Debating the Simple God

In the last few years, few issues have been more controversial among Reformed evangelicals than the debate over the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father.[1] To the extent that God’s intra-triune life has been thought to be the foundation and model of inter-human relationships, many have perceived their various social programs (particularly in relation to the sexes) to be at stake, at times driving the debate’s resolution in a particular direction. One meta-issue continually at the forefront in the debate over eternal subordination concerns the traditional doctrine of God’s simplicity. In classical Christian theology, it is insisted that God is not composed of parts. The simple in divine simplicity is not simple as opposed to complex, but simple as opposed to composite. It is clear that, for instance, God is not a composition of soul and body. But from the classical theist perspective, the doctrine of divine simplicity goes further than this. God is also not composed of His attributes. They do not inhere in Him as accidental properties of a fundamental “God” substance. Rather, God’s existence is simply as His attributes, which simply are Him, and which (then) are to be seen as diverse ways of naming all that is in God. What is more, since there is only one God who just is (for instance) His own will, it is problematic—from a classical perspective—to speak of the Son as “submitting” to the Father in the intra-triune life from eternity past. It is difficult to see how this would not imply a multiplicity of wills of which God’s supposed “one will” is an amalgam. Read more…

“What Has Athens to Do With Jerusalem?”

Within a month, The Davenant Institute will release an anthology volume entitled Philosophy and the Christian: The Quest for Wisdom in the Light of Christ. Compared to most of our publications, this particular one might seem rather redundant in our day. Hasn’t enough, maybe even too much, already been said?  In the last few decades, there has been a cottage industry of major and minor historical and normative treatments of philosophy written by an Evangelical theologians and philosophers. Why enter the fray with yet another such volume? What could possibly justify the existence of this volume in light of so many other contributions? Read more…

James Ussher and the Reduction of Episcopacy

James Ussher

James Ussher was born to Arland and Margaret Ussher in Dublin on 4 January 1581, the fifth of their ten children. This prominent Anglo-Irish family embodied in miniature the religious divisions of late sixteenth-century Ireland. His uncle, Henry Ussher, was the Protestant Archbishop of Armagh from 1595 until his death in 1613. On the maternal side, his uncle Richard Stanihurst was an advocate on the continent for the Irish Catholic cause, and his cousin Henry Fitzsimon was a Jesuit controversialist active in the Irish mission. According to his first biographer, Nicholas Bernard, Ussher’s mother was “seduced by some of the Popish Priests to the Roman Religion” whilst Ussher was in England, and she never returned to the Protestant faith, a cause of much anguish for her son.[1] Read more…

Distinguishing Before Denouncing: A Review of “Why Liberalism Failed”


Why Liberalism Failed. By Patrick Deneen.

(New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018. Pp. xix, 225. ISBN 978-0-300-22344-6).

Liberalism has failed. Or so confidently declares Patrick Deneen in his obviously named Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen offers one of the more useful and concise attacks on the often vaporously defined liberalism that has, according to Deneen, plagued modern societies for the last several hundred years. Deneen’s proof of liberalism’s failure is not that it failed to change society, but that liberal societies became exactly what they were supposed to be. The liberal state increasingly worked towards removing cultural and social institutions responsible for governing society’s consumer and sexual appetites.  Few orthodox Christians dispute that these are woeful problems. And Deneen deserves praise for identifying the ills that plague modern society. The book’s weaknesses are anachronism, and imprecise and lethargic taxonomy. Read more…

“Plainly Diabolical”: Bishop Davenant Weighs in on Clerical Celibacy

By Michael Lynch

“It is unbelievable to think that the Roman Catholics, by imposing celibacy, are thinking about the holiness of the priesthood seeing that they are not able to hide the fact that this coercive celibacy of priests has morally polluted nearly the whole class of massmongers through their abominable lusts.”

“I believe it is a wholesome law, and that for the good and health of souls, that those who desire it should be free to marry, because experience teaches us that an opposite effect results from that law of continency. Since nowadays, they do not live spiritually, nor are they clean, but are polluted with their great sin by illicit sexual intercourse, when they should be chaste with their own wives.” Read more…

Remembering the Importance of Divine Justice–An Update from Dr. Tim Baylor

Dr. Tim Baylor of the University of St. Andrews was one of the recipients of the 2017-18 Davenant Fellowship. He used this support to continue his important post-doctoral research on the doctrine of divine justice in the early modern period. Below he summarizes his recent work.

Protestant theology has struggled to find its feet in a time when its distinctives are often very poorly understood. For that reason, I’m very grateful for the work of the Davenant Trust to renew and resource contemporary Christian thought by supporting research into the history of Protestant theology. This past year as a Fellow of the Davenant Institute has afforded me a number of very valuable experiences — most particularly, the chance to develop new friendships and to further my research.  

In conjunction with my research on the work of John Owen, the last several months have had me working on a treatise on divine justice authored by Jesuit luminary Francisco Suarez. This work is a very rich and nuanced treatment of a dogmatic topic central to many of the most controversial theological discussions of the early Modern period. But the work was authored in Latin, is over 100 pages long, and lacks an English translation, so it was necessary to devote a significant amount of time to the translation of it. I have now completed my translation and analysis of this text, and I expect it to feature substantially in my analysis of Owen’s Diatribe de Justitia Divina.  

Alongside this translation work, I have also undertaken an analysis of several early modern texts on divine justice in order to position Owen’s work relative to prominent Protestant accounts. This has involved examining the writings of figures like Piscator, Twisse, van Maastricht, and Rutherford. This survey has uncovered interesting and new insights into the nature of Owen’s own theology and the distinctness of its contribution to Protestant thought.

I have also begun framing the final chapter of my book, which will examine the crucial place of the doctrine of divine justice in Owen’s account of God’s relation to the world. In particular, it will turn on the sense given to the claim that God’s glory is the “common good” toward which God governs all things. I expect to complete the chapter in the coming months, and then to submit the book to the publishers for review.   

Finally, last month, with the support of the Davenant Institute and the help of Brad Littlejohn and Jared Michelson, I had the opportunity to organise a symposium at the University of St Andrews entitled “The Doctrine of Creation and the Legacy of the Reformation.” The symposium brought together a number of leading voices in systematic theology to discuss the function and place of the doctrine of creation within Protestant theologies. This is an immensely important topic at a time when Protestant theology is often criticised for its failures on this doctrine. I counted it a great joy to participate in it, and am glad that Brad and the Davenant Institute see the importance of this work and have been willing to lead in its development.    

This is a challenging time for the church. And as always, it is a challenge hear afresh that Word which God speaks to the church. Deep engagement with the Protestant tradition facilitates this kind of obedient listening. And I am grateful for the investment of the Davenant Institute so that the church might receive anew from the wisdom of this rich theological heritage.  


The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate in the 21st Century West

It’s a truism at this point to note that the relationship in the western world between religious doctrine and political theory has become quite tense and uncertain. This is particularly true when we consider the past 3-5 years. As more and more nations have adopted same-sex marriage as the law of the land, this has had the knockdown effect of creating all sorts of questions about religious liberty, the legal status of churches, the legal status of other Christian institutions, etc.

One of the consequences of this is that some Christians are beginning to ask more basic questions about Christian political thought as they try to identify ideas that might replace those which have been ascendant for the past 35 years. Young Catholics are beginning to talk more seriously about integralism while older Catholic writers are attacking classical liberalism as the source of our contemporary woes.

Historic Protestant thought has resources of its own to help us navigate these issues. One of these ideas, which is particularly concerned with how Christians should respond to unjust laws or the unjust use of power, is known as the doctrine of the lesser magistrate. Davenant Fellow Alex Mason, a PhD candidate in theological ethics at the University of Aberdeen, explains it well:

(The doctrine of the lesser magistrate) is a unique Christian theory of resistance to authority which was first detailed in Magdeburg Confession of 1550. This doctrine teaches that when a ruler has become an incorrigible tyrant (within a very limited set of criteria), he has abdicated his claim to legitimacy. Consequently, those magistrates with lesser authority under him may defy and resist the illegitimate magistrate (and his unjust laws) for the sake of protecting others. For the embattled Protestant Reformation, the Magdeburg Confession became the embodiment of a theology of resistance allowing not only for a right to resist in certain circumstances, but a duty.

Alex Mason, a recipient  of the 2017 Davenant Fellowship, has spent much of his time as a graduate student studying this particular doctrine and trying to discern how it might be applied in our contemporary context.

My goal is for this work to be a service and an aid to the Church as we navigate a political era fraught with numerous theological pitfalls on either side. As long as post-modern secularism continues to gain strength in the West, the grave errors of the Enlightenment will continue to color the spectrum of our political discourse.

Even though little of our fractious political dynamic would’ve shocked Christians at various times throughout history, it is largely unfamiliar to modern Western Christians, many of whom have a sub-Christian understanding of submission and resistance. I do not believe the political upheavals of the West will subside anytime soon, which means the Christian witness on this subject is increasingly needed.

We must initiate a resourcement of Scripturally-attuned political theology and ethics, drawn from the deep, rich well of the Reformation. My project seeks to look back into a time when our Christian forebears wrestled with similar problems but developed unfamiliar theo-political answers. We would do well to understand and heed their example. Wherever the Church’s understanding of submission and resistance has conformed to a pattern of unbiblical thinking, we must strive to renew and reorient in light of Scripture’s teachings. I would count it a success if the work I am doing here in Aberdeen is in some small way helpful to that task, and I will always be grateful to the Davenant Institute for its gracious support of my efforts over the past year.

Though we are not offering the Davenant Fellowship at this time, we’re pleased to see Mason working on this important doctrine in Protestant political thought. This is the sort of work that is desperately needed in the western church as we enter a time of political uncertainty.

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