself. Punishment has a good effect only when it is evident that
the person on whom it is afflicted really deserves punishment. If this theory were true, a
criminal might at once be set free, if it were not for the possibility that others might be
deterred from sin by his punishment. Moreover, a man might rightly commit a crime, if
he were only willing to bear the penalty. According to this view punishment is in no
sense grounded in the past, but is wholly prospective. But on that supposition it is very
hard to explain how it invariably causes the repentant sinner to look back and to confess
with contrite heart the sins of the past, as we notice in such passages as the following:
Gen. 42:21; Num. 21:7; I Sam. 15:24,25; II Sam. 12:13; 24:10; Ezra 9:6,10, 13; Neh. 9:33-35;
Job 7:21; Ps. 51:1-4; Jer. 3:25. These examples might easily be multiplied. In opposition to
both of the theories considered it must be maintained that the punishment of sin is
wholly retrospective in its primary aim, though the infliction of the penalty may have
beneficial consequences both for the individual and for society.
The penalty with which God threatened man in paradise was the penalty of death.
The death here intended is not the death of the body, but the death of man as a whole,
death in the Scriptural sense of the word. The Bible does not know the distinction, so
common among us, between a physical, a spiritual, and an eternal death; it has a
synthetic view of death and regards it as separation from God. The penalty was also
actually executed on the day that man sinned, though the full execution of it was
temporarily stayed by the grace of God. In a rather un-Scriptural way some carry their
distinction into the Bible, and maintain that physical death should not be regarded as
the penalty of sin, but rather as the natural result of the physical constitution of man.
But the Bible knows of no such exception. It acquaints us with the threatened penalty,
which is death in the comprehensive sense of the word, and it informs us that death
entered the world through sin (Rom. 5:12), and that the wages of sin is death (Rom.
6:23). The penalty of sin certainly includes physical death, but it includes much more
than that. Making the distinction to which we have grown accustomed, we may say that
it includes the following:
1. SPIRITUAL DEATH. There is a profound truth in the saying of Augustine that sin is
also the punishment of sin. This means that the sinful state and condition in which man
is born by nature form part of the penalty of sin. They are, it is true, the immediate
consequences of sin, but they are also a part of the threatened penalty. Sin separates
man from God, and that means death, for it is only in communion with the living God
that man can truly live. In the state of death, which resulted from the entrance of sin
into the world, we are burdened with the guilt of sin, a guilt that can only be removed
by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. We are therefore under obligation to bear the
sufferings that result from transgression of the law. The natural man carries the sense of
the liability to punishment with him wherever he goes. Conscience is a constant
reminder of his guilt, and the fear of punishment often fills the heart. Spiritual death
means not only guilt, but also pollution. Sin is always a corrupting influence in life, and
this is a part of our death. We are by nature not only unrighteous in the sight of God,
but also unholy. And this unholiness manifests itself in our thoughts, in our words, and
in our deeds. It is always active within us like a poisoned fountain polluting the streams
of life. And if it were not for the restraining influence of the common grace of God, it
would render social life entirely impossible.
2. THE SUFFERINGS OF LIFE. The sufferings of life, which are the result of the entrance
of sin into the world, are also included in the penalty of sin. Sin brought disturbance in
the entire life of man. His physical life fell a prey to weaknesses and diseases, which
result in discomforts and often in agonizing pains; and his mental life became subject to
distressing disturbances, which often rob him of the joy of life, disqualify him for his
daily task, and sometimes entirely destroy his mental equilibrium. His very soul has
become a battle-field of conflicting thoughts, passions, and desires. The will refuses to
follow the judgment of the intellect, and the passions run riot without the control of an
intelligent will. The true harmony of life is destroyed, and makes way for the curse of
the divided life. Man is in a state of dissolution, which often carries with it the most
poignant sufferings. And not only that, but with and on account of man the whole
creation was made subject to vanity and to the bondage of corruption. The evolutionists
especially have taught us to look upon nature as “red in tooth and claw.” Destructive
forces are often released in earthquakes, cyclones, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and
floods, which bring untold misery on mankind. Now there are many, especially in our
day, who do not see the hand of God in all this, and do not regard these calamities as a
part of the penalty of sin. And yet that is exactly what they are in a general sense.
However, it will not be safe to particularize, and to interpret them as special
punishments for some grievous sins committed by those who live in the stricken areas.
Neither will it be wise to ridicule the idea of such a causal connection as existed in the
case of the Cities of the Plain (Sodom and Gomorrah), which were destroyed by fire
from heaven. We should always bear in mind that there is a collective responsibility,
and that there are always sufficient reasons why God should visit cities, districts or
nations with dire calamities. It is rather a wonder that He does not more often visit
them in His wrath and in His sore displeasure. It is always well to bear in mind what
Jesus once said to the Jews who brought to Him the report of a calamity which had
befallen certain Galileans, and evidently intimated that these Galileans must have been
very sinful: “Think ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because
they have suffered these things? I tell you, Nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all in like
manner perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them,
think ye that they were offenders above all the men that dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you
you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Luke 13:2-5.
3. PHYSICAL DEATH. The separation of body and soul is also a part of the penalty of
sin. That the Lord had this in mind also in the threatened penalty is quite evident from
the explication of it in the words, “dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return,” Gen.
3:19. It also appears from the whole argument of Paul in Rom. 5:12-21 and in I Cor.
15:12-23. The position of the Church has always been that death in the full sense of the
word, including physical death, is not only the consequence but the penalty of sin. The
wages of sin is death. Pelagianism denied this connection, but the North African
General Synod of Carthage (418) pronounced an anathema against any man who says
“that Adam, the first man, was created mortal, so that whether he sinned or not he
would have died, not as the wages of sin, but through the necessity of nature.”
Socinians and Rationalists continued the Pelagian error, and in even more recent times it
was reproduced in the systems of those Kantian, Hegelian, or Ritschlian theologians
who virtually make sin a necessary moment in man’s moral and spiritual development.
Their views found support in present day natural science, which regards physical death
as a natural phenomenon of the human organism. Man’s physical constitution is such
that he necessarily dies. But this view does not commend itself in view of the fact that
man’s physical organism is renewed every seven years, and that comparatively few
people die in old age and from complete exhaustion. By far the greater number of them
die as the result of sickness and accidents. It is also contrary to the fact that man does
not feel that death is something natural, but fears it as an unnatural separation of that
which belongs together.
4. ETERNAL DEATH. This may be regarded as the culmination and completion of
spiritual death. The restraints of the present fall away, and the corruption of sin has its
perfect work. The full weight of the wrath of God descends on the condemned. Their
separation from God, the source of life and joy, is complete, and this means death in the
most awful sense of the word. Their outward condition is made to correspond with the
inward state of their evil souls. There are pangs of conscience and physical pain. And
the smoke of their torment goeth up for ever and ever. Rev. 14:11. The further discussion
of this subject belongs to eschatology.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. Why do many modern liberals deny all positive
punishments for sin? Is the position at all tenable that the punishments of sin consist
exclusively in the natural consequences of sin? What objections do you have to this
position? How do you account for the widespread aversion to the idea that the
punishment of sin is a vindication of the law and of the righteousness of God? Do the
punishments of sin also serve as deterrents, and as means of reformation? What is the
Biblical conception of death? Can you prove from Scripture that it includes physical
death? Is the doctrine of eternal death consistent with the idea that the punishment of
sin serves merely as a means of reformation, or as a deterrent?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. III, pp. 158-198; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Peccato,
pp. 93-112; Strong, Syst. Theol., pp. 652-660; Raymond, Syst. Theol. II, pp. 175-184; Shedd,
Doctrine of Endless Punishment; Washington Gladden, Present Day Theology, Chaps. IV
and V; Kennedy, St. Paul’s Conceptions of the Last Things, pp. 103-157; Dorner, Syst. of Chr.
Doct. III, pp. 114-132.
I. Name and Concept of the Covenant
1. IN THE OLD TESTAMENT. The Hebrew word for covenant is always berith, a word of
uncertain derivation. The most general opinion is that it is derived from the Hebrew
verb barah, to cut, and therefore contains a reminder of the ceremony mentioned in Gen.
15:17. Some, however, prefer to think that it is derived from the Assyrian word beritu,
meaning “to bind.” This would at once point to the covenant as a bond. The question of
the derivation is of no great importance for the construction of the doctrine. The word
berith may denote a mutual voluntary agreement (dipleuric), but also a disposition or
arrangement imposed by one party on another (monopleuric). Its exact meaning does
not depend on the etymology of the word, nor on the historical development of the
concept, but simply on the parties concerned. In the measure in which one of the parties
is subordinate and has less to say, the covenant acquires the character of a disposition or
arrangement imposed by one party on the other. Berith then becomes synonymous with
choq (appointed statute or ordinance), Ex. 34:10; Isa. 59:21; Jer. 31:36; 33:20; 34:13. Hence
we also find that karath berith (to cut a covenant) is construed not only with the
prepositions ’am and ben (with), but also with lamedh (to), Jos. 9:6; Isa. 55:3; 61:8; Jer.
32:40. Naturally, when God establishes a covenant with man, this monopleuric character
is very much in evidence, for God and man are not equal parties. God is the Sovereign
who imposes His ordinances upon His creatures.
2. IN THE NEW TESTAMENT. In the Septuagint the word berith is rendered diatheke in
every passage where it occurs with the exception of Deut. 9:15 (marturion) and I Kings
11:11 (entole). The word diatheke is confined to this usage, except in four passages. This
use of the word seems rather peculiar in view of the fact that it is not the usual Greek
word for covenant, but really denotes a disposition, and consequently also a testament.
The ordinary word for covenant is suntheke. Did the translators intend to substitute
another idea for the covenant idea? Evidently not, for in Isa. 28:15 they use the two
words synonymously, and there diatheke evidently means a pact or an agreement. Hence
there is no doubt about it that they ascribe this meaning to diatheke. But the question
remains, Why did they so generally avoid the use of suntheke and substitute for it a
word which denotes a disposition rather than an agreement? In all probability the
reason lies in the fact that in the Greek world the covenant idea expressed by suntheke
was based to such an extent on the legal equality of the parties, that it could not,
without considerable modification, be incorporated in the Scriptural system of thought.
The idea that the priority belongs to God in the establishment of the covenant, and that
He sovereignly imposes His covenant on man was absent from the usual Greek word.
Hence the substitution of the word in which this was very prominent. The word diatheke
thus, like many other words, received a new meaning, when it became the vehicle of
divine thought, This change is important in connection with the New Testament use of
the word. There has been considerable difference of opinion respecting the proper
translation of the word. In about half of the passages in which it occurs the Holland and
the Authorized Versions render the word “covenant,” while in the other half they
render it “testament.” The American Revised Version, however, renders it “covenant”
throughout, except in Heb. 9:16,17. It is but natural, therefore, that the question should
be raised, What is the New Testament meaning of the word? Some claim that it has its
classical meaning of disposition or testament, wherever it is found in the New Testament,
while others maintain that it means testament in some places, but that in the great
majority of passages the covenant idea is prominently in the foreground. This is
undoubtedly the correct view. We would expect a priorily that the New Testament usage
would be in general agreement with that of the LXX; and a careful study of the relevant
passages shows that the American Revised Version is undoubtedly on the right track,
when it translates diatheke by “testament” only in Heb. 9:16,17. In all probability there is
not a single other passage where this rendering would be correct, not even II Cor. 3:6,14.
The fact that several translations of the New Testament substituted “testament” for
“covenant” in so many places is probably due to three causes: (a) the desire to
emphasize the priority of God in the transaction; (b) the assumption that the word had
to be rendered as much as possible in harmony with Heb. 9:16,17; and (c) the influence
of the Latin translation, which uniformly rendered diatheke by “testamentum.”
The covenant idea developed in history before God made any formal use of the
concept in the revelation of redemption. Covenants among men had been made long
before God established His covenant with Noah and with Abraham, and this prepared
men to understand the significance of a covenant in a world divided by sin, and helped
them to understand the divine revelation, when it presented man’s relation to God as a
covenant relation. This does not mean, however, that the covenant idea originated with
man and was then borrowed by God as an appropriate form for the description of the
mutual relationship between Himself and man. Quite the opposite is true; the archetype
of all covenant life is found in the trinitarian being of God, and what is seen among men
is but a faint copy (ectype) of this. God so ordered the life of man that the covenant idea
should develop there as one of the pillars of social life, and after it had so developed, He
formally introduced it as an expression of the existing relation between Himself and
man. The covenant relationship between God and man existed from the very beginning,
and therefore long before the formal establishment of the covenant with Abraham.
While the word berith is often used of covenants among men, yet it always includes
a religious idea. A covenant is a pact or agreement between two or more parties. It may
be, and among men most generally is, an agreement to which parties, which can meet
on a footing of equality, voluntarily come after a careful stipulation of their mutual
duties and privileges; but it may also be of the nature of a disposition or arrangement
imposed by a superior party on one that is inferior and accepted by the latter. It is
generally confirmed by a solemn ceremony as in the presence of God, and thereby
obtains an inviolable character. Each one of the parties binds himself to the fulfilment of
certain promises on the basis of stipulated conditions. Now we should not say that we
cannot properly speak of a covenant between God and man, because the parties are too
unequal, and therefore proceed on the assumption that the covenant of grace is nothing
but the promise of salvation in the form of a covenant. By doing that we would fail to
do justice to the covenant idea as it is revealed in Scripture. It is perfectly true that both
the covenant of works and (as the sequel will show) the covenant of grace are
monopleuric in origin, that they are of the nature of arrangements ordained and
instituted by God, and that God has the priority in both; but they are nevertheless
covenants. God graciously condescended to come down to the level of man, and to
honor him by dealing with him more or less on the footing of equality. He stipulates His
demands and vouchsafes His promises, and man assumes the duties thus imposed
upon him voluntarily and thus inherits the blessings. In the covenant of works man
could meet the requirements of the covenant in virtue of his natural endowments, but in
the covenant of grace he is enabled to meet them only by the regenerating and
sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit. God works in man both to will and to do,
graciously bestowing upon him all that He requires of him. It is called the covenant of
grace, because it is an unparalleled revelation of the grace of God, and because man
receives all its blessings as gifts of divine grace.
II. The Covenant of Redemption
There are different representations respecting the parties in the covenant of grace.
Some consider them to be the triune God and man, either without qualification, or
qualified in some way, as “the sinner,” “the elect,” or “man in Christ”; others, God the
Father, as representing the Trinity, and Christ as representing the elect;45 and still others,
since the days of Coccejus, distinguish two covenants, namely, the covenant of
redemption (pactum salutis) between the Father and the Son, and, as based on this, the
covenant of grace between the triune God and the elect, or the elect sinner. The second
of these representations has a certain advantage from a systematic point of view. It may
claim the support of such passages as Rom. 5:12-21 and I Cor. 15:21,22,47-49, and
stresses the inseparable connection between the pactum salutis and the covenant of
grace. It brings out the unity of the covenant in Christ, and is advocated among others
by Boston, Gib, Dick, A. Kuyper Sr., H. Kuyper, and A. Kuyper, Jr. The third
representation is more perspicuous, however, is easier to understand, and is therefore
more serviceable in a practical discussion of the doctrine of the covenant. It escapes a
great deal of confusion that is incidental to the other view, and is followed by the
majority of Reformed theologians, such as Mastricht, à Marck, Turretin, Witsius, Heppe,
the Hodges, Shedd, Vos, Bavinck, and Honig. There is no essential difference between
these two representations. Says Dr. Hodge: “There is no doctrinal difference between
those who prefer the one statement and those who prefer the other; between those who
comprise all the facts of Scripture relating to the subject under one covenant between
God and Christ as the representative of His people, and those who distribute them
under two.”46 This being the case, the third mode of representing the whole matter
undoubtedly deserves the preference. But in following it we should bear in mind what
Shedd says: “Though this distinction (between the covenant of redemption and the
covenant of grace) is favored by Scripture statements, it does not follow that there are
two separate and independent covenants antithetic to the covenant of works. The
covenant of grace and redemption are two modes or phases of the one evangelical
covenant of mercy.”47
45 Westm. Larger Cat., Q. 31.
46 Syst. Theol. II, p. 358; cf. also Dabney, Lect. on Theol., p. 432; Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. III, p. 240
47 Dogm. Theol. II, p. 360.
The name “counsel of peace” is derived from Zech. 6:13. Coccejus and others found
in this passage a reference to an agreement between the Father and the Son. This was
clearly a mistake, for the words refer to the union of the kingly and priestly offices in
the Messiah. The Scriptural character of the name cannot be maintained, but this, of
course, does not detract from the reality of the counsel of peace. The doctrine of this
eternal counsel rests on the following Scriptural basis.
1. Scripture clearly points to the fact that the plan of redemption was included in the
eternal decree or counsel of God, Eph. 1:4 ff.; 3:11; II Thess. 2:13; II Tim. 1:9; Jas. 2:5; I
Pet. 1:2, etc. Now we find that in the economy of redemption there is, in a sense, a
division of labor: the Father is the originator, the Son the executor, and the Holy Spirit
the applier. This can only be the result of a voluntary agreement among the persons of
the Trinity, so that their internal relations assume the form of a covenant life. In fact, it is
exactly in the trinitarian life that we find the archetype of the historical covenants, a
covenant in the proper and fullest sense of the word, the parties meeting on a footing of
equality, a true suntheke.
2. There are passages of Scripture which not only point to the fact that the plan of
God for the salvation of sinners was eternal, Eph. 1:4; 3:9,11, but also indicate that it was
of the nature of a covenant. Christ speaks of promises made to Him before his advent,
and repeatedly refers to a commission which He had received from the Father, John
5:30,43; 6:38-40; 17:4-12. And in Rom. 5:12-21 and I Cor. 15:22 He is clearly regarded as a
representative head, that is, as the head of a covenant.
3. Wherever we have the essential elements of a covenant, namely, contracting
parties, a promise or promises, and a condition, there we have a covenant. In Ps. 2:7-9
the parties are mentioned and a promise is indicated. The Messianic character of this
passage is guaranteed by Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5. Again, in Ps. 40:7-9, also attested as
Messianic by the New Testament (Heb. 10:5-7), the Messiah expresses His readiness to
do the Father’s will in becoming a sacrifice for sin. Christ repeatedly speaks of a task
which the Father has entrusted to Him, John 6:38,39; 10:18; 17:4. The statement in Luke
22:29 is particularly significant: “I appoint unto you a kingdom, even as my Father
appointed unto me.” The verb used here is diatithemi, the word from which diatheke is
derived, which means to appoint by will, testament or covenant. Moreover, in John 17:5
Christ claims a reward, and in John 17:6,9,24 (cf. also Phil. 2:9-11) He refers to His
people and His future glory as a reward given Him by the Father.
4. There are two Old Testament passages which connect up the idea of the covenant
immediately with the Messiah, namely, Ps. 89:3, which is based on II Sam. 7:12-14, and
is proved to be a Messianic passage by Heb. 1:5; and Isa. 42:6, where the person referred
to is the Servant of the Lord. The connection clearly shows that this Servant is not
merely Israel. Moreover, there are passages in which the Messiah speaks of God as His
God, thus using covenant language, namely, Ps. 22:1, 2, and Ps. 40:8.
covenant of redemption is twofold. In the first place He is Surety (Gr. egguos), a word
that is used only in Heb. 7:22. The derivation of this word is uncertain, and therefore
cannot aid us in establishing its meaning. But the meaning is not doubtful. A surety is
one who engages to become responsible for it that the legal obligations of another will
be met. In the covenant of redemption Christ undertook to atone for the sins of His
people by bearing the necessary punishment, and to meet the demands of the law for
them. And by taking the place of delinquent man He became the last Adam, and is as
such also the Head of the covenant, the Representative of all those whom the Father has
given Him. In the covenant of redemption, then, Christ is both Surety and Head. He
took upon Himself the responsibilities of His people. He is also their Surety in the
covenant of grace, which develops out of the covenant of redemption. The question has
been raised, whether the suretyship of Christ in the counsel of peace was conditional or
unconditional. Roman jurisprudence recognizes two kinds of suretyship, the one
designated fidejussor, and the other expromissor. The former is conditional, and the latter
unconditional. The former is a surety who undertakes to pay for another, provided this
person does not himself render satisfaction. The burden of guilt remains on the guilty
party until the time of payment. The latter, however, is a surety who takes upon himself
unconditionally to pay for another, thus relieving the guilty party of his responsibility at
once. Coccejus and his school maintained that in the counsel of peace Christ became a
fidejussor, and that consequently Old Testament believers enjoyed no complete
forgiveness of sins. From Rom. 3:25 they inferred that for those saints there was only a
paresis, an overlooking of sin, and no aphesis or complete forgiveness, until Christ really
made atonement for sin. Their opponents asserted, however, that Christ took upon
Himself unconditionally to render satisfaction for His people, and therefore became a
surety in the specific sense of an expromissor. This is the only tenable position, for: (a)
Old Testament believers received full justification or forgiveness, though the knowledge
of it was not as full and clear as it is in the New Testament dispensation. There was no
essential difference between the status of the Old, and that of the New Testament
believers, Ps. 32:1,2,5; 51:1-3, 9-11; 103:3,12; Isa. 43:25; Rom. 3:3,6-16; Gal. 3:6-9. The
position of Coccejus reminds one of that of the Roman Catholics with their Limbus
Patrum. (b) Coccejus’ theory makes the work of God in making provision for the
redemption of sinners dependent on the uncertain obedience of man in an entirely
unwarranted way. There is no sense in saying that Christ became a conditional surety,
as if it were still possible that the sinner should pay for himself. God’s provision for the
redemption of sinners is absolute. This is not the same as saying that He does not treat
and address the sinner as personally guilty until he is justified by faith, for this is
exactly what God does do. (c) In Rom. 3:25, the passage to which Coccejus appeals, the
apostle uses the word paresis (overlooking or passing over), not because the individual
believers in the Old Testament did not receive full pardon of sin, but because during the
old dispensation the forgiveness of sin assumed the form of a paresis, as long as sin had
not been adequately punished in Christ, and the absolute righteousness of Christ had
not been revealed in the cross.
redemption is the eternal basis of the covenant of grace, and, as far as sinners are
concerned, also its eternal prototype, it was for Christ a covenant of works rather than a
covenant of grace. For Him the law of the original covenant applied, namely, that
eternal life could only be obtained by meeting the demands of the law. As the last Adam
Christ obtains eternal life for sinners in reward for faithful obedience, and not at all as
an unmerited gift of grace. And what He has done as the Representative and Surety of
all His people, they are no more in duty bound to do. The work has been done, the
reward is merited, and believers are made partakers of the fruits of Christ’s
accomplished work through grace.
identified the covenant of redemption and election; but this is clearly a mistake. Election
has reference to the selection of the persons destined to be the heirs of everlasting glory
in Christ. The counsel of redemption, on the other hand, refers to the way in which and
the means by which grace and glory are prepared for sinners. Election, indeed, also has
reference to Christ and reckons with Christ, for believers are said to be elected in Him.
Christ Himself is, in a sense, the object of election, but in the counsel of redemption He
is one of the contracting parties. The Father deals with Christ as the Surety of His
people. Logically, election precedes the counsel of redemption, because the suretyship
of Christ, like His atonement, is particular. If there were no preceding election, it would
necessarily be universal. Moreover, to turn this around would be equivalent to making
the suretyship of Christ the ground of election, while Scripture bases election entirely on
the good pleasure of God.
the sacraments of both the Old and the New Testament. It is evident, however, that they
could not mean for Him what they do for believers. In His case they could be neither
symbols nor seals of saving grace; nor could they be instrumental in strengthening
saving faith. If we distinguish, as we are doing, between the covenant of redemption
and the covenant of grace, then the sacraments were for Christ in all probability
sacraments of the former rather than of the latter. Christ took upon Himself in the
covenant of redemption to meet the demands of the law. These had assumed a definite
form when Christ was on earth and also included positive religious regulations. The
sacraments formed a part of this law, and therefore Christ had to subject Himself to
them, Matt. 3:15. At the same time they could serve as seals of the promises which the
Father had given to the Son. The objection may be raised to this representation that the
sacraments were indeed fit symbols and seals of the removal of sin and of the
nourishment of spiritual life, but from the nature of the case could not have this
meaning for Christ, who had no sin and needed no spiritual nourishment. The objection
may be met, at least to a certain extent, by calling attention to the fact that Christ
appeared on earth in a public and official capacity. Though He had no personal sin, and
no sacrament could therefore signify and seal to Him its removal, yet He was made to
be sin for His people, II Cor. 5:21, by being burdened with their guilt; and consequently
the sacraments could signify the removal of this burden, according to the promise of the
Father, after He had completed His atoning work. Again, though we cannot speak of
Christ as exercising saving faith in the sense in which this is required of us, yet as
Mediator He had to exercise faith in a wider sense by accepting the promises of the
Father believingly, and by trusting the Father for their fulfilment. And the sacraments
could serve as signs and seals to strengthen this faith as far as His human nature was
1. REQUIREMENTS. The Father required of the Son, who appeared in this covenant as
the Surety and Head of His people, and as the last Adam, that He should make amends
for the sin of Adam and of those whom the Father had given Him, and should do what
Adam failed to do by keeping the law and thus securing eternal life for all His spiritual
progeny. This requirement included the following particulars:
a. That He should assume human nature by being born of a woman, and thus enter
into temporal relations; and that He should assume this nature with its present
infirmities, though without sin, Gal. 4:4,5; Heb. 2:10,11,14,15; 4:15. It was absolutely
essential that He should become one of the human race.
b. That He, who as the Son of God was superior to the law, should place Himself
under the law; that He should enter, not merely into the natural, but also into the penal
and federal relation to the law, in order to pay the penalty for sin and to merit
everlasting life for the elect, Ps. 40:8; Matt. 5:17,18; John 8:28,29; Gal. 4:4,5; Phil. 2:6-8.
c. That He, after having merited forgiveness of sins and eternal life for His own,
should apply to them the fruits of His merits: complete pardon, and the renewal of their
lives through the powerful operation of the Holy Spirit. By doing this He would render
it absolutely certain that believers would consecrate their lives to God, John 10:16; John
16:14,15; 17:12,19-22; Heb. 2: 10-13; 7:25.
2. PROMISES. The promises of the Father were in keeping with His requirements. He
promised the Son all that was required for the performance of His great and
comprehensive task, thereby excluding all uncertainty in the operation of this covenant.
These promises included the following:
a. That He would prepare the Son a body, which would be a fit tabernacle for him; a
body in part prepared by the immediate agency of God and uncontaminated by sin,
Luke 1:35; Heb. 10:5.
b. That He would endow Him with the necessary gifts and graces for the
performance of His task, and particularly would anoint Him for the Messianic offices by
giving Him the Spirit without measure, a promise that was fulfilled especially at the
time of His baptism, Isa. 42:1,2; 61:1; John 3:31.
c. That He would support Him in the performance of His work, would deliver Him
from the power of death, and would thus enable Him to destroy the dominion of Satan
and to establish the Kingdom of God, Isa. 42:1-7; 49:8; Ps. 16:8-11; Acts 2:25-28.
d. That He would enable Him, as a reward for His accomplished work, to send out
the Holy Spirit for the formation of His spiritual body, and for the instruction, guidance,
and protection of the Church, John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13, 14; Acts 2:33.
e. That He would give unto Him a numerous seed in reward for His accomplished
work, a seed so numerous that it would be a multitude which no man could number, so
that ultimately the Kingdom of the Messiah would embrace the people of all nations
and tongues, Ps. 22:27; 72:17.
f. That He would commit to Him all power in heaven and on earth for the
government of the world and of His Church, Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:20-22; Phil. 2:9-11; Heb.
2:5-9; and would finally reward Him as Mediator with the glory which He as the Son of
God had with the Father before the world was, John 17:5.
The following points indicate the relation in which this covenant stands to the
covenant of grace:
1. The counsel of redemption is the eternal prototype of the historical covenant of
grace. This accounts for the fact that many combine the two into a single covenant. The
former is eternal, that is, from eternity, and the latter, temporal in the sense that it is
realized in time. The former is a compact between the Father and the Son as the Surety
and Head of the elect, while the latter is a compact between the triune God and the elect
sinner in the Surety.
2. The counsel of redemption is the firm and eternal foundation of the covenant of
grace. If there had been no eternal counsel of peace between the Father and the Son,
there could have been no agreement between the triune God and sinful men. The
counsel of redemption makes the covenant of grace possible.
3. The counsel of redemption consequently also gives efficacy to the covenant of
grace, for in it the means are provided for the establishment and execution of the latter.
It is only by faith that the sinner can obtain the blessings of the covenant, and in the
counsel of redemption the way of faith is opened. The Holy Spirit, which produces faith
in the sinner, was promised to Christ by the Father, and the acceptance of the way of life
through faith was guaranteed by Christ.
The covenant of redemption may be defined as the agreement between the Father,
giving the Son as Head and Redeemer of the elect, and the Son, voluntarily taking the place of
those whom the Father had given Him.
III. Nature of the Covenant of Grace
In a discussion of the nature of the covenant of grace several points come up for
consideration, such as the distinction between it and the covenant of works, the
contracting parties, the contents, the characteristics of the covenant, and the place of
Christ in the covenant.
1. POINTS OF SIMILARITY. The points of agreement are of a rather general nature. The
two covenants agree as to (a) the author: God is the author of both; He only could
establish such covenants; (b) the contracting parties, which are in both cases God and
man; (c) the external form, namely, condition and promise; (d) the contents of the
promise which is in both cases eternal life; and (e) the general aim, which is the glory of
2. POINTS OF DIFFERENCE. (a) In the covenant of works God appears as Creator and
Lord; in the covenant of grace, as Redeemer and Father. The establishment of the former
was prompted by God’s love and benevolence; that of the latter, by His mercy and
special grace. (b) In the covenant of works man appears simply as God’s creature,
rightly related to his God; in the covenant of grace he appears as a sinner who has
perverted his ways, and can only appear as a party in Christ, the Surety. Consequently,
there is no mediator in the former, while there is in the latter. (c) The covenant of works
was contingent on the uncertain obedience of a changeable man, while the covenant of
grace rests on the obedience of Christ as Mediator, which is absolute and certain. (d) In
the covenant of works the keeping of the law is the way of life; in the covenant of grace,
it is faith in Jesus Christ. Whatever faith was required in the covenant of works was a
part of the righteousness of the law; in the covenant of grace, however, it is merely the
organ by which we take possession of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. (e) The covenant
of works was partly known by nature, since the law of God was written in the heart of
man; but the covenant of grace is known exclusively through a special positive
Just as in the covenant of works, so in the covenant of grace God is the first of the
contracting parties, the party that takes the initiative, and graciously determines the
relation in which the second party will stand to Him. He appears in this covenant,
however, not merely as a sovereign and a benevolent God, but also, and especially, as a
gracious and forgiving Father, willing to pardon sin and to restore sinners to His
blessed communion.
It is not easy to determine precisely who the second party is. In general it may be
said that God naturally established the covenant of grace with fallen man. Historically,
there is no definite indication of any limitation until we come to the time of Abraham. In
course of time it became perfectly evident, however, that this new covenant relation was
not meant to include all men. When God formally established the covenant with
Abraham, He limited it to the patriarch and his seed. Consequently, the question arises
as to the exact limits of the covenant.
Reformed theologians are not unanimous in answering this question. Some simply
say that God made the covenant with the sinner, but this suggests no limitation
whatsoever, and therefore does not satisfy. Others assert that He established it with
Abraham and his seed, that is, his natural, but especially his spiritual, descendants; or,
put in a more general form, with believers and their seed. The great majority of them,
however, maintain that He entered into covenant relationship with the elect or the elect
sinner in Christ. This position was taken by earlier as well as by later representatives of
federal theology. Even Bullinger says the “covenant of God includes the entire seed of
Abraham, that is, the believers.” He finds this to be in harmony with Paul’s
interpretation of “the seed” in Gal. 3. At the same time he also holds that the children of
believers are in a certain sense included in the covenant.48 And Olevianus, co-author
with Ursinus of the Heidelberg Catechism, says that God established the covenant with
“all those whom God, out of the mass of lost men, has decreed to adopt as children by
grace, and to endow them with faith.”49 This is also the position of Mastricht, Turretin,
Owen, Gib, Boston, Witsius, à Marck, Francken, Brakel, Comrie, Kuyper, Bavinck,
Hodge, Vos, and others.
But now the question arises, What induced these theologians to speak of the
covenant as made with the elect in spite of all the practical difficulties involved? Were
they not aware of these difficulties? It appears from their writings that they were fully
conscious of them. But they felt that it was necessary to contemplate the covenant first
of all in its most profound sense, as it is realized in the lives of believers. While they
understood that others had a place in the covenant in some sense of the word, they
48 Cf. the quotations in A. J. Van ‘t Hooft, De Theologie van Heinrich Bullinger, pp. 47, 172.
49 Van het Wezen des Genade-Verbondts Tusschen God ende de Uitverkorene, Afd. I, par. 1.
nevertheless felt that it was a subordinate place, and that their relation to it was
calculated to be subservient to the full realization of it in a life of friendship with God.
And this is no wonder in view of the following considerations:
1. They who identified the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace, and
considered it un-Scriptural to distinguish the two, naturally thought of it first of all as a
covenant established with Christ as the representative Head of all those whom the
Father had given Him; a covenant in which He became the Surety of the elect and thus
guaranteed their complete redemption. In fact, in the covenant of redemption only the
elect come into consideration. The situation is practically the same in the case of those
who distinguish two covenants, but insist on their close relationship and represent the
covenant of redemption as the eternal basis of the covenant of grace, for in the former
only the grace of God, as it is glorified and perfected in the elect, comes into
2. Even in the history of the establishment of the covenant with Abraham,
interpreted in the light of the rest of Scripture, Reformed theologians found abundant
evidence that fundamentally the covenant of grace is a covenant established with those
who are in Christ. The Bible distinguishes a twofold seed of Abraham. The beginning of
this is distinctly found in Gen. 21:12, where we find God saying to Abraham, “In Isaac
shall thy seed be called,” thus ruling out Ishmael. Paul, in interpreting these words
speaks of Isaac as a child of promise, and by “a child of promise” he does not simply
mean a promised child, but a child that was not born in the ordinary way, but, in virtue
of a promise, by a supernatural operation of God. He also connects with it the idea of a
child to whom the promise belongs. According to him the expression, “in Isaac shall thy
seed be called,” indicates that “it is not the children of the flesh that are children of God;
but the children of the promise are reckoned for a seed.” Rom. 9:8. The same idea is
expressed in Gal. 4:28, “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise,” and
as such also heirs of the promised blessings, cf. vs. 30. This is entirely in harmony with
what the apostle says in Gal. 3:16: “Now to Abraham were the promises spoken, and to
his seed. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is
Christ.” But the seed is not limited to Christ, but includes all believers. “And if ye are
Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise.” Gal. 3:29. W. Strong
in his Discourse of the Two Covenants calls attention to the following subordination in the
establishment of the covenant. He says that it was made “(1) first and immediately with
Christ the second Adam: (2) in Him with all the faithful: (3) in them with their seed.”50
50 p. 193.
3. Still another factor should be taken into consideration. Reformed theologians
were deeply conscious of the contrast between the covenant of works and the covenant
of grace. They felt that in the former the reward of the covenant was dependent on the
uncertain obedience of man and as a result failed to materialize, while in the covenant
of grace the full realization of the promises is absolutely sure in virtue of the perfect
obedience of Jesus Christ. Its realization is sure through the operation of the grace of
God, but, of course, sure only for those who are partakers of that grace. They felt
constrained to stress this aspect of the covenant especially over against the Arminians
and Neonomians, who virtually changed it into a new covenant of works, and made
salvation once more dependent on the work of man, that is, on faith and evangelical
obedience. For this reason they stressed the close connection between the covenant of
redemption and the covenant of grace, and even hesitated to speak of faith as the
condition of the covenant of grace. Walker tells us that some of the Scottish divines were
opposed to the distinction of two covenants, because they saw in it a “tendency . . . to
Neonomianism, or, as the covenant of reconciliation (i.e., the covenant of grace as
distinguished from that of redemption) was external in the visible Church, even a sort
of bar to immediate dealing with the Saviour, and entrance by an appropriating faith
into living union with Him.”51
4. All in all it would seem safe to say that Reformed theology contemplated the
covenant, not primarily as a means ministering to an end, but as an end in itself, a
relation of friendship; not first of all as representing and including a number of external
privileges, a set of promises, conditionally held out to man, a good merely offered unto
him; but primarily as the expression of blessings freely given, of privileges improved by
the grace of God for spiritual ends, of promises accepted by a faith which is the gift of
God, and of a good realized, at least in principle, through the operation of the Holy
Spirit in the heart. And because in its estimation all this was included in the covenant
idea, and the blessings of the covenant are realized only in those that are actually saved,
it stressed the fact that the covenant of grace was established between God and the
elect. But in doing this it did not intend to deny that the covenant also has a broader
Dr. Vos says with reference to this view: “Het behoeft nauwelijks herinnerd to
worden, hoe met dit alles geenszins bedoeld is, dat de verbondsbediening van de
verkiezing uitgaat, noch ook dat alle niet-uitverkorenen buiten iedere relatie tot deze
verbonds-bediening staan. Het is veelmeer zoo bedoeld, dat uit ‘t gesterkt verbonds-
51 Scottish Theology and Theologians, pp. 77 f.
bewustzijn de zekerheid aangaande de verkiezing zich ontwikkelen moet; dat door heel
de verbonds-bediening heen, ook de volstrekte, alomvattende beloften Gods, zooals zij
uit de verkiezing voortvloeien moeten worden in het oog gehouden, bij Woord en
Sacrament beide; dat eindelijk het wezen des verbonds, deszelfs volle realiseering
slechts bij de ware kinderen Gods wordt aangetroffen, en dus niet wijder is dan de
uitverkiezing. Vooral op het tweede punt dient gelet te worden. Behalve dat er overal,
waar Gods verbond bediend wordt, eene verzegeling is van dezen inhoud: In de
vooronderstelling der aanwezigheid van geloof, wordt u het recht op alle
verbondsgoederen verzekerd — behalve dat, zeggen wij, is er steeds een plechtige
betuiging en verzegeling, dat God in alle uitverkorenen den geheelen omvang des
verbonds will verwerkelijken.”52
The idea that the covenant is fully realized only in the elect is a perfectly Scriptural
idea, as appears, for instance, from Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:8-12. Moreover, it is also entirely
in line with the relation in which the covenant of grace stands to the covenant of
redemption. If in the latter Christ becomes Surety only for the elect, then the real
substance of the former must be limited to them also. Scripture strongly emphasizes the
fact that the covenant of grace, in distinction from the covenant of works, is an
inviolable covenant, in which the promises of God are always realized, Isa. 54:10. This
cannot be intended conditionally, for then it would be no special characteristic of the
covenant of grace, but would apply to the covenant of works as well. And yet, this is
exactly one of the important points in which the former differs from the latter, that it is
no more dependent on the uncertain obedience of man, but only on the absolute
faithfulness of God. The covenant promises will surely be realized, but — only in the
lives of the elect.
But now the question arises, whether in the estimation of these Reformed
theologians all the non-elect are outside of the covenant of grace in every sense of the
52 That is, “It need hardly be said that with all this it is not meant that the administration of the covenant
originates from the election, nor that all who are not elect stand outside of every relation to this
administration of the covenant. It is far more intended thus, that out of the strengthened covenant
consciousness the certainty respecting the election must develop itself; that through the entire
administration of the covenant, also the absolute, all-comprehensive promises of God, as they issue from
the election, must be borne in mind in connection with both Word and Sacrament; that, finally, the essence
of the covenant, its full realization, is found only in the true children of God, and therefore is not more
extensive than the election. Attention should be paid especially to the second point. Besides that
everywhere, where God’s covenant is administered, there is a seal having this content: In the supposition
of the presence of faith, you are assured of the right to all the blessings of the covenant, — besides that,
we say, there is always a solemn testimony and seal, that God will realize the whole content of the
covenant in the elect.” De Verbondsleer in de Gereformeerde Theologie, pp. 46 f.
word. Brakel virtually takes this position, but he is not in line with the majority. They
realized very well that a covenant of grace, which in no sense of the word included
others than the elect, would be purely individual, while the covenant of grace is
represented in Scripture as an organic idea. They were fully aware of the fact that,
according to God’s special revelation in both the Old and the New Testament, the
covenant as a historical phenomenon is perpetuated in successive generations and
includes many in whom the covenant life is never realized. And whenever they desired
to include this aspect of the covenant in their definition, they would say that it was
established with believers and their seed. It should be borne in mind, however, that this
description of the second party in the covenant does not imply that the covenant is
established with men in the quality of believers, for faith itself is a fruit of the covenant.
Dr. Bavinck correctly says: “Maar het verbond der genade gaat aan het geloof vooraf.
Het geloof is geen voorwaarde tot het verbond, maar in het verbond; de weg, om al de
andere goederen van dat verbond deelachtig te worden en te genieten.”53 The
description “believers and their seed” merely serves as a convenient practical
designation of the limits of the covenant. The question of harmonizing these two
aspects of the covenant will come up later on. The covenant of grace may be defined as
that gracious agreement between the offended God and the offending but elect sinner, in which
God promises salvation through faith in Christ, and the sinner accepts this believingly,
promising a life of faith and obedience.
1. THE PROMISES OF GOD. The main promise of God, which includes all other
promises, is contained in the oft-repeated words, “I will be a God unto thee, and to thy
seed after thee.” Gen. 17:7. This promise is found in several Old and New Testament
passages which speak of the introduction of a new phase of the covenant life, or refer to
a renewal of the covenant, Jer. 31:33; 32:38-40; Ezek. 34:23-25,30,31; 36:25-28; 37:26,27; II
Cor. 6:16-18; Heb. 8:10. The promise is fully realized when at last the new Jerusalem
descends out of heaven from God, and the tabernacle of God is pitched among men.
Consequently we hear the last echo of it in Rev. 21:3. This grand promise is re-echoed
time and again in the jubilant exaltation of those who stand in covenant relationship to
God, “Jehovah is my God.” This one promise really includes all other promises, such as
(a) the promise of various temporal blessings, which often serve to symbolize those of a
53 That is, “But the covenant of grace precedes faith. Faith is not a condition to the covenant, but in the
covenant; the way to obtain possession of and to enjoy all the other blessings of the covenant.” Roeping en
Wedergeboorte, p. 108.
spiritual kind; (b) the promise of justification, including the adoption of children, and a
claim to life eternal; (c) the promise of the Spirit of God for the application, full and free,
of the work of redemption and of all the blessings of salvation; and (d) the promise of
final glorification in a life that never ends. Cf. Job 19:25-27; Ps. 16:11; 73:24-26; Isa. 43:25;
Jer. 31:33,34; Ezek. 36:27; Dan. 12:2,3; Gal. 4:5,6; Tit. 3:7; Heb. 11:7; Jas. 2:5.
2. THE RESPONSE OF MAN. The assent or response of man to these promises of God
naturally appears in various forms, the nature of the response being determined by the
promises. (a) In general the relation between the covenant God and the single believer
or believers collectively is represented as the close relationship between man and wife,
bridegroom and bride, a father and his children. This implies that the response of those
who share the covenant blessings will be one of true, faithful, trustful, consecrated, and
devoted love. (b) To the general promise, “I will be thy God,” man responds by saying,
“I will belong to thy people,” and by casting his lot with the people of God. (c) And to
the promise of justification unto the forgiveness of sins, the adoption of children, and
eternal life, he responds by saving faith in Jesus Christ, by trust in Him for time and
eternity, and by a life of obedience and consecration to God.
1. IT IS A GRACIOUS COVENANT. This covenant may be called a gracious covenant, (a)
because in it God allows a Surety to meet our obligations; (b) because He Himself
provides the Surety in the person of His Son, who meets the demands of justice; and (c)
because by His grace, revealed in the operation of the Holy Spirit, He enables man to
live up to His covenant responsibilities. The covenant originates in the grace of God, is
executed in virtue of the grace of God, and is realized in the lives of sinners by the grace
of God. It is grace from the beginning to the end for the sinner.
2. IT IS A TRINITARIAN COVENANT. The triune God is operative in the covenant of
grace. It has its origin in the elective love and grace of the Father, finds its judicial
foundation in the suretyship of the Son, and is fully realized in the lives of sinners only
by the effective application of the Holy Spirit, John 1:16; Eph. 1:1-14; 2:8; I Pet. 1:2.
an eternal covenant, we have reference to a future rather than to a past eternity, Gen.
17:19; II Sam. 23:5; Heb. 13:20. Past eternity can be ascribed to it only, if we do not
distinguish between it and the covenant of redemption. The fact that the covenant is
eternal also implies that it is inviolable; and this is one of the reasons why it can be
called a testament, Heb. 9:17. God remains forever true to His covenant and will
invariably bring it to full realization in the elect. This does not mean, however, that man
cannot and never will break the covenant relationship in which he stands.
4. IT IS A PARTICULAR AND NOT A UNIVERSAL COVENANT. This means (a) that it will not
be realized in all men, as some Universalists claim, and also that God did not intend
that it should be realized in the lives of all, as Pelagians, Arminians, and Lutherans
teach; (b) that even as an external covenant relation it does not extend to all those to
whom the gospel is preached, for many of them are not willing to be incorporated in the
covenant; and (c) that the offer of the covenant does not come to all, since there have
been many individuals and even nations who were never made acquainted with the
way of salvation. Some of the older Lutherans claim that the covenant may be called
universal, because there have been periods in history when it was offered to the human
race as a whole, as for instance, in Adam, in Noah and his family, and even in the days
of the apostles. But there is no ground for making Adam and Noah representative
recipients of the offer of the covenant; and the apostles certainly did not evangelize the
whole world. Some Reformed theologians, as Musculus, Polanus, and Wollebius, and
others, spoke of a foedus generale, in distinction from the foedus speciale ac sempiternum,
but in doing this they had in mind the general covenant of God with all creatures, men
and beasts, established by Noah. The New Testament dispensation of the covenant may
be called universal in the sense that in it the covenant is extended to all nations, and is
no more limited to the Jews, as it was in the old dispensation.
ADMINISTRATION CHANGES. This is contradicted by all those who claim that Old
Testament saints were saved in another manner than New Testament believers, as for
instance, Pelagians and Socinians, who hold that God gave additional help in the
example and teachings of Christ; the Roman Catholics, who maintain that the Old
Testament saints were in the Limbus Patrum until Christ’s descent into hades; the
followers of Coccejus, who assert that Old Testament believers enjoyed only a paresis (a
passing over) and no aphesis (full forgiveness of sins); and present-day
dispensationalists, who distinguish several different covenants (Scofield mentions 7;
Milligan 9), and insist on the necessity of keeping them distinct. The unity of the
covenant in all dispensations is proved by the following:
a. The summary expression of the covenant is the same throughout, both in the Old
and New Testament: “I will be thy God.” It is the expression of the essential content of
the covenant with Abraham, Gen. 17:7, of the Sinaitic covenant, Ex. 19:5; 20:1, of the
covenant of the Plains of Moab, Deut. 29:13, of the Davidic covenant, II Sam. 7:14, and
of the new covenant, Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10. This promise is really an all-comprehensive
summary and contains a guarantee of the most perfect covenant blessings. Christ infers
from the fact that God is called the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that those
patriarchs are in possession of eternal life, Matt. 22:32.
b. The Bible teaches that there is but a single gospel by which men can be saved.
And because the gospel is nothing but the revelation of the covenant of grace, it follows
that there is also but one covenant. This gospel was already heard in the maternal
promise, Gen. 3:15, was preached unto Abraham, Gal. 3:8, and may not be supplanted
by any Judaistic gospel, Gal. 1:8,9.
c. Paul argues at length over against the Judaists that the way in which Abraham
obtained salvation is typical for New Testament believers, no matter whether they be
Jews or Gentiles, Rom. 4:9-25; Gal. 3:7-9,17,18. He speaks of Abraham as the father of
believers, and clearly proves that the covenant with Abraham is still in force. It is
perfectly clear from the argument of the apostle in Rom. 4 and Gal. 3 that the law has
not annulled nor altered the covenant. Cf. also Heb. 6:13-18.
d. The Mediator of the covenant is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever, Heb.
13:8. In none other is there salvation, John 14:6; for neither is there any other name
under heaven, that is given among men, whereby we must be saved, Acts 4:12. The seed
promised to Abraham is Christ, Gal. 3:16, and those that are identified with Christ are
the real heirs of the covenant, Gal. 3:16-29.
e. The way of salvation revealed in the covenant is the same. Scripture insists on the
identical conditions all along, Gen. 15:6, compared with Rom. 4:11; Heb. 2:4; Acts 15:11;
Gal. 3:6,7; Heb. 11:9. The promises, for the realization of which the believers hoped,
were also the same, Gen. 15:6; Ps. 51:12; Matt. 13:17; John 8:56. And the sacraments,
though differing in form have essentially the same signification in both dispensations,
Rom. 4:11; I Cor. 5:7; Col. 2:11,12.
f. It is both conditional and unconditional. The question is repeatedly asked, whether
the covenant is conditional or unconditional. This is a question that cannot be answered
without careful discrimination, for the answer will depend on the point of view from
which the covenant is considered.
On the one hand the covenant is unconditional. There is in the covenant of grace no
condition that can be considered as meritorious. The sinner is exhorted to repent and
believe, but his faith and repentance do not in any way merit the blessings of the
covenant. This must be maintained in opposition to both the Roman Catholic and the
Arminian position. Neither is it conditional in the sense that man is expected to perform
in his own strength what the covenant requires of him. In placing him before the
demands of the covenant, we must always remind him of the fact that he can obtain the
necessary strength for the performance of his duty only from God. In a sense it may be
said that God Himself fulfills the condition in the elect. That which may be regarded as
a condition in the covenant, is for those who are chosen unto everlasting life also a
promise, and therefore a gift of God. Finally, the covenant is not conditional in the sense
that the reception of every separate blessing of the covenant is dependent on a
condition. We may say that faith is the conditio sine qua non of justification, but the
reception of faith itself in regeneration is not dependent on any condition, but only on
the operation of the grace of God in Christ.
On the other hand the covenant may be called conditional. There is a sense in which the
covenant is conditional. If we consider the basis of the covenant, it is clearly conditional
on the suretyship of Jesus Christ. In order to introduce the covenant of grace, Christ had
to, and actually did, meet the conditions originally laid down in the covenant of works,
by His active and passive obedience. Again, it may be said that the covenant is
conditional as far as the first conscious entrance into the covenant as a real communion
of life is concerned. This entrance is contingent on faith, a faith, however, which is itself
a gift of God. When we speak of faith as a condition here, we naturally refer to faith as a
spiritual activity of the mind. It is only through faith that we can obtain a conscious
enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant. Our experimental knowledge of the covenant
life is entirely dependent on the exercise of faith. He who does not live a life of faith is,
as far as his consciousness is concerned, practically outside of the covenant. If in our
purview we include not only the beginning, but also the gradual unfolding and
completion of the covenant life, we may regard sanctification as a condition in addition
to faith. Both are conditions, however, within the covenant.
Reformed Churches have often objected to the use of the word “condition” in
connection with the covenant of grace. This was largely due to a reaction against
Arminianism, which employed the word “condition” in an un-Scriptural sense, and
therefore to a failure to discriminate properly.54 Bearing in mind what was said in the
preceding, it would seem to be perfectly proper to speak of a condition in connection
with the covenant of grace, for (1) the Bible clearly indicates that the entrance upon the
covenant life is conditioned on faith, John 3:16,36; Acts 8:37 (not found in some MSS.);
Rom. 10:9; (2) Scripture often threatens covenant children, but these threatenings apply
54 Cf. Dick, Theol. Lect. XLVIII.
exactly to those who ignore the condition, that is, who refuse to walk in the way of the
covenant; and (3) if there were no condition, God only would be bound by the covenant,
and there would be no “bond of the covenant” for man (but cf. Ezek. 20:37); and thus
the covenant of grace would lose its character as a covenant, for there are two parts in
all covenants.
g. The covenant may in a sense be called a testament. In view of the fact that a testament
is an absolute declaration and knows of no conditions, the question is raised whether it
is proper at all to apply the term “testament” to the covenant. There is but one passage
in the New Testament where it seems to be justifiable to render the word diatheke by
“testament,” namely, Heb. 9:16,17. There Christ is represented as the testator, in whose
death the covenant of grace, considered as a testament, becomes effective. There was a
testamentary disposal of the blessings of the covenant, and this came into force through
the death of Christ. This is the only passage in which the covenant is explicitly referred
to as a testament. But the idea that believers receive the spiritual blessings of the
covenant in a testamentary way is implied in several passages of Scripture, though the
implied representation is slightly different from that in Heb. 9:16,17. It is God rather
than Christ who is testator. In both the Old and the New Testament, but especially in the
latter, believers are represented as children of God, legally by adoption, and ethically by
the new birth, John 1:12; Rom. 8:15,16; Gal. 4:4-6; I John 3:1-3,9. Now the ideas of
heirship and inheritance are naturally associated with that of sonship, and therefore it is
no wonder that they are frequently found in Scripture. Paul says: “And if children, then
heirs,” Rom. 8:17; cf. also Rom. 4:14; Gal. 3:29; 4:1,7; Tit. 3:7; Heb. 6:17; 11:7; Jas. 2:5. In
view of these passages there is no doubt that the covenant and the covenant blessings
are represented in Scripture as an inheritance. But this representation is again based on
the idea of a testament, with this difference, however, that the confirmation of the
covenant does not imply the death of the testator. Believers are heirs of God (who
cannot die) and joint-heirs with Christ, Rom. 8:17. It is perfectly evident that for the
sinner the covenant has a testamentary side and can be regarded as an inheritance; but
now the question arises, whether it can also assume this character for Christ. An
affirmative answer would seem to be required in view of the fact that we are called coheirs
with Christ. Is He then also an heir? This question may be answered in the
affirmative in view of the statement found in Luke 22:29. The inheritance referred to
here is the mediatorial glory of Christ, which He received as an inheritance from the
Father, and which He, in turn, communicates as an inheritance to all those that are His.
But though there is undoubtedly a testamentary side to the covenant, this is but one
side of the matter, and does not preclude the idea that the covenant is really a covenant.
It can be called a testament, because (1) it is as a whole a gift from God; (2) the New
Testament dispensation of it was ushered in by the death of Christ; (3) it is firm and
inviolable; and (4) in it God Himself gives what He demands of man. Yet this should not
be interpreted to mean that there are no two sides to the covenant, and that it is
therefore absolutely monopleuric. However unequal the parties in themselves may be,
God condescends to come down to the level of man and by His grace enables him to act
as the second party in the covenant. A monopleuric covenant in the absolute sense of
the word is really a contradictio in adjecto. At the same time those theologians who stress
the monopleuric character of the covenant did this to emphasize an important truth,
namely, that God and man do not meet each other half way in the covenant, but that
God comes down to man and graciously establishes His covenant with him, freely
giving all that He demands, and that man is really the only one that profits by the
covenant. It is essential, however, that the dipleuric character of the covenant be
maintained, because man really appears in it as meeting the demands of the covenant in
faith and conversion, though it be only as God works in him both to will and to do,
according to His good pleasure.
Christ is represented in Scripture as the Mediator of the covenant. The Greek word
mesites is not found in classical Greek, but does occur in Philo and in later Greek
authors. In the Septuagint it is found but once, Job 9:33. The English word “Mediator,”
as well as the Holland “Middelaar” and the German “Mittler,” might lead us to think
that it (mesites) simply designates one who arbitrates between two parties, an
intermediary in the general sense of the word. It should be borne in mind, however, that
the Scriptural idea is far more profound. Christ is Mediator in more than one sense. He
intervenes between God and man, not merely to sue for peace and to persuade to it, but
as armed with plenipotentiary power, to do all that is necessary to establish peace. The
use of the word mesites in the New Testament justifies our speaking of a twofold
Mediatorship of Christ, namely, that of surety and that of access (Gr. prosagoge, Rom.
5:2). In most of the passages in which the word is found in the New Testament, it is
equal to egguos, and therefore points to Christ as one who, by taking upon Himself the
guilt of sinners, terminated their penal relation to the law and restored them to the right
legal relationship to God. This is the meaning of the word in Heb. 8:6; 9:15, and 12:24. In
Heb. 7:22 the term egguos itself is applied to Christ. There is one passage, however, in
which the word mesites has a meaning that is more in accord with the ordinary sense of
the word “mediator,” as one who is called in to arbitrate between two parties and to
reconcile them, namely, I Tim. 2:5. Here Christ is represented as Mediator in the sense
that, on the basis of His sacrifice, He brings God and man together. The work of Christ,
as indicated by the word mesites, is twofold. He labors in things pertaining to God and
in things pertaining to man, in the objective legal sphere, and in the subjective moral
sphere. In the former He propitiates the just displeasure of God by expiating the guilt of
sin, makes intercession for those whom the Father has given Him, and actually makes
their persons and services acceptable to God. And in the latter He reveals to men the
truth concerning God and their relation to Him with the conditions of acceptable
service, persuades and enables them to receive the truth, and directs and sustains them
in all circumstances of life, so as to perfect their deliverance. In doing this work He
employs the ministry of men, II Cor. 5:20.
IV. The Dual Aspect of the Covenant
In speaking of the contracting parties in the covenant of grace it was already
intimated that the covenant may be considered from two different points of view. There
are two different aspects of the covenant, and now the question arises, In what relation
do these two stand to each other? This question has been answered in different ways.
Some have distinguished between an external and an internal covenant. The
external covenant was conceived as one in which a person’s status depends entirely on
the performance of certain external religious duties. His position is entirely correct, if he
does what is required of him, somewhat in the Roman Catholic sense. Among Israel this
covenant assumed a national form. Perhaps no one worked out the doctrine of an
external covenant with greater consistency than Thomas Blake. The dividing line
between the external and the internal covenant was not always represented in the same
way. Some connected baptism with the external, and confession of faith and the Lord’s
Supper, with the internal covenant; others thought of baptism and confession as
belonging to the external covenant, and of the Lord’s Supper as the sacrament of the
internal covenant. But the trouble is that this whole representation results in a dualism
in the conception of the covenant that is not warranted by Scripture; it yields an external
covenant that is not interpenetrated by the internal. The impression is created that there
is a covenant in which man can assume an entirely correct position without saving faith;
but the Bible knows of no such covenant. There are, indeed, external privileges and
blessings of the covenant, and there are persons who enjoy these only; but such cases
are abnormalities that cannot be systematized. The distinction between an external and
an internal covenant does not hold.
This view must not be confused with another and related view, namely, that there is
an external and an internal aspect of the covenant of grace (Mastricht and others).
According to this some accept their covenant responsibilities in a truly spiritual way,
from the heart, while others accept them only by an external profession with the mouth,
and therefore are only apparently in the covenant. Mastricht refers to Judas Iscariot,
Simon the sorcerer, those who have temporal faith, and others. But the trouble is that,
according to this view, the non-elect and non-regenerate are merely external
appendages to the covenant, and are simply regarded as children of the covenant by us
because of our short-sightedness, but are no covenant children at all in the sight of God.
They are not really in the covenant, and therefore cannot really become covenant
breakers either. It offers no solution of the problem in what sense the non-elect and nonregenerate,
who are members of the visible Church, are children of the covenant also in
the sight of God, and can therefore become covenant breakers.
Others, as for instance, Olevianus and Turretin, distinguish between the essence and
the administration of the covenant. According to Turretin the former corresponds to the
internal calling and the invisible Church formed by means of this calling; and the latter,
to the external calling and the visible Church, as consisting of those who are called
externally by the Word. The administration of the covenant consists only in the offer of
salvation in the preaching of the Word, and in the other external privileges in which all
share who have a place in the Church, including many non-elect. The essence of the
covenant, however, also includes the spiritual reception of all the blessings of the
covenant, the life in union with Christ, and therefore extends to the elect only. This
distinction certainly contains an element of truth, but is not altogether logical and clear.
While essence and form would constitute an antithesis, essence and administration do
not. They may refer to the invisible and the visible Church, as Turretin seems to intend,
or to the final end or realization and the announcement of the covenant, as Olevianus
understands the distinction. But if the former is meant, it would be better to speak of
essence and revelation; and if the latter is intended, it would be preferable to speak of
the aim and the means of its realization. Here, too, the question remains unanswered,
whether and in how far the non-elect are covenant children also in the sight of God.
Still others, as for instance, Koelman, speak of a conditional and an absolute
covenant. Koelman emphasizes the fact that, when an external and an internal covenant
are distinguished, only a single covenant is meant, and the terms “external” and
“internal” simply serve to stress the fact that all are not in the covenant in exactly the
same way. Some are in it merely by an external confession, to the enjoyment of external
privileges, and others by a hearty acceptance of it, to the enjoyment of the blessings of
salvation. Likewise, he wishes it to be clearly understood that, when he says that some
are in the covenant externally and conditionally, he does not mean to assert that they are
not really in the covenant, but only that they cannot obtain the promised blessings of
the covenant, except by complying with the condition of the covenant. This
representation, too, undoubtedly contains an element of truth, but in Koelman it is
linked up in such a way with the notion of an external and an internal covenant, that he
comes dangerously near to the error of accepting two covenants, especially when he
claims that during the New Testament dispensation God incorporates whole nations
and kingdoms in the covenant.
Reformed theologians, such as Kuyper, Bavinck, and Honig, speak of two sides of
the covenant, the one external and the other internal. Dr. Vos uses terms that are more
specific, when he distinguishes between the covenant as a purely legal relationship and
the covenant as a communion of life. There is clearly a legal and a moral side to the
covenant. The covenant may be regarded as an agreement between two parties, with
mutual conditions and stipulations, and therefore as something in the legal sphere. The
covenant in that sense may exist even when nothing is done to realize its purpose,
namely the condition to which it points and for which it calls as the real ideal. The
parties that live under this agreement are in the covenant, since they are subject to the
mutual stipulations agreed upon. In the legal sphere everything is considered and
regulated in a purely objective way. The determining factor in that sphere is simply the
relation which has been established, and not the attitude which one assumes to that
relation. The relation exists independently of one’s inclination or disinclination, one’s
likes and dislikes, in connection with it. It would seem to be in the light of this
distinction that the question should be answered, Who are in the covenant of grace? If
the question is asked with the legal relationship, and that only, in mind, and really
amounts to the query, Who are in duty bound to live in the covenant, and of whom may
it be expected that they will do this? —the answer is, believers and their children. But if
the question is asked with a view to the covenant as a communion of life, and assumes
the quite different form, In whom does this legal relationship issue in a living
communion with Christ? — the answer can only be, only in the regenerate, who are
endowed with the principle of faith, that is, in the elect.
This distinction is warranted by Scripture. It is hardly necessary to cite passages
proving that the covenant is an objective compact in the legal sphere, for it is perfectly
evident that we have such a compact wherever two parties agree as in the presence of
God to perform certain things affecting their mutual relation, or one party promises to
bestow certain benefits on the other, provided the latter fulfills the conditions that are
laid down. That the covenant of grace is such a compact is abundantly evident from
Scripture. There is the condition of faith, Gen. 15:6, compared with Rom. 4:3 ff., 20 ff.;
Hab. 2:4; Gal. 3:14-28; Heb. 11; and there is also the promise of spiritual and eternal
blessings, Gen. 17:7; 12:3; Isa. 43:25; Ezek. 36:27; Rom. 4:5 ff.; Gal. 3:14,18. But it is also
clear that the covenant in its full realization is something more than that, namely, a
communion of life. This may be already symbolically expressed in the act of passing
between the parts of the animals slain at the establishment of the covenant with
Abraham, Gen. 15:9-17. Moreover, it is indicated in such passages as Ps. 25:14; Ps.
89:33,34; 103:17,18; Jer. 31:33,34 (Heb. 8:10-12); Ezek. 36:25-28; II Cor. 6:16; Rev. 21:2,3.
Now the question arises as to the relation between the sinner’s being under the
“bond of the covenant” as a legal relationship and his living in the communion of the
covenant. The two cannot be conceived of as existing alongside of each other without
some inner connection, but must be regarded as being most intimately related to each
other, in order to avoid all dualism. When one takes the covenant relation upon himself
voluntarily, the two must naturally go together; if they do not, a false relation ensues.
But in the case of those who are born in the covenant the question is more difficult. Is the
one then possible without the other? Is the covenant in that case a bare legal
relationship, in which that which ought to be — but is not — takes the place of the
glorious realities for which the covenant stands? Is there any reasonable ground to
expect that the covenant relation will issue in a living communion; that for the sinner,
who is of himself unable to believe, the covenant will actually become a living reality?
In answer to this question it may be said that God undoubtedly desires that the
covenant relationship shall issue in a covenant life. And He Himself guarantees by His
promises pertaining to the seed of believers that this will take place, not in the case of
every individual, but in the seed of the covenant collectively. On the basis of the
promise of God we may believe that, under a faithful administration of the covenant,
the covenant relation will, as a rule, be fully realized in a covenant life.
In discussing membership in the covenant as a legal relationship, it should be borne
in mind that the covenant in this sense is not merely a system of demands and
promises, demands that ought to be met, and promises that ought to be realized; but
that it also includes a reasonable expectation that the external legal relationship will
carry with it the glorious reality of a life in intimate communion with the covenant God.
This is the only way in which the idea of the covenant is fully realized.
1. ADULTS IN THE COVENANT. Adults can only enter this covenant voluntarily by faith
and confession. From this it follows that in their case, unless their confession be false,
entrance into the covenant as a legal relationship and into the covenant as a communion
of life coincide. They not merely take upon themselves the performance of certain
external duties; nor do they merely promise in addition to this, that they will exercise
saving faith in the future; but they confess that they accept the covenant with a living
faith, and that it is their desire and intention to continue in this faith. They enter upon
the full covenant life at once therefore, and this is the only way in which they can enter
the covenant. This truth is implicitly or explicitly denied by all those who connect the
confession of faith with a merely external covenant.
2. CHILDREN OF BELIEVERS IN THE COVENANT. With respect to the children of believers,
who enter the covenant by birth, the situation is, of course, somewhat different.
Experience teaches that, though by birth they enter the covenant as a legal relationship,
this does not necessarily mean that they are also at once in the covenant as a
communion of life. It does not even mean that the covenant relation will ever come to
its full realization in their lives. Yet even in their case there must be a reasonable
assurance that the covenant is not or will not remain a mere legal relationship, with
external duties and privileges, pointing to that which ought to be, but is also or will in
time become a living reality. This assurance is based on the promise of God, which is
absolutely reliable, that He will work in the hearts of the covenant youth with His
saving grace and transform them into living members of the covenant. The covenant is
more than the mere offer of salvation, more even than the offer of salvation plus the
promise to believe the gospel. It also carries with it the assurance, based on the promises
of God, who works in the children of the covenant “when, where, and how He
pleaseth,” that saving faith will be wrought in their hearts. As long as the children of the
covenant do not reveal the contrary, we shall have to proceed on the assumption that
they are in possession of the covenant life. Naturally, the course of events may prove
that this life is not yet present; it may even prove that it is never realized in their lives.
The promises of God are given to the seed of believers collectively, and not individually.
God’s promise to continue His covenant and to bring it to full realization in the children
of believers, does not mean that He will endow every last one of them with saving faith.
And if some of them continue in unbelief, we shall have to bear in mind what Paul says
in Rom. 9:6-8. They are not all Israel who are of Israel; the children of believers are not
all children of promise. Hence it is necessary to remind even children of the covenant
constantly of the necessity of regeneration and conversion. The mere fact that one is in
the covenant does not carry with it the assurance of salvation. When the children of
believers grow up and come to years of discretion, it is, of course, incumbent on them to
accept their covenant responsibilities voluntarily by a true confession of faith. Failure to
do this is, strictly speaking, a denial of their covenant relationship. It may be said
therefore that the legal relationship in which the children of believers stand, precedes
the covenant as a communion of life and is a means to its realization. But in
emphasizing the significance of the covenant as a means to an end, we should not stress
exclusively, nor even primarily, the demands of God and the resulting duty of man, but
especially the promise of the effectual operation of the grace of God in the hearts of
covenant children. If we stress the covenant responsibilities only or excessively, and fail
to give due prominence to the fact that in the covenant God gives whatsoever He
demands of us, in other words, that His promises cover all His requirements, we are in
danger of falling into the snare of Arminianism.
3. UNREGENERATE IN THE COVENANT. From the preceding it follows that even
unregenerate and unconverted persons may be in the covenant. Ishmael and Esau were
originally in the covenant, the wicked sons of Eli were covenant children, and the great
majority of the Jews in the days of Jesus and the apostles belonged to the covenant
people and shared in the covenant promises, though they did not follow the faith of
their father Abraham. Hence the question arises, in what sense such persons may be
regarded as being in the covenant. Dr. Kuyper says that they are not essential
participants of the covenant, though they are really in it; and Dr. Bavinck says that they
are in foedere (in the covenant), but not de foedere (of the covenant). The following may be
said regarding their position in the covenant:
a. They are in the covenant as far as their responsibility is concerned. Because they
stand in the legal covenant relationship to God, they are in duty bound to repent and
believe. If they do not turn to God and accept Christ by faith, when they come to years
of discretion, they will be judged as breakers of the covenant. The special relationship in
which they are placed to God, therefore, means added responsibility.
b. They are in the covenant in the sense that they may lay claim to the promises
which God gave when He established His covenant with believers and their seed. Paul
even says of his wicked kinsmen, “whose is the adoption, and the glory, and the
covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises,” Rom.
9:4. As a rule God gathers the number of His elect out of those who stand in this
covenant relationship.
c. They are in the covenant in the sense that they are subject to the ministrations of
the covenant. They are constantly admonished and exhorted to live according to the
requirements of the covenant. The Church treats them as covenant children, offers them
the seals of the covenant, and exhorts them to a proper use of these. They are the guests
who are first called to the supper, the children of the kingdom, to whom the Word must
be preached first of all, Matt. 8:12; Luke 14:16-24; Acts 13:46.
d. They are in the covenant also as far as the common covenant blessings are
concerned. Though they do not experience the regenerating influence of the Holy Spirit,
yet they are subject to certain special operations and influences of the Holy Spirit. The
Spirit strives with them in a special manner, convicts them of sin, enlightens them in a
measure, and enriches them with the blessings of common grace, Gen. 6:3; Matt.
13:18-22; Heb. 6:4-6.
It should be noted that, while the covenant is an eternal and inviolable covenant,
which God never nullifies, it is possible for those who are in the covenant to break it. If
one who stands in the legal covenant relationship does not enter upon the covenant life,
he is nevertheless regarded as a member of the covenant. His failure to meet the
requirements of the covenant involves guilt and constitutes him a covenant breaker, Jer.
31:32; Ezek. 44:7. This explains how there may be, not merely a temporary, but a final
breaking of the covenant, though there is no falling away of the saints.
V. The Different Dispensations of the
The question arises, whether we ought to distinguish two or three, or with the
modern Dispensationalists, seven or even more dispensations.
1. THE DISPENSATIONAL VIEW. According to Scofield “a dispensation is a period of
time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of
the will of God.”55 In further explanation of this he says on page 20 of his pamphlet on
Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: “Each of the dispensations may be regarded as a new
test of the natural man, and each ends in judgment, — marking his failure.” Every
dispensation has a character of its own, and is so distinct that it cannot be commingled
with any of the others. Seven such dispensations are usually distinguished, namely, the
dispensation of innocency, of conscience, of human government, of promise, of the law,
of grace, and of the kingdom. In answer to the question, whether God is then so fickleminded
that He must change His will as regards man seven times, Frank E. Gaebelein
replies: “It is not God who has vacillated. Though there are seven dispensations, they
are all one in principle, being throughout based upon the single test of obedience. And
had man been found able to keep the conditions laid down by the first dispensation, the
other six would have been unnecessary. But man failed. Yet, instead of casting off His
guilty creature, God was moved with compassion, and gave him a fresh trial under new
conditions. Thus each dispensation ends with failure, and each dispensation shows
forth God’s mercy.”56 There are serious objections to this view. (a) The word
“dispensation” (oikonomia), which is a Scriptural term (cf. Luke 16:2-4; I Cor. 9:17; Eph.
1:10; 3:2.9; Col. 1:25; I Tim. 1:4) is here used in an un-Scriptural sense. It denotes a
stewardship, an arrangement, or an administration, but never a testing time or a time of
probation. (b) The distinctions are clearly quite arbitrary. This is evident already from
the fact that dispensationalists themselves sometimes speak of them as overlapping.
The second dispensation is called the dispensation of conscience, but according to Paul
55 Scofield Bible, p. 5.
56 Exploring the Bible, p. 95.
conscience was still the monitor of the Gentiles in his day, Rom. 2:14,15. The third is
known as the dispensation of human government, but the specific command in it which
was disobeyed and therefore rendered man liable to judgment, was not the command to
rule the world for God — of which there is no trace—, but the command to replenish
the earth. The fourth is designated the dispensation of promise and is supposed to
terminate with the giving of the law, but Paul says that the law did not disannul the
promise, and that this was still in effect in his own day, Rom. 4:13-17; Gal. 3:15-29. The
so-called dispensation of the law is replete with glorious promises, and the so-called
dispensation of grace did not abrogate the the law as a rule of life. Grace offers escape
from the law only as a condition of salvation — as it is in the covenant of works —, from
the curse of the law, and from the law as an extraneous power. (c) According to the
usual representation of this theory man is on probation right along. He failed in the first
test and thus missed the reward of eternal life, but God was compassionate and in
mercy gave him a new trial. Repeated failures led to repeated manifestations of the
mercy of God in the introduction of new trials, which, however, kept man on probation
all the time. This is not equivalent to saying that God in justice holds the natural man to
the condition of the covenant of works — which is perfectly true — but that God in
mercy and compassion — and therefore seemingly to save — gives man one chance after
another to meet the ever varying conditions, and thus to obtain eternal life by rendering
obedience to God. This representation is contrary to Scripture, which does not represent
fallen man as still on probation, but as an utter failure, totally unable to render
obedience to God, and absolutely dependent on the grace of God for salvation.
Bullinger, himself a dispensationalist, though of a somewhat different type, is right
when he says: “Man was then (in the first dispensation) what is called ‘under
probation.’ This marks off that Administration sharply and absolutely; for man is not
now under probation. To suppose that he is so, is a popular fallacy which strikes at the
root of the doctrines of grace. Man has been tried and tested, and has proved to be a
ruin.”57 (d) This theory is also divisive in tendency, dismembering the organism of
Scripture with disastrous results. Those parts of Scripture that belong to any one of the
dispensations are addressed to, and have normative significance for, the people of that
dispensation, and for no one else. This means in the words of Charles C. Cook “that in
the Old Testament there is not one sentence that applies to the Christian as a Rule of
Faith and Practice — not a single command that is binding on him, as there is not a
single promise there given him at first hand, except what is included in the broad flow
57 How to Enjoy the Bible, p. 65.
of the Plan of Redemption as there taught in symbol and prophecy.”58 This does not
mean that we can derive no lessons from the Old Testament. The Bible is divided into
two books, the Book of the Kingdom, comprising the Old Testament and part of the
New, addressed to Israel; and the Book of the Church, consisting of the remainder of the
New Testament, and addressed to us. Since the dispensations do not intermingle, it
follows that in the dispensation of the law there is no revelation of the grace of God, and
in the dispensation of grace there is no revelation of the law as binding on the New
Testament people of God. If space permitted, it would not be difficult to prove that this
is an entirely untenable position.
2. THE THEORY OF THREE DISPENSATIONS. Irenæus spoke of three covenants, the first
characterized by the law written in the heart, the second, by the law as an external
commandment given at Sinai, and the third, by the law restored to the heart through the
operation of the Holy Spirit; and thus suggests the idea of three dispensations. Coccejus
distinguished three dispensations of the covenant of grace, the first ante legem, the
second sub lege, and the third post legem. He made a sharp distinction, therefore,
between the administration of the covenant before and after Moses. Now it is
undoubtedly true that there is considerable difference between the administration of the
covenant before and after the giving of the law, but the similarity is greater than the
difference, so that we are not justified in co-ordinating the work of Moses with that of
Christ as a dividing-line in the administration of the covenant. The following points of
difference may be noted:
a. In the manifestation of the gracious character of the covenant. In the patriarchal period
the gracious character of the covenant stood out more prominently than in the later
period. The promise was more in the foreground, Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:18. Yet even this
should not be stressed unduly, as if there were no legal burdens, both moral and
ceremonial, before the time of Moses, and no gracious promises during the period of the
law. The substance of the law was in force before Moses, and sacrifices were already
required. And gracious promises are found in great abundance in the post-Mosaic
writings. The only real point of difference is this: because the law constituted for Israel
an explicit reminder of the demands of the covenant of works, there was a greater
danger of mistaking the way of the law for the way of salvation. And the history of
Israel teaches us that it did not escape the danger.
b. In the emphasis on the spiritual character of the blessings. The spiritual character of the
blessings of the covenant stands out more clearly in the patriarchial period. Abraham,
58 God’s Book Speaking For Itself, p. 31.
Isaac, and Jacob were mere sojourners in the land of promise, dwelling there as
strangers and pilgrims. The temporal promise of the covenant was not yet fulfilled.
Hence there was less danger of fixing the mind too exclusively on the material
blessings, as the Jews did later on. The early patriarchs had a clearer understanding of
the symbolical significance of those temporal possessions, and looked for a heavenly
city, Gal. 4:25,26; Heb. 11:9,10.
c. In the understanding of the universal destination of the covenant. The universal
destination of the covenant was more clearly evident in the patriarchal period. Abraham
was told that in his seed all the nations of the world would be blessed, Gen. 22:18; Rom.
4:13-77; Gal. 3:8. The Jews gradually lost sight of this important fact, and proceeded on
the assumption that the blessings of the covenant were to be restricted to the Jewish
nation. The later prophets, however, stressed the universality of the promises, and thus
revived the consciousness of the world-wide significance of the covenant.
But while these differences existed, there were several important points in which the
pre- and post-Mosaic periods agreed, and in which they together differed from the
Christian dispensation. While their difference from each other is simply one of degree,
their common difference from the New Testament dispensation is one of contrast. As
over against the Christian dispensation, the two Old Testament periods agree:
a. In the representation of the Mediator as a seed that was still future. The whole Old
Testament points forward to the coming Messiah. This forward look characterizes the
protevangel, the promise given to the patriarchs, the whole Mosaic ritual, and the
central messages of the prophets.
b. In prefiguring the coming Redeemer in ceremonies and types. It is perfectly true that
these increased after the giving of the law, but they were present long before that time.
Sacrifices were offered as early as the days of Cain and Abel, and also had a piacular
character, pointing forward to the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Those who served as
priests foreshadowed the coming of the great High Priest. In distinction from the Old
Testament, the New is commemorative rather than prefigurative.
c. In prefiguring the vicissitudes of those who were destined to share in the spiritual realities
of the covenant in the earthly career of those groups which stood in covenant relationship with
God. The pilgrimage of the patriarchs in the Holy Land, the servitude in Egypt, the
entrance into Canaan, all pointed forward to higher spiritual things. In the New
Testament all these types reach their fulfilment and therefore cease.
On the basis of all that has been said it is preferable to follow the traditional lines by
distinguishing just two dispensations or administrations, namely, that of the Old, and
that of the New Testament; and to subdivide the former into several periods or stages in
the revelation of the covenant of grace.
1. THE FIRST REVELATION OF THE COVENANT. The first revelation of the covenant is
found in the protevangel, Gen. 3:15. Some deny that this has any reference to the
covenant; and it certainly does not refer to any formal establishment of a covenant. The
revelation of such an establishment could only follow after the covenant idea had been
developed in history. At the same time Gen. 3:15 certainly contains a revelation of the
essence of the covenant. The following points should be noted:
a. By putting enmity between the serpent and the woman God establishes a relation,
as He always does in making a covenant. The fall brought man in league with Satan, but
God breaks that newly formed alliance by turning man’s friendship with Satan into
enmity and re-establishing man in friendship with Himself; and this is the covenant
idea. This rehabilitation of man included the promise of sanctifying grace, for it was
only by such grace that man’s friendship with Satan could be turned into enmity. God
Himself had to reverse the condition by regenerating grace. In all probability He at once
wrought the grace of the covenant in the hearts of our first parents. And when God by
His saving power generates enmity to Satan in the heart of man, this implies that He
chooses the side of man, that He becomes man’s confederate in the struggle with Satan,
and thus virtually establishes an offensive and defensive covenant.
b. This relationship between God and man on the one side and Satan on the other
side, is not limited to the individuals, but extends to their seed. The covenant is organic
in its operation and includes the generations. This is an essential element in the
covenant idea. There will not only be a seed of man. but also a seed of the serpent, that
is, of the devil, and there will be a prolonged struggle between the two, in which the
seed of man will be victorious.
c. The struggle, then, will not be indecisive. Though the heel of the woman’s seed
will be bruised, the head of the serpent will be crushed. It can only bite the heel, and by
doing this endangers its very head. There will be suffering on the part of the seed of the
woman, but the deadly sting of the serpent will terminate in its own death. The death of
Christ, who is in a preeminent sense the seed of the woman, will mean the defeat of
Satan. The prophecy of redemption is still impersonal in the protevangel, but it is
nevertheless a Messianic prophecy. In the last analysis the seed of the woman is Christ,
who assumes human nature, and, being put to death on the cross, gains the decisive
victory over Satan. It goes without saying that our first parents did not understand all
2. THE COVENANT WITH NOAH. The covenant with Noah is evidently of a very
general nature: God promises that He will not again destroy all flesh by the waters of a
flood, and that the regular succession of seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter
and summer, day and night will continue. The forces of nature are bridled, the powers
of evil are put under greater restraint, and man is protected against the violence of both
man and beast. It is a covenant conferring only natural blessings, and is therefore often
called the covenant of nature or of common grace. There is no objection to this
terminology, provided it does not convey the impression that this covenant is
dissociated altogether from the covenant of grace. Though the two differ, they are also
most intimately connected.
a. Points of difference. The following points of difference should be noted: (1) While
the covenant of grace pertains primarily, though not exclusively, to spiritual blessings,
the covenant of nature assures man only of earthly and temporal blessings. (2) While
the covenant of grace in the broadest sense of the word includes only believers and their
seed, and is fully realized only in the lives of the elect, the covenant with Noah was not
only universal in its inception, but was destined to remain all-inclusive. Up to the days
of the covenant transaction with Abraham there was no seal of the covenant of grace,
but the covenant with Noah was confirmed by the token of the rainbow, a seal quite
different from those that were later on connected with the covenant of grace.
b. Points of connection. Notwithstanding the differences just mentioned, there is a
most intimate connection between the two covenants. (1) The covenant of nature also
originated in the grace of God. In this covenant, just as in the covenant of grace, God
bestows on man not only unmerited favors, but blessings that were forfeited by sin. By
nature man has no claim whatsoever on the natural blessings promised in this covenant.
(2) This covenant also rests on the covenant of grace. It was established more
particularly with Noah and his seed, because there were clear evidences of the
realization of the covenant of grace in this family, Gen. 6:9; 7:1; 9:9,26,27. (3) It is also a
necessary appendage (Witsius: “aanhangsel”) of the covenant of grace. The revelation of
the covenant of grace in Gen. 3:16-19 already pointed to earthly and temporal blessings.
These were absolutely necessary for the realization of the covenant of grace. In the
covenant with Noah the general character of these blessings is clearly brought out, and
their continuance is confirmed.
3. THE COVENANT WITH ABRAHAM. With Abraham we enter upon a new epoch in the
Old Testament revelation of the covenant of grace. There are several points that deserve
attention here:
a. Up to the time of Abraham there was no formal establishment of the covenant of
grace. While Gen. 3:15 already contains the elements of this covenant, it does not record
a formal transaction by which the covenant was established. It does not even speak
explicitly of a covenant. The establishment of the covenant with Abraham marked the
beginning of an institutional Church. In pre-Abrahamic times there was what may be
called “the church in the house.” There were families in which the true religion found
expression, and undoubtedly also gatherings of believers, but there was no definitely
marked body of believers, separated from the world, that might be called the Church.
There were “sons of God” and “sons of men,” but these were not yet separated by a
visible line of demarcation. At the time of Abraham, however, circumcision was
instituted as a sealing ordinance, a badge of membership, and a seal of the
righteousness of faith.
b. In the transaction with Abraham the particularistic Old Testament administration
of the covenant had its beginning, and it becomes perfectly evident that man is a party
in the covenant and must respond to the promises of God by faith. The great central fact
emphasized in Scripture, is that Abraham believed God and it was reckoned unto him
for righteousness. God appears unto Abraham again and again, repeating His promises,
in order to engender faith in his heart and to prompt its activity. The greatness of his
faith was apparent in his believing against hope, in his trusting in the promise even
when its fulfilment seemed to be a physical impossibility.
c. The spiritual blessings of the covenant of grace become far more apparent in the
covenant with Abraham than they were before. The best Scriptural exposition of the
Abrahamic covenant is contained in Rom. 3 and 4, and Gal. 3. In connection with the
narrative found in Genesis these chapters teach that Abraham received in the covenant
justification, including the forgiveness of sins and adoption into the very family of God,
and also the gifts of the Spirit unto sanctification and eternal glory.
d. The covenant with Abraham already included a symbolical element. On the one
hand it had reference to temporal blessings, such as the land of Canaan, a numerous
offspring, protection against and victory over the enemies; and on the other, it referred
to spiritual blessings. It should be borne in mind, however, that the former were not co-
ordinate with, but subordinate to, the latter. These temporal blessings did not constitute
an end in themselves, but served to symbolize and typify spiritual and heavenly things.
The spiritual promises were not realized in the natural descendants of Abraham as
such, but only in those who followed in the footsteps of Abraham.
e. In view of this establishment of the covenant of grace with Abraham, he is
sometimes considered as the head of the covenant of grace. But the word “head” is
rather ambiguous, and therefore liable to misunderstanding. Abraham cannot be called
the representative head of the covenant of grace, just as Adam was of the covenant of
works, for (1) the Abrahamic covenant did not include the believers that preceded him
and who were yet in the covenant of grace, and (2) he could not accept the promises for
us nor believe in our stead, thereby exempting us from these duties. If there is a
representative head in the covenant of grace, it can only be Christ (cf. Bavinck, Geref.
Dogm. III, pp. 239,241); but, strictly speaking, we can consider Him as the Head only on
the assumption that the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace are one.
Abraham can be called the head of the covenant only in the sense that it was formally
established with him, and that he received the promise of its continuance in the line of
his natural, but above all, of his spiritual, descendants. Paul speaks of him as “the father
of all them that believe,” Rom. 4:11. It is clear that the word “father” can only be
understood figuratively here, for believers do not owe their spiritual life to Abraham.
Says Dr. Hodge in his Commentary of Romans (4:11): “The word father expresses
community of character, and is often applied to the head or founder of any school or
class of men, whose character is determined by the relation to the person so designated;
as Gen. 4:20,21. . . . Believers are called the children of Abraham, because of this identity
of religious nature or character, as he stands out in Scripture as the believer; and because
it was with him that the covenant of grace, embracing all the children of God, whether
Jews or Gentiles, was re-enacted; and because they are his heirs, inheriting the blessings
promised to him.”
f. Finally, we must not lose sight of the fact that the stage of the Old Testament
covenant revelation which is most normative for us in the New Testament dispensation,
is not that of the Sinaitic covenant, but that of the covenant established with Abraham.
The Sinaitic covenant is an interlude, covering a period in which the real character of
the covenant of grace, that is, its free and gracious character, is somewhat eclipsed by all
kinds of external ceremonies and forms which, in connection with the theocratic life of
Israel, placed the demands of the law prominently in the foreground, cf. Gal. 3. In the
covenant with Abraham, on the other hand, the promise and the faith that responds to
the promise are made emphatic.
4. THE SINAITIC COVENANT. The covenant of Sinai was essentially the same as that
established with Abraham, though the form differed somewhat. This is not always
recognized, and is not recognized by present day dispensationalists. They insist on it
that it was a different covenant, not only in form but in essence. Scofield speaks of it as a
legal covenant, a “conditional Mosaic covenant of works,”59 under which the point of
testing was legal obedience as the condition of salvation.60 If that covenant was a
covenant of works, it certainly was not the covenant of grace. The reason why it is
sometimes regarded as an entirely new covenant is that Paul repeatedly refers to the
law and the promise as forming an antithesis, Rom. 4:13 ff.; Gal. 3:17. But it should be
noted that the apostle does not contrast with the covenant of Abraham the Sinaitic
covenant as a whole, but only the law as it functioned in this covenant, and this
function only as it was misunderstood by the Jews. The only apparent exception to that
rule is Gal. 4:21 ff., where two covenants are indeed compared. But these are not the
Abrahamic and the Sinaitic covenants. The covenant that proceeds from Sinai and
centers in the earthly Jerusalem, is placed over against the covenant that proceeds from
heaven and centers in the Jerusalem that is above, that is, — the natural and the
There are clear indications in Scripture that the covenant with Abraham was not
supplanted by the Sinaitic covenant, but remained in force. Even at Horeb the Lord
reminded the people of the covenant with Abraham, Deut. 1:8; and when the Lord
threatened to destroy the people after they had made the golden calf, Moses based his
plea for them on that covenant, Ex. 32:13. He also assured them repeatedly that,
whenever they repented of their sins and returned unto Him, He would be mindful of
His covenant with Abraham, Lev. 26:42; Deut. 4:31. The two covenants are clearly
represented in their unity in Ps. 105:8-10: “He hath remembered His covenant forever,
the word which He commanded to a thousand generations, the covenant which He
made with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac, and confirmed the same unto Jacob for a
statute, to Israel for an everlasting covenant.” This unity also follows from the argument of
Paul in Gal. 3, where he stresses the fact that an unchangeable God does not arbitrarily
alter the essential nature of a covenant once confirmed; and that the law was not
intended to supplant but to serve the gracious ends of the promise, Gal. 3:15-22. If the
Sinaitic covenant was indeed a covenant of works, in which legal obedience was the
way of salvation, then it certainly was a curse for Israel, for it was imposed on a people
59 Ref. Bib., p. 95.
60 Ibid, p. 1115.
that could not possibly obtain salvation by works. But this covenant is represented in
Scripture as a blessing bestowed upon Israel by a loving Father, Ex. 19:5; Lev. 26:44,45;
Deut. 4:8; Ps. 148:20. But though the covenant with Abraham and the Sinaitic covenant
were essentially the same, yet the covenant of Sinai had certain characteristic features.
a. At Sinai the covenant became a truly national covenant. The civil life of Israel was
linked up with the covenant in such a way that the two could not be separated. In a
large measure Church and State became one. To be in the Church was to be in the
nation, and vice versa; and to leave the Church was to leave the nation. There was no
spiritual excommunication; the ban meant cutting off by death.
b. The Sinaitic covenant included a service that contained a positive reminder of the
strict demands of the covenant of works. The law was placed very much in the
foreground, giving prominence once more to the earlier legal element. But the covenant
of Sinai was not a renewal of the covenant of works; in it the law was made subservient
to the covenant of grace. This is indicated already in the introduction to the ten
commandments, Ex. 20:2; Deut. 5:6, and further in Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:24. It is true that at
Sinai a conditional element was added to the covenant, but it was not the salvation of
the Israelite but his theocratic standing in the nation, and the enjoyment of external
blessings that was made dependent on the keeping of the law, Deut. 28:1-14. The law
served a twofold purpose in connection with the covenant of grace: (1) to increase the
consciousness of sin, Rom. 3:20; 4:15; Gal. 3:19; and (2) to be a tutor unto Christ, Gal.
c. The covenant with the nation of Israel included a detailed ceremonial and typical
service. To some extent this was also present in the earlier period, but in the measure in
which it was introduced at Sinai it was something new. A separate priesthood was
instituted, and a continuous preaching of the gospel in symbols and types was
introduced. These symbols and types appear under two different aspects: as the
demands of God imposed on the people; and as a divine message of salvation to the
people. The Jews lost sight of the latter aspect, and fixed their attention exclusively on
the former. They regarded the covenant ever increasingly, but mistakenly, as a covenant
of works, and saw in the symbols and types a mere appendage to this.
d. The law in the Sinaitic covenant also served Israel as a rule of life, so that the one
law of God assumed three different aspects, designated as the moral, the civil, and the
ceremonial or religious law. The civil law is simply the application of the principles of
the moral law to the social and civic life of the people in all its ramifications. Even the
social and civil relations in which the people stood to each other had to reflect the
covenant relation in which they stood.
There have been several deviating opinions respecting the Sinaitic covenant which
deserve attention.
a. Coccejus saw in the decalogue a summary expression of the covenant of grace,
particularly applicable to Israel. When the people, after the establishment of this
national covenant of grace, became unfaithful and made a golden calf, the legal
covenant of the ceremonial service was instituted as a stricter and harsher dispensation
of the covenant of grace. Thus the revelation of grace is found particularly in the
decalogue, and that of servitude in the ceremonial law. Before the covenant of Sinai the
fathers lived under the promise. There were sacrifices, but these were not obligatory.
b. Others regarded the law as the formula of a new covenant of works established
with Israel. God did not really intend that Israel should merit life by keeping the law,
since this had become utterly impossible. He simply wanted them to try their strength
and to bring them to a consciousness of their own inability. When they left Egypt, they
stood strong in the conviction that they could do all that the Lord commanded; but at
Sinai they soon discovered that they could not. In view of their consciousness of guilt
the Lord now reestablished the Abrahamic covenant of grace, to which also the
ceremonial law belonged. This reverses the position of Coccejus. The element of grace is
found in the ceremonial law. This is somewhat in line with the view of present day
dispensationalists, who regard the Sinaitic covenant as a “conditional Mosaic covenant
of works” (Scofield), containing in the ceremonial law, however, some adumbrations of
the coming redemption in Christ.
c. Still others are of the opinion that God established three covenants at Sinai, a
national covenant, a covenant of nature or of works, and a covenant of grace. The first
was made with all the Israelites, and was the continuation of the particularistic line
which began with Abraham. In it God demands external obedience, and promises
temporal blessings. The second was a repetition of the covenant of works by the giving
of a decalogue. And the last a renewal of the covenant of grace, as it was established
with Abraham, in the giving of the ceremonial law.
These views are all objectionable for more than one reason: (1) They are contrary to
Scripture in their multiplication of the covenants. It is un-Scriptural to assume that more
than one covenant was established at Sinai, though it was a covenant with various
aspects. (2) They are mistaken in that they seek to impose undue limitations on the
decalogue and on the ceremonial law. It is very evident that the ceremonial law has a
double aspect; and it is clear also that the decalogue, though placing the demands of the
law clearly in the foreground, is made subservient to the covenant of grace.
Little need be said respecting the New Testament dispensation of the covenant. The
following points should be noted:
1. The covenant of grace, as it is revealed in the New Testament, is essentially the
same as that which governed the relation of Old Testament believers to God. It is
entirely unwarranted to represent the two as forming an essential contrast, as is done by
present day dispensationalism. This is abundantly evident from Rom. 4 and Gal. 3. If it
is sometimes spoken of as a new covenant, this is sufficiently explained by the fact that
its administration differs in several particulars from that of the Old Testament. The
following points will indicate what is meant.
2. The New Testament dispensation differs from that of the Old in that it is
universal, that is, extends to all nations. The covenant of grace was originally universal;
its particularism began with Abraham, and was continued and intensified in the Sinaitic
covenant. This particularism, however, was not intended to be permanent, but to
disappear after it had served its purpose. Even during the period of the law it was
possible for Gentiles to join the people of Israel and thus to share in the blessings of the
covenant. And when Christ brought His sacrifice, the blessing of Abraham flowed out
to the nations; — those that were afar off were brought nigh.
3. The New Testament dispensation places greater emphasis on the gracious
character of the covenant. The promise is very much in the foreground. In fact, it is
clearly brought out that in the covenant of grace God freely gives what He demands. In
this respect the new dispensation connects up with the Abrahamic rather than with the
Sinaitic covenant, as Paul clearly brings out in Rom. 4 and Gal. 3. This does not mean,
however, that there were no gracious promises during the period of the law. When Paul
in II Cor. 3 contrasts the ministry of the law with that of the gospel, he has in mind
particularly the ministry of the law as it was understood by the later Jews, who turned
the Sinaitic covenant into a covenant of works.
4. Finally, the New Testament dispensation brings richer blessings than the Old
Testament dispensation. The revelation of God’s grace reached its climax, when the
Word became flesh and dwelt among men “full of grace and truth.” The Holy Spirit is
poured out upon the Church, and out of the fulness of the grace of God in Christ
enriches believers with spiritual and eternal blessings. The present dispensation of the
covenant of grace will continue until the return of Christ, when the covenant relation
will be realized in the fullest sense of the word in a life of intimate communion with
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. How did the introduction of the doctrine of the
covenant affect the presentation of the truth in Reformed theology? Why did this
doctrine meet with little favor outside of Reformed circles? Who were the first to
introduce this doctrine? What characterized the federal theology of Coccejus? Why did
some insist on treating the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace as a single
covenant? Why do others prefer to treat them separately? What can be said in answer to
the flippant rejection of the covenant idea as a legal fiction? How can Christ be both
party and surety in the same covenant? What can be said against the idea of Blake that
the covenant of grace is a purely external relationship? What objections are there to the
idea of two covenants, the one external, and the other internal? Why does Kuyper
maintain that Christ, and Christ only, is the second party in the covenant of grace? In
what sense does he regard the covenant of grace as an eternal covenant? What must we
think of the tendency of modern Premillennialism, to multiply the covenants and the
dispensations? How did modern dispensationalism originate? How does it conceive of
the relation between the Old and the New Testament?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. III, pp. 199-244; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Foedere,
pp. 118-154; ibid., Uit het Woord, De Leer der Verbonden; Vos, Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 76-140;
ibid., De Verbondsleer in de Geref. Theol.; Hodge, Syst. Theol., II, pp. 354-377; Dabney, Syst.
and Polem. Theol., pp. 429-463; H. H. Kuyper, Hamabdil, van de Heiligheid van het
Genadeverbond; A. Kuyper, Jr., De Vastigheid des Verbonds; Van den Bergh, Calvijn over het
Genadeverbond; Heppe, Dogm. der Ev-Ref. Kirche, pp. 268-293; ibid., Dogm. des Deutschen
Protestantismus, II, pp. 215-221; ibid., Geschichte des Pietismus. pp. 205-240; Mastricht,
Godgeleerdheit, II, pp. 363-412; a Marck, Godgeleerdheid, pp. 463-482; Witsius, De
Verbonden, pp. 255-299; Turretin, Opera, Locus XII Q. 1-12; Brakel, Redelijke Godsdienst, I,
pp. 351-382; Pictet, Theol., pp. 280-284; Strong, Discourse on the Covenant, pp. 113-447;
Owen, The Covenant of Grace; Gib, Sacred Contemplations, pp. 171-389; Ball, A Treatise of
the Covenant of Grace; Boston, The Covenant of Grace; Girardeau, The Federal Theology: Its
Import and its Regulative Influence (in the Memorial Volume of the Semi-Centennial of
Columbia Seminary); W. L. Newton, Notes on the Covenant, A Study in the Theology of the
Prophets (Roman Catholic); Aalders, Het Verbond Gods.
I. The Doctrine of Christ in History
THERE is a very close connection between the doctrine of man and the doctrine of
Christ. The former deals with man, created in the image of God and endowed with true
knowledge, righteousness and holiness, but through wilful transgression of the law of
God despoiled of his true humanity and transformed into a sinner. It points to man as a
highly privileged creature of God, still bearing some of the traces of his original glory,
but yet as a creature that has lost its birthright, its true freedom, and its original
righteousness and holiness. This means that it directs attention, not merely, nor even
primarily, to the creatureliness, but to the sinfulness of man. It emphasizes the ethical
distance between God and man, the distance resulting from the fall of man, which
neither man nor angels can bridge; and is as such virtually a cry for divine help.
Christology is in part the answer to that cry. It acquaints us with the objective work of
God in Christ to bridge the chasm, and to remove the distance. It shows us God coming
to man, to remove the barriers between God and man by meeting the conditions of the
law in Christ, and to restore man to His blessed communion. Anthropology already
directs attention to the gracious provision of God for a covenant of friendship with man,
which provides for a life of blessed communion with God; but it is a covenant which is
effective only in and through Christ. And therefore the doctrine of Christ, as the
Mediator of the covenant, must necessarily follow. Christ, typified and predicted in the
Old Testament as the Redeemer of man, came in the fulness of time, to tabernacle
among men and to effect an eternal reconciliation.
1. UP TO THE COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON. In the early Christian literature Christ stands
out as both human and divine, the Son of Man, but also the Son of God. His sinless
character is maintained, and He is regarded as a proper object of worship. Naturally, the
problem presented by Christ, as at once God and man, and the difficulties involved in
such a conception, were not fully felt by the early Christian mind and only dawned on it
in the light of controversy. It was but natural that Judaism, with its strong emphasis on
monotheism, should exercise considerable influence on the early Christians of Jewish
extraction. The Ebionites (or part of them) felt constrained, in the interest of
monotheism, to deny the deity of Christ. They regarded Him as a mere man, the son of
Joseph and Mary, who was qualified at His baptism to be the Messiah, by the descent of
the Holy Spirit upon Him. There were others in the early Church whose doctrine of
Christ was constructed on similar lines. The Alogi, who rejected the writings of John,
because they regarded his doctrine of the Logos as in conflict with the rest of the New
Testament, also saw in Jesus a mere man, though miraculously born of a virgin, and
taught that Christ descended on Him at baptism, conferring on Him supernatural
powers. In the main this was also the position of the Dynamic Monarchians. Paul of
Samosata, its main representative, distinguished between Jesus and the Logos. He
regarded the former as a man like every other man, born of Mary, and the latter, as the
impersonal divine reason, which took up its abode in Christ in a pre-eminent sense,
from the time of His baptism, and thus qualified Him for His great task. In view of this
denial it was part of the task of the early Apologetes to defend the doctrine of the deity
of Christ.
If there were some who sacrificed the deity to the humanity of Christ, there were
others who reversed the order. The Gnostics were profoundly influenced by the
dualistic conception of the Greeks, in which matter as inherently evil is represented as
utterly opposed to spirit; and by a mystic tendency to regard earthly things as
allegorical representations of great cosmic redeeming processes. They rejected the idea
of an incarnation, a manifestation of God in a visible form, since it involved a direct
contact of spirit with matter. Harnack says that the majority of them regarded Christ as
a Spirit consubstantial with the Father. According to some He descended upon the man
Jesus at the time of His baptism, but left Him again before His crucifixion; while
according to others He assumed a merely phantasmal body. The Modalistic
Monarchians also denied the humanity of Christ, partly in the interest of His deity, and
partly to preserve the unity of the Divine Being. They saw in Him merely a mode or
manifestation of the one God, in whom they recognized no distinction of persons. The
Anti-Gnostic and Alexandrian Fathers took up the defense of the deity of Christ, but in
their defense did not altogether escape the error of representing Him as subordinate to
the Father. Even Tertullian taught a species of subordination, but especially Origen, who
did not hesitate to speak of a subordination as to essence. This became a steppingstone
for Arianism, in which Christ is distinguished from the Logos as the divine reason, and
is represented as a pre-temporal, superhuman creature, the first of the creatures, not
God and yet more than man. Athanasius took issue with Arius, and strongly defended
the position that the Son is consubstantial with, and of the same essence as, the Father, a
position that was officially adopted by the council of Nicea in 321. Semi-Arianism
proposed a via media by declaring the Son to be of a similar essence as the Father.
When the doctrine of the deity of the Son was officially established, the question
naturally arose as to the relation in which the two natures in Christ stand to each other.
Apollinaris offered a solution of the problem. Accepting the Greek trichotomic
conception of man as consisting of body, soul, and spirit, he took the position that the
Logos took the place of the spirit (pneuma) in man, which he regarded as the seat of sin.
His chief interest was to secure the unity of the person in Christ, without sacrificing His
real deity; and also to guard the sinlessness of Christ. But he did so at the expense of the
complete humanity of the Saviour, and consequently his position was explicitly
condemned by the Council of Constantinople in 381. One of the things for which
Apollinaris contended was the unity of the person in Christ. That this was really in
danger became quite apparent in the position taken by the school of Antioch, which
exaggerated the distinction of the two natures in Christ. Theodore of Mopsuestia and
Nestorius stressed the complete manhood of Christ, and conceived of the indwelling of
the Logos in Him as a mere moral indwelling, such as believers also enjoy, though not
to the same degree. They saw in Christ a man side by side with God, in alliance with
God, sharing the purpose of God, but not one with Him in the oneness of a single
personal life, — a Mediator consisting of two persons. In opposition to them Cyril of
Alexandria strongly emphasized the unity of the person in Christ, and in the estimation
of his opponents denied the two natures. While they in all probability misunderstood
him, Eutychus and his followers certainly appealed to him, when they took up the
position that the human nature of Christ was absorbed by the divine, or that the two
were fused into a single nature, a position involving the denial of the two natures in
Christ. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 condemned both of these views and
maintained the unity of the person as well as the duality of the natures.
2. AFTER THE COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON. For some time the Eutychian error was
continued by the Monophysites and the Monothelites, but was finally overcome by the
Church. The further danger that the human nature of Christ would be regarded as
entirely impersonal was warded off by Leontius of Byzantium, when he pointed out
that it is not impersonal but in-personal, having its personal subsistence in the person of
the Son of God. John of Damascus, in whom the Christology of the East reached its
highest development, added the idea that there is a circumincession of the divine and
the human in Christ, a communication of the divine attributes to the human nature, so
that the latter is deified and we may also say that God suffered in the flesh. He shows a
tendency to reduce the human nature to the position of a mere organ or instrument of
the Logos, yet he admits that there is a co-operation of the two natures, and that the one
person acts and wills in each nature, though the human will is always subject to the
In the Western Church Felix, bishop of Urgella, advocated adoptionism. He
regarded Christ as to His divine nature, that is, the Logos, as the onlybegotten Son of
God in the natural sense, but considered Christ on His human side as a Son of God
merely by adoption. He sought to preserve the unity of the person by stressing the fact
that, from the time of His conception, the Son of Man was taken up into the unity of the
person of the Son of God. Thus a distinction was made between a natural and an
adoptive sonship, and the latter did not begin with the natural birth of Christ, but had
its inception at the time of His baptism and was consummated in the resurrection. It
was a spiritual birth that made Christ the adopted Son of God. The Church saw the
unity of the person in Christ once more endangered by this view, and therefore it was
condemned by the Synod of Frankfort in 794 A.D.
The Middle Ages added very little to the doctrine of the person of Christ. Due to
various influences, such as the emphasis on the imitation of Christ, the theories of the
atonement, and the development of the doctrine of the mass, the Church retained a
strong grasp on the full humanity of Christ. “The deity of Christ,” says Mackintosh,
“came into view rather as the infinite co-efficient raising human action and passion to
an infinite value.” And yet some of the Scholastics in their Christology set forth a
docetic view of Christ. Peter the Lombard did not hesitate to say that in respect of His
humanity Christ was nothing at all. But this Nihilism was condemned by the Church.
Some new points were stressed by Thomas Aquinas. According to him the person of the
Logos became composite at the incarnation, and its union with the manhood
“hindered” the latter from arriving at an independent personality. The human nature of
Christ received a twofold grace in virtue of its union with the Logos, (a) the gratia
unionis, imparting to it a special dignity, so that it even became an object of worship,
and (b) the gratia habitualis, which sustained it in its relationship to God. The human
knowledge of Christ was twofold, namely, an infused and an acquired knowledge.
There are two wills in Christ, but ultimate causality belongs to the divine will, to which
the human will is always subject.
1. UP TO THE NINETEENTH CENTURY. The Reformation did not bring any great changes
in the doctrine of the person of Christ. Both the Church of Rome and the Churches of
the Reformation subscribed to the doctrine of Christ as it was formulated by the Council
of Chalcedon. Their important and deep-seated differences lay elsewhere. There is one
peculiarity of Lutheran Christology that deserves special mention. Luther’s doctrine of
the physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s supper led to the characteristically
Lutheran view of the communicatio idiomatum, to the effect “that each of Christ’s natures
permeates the other (perichoresis), and that His humanity participates in the attributes
of His divinity.”1 It is held that the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and
omnipresence were communicated to the human nature of Christ at the time of the
incarnation. The question naturally arose, how this could be harmonized with what we
know of the earthly life of Jesus. This question led to a difference of opinion among
Lutheran theologians. Some held that Christ laid aside the divine attributes received in
the incarnation, or used them only occasionally, while others said that He continued in
possession of them during His entire earthly life, but concealed them or used them only
secretly. Some Lutherans now seem inclined to discard this doctrine.
Reformed theologians saw in this Lutheran doctrine a species of Eutychianism or of
the fusion of the two natures in Christ. Reformed theology also teaches a
communication of attributes, but conceives of it in a different way. It believes that, after
the incarnation, the properties of both natures can be attributed to the one person of
Christ. The person of Christ can be said to be omniscient, but also, to have but limited
1 Neve, Lutheran Symbolics, p. 132.
knowledge; can be regarded as omnipresent, but also as being limited at any particular
time to a single place. Hence we read in the Second Helvetic Confession: “We
acknowledge, therefore, that there be in one and the same Jesus our Lord two natures —
the divine and the human nature; and we say that these are so conjoined or united that
they are not swallowed up, confounded, or mingled together, but rather united or
joined together in one person (the properties of each being safe and remaining still), so
that we do worship one Christ, our Lord, and not two. . . . Therefore we do not think
nor teach that the divine nature in Christ did suffer, or that Christ, according to His
human nature, is yet in the world, and so in every place.”2
2. IN THE NINTEENTH CENTURY. About the beginning of the nineteenth century a great
change took place in the study of the person of Christ. Up to that time the point of
departure had been prevailingly theological, and the resulting Christology was
theocentric; but during the last part of the eighteenth century there was a growing
conviction that better results could be attained by starting closer at home, namely, with
the study of the historical Jesus. Thus the so-called “second Christological period” was
ushered in. The new point of view was anthropological, and the result was
anthropocentric. It proved to be destructive of the faith of the Church. A far-reaching
and pernicious distinction was made between the historical Jesus, delineated by the
writers of the Gospels, and the theological Christ, who was the fruit of the fertile
imagination of theological thinkers, and whose image is now reflected in the creeds of
the Church. The supernatural Christ made way for a human Jesus; and the doctrine of
the two natures, for the doctrine of a divine man.
Schleiermacher stood at the head of the new development. He regarded Christ as a
new creation, in which human nature is elevated to the plane of ideal perfection. Yet his
Christ can hardly be said to rise above the human level. The uniqueness of His person
consists in the fact that He possesses a perfect and unbroken sense of union with the
divine, and also realizes to the full the destiny of man in His character of sinless
perfection. His supreme dignity finds its explanation in a special presence of God in
Him, in His unique God-consciousness. Hegel’s conception of Christ is part and parcel
of his pantheistic system of thought. The Word become flesh means for him God
become incarnate in humanity, so that the incarnation really expresses the oneness of
God and man. The incarnation of Christ was, so it seems, merely the culmination of a
racial process. While mankind in general regards Jesus only as a human teacher, faith
recognizes Him as divine and finds that by His coming into the world the
2 Chap. XI.
transcendence of God is changed into immanence. Here we meet with a pantheistic
identification of the human and the divine in the doctrine of Christ.
Something of this is also seen in the Kenotic theories, which represent a rather
remarkable attempt to improve on the construction of the doctrine of the person of
Christ. The term kenosis is derived from Phil. 2:7, which teaches that Christ “emptied
(ekenosen) Himself, taking the form of a servant.” The Kenoticists take this to mean that
the Logos literally became, that is, was changed into a man by reducing (depotentiating)
Himself, either wholly or in part, to the dimensions of a man, and then increased in
wisdom and power until at last He again became God. This theory appeared in various
forms, of which the most absolute is that of Gess, and for a time enjoyed considerable
popularity. It aimed at maintaining the reality and integrity of the manhood of Christ,
and to throw into strong relief the greatness of His humiliation in that He, being rich,
for our sakes became poor. It involves, however, a pantheistic obliteration of the line of
demarcation between God and man. Dorner, who was the greatest representative of the
Mediating school, strongly opposed this view, and substituted for it the doctrine of a
progressive incarnation. He saw in the humanity of Christ a new humanity with a
special receptivity for the divine. The Logos, the principle of self-bestowal in God,
joined Himself to this humanity; the measure in which He did this was determined at
every stage by the ever-increasing receptivity of the human nature for the divine, and
did not reach its final stage until the resurrection. But this is merely a new and subtle
form of the old Nestorian heresy. It yields a Christ consisting of two persons.
With the exception of Schleiermacher, no one has exercised greater influence on
present day theology than Albrecht Ritschl. His Christology takes its starting point in
the work, rather than in the person of Christ. The work of Christ determines the dignity
of His person. He was a mere man, but in view of the work which He accomplished and
the service He rendered, we rightly attribute to Him the predicate of Godhead. He rules
out the pre-existence, the incarnation, and the virgin birth of Christ, since this finds no
point of contact in the believing consciousness of the Christian community. Christ was
the founder of the kingdom of God, thus making the purpose of God His own, and now
in some way induces men to enter the Christian community and to live a life that is
motivated entirely by love. He redeems man by His teaching, example, and unique
influence, and is therefore worthy to be called God. This is virtually a renewal of the
doctrine of Paul of Samosata.
On the basis of the modern pantheistic idea of the immanence of God, the doctrine
of Christ is to-day often represented in a thoroughly naturalistic way. The
representations may vary greatly, but the fundamental idea is generally the same, that
of an essential unity of God and man. The doctrine of the two natures of Christ has
disappeared from modern theology, and instead we have a pantheistic identification of
God and man. Essentially all men are divine, since they all have a divine element in
them; and they are all sons of God, differing from Christ only in degree. Modern
teaching about Christ is all based on the doctrine of the continuity of God and man.
And it is exactly against this doctrine that Barth and those who are like-minded with
him have raised their voice. There are in some circles to-day signs of a return to the twonature
doctrine. Micklem confesses in his What Is the Faith? that for many years he
confidently asserted that the ascription to Christ of two natures in one person had to be
abandoned, but now sees that this rested on a misunderstanding.3
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. What was the background of the Christological
controversy in the early centuries? What ancient errors were revived by Roscelinus and
Abelard? What was the Christological Nihilism in vogue among the disciples of
Abelard? How did Peter the Lombard view Christ? Did the Scholastics bring any new
points to the fore? Where do we find the official Lutheran Christology? How can we
account for the seemingly inconsistent representations of the formula of Concord? What
objections are there to the Lutheran view that divine attributes may be predicated of the
human nature? How did the Lutherans and the Reformed differ in their interpretation
of Phil. 2:5-11? How does the Reformed Christology differ from the Lutheran? What is
the main difference between recent and earlier Christologies? What objections are there
to the Kenosis doctrine? What are the objectionable features of modern Christology?
How do Barth and Brunner view Christ?
LITERATURE: The Formula of Concord and the Second Helvetic Confession; Seeberg,
History of Doctrine II, pp. 65, 109 f., 154 f., 229 f., 321 f., 323 f., 374, 387; Hagenbach,
History of Doctrine II, pp. 267-275; III, pp. 197-209, 343-353; Thomasius, Dogmengeschichte
II, pp. 380-385; 388-429; Otten, Manual of the History of Dogmas II, pp. 171-195; Heppe,
Dogmatik des deutschen Protestantismus II, pp. 78-178; Dorner, History of Protestant
Theology, pp. 95 f., 201 f., 322 f.; Bruce, The Humiliation of Christ, pp. 74-355; Mackintosh,
The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ, pp. 223-284; Ottley, The Doctrine of the
Incarnation, pp. 485-553, 587-671; Sanday, Christologies Ancient and Modern, pp. 59-83;
Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus; La Touche, The Person of Christ in Modern
3 p. 155.
II. The Names and Natures of Christ
There are especially five names that call for a brief discussion at this point. They are
partly descriptive of His natures, partly of His official position, and partly of the work
for which He came into the world.
1. THE NAME JESUS. The name Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew Jehoshua, Joshua,
Josh. 1:1; Zech. 3:1, or Jeshua (regular form in the post exilic historical books), Ezra 2:2.
The derivation of this common name of the Saviour is veiled in obscurity. The generally
accepted opinion is that it is derived from the root yasha’, hiph., hoshia’, to save, but it is
not easy to explain how Jehoshua’ became Jeshua’. Probably Hoshea’, derived from the
infinitive, was the original form (cf. Num. 13:8,16; Deut. 32:44), expressing merely the
idea of redemption. The yod, which is the sign of the imperfect, may have been added to
express the certainty of redemption. This would best agree with the interpretation of the
name given in Matt. 1:21. For another derivation from Jeho (Jehovah) and shua, that is
help (Gotthilf) cf. Kuyper, Dict. Dogm.4 The name was borne by two well known types
of Jesus in the Old Testament.
2. THE NAME CHRIST. If Jesus is the personal, Christ is the official, name of the
Messiah. It is the equivalent of the Old Testament Mashiach (from mashach, to anoint),
and thus means “the anointed one.” Kings and priests were regularly anointed during
the old dispensation, Ex. 29:7; Lev. 4:3; Judg. 9:8; I Sam. 9:16; 10:1; II Sam. 19:10. The
King was called “the anointed of Jehovah,” I Sam. 24:10. Only a single instance of the
anointing of a prophet is recorded, I Kings 19:16, but there are probably references to it
in Ps. 105:15 and Isa. 61:1. The oil used in anointing these officers symbolized the Spirit
of God, Isa. 61:1; Zech. 4:1-6, and the anointing represented the transfer of the Spirit to
the consecrated person, I Sam. 10:1,6,10; 16:13,14. The anointing was a visible sign of (a)
an appointment to office; (b) the establishment of a sacred relationship and the
consequent sacrosanctness of the person anointed, I Sam. 24:6; 26:9; II Sam. 1:14; and (c)
a communication of the Spirit to the anointed one, I Sam. 16:13, cf. also II Cor. 1:21,22.
The Old Testament refers to the anointing of the Lord in Ps. 2:2; 45:7, and the New
Testament, in Acts 4:27 and 10:38. Formerly references to it were also found in Ps. 2:6
and Prov. 8:23, but to-day Hebraists assert that the word nasak, used in these passages,
4 De Christo, I, pp. 56 f.
means “to set up” rather than “to anoint.” But even cf. also Isa. 11:2; 42:1. Christ was set
up or appointed to His offices from so the word points to the reality of the first thing
symbolized in the anointing, eternity, but historically His anointing took place when He
was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Luke 1:35, and when he received the Holy Spirit,
especially at the time of His baptism, Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32; 3:34. It
served to qualify Him for His great task. The name “Christ” was first applied to the
Lord as a common noun with the article, but gradually developed into a proper noun,
and was used without the article.
3. THE NAME SON OF MAN. In the Old Testament this name is found in Ps. 8:4; Dan.
7:13, and frequently in the Prophecy of Ezekiel. It is also found in the Apochrypha,
Enoch 46 and 62, and II Esdras 13. The dependence of the New Testament usage of it on
the passage in Daniel is now quite generally admitted, though in that prophecy it is
merely a descriptive phrase, and not yet a title. The transition from the one to the other
was made later on, and was apparently already an accomplished fact when the book of
Enoch was written. It was the most common self-designation of Jesus. He applied the
name to Himself on more than forty occasions, while others all but refrained from
employing it. The only exception in the Gospels is in John 12:34, where it appears in an
indirect quotation of a word of Jesus; and in the rest of the New Testament only Stephen
and John employ it, Acts 7:56; Rev. 1:13; 14:14.
Dr. Vos in his work on The Self-Disclosure of Jesus divides the passages in which the
name occurs into four classes: (a) Passages which clearly refer to the eschatological
coming of the Son of Man, as for instance, Matt. 16:27, 28; Mark 8:38; 13:26, etc. and
parallels. (b) Passages which speak particularly of Jesus’ sufferings, death, and
(sometimes) resurrection, as, for instance, Matt. 17:22; 20:18,19,28; 12:40, etc. and
parallels. (c) Passages in the Fourth Gospel, in which the heavenly superhuman side
and the pre-existence of Jesus is stressed, as for instance, 1:51; 3:13,14; 6:27,53,62; 8:28,
and so on. (d) A small group of passages, in which Jesus reflects upon His human
nature, Mark 2:27, 28; John 5:27; 6:27,51,62. It is hard to determine why Jesus preferred
this name as a self-designation. Formerly the name was generally regarded as a cryptic
title, by the use of which Jesus intended to veil rather than to reveal His Messiahship.
This explanation was discarded when more attention was paid to the eschatological
element in the Gospels, and to the use of the name in the apocalyptic literature of the
Jews. Dalman revived the idea and regarded the title once more as “an intentional
veiling of the Messianic character under a title which affirms the humanity of Him who
bore it.”5 The supposed proof for this is found in Matt. 16:13; John 12:34. But the proof is
doubtful; the latter passage even shows that the people understood the name
Messianically. Dr. Vos is of the opinion that Jesus probably preferred the name, because
it stood farthest removed from every possible Jewish prostitution of the Messianic
office. By calling Himself the Son of Man, Jesus imparted to the Messiahship His own
heaven-centered spirit. And the height to which He thus lifted His person and work
may well have had something to do with the hesitancy of His early followers to name
Him with the most celestial of all titles.6
4. THE NAME SON OF GOD. The name “Son of God” was variously applied in the Old
Testament: (a) to the people of Israel, Ex. 4:22; Jer. 31:9; Hos. 11:1; (b) to officials among
Israel, especially to the promised king of the house of David, II Sam. 7:14; Ps. 89:27; (c)
to angels, Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Ps. 29:1; 89:6; and (d) to pious people in general, Gen. 6:2; Ps.
73:15; Prov. 14:26. Among Israel the name acquired theocratic significance. In the New
Testament we find Jesus appropriating the name, and others also ascribing it to Him.
The name is applied to Jesus in four different senses, which are not always kept distinct
in Scripture but are sometimes combined. The name is applied to Him:
a. In the official or Messianic sense, as a description of the office rather than of the
nature of Christ. The Messiah could be called Son of God as God’s heir and
representative. The demons evidently understood the name Messianically, when they
applied it to Jesus. It seems to have this meaning also in Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32. Even
the name, as uttered by the voice at the baptism of Jesus and at His transfiguration,
Matt. 3:17; 17:5; Mark 1:11; 9:7; Luke 3:22; 9:35, can be so interpreted, but in all
probability has a deeper meaning. There are several passages in which the Messianic
sense is combined with the trinitarian sense, cf. under (b).
b. In the trinitarian sense. The name is sometimes used to denote the essential deity of
Christ. As such it points to a pre-existent sonship, which absolutely transcends the
human life of Christ and His official calling as Messiah. Instances of this use are found
in Matt. 11:27; 14:28-33; 16:16, and parallels; 21:33-46, and parallels; 22:41-46; 26:63, and
parallels. In some of these cases the idea of the Messianic sonship also enters more or
less. We find the ontological and the Messianic sonship interwoven also in several
Johannine passages, in which Jesus clearly intimates that He is the Son of God, though
He does not use the name, as in 6:69; 8:16,18,23; 10:15,30; 14:20, and so on. In the
Epistles Christ is frequently designated as the Son of God in the metaphysical sense,
5 Words of Jesus, p. 253.
6 The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, pp. 251 ff.
Rom. 1:3; 8:3; Gal. 4:4; Heb. 1:1, and many other passages. In modern liberal theology it
is customary to deny the metaphysical sonship of Christ.
c. In the nativistic sense. Christ is also called the Son of God in virtue of His
supernatural birth. The name is so applied to Him in the well known passage in the
Gospel of Luke, in which the origin of His human nature is ascribed to the direct,
supernatural paternity of God, namely, Luke 1:35. Dr. Vos also finds indications of this
sense of the name in Matt. 1:18-24; John 1:13. Naturally, this meaning of the name is also
denied by modern liberal theology, which does not believe in the virgin birth, nor in the
supernatural conception of Christ.
d. In the ethico-religious sense. It is in this sense that the name “sons” or “children of
God” is applied to believers in the New Testament. It is possible that we have an
example of the application of the name “Son of God” to Jesus in that ethico-religious
sense in Matt. 17:24-27. This depends on the question, whether Peter is here represented
as also exempt from the templetax. It is especially in this sense that modern liberal
theology ascribes the name to Jesus. It finds that the sonship of Jesus is only an ethicoreligious
sonship, somewhat heightened indeed, but not essentially different from that
of His disciples.
5. THE NAME LORD (Kurios). The name “Lord” is applied to God in the Septuagint,
(a) as the equivalent of Jehovah; (b) as the rendering of Adonai; and (c) as the translation
of a human honorific title applied to God (chiefly Adon), Josh. 3:11; Ps. 97:5. In the New
Testament we find a somewhat similar threefold application of the name to Christ, (a) as
a polite and respectful form of address, Matt. 8:2; 20:33; (b) as expressive of ownership
and authority, without implying anything as to Christ’s divine character and authority,
Matt. 21:3; 24:42; and (c) with the highest connotation of authority, expressive of an
exalted character, and in fact practically equivalent to the name “God,” Mark 12:36,37;
Luke 2:11; 3:4; Acts 2:36; I Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11. In some cases it is hard to determine the
exact connotation of the title. Undoubtedly, after the exaltation of Christ, the name was
generally applied to Him in the most exalted sense. But there are instances of its use
even before the resurrection, where the specifically divine import of the title has
evidently already been reached, as in Matt. 7:22; Luke 5:8; John 20:28. There is a great
difference of opinion among scholars respecting the origin and development of this title
as applied to Jesus. In spite of all that has been advanced to the contrary, there is no
reason to doubt that the use of the name, as applied to Jesus, is rooted in the Old
Testament. There is one constant element in the history of the conception, and that is the
element of authoritative ownership. The Epistles of Paul suggest the additional idea that it
is an authority and ownership resting on antecedently acquired rights. It is doubtful,
whether this element is already present in the Gospels.
From the earliest times, and more particularly since the Council of Chalcedon, the
Church confessed the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. The Council did not solve
the problem presented by a person who was at once human and divine, but only sought
to ward off some of the solutions which were offered and were clearly recognized as
erroneous. And the Church accepted the doctrine of the two natures in one person, not
because it had a complete understanding of the mystery, but because it clearly saw in it
a mystery revealed by the Word of God. It was and remained ever since for the Church
an article of faith, far beyond human comprehension. Rationalistic attacks on the
doctrine were not entirely wanting, but the Church remained firm in the confession of
this truth, in spite of the fact that it was once and again declared to be contrary to
reason. In this confession Roman Catholics and Protestants stand shoulder to shoulder.
But from the last part of the eighteenth century on this doctrine was made the butt of
persistent attacks. The Age of Reason set in, and it was declared to be unworthy of man
to accept on the authority of Scripture what was clearly contrary to human reason. That
which did not commend itself to this new arbiter was simply declared to be erroneous.
Individual philosophers and theologians now tried their hand at solving the problem
presented by Christ, in order that they might offer the Church a substitute for the twonature
doctrine. They took their starting point in the human Jesus, and even after a
century of painstaking research found in Jesus no more than a man with a divine
element in Him. They could not rise to the recognition of Him as their Lord and their
God. Schleiermacher spoke of a man with a supreme God-consciousness, Ritschl, of a
man having the value of a God, Wendt, of a man standing in a continual inward
fellowship of love with God, Beyschlag, of a God-filled man, and Sanday, of a man with
an inrush of the divine in the sub-consciousness; — but Christ is and remains merely a
man. To-day the liberal school represented by Harnack, the eschatological school of
Weiss and Schweitzer, and the more recent school of comparative religion, headed by
Bousset and Kirsopp Lake, all agree in denuding Christ of His true deity, and in
reducing Him to human dimensions. To the first our Lord is merely a great ethical
teacher; to the second, an apocalyptic seer; and to the third a peerless leader to an
exalted destiny. They regard the Christ of the Church as the creation of Hellenism, or of
Judaism, or of the two combined. To-day, however, the whole epistemology of the
previous century is called in question, and the sufficiency of human reason for the
interpretation of ultimate truth is seriously questioned. There is a new emphasis on
revelation. And influential theologians, such as Barth and Brunner, Edwin Lewis and
Nathaniel Micklem, do not hesitate to confess faith once more in the doctrine of the two
natures. It is of the utmost importance to maintain this doctrine, as it was formulated by
the Council of Chalcedon and is contained in our Confessional Standards.7
1. SCRIPTURE PROOFS FOR THE DEITY OF CHRIST. In view of the widespread denial of
the deity of Christ, it is of the utmost importance to be thoroughly conversant with the
Scripture proof for it. The proof is so abundant that no one who accepts the Bible as the
infallible Word of God can entertain any doubt on this point. For the ordinary
classification of the Biblical proofs, as derived from the divine names, the divine
attributes, the divine works, and the divine honor ascribed to Him, we would refer to
the chapter on the Trinity. A somewhat different arrangement is followed here in view
of the recent trend of historical criticism.
a. In the Old Testament. Some have shown an inclination to deny that the Old
Testament contains predictions of a divine Messiah, but this denial is quite untenable in
view of such passages as Ps. 2:6-12 (Heb. 1:5); 45:6,7 (Heb. 1:8,9); 110:1 (Heb. 1:13); Isa.
9:6; Jer. 23:6; Dan. 7:13; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 13:7; Mal. 3:1. Several of the latest historical
scholars strongly insist on the fact that the doctrine of a superhuman Messiah was
native to pre-Christian Judaism. Some even find in it the explanation for the
supernatural Christology of parts of the New Testament.
b. In the writings of John and Paul. It has been found quite impossible to deny that
both John and Paul teach the deity of Christ. In the Gospel of John the most exalted
view of the person of Christ is found, as appears from the following passages: John
1:1-3,14,18; 2:24,25; 3:16-18,35,36; 4:14,15; 5:18,20,21,22,25-27; 11:41-44; 20:28; I John 1:3;
2:23; 4:14,15; 5:5,10-13, 20. A similar view is found in the Pauline Epistles and in the
Epistle to the Hebrews, Rom. 1:7; 9:5; I Cor. 1:1-3; 2:8; II Cor. 5:10; Gal. 2:20; 4:4; Phil. 2:6;
Col. 2:9; I Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:1-3,5,8; 4:14; 5:8, and so on. Critical scholars sought escape
from the doctrine clearly taught in these writings in various ways as, for instance, by
denying the historicity of the Gospel of John and the authenticity of many of the
Epistles of Paul; by regarding the representations of John, Paul, and Hebrews as
unwarranted interpretations, in the case of John and Hebrews especially under the
influence of the Philonic Logos doctrine, and in the case of Paul under the same
influence, or under that of his pre-Christian, Jewish views; or by ascribing to Paul a
lower view than is found in John, namely, that of Christ as a pre-existent, heavenly man.
7 Conf. Belg., Art. XIX; Heidelberg Cat., Qs. 15-18; Canons of Dort II, Art. IV.
c. In the Synoptics. Some maintain that the Synoptics only furnish us with a true
picture of Christ. They, it is said, portray the human, the truly historical Jesus, as
contrasted with the idealized picture of the Fourth Gospel. But it is perfectly evident
that the Christ of the Synoptics is just as truly divine as the Christ of John. He stands out
as a supernatural person throughout, the Son of Man and the Son of God. His character
and works justify His claim. Notice particularly the following passages: Matt. 5:17; 9:6;
11:1-6,27; 14:33; 16:16,17; 28:18; 25:31 ff.; Mark 8:38, and many similar and parallel
passages. Dr. Warfield’s The Lord of Glory is very illuminating on this point.
d. In the self-consciousness of Jesus. In recent years there has been a tendency to go
back to the self-consciousness of Jesus, and to deny that He was conscious of being the
Messiah or the Son of God. Naturally, it is not possible to have any knowledge of the
consciousness of Jesus, except through His words, as these are recorded in the Gospels;
and it is always possible to deny that they correctly express the mind of Jesus. For those
who accept the Gospel testimony there can be no doubt as to the fact that Jesus was
conscious of being the very Son of God. The following passages bear witness to this:
Matt. 11:27 (Luke 10:22); 21:37,38 (Mk. 12:6; Luke 20:13); 22:41-46 (Mk. 13:35-37; Luke
20:41-44); 24:36 (Mk. 13:32); 28:19. Some of these passages testify to Jesus’ Messianic
consciousness; others to the fact that He was conscious of being the Son of God in the
most exalted sense. There are several passages in Matthew and Luke, in which He
speaks of the first person of the Trinity as “my Father,” Matt. 7:21; 10:32,33; 11:27; 12:50;
15:13; 16:17; 18:10,19,35; 20:23; 25:34; 26:29,53; Luke 2:49; 22:29; 24:49. In the Gospel of
John the consciousness of being the very Son of God is even more apparent in such
passages as John 3:13; 5:17,18,19-27; 6:37-40,57; 8:34-36; 10:17,18,30,35,36, and other
the reality (Gnosticism) and the natural integrity (Docetism, Apollinarianism) of the
human nature of Christ was denied, but at present no one seriously questions the real
humanity of Jesus Christ. In fact, there is at present an extreme emphasis on His
veritable humanity, an ever-growing humanitarianism. The only divinity many still
ascribe to Christ, is simply that of His perfect humanity. This modern tendency is, no
doubt, in part a protest against a one-sided emphasis on the deity of Christ. Men have
sometimes forgotten the human Christ in their reverence for the divine. It is very
important to maintain the reality and integrity of the humanity of Jesus by admitting his
human development and human limitations. The splendor of His deity should not be
stressed to the extent of obscuring His real humanity. Jesus called Himself man, and is
so called by others, John 8:40; Acts 2:22; Rom. 5:15; I Cor. 15:21. The most common self-
designation of Jesus, “the Son of Man,” whatever connotation it may have, certainly
also indicates the veritable humanity of Jesus. Moreover, it is said that the Lord came or
was manifested in the flesh, John 1:14; I Tim. 3:16; I John 4:2. In these passages the term
“flesh” denotes human nature. The Bible clearly indicates that Jesus possessed the
essential elements of human nature, that is, a material body and a rational soul, Matt.
26:26,28,38; Luke 23:46; 24:39; John 11:33; Heb. 2:14. There are also passages which show
that Jesus was subject to the ordinary laws of human development, and to human wants
and sufferings, Luke 2:40,52; Heb. 2:10,18; 5:8. It is brought out in detail that the normal
experiences of man’s life were His, Matt. 4:2; 8:24; 9:36; Mk. 3:5; Lk. 22:44; John 4:6;
11:35; 12:27; 19:28,30; Heb. 5:7.
only natural, but also moral, integrity or moral perfection, that is sinlessness. This
means not merely that Christ could avoid sinning (potuit non peccare), and did actually
avoid it, but also that it was impossible for Him to sin (non potuit peccare) because of the
essential bond between the human and the divine natures. The sinlessness of Christ has
been denied by Martineau, Irving, Menken, Holsten, and Pfleiderer, but the Bible clearly
testifies to it in the following passages: Luke 1:35; John 8:46; 14:30; II Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15;
9:14; I Pet. 2:22; I John 3:5. While Christ was made to be sin judicially, yet ethically He
was free from both hereditary depravity and actual sin. He never makes a confession of
moral error; nor does He join His disciples in praying, “Forgive us our sins.” He is able
to challenge His enemies to convince Him of sin. Scripture even represents Him as the
one in whom the ideal man is realized, Heb. 2:8,9; I Cor. 15:45; II Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:21.
Moreover, the name “Son of Man,” appropriated by Jesus, seems to intimate that He
answered to the perfect ideal of humanity.
4. THE NECESSITY OF THE TWO NATURES IN CHRIST. It appears from the preceding that,
in the present day, many do not recognize the necessity of assuming two natures in
Christ. To them Jesus is but a man; yet at the same time they feel constrained to ascribe
to Him the value of a God, or to claim divinity for Him in virtue of the immanence of
God in Him, or of the indwelling Spirit. The necessity of the two natures in Christ
follows from what is essential to the Scriptural doctrine of the atonement.
a. The necessity of His manhood. Since man sinned, it was necessary that the penalty
should be borne by man. Moreover, the paying of the penalty involved suffering of
body and soul, such as only man is capable of bearing, John 12:27; Acts 3:18; Heb. 2:14;
9:22. It was necessary that Christ should assume human nature, not only with all its
essential properties, but also with all the infirmities to which it is liable after the fall, and
should thus descend to the depths of degradation to which man had fallen, Heb.
2:17,18. At the same time, He had to be a sinless man, for a man who was himself a
sinner and who had forfeited his own life, certainly could not atone for others, Heb.
7:26. Only such a truly human Mediator, who had experimental knowledge of the woes
of mankind and rose superior to all temptations, could enter sympathetically into all the
experiences, the trials, and the temptations of man, Heb. 2:17,18; 4:15-5:2, and be a
perfect human example for His followers, Matt. 11:29; Mk. 10:39; John 13:13-15; Phil.
2:5-8; Heb. 12:2-4; I Pet. 2:21.
b. The necessity of His Godhead. In the divine plan of salvation it was absolutely
essential that the Mediator should also be very God. This was necessary, in order that
(1) He might bring a sacrifice of infinite value and render perfect obedience to the law of
God; (2) He might bear the wrath of God redemptively, that is, so as to free others from
the curse of the law; and (3) He might be able to apply the fruits of His accomplished
work to those who accepted Him by faith. Man with his bankrupt life can neither pay
the penalty of sin, nor render perfect obedience to God. He can bear the wrath of God
and, except for the redeeming grace of God, will have to bear it eternally, but he cannot
bear it so as to open a way of escape, Ps. 49:7-10; 130:3.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. What Old Testament persons bore the name ‘Jesus,’
and in what respect did they typify the Saviour? Is the bare title ‘the Messiah,’ without a
genitive or a pronominal suffix, ever found in the Old Testament? How does Dalman
account for its occurence in Jewish apocalyptic literature? Do the terms ‘the anointed of
Jehovah,’ ‘His anointed,’ and ‘my anointed’ always have the same meaning in the Old
Testament? Whence comes the idea that believers share the anointing of Christ? What
about the idea that the name ‘Son of Man,’ reduced to its probable Aramaic original,
simply means ‘man’? How about the idea of Weiss and Schweitzer that Jesus employed
the name only in a futuristic sense? Did He use it before Peter’s confession at Cæsarea-
Philippi? How do the liberals square their conception of Jesus as the Son of God only in
a religious and ethical sense with the data of Scripture? What is the usual view of the
origin of the Kurios-title? What theory was broached by Bousset and other liberal
scholars? What accounts for the opposition to the two-natures doctrine? Is it a necessary
doctrine, or is there some other doctrine that might take its place? What objections are
there to the adoptionist doctrine;—to the Kenotic theories;—to the idea of a gradual
incarnation;—to the Ritschlian view;—to Sanday’s theory?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. III, pp. 259-265, 328-335, 394-396; Kuyper, Dict.
Dogm., De Christo I, pp. 44-61, 128-153; II, pp. 2-23; Hodge, Syst. Theol. II, pp. 378-387;
Dabney, Syst. and Polem. Theol. pp. 464-477; Vos, Geref. Dogm. III, pp. 1-31; ibid. The Self-
Disclosure of Jesus, pp. 104-256; ibid. on the Kurios-title, Princeton Theol. Review, Vol. XIII,
pp. 151 ff.; Vol. XV, pp. 21 ff.; Dalman, The Words of Jesus, pp. 234-331; Warfield, The Lord
of Glory, cf. Index; Liddon, The Divinity of our Lord, Lect. V; Rostron, The Christology of St.
Paul, pp. 154 ff.; Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, pp. 293-317; Stanton, The Jewish
and the Christian Messiah, pp. 239-250.
III. The Unipersonality of Christ
In the year 451 A.D. the Council of Chalcedon met and formulated the faith of the
Church respecting the person of Christ, and declared Him “to be acknowledged in two
natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseperably; the distinction of the
natures being in no wise taken away by the union, but rather the property of each
nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted
or divided into two persons.” This formulation is mainly negative, and simply seeks to
guard the truth against various heretical views. It clearly states the faith of the early
Church respecting the person of Christ, but makes no attempt to explain the mystery
involved, a mystery that is not susceptible of a natural explanation. The great central
miracle of history was permitted to stand forth in all its grandeur, the supreme paradox,
to use Barthian language, God and man in one person. We are simply told what Jesus is,
without any attempt to show how He became what He is. The great truth enunciated is
that the eternal Son of God took upon Himself our humanity, and not, as Brunner
reminds us, that the man Jesus acquired divinity. The deliverance of the Council of
Chalcedon testifies to a movement from God to man, rather than vice versa. Centuries
have gone by since that time, but, barring certain explications, the Church has really
never gotten beyond the formula of Chalcedon. It has always recognized the
incarnation as a mystery which defies explanation. And so it will remain, because it is
the miracle of miracles. Several attempts have been made in course of time to give a
psychological explanation of the person of Jesus Christ, but they were all bound to fail,
because He is the Son of God, Himself very God, and a psychological explanation of
God is out of the question. The following paragraphs are intended as a brief statement
of the doctrine of the Church.
1. DEFINITION OF THE TERMS “NATURE” AND “PERSON.” With a view to the proper
understanding of the doctrine, it is necessary to know the exact meaning of the terms
“nature” and “person,” as used in this connection. The term “nature” denotes the sumtotal
of all the essential qualities of a thing, that which makes it what it is. A nature is a
substance possessed in common, with all the essential qualities of such a substance. The
term “person” denotes a complete substance endowed with reason, and, consequently, a
responsible subject of its own actions. Personality is not an essential and integral part of
a nature, but is, as it were, the terminus to which it tends. A person is a nature with
something added, namely, independent subsistence, individuality. Now the Logos
assumed a human nature that was not personalized, that did not exist by itself.
a. There is but one person in the Mediator, the unchangeable Logos. The Logos
furnishes the basis for the personality of Christ. It would not be correct, however, to say
that the person of the mediator is divine only. The incarnation constituted Him a
complex person, constituted of two natures. He is the Godman.
b. The human nature of Christ as such does not constitute a human person. The
Logos did not adopt a human person, so that we have two persons in the Mediator, but
simply assumed a human nature. Brunner declares that it is the mystery of the person of
Jesus Christ that at the point where we have a sinful person, He has, or rather is, the
divine person of the Logos.
c. At the same time it is not correct to speak of the human nature of Christ as
impersonal. This is true only in the sense that this nature has no independent
subsistence of its own. Strictly speaking, however, the human nature of Christ was not
for a moment impersonal. The Logos assumed that nature into personal subsistence
with Himself. The human nature has its personal existence in the person of the Logos. It
is in-personal rather than impersonal.
d. For that very reason we are not warranted to speak of the human nature of Christ
as imperfect or incomplete. His human nature is not lacking in any of the essential
qualities belonging to that nature, and also has individuality, that is, personal
subsistence, in the person of the Son of God.
e. This personal subsistence should not be confused with consciousness and free
will. The fact that the human nature of Christ, in and by itself, has no personal
subsistence, does not mean that it has no consciousness and will. The Church has taken
the position that these belong to the nature rather than to the person.
f. The one divine person, who possessed a divine nature from eternity, assumed a
human nature, and now has both. This must be maintained over against those who,
while admitting that the divine person assumed a human nature, jeopardize the
integrity of the two natures by conceiving of them as having been fused or mixed into a
tertium quid, a sort of divine-human nature.
The doctrine of the two natures in one person transcends human reason. It is the
expression of a supersensible reality, and of an incomprehensible mystery, which has no
analogy in the life of man as we know it, and finds no support in human reason, and
therefore can only be accepted by faith on the authority of the Word of God. For that
reason it is doubly necessary to pay close attention to the teachings of Scripture on this
1. NO EVIDENCE OF A DUAL PERSONALITY IN SCRIPTURE. In the first place there is a
negative consideration of considerable importance. If there had been a dual personality
in Jesus, we would naturally expect to find some traces of it in Scripture; but there is not
a single trace of it. There is no distinction of an “I” and a “Thou” in the inner life of the
Mediator, such as we find in connection with the triune Being of God, where one person
addresses the other, Ps. 2:7; 40:7,8; John 17:1,4,5,21-24. Moreover, Jesus never uses the
plural in referring to Himself, as God does in Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7. It might seem as if
John 3:11 were a case in point. The plural is peculiar, but in all probability refers to Jesus
and those who were associated with Him, in opposition to Nicodemus and the group
which he represented.
passages of Scripture which refer to both natures in Christ, but in which it is perfectly
evident that only one person is intended, Rom. 1:3,4; Gal. 4:4,5; Phil. 2:6-11. In several
passages both natures are set forth as united. The Bible nowhere teaches that divinity in
the abstract, or some divine power, was united to, or manifested in, a human nature; but
always that the divine nature in the concrete, that is, the divine person of the Son of
God, was united to a human nature, John 1:14; Rom. 8:3; Gal. 4:4; 9:5; I Tim. 3:16; Heb.
2:11-14; I John 4:2,3.
Repeatedly the attributes of one nature are predicated of the person, while that person
is designated by a title derived from the other nature. On the one hand human
attributes and actions are predicated of the person while he is designated by a divine
title, Acts 20:28; I Cor. 2:8; Col. 1:13,14. And on the other hand divine attributes and
actions are predicated of the person while he is designated by a human title, John 3:13;
6:62; Rom. 9:5.
1. NO ESSENTIAL CHANGE IN THE DIVINE NATURE. The doctrine of creation and the
doctrine of the incarnation always constituted a problem in connection with the
immutability of God. This was already pointed out in the discussion of that attribute.
However this problem may be solved, it should be maintained that the divine nature
did not undergo any essential change in the incarnation. This also means that it
remained impassible, that is, incapable of suffering and death, free from ignorance, and
insusceptible to weakness and temptation. It is well to stress the fact that the incarnation
was a personal act. It is better to say that the person of the Son of God became incarnate
than to say that the divine nature assumed human flesh. If Reformed theologians do
occasionally speak of the divine nature as incarnate, they speak of it “not immediately
but mediately,” to use the language of scholastic theology; they consider this nature not
absolutely and in itself, but in the person of the Son of God. The result of the incarnation
was that the divine Saviour could be ignorant and weak, could be tempted, and could
suffer and die, not in His divine nature, but derivatively, by virtue of His possession of a
human nature.
a. A communicatio idiomatum, or communication of properties. This means that the
properties of both, the human and the divine natures, are now the properties of the
person, and are therefore ascribed to the person. The person can be said to be almighty,
omniscient, omnipresent, and so on, but can also be called a man of sorrows, of limited
knowledge and power, and subject to human want and miseries. We must be careful not
to understand the term to mean that anything peculiar to the divine nature was
communicated to the human nature, or vice versa; or that there is an interpenetration of
the two natures, as a result of which the divine is humanized, and the human is deified
(Rome). The deity cannot share in human weaknesses; neither can man participate in
any of the essential perfections of the Godhead.
b. A communicatio apotelesmatum or operationum. This means that the redemptive
work of Christ, and particularly the final result of that work, the apotelesma, bears a
divine-human character. Analyzing this, we can say that it means: (1) that the efficient
cause of the redemptive work of Christ is the one undivided personal subject in Christ;
(2) that it is brought about by the co-operation of both natures; (3) that each of these
natures works with its own special energeia; and (4) that, notwithstanding this, the result
forms an undivided unity, because it is the work of a single person.
c. A communicatio charismatum or gratiarum. This means that the human nature of
Christ, from the very first moment of its existence, was adorned with all kinds of rich
and glorious gifts, as for instance, (1) the gratia unionis cum persona tou Logou, that is, the
grace and glory of being united to the divine Logos, also called the gratia eminentiae, by
which the human nature is elevated high above all creatures, and even becomes the
object of adoration; and (2) the gratia habitualis, consisting of those gifts of the Spirit,
particularly of the intellect, of the will, and of power, by which the human nature of
Christ was exalted high above all intelligent creatures. His impeccability, the non posse
peccare, especially should be mentioned here.
3. THE GOD-MAN IS THE OBJECT OF PRAYER. Another effect of the union is, that the
Mediator just as He now exists, that is, in both natures, is the object of our prayer. It
should be borne in mind that the honor adorationis does not belong to the human nature
as such, but belongs to it only in virtue of its union with the divine Logos, who is in His
very nature adorabilis. We must distinguish between the object and the ground of this
adoration. The object of our religious worship is the God-man Jesus Christ, but the
ground on which we adore Him lies in the person of the Logos.
The union of the two natures in one person is a mystery which we cannot grasp, and
which for that very reason is often denied. It has sometimes been compared with the
union of body and soul in man; and there are some points of similarity. In man there are
two substances, matter and spirit, most closely united and yet not mixed; so also in the
Mediator. In man the principle of unity, the person, does not have its seat in the body
but in the soul; in the Mediator, not in the human, but in the divine nature. As the
influence of the soul on the body and of the body on the soul is a mystery, so also the
connection of the two natures in Christ and their mutual influence on each other.
Everything that happens in the body and in the soul is ascribed to the person; so all that
takes place in the two natures of Christ is predicated of the person. Sometimes a man is
denominated according to his spiritual element, when something is predicated of him
that applies more particularly to the body, and vice versa. Similarly things that apply
only to the human nature of Christ are ascribed to Him when He is named after His
divine nature, and vice versa. As it is an honor for the body to be united with the soul, so
it is an honor for the human nature of Christ to be united with the person of the Logos.
Of course, the comparison is defective. It does not illustrate the union of the divine and
the human, of the infinite and the finite. It does not even illustrate the unity of two
spiritual natures in a single person. In the case of man the body is material and the soul
is spiritual. It is a wonderful union, but not as wonderful as the union of the two
natures in Christ.
1. STATEMENT OF THE LUTHERAN POSITION. The Lutherans differ from the Reformed
in their doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum. They teach that the attributes of one
nature are ascribed to the other on the basis of an actual transference, and feel that it is
only by such a transference that the real unity of the person can be secured. This
position does not involve a denial of the fact that the attributes of both natures can be
ascribed to the person, but adds something to that in the interest, as they see it, of the
unity of the person. They did not always state their doctrine in the same form. Luther
and some of the early Lutherans occasionally spoke of a communication in both
directions, from the divine nature to the human, and also from the human to the divine.
In the subsequent development of the doctrine, however, the communication from the
human nature to the divine soon receded from sight, and only that from the divine to
the human nature was stressed. A still greater limitation soon followed. Lutheran
scholastics distinguished between the operative attributes of God (omnipotence,
omnipresence, and omniscience), and His quiescent attributes (infinitude, eternity, etc.),
and taught that only the former were transferred to the human nature. They were all
agreed that the communication took place at the time of the incarnation. But the
question naturally arose how this could be squared with the picture of Christ in the
Gospels, which is not the picture of an omniscient and omnipresent man. This gave rise
to a difference of opinion. According to some, Christ necessarily exercised these
attributes during His humiliation, but did it secretly; but according to others their
exercise was subject to the will of the divine person, who voluntarily left them
inoperative during the period of His humiliation. Opposition to this doctrine repeatedly
manifested itself in the Lutheran Church. It was pointed out that it is inconsistent with
the idea of a truly human development in the life of Christ, so clearly taught by Luther
himself. The great Reformer’s insistence on the communication of attributes finds its
explanation partly in his mystical tendencies, and partly in his teachings respecting the
physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
2. OBJECTIONS TO THIS LUTHERAN DOCTRINE. There are serious objections to the
Lutheran doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum.
a. It has no Scriptural foundation. If it is inferred from such a statement as that in
John 3:13, then, in consistency, it ought also to be concluded from I Cor. 2:8 that the
ability to suffer was communicated to the divine nature. Yet the Lutherans shrink back
from that conclusion.
b. It implies a fusion of the divine and the human natures in Christ. Lutherans speak
as if the attributes can be abstracted from the nature, and can be communicated while
the natures remain separate, but substance and attributes cannot be so separated. By a
communication of divine attributes to the human nature that nature as such ceases to
exist. Omnipresence and omniscience are not compatible with humanity. Such a
communication results in a mixture of the divine and the human, which the Bible keeps
strictly separate.
c. In the form in which the doctrine is now generally accepted by the Lutherans, the
doctrine suffers from inconsistency. If the divine attributes are communicated to the
human nature, the human must also be communicated to the divine. And if some
attributes are communicated, they must all be communicated. But the Lutherans
evidently do not dare to go the full length, and therefore stop half way.
d. It is inconsistent with the picture of the incarnate Christ during the time of His
humiliation, as we find it in the Gospels. This is not the picture of a man who is
omnipresent and omniscient. The Lutheran explanations of this inconsistency failed to
commend themselves to the mind of the Church in general, and even to some of the
followers of Luther.
e. It virtually destroys the incarnation. Lutherans distinguish between the incarnatio
and the exinanitio. The Logos is the subject only of the former. He makes the human
nature receptive for the inhabitation of the fulness of the Godhead and communicates to
it some of the divine attributes. But by doing this He virtually abrogates the human
nature by assimilating it to the divine. Thus only the divine remains.
f. It also practically obliterates the distinction between the state of humiliation and
the state of exaltation. Brenz even says that these were not successive states, but states
that co-existed during the earthly life of Christ. To escape the difficulty here, the
Lutherans brought in the doctrine of the exinanitio, of which not the Logos but the Godman
is the subject, to the effect that He practically emptied Himself, or laid aside the
divine attributes. Some spoke of a constant but secret, and others of an intermittent use
of them.
About the middle of the nineteenth century a new form of Christology made its
appearance in the Kenotic theories. It found favor especially among the Lutherans, but
also with some Reformed theologians. It represents part of an attempt to bring the
Lutheran and the Reformed sections of the Church closer together. The advocates of this
new view desired to do full justice to the reality and integrity of the manhood of Christ,
and to stress the magnitude of His self-denial and self-sacrifice.
1. STATEMENT OF THE DOCTRINE. The term “kenosis” is used in a two-fold sense in
theology. Originally it was used by Lutheran theologians to denote the self-limitation,
not of the Logos, but of the God-man, whereby He, in the interest of His humiliation,
laid aside the actual use of His divine attributes. In the teachings of the Kenoticists,
however, it signalized the doctrine that the Logos at the incarnation was denuded of His
transitive or of all His attributes, was reduced to a mere potentiality, and then, in union
with the human nature, developed again into a divine-human person. The main forms
in which this doctrine were taught are the following:
a. The theory of Thomasius, Delitzsch and Crosby. Thomasius distinguishes between the
absolute and essential attributes of God, such as absolute power, holiness, truth, and
love, and His relative attributes, which are not essential to the Godhead, such as
omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience; and maintains that the Logos while
retaining His divine self-consciousness, laid the latter aside, in order to take unto
Himself veritable human nature.
b. The theory of Gess and H. W. Beecher. This is far more thorough-going. La Touche
speaks of it as “incarnation by divine suicide.” The Logos so depotentiated Himself of
all His divine attributes that He literally ceased from His cosmic functions and His
eternal consciousness during the years of His earthly life. His consciousness became
purely that of a human soul, and consequently He could and did take the place of the
human soul in Christ. Thus the true manhood of Christ, even to the extent of His
peccability, was secured.
c. The theory of Ebrard. Ebrard agrees with Gess in making the incarnate Logos take
the place of the human soul. The eternal Son gave up the form of eternity, and in full
self-limitation assumed the existence-form of a human life-center. But with him this selfreduction
does not amount to a complete depotentiation of the Logos. The divine
properties were retained, but were possessed by the God-man in the time-form
appropriate to a human mode of existence.
d. The theory of Martensen and Gore. Martensen postulated the existence of a double
life in the incarnate Logos from two non-communicating life-centers. As being in the
bosom of God, He continued to function in the trinitarian life and also in His cosmic
relations to the world as Creator and Sustainer. But at the same time He, as the
depotentiated Logos, united with a human nature, knew nothing of His trinitarian and
cosmic functions, and only knew Himself to be God in such a sense as that knowledge
is possible to the faculties of manhood.
support for their doctrine, especially in Phil. 2:6-8, but also in II Cor. 8:9 and John 17:5.
The term “kenosis” is derived from the main verb in Phil. 2:7, ekenosen. This is rendered
in the American Revised Version, “emptied Himself.” Dr. Warfield calls this a
mistranslation.8 The verb is found in only four other New Testament passages, namely,
Rom. 4:14; I Cor. 1:17; 9:15; II Cor. 9:3. In all of these it is used figuratively and means “to
make void,” “of no effect,” “of no account,” “of no reputation.”9 If we so understand the
word here, it simply means that Christ made Himself of no account, of no reputation,
did not assert His divine prerogative, but took the form of a servant. But even if we take
the word in its literal sense, it does not support the Kenosis theory. It would, if we
understood that which He laid aside to be the morphe theou (form of God), and then
conceived of morphe strictly as the essential or specific character of the Godhead. In all
probability morphe must be so understood, but the verb ekenosen does not refer to morphe
theou, but to einai isa theoi (dat.) that is, His being on an equality with God. The fact that
Christ took the form of a servant does not involve a laying aside of the form of God.
There was no exchange of the one for the other. Though He pre-existed in the form of
God, Christ did not count the being on an equality with God as a prize which He must
not let slip, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant. Now what does His
becoming a servant involve? A state of subjection in which one is called upon to render
obedience. And the opposite of this is a state of sovereignty in which one has the right
to command. The being on an equality with God does not denote a mode of being, but a
state which Christ exchanged for another state.10
8 Christology and Criticism, p. 375.
9 Cf. Auth. Ver. in Phil. 2:7.
10 Cf. Kennedy, in Exp. Gk. Test.; Ewald, in Zahn’s Comm.; Vos, Notes on Christology of Paul; Cooke, The
Incarnation and Recent Criticism, pp. 201 ff.
a. The theory is based on the pantheistic conception that God and man are not so
absolutely different but that the one can be transformed into the other. The Hegelian
idea of becoming is applied to God, and the absolute line of demarcation is obliterated.
b. It is altogether subversive of the doctrine of the immutability of God, which is
plainly taught in Scripture, Mal. 3:6; Jas. 1:17, and which is also implied in the very idea
of God. Absoluteness and mutability are mutually exclusive; and a mutable God is
certainly not the God of Scripture.
c. It means a virtual destruction of the Trinity, and therefore takes away our very
God. The humanized Son, self-emptied of His divine attributes, could no longer be a
divine subsistence in the trinitarian life.
d. It assumes too loose a relation between the divine mode of existence, the divine
attributes, and the divine essence, when it speaks of the former as if they might very
well be separated from the latter. This is altogether misleading, and involves the very
error that is condemned in connection with the Roman Catholic doctrine of
e. It does not solve the problem which it was intended to solve. It desired to secure
the unity of the person and the reality of the Lord’s manhood. But, surely, the personal
unity is not secured by assuming a human Logos as co-existent with a human soul. Nor
is the reality of the manhood maintained by substituting for the human soul a
depotentiated Logos. The Christ of the Kenotics is neither God nor man. In the words of
Dr. Warfield His human nature is “just shrunken deity.”
The Kenotic theory enjoyed great popularity in Germany for a while, but has now
practically died out there. When it began to disappear in Germany, it found supporters
in England in such scholars as D. W. Forrest, W. L. Walker, P. T. Forsyth, Ch. Gore, R. L.
Ottley, and H. R. Mackintosh. It finds very little support at the present time.
Dorner was one of the first and the greatest of the opponents of the Kenosis
doctrine. He set himself the task of suggesting another theory which, while escaping the
errors of Kenoticism, would do full justice to the humanity of Christ. He proposed to
solve the problem by the theory of a gradual or progressive incarnation. According to
him the incarnation was not an act consummated at the moment of the conception of
Jesus, but a gradual process by which the Logos joined Himself in an ever-increasing
measure to the unique and representative Man (virtually a new creation), Christ Jesus,
until the full union was finally consummated at the time of the resurrection. The union
resulted in the God-man with a single consciousness and a single will. In this God-man
the Logos does not supply the personality, but gives it its divine quality. This theory
finds no support in Scripture, which always represents the incarnation as a momentary
fact rather than as a process. It logically leads to Nestorianism or the doctrine of two
persons in the Mediator. And since it finds the real seat of the personality in the man
Jesus, it is utterly subversive of the real pre-existence of our Lord. Rothe and Bovon are
two of the most important supporters of this doctrine.
The crucial difference between the ancient and the really modern theories respecting
the person of Christ, lies in the fact that the latter, as appears also from the theory of
Dorner, distinguish the person of the Logos, conceived as a special mode of the personal
life of God, from the personality of Christ as a concrete human person uniquely divine
in quality. According to modern views it is not the Logos but the man Jesus that
constitutes the ego in Christ. The personality of Jesus is human in type of consciousness
and also in moral growth, but at the same time uniquely receptive for the divine, and
thus really the climax of an incarnation of which humanity itself is the general cosmic
expression. This is true also of the theory suggested by Sanday in his Christologies
Ancient and Modern, a theory which seeks to give a psychological explanation of the
person of Jesus, which will do justice to both the human and the divine in Jesus. He
stresses the fact that the subliminal consciousness is the proper seat of all divine
indwelling, or divine action upon the human soul; and holds that the same or a
corresponding subliminal self is also the proper seat or locus of the deity of the
incarnate Christ. The ordinary consciousness of Jesus was the human consciousness, but
there appeared in Him occasionally an uprush of the divine consciousness from the
subliminal self. This theory has rightly been criticized severely. It ascribes a significance
to the subliminal in the life of man which it does not possess, wrongly supposes that the
deity can be located in some particular place in the person of Christ, and suggests a
picture of Christ, as being only intermittently conscious of His deity, which is not in
harmony with the data of Scripture. It reveals once more the folly of trying to give a
psychological explanation of the person of Christ. Besides Sanday some of the more
influential representatives of modern Christology are Kunze, Schaeder, Kaehler,
Moberly, and Du Bose.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. What change did the eighteenth century effect in
Christology? What causes contributed to the present widespread denial of the deity of
Christ? How do negative critics deal with the Scriptural proofs for the deity of Christ?
Did the Liberal-Jesus-School succeed in presenting a tolerable picture of Jesus, which
really squares with the facts? What is the distinction between the Jesus of history and
the Christ of faith, and what purpose did it serve? What about the argument aut Deus
auto homo non bonus? How is the reality of Christ’s manhood sometimes endangered?
Was there a single or a double self-consciousness in Christ? One or two wills? On what
grounds is the Messianic consciousness of Jesus denied? How can it be defended? Did
Jesus regard the Messiahship merely as a dignity that would be His in the future? Has
the eschatological school any advantages over the liberal school? How do the Reformed,
the Lutheran, and the Roman Catholic conceptions of the union of the two natures in
Christ differ? What does the Formula Concordiae teach on this point? What was the
Giessen-Tuebingen controversy? How did Kant, Hegel, and Schleiermacher conceive of
this union? In what respect do the Kenosis theories reveal the influence of Hegel? How
did the modern conception of the immanence of God affect more recent Christologies?
Is Sanday’s psychological theory an acceptable construction?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm., III, pp. 264-349; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Christo I,
pp. 62—II, p. 58; Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, pp. 35-103; Temple, The Boyhood
Consciousness of Christ; Orr, The Christian View of God and the World, pp. 248-257; H. R.
Mackintosh, The Doct. of the Person of Jesus Christ, pp. 141-284; Liddon, The Divinity of our
Lord; Relton, A Study in Christology, pp. 3-222; Warfield, Christology and Criticism,
Lectures VI-VIII; Rostron, The Christology of St. Paul, pp. 196-229; Schweitzer, The Quest
of the Historical Jesus; La Touche, The Person of Christ in Modern Thought; Gore, The
Reconstruction of Belief, pp. 297-526; Honig, De Persoon Van den Middelaar in de Nieuwere
Duitsche Dogmatiek; Sheldon, Hist. of Chr. Doct. II, 134-137, 348-353; Krauth, Conservative
Reformation and Its Theology, pp. 456-517; Bruce, The Humiliation of Christ, Lectures III, IV
and V; Loofs, What Is the Truth about Jesus Christ? chap. VI; Sanday, Christologies, Ancient
and Modern, Chaps. III, IV, VII; Cooke, The Incarnation and Recent Criticism, Chap. X;
Brunner, The Mediator, especially Chap. XII.
I. The State of Humiliation
that, though the word “state” is sometimes used synonymously with “condition,” the
word as applied to Christ in this connection denotes a relationship rather than a
condition. In general a state and a condition may be distinguished as follows: A state is
one’s position or status in life, and particularly the forensic relationship in which one
stands to the law, while a condition is the mode of one’s existence, especially as
determined by the circumstances of life. One who is found guilty in a court of justice is
in a state of guilt or condemnation, and this is usually followed by a condition of
incarceration with all its resulting deprivation and shame. In theology the states of the
Mediator are generally considered as including the resulting conditions. In fact, the
different stages of the humiliation and of the exaltation, as usually stated, have a
tendency to make the conditions stand out more prominently than the states. Yet the
states are the more fundamental of the two and should be so considered.11 In the state of
humiliation Christ was under the law, not only as a rule of life, but as the condition of
the covenant of works, and even under the condemnation of the law; but in the state of
exaltation He is free from the law, having met the condition of the covenant of works
and having paid the penalty for sin.
2. THE DOCTRINE OF THE STATES OF CHRIST IN HISTORY. The doctrine of the states of
Christ really dates from the seventeenth century, though traces of it are already found in
the writings of the Reformers, and even in some of the early Church Fathers. It was first
developed among the Lutherans when they sought to bring their doctrine of the
communicatio idiomatum in harmony with the humiliation of Christ as it is pictured in the
Gospels, but was soon adopted also by the Reformed. They differed, however, as to the
real subject of the states. According to the Lutherans it is the human nature of Christ, but
11 Cf. Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Christo II, pp. 59 ff.
according to the Reformed, the person of the Mediator. There was considerable
difference of opinion even among the Lutherans on the subject. Under the influence of
Schleiermacher the idea of the states of the Mediator gradually disappeared from
theology. By his pantheizing tendency the lines of demarcation between the Creator and
the creature were practically obliterated. The emphasis was shifted from the
transcendent to the immanent God; and the sovereign God whose law is the standard of
right disappeared. In fact, the idea of objective right was banished from theology, and
under such conditions it became impossible to maintain the idea of a judicial position,
that is, of a state of the Mediator. Moreover, in the measure in which the humanity of
Christ was stressed to the exclusion of His deity, and on the one hand His pre-existence,
and on the other, His resurrection was denied, all speaking about the humiliation and
exaltation of Christ lost its meaning. The result is that in many present day works on
Dogmatics we look in vain for a chapter on the states of Christ.
3. THE NUMBER OF THE STATES OF THE MEDIATOR. There is a difference of opinion as to
the number of the states of the Mediator. Some are of the opinion that, if we assume that
the person of the Mediator is the subject of the states, strict logic requires that we speak
of three states or modes of existence: the pre-existent state of eternal divine being, the
earthly state of temporal human existence, and the heavenly state of exaltation and
glory.12 But since we can speak of the humiliation and exaltation of the person of Christ
only in connection with Him as the God-man, it is best to speak of only two states.
Reformed theologians do find an anticipation of both the humiliation and the exaltation
of Christ in His pre-existent state: of His humiliation in that He freely took upon
Himself in the pactum salutis to merit and administer our salvation; and of His exaltation
in the glory which He as our prospective Mediator enjoyed before the incarnation, cf.
John 17:5. The two states are clearly indicated in II Cor. 8:9; Gal. 4:4,5; Phil. 2:6-11; Heb.
On the basis of Phil. 2:7,8, Reformed theology distinguishes two elements in the
humiliation of Christ, namely, (1) the kenosis (emptying, exinanitio), consisting in this
that He laid aside the divine majesty, the majesty of the sovereign Ruler of the universe,
and assumed human nature in the form of a servant; and (2) the tapeinosis (humiliatio),
consisting in that He became subject to the demands and to the curse of the law, and in
His entire life became obedient in action and suffering to the very limit of a shameful
12 Cf. McPherson, Chr. Dogm., p. 322; Valentine, Chr. Theol. II, p. 88.
death. On the basis of the passage in Philippians it may be said that the essential and
central element in the state of humiliation is found in the fact that He who was the Lord
of all the earth, the supreme Lawgiver, placed Himself under the law, in order to
discharge its federal and penal obligations in behalf of His people. By doing this He
became legally responsible for our sins and liable to the curse of the law. This state of
the Saviour, briefly expressed in the words of Gal. 4:4, “born under the law,” is reflected
in the corresponding condition, which is described in the various stages of the
humiliation. While Lutheran theology speaks of as many as eight stages in the
humiliation of Christ, Reformed theology generally names only five, namely: (1)
incarnation, (2) suffering, (3) death, (4) burial, and (5) descent into hades.
1. THE INCARNATION AND BIRTH OF CHRIST. Under this general heading several
points deserve attention.
a. The subject of the incarnation. It was not the triune God but the second person of the
Trinity that assumed human nature. For that reason it is better to say that the Word
became flesh than that God became man. At the same time we should remember that
each of the divine persons was active in the incarnation, Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:35; John 1:14;
Acts 2:30; Rom. 8:3; Gal. 4:4; Phil 2:7. This also means that the incarnation was not
something that merely happened to the Logos, but was an active accomplishment on
His part. In speaking of the incarnation in distinction from the birth of the Logos, His
active participation in this historical fact is stressed, and His pre-existence is assumed. It
is not possible to speak of the incarnation of one who had no previous existence. This
pre-existence is clearly taught in Scripture: “In the beginning was the Word, and the
Word was with God, and the Word was God,” John 1:1. “I am come down from
heaven,” John 6:38. “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He
was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor,” II Cor. 8:9. “Who, existing in the form of
God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied
Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men,” Phil. 2:6,7.
“But when the fulness of the time came God sent forth His Son,” Gal. 4:4. The preexistent
Son of God assumes human nature and takes to Himself human flesh and
blood, a miracle that passes our limited understanding. It clearly shows that the infinite
can and does enter into finite relations, and that the supernatural can in some way enter
the historical life of the world.
b. The necessity of the incarnation. Since the days of Scholasticism the question has
been debated, whether the incarnation should be regarded as involved in the idea of
redemption, or as already involved in the idea of creation. Popularly stated, the
question was, whether the Son of God would have come in the flesh even if man had
not sinned. Rupert of Deutz was the first to assert clearly and positively that He would
have become incarnate irrespective of sin. His view was shared by Alexander of Hales
and Duns Scotus, but Thomas Aquinas took the position that the reason for the
incarnation lay in the entrance of sin into the world. The Reformers shared this view,
and the Churches of the Reformation teach that the incarnation was necessitated by the
fall of man. Some Lutheran and Reformed scholars, however, such as Osiander, Rothe,
Dorner, Lange, Van Oosterzee, Martensen, Ebrard, and Westcott, were of the contrary
opinion. The arguments adduced by them are such as the following: Such a stupendous
fact as the incarnation cannot be contingent, and cannot find its cause in sin as an
accidental and arbitrary act of man. It must have been included in the original plan of
God. Religion before and after the fall cannot be essentially different. If a Mediator is
necessary now, He must have been necessary also before the fall. Moreover, Christ’s
work is not limited to the atonement and His saving operations. He is Mediator, but
also Head; He is not only the arche, but also the telos of creation, I Cor. 15:45-47; Eph.
1:10,21-23; 5:31,32; Col. 1:15-17.
However, it should be noted that Scripture invariably represents the incarnation as
conditioned by human sin. The force of such passages as Luke 19:10; John 3:16; Gal. 4:4;
I John 3:8; and Phil. 2:5-11 is not easily broken. The idea, sometimes expressed, that the
incarnation in itself was fitting and necessary for God, is apt to lead to the pantheistic
notion of an eternal self-revelation of God in the world. The difficulty connected with
the plan of God, supposed to burden this view, does not exist, if we consider the matter
sub specie aeternitatis. There is but one plan of God, and this plan includes sin and the
incarnation from the very beginning. In the last analysis, of course, the incarnation, as
well as the whole work of redemption was contingent, not on sin, but on the good
pleasure of God. The fact that Christ also has cosmical significance need not be denied,
but this too is linked up with His redemptive significance in Eph. 1:10,20-23; Col.
c. The change effected in the incarnation. When we are told that the Word became flesh,
this does not mean that the Logos ceased to be what He was before. As to His essential
being the Logos was exactly the same before and after the incarnation. The verb egeneto
in John 1:14 (the Word became flesh) certainly does not mean that the Logos changed into
flesh, and thus altered His essential nature, but simply that He took on that particular
character, that He acquired an additional form, without in any way changing His
original nature. He remained the infinite and unchangeable Son of God. Again, the
statement that the Word became flesh does not mean that He took on a human person,
nor, on the other hand, merely that He took on a human body. The word sarx (flesh) here
denotes human nature, consisting of body and soul. The word is used in a somewhat
similar sense in Rom. 8:3; I Tim. 3:16; I John 4:2; II John 7 (comp. Phil. 2:7).
d. The incarnation constituted Christ one of the human race. In opposition to the
teachings of the Anabaptists, our Confession affirms that Christ assumed His human
nature from the substance of His mother. The prevailing opinion among the Anabaptists
was that the Lord brought His human nature from heaven, and that Mary was merely
the conduit or channel through which it passed. On this view His human nature was
really a new creation, similar to ours, but not organically connected with it. The
importance of opposing this view will be readily seen. If the human nature of Christ
was not derived from the same stock as ours but merely resembled it, there exists no
such relation between us and Him as is necessary to render His mediation available for
our good.
e. The incarnation effected by a supernatural conception and a virgin birth. Our
Confession affirms that the human nature of Christ was “conceived in the womb of the
blessed virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Ghost, without the means of man.” This
emphasizes the fact that the birth of Christ was not at all an ordinary but a supernatural
birth, in virtue of which He was called “the Son of God.” The most important element
in connection with the birth of Jesus was the supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit,
for it was only through this that the virgin birth became possible. The Bible refers to this
particular feature in Matt. 1:18-20; Luke 1:34,35; Heb. 10:5. The work of the Holy Spirit
in connection with the conception of Jesus was twofold: (1) He was the efficient cause of
what was conceived in the womb of Mary, and thus excluded the activity of man as an
efficient factor. This was entirely in harmony with the fact that the person who was born
was not a human person, but the person of the Son of God, who as such was not
included in the covenant of works and was in Himself free from the guilt of sin. (2) He
sanctified the human nature of Christ in its very inception, and thus kept it free from the
pollution of sin. We cannot say exactly how the Holy Spirit accomplished this
sanctifying work, because it is not yet sufficiently understood just how the pollution of
sin ordinarily passes from parent to child. It should be noted, however, that the
sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit was not limited to the conception of Jesus, but
was continued throughout His life, John 3:34; Heb. 9:14.
It was only through this supernatural conception of Christ that He could be born of
a virgin. The doctrine of the virgin birth is based on the following passages of Scripture:
Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:18,20; Luke 1:34,35, and is also favored by Gal. 4:4. This doctrine was
confessed in the Church from the earliest times. We meet with it already in the original
forms of the Apostolic Confession, and further in all the great Confessions of the Roman
Catholic and Protestant Churches. Its present denial is not due to the lack of Scriptural
evidence for it, nor to any want of ecclesiastical sanction, but to the current general
aversion to the supernatural. The passages of Scripture on which the doctrine is based
are simply ruled out of court on critical grounds which are far from convincing; and
that in spite of the fact that the integrity of the narratives is proved to be beyond
dispute; and it is gratuitously assumed that the silence of the other New Testament
writers respecting the virgin birth proves that they were not acquainted with the
supposed fact of the miraculous birth. All kinds of ingenious attempts are made to
explain how the story of the virgin birth arose and gained currency. Some seek it in
Hebrew, and others in Gentile, traditions. We cannot enter upon a discussion of the
problem here, and therefore merely refer to such works as Machen, The Virgin Birth of
Christ; Orr, The Virgin Birth of Christ; Sweet, The Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ; Cooke,
Did Paul Know the Virgin Birth? Knowling, The Virgin Birth.
The question is sometimes asked, whether the virgin birth is a matter of doctrinal
importance. Brunner declares that he is not interested in the subject at all. He rejects the
doctrine of the miraculous birth of Christ and holds that it was purely natural, but is not
sufficiently interested to defend his view at length. Moreover, he says: “The doctrine of
the virgin birth would have been given up long ago were it not for the fact that it
seemed as though dogmatic interests were concerned in its retention.”13 Barth
recognizes the miracle of the virgin birth, and sees in it a token of the fact that God has
creatively established a new beginning by condescending to become man.14 He also
finds in it doctrinal significance. According to him the “sin-inheritance” is passed on by
the male parent, so that Christ could assume “creatureliness” by being born of Mary,
and at the same time escape the “sin-inheritance” by the elimination of the human
father.15 In answer to the question, whether the virgin birth has doctrinal significance, it
may be said that it would be inconceivable that God should cause Christ to be born in
such an extraordinary manner, if it did not serve some purpose. Its doctrinal purpose
may be stated as follows: (1) Christ had to be constituted the Messiah and the Messianic
Son of God. Consequently, it was necessary that He should be born of a woman, but
also that He should not be the fruit of the will of man, but should be born of God. What
13 The Mediator, p. 324.
14 The Doctrine of the Word of God, p. 556; Credo, pp. 63 ff.; Revelation, pp. 65 f.
15 Credo, pp. 70 f.
is born of flesh is flesh. In all probability this wonderful birth of Jesus was in the
background of the mind of John when he wrote as he did in John 1:13. (2) If Christ had
been generated by man, He would have been a human person, included in the covenant
of works, and as such would have shared the common guilt of mankind. But now that
His subject, His ego, His person, is not out of Adam, He is not in the covenant of works
and is free from the guilt of sin. And being free from the guilt of sin, His human nature
could also be kept free, both before and after His birth, from the pollution of sin.
f. The incarnation itself part of the humiliation of Christ. Was the incarnation itself a part
of the humiliation of Christ or not? The Lutherans, with their distinction between the
incarnatio and the exinanitio, deny that it was, and base their denial on the fact that His
humiliation was limited to His earthly existence, while His humanity continues in
heaven. He still has His human nature, and yet is no more in a state of humiliation.
There was some difference of opinion on this point even among Reformed theologians.
It would seem that this question should be answered with discrimination. It may be
said that the incarnation, altogether in the abstract, the mere fact that God in Christ
assumed a human nature, though an act of condescension, was not in itself a
humiliation, though Kuyper thought it was.16 But it certainly was a humiliation that the
Logos assumed “flesh,” that is, human nature as it is since the fall, weakened and
subject to suffering and death, though free from the taint of sin. This would seem to be
implied in such passages as Rom. 8:3; II Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:6,7.
2. THE SUFFERINGS OF THE SAVIOUR. Several points should be stressed in connection
with the sufferings of Christ.
a. He suffered during His entire life. In view of the fact that Jesus began to speak of His
coming sufferings towards the end of His life, we are often inclined to think that the
final agonies constituted the whole of His sufferings. Yet His whole life was a life of
suffering. It was the servant-life of the Lord of Hosts, the life of the Sinless One in daily
association with sinners, the life of the Holy One in a sin-cursed world. The way of
obedience was for Him at the same time a way of suffering. He suffered from the
repeated assaults of Satan, from the hatred and unbelief of His own people, and from
the persecution of His enemies. Since He trod the wine-press alone, His loneliness must
have been oppressive, and His sense of responsibility, crushing. His suffering was
consecrated suffering, increasing in severity as He approached the end. The suffering
that began in the incarnation finally reached its climax in the passio magna at the end of
His life. Then all the wrath of God against sin bore down upon Him.
16 De Christo II, pp. 68 ff.
b. He suffered in body and soul. There has been a time when the attention was fixed
too exclusively on the bodily sufferings of the Saviour. It was not the blind physical pain
as such that constituted the essence of His suffering, but that pain accompanied with
anguish of soul and with a mediatorial consciousness of the sin of humanity with which
He was burdened. Later on it became customary to minimize the importance of the
bodily sufferings, since it was felt that sin, being of a spiritual nature, could only be
atoned for by purely spiritual sufferings. These one-sided views must be avoided. Both
body and soul were affected by sin, and in both the punishment had to be borne.
Moreover, the Bible clearly teaches that Christ suffered in both. He agonized in the
garden, where His soul was “exceeding sorrowful, even unto death,” and He was
buffeted and scourged and crucified.
c. His sufferings resulted from various causes. In the last analysis all the sufferings of
Christ resulted from the fact that He took the place of sinners vicariously. But we may
distinguish several proximate causes, such as: (1) The fac