April 2, 2014 Broadcast

Knowledge of God

A Message by R.C. Sproul

The fundamental principle when discussing “The Knowledge of God”, is that while our knowledge of God is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive, we do have a meaningful way of speaking about Him. God has addressed to us in our terms, and has made us in His image so that there is an analogy between ourselves and Him. These things enable the avenue of communication between God and us.

From the series: Foundations: An Overview of Systematic Theology

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    Theologian of the Spirit

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    Theologian of the Word

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    The Theologian

Theologian of the Spirit

Sinclair Ferguson

The figure of John Owen (1616–1683) towers above — almost head and shoulders above — the galaxy of writers we know collectively as the English Puritans. His theological learning and acumen was unrivalled; his sense of the importance of doctrine for living was profound. David Clarkson, Owen’s assistant in his latter years, and himself no mean theologian and pastor, well summarized it in his funeral sermon: “It was his great design to promote holiness in the life and exercise of it among you.”

Throughout his work, Owen employed, what was to him, a very significant distinction between the conviction of the truth that is vital to, but not necessarily the same thing as, the experience of the power of the truth. Even in his most erudite and polemical works, the power of the truth in his own and others’ lives was his great concern. Doctrine is taught with a view to godliness.

Owen’s aim, therefore, was so to expound biblical truth that it transformed the life of both the individual believer and the covenant community to which he belonged. Thus in the preface to one of his best known works, On the Mortification of Sin (2nd edition, 1658), he writes, “The chief design of my life in the station wherein the good providence of God hath placed me, are, that mortification and universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others, to the glory of God; that so the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things” (The Works of John Owen vol. 6., p. 4).

As the wise nineteenth-century Professor John Duncan commented, if you read this little work you must “prepare yourself for the scalpel!” What comes as a shock to contemporary readers of this little work — so much more vigorous and searching than contemporary literature in its diagnosis, prescription, and remedy for our sinful hearts — is that it contains material Owen first preached to teenagers at the University of Oxford. A moment’s reflection suggests how wise he was and how comparatively unwise we are in thinking that such teaching should be reserved for those of much more senior years!

Several things characterize the way Owen encouraged a lasting marriage between conviction of truth and experience of its power. First, the whole of the Christian life is rooted and grounded in the whole of the Godhead. The Trinity, therefore, is not the most speculative and least practical of doctrines. In fact, the reverse is the case; all right understanding depends on the Trinity, and all Christian experience involves communion with the Trinity.

In his magnificent, but neglected work, Communion with God (Works, vol. 2), Owen expounds the privileges of believers in terms of the distinctive fellowship they have with each person of the Trinity. The triune engagement that runs through our Lord’s teaching in the Upper Room, and also in Paul’s epistles, is here spread like a spiritual feast as we are invited to realize to the full that, in the Spirit, “our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Rather than be alienated by the doctrine of the Trinity, the reality expressed by it is the very lifeblood of Christian living: communion with the Father in love, with the Son in grace, with the Spirit in his multi-faceted ministry as the indwelling God.

Second, the godly life is empowered by the Spirit of the Son who is also the Spirit of adoption. He impresses upon us the privileges of divine adoption, and transforms us into the likeness of Christ. This being the eschatological goal, notes Owen: “What better preparation can there be for it than in a constant previous contemplation of that glory in the revelation that is made in the gospel, unto this very end, that by a view of it we may be gradually transformed into the same glory” (Works, vol. 1, p. 275). Thus, in 1679, towards the end of his life, he published his exposition of the person of Christ (Works, vol. 1).

Four years later, now in his final days, Owen consented to the publication of material he had worked on simply for his own spiritual growth, but had then used in ministry. This was published some months after his death under the full title Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ in his Person, office and Grace: with the differences between faith and sight; applied unto the use of them that believe (Works, vol. 1, p. 273). Together, these works, constitute one of the greatest Christ-exalting pieces of theology in the English language. Poignantly, Owen was on his death-bed when the Reverend William Payne brought him the news that the latter was passing through the publication process, and commented, “I am glad to hear it; but, O brother Payne! The long wished-for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done, or was capable of doing in this world.”

Third, the spiritual life is lived between two polarities: our sin and God’s grace. The discovery of the former brings us to seek the latter; the work of the latter illumines the depths of the former and causes us to seek yet more grace.

With a relentlessness that leaves us nowhere to hide, Owen used Scripture to expose the sinful heart and carefully cuts away the layers of our hypocrisy, self-justification, and self-deceit (sin has “a thousand wiles … which cannot be counted,” Works, vol. 6, p. 249), leaving us naked before the penetrating gaze of the Holy One. Yet, in the spirit of Scripture, he does not do this in order to destroy us but to heal us, directing us constantly to Christ. For Owen, the heart-conviction of sin is the way grace prepares the heart for more grace. The grace that prepares us to seek Christ also draws us to Christ. Thus, in an extensive exposition of Psalm 130, Owen concentrates especially on the words: “But there is forgiveness with You …” (v.4), and he spends one-hundred and fifty pages bathing his readers in them.

These three emphases run throughout Owen’s writings. And yet this is but to scratch the surface of his work, to suggest a few hors d’oeuvres to help us develop appetite to read him.

But if all we are interested in is theology for its own sake, Owen is not our man, as he makes plain: “What am I the better if I can dispute that Christ is God, but have no sense of sweetness in my heart from hence that he is a God in covenant with my soul? … Let us, then, not think that we are anything the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel … unless we find the power of the truths abiding in our own hearts, and have a continual experience of their necessity and excellency in our standing before God and our communion with him” (Works, vol. 12, p. 52).

If light reading is our passion, then Owen’s prose style is not for us. His paragraphs are tightly packed; his thoughts demanding. His analysis of the heart cannot be skimmed quickly. But in our age of constant and instant upgrade to faster models, this is exactly what many of us need: a slow read, a careful application — allowing ourselves to feel the wounds made by Owen’s sensitive eye surgery, and, as a result, discovering that we see our God more clearly, that we love his Son more fully and serve Him in the power of the Spirit more thoroughly. If this is what we need — as it surely is — Owen, though dead, still speaks, and in the providence of God is still there to help and guide us.

Theologian of the Word

Carl R. Trueman

Given John Owen’s Reformed, orthodox convictions, it should not be surprising to learn that he had a high view both of theology and biblical exegesis. Indeed, he regarded the two as intimately related: theology is the result of careful exegesis of the biblical text, and exegesis is in turn shaped by the theology that the text itself teaches. This basic unity of the two is possible because Owen regarded Scripture as the words of the one God who spoke them. Whatever the variations in language, genre, and style of the numerous books in the Bible, Owen believed that they possess a unity and coherence as a result of their divine origin in God and their divine purpose in bringing God’s words to bear upon the world, whether for blessing or for condemnation.

As is typical of Reformed Protestants, Owen regarded the words of Scripture as the very words of God (divinely inspired), as sufficient for their intended purpose and perspicuous with regard to their interpretation. These ideas perhaps need a little unpacking.

With regard to the first, divine inspiration, Owen understood Scripture to be spoken by God. This does not mean that the process of inspiration was akin to some form of dictation or automatic writing where the personalities of the human authors were bypassed in the process of production, but it does mean that God so superintended the process of writing that the words on the page are the very words that God desired to be there. Further, Scripture is not, in itself, a systematic theology or a creed; it is rather a collection of various writings united in underlying content but diverse in form (The Works of John Owen, vol. 4, p. 188).

Why was divine inspiration so important to Owen? First, of course, he understood that this view of Scripture was taught by Scripture itself in verses such as 2 Peter 1:20–21, and in the general tendency of its teaching on the nature of God speech (Works, vol. 4, p. 35). But he also saw it as connected to the nature of fallen humanity. Because he regarded human beings not only as finite and thus in need of a revelation from an infinite God accommodated to their capacity, but he also regarded human beings as sinful and thus in need of a clear guide given by God Himself — not one invented by human imagination to shape men’s thoughts about Him and their worship of Him. Indeed, this is clearly indicated in the title of one of his most significant works in this regard: The Causes, Ways and Means of Understanding the Mind of God (1678). This work opens with the robust statement: “Our belief of the scriptures to be the word of God, or a divine revelation, and our understanding of the mind and will of God revealed in them are the two springs of all our interest in Christian religion” (Works, vol. 4, p. 121). For Owen, a religion not guided and shaped by God through His Scriptures is ultimately no true religion but an idolatrous figment of the human heart.

The issue of Scripture does not end with a correct understanding of inspiration, however; interpretation is also crucially important. Indeed, Owen did not have a great deal of disagreement with Catholic opponents on the inspiration of the text of Scripture; where he differed with them is in the matter of interpretation. Catholic teaching saw the institutional church, specifically as it was embodied in the papacy as guardian and interpreter of church tradition and Christ’s vicarious representative on earth, as the means for discerning the correct meaning of Scripture and the subsequent formulation of Christian doctrine. Against this, Owen argued for both the sufficiency of Scripture as its own interpreter and the fundamental perspicuity of Scripture’s teaching. Only in Scripture is external revelation of God’s will to be found; church tradition has no revelatory function in such an ultimate sense (Works, vol. 4, p.12); Scripture is “perfect and in every way complete” as a revelation of God’s will (Works, vol. 14, p. 274).

We need to note a couple of things here. First, the sufficiency of Scripture was not used by Owen as a means of eschewing learning. No, Scripture is sufficient in that it contains all that it is necessary to know for salvation. Yet the diligent student of Scripture, particularly the one who aspired to be a deep theologian or a church leader, needs to acquire skill in theology, philosophy, the history of biblical commentary and theological disputation, relevant languages, ancient Near Eastern and classical backgrounds, and geography. Owen’s own library is an impressive witness to such learning; in addition, his guidelines for study relative to Scripture make it clear that such broad cultural learning is essential to deep understanding of the scriptural text. Perspicuity, for Owen, means that “the scripture … is intelligible unto men using the means by God appointed to come to the understanding of his mind and will therein” (Works, vol. 14, p. 276); and such means may well include careful linguistic and historical work, as well as the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit.

Second, perspicuity for Owen did not mean that every verse of the Bible is equally clear or that the meaning of any text just falls off the page into the lap of the reader. Perspicuity for Owen refers to the overall message of Scripture, not to any individual verse. The basic message of salvation in Christ was clear to all who had eyes to see or ears to hear, but the details and the finer points might only be available to those who have the necessary learning and skills to divide the Word of God (Works, vol. 14, p. 276). Also, if key doctrines are obscure in one passage, they will certainly be taught elsewhere in a clear and accessible manner (Works, vol. 4, p. 196).

In this context, Owen stressed both the objective and the subjective poles of understanding. Objectively, Owen stressed the need for careful grammatical-historical exegesis, though this was to be set within the context of the “analogy of faith” as a means for understanding any single passage within the context of the whole flow of Scripture (Works, vol. 4, p. 199). This principle placed God’s Trinitarian nature, and the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ at the center of all interpretation. For Owen, creation and the subsequent sustaining of creation through providence were Trinitarian actions, and redemption was a Trinitarian/Incarnational action; thus, all of Scripture finds its content informed by Trinitarian and Incarnational concerns and has to be understood as such.

This pans out into a more sophisticated understanding of the structure of Scripture. In his massive Latin work, Theologoumena Pantodapa (Biblical Theology), Owen saw the biblical narrative as shaped by a series of covenantal dispensations whereby God slowly but surely reveals more and more of Himself and His saving purposes to His people, culminating in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ that itself points forward towards the final consummation. Here, he is clearly influenced by the developing covenant theology of men like Cocceius. He exhibited a more historical, and less metaphysical, orientation with regard to such matters than their medieval predecessors.

Subjectively, Owen understood the truth of Scripture to be pressed on the believer by the Holy Spirit. While Scripture uses public language and possesses a meaning that is accessible on one level by application of linguistic and grammatical tools, the deeper existential appropriation of that meaning by the individual, in a way that involves trust in God and true belief in the personal reality and significance of doctrines that are nonsensical to the limited human mind, such as the Trinity or the Incarnation, is only available to the mind enlightened by the Holy Spirit. As believers trust that Scripture is God’s Word through the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, so they truly understand and believe the message of Scripture through the illumination of the Holy Spirit (Works, vol. 4, p. 85; see also 3, pp. 231–33).

This is significant in a number of ways. First, it roots the power of the Word itself in the action of the Spirit, reminding us that faith is a supernatural reality. Second, this emphasis upon the Word gives a distinct Trinitarian shape to faith; it is through the power of the Holy Spirit pointing us to Christ in His Word that we have knowledge of God as Father. The believer is thus the object of Trinitarian action, and his faith is shaped by the Trinity, embracing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is developed in Owen’s major treatise on the devotional life, On Communion with God, where he discusses the theology of devotion in terms of the three members of the Trinity. In a day like ours, where there is so much confusion over whether the unitarian god of Islam is in any sense the same as the God of the Christian faith, Owen’s emphasis upon God as specifically and irreducibly Trinitarian is a healthy reminder that Christians do not worship god in general but rather this particular God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This brings us neatly to the final purpose of all biblical study for Owen: the knowledge of God and thus the praise of God. For Owen, the reading and understanding of Scripture has the purpose of teaching about God — this particular, Trinitarian, holy, and gracious God who acts to save in Jesus Christ and applies His work to us via the Holy Spirit. For Owen, Scripture is Trinitarian in origin, content, and doxological in its goal.

The Theologian

R.C. Sproul

Thinkers in the ancient world sought to plumb the depths of ultimate reality. With that quest for ultimate reality came the birth of the discipline of philosophy. Some philosophers focused on one particular aspect of philosophy called metaphysics (ultimate being). Others focused their attention on epistemology (the science of knowing). Still others stressed in their investigation the basic principles and elements of ethics (the study of the good and the right). And others focused on the ultimate foundations for aesthetics (the study of the beautiful). One philosopher stood out as being deeply involved in the study of all of these matters as well as others. His name was Aristotle. Because Aristotle’s philosophical investigation was so comprehensive that it encompassed all of the above concerns of philosophy, he earned for himself the supreme epithet, namely, “the Philosopher.” Among students of philosophy, if passing mention is made of the title “the Philosopher,” everybody understands that that title can be a reference to only one person — Aristotle.

In a similar manner, the study of theology historically has brought to the surface outstanding thinkers and scholars. Some are known for their specific ability to create a synthesis between theology and secular philosophy. Augustine, for example, was known for his ability to take precepts from the philosophy of Plato and blend them with biblical theology. Much of Augustine’s theology was therefore of a philosophical kind. The same could be said to a certain degree of Thomas Aquinas, who gave us a similar synthesis between Aristotelian philosophy and Christian thought. Among the sixteenth-century magisterial Reformers, we notice that Luther, being a brilliant student of language, brought to the theological table an uncanny ability to provide vignettes of insight into particular questions of truth. But Luther was not a systematician by nature, and so he could not be the theologian of theologians. He never developed a full-orbed systematic theology for the instruction of the church. That task in the sixteenth century was left to the genius of the Genevan theologian John Calvin.

Calvin brought to the study of theology a passion for biblical truth and a coherent understanding of the Word of God. Of all of the thinkers of the sixteenth century, Calvin was most noted for his ability to provide a systematic theological understanding of Christian truth. His magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion, remains to this day a titanic work in the field of systematic theology. Luther did not live long enough to recognize the full impact of Calvin’s work, though he did see that Calvin would become a towering figure. It was left to one who knew Calvin and his work more extensively, namely, Philip Melancthon, Luther’s assistant and an impressive scholar in his own right, to give Calvin the sobriquet “the Theologian.” Thus, if one mentions “the Philosopher,” we understand that to mean a reference to Aristotle. On the other hand, if one mentions “the Theologian,” the heirs of the Reformation think exclusively of John Calvin.

In our day there seems to be an ongoing battle between advocates of systematic theology and advocates of biblical theology. We are living in a time of unprecedented antipathy toward rationality and logic. Where systematic theology used to reign supreme in theological seminaries, it has all but vanished, exiled to the perimeter of academic studies. This antipathy toward rationality and logic finds its nadir in the modern allergy against systematic theology, with nothing to fill its place except the expansion of biblical theology. A possible tendency exists in biblical theology to interpret the Bible atomistically without a concern for coherency and unity. This dichotomy between biblical theology and systematic theology is a classic example of the fallacy of the false dilemma, sometimes called the either-or fallacy. If we look to John Calvin, we see a scholar whose mastery of the content of Scripture was unparalleled. Calvin had a passion for the Bible, as well as a monumental knowledge of the Bible, and yet he is known as a systematic theologian. He was not a systematic theologian in the sense that he took some extra-biblical philosophical system and forced it upon the Bible. For him, a system was not a preconceived Procrustean bed to which the Bible was forced to conform. On the contrary, Calvin’s system of doctrine was the result of his attempt to find the coherent substance of the Bible itself. That is, Calvin worked out the system that is within Scripture, not a system that is imposed upon Scripture. Calvin was convinced that the Word of God is coherent and that God does not speak in contradictions or in illogical statements. It has been said a multitude of times that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. If that is in fact true, then one would have to come to the conclusion that the smallest mind in the universe is the mind of God, because God in His thinking is altogether consistent and altogether coherent. It is in that appreciation of the nature of God that Calvin sought passionately to set forth the unity of the Word of God. In that regard, he has done a masterful service to the history of Christian thought. Some people see Calvinism, bearing the name of John Calvin, as an odious distortion of the Word of God. Those who appreciate Calvin’s commitment to biblical truth see Calvinism as “a nickname for biblical Christianity,” as Spurgeon said.

Calvin in debate could draw on his encyclopedic knowledge of biblical passages, as well as the ability to quote at length from ancient thinkers such as Augustine and Cicero. But above all things, Calvin sought to be true to the Word of God. He was the biblical theologian par excellence who was at the same time a singularly gifted systematic theologian. 

We owe a great debt to this man. He is God’s gift to the church, not only for the sixteenth century but for all time. We therefore join the multitudes who are celebrating the 500th birthday of John Calvin in the year 2009.  

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