John Wyclif: Myth & Reality

Evans, G. R. John Wyclif: Myth & Reality. 

G. R. Evans’ book is a welcome addition to the study of John Wyclif. Too often Wyclif studies have divided on partisan lines between Roman Catholics who see him as Antichrist and Protestant apologists who see him as the Forerunner of the Reformation. Evans’ work is valuable in that she demonstrates how both sides fail to take into account both of what Wyclif himself actually taught and Rome’s specific actions in response. As a result, one sees that Wyclif did not see himself necessarily “preaching the wonderful gospel of free grace” (though I maintain the seeds of it are there) nor did he want to separate from the Church of Rome.

Throughout the first one hundred pages of the book, the reader begins to suspect that the real subject of the book is not John Wyclif, but the daily life of an Oxford student in the 14th century. Evans is to be commended for thoroughly setting Wyclif’s historical context. One suspects, though, that move overshadows her thesis. However, Evans does do a good, if very short, job of describing the intellectual currents which form the context of Wyclif’s doctrine. 

As a biography, though, the book fails to narrate Wyclif’s own life beyond a passing glance. I suppose she assumes her readers know enough about Wyclif that she can avoid narrating his life. That’s fair enough, if she lets us know ahead of time. In the meanwhile, each chapter begins with an unidentified source talking about something that will figure later in the chapter, neither of which the reader knows.

The last chapter does a decent job “distilling” Wyclif’s theology. Wyclif’s main points of contention boiled around his doctrine of the Eucharist and his idea of “dominion by grace.” Earlier in the book, Evans ties Wyclif’s denial of transubstantiation with philosophical currents that were prevalent. For example, all sides accepted that God cannot cause the past not to be. As such, he cannot cause matter that now exists to not have existed. The question remains, which was not original to Wyclif, if the bread changes to Christ’s body, where is the bread (Evans 62)? On a more practical note, it seems that Wyclif’s objections to transubstantiation can be placed in the same line as those of Berengar.

Lordship—and an Augustinian Aside

Wyclif, following the vein of thought found in early Franciscans and (ironically) Pope John XXIII, held that the church does not “own” property, but is rather non-proprietary. Further, man’s possession of the property is contingent upon his moral rectitude. Since all property (and dominion) belongs to God, God can take it away for disobedience. As Oliver O’Donovan notes, God’s gift of lordship to Adam has to be a communication and sharing of God himself to man, since otherwise it would be an alienating act of lordship in which God ceases to be Lord. Therefore, this “lent” lordship is a communicating and use of things according to rational necessity (O’Donovan 89). For Wyclif, this gift of lordship cannot be given to just a small part of the church, but constitutes the very Trinitarian communion of the church. God’s Trinitarian self-giving is the archetypal cause of all divine and human communication of spiritual and physical goods. O’Donovan concludes: all the justified “co-exist” in Christ and share in his love and lordship. Wyclif’s second point, O’Donovan notes, is Augustine’s contention that true love is rightly ordered love (presupposing moral rectitude). Any use of physical and spiritual goods is found only in this rightly-ordered love (90).

O’Donovan’s entire essay is worth meditating upon, for he places Wyclif in an undeniably Augustinian context—a context his Papal detractors cannot ignore and must take into account. There are some problems with Wyclif’s account, though. If pressed too far it leads to Donatism. Secondly, if pressed too far it denigrates any role for the institutional church. Surprisingly to some, this was a role Wyclif sought to uphold (Evans 210).


Evans’ book is somewhat disjointed. It alternates between interesting and new insights and whatever else Evans wants to talk about. The book oscillates between the average life of a medieval academician and John Wyclif. Evans’ account suffers from undue speculation (“it seems,” or “it’s not impossible that”) that distracts the reader. Some of the chapters appear to end without warning.

With that said, Evans does a good job in showing how ordinary Wyclif really was. Wyclif’s view of the Bible was the same for any Oxfordian. While he advocated lay reading in their own language, there is some warrant that he was not uniquely responsible for the translation that bears his name. It is true that he rejected transubstantiation, but the actual doctrine wasn’t formally taught until a century or so before Wyclif, and likely taught in an unsatisfactorily manner given the repeated—and seemingly Catholic—objections to it. Wyclif wasn’t even anti-Papalist in approach, as he supported Urban against the Avignon Pope! Evans’ conclusion is that Wyclif’s view of Reform was simply not that of the later Reformation, whatever their outward similarities may have been (210). This means that any Roman Catholic attack on Wyclif must deal with the fact that Wyclif attacked an element of the Catholic Church that had been criticized by Catholics for many, many years. Further combine this was the fact that Wyclif had no intention and never saw himself as separating from the Church

Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (Feser)

Feser, Edward. Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide.

I do not know if I would call this a “beginner’s guide.”  Parts of it deal with discussions in current analytical philosophy, and some of these discussions would discourage the beginner.  It is an indispensable guide, though. Edward Feser highlights the key elements in Thomas’s thought.  You cannot go wrong in interpreting Thomas with Feser as your guide.

Thomas’s views on causality are well-known, so we will only focus on the basics.  Final causality for Thomas is directional. It is always pointing.


Not surprisingly, we get a good discussion of the essence/existence distinction. For God, essence and existence are the same.  There is not a genus called “God” to which one could apply the category existence.  This makes sense at the creaturely level.  I know what the essence of a unicorn is.  Whether it exists or not, I have a clear idea of its essence. For existent things, their essences have to be conjoined with their existences. Even the angels who are pure form are not identical with their existence. They are an essence conjoined with the act of existence.

Feser gives us a good handle on the act/potency distinction.  God is pure act with no unrealized potencies.   The more act a being has, the higher on the chain of reality it is.  God is at the top.  Prime matter, which is only unrealized potency, is at the bottom.  Similarly, motion is simply a change from a potency to an act.

Natural Theology

The greatest harm ever done to Thomas was by philosophy of religion anthologies.  Thomas never intended for his 5 Ways to be read in isolation from his larger project.  I suppose that cannot be helped, though. Feser helps us avoid the pitfalls of misinterpreting Thomas.  We will focus on his argument from motion.  There are two types of causal serieses. There is a causal series per accidens.  This is where one sequence follows another.  Some apologists argue that every effect has a cause and God must be the ultimate cause.  True, but there are some difficulties. In a causal series per accidens one has trouble transcending that series.  

Thomas’s solution, though, is different. There is another type of causal series. It is a causal series per se. If the former is sequential, this is hierarchical. Every potency is actualized by a prior act.  This allows Thomas to evade the charge that since philosophy cannot disprove the eternity of the universe, then it does not need God as a cause.  Thomas answers that is true for a per accidens series, not a per se one.  Even if the universe were eternal, the potencies in it would need to be actualized.


Thomas is a dualist, but he is not a Cartesian or Platonist.  Feser explains that “soul” for Aquinas simply means the form of a person. It in-forms the matter. For Plato or Descartes, a soul was literally a ghost in the machine, with all the problems that entails. Thomas does not need that ghost.


Natural law is important for Thomas, but not that important.  He devotes surprisingly little space to it.  What is more important and of higher priority is the Good.  Natural law does not make a lot of sense without a previous orientation to the Good.  Moderns since David Hume have attacked natural law for committing the naturalistic fallacy, of deriving an ought from an is or value from facts. That’s a very sharp criticism, but it only works if nominalism is true and all we have is a mechanistic universe.  Thomas would not have understood the fact-value problem because medieval man did not think in terms of value, but of the Good, and the Good is already inherent in reality.


This is an excellent treatment of Thomas’s thoughts. One will not misinterpret Thomas with Feser as a guide. It’s not a beginner’s treatment, though.

Theses on Reformed Natural Law

  1. There is an objective moral order to which we have cognitive access.
  2. Natural law is a participation, however indirectly, in the Divine Mind. (See this chart).
  3. Law is a rule and measure of acts directed towards the common good (Thomas, ST I-II, q.90).
  4. Politics is the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life (Althusius).
  5. God willed that each need the service and aid of others in order that friendship would bind all together and no one would consider another to be valueless (Althusius).
  6. Ownership of a realm belongs to the estates and administration of it belongs to the king [or relevant executive figure] (Ibid).
  7. Human law is not identified with natural law. It is practical reason. Human law is directed towards particulars (Thomas, Ibid, q.91).
  8. Natural law is unchangeable in its first principles, but changeable in its proximate conclusions (Ibid, 94).
  9. Thomist natural law employed a grace perfects nature scheme. It is not clear if Reformed natural law needs such a scheme.
  10. Moral virtue of rendering to others their due (ST 2a 2ae. 57.1). It is a balance of equity.

More could be written, but that would make it unwieldy. Early natural law had the state punishing heretics. Is this part of the esse of natural law? Not necessarily. As noted in Thesis 8, punishing heretics is a proximate conclusion and not binding.

Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1. trans. Anton C. Pegis. New York: Hanover House, 1955.

In God there is no passive potency.  With that one sentence one can deduce most of classical theism. Deny that sentence, and one’s theology is fraught with peril, if not outright heretical. Because of that loaded sentence, one should begin the journey here and not with Summa Theologiae.  The latter text is usually too difficult without a prior knowledge of medieval philosophy.

There are places where Thomas is wrong.  This is not one of those places.  If you have a heterodox doctrine of God (EFS, theistic personalism, etc), and when you are corrected on it, it does no good to say, “But Thomas was wrong on x, y, and z.”  Maybe he was, but that is not the issue under discussion.

When Thomas Aquinas uses terms like act, potency, and motion, he does not mean by them what you mean.  For example, when we say God is immobile, we mean that there is no potency in him requiring something other than God to activate God.  Motion is the act the of something that is in potency.  Since there is no potency in God (i.e., no unrealized aspect), then there is no motion in God.

Furthermore, God is eternal.  This appears to be more familiar to today’s readers.  Thomas’s reasoning will not be.  When we say God is eternal, we mean God has no internal motion.[1] If God is not eternal, then he must be brought into being by another.  Again, we are back to the original statement: there is no passive potency in God.  If there were, then God would depend on someone (or thing) beside himself to be God.

This eliminates any form of composition or any denial of divine simplicity. All composites have both act and potency. Moreover, composites are subsequent to components.[2] As James Dolezal has so eloquently stated, “All that is in God is God.”[3]

Even though Thomas has not yet said that all of God’s attributes are identical to his essence, one can see where he is going.  That raises a question, though.  If the divine names signify the essence, then how are the names not synonymous with one another?  Aquinas answers that they do not signify the same notion.[4]

Continuing upon this line of thought, God is his essence. The essence of a thing is either the thing itself, or it is related to it by some cause.  Yet nothing can be the cause of God.  Therefore, God is his essence.[5]

Can there be two perfect Gods?  No.  If two Gods are equally perfect, then there must be some way to distinguish them—something must be added to one or both.  But if something is added to a God, then he (or she) cannot be perfect.[6]

Those of us in the Reformed tradition would do well to pay attention to his remarks on God’s knowledge and will.  God knows all things by his essence. That is fairly standard in Western Christianity. That is God’s natural knowledge.  God also knows all possibles.  That is God’s knowledge of vision.  And since all potencies arise from him, the First Cause, he knows an infinite array of possibilities.

Thomas’s comments on divine willing are very useful for modern discussions of free will and determinism.  Given that God is his willing, and God is a necessary being, does this make everything in the world “necessary”?  No. When God wills something, he wills it to the “ordered end of his goodness.”  I think Thomas is arguing for something like secondary causes.  He uses the example of a doctor and medicine.

On another line of thought, when God wills things, he wills things “insofar as they participate in his goodness.”  Since no created thing’s participation is entire in the essence of God, there is no 1:1 willing.

In conclusion, this text is probably the second place to start one’s journey on Thomas Aquinas.  On Being and Essence is the most accessible, especially the edition by Armand Maurer.  The introduction should give the reader a decent grasp on the issues involved.  With that under the reader’s belt, Summa Contra Gentiles should be no trouble. 

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1, (New York: Hanover House, 1955), sect. 15.

[2] Ibid, sect. 18.

[3] James Dolezal, All that is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Theism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017).

[4] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, sect 35.

[5] Ibid, sect 21.

[6] Ibid, sect 42.

Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works

Davies, Brian and Evans, Gillian. eds. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

In 2005, I bought this volume before I left for seminary. It has been a constant companion ever since. Anselm did not anticipate every problem in contemporary philosophy of religion, but he did anticipate the most important problems. Even when his conclusions might not convince, one can only stand in wonder at how clearly he stated the problems.


This is Anselm’s treatise on God’s being.  It should be required reading for all discussions on divine simplicity. In short, differing things can both be said to be “good,” yet it is clear they are not the same thing. They are good though a greater good. This ultimate good is good through itself. Anselm calls this the supreme good and ascribes the predicate “existence” to it. This is the first plank in the “perfect being theology.”  

Everything that exists, exists through something or nothing. Obviously not through nothing. There is either one or more things through which everything exists. Either one of these options will ultimately reduce to one thing.[i] Anything that exists through something other than itself is necessarily less than that thing through which it exists. Anselm calls this the divine essence. It is the highest good and efficient cause of all things.

Creation ex nihilo

Things didn’t spring from nothing as from a void.  Rather, they pre-existed in the Divine Mind. The Supreme Essence creates through an “inner verbalization.[ii]

Back to the main argument (sec. 15): “Now it is quite out of bounds to imagine that there could be some P true of the substance of the supreme nature such that ~P would be better in some respect.”  

God and Time

Sect. 21 gives the standard account of God’s timelessness. The Supreme Essence is not spatially in time.  Rather, it is present as a whole simultaneously to all places and times.

Sect. 23: We say God exists everywhere rather than in every place.

Sect. 26ff: Substance language.  In the rest of the treatise Anselm explores how the Son is of the Father.  It’s a good meditation but nothing new here.

Proslogion and Reply to Gaunilo

Either you are convinced of the ontological argument or you are not. I think it is more of a meditation on divine perfections than an actual argument. Gaunilo’s analogy to an island doesn’t work because an island, or a tree, implies contingency. A perfect being implies necessity.

Kant’s objection:  existence isn’t a predicate. A concept must contain as much content as possible.
Response: Kant’s objection holds for contingent things.  But if we are talking about modal necessity, it might not hold.

On Truth

In this dialogue Anselm begins by setting forth a roughly Platonic theory of truth: something is true by its participation in the truth.  That’s true (no pun intended).  It’s inadequate, though.  He sharpens it to mean: “A true statement has ‘its cause of truth.’”  There is something that just makes it true.  Modern analytic philosophy calls this something “a truthmaker.”  It is to Anselm’s credit that he anticipated this development. Of course, truthmaker theory is itself dense and this discussion can’t exhaust it.

He expands it to mean “truth is rectitude” (1.2). It fulfills its function of signifying rightly. In fact, he asserts that if both “truth” and “acting well” have the same contrary, then “they are not different in signification” (1.5).

This raises a problem, though.  If there is correlation between truth and being, then wouldn’t we have to say that some bad things (I’m deliberately not using the word ‘evil’) are true since they exist?  With these cases of “ought not to be,” Anselm opts for a “thinner” account. God only permits them.

On Free Will

Thesis: To be able to sin does not belong to the definition of free will (1.1).  However, we did have a capacity to sin or not to sin, yet this was not of necessity. We do have a “natural free will” of sorts (3). Our liberty of will is “the capacity of preserving rectitude of will.”

A truly free will is one that preserves rectitude of will for its own sake (13).

Why God Became Man

Aside from the ontological argument, this might be what Anselm is most known for. God became man because only a God-man could properly mediate between both God and man.  Seems simple enough.  Yes, this is substitutionary atonement, but not in the way a modern reader might think. Anselm’s primary argument is that only a God-man could restore the offense against God’s honor.  God, as our feudal lord, has been wronged.  This is not what we normally think of in the atonement.

That has always been my criticism of this book.  I was recently corrected on this by Mr. Philip Pugh.  He pointed out that Anselm’s model is closer to ANE covenant models than one might expect.  To be sure, Anselm knew nothing of such models. Nevertheless, if only by accident, he got much of it correct.


You cannot be called a serious student of theology if you have not read this book.  The Monologion and Proslogion could probably be read with profit every few years.  Other treatises, such as De Grammatico, are better read with commentaries on Anselm in h and.

[i] Davies and Evans, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 13.

[ii] Ibid.

God and Philosophy (Gilson)

Gilson, Etienne.  God and Philosophy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1946 [2002].

Each discipline has its handful of masters who have redefined the discipline in their own ways.  Etienne Gilson, the French neo-Thomist, is one such master. After Gilson, we now have to speak of “existential Thomism,” and we are much richer for it.  Gilson begins with a survey of Greek philosophy and why the Greeks could not escape their own metaphysics.  That is standard enough.  He then extends it to Augustine and notes that Augustine was hampered by the same metaphysics.  Thomas Aquinas rescued Augustine, only to have Descartes (and Kant) ruin it all.

Did the Greeks really believe in their gods?  That is not so easy to answer as one might suppose.  The problem is linking the Greek gods with the “principles” by which Greek philosophy tried to explain the universe.  Thales said the principle was water, another said it was fire, and so on.  As Gilson notes, “On the one side a man posits a certain natural element as the very stuff this world is made of,” and on the other side “the same man posits as a sort of axiom that all things are full of gods” (Gilson 3).  There is a continuum, then, between nature and the gods.

If one simply sees the gods as “mythological” explanations of nature, then there is no real problem.  Unfortunately, as Gilson notes, that will not work. Greek poets say that both the gods and nature (or natural elements) are living powers that have wills (7-8).  One could still rescue the Greek religion by saying that modern man sometimes personifies nature.  Very true.  Unfortunately, as Hera reminds Zeus, the gods must bow to Fate (11).  We do not speak of mythological natural elements this way.

Regardless of how one glosses the Iliad, the original problem remains: if the world is full of gods, then “either your gods are not principles (e.g., have no explanatory power–JA), or there is no longer one principle as the source of all things” (14). Making the matter even worse, nature seemed to be a self-explanatory fact. The best that Greece could do was Aristotle. The ultimate rational principle must be an Intelligence, not a thing. That is why Plato’s Idea failed. Ideas are not gods, nor are they persons.

Enter Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. Before we ridicule Aristotle, we need to appreciate what he accomplished. He moved beyond Plato’s impasse.  Even better, his Thought is itself an eternal Act of thinking (33). As good as it is, there are problems.  His Thought can only think of Itself. There is no need for it to enter into a relationship with us.  Even worse, there is no connection between Thought and Existence.

Gilson has been criticized for reading Thomas Aquinas back into the Burning Bush, as though the living God of divine revelation were the same as the Unmoved Mover.  Such a criticism is premature, though.  If anything, Augustine and Aquinas introduced dynamism into the equation. There is a world of difference between “Thought thinking Thought” and “I am who is.” As Gilson notes, “Christian revelation was establishing existence as the deepest layer of reality as well as the supreme attribute of divinity” (44).

Plotinus, and later Augustine, could only speak in terms of “to be.”  For them, true being was immaterial, eternal, immutable–attributes that just as easily apply to Platonic Ideas as to God. For Aquinas, “to be is the very act whereby an essence is” (64). Previous philosophers had been stuck at the level of essence. Now with existence, we can understand how the existential energies flow to various essences (65).

Bottom line: existence is not a thing but the act that causes a thing (66).

Like many Catholic philosophers, Gilson’s story of later philosophy is one of decline and fall.  Nothing new is here, though his writing is wonderfully lucid and often funny.  Here are some examples:

“Because God is supremely intelligent, he could not fail to do what Descartes would have done, had Descartes been God” (96).

“A most gratifying certitude indeed, at least so long as it lasts, and Voltaire was to see to it that it did not outlive the earthquake of Lisbon” (99).

“All the other positions [i.e., between Thomas Aquinas and Kant] are but halfway houses on the roads which lead to absolute religious agnosticism or to the natural theology of Christian metaphysics.  Philosophical halfway houses have always been pretty crowded” (114).

This might be the best intro to Gilson, if not necessarily the best intro to Thomas Aquinas.  The order of reading should be thus: the present work, Thomas’s Being and Essence, Feser’s work on Aquinas, and then probably Aquinas himself.

The Supremacy of God in the Theology of Samuel Rutherford (Richard)

Richard, Guy M. The Supremacy of God in the Theology of Samuel Rutherford. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008.

Given that Samuel Rutherford is the most important Scottish theologian of all time, one must ask why there is so little written about him. The same question applies to his many yet-untranslated works.  John Coffey’s standard-setting biography did much to address the problem, but it didn’t deal with his theology in full depth. There are quite a few hagiographical works about him, but they do little in the academic realm.

Rutherford’s Examen Arminianismi function as a systematic theology, as he viewed Arminianism as an attack on the whole of Christian doctrine.  Some areas, like his focus on the doctrine of God and the human will, are beyond compare.  His supralapsarianism demands to be taken more seriously.  That’s not to say he is always fair to his opponents, nor does he always give an in-depth analysis.  Earlier, I had asked why there isn’t much work on or translated by Rutherford these days.  I think I might know the answer. Turretin is still the gold standard.  Regarding divine justice, John Owen seems to have given the definitive response to Rutherford–and most of Owen’s stuff is already in English.


EA: Examen Arminianismi

Key Theological Terms

Archetypal: the infinite knowledge God has of himself (26).

Ectypal: the theology which is available to the finite capacities of humans.

Duplex cognito Dei: the distinction between the knowledge of God the creator and the knowledge of God the redeemer (33).

Theologia archetype et ectypa

Like the rest of the Reformed tradition, Rutherford holds to natural theology (Divine Right, 66)..  As Richard states, “For Rutherford, natural theology not only exists, but it serves at least two important functions as well, as we will see–it renders all people without excuse before the divine tribunal; and it acts as an instrument in apologetics” (32).

Arminius, by contrast, on Rutherford’s reading, collapses the natural knowledge of God back into the supernatural knowledge with its doctrine of prevenient grace (36). Indeed, “all knowledge of the divine is supernatural.” This means, in the Arminian view, men and women already have supernatural knowledge of God prior to grace.

According to Richard, Arminius “redefines the scholastic distinction between theologia archetype et ectypa.” This means he collapses “Deus abscondita into Deus revelaturs” (42).

Scripture and Causes

Efficient cause of Scripture: God himself.
Formal cause of Scripture: divine truth
Final cause of Scripture: to teach us God’s holiness
Material cause of Scripture: subject matter

Doctrine of God

Rutherford inherited and upheld the traditional model of divine simplicity.  He did so, however, as an adherent of the nominalist schola Augustina moderna. Doing so allowed him to give a new angle on the traditional problem of divine simplicity: given that God’s attributes are identical, how can we distinguish them?  Rutherford notes that they aren’t “real distinctions (different res), nor are they formal distinctions…but they are distinctions of reason” (81).

From this He makes several deductions:  1) God isn’t perfectible; 2) He has being from himself

Rutherford’s rebuttal of Arminius on the Trinity is highly illustrative for us today. Arminius said the Father is ‘the source of the whole Deity’ (WJA, II, 693). This sounds like the Greek East, but the Eastern Fathers made sure that they weren’t saying that the Father is the source of the Son’s essence, only of his hypostasis. Arminius’s view is subordinationist.

The Knowledge of God

God’s own knowledge is twofold

Knowledge of himself.

Knowledge of objects outside himself

Simple Intelligence.  This is his natural knowledge. Knowledge of possibles.

Knowledge of Vision. This is God’s knowledge of all actuals.

Both Arminius and Rutherford held to a loosely Thomistic framework.  Arminius, however, denied that God’s knowledge involved causality (92).

Rutherford’s problem with Middle Knowledge is “that it makes the creature or fate the first cause of all things and the divine will the second cause, because God looks out of himself to see what free creatures would do before he makes his decree” (92). 

The Voluntas Dei

Although Rutherford is a voluntarist, this does not mean that the will functions independently of the intellect (95). The divine intellect logically precedes the will.  The intellect, though, does not “make” the will do anything.

Voluntas ad intra et ad extra

Ad intra: the divine will in God
Ad extra: the divine will towards objects outside of God.

Potentia absoluta et ordinata

Rutherford makes a distinction between omnipotency and sovereignty.  Omnipotency refers to the potentia absoluta.  The latter refers to the potentia ordinata. Regarding his absolute power, God can do all that is logically possible.  His decree limits this.  God’s immutability “restrains his potentia.”  Richard highlights a difficulty with this: if God’s immutability limits his sovereignty ad extra, why can’t other attributes do the same (99)?  I think there might be a way for Rutherford to get around this.  Will and intellect are primarily faculties, not attributes.  Moreover, take an attribute like mercy.  It’s easy to understand how the will acts.  It’s not clear how mercy qua mercy would act. In fact, the will would have to act for mercy to act.

Voluntas beneplaciti et signi

The voluntas beneplaciti is “the decree of God by which he determines all things” that come to pass (103).  The voluntas signi is the revealed will. These aren’t contradictory. He doesn’t command x and non-x at the same time.  However, he can permit something be done by his voluntas beneplaciti that he does not approve by his voluntas signi.

Premotion and the Voluntas efficiens et permittens

There is one more distinction. This allows Rutherford to maintain the free decisions of creatures. The voluntas efficiens is “the first and highest cause of all positive existents” (105).  This is the doctrine of physical premotion.  Richard footnotes a useful diagram by Van Ruler (“New Philosophy to Old Standards).

Prime Cause
a / \ c
Secondary Cause – Effect


Richard argues that Rutherfold has a supralapsarian framework with infralapsarian language. With the supralapsarians, Rutherford says election is prior to every other divine decree, “but [he] says nothing about reprobation” (118). (This is in the context of an unpublished mss.: University of Edinburgh Library, La.II.394, p.5). With this established, the rest of Rutherford’s comments on election are fairly standard among the Reformed.

He does speak of reprobation.  It has two acts. God passes over and withholds “efficaciou grace” (120).

He does have a positive argument for supralapsarianism. With others like Twisse, Rutherford says the “end must be acknowledged both first in intention, and last in execution” (121). God first decrees those who are to be saved, and then he decrees the means.  It would make no sense “decreeing the means to accomplish salvation before decreeing salvation itself.” 

Rutherford anticipates the argument that Turretin makes against supralapsarianism: does it make sense to speak of a decree about possible men?  Rutherford responds that “everyone who believes in the traditional doctrine of creation ex nihilo also makes a non-entity the object of the divine decree” (127).

The Atonement of Christ

Rutherford argues God is not obligated to exercise divine justice towards his creatures (134). Divine justice is an attribute ad intra. God’s will is hierarchically prior to justice. In other words, nothing ad extra can force God to exercise mercy. Lest this sound too severe, Rutherford does concede that there is a “relative necessity for him [God] to do so [i.e., act mercifully]” (135). 

This raises the other controversial issue for Rutherford on the atonement: could God have forgiven sinners apart from the death of Christ?  In terms of potentia absoluta, he could have.  Nonetheless, he has decreed potentia ordinata to forgive sinners by the death of Christ.

John Owen, by contrast, sees the justice of God as “the universal rectitude and perfection of the divine nature’, which is antecedent to all acts of his will’” (Owen, Works, X, p.498, quoted in Richard 136). Divine justice, then, is “the totality of the divine perfections.”  Carl Trueman has convincingly argued Owen’s case.  For Owen, the acts of God’s justice must conform both internally and externally (Trueman 93).


The material on covenant theology is fairly standard, so only a few comments will suffice. The covenant of redemption is “the relational context in which the decrees are given” (146). Richard has a good section on the nature of human willing. Does God’s grace violate man’s will?  No. Grace doesn’t “compel the will to act against its desires. It changes its desires” (174).


This isn’t merely a book on Samuel Rutherford. It is also a primer on Reformed categories.

Trueman, Carl. “John Owen’s Dissertation on Divine Justice: An Exercise in Christocentric Scholasticism.” Calvin Theological Journal 33 (1998), 87-103.

The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God (Cocceius)

Cocceius, Johannes. The Covenant and Testament of God. trans. Casey Carmichael. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016.

Although his teaching aroused some controversy, Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) unified both rigorous scholastic methodology with a sensitivity to the biblical plotline. (Regarding his scholastic methodology, Cocceius outlines his Summa according to the following headers: §.  This allows him to keep the topic clear even when he pursues tangents.) In one sense Cocceius wouldn’t have thought he was teaching anything new, yet later writers were forced to deal with his takes on the Sabbath and the multiple abrogations of the Covenant of Works.  Positively stated, he offered a powerful presentation of the Pactum Salutis, the Covenant of Redemption.

Cocceius structures his covenant theology around five abrogations of the covenant of works.   Willem J. van Asselt has a helpful introduction on this point (van Asselt xxxi). These five abrogations are:

  1. The Fall
  2. Establishment of the Covenant of Grace
  3. Detachment and renunciation of the old man
  4. Death
  5. Resurrection from death

Like most writers on covenant theology, Cocceius begins with definitions: “God’s covenant is a divine declaration of the way of receiving his love” (Cocceius §5).  It is one-sided (monopleuristic) regarding the way we receive his love.  It is two-sided (dipleuristic) when man obligates himself.

Cocceius proves there was a law-covenant in the Garden because of the law or rectitude on man’s heart. If there is rectitude, then there is a corresponding standard (§8). Even without express Scriptural support, Cocceius provides the intellectual foundations to the Covenant of Works.

Cocceius’s defense of the covenant of works leads to an attack on the Socinians.  As the Socinians believe death was natural, they are led to believe that man was cursed the moment he was created, since without doing anything he had already received the judgment for breaking God’s law.  Of course, the Socinians don’t actually say that, but there it is. Like Barth, they come very close to seeing creation as a sort of Fall.

Against Rome and Bellarmine, “grace” can’t be rendered “making acceptable.”  If God’s covenant with man had some sort of gracious element, and if man had to endure the testing, then he hadn’t yet been “acceptable;” therefore, grace can’t be “making acceptable” (§31).

If we are going to speak of merit in the garden, it isn’t condign merit, but merit according to the pact.  Even if we never sinned, “we could not obligate God, because he receives nothing from us” (§41).

Cocceius and the Sabbath

Did Cocceius believe the Sabbath was abrogated after the Mosaic economy?  Not exactly. He says the Mosaic sabbath “advanced the natural equity that binds the mind and soul to have time for God and His worship” (§13).

Second Abrogation of the Covenant of Works

It is abrogated in the sense that God’s mercy takes away condemnation in the reception of the covenant of grace (§75). The cause of this act is the “eudokia you thelematos tou theou” (§84).

The Pactum Salutis

Cocceius addresses the problem of whether the will of the Father and Son is the same.  He affirms (§92). Rather, the single divine will is appropriated differently. This single passage removes any apparent difficulty in the Pactum Salutis.  The fear had always been that such an intratrinitarian agreement necessitated three wills.  Cocceius demonstrates that “appropriation” solves this problem.

Cocceius mightily rejects any eternal subordination of the Son to the Father.  To do so, he notes in which respect the Son is economically subordinate (§94). 

  • The Father is greater than the Son in relation to the Son’s humanity.
  • The Son’s role of mediator cannot imply any lesser status (§95).

Cocceius can even speak of Jesus’s condign merit, as his humiliation is proportionate to the rewards in his exaltation (§103). We establish the reality of Christ’s merit based on 1) the pactum salutis and 2) the rewards for his obedience (which also flows from the pact) (§107). Indeed, “he required merit by act, since he really furnished what he did for salvation.”

Section §108 deals with limited atonement. The argument is simple.  Christ did not act as Surety for all men. Moreover, an acceptable sacrifice actually expiates sin (§116). When Scripture speaks of “dying for the world,” it refers to the universal promise made to Abraham (§123).

When we speak of Christ’s being a Surety, we mean that He stood forth for his people with their sins laid upon Him. The Father had given Him a seed, and this inheritance “responds from another part to the guarantee.” He took upon Himself the payment for our debts (§134, §155).

Furthermore, Christ is a sponsio in that he offered himself to the Father on our behalf (§350).

Faith in Christ justifies us because:

  • He makes his promise and gift fixed on the grounds of the covenant (Heb. 3:1)
  • It is the consummation of the heavenly marriage.
  • It is the first effect of the Spirit of the life of Christ in us.

We call the sanction of the Covenant of Grace “the oath of God” (§198).

The Third Abrogation of the Covenant of Works

The cutting off of Christ was the cause of the abolition of the Old Covenant (which, to be sure, is not identical with the Abrahamic covenant, §344).

On the Sacraments

Sacraments are seals, not moral causes, pace Rome.  Seals are effects (§436).  Indeed, as the cup is the testament in his blood, Jesus the Testator seals that on us.

Do not remove the Cup

Rome says that the bread, being transubstantiated, already has blood in it since it is a living body.  But a living body is not offered to us, but a slain and sacrificial one.  It is a body that is broken (§496).   You cannot simultaneously say it is a living body and that blood has been shed (see also, §502ff).

Cocceius has another interesting rebuttal to the Mass.  When Paul says we have koinonia in the body of Christ, it can’t mean eating.  It is elsewhere contrasted with the koinonia of demons, yet no one suggests we eat demons (§520).  Moreover, the Israelites were said (v.18) to have koinonia in the altar, yet they did not orally receive the altar.

Fourth Abrogation

The fourth abrogation is the death of the body.

Fifth Abrogation

The fifth abrogation is the resurrection from the dead.


It would be a stretch to say this is one of the best scholastic texts.  That would be Francis Turretin.  I wouldn’t say this is the most useful scholastic text on covenant theology.  That would be Herman Witsius. Nonetheless, Cocceius engages the biblical text in ways that often surpass others.  While he is not always the clearest writer, his formatting the texts by section markers separates him from others and prevents the reader from getting lost..  While this is an advanced text, it is required reading to understand how the Reformed view the covenants.  One can no longer speak on Reformed covenant theology without seriously engaging Johannes Cocceius.

On Being and Essence (Thomas Aquinas)

Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence. Trans. Armand Maurier. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1968.

It’s hard to know where to start with Thomas Aquinas. His various Summas are important, but that is a steep learning curve and also demands a good, working knowledge of secondary Thomist literature. I think this current volume might be the best place to start.  It is short and focused, whereas the Summa is close to being a transcript of an oral Master’s thesis. The introduction by Armand Maurier makes this volume doubly good.

The argument at its most basic: being as esse is the actuality of being, the act of existence.  Think of it along more dynamic lines.  Being as ens is the substance that has the actuality of being.  Whatever esse an ens has, the esse structures the ens.

Citations from this book will be by chapter and section.  “1.1” is chapter one, section one.

“Essence must be something common to all the natures through which different beings are placed in different generas and species” (Aquinas 1.3).  Neither form nor matter is an essence.  Matter cannot be an essence because it is not a principle of knowledge (2.1). It can’t be either because both are needed for the being of a substance.

Key ideas: “The genus, then, signifies indeterminately everything in the species and not the matter alone” (2.8). It is the “whole” of a thing without its “this-ness,” or specific form. A genus is proportionate to the whatness of a thing; specifies to its form; and difference to the composite nature (2.9).

Human nature isn’t the form itself or the matter itself, and if we can’t know it through the matter, how do we know it? Human nature has its being in the intellect abstracted “all individuating factors” (3.6).

On Predication

We predicate something when our intellect combines and divides things (3.8).

A form is only intelligible when it is abstracted from matter, and only something immaterial can abstract it.

Key idea: a being is either uncaused, caused by the principles of its being, or receives its being from outside itself. Therefore, everything whose being is distinct from its nature receives its being from another (4.7). Thomas suggests, though doesn’t really develop it, that one could extend this chain to the first cause, pure being.

You don’t have to agree with Thomas Aquinas.  I am more of a Scotist myself when it comes to knowledge of God and the human will.  But if you are unfamiliar with the arguments in this book, and you choose to criticize Thomas Aquinas, then you deserve something like what happened when Ed Feser reviewed Jeffrey Johnson’s book on Aquinas.

A Primer on Ectypal Theology

I first discovered ectypal theology from Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Rather than being an academic topic, ectypal theology unites theological method with Christology. I’ve done pieces on ectypal theology in the past, but the following from Willem Van Asselt’s Introducing Reformed Scholasticism does it better than anyone else.

(1) Archetypal theology: the uncreated knowledge God has of himself. It is the matrix of all forms of theology (Junius).
(2) Ectypal theology: The knowledge of God revealed to humans.

2.1) It is primarily the knowledge that Christ as mediator has of the Father. This is the ectypal theology of union and is the common principle of all other theology (Junius). Muller explains it best: “The Christological problem follows the [epistemological issue]:  if the human nature of Jesus, as finite, is incapable in itself of comprehending the infinite knowledge of the theologia archetypal, then any equation of the theologia unionis with archetypal theology must involve some alteration of the human nature of Jesus” (PRRD I:250).

The following are forms of ectypal theology.
2.2) ectypal theology is communicated to men in a twofold way: Nature and grace
2.2.1) Nature: internal principle of communication
2.2.2) Grace: external principle of communication
2.3) The union of the two two natures is ectypal. This is one of the reasons why the Reformed reject the Lutheran view of the Supper.
2.4) theologia beatorum (theology of the blessed in glory; still ectypal and finite).
2.5) theologia angelorum (theology of angels)

3) This construction, if not the idea, has its origins with Duns Scotus. Scotus distinguished between theoleogia in se (theology in itself) and theologia nostra (our theology).
3.1) This might be an improvement on Aquinas’s principle of analogy. For Scotus God is the only true theologian because only he has knowledge of himself.