5 Years of Truth By Grace

It’s been five years and over a half-million views since my brother purchased this domain, and our buddy Joshua Belland got it off the ground.  I’ve been blown away by the ways God has used this little blog, written by a guy who, at the time, really didn’t have much business writing about such weighty and glorious things.

Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Cor. 2:16)

I continue to be amazed by the impact God has used Truth By Grace to have,  both on my life and the lives of others.  In many ways, even being a born again believer and a student of the Word, it is overwhelming that God allows me to write and speak about such precious matters.

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. (Job 42:3)

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it.  (Psalm 139:6)

So today, five years later, the same as it always has been, all glory and praise belong to God!

For when I preach the gospel, it gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!  (1 Cor. 9:16)

My only hope remains, as it always has been, that God will  lead someone out there on the interwebs to experience the same saved life and incredible love of Christ that I have, and that my simple reports of the things I’ve seen and studied might help to deepen others’ faith, bring great hope, and clearly extol the amazing grace and prefect character of our glorious God!

So thank you for allowing me to share my heart with you, and for the five years of support that all began at Easter, 5 years ago, with this simple little post…

The Significance of Easter


How Paradigm Shifts Demonstrate Science’s Inability to Provide Objective Truth

A synopsis of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. 

In Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn makes the logical argument that science can never be purely rational because it requires scientists make subjective value judgments in order to perform the “normal science” out of which their findings arise.

Revolutions coined the phrase “paradigm shift,” sold over 1 million copies, was the most cited book in the arts & humanities between 1976 and 1983 [1], and created significant doubt in science’s ability to ever be objective or purely rational.

This presentation was given to pastors and seminarians at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as part of a master’s level course on Christianity, truth, and culture.


[1]E. Garfield, “A Different Sort of Great Books List: The 50 Twentieth-Century Works Most Cited in the Arts & Humanities Citation Index, 1976-1983″, Current Contents no. 16, 20 April 1987, pp. 3-7


The Rationality of Christian Faith

A survey of the historical development of ‘Reformed Epistemology,’ tracing the ‘divine spark,’ the ‘divine seed,’ and the ‘sensus divinitatis (divine sense)’ toward developing a philosophical defense for the rationality of man’s belief in God.

Alvin Plantinga

One of the most important ideas introduced to Christian philosophy in the twentieth century was reformed epistemology, a thesis most notably propagated by renowned Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga.  Reformed epistemology offers a powerful defense of the rationality of Christian faith against opponents who have attacked Christian belief as irrational or intellectually disreputable.  Plantinga develops a model that argues Christian belief does not need to be supported by evidentialist arguments or generally accepted premises to be warranted but instead suggests knowledge of God is plainly perceived in a basic way by those with a properly functioning sensus divinitatis. This sensus divinitatis, or divine sense, is a “disposition or set of dispositions to form theistic beliefs in various circumstances, in response to the sorts of conditions or stimuli that trigger the working of this sense of divinity.”[1]  Put another way, the sensus divinitatis is a “belief-producing process . . . [which] works under various conditions to produce beliefs about God.”[2]  This divine sense is not knowledge of God, but the natural capacity for a person to obtain knowledge of God.  By his own confession, Plantinga reveals this notion, which is a foundational piece of reformed epistemology, is adopted directly from the work of John Calvin.[3]  This article will make an examination of reformed epistemology, its dependence on the sensus divinitatis, and trace the historical development of this model.  This paper will argue that the divine sense, which lies at the heart of reformed epistemology, originated not in Christianity, but in Hellenistic philosophy.  To demonstrate this point, this article will examine the concepts prolepsis and the divine spark in Cicero’s works, will recount the Christian reformulation of these notions in the work of John Calvin, and then make an extended study of reformed epistemology’s dependence on the application of Calvin’s sensus divinitatis in the Aquinas/Calvin (A/C) Model which is central to this philosophical system.

Cicero, Prolepsis, and the Divine Spark


Considered to be “the greatest orator and Latin prose writer of all time,”[4] Cicero lived in the time of Julius Caesar and contributed a lasting influence on ethics in the West.  “Cicero champions the doctrine that humanity is a brotherhood that shares a divine spark and is cared for by a divine providence.”[5]  In his seminal work, On Obligations, he discusses the topics of prolepsis, preconception, a priori knowledge, natural law, human rights, and the divine spark.  For Cicero, the divine spark is what sets humans apart from the animals.  This glimmer of divinity is the foundation for “human fellowship [which] in its broadest sense unit[es] all men with each other.”[6]  Cicero is concerned primarily to develop a universal moral philosophy, and his interest in the divine spark is primarily as a ground for his notion of human moral obligations which operated as a historical precursor to the development of natural law and human rights.[7]

In undertaking an effort to interpret Epicurean theology, Cicero develops an epistemology that contends knowledge of the gods is inherent to all humanity.[8]  Cicero contends, “nature herself has imprinted a conception of [the gods] on the minds of all mankind.”[9]  This conception is a universally given “prolepsis” (or preconception), which is something “without which nothing can be understood or investigated or discussed.”[10]  In other words, this knowledge of divinity is a “prior notion,” and an “innate concept” that is “engraved,”[11] and universal within all people.  Cicero asks, “What nation or what tribe of men is there but possesses untaught some ‘preconception’ of the gods?”[12]  Cicero defends his position saying, “Those who have committed [an impious crime] . . . are not only unable to rest peacefully [afterward], but cannot even breathe without fear.”[13] Depravity, however, diminishes this divine light, and “under the corrupting influence of bad habits and beliefs, we . . . become infected with deceptions so varied that truth gives way to unreality.”[14]  In Cicero’s account, even those who would attempt to deny God’s existence could never fully escape what they inherently know to be true, which is that God exists.  Thus, belief in God being a universally shared belief among all people is sufficient proof that the belief must be true.[15]

Cicero gained the vocal admiration of a number historic Christian theologians.  “His doctrines were received and purified in the Christian tradition and they continue to inspire” Christian philosophers in the present day.[16]  Saint Augustine reports in the Confessions, that it was Cicero’s work that, at a young age, won the esteemed theologian to philosophy.[17]  Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, made extensive references to Cicero within his work,[18] and Erasmus went so far as to say that his appreciation for Cicero’s stirred in him contempt toward educators who found nothing noteworthy in Cicero beyond the splendor of his language.[19]  John Calvin, in the first five chapters of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, turns to Cicero for far-reaching support in his theological writings, and, as will be demonstrated, employed Cicero’s notion of prolepsis and the spark of divinity in every man to pen his reflections on man’s natural knowledge of God.[20]

John Calvin and the Sensus Divinitatis

John Calvin

Largely recognized as a student of classical antiquity, “it is not difficult to gather the names of renowned scholars who are prepared to acknowledge John Calvin’s far-reaching indebtedness to humanism.”[21]  The famed sixteenth-century theologian showed a remarkable affinity for the writings of Cicero in the formulation of his biblical interpretation of the sense by which man comes knowledge of God.  Egil Grislis observes “several close parallels between the insights of Cicero and Calvin,”[22] and goes so far as to claim that Calvin’s argument is “essentially a restatement of Cicero’s insight.”[23]  Charles Partee is less certain of Calvin’s dependence on Cicero as the source of his ideas.  Because Cicero was thoroughly eclectic, it is instead possible that Calvin and Cicero both borrowed from a common source.  Partee agrees with Grislis, however, that “the parallels [between Cicero and Calvin] are clear.”[24]

Like Cicero, Calvin adopts the idea that there exists a universal “seed of religion” present within every individual that produces a ‘certain understanding of [God’s] divine majesty.’[25]  This seed is a type of knowledge of God’s existence, apart from Scripture, that can be perceived by all human beings.  This awareness of divinity, which Calvin describes as a naturally inborn instinct and disposition implanted by God, Calvin coined the sensus divinitatis. Edward Adams explains that, for Calvin, the sensus divinitatis is not merely an intuition but a cognitive intellectual consciousness of God the creator. [26]  Calvin further contends that even the most brutish people contain this seed, and this “sense of divinity inscribed in the hearts of all” cannot be “effaced.”[27]  Like Cicero, Calvin says that all people possess a “natural disposition,” and a “light of nature” that allows for knowledge of God, and “some conception of God is ever alive in all men’s minds.”[28]  Adopting the notion of prolepsis, Calvin claims that natural knowledge of God “is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school, but one of which each of us is master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget, although many strive with every nerve to this end.”[29]  Again agreeing with Cicero, Calvin posits atheists never fully escape the very sense of God they strive so ardently to avoid.  “[Those] who deny that God exists . . . from time to time feel an inkling of what they desire not to believe,”[30] and “the worm of conscience, sharper than any cauterizing iron, gnaws away within.”[31]

While both Cicero and Calvin agree that divine prolepsis is the primary sense by which people come to the knowledge of God, they also “desire to pay attention to the additional evidence which can be gathered by use of empirical reason.”[32]  For example, Cicero writes, “Indeed, who is so witless that when he gazes up into heaven, he fails to see that gods exist, and imagines that chance is responsible for the creations of an intelligence so transcendent that scarce can the highest artistry to do justice?”[33]  Calvin agrees, “There are innumerable evidences both in heaven and on earth that declare [God’s] wonderful wisdom . . . which thrust themselves upon the sight of even the most untutored and ignorant persons, so that they cannot open their eyes without being compelled to witness them.”[34]  Ultimately Calvin does not go so far as to follow Cicero in making the claim that the universal preconception of God is sufficient proof for the existence of God, but Calvin instead asserts that God, having “implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty,” sufficiently “prevent[s] anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance.”[35]  In taking up Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, Alvin Plantinga takes a slightly different tact.  Where Calvin’s interest the sensus divinitatis is to provide answers to theological and epistemological questions about man’s acquisition of knowledge of God, Plantinga’s concern is to employ the divine sense for the apologetic purpose of defending Christian faith against those who would challenge the rationality of theistic belief.  In the sensus divinitatis, Plantinga finds the basis for identifying belief in God as a properly basic belief.

Alvin Plantinga and Reformed Epistemology

Embracing the thinking of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, twentieth-century assailants of theism staked the claim that regardless of whether Christian belief can be proven false, it is not possible that one can reasonably hold theistic beliefs.  These opponents of faith asserted that, while the claims of Christian belief cannot be categorically disproven, belief in God is without warrant and intellectually irresponsible.  Freud and Marx had differing opinions as to why Christians arrive at belief in God.  Freud contended theism is spawned in a subconscious desire people have for comfort in a cruel world.  He claimed Christians find this comfort via fantasy wish fulfillment.  Marx, on the other hand, argued that theistic belief is the result of cognitive-intellectual malfunction resulting from economic emotional distress.[36]  While Freud and Marx differ on how they understand Christians’ arrival at belief in God, the two writers share the conclusion that Christian belief is aimed at something other than truth.

Responding to these objections, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga begins by pointing out both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin agree humans possess an innate sense of the divine.  Plantinga alerts readers, “Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin concur on the claim that there is a kind of natural knowledge of God (and anything on which Calvin and Aquinas are in accord is something to which we had better pay careful attention.)”[37]  Thomas Aquinas, the most famous classical proponent of natural theology, writes in the Summa Theologiae, “To know in a general and confused way that God exists is implanted in [mankind] by nature.”[38]  Rather than follow the natural theology approach, which attempts to produce an inferential argument that deduces God’s existence from independent evidence or premises, Plantinga suggests instead that some axiomatic beliefs are foundational and accepted apart from people’s lacking the ability to appeal to evidence to justify them.  Plantinga’s move here is monumental.  This argument that some knowledge is foundational posits that some beliefs are not produced or defended by rational deliberation.  That is, they do not appeal to more primitive beliefs or evidence to justify them, and they encounter no compelling evidence to suggest they are false. For example, perception, memory, and a priori beliefs fit this description.  These beliefs are properly basic. They are either self-evident or incorrigible – meaning one can believe them without possibly being proven wrong.[39]

Plantinga is convinced there is not sufficiently good evidence for belief in God in the way that evidentialism demands.  Thus, Plantinga abandons the evidential dependence of natural theology and turns his approach to foundationalism.  To do this, Plantinga employs Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, which he takes to be a belief-producing faculty, to make the case that justification and warrant for Christian belief as knowledge comes from the belief’s arising in a properly basic way.  In this sense, Christian belief arises from the reception of the sensus divinitatis and is foundational in that it is self-evident and does not arise from other prior beliefs.  Like other properly basic beliefs, knowledge of God’s presence in the world is intuitive, obvious, immediate, and non-inferential.

Plantinga further argues that Christian belief can be perfectly rational and sensible.  Christians violate no intellectual duties in holding their beliefs, and objections to the rationality of Christian belief necessarily depend on the assumption that Christian belief is false.[40]  Plantinga’s conclusion demands that any objection to the rationality of Christian belief requires the objector must first disprove the existence of God.  At the foundation of Plantinga’s model is the ‘sensus divinitatis.’

Where Calvin seems to think knowledge of God is innate “from the mother’s womb,” Plantinga makes a critical and controversial point of divergence.  Plantinga conceives of the sensus divinitatis not as knowledge itself, but as the cognitive faculty providing the ability to develop such knowledge.  Plantinga says, “What one has from one’s mother’s womb is not this knowledge of God, but a capacity for it.”[41]  The sensus divinitatis is the sensory system or organ in which a wide variety of circumstances trigger the disposition to form the occasion on which beliefs about God arise.  People do not have these beliefs embedded within them inherently, nor do they choose to have them, but instead, have the sense to develop them when this faculty encounters circumstances.[42]  For Plantinga, the sensus divinitatis takes the circumstances as input and issues theistic beliefs as output.  “The sensus divinitatis resembles perception, memory, and a priori belief,”[43] and in the same way that being appeared to occasions particular beliefs that are properly basic, and not accepted on the evidential basis of other propositions, so it is with beliefs arising from the sensus divinitatis.[44]

Granting the notion that beliefs arising from the sensus divinitatis are properly basic, Plantinga asserts that “there is no sensible challenge to the rationality or rational justification or warrant of Christian belief that is not also a challenge to its truth.”[45]  And thus, Plantinga explains the sensus divinitatis’ foundational role in reformed epistemology.

The sensus divinitatis is a belief-producing faculty (or power, or mechanism) that under the right conditions produces belief that isn’t evidentially based on other beliefs.  On this model our cognitive faculties have been designed and created by God’ the design place, therefore, is a design plan in the literal and paradigmatic sense.  It is a blueprint or plan for our ways of functioning, and it has been developed and instituted by a conscious, intelligent agent.  The purpose of the sensus divinitatis is to enable us to have true beliefs about God; when it functions properly, it ordinarily does produce true beliefs about God.  These beliefs, therefore, meet the conditions of warrant; if the beliefs produced are strong enough, then they constitute knowledge.[46]

This is the central thesis of the reception knowledge of God in the reformed epistemology model.  “God has so constructed us that we naturally form the belief in his existence under appropriate circumstances, just as we do the belief in perceptual objects, the reality of the past, and so forth.  Hence, belief in God is among the deliverances of reason, not faith.”[47]

Reformed epistemology continues by next explaining that the sensus divinitatis has been marred by sin.  Plantinga explains, “Original sin involves both intellect and will; it is both cognitive and . . . primarily an affective disorder or malfunction.”[48]  Sin is like a disease which affects the receptive organ of faith, the sensus divinitatis.  Much like the way in which disease affects other organs, sin is a degenerative disorder that corrupts the cognitive function of both intellection and affections, confusing human loves and hates, distorting human understanding, and directing affections toward the wrong objects.[49]  Thus, human affections, corrupted by sin, no longer work in accord with God’s original design plan,[50] and while the affected individual sees what is right, he prefers what is wrong.  However, while this corrupted state provides a “fertile field for ambiguity and self-deception,” sin merely corrupts the sensus divinitatis but does not completely obliterate it.[51]

What is needed for Christian belief is a properly functioning sensus divinitatis.  Enter the redemptive gospel of Jesus and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. In Plantinga’s model, it is the Holy Spirit who is responsible for the reparative work of the divine sense in bringing about faith in believers.  The activity of the Holy Spirit involves means by which belief is regularly produced in regular ways. In this, the cognitive process by which the Spirit instigates the perception of faith “resembles memory, perception, reason, sympathy, induction, and other more standard belief-producing processes.”[52]  Faith often has the phenomenology that goes with suddenly having eyes to see something to be true,[53] but while Christian beliefs may contain excellent arguments, Christian belief, as arises from the sensus divinitatis, is not accepted based on propositional logic, but is the result of genuine religious experience.[54]  More than propositional belief, faith requires the right affections.  “The demons believe and they shudder” (James 2:19), but the demons do not have faith. The person with faith has not only the right beliefs but also the right affections.  “Conversion, therefore, is fundamentally a turning of the will, a healing of the disorder of affection that afflicts us.”[55]  As Jonathan Edwards wrote, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections,”[56] and Thomas Aquinas explained, “The Holy Spirit makes us lovers of God.”[57]  Thus, the restorative work of the Holy Spirit is not just one that enables a person to rightly perceive of God but also heals the disorder of affection that afflicts mankind.[58]  By the reparative work of the Holy Spirit, the person comes to see the great truth of the gospel and hear Christ’s voice in His Word.  In this way, the truths of the gospel and the Scripture are properly basic for believers because they are self-authenticating, and do not receive their warrant on the evidential basis of other propositions.[59]

Reformed epistemology allows that “the full panoply of Christian beliefs” may be properly basic if God exists.  In Plantinga’s Extended Aquinas/Calvin Model, believers need not justify their beliefs by evidence or argument because they have warrant for their Christian beliefs in the basic way.  God has constituted people such that they naturally come to believe in Christ when placed in the appropriate circumstances through properly functioning cognitive faculties repaired by the work of the Holy Spirit.  These cognitive faculties inherently possess a natural ability (sensus divinitatis) to perceive of the divine when operating as God designed (free from the corruption and brokenness resulting from sin).  Hence, God is perceived by the natural senses, known in a properly basic way, and faith is among the deliverances of reason.

Consequently, “Plantinga drops a bomb into mainstream epistemology by proposing . . . that one’s cognitive faculties are functioning properly only if they are functioning as God designed them to. . . . God has so constituted us that we naturally form [belief in God’s existence] under certain circumstances; since the belief is thus formed by properly functioning cognitive faculties in an appropriate environment.”[60]  This flips the assault of the atheists on its head.  On Plantinga’s account, the argument of Freud and Marx that Christianity is irrational and aimed at something other than truth becomes a valid conclusion only on the assumption that God does not exist.  Conversely, in the case that God does in fact exist, it is Freud, Marx, and the atheists whose beliefs are irrational.  Thus, Christian belief is warranted in so far as God exists.  This disallows the antitheist to contend that Christian belief is irrational, unjustified, or unwarranted; and leaves it to the atheist to disprove the existence of God.


Reformed epistemology is among the most important Christian philosophical works of the last century and has significantly undercut the arguments of philosophers who attempt to brand Christian belief as unwarranted.  This modern defense of Christian faith against the most powerful assaults of the twentieth century rests on reformed epistemology’s diffusion of their claims.  Plantinga’s suggestion that God has implanted mechanisms which could produce a powerful warrant for belief in God through a natural sense of the divine, strengthened and restored by the testimony of the Holy Spirit, is dependent on Calvin’s contributing conception of the sensus divinitatis.  At the same time, Calvin, and Christians, in general, owe a great deal of appreciation to the pagan philosopher, Cicero, and his eclectic dependence on the Epicureans, for providing Christianity with foundational aspects of this core epistemological concept upon which the powerful defense of warranted Christian belief is built.

family photo 2017 high res

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, preacher, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.





[1]Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2000), 173.

[2]Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans Publishing, 2015), 45.

[3]Plantinga, Knowledge, 33.

[4]Thomas P. Scheck, “Humanitas in Cicero’s Moral Philosophy and its Christian Reception,” in Ave Maria Law Review (2012), 405.

[5]Ibid, 406.

[6]Cicero, On Obligations, Book I trans. P. G. Walsh (Oxford University Press, 2000), 11-17.

[7]Cicero, On Obligations, 49, supra note 3.

[8]Egil Grislis, “Calvin’s Use of Cicero in the Institutes I:1-5 – A Case Study in Theological Method,” in Archiv fiir Reformationsgeshichte, 62/1 (1971), 5.

[9]Cicero quoted in The Loeb Classical Library I. XVI (London:  Harvard University Press, 1933), 43.

[10]Ibid, 44.


[12]Loeb I. XXIII, 65.

[13]Loeb I. XVI, 43.

[14]Loeb III. I, 2, 224-226.

[15]Loeb I. XVII, 44, 46.

[16]Scheck, “Humanitas,” 406.

[17]St. Augustine, Confessions trans. Edward B. Pusey, Book III (P. F. Collier & Son, 1909), 134.

[18]Harald Hagendahl, Latin Fathers and the Classics (1958), 348-381.

[19]Desiderius Erasmus, “Letter from Desiderius Erasmus to Johann von Vlatten (1523),” in 10 Collected Works of Erasmus trans. R. A. B. Mynors & Aleander Dalzell (University of Toronto Press, 1992), 96-98.

[20]Grislis, “Calvin’s Use of Cicero,” 5-37.

[21]Grislis, “Calvin’s Use of Cicero,” 5.


[23]Ibid, 13.

[24]Charles Partee, Calvin and Classical Philosophy (Westminster:  John Knox Press, 2005), 43.

[25]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), I.iii.3.

[26]Calvin, Institutes, I.iii.3.

[27]Ibid, I.iv.1, I.iii.3.

[28]Edward Adams, “Calvin’s view of Natural Knowledge of God” in International Journal of Systematic Theology, 3 (November, 2001), 284.

[29]Calvin, Institutes, I.iii.3.

[30]Ibid, I.iii.2.

[31]Ibid, I.iii.3.

[32]Grislis, “Calvin’s Use of Cicero,” 8.

[33]Loeb IX, 19, 338.

[34]Calvin, Institutes, I.V.2.

[35]Ibid, I.iii.1.

[36]Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 170.


[38]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), I, q. 2.a.1, ad 1.

[39]Alvin Plantinga, Faith and Rationality (London:  Notre Dame, 1983), 58-59.

[40]Plantinga, Knowledge, ix.

[41]Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 173.

[42]Ibid, 172.

[43]Ibid, 175.


[45]Ibid, 169.

[46]Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 179.

[47]William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith:  Christian Truth and Apologetics 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway, 2008), 40.

[48]Plantinga, Knowledge, 49.


[50]Ibid, 50.

[51]Plantinga, Knowledge, 51.

[52]Ibid, 63.

[53]Ibid, 61.

[54]Ibid, 64.

[55]Ibid, 74.

[56]Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections ed. John E. Smith (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1959), 95.

[57]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles trans. Charles O’Neil (Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), IV.21-22.

[58]Plantinga, Knowledge, 74.

[59]Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 261-262.

[60]Craig, Reasonable Faith, 40.

The Historical Development of the Christian Virtue Ethics Tradition

A Study of Thomas Aquinas’ Baptism of Aristotle’s Ethics

Alasdair MacIntyre

In his paradigm-shifting work on Christian ethics, Alasdair MacIntyre declares, “No doctrine vindicated itself in so wide a variety of contexts as did Aristotelianism:  Greek, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian . . . Aristotelianism is philosophically the most powerful of pre-modern modes of moral thought.” [1]  At no place has Aristotelianism had a greater point of intersection with the Christian faith than in the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas.  The rediscovery of Aristotelian thought by the medieval theologians saw Thomas emerge as arguably the most prominent Aristotelian scholar of the Middle Ages, which culminated in his systematic application of Aristotelian philosophy to the church doctrines in a way that became the dominant theological understanding of the church for centuries.  Alasdair MacIntyre contends that Aquinas’ approach is the successful blending of Aristotle’s moral philosophy with Augustine’s moral theology.  “It is widely appreciated that Aristotle is a prominent authority in the Summa Theologiae:  Aristotle is referred to in explicit citations almost as often as Augustine.” [2]  In many ways, Aristotle plus Augustine yields Aquinas.  Aquinas demonstrates in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that he understood Aristotle quite accurately on his own terms.  In the commentary, he resists the temptation to import a hidden theological agenda onto Aristotle and relies on principles from Aristotle’s natural philosophy and metaphysics to resolve issues in Aristotle’s own work. Aquinas differs significantly from Aristotle in key areas, however, in his own theological writings.  While borrowing liberally from Aristotle in constructing a Thomistic moral philosophy, Aquinas intentionally imports ideas from other traditions as well as offering his own original thoughts in intentionally diverging from strict Aristotelian thought.  Where Aristotle’s ethics center on earthly well-being achieved through naturally acquired virtue, Thomas’ ethic incorporates Augustine’s theology and its contention that true human completeness exists only in the afterlife and is only attained by a supernatural infusion of faith, hope, and love.  This article contends that while Aquinas rightly understood Aristotle, his interaction with Aristotle in his theological works aims at the discovery of higher truth rather than rightly representing Classic Aristotelianism.  As Aquinas brings to Aristotelian thought the benefit of divine revelation, he concurrently offers those questions underdetermined by Augustine and the Scriptures the benefit of Aristotle.  By briefly tracing a small number of Aquinas’ more significant intentional divergences from Aristotle, grouped under teleological issues and issues pertaining to the will, it will be clear that Aquinas deviates significantly from Aristotle’s ethics while leveraging Aristotle’s framework for the construction of an original Christian virtue ethic.

Teleological Issues


In Aristotelian teleology, the quality of the performance of rationality is manifest in a notion of “excellence” or “virtue,” and virtue is what makes man good and perform his function well. [3]  The idea that man exists with a certain function to perform couches “Aristotle’s analysis of human practices in terms of means and ends,” and integrates them from the outset into “a kind of metaphysical and speculative framework.” [4]  Adopting Aristotle’s metaphysical framework, Aquinas agrees that everything has a teleological desire to achieve goodness that aims to the final perfection of its operation. [5]  In Books 1 and 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle develops his account of man’s end.  Aristotle states, “If then there is some end in our practical projects that we wish for because of itself and we do not choose everything because of something else, . . . it is clear this will be the good, i.e., the highest good.” [6]  This highest good is man’s telos, or the “most final end” for which he is purposed.  Aristotle suggests that this highest good is not identified with money, honor, or pleasure, but with what he identifies as eudaimonia.  Eudaimonia is typically translated as happiness, well-being, or human flourishing.  While Aristotle locates man’s end in eudaimonia, he fails to provide definitive arguments for the content of eudaimonia, and instead leaves the definition relatively open.  Aristotle does, however, explain that eudaimonia finds its fulfillment in the perfection of reason which leads to a “twofold” ultimate end for man locating supreme happiness in the contemplative philosophical life, and in the result that the philosophical life will lead a man to deliberately choose the secondary happiness of moral virtue within the civic life.  This fits Aristotle’s description of man as both a composite being comprised of soul and body, and a naturally political animal.  “Aristotle regards ethics as falling within the discipline of statecraft [politics] and written mainly for the benefit of legislators.” [7]  Thus, Aristotle places a strong emphasis on man’s contribution and inclusion in the polis.

From the outset, Aquinas agrees with Aristotle that the virtues are “precisely those qualities the possession of which will enable an individual to achieve eudaimonia and the lack of which will frustrate his movement toward that telos.[8]  When Aquinas picks up the concepts of telos and eudaimonia, he pairs Aristotle’s framework with the Christian notion that well-being is grounded in life in Christ, and the un-Aristotelian notion that happiness in eternity is far greater than any happiness to be attained in this life. [9]  Aquinas further contends that this teleological principle pervades all of nature, not just humanity, and man has a natural desire for happiness because, like all creatures, his existence is ordered toward his perfection in action by a divine intellect. [10]  Aquinas suggests that every created thing naturally acts and strives for its own perfection, which is realized by all creatures, not in achieving well-being through perfect reason, but instead in assimilation to God who is the highest good and single end of all creatures. [11]  Where Aristotle sees man’s ultimate end in the contemplative philosophical life and contribution to the polis, Aquinas sees man’s end in relationship with God, and in inclusion in His Kingdom.

The theological convictions of Aquinas are a significant divergence from the more naturalistic pre-Christian philosophy of Aristotle.  “In the De Caelo Aristotle is presuming that the heavens are living and even divine,” but Aristotle insists that men have no access to the divine and he in no way indicates that his prime mover is a personal being with which people can relate.  Aristotle suggests that even the most virtuous of men in the polis cannot be friends with God because friendship is founded on a “kind of equality.” [12]  Friends cannot be so separated in virtue they lack commonality, and friends do not come to love each other when one significantly lacks virtue. [13]  Aristotle contends that man’s separation from the divine is in excess such that no personal relationship exists between them.  The gods “greatly exceed men in good things,” and men should never expect to be friends with God because God cannot relate due to their “great difference in virtue.” [14]

Having the benefit of special revelation, Aquinas incorporates the means of grace by which God enables men to know Him.  Aquinas says, “God is supremely lovable in Himself, in as much as He is the object of happiness.  But He is not supremely lovable to us in this way, on account of the inclination of our appetite towards visible goods.  Hence it is evident that for us to love God above all things in this way, it is necessary that charity be infused into our hearts.” [15]  Additionally, Aquinas shows particular concern for Aristotle’s criteria of “ultimate finality” and “self-sufficiency” for true eudaimonia. [16]  Aquinas asserts that self-sufficiency can only be attributed to God, and ultimate finality accomplished only by the work of God.  Thus, in Aquinas’ understanding, there is a pervasive shortcoming in Aristotle’s eudaimonia as it is comprised of only human activities which will always fall short of the fullness of the flourishing Aristotle has in mind.  Aristotle’s happiness is an imperfect happiness, which Aristotle himself may have recognized at the end of the discussion of the “Solonic problem” in Nicomachean Ethics chapter 10.  In this discussion, Aquinas believes Aristotle casts doubt on whether anyone can be perfectly happy while he is still living.   Aristotle concedes that the person “who is active in accordance with perfect virtue . . . through a complete life” is happy, “but happy as a human being.” [17]  Aquinas sees fit to qualify this “happiness in a human way” as an imperfect happiness that cannot compare to the ultimate happiness experienced by higher beings like angels and God. [18]  “From this, Aquinas gleans a third criterion for happiness, “stability of virtuous activity,” in addition to ‘ultimate finality’ and ‘self-sufficiency.’  While Aristotle said, “The good for man is an activity of soul in accordance with virtue . . . in a complete lifetime,” Aquinas counters that perfection and fulfillment of these conditions cannot be achieved in this life. [19]  “Thus continuity and perpetuity, which are not found in the present life, belong to the nature of perfect happiness.  Hence perfect happiness cannot be had in this life.” [20]  “Even the [perfect happiness in the contemplative life] does not really meet the Aristotelian criteria of ultimate finality and self-sufficiency,” but is radically deficient. [21]  In Aristotle’s own definition of happiness the human intellect’s aim is to attain truth, but Aquinas argues the intellect can only attain ultimate truth when it rests in the truth itself which is God. [22]  The contemplative life alone cannot reach God, and is again radically deficient in attaining man’s telos which can only come in attaining the truth and universal goodness in relationship with God in direct heavenly union. [23]  This relationship can only come about by the self-revelation of God by which man comes to understand the appropriate orientation and end for his life.  For Aquinas, both theological and philosophical considerations require that God be the essence of perfect human happiness because self-sufficiency, stability of virtue, and ultimate finality can only be attained through the promises of God for the afterlife. [24]  God is the intrinsic formal cause of the beatific vision which can only be fulfilled in God by the assistance of His supernatural perfecting grace.  While he makes mention of the divine, “Aristotle’s god is not the almighty creator of Aquinas’s theology,” and “Aristotle certainly did not hold that this highest good was best identified with beatific union with God in a resurrected life.” [25]  Aquinas’ theological concerns, specifically the commands of God in Scripture, lead him to see practical wisdom and Aristotle’s principle virtues as insufficient, but needing to be couched in a life of faith and repentance.  Given his theological convictions, Aquinas further believes the virtues are best understood as giving more specificity to human reason bound by natural law, understood in the broader context of divine or eternal law. . . . Aristotle does not have a divine law approach to ethics, whereas natural law and a divine legislator provides the framework for discussion of ethics in Aquinas.” [26]

Thomas Aquinas

Additionally for Aquinas, the grace of God makes virtue, and consequently eudaimonia, available to all people.  Where Aristotle contends that the effects of having developed a vicious disposition are irreversible and ‘incurable,’ Aquinas rejects this irreversibility of disposition on both theological and psychological grounds. [27]  Theologically, Aquinas follows Augustine where he says “it is indeed in a human’s power to change his will for the better, but there is no power unless it be given by God.” [28]  In Disputed Questions on Truth, Aquinas argues that even in man’s natural power God grants the ability to change and a bad moral disposition never so completely corrupts the soul that a person cannot be led away from vice by reason. [29]

The Will

“Many contemporary scholars agree . . . Aristotle had neither a word nor even the notion corresponding to the medieval (and modern) concept of will” as a faculty distinct from rational cognition. [30]  “The notion of the will was lacking in Aristotle,” and he simply presupposes freedom without having a knowledge of the inherent difficulties. [31]  Aquinas, however, has an elaborate conception of the will built upon a foundation introduced in Christian theology, and has a much more elaborate action theory than Aristotle.  Bonnie Kent suggests that “when [Aquinas] explains in the Summa how the mental act of consent differs from other mental acts, he certainly does not appeal to Aristotle.  He draws instead on John Demascene and Augustine.” [32]  Whether or not Aristotle allows for true contrary choice is a topic of some controversy, but Aristotle places the moment of choice within the faculty of intellection, and sees the determinate choice as flowing from disposition and reason.  Conversely, Aquinas describes the will as a power of the soul separate from both intellect and non-rational inclinations (i.e. emotions and passions), and his views on the will imply that the systematic structure of his action theory and ethics differs from Aristotle’s in a crucial respect.  Using Aristotelian language in concert with Augustine’s discussion of human freedom and volition, Thomas creates his own conception of the interaction of the intellect in concert with a secondary faculty, the will, in bringing about free humans acts known as liberum arbitrium. Where Aristotle’s choice issues from the intellect’s dispositions, Aquinas’ will looks to the end action when making a choice between possible potentialities presented to the will by the intellect. [33]  Aquinas specifically assigns to man a liberum arbitrium (free will) which allows man the freedom of deliberation of intellect to choose one of multiple potentialities. [34]  Aristotle states in The Nicomachean Ethics that “choice presupposes deliberation,” and Aquinas shows little hesitation in stepping into Aristotle’s ambiguity and suggesting that election has to be understood as a true choice by which an agent opts for one of multiple possible courses of action. [35]  “Thus the will depends upon the possibilities presented to it by the practical intellect, which guides it to its decisions.  Practical reason itself, however, is not determined to one concrete object, for there is a great variety of goods one may pursue.” [36]

In 3.3 of his Commentary on the Ethics, Aquinas asserts that the immediate result of virtue is not exterior action, but interior choice.  For Aristotle, intellectual dispositions determine action in a single act.  On Aquinas’ account, however, a human being’s most fundamental action is the “internal act” of choice in which the will settles one course of action proposed by reason.  For Aquinas, the “external act” is a secondary phenomenon.  This external act is the only action Aristotle speaks of.  For Aquinas, however, the will provides a separate adjudicating moment that allows for a person’s action to be informed by their dispositions, but not necessarily determined by them.  “At any given moment, reason can focus its attention on objects to which the person is not inclined by his or her already existing dispositions.  Consequently, the will can choose differently from what an individual’s virtues would suggest.  Thus Aquinas ascribes to virtue a much less determining role than Aristotle did.”  It is controversial whether Aristotle believed humans have true freedom to choose between alternative possibilities, or whether they are determined by the disposition of their reason, but for Aquinas choice is closely connected to the ability to act otherwise.  Whether Aristotle allows for choice as the product of rational judgment within the intellect or not, it is certain that Aquinas clearly spills more ink on the issue in outlining this second faculty of will to adjudicate the proposals of the rational intellect.  Extensive debate surrounds whether Aristotle’s ethics imply Aquinas’ theory of will, or alternatively if Aquinas’ will is a notion that he reads into Aristotle’s theory of action.

What is evident, however, is that Aquinas does something clearly un-Aristotelian in separating the agent’s interior choice from his external action.  For Aquinas, it is not the exterior action that is blameworthy or praiseworthy, but the inner choice.  For Aristotle, there is no distinction between interior choice and external action. [37]  The choice is equivalent to the external action.  If no action has been carried out, no choice has been made.

For Aquinas, the will is essential to morality because he “believes that we are responsible for our actions [only] insofar as we have wills.”  Importing an idea from Cicero, which states that circumstances “increase an action’s blameworthiness or praiseworthiness,” Aquinas constructs the concept that moral knowledge and moral choice are informed not only by virtue but by circumstances.  “For Aquinas, moral knowledge must cover not only universal rules but also circumstances, that is, the specific features of the agents and their actions.” [38]  Rational judgment implies that the objects of choice are good only from a certain perspective, and objects of human actions are “particular contingent things,” which include many conditions or circumstances.” [39]  “Man is capable of directing his acts . . . in an individual way, because he has intellect and reason.  By them he can perceive the different ways in which something is good or bad, depending upon its fittingness for different individuals, times, and places.” [40]  Therefore, on Aquinas’ account, the agent’s choice is always dependent upon his perception of the particulars of his circumstance; and the praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of his choice is dependent insofar as he has the ability to will.  Separating interior choice from external action allows for a person to maintain virtuous character and moral fortitude even when their action is compelled against their will, and also places the committing of sins at the heart level (Matt 5:28).


In studying the historical accuracy of Aquinas’ interaction with Aristotle, T. H. Irwin says, Aquinas “does not study Aristotle in order to understand Aristotle, but in order to discover the truth.” [41]  It does not follow therefore that Aquinas commits an anachronism, misunderstands, misrepresents, or even attempts to rehash Aristotle.  As Aquinas brings to Aristotelian thought the benefit of divine revelation, he concurrently leverages an Aristotelian framework to answer those questions underdetermined by Augustine and the Scriptures.  In his systematic application of Aristotelian philosophy to the church doctrines, Aquinas shaped the church’s understanding of divine truth in a way that arguably no one else has.  In considerable ways, Aquinas made significant deviations from Aristotle, but in his own words, “the study of philosophy does not aim at knowledge of what people have thought, but at knowledge of how the truth of things is.” [42]

***To learn more about Calvinists’ ability and history in embracing Thomas Aquinas’ conception of the human will, see my article on Calvinism and the Free Will Defense.***

family photo 2017 high res

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, preacher, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

[1]Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 118.

[2]Michael Pakaluk, “Structure and Method in Aquinas’s appropriation of Aristotelian Ethical Theory” in Aquinas and the Nicomachean Ethics ed. Tobias Hoffman, Jorn Muller, and Matthias Perkams (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 49.

[3]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans. C. Rowe; philosophical introduction and commentary by S. Broadie (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002), 2.6.1106a22-4.

[4]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 59.

[5]St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics trans. C. J. Litzinger (Notre Dame, IN:  Dumb Ox Books, 1993), 1.2 lines 44-46, 184-189.

[6]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1.2.1094a18-22.

[7] Pakaluk, “Structure and Method,” 46-47.

[8] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 148.

[9]Ibid, 118.

[10] Aquinas, Commentary, 1.1 line 171.

[11]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles (New York:  Aquin Media, 2010), chapters 2-3, 16, 17-24) and St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), I-II.

[12]Aristotle, On the Heavens trans. W. K. C. Guthrie (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1939), 1157b33-1158a1.

[13]Ibid, 11589a33-36.

[14]Ibid, 1158a36-1159a3; 1158a36-1159a3.

[15]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), II-II Q. 24 A. 2.

[16]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 60.

[17]Ibid, 1101a20-1.

[18] Aquinas, Commentary, 10.13 lines 141-4; 10.16 lines 218-222.

[19]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1.7.1098a16-18.

[20] Aquinas, Commentary, 1.10 lines 165-167; 1.14 lines 177-183.

[21]Jorn Muller, “Duplex Beatitutdo:  Aristotle’s Legacy and Aquinas’s Conception of Human Happiness” in Aquinas and the Nicomachean Ethics ed. Tobias Hoffman, Jorn Muller, and Matthias Perkams (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 62.

[22]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 6.2.1139b12; and Aquinas, Summa Theologiaie, 1-2.3.7.

[23]Aquinas, Summa Theologiaie, 3.92.1; 102.2.8-9.

[24]Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.25; 3.57.

[25]Candace Vogler, “Aristotle, Aquinas, Anscombe, and the New Virtue Ethics” in Aquinas and the Nicomachean Ethics ed. Tobias Hoffman, Jorn Muller, and Matthias Perkams (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 241.

[26]Vogler, “Aristotle, Aquinas, Anscombe,” 241.

[27]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 3.5.III4b26-III5a3.

[28]St. Augustine, The Retractions (The Fathers of the Church) vol. 2 (Washington, DC:  CUA Press, 1968), 22.4.

[29]St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae ed. P. Bazzi, M. Calcaterra, T. S. Centi, E. Odetto, and P. M. Pession. 2 vols. (Turin and Rome:  Marietti, 1965), 24.2.

[30] Matthias Perkams, “Aquinas on Choice, Will, and Voluntary Action” in Aquinas and the Nicomachean Ethics ed. Tobias Hoffman, Jorn Muller, and Matthias Perkams (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 72.


[32] Tobias Hoffman, Jorn Muller, and Matthias Perkams, “Introduction” in Aquinas and the Nicomachean Ethics ed. Tobias Hoffman, Jorn Muller, and Matthias Perkams (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 11.

[33] Aquinas, Commentary, 3.1 lines 7-11.

[34] Aquinas, Commentary, 3.5 lines 34-9; 3.6 lines 116-20.

[35]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 3.3.

[36] Bonnie Kent, “Losable Virtue:  Aquinas on Character and Will” in Aquinas and the Nicomachean Ethics ed. Tobias Hoffman, Jorn Muller, and Matthias Perkams (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 101.

[37] Aquinas, Commentary, 3.5 lines 18-28.

[38] Matthias Perkams, “Aquinas on Choice,” 75.

[39]Aquinas, Summa Theologiaie, 1-2.14.3.

[40]Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.113, 14:360a-b.

[41]T. H. Irwin, “Historical Accuracy in Aquinas’s Commentary on the Ethics” in Aquinas and the Nicomachean Ethics ed. Tobias Hoffman, Jorn Muller, and Matthias Perkams (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 14.

[42]Aristotle, On the Heavens, 1.22.8.

Envisioning a More Biblical Model for Youth Ministry

The 21st-century has seen a marked loss of spiritual enthusiasm and maturity among American youths.  The segregation of generations in American culture has led to growing immaturity and increased generational divide among Americans of the last seventy years.  Americans have increasingly come to view the teenage lifestyle as the developmental ideal such that responsibility is put off and ultimate autonomy embraced for as long as possible. [1]  Sadly, in the latter half of the twentieth century, the church made a wholesale embrace of secular views of evolving American culture, and youth ministry likewise followed the popular culture’s pragmatic approach and changing outlook toward adolescents.  This pragmatism led the church to implement age-segregated youth ministry for the purpose of appealing to young people and ministering to them separately from the context of their families.  In hindsight, studying retention rates and examining the spiritual development of Christian youths, the evidence demonstrates that these years were not an exemplary model for sewing into Christian youths.

American parents have resultantly grown comfortable with a practice of farming out children’s intellectual development to the education system, and spiritual development to guidance counselors and youth ministry professionals.  “For many parents, the thought of discipling their teenagers seems daunting.  Not only does society encourage parents to leave education to the professionals, but the church unknowingly does the same by neglecting to teach scriptural mentoring principles to parents.” [2]  These parents have relinquished primary influence in the development of their children’s personhood, and have then resorted to questioning why, in the years when children are growing toward autonomy, they come to possess ideals discordant to that of the parents.  Further, youths fail to understand why they should be expected to carry forward the views of their parents.  This relinquishing of influence is partially responsible for college-age youths’ ready connection with ideologies of university professors.   Secular academicians, rather than parents, have been given primacy in the intellectual and ethical development of American youths.  American parents, as well as church leaders, have lost both the hearts and the minds of the children placed under their care.  Likewise, in many cases, the church has failed to instill faith in youths to the extent that it can retain them.  This paradigm is clearly missing the biblical target in both approach and result.  The church, by promoting the divide with segregated youth ministry, has served to exacerbate these issues.  Rather than seeking to affirm parents, to incorporate them in ministry to their children, and working to bolster the child-parent relationship; the average youth ministry prefers to serve as a drop-off service that operates free of the ‘burden’ of dealing with parents.  “Parents are often seen as a hindrance to ministry, as a source of endless opinion and criticism, and in extreme cases as a necessary evil.” [3] Steve Wright exhorts church leaders to reevaluate saying, “It’s time for us to be honest about our struggles and frantic lifestyles.  It’s time to admit that the current student ministry model isn’t aligned with a biblical framework. It’s time to be honest about what today’s research is telling us.  It’s time to rethink student ministry.” [4]

Family Ministry Models

Before examining family ministry models a definition should be provided for the term family ministry.  More than just a more incorporative exchange for the term ‘youth ministry,’ family ministry is “the process of intentionally and persistently coordinating a ministry’s proclamation and practices so that parents are acknowledged, trained, and held accountable as primary disciple-makers in their children’s lives.” [5]  Family ministry is a shift of responsibility in the development of our youths.  What is clear on the biblical account is that the home is to be the place of primary spiritual development for children (Deut 6:7).  The Jewish home was the primary locus of children’s spiritual training. [6]  In the first century AD, while Jewish children attended synagogue for schooling, Jewish leaders expected that homes should be, “viewed much like the tabernacle, as a private sanctuary for religious observances, including the worship of God, . . . the instruction in the Torah, . . . and meeting needs found in the community.” [7]  Family ministry is not merely an organizational subcategory in the local church’s ministry structure (like youth ministry), but a movement that is pushing for a more biblical and familial approach to raising Christian children.

In traditional youth ministry, “parents are not perceived as having the primary responsibility for the spiritual growth of their offspring.  Age-specific ministries in the church have increasingly embraced the primary responsibility for discipling students and children.” [8]  The family ministry movement recognizes that traditional youth ministry is not biblical, and its fruits are spoiled.  “After decades of departmentalizing and compartmentalizing members of the family, the church is realizing that maybe it’s time to start putting the family back together again.” [9]  Three models of family ministry have arisen to answer the need for more healthy and biblical approaches to ministering to both youths and families.

The Family-Based Model

“The two core values undergirding [the] philosophy [of family-based ministry] are flexibility and balance.” [10]  Acknowledging the shortcomings of the traditional youth ministry model, the family-based model attempts to keep family first while still acknowledging that most children do not live in intact Christian families.  Answering these concerns, a family-based church makes no radical changes to the church’s internal structure; and retains age-graded services, groups, events, and ministry structures while attempting to equip families with the tools necessary to engage their children in the home.  The divergence from the traditional segregated (youth ministry) model lies in each ministry’s sponsorship of events intentionally designed to gather and bond the segregated generations.

Proponents of the family-based approach reject the notion that generational segregation is a problem, and argue that segregated ministry is actually the most effective platform for missiology.  Brandon Shields concedes the point of his objectors saying, “I agree that, in an intact Christian family, parents are the persons primarily responsible to disciple their own children,” but (noting that the majority of youths do not live in intact Christian homes) retorts, “Age-organized programs function as vital missiological tools to touch the hearts of lost students who would not otherwise have a chance to respond in faith to the gospel.” [11] Where the desire to see the Great Commission fulfilled is commendable, the family-based approach still stops short of the necessary reform and instead throws more activities and training on top of existing commitments.  This approach quickly creates bulky, cumbersome, and inefficient ministry by increasing demands on pastors, parents, and youths while simultaneously failing to desegregate the congregation, to offer markedly new opportunities for development of youths, and to unite the homes of church members.

The Family-Integrated Model

At the other end of the spectrum is the family-integrated model.  The most radically different model (from the traditional youth ministry paradigm), family-integrated churches reject what they call ‘modern individualism’ by eliminating age-graded classes and events.  “Family-integrated ministry subtracts age-segregated activities.” [12]  This means no nursery, no children’s ministry, and no youth pastor.  The National Center for Family-Integrated Churches envisions family units operating as building blocks comprising the greater church structure. [13]  The family-integrated church is a collection of families, each doing the work of ministry within their homes.

Despite interest in intergenerational church ministries, the evangelical trend of the past decades remains toward age-graded ministry that divides the generations.  Sociologist Holly Allen notes, “In the past, spending family time and going to church were the same thing. . . . Now, family time and church time are not compatible ideas, because families are rarely together when they are at church.” [14]  The family-integrated church seeks to put the family back together again in the most literal sense.  Proponents of this approach find divisive age-segregation ministry structures wholly unacceptable.

This model is helpful in rejecting the extra-biblical and artificial period of immaturity between childhood and adulthood, and instead treating teens as responsible young adults endowed with responsibility, empowered and expected to contribute, and affirmed and valued according to their ideas and contributions.  Paul Renfro points out that “the more experiences a family shares together, the closer that family becomes.” [15]  Among these shared experiences should certainly be worship services and church activities.  The common criticism facing family-integrated churches is a shortcoming in answering the needs of broken families, and in finding ways to connect with youths who lack Christian parents.

The Family-Equipping Model

The family-equipping model seeks to strike a middle ground suggesting that segregation (whether based on age, gender, ethnicity, first language, or any other mark of difference), as a core principle of a church’s ministry structure, is divisive in the body of Christ and drives fragmentation in the home.  Breaking out in groups by shared commonalities for events and for mission programs can be natural and beneficial, but leading with segregation as the core of the church’s ministry structure is wrongheaded.  “When students are separated from the life of the church for most of its services activities and ministries, we are setting them up for failure.” [16]  The family-equipping model attempts to navigate the Scylla of alienating non-traditional families and developing youth that struggle to connect in outreach to their unchurched counterparts, and the Charybdis of conversely employing a pragmatic structure based on a worldly social ideology that further exacerbates the immaturity of American youths and creates further distance between the generations.

The path is narrow and ditches lie on both sides, but the 21st-century church must find the balance for walking the knife’s edge between failing to reach lost youths and failing to effectively minister to intact families.  In family-equipping ministry, age-organized ministry remains intact, but ministry leaders promote the biblical vision of parents as the primary spiritual influencers in their children’s development, co-championing the church and home.  “Family-equipping ministry multiplies the impact of what churches are already doing by transforming age-organized activities into partnerships that span the generations.” [17]  The family-equipping model is both the most biblical and most missionally effective model.  By providing parents with the equipment and sophistication necessary to be the faith leaders of their own children, the faith competency and unity of the entire family is elevated.  In those homes where parents are not present, the family-equipping church must step in and rear youths, recognizing the biblical family is one that extends beyond blood relationships and beyond the walls of the home.  The family-equipping church must also provide safe entry points and comfortable environments for non-traditional families to be full participants in the life of the church.


Implementation of a more biblical family ministry requires a full-scale rejection of the unbiblical notion that adolescence is a time for shirking responsibility and behaving in a less than adult capacity.  More than a list of bullet points for implementation to the youth ministry program, family ministry demands a reorientation of the ethos of the entire local church.  A successful family ministry demands the congregation at large be taught the value and worth of youths, the potential and benefit of youth inclusion in the mission and work of the church, the necessity of entrusting youths with responsibility, empowering youths to participate in church and society, and expecting them to contribute in significant ways.  The Bible does not lack for examples of young people, boys and girls, whom God has called and entrusted with tremendous responsibility.  Nor does the Bible depict ‘teenagers’ as freewheelers and freeloaders, rather as significant contributors to the family and place of worship.  Much of the implementation of such a ministry depends on re-education and a change of heart among parents and elders toward the congregation’s children.  These parents and elders must first own the development of these children as their personal responsibility.

While “training a child spiritually seems frightening and foreign to the average parent,” [18] the Westminster Confession gives clear indication of how far the church’s expectations for Christian parenting have fallen.  The Westminster Confession states, “After . . . reproof, if [the Christian] be found still to neglect Family-worship, let him be . . . debarred from the Lord’s supper, as being justly esteemed unworthy to communicate therein, till he amend.” [19]  In other words, if parents fail to lead in worship in the home (teaching the Bible to their children, praying, and discipling, etc.) they are to be barred from communion.  Where some Bible teachers have seen fit to raise hell over select portions of the Westminster Confession, it is doubtful many elder boards and pastors would move a finger on this issue.  The present situation demands that ministers seeking more biblical family ministry be prepared to take the entirety of the confession (and biblical doctrine at large) seriously, rather than cherry-picking matters of import.  Pastors must be prepared to hold parents to accountability in ministering to the next generation.

The successful implementation of a family ministry paradigm requires Scripture as the standard.  Family ministry starts and ends in the Word, and takes place primarily in the home.  Thus, the Word must be read and discussed in the home.  All successful endeavors require prayer.  “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalms 127:1).  Pastors and church members must operate with intentionality and patience.  The proposed ministry framework to be implemented will need to be taught in its biblical context from the pulpit.  Parents must be informed that it is their God commanded duty to train children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).  Older men and women must be exhorted that they are particularly called to teach the younger men and women, and to encourage household unity (Titus 2:2-6), so “that the next generation might know [God’s ways and works]” (Psalm 78:6).

We must reset the expectations of all involved for youth ministry.  We must stress the biblical emphasis that youth ministry is not for purposes of entertainment or gathering crowds, but for the developing of mature followers of Christ.  It is on the church to provide a path that “allows the next generation to experience a congruent growth and development pattern at church and home,” that can be “traveled one small step at a time.” [20]  Construct a Family Ministry Leadership Team incorporating all Pastors, elders and deacons, key parents, and key representatives from the congregation’s youth.  Win the parents.  Preach commitment and unity.  Provide “equipping opportunities for adults offering parents the chance to acquire practical parenting skills, biblical depth for effective faith transformation, and stellar resources in support of each milestone along the path.” [21]  Celebrate the importance, competence, and contribution of the congregation’s youth.  These are among key initiatives that will captivate the hearts and promote the understanding of the family-equipping congregation.


With all change comes initial resistance and continued growing pains.  Entering any such endeavor requires all involved to count the cost.  After putting a hand to the plow successful change requires the courage and resolve not to turn back (Luke 9:62).  Pastors will have to be leaders rather than managers.  This will require motivation to do what is right, rather than what simply keeps the peace.

Church Resistance to Family-Equipping Ministry

Many student ministers, while claiming to be cutting edge and innovative, continue in a 50-year-old youth ministry model.  In many cases, objections to change simply stem from “the way we’ve always done things,” a lack of awareness of deficiencies in the present model, the presence of potentially better alternatives, and sheer laziness or lack of courage to strive for better.  Whatever the cause for resistance, the fact remains that the present model is indeed deficient and fails to reach the heart and mind of the average American family.  Dr. Tim Kimmel aptly states, “There is no doubt that home is where life is making up its mind.”  Kimmel further prompts, “Think of the key points of influence within our culture, and you’ll realize that [a home’s] capacity for good or for ill is determined by the quality of the people within them.” [22]  Kimmel’s suggestion is that what happens in the home has far greater influence over members of a family than what happens outside of the home (even in those few hours family members spend with pastors).  Good, strong families bring out the best in each of their members.  Unhealthy home environments perpetuate the worst. Hence, it is vital that the church develop an active concern for the homes of those she shepherds.  This is crucial not just for the spiritual health of individuals, or for the vitality of churchgoers’ homes; but “the health and strength of the family determines:  the integrity of our business community; the morality of our arts and entertainment; the health of our churches and synagogues; the conscience of our political leaders; the character of our military and police force; the heart of our educational system; the ethics of our scientific community; [and] the compassion of our social welfare services.” [23]  In many cases, the failure to minister to the home can be overcome by education (beginning in the Bible) coming from the pulpit.  People are more willing to accept change and motivated to see it carried through when they choose a new direction of their own accord.  Any ministry shift that comes across as something ‘done to the people’ rather than ‘done by the people’ holds the potential to breed resentment.  Necessarily, such drastic ministry shifts must come with the preparation of the congregation’s heart for such change.

Parental Misconceptions

G. K. Chesterton noted, “The trend of our epoch up to this time has been consistently towards specialism and professionalism.” [24] Where the Bible teaches that God uses ordinary people and His glory is shown in weakness, many parents have grown a false conception that spiritual and ethical development of their children is better left to professionals. These parents hope the youth minister will be their child’s hero, his first confidant, and the first person he goes to in times of crisis.  This, however, is either a naïve handing over of their most precious roles in parenthood or a heinous abdication of parental duty.  The youth minister should reinforce the biblical assertion that this is the parent’s role.  Youth ministers should exhort parents to fill these functions, and should likewise encourage children to look to their parents to fulfill these roles.  A youth minister should be prepared to train and develop parents to perform these functions while remaining a teacher, counselor, and spiritual guide complementary to the family.  Likewise, the local church is an extended family, complementing the functions of the immediate family.  Where parents are present, the youth pastor must not affirm parents in their abandonment of the crucial responsibilities of parenthood.  Where individual believers are part of a family in which Christian faith is not practiced, the church can serve as the primary point of contact for discipleship and faith counsel, but this is the exception rather than the ideal.  It is of paramount necessity that parents are provided an expanded blueprint to “teach their children how to love God by loving God in front of them.” [25]  Providing this blueprint is the primary contribution of pastors to family ministry.

Disengaged Parents

There is simply no reason to continue defending an unbiblical ministry model that statistics and countless examples prove fails in overcoming the very concerns the model claims to be answering.  It remains, regardless of ministry format, that children are most influenced by those people who dedicate the most intentional influence to their lives.  “Family life is our first school of emotions. . . . All [emotional development] is learned not just through the things parents say directly to their children, but also in how parents handle their own feelings between each other.  That’s why we need to be careful students of ourselves as we become better students of our children.” [26]  The reality is that youth ministers have limited exposure to youths, and despite any extent of access granted to school teachers and ball coaches, the most influential factor on children is the behavior modeled by their parents.  The idea of ignoring (rather than leveraging) parents’ great ability to positively or negatively influence youths is a misappropriation of resources, an ongoing collection of missed opportunities, and a great disservice to the kingdom of God at large.  “The traditional model is failing our teens and families; it is not biblical, and in my opinion, it is not a viable option to reaching to disengaged families.”  Given the persistence of Christian divorce, the current family ministry paradigm has failed not just the children but the entire family.  A ministry model that pushes family members to press into one another is needed, rather than a model that draws them apart.   It remains that there will be parents who are ‘missing-in-action’, but the church should not contribute to the problem by encouraging the persistence of this national epidemic.  Parents must be encouraged to embrace the education and equipping necessary to raise solid children to become mature Christians.  Dr. Tim Kimmel warns parents that “When we as parents do our part well, we set our kids up to live meaningful lives.  But . . . loving them doesn’t automatically ensure a strong connection to their hearts.  There is a level of sophistication we need to develop . . . to turn that love into a potent influence for good in every dimension of their lives.” [27]  While it might seem an insurmountable endeavor to become an equipped parent, Kimmel assures that “becoming a sophisticated parent is actually the easier path to take.  The tough one is choosing to stay ‘unsophisticated’ and then dealing with all of the negative damage that choice [to remain unequipped] guarantees.” [28]  Being a proactive, prepared, and intentional parent, armed with knowledge and a relationship with one’s child, should make parenting simpler and more successful than a lack of preparation, withdrawal, and reactionary approach.  Development of parents in this ‘sophistication’ is the task of family ministry.

In situations that concern divorce and non-traditional family, the family-equipping model outperforms other models by seeking to equip children’s care providers to rear children in faith while also providing a designated youth ministry.  Family-equipping ministry can provide all children with equipped family members, youth ministers, church leaders, and program sponsors to step into the void created by missing parents.

Overemphasis on Numbers

For too many years the church has measured the effectiveness of youth ministry by its ability to entertain the largest number of teens while providing the greatest freedom for adults to enjoy unencumbered worship.  Youth ministry has become a consumer service marked by “extreme” events, games, and pizza parties aimed at drawing crowds while undermining the intellect of teens and failing to connect with them at a depth that demonstrates the long-term value of church.  The fruit of this approach is overworked youth pastors and painfully poor retention rates among college-age people and twenty-somethings.  Mark Devries suggests, “It might be more of a sin to suggest to young people that the Christian life is always fun and never boring.  Keeping teenagers from ever being bored in their faith can actually deprive them of opportunities to develop the discipline and perseverance needed to live the Christian life.  It is precisely in those experiences that teenagers might describe as ‘boring’ that Christian character is often formed.” [29]  What is needed is a shift from event planning to people development.  For too long the church has been enamored with a vision that measures success by the ability to draw crowds rather than produce committed and mobilized disciples of Christ.  The concern for numbers might be overcome by real, hard confrontation with the metrics.  However, if the facts of the matter alone are not enough to convince those concerned with drawing crowds, the tradeoff of giving up a crowd a mile wide and an inch deep in exchange for developing a smaller community of life-long believers is certainly a pastoral hill to die on.


In her acclaimed study of American adolescence, Patricia Hersch summarizes the present condition when she states, “A clear picture of adolescents, of even our own children, eludes us . . . not necessarily because they are rebelling, or avoiding or evading us.  It is because we aren’t there.  Not just parents, but any adults.  American society has left its children behind.”[30]  The twenty-first-century culture highlights the marked loss of spiritual enthusiasm and maturity among American youths.  The segregating of generations in American culture has led to growing immaturity and increased generational divide amongst Americans at large, and members of American homes.  The time is past due for the church to throw off the past mistakes of embracing secular views toward child development and following popular culture’s pragmatic approach toward raising adolescents.  The time is dire for youth pastors to be tasked with leading rather than managing, and people-developing rather than event planning.  To better serve the families of the American church it is necessary that local churches investigate and implement a more biblical family-equipping ministry model that develops parents to be the spiritual leaders of their homes, places the onus of youth spiritual development properly on the family, continues outreach to unchurched youths and adults alike, and works to unite the segregated generations.

family photo 2017 high res

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, preacher, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.




[1]Timothy Paul Jones, “Why Every Church Needs Family Ministry” in Perspectives of Family Ministry:  Three Views, ed. Timothy Paul Jones (Nashville, TN:  B&H Academic, 2009), 32.

[2]Steve Wright and Chris Graves, reThink:  Decide for Yourself – Is Student Ministry Working?  (Wake Forest, NC:  InQuest Ministries, 2014), 87.

[3]Ibid., 30.

[4]Ibid., 7.

[5]Timothy Paul Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide:  How Your Church Can Equip Parents to Make Disciples (Indianapolis, IN:  Wesleyan Publishing House, 2011), 33.

[6]K. Lawson, “Historical Foundations of Christian Education,” in Introducing Christian Education, ed. M. Anthony (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Publishing, 2001), 18.

[7]M. Anthony and W. Benson, Exploring the History and Philosophy of Christian Education (Grand Rapids, MI:  Kregel, 2003), 27.

[8]T. P. Jones, Perspectives, 12.

[9]M. Penner, Youth Worker’s Guide to Parent Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2003), 1.

[10]Brandon Shields, “”Family-Based Ministry:  Separated Contexts, Shared Focus,” in Perspectives on Family Ministry:  Three Views, ed. Timothy Paul Jones (Nashville, TN:  B&H Academic, 2009), 98.

[11]Ibid., 107.

[12]T. P. Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide, 134.

[13]Paul Renfro, “Family-Integrated Ministry:  Family Driven Faith” in Perspectives on Family Ministry: Three Views, ed. Timothy Paul Jones (Nashville, TN:  B&H Academic, 2009), 55.

[14]Holly Allen at John Brown University, in Albert Mohler, “’The New Family Trump Card’ – Family Time vs. Church Time” (March 14, 2007), http://www.albertmohler.com/2007/03/14/the-new-family-trump-card-family-time-vs-church-time-2/, Accessed July 16, 2016.

[15]P. Renfro, Perspectives, 63.

[16]Wright and Graves, reThink, 41-42.

[17]T. P. Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide, 134.

[18]Brian Haynes, SHIFT:  What it Takes to Finally Reach Families Today (Loveland, CO:  Group, 2009), 36.

[19]The Directory for Family Worship annotated ed. (Greenville, SC:  Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 1994), 2.

[20]B. Haynes, SHIFT, 47.

[21]Ibid., 114.

[22]Tim Kimmel, Discover Your Child’s Heart with the Kids’ Flag Page (Green Bay, WI:  Laugh Your Way America, 2011), 16.

[23]T. Kimmel, Discover Your Child’s Heart, 16-17.

[24]T. P. Jones, Perspectives, 47.

[25]B. Haynes, SHIFT, 34.

[26]T. Kimmel, Discover Your Child’s Heart, 27.

[27]Ibid., 18.

[28]Ibid., 19.

[29]Mark DeVries, Family-Based Youth Ministry (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1994).

[30]Patricia Hersch, A Tribe Apart:  A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence (New York:  Random House, 1999). 19.

What Does it Mean That Scripture is Inspired and Inerrant?

The most important aspect of understanding God begins in understanding the way in which He has chosen to reveal specific information about Himself. The inspiration of scripture and the inerrancy of Scripture are corollary doctrines in that they directly inform a person’s understanding of God. A person’s view of Scripture’s inspiration will necessarily affect that person’s view of Scripture’s inerrancy.  The inspiration of Scripture provides information for how Scripture came into existence, and by understanding inspiration properly, readers of the Bible come to understand the authority by which the Words of Scripture came to be recorded.  By understanding that Scripture did not originate in the minds of men, but originated with God, it is then understood that Scripture is inerrant.

Inspiration of Scripture

Inspiration is defined as God’s superintendent work, via the Holy Spirit, in using human authors to record His Word in a manner that employed the personalities, theological perspectives, writing and grammatical styles, and abilities of the authors.  Inspiration ensured that what the authors wrote was the Word of God itself, exactly as God intended, containing divine authority, and being fully truthful and without error.  In superintending the writing, God did not treat the authors as transcriptionists, mechanically dictating His Word for them to record, but rather brought together Scripture in a flowing together of the Holy Spirit and the human authors’ thoughts in a stream of confluence.  This perfect concursive confluence required both the Holy Spirit and the human author to each provide one hundred percent engagement in the process, working together in bringing about the Holy Writ.  2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God,” and 2 Peter 1:21 says “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”  While biblical orthodoxy holds the divine inspiration of scripture to be true, the actual mode by which the authors received inspiration is still largely mysterious.  This is because the actual method of inspiration is not discussed in Scripture.  The emphasis is instead left on the result, the divine written Word, rather than on the manner by which it was brought about.  While there is much mystery surrounding the inspiration of Scripture, there are several modes that are known to have been employed.  Luke, for instance, tells readers that he wrote by employing natural powers and abilities.  Luke did the homework of retrieving data for the purposes of writing his gospel, and then, guided by the Holy Spirit, Luke recorded his gospel from his personal experience.  Several biblical authors record revelations received through visions or dreams, writing from modes of revelation would be considered miraculous.  Jesus said in John 14:26 that the Holy Spirit would bring to the disciples’ remembrance all the things that He taught them.  This seems to be the mode by which Matthew and John recollect and record their gospels.  Paul says that the majority of what he writes comes from specific teachings of Jesus, but he also offers sound judgment, or a Spirit-led guidance, in certain issues where he does not have a teaching from Jesus.  Finally, there are also some moments in which God does directly dictate what He desires to be written down.  One place this is seen is when God orders Isaiah to take a large scroll and write His words on it in Isaiah 8:1.

All told, what is found in Scripture is an authoritative account of God’s message, free of error, originating not within the will of the human authors, but originating with God Himself.  An accurate image of inspiration is that of a ship whose sail is filled by a wind which moves the ship along.  The sailors steer and control the ship in the degree in which they are required, but the originator and driving force of the ship is the wind itself, which is in the case of Scripture, the Spirit.

Inerrancy of Scripture

The doctrine of inerrancy is the belief that the Bible, in the original autographs, is without error in any regard.  Throughout Scripture, the Bible makes the claim that it is the very Word of God.  The exact words, “Thus says the Lord,” appear over four hundred times in Scripture, and very clearly make the claim that Scripture is a direct message from God.  In areas where the Scripture does not claim to be direct dictation from the Lord, the Bible still claims to be the inspired Word of God (2 Tim 3:16).  The Bible is consistent among the 40 plus authors in relaying that Scripture is breathed out by God.  Being inspired by God, the Word carries with it God’s authority.  Recognizing that Scripture is the Word of God, breathed out by God, carrying the authority of God, it logically follows that the scripture is without error.

Advocates of the doctrine of inerrancy use a number of methods to arrive at the conclusion of the Bible’s godly perfection.  These methods include the confessional method, presuppositional method, and classical method.  The confessional method is defined as the method by which the Scripture is acknowledged as inerrant by faith alone.  The presuppositional method involves a circular reasoning that begins with acknowledging the Bible as the Word of God.  If it can be presupposed that the Bible is the Word of God, and the Bible attests to its own infallibility, then it can be concluded that the Bible is the infallible Word of God.  The classical method defends the inerrancy of Scripture by concerning itself with the deduction and induction of external and internal evidence.  The reasoning of the classical method states that on the basis of the Bible being basically reliable, there is sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  Jesus, being the Son of God is an inerrant authority.  During His ministry, Jesus taught that the Bible is the Word of God.  If Jesus is the Son of God, He says the Scriptures are the Word of God, and God is trustworthy, then it necessarily follows that the Scriptures are trustworthy.  Unlike the presuppositional method, the classical method does not involve circular reasoning because the conclusion is not present in the first premise.  The classical argument also does not involve a priori assumptions or subjective leaps of faith in that the method involves historical and empirical investigation to come to logical conclusions.  The classical method still depends on the fallible reasoning of man, and Calvin does well to point us back to the fact that, “our conviction of the truth of Scripture must be derived from a higher source than human conjectures, judgments, or reasons; namely the secret testimony of the Spirit.”

Because none of the original autographic texts of Scripture exist today, modern texts cannot be claimed to be inerrant.  The inerrancy of the words of the Bible can only be applied directly to the original autographs.  According to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, it can, however, “be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy.”  It is believed that by the discipline of textual criticism that Bible scholars are able to reconstruct the original writings to within ninety-nine percent accuracy.

The inerrancy of Scripture asserts that when all the facts are known, and the Scriptures are interpreted absolutely correctly, the original autographs will prove to be perfectly true in all that they affirm in terms of doctrine, morality, and the physical and life sciences.  Inerrancy does not intend to defend the grammatical precision, the exactness of quotes, or the perfection of man’s interpretations of the Scriptures.  Inerrancy recognizes that imprecision in writing does not equate to a failure of truthfulness.  Inerrancy also acknowledges that there are false statements in the Bible, for instance, words spoken by Satan the deceiver, which are not true but are in fact accurately recorded.  Inerrancy simply means that Scripture possesses full divine authority that “cannot be broken” (John 10:31), and is free from any liability to mistake, making it completely incapable of error.

In October 1978 more than 200 evangelical leaders from a variety of denominations signed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and stem a growing trend toward liberal views of Scripture.  Since the signing of the of the CSBI the evangelical church has made serious efforts in advancing a conservative resurgence, but the accepting of inerrancy will always depend first and foremost on a proper understanding Christ’s view of Scripture.  As Jesus Christ saw Scripture as fully inspired, authoritative, and free from error (Luke 24:25-27), so too should anyone who claims to make Him their Lord.  Ultimately, as Kahler said, “We do not believe in Christ because we believe in the Bible, but we believe in the Bible because we believe in Christ.”

A Christian Understanding of the Morality of War

An examination of the Christan ethic of war and the necessity of justice for the maintenance of peace.

In a world of ever-present international conflict, questions persist regarding the moral justification of war and the level of participation Christians should have in armed conflicts.  Christians universally agree that war is a grievous atrocity.  As Arthur Holmes asserts, “To call war anything less than evil would be self-deception.  [. . .] The issue that tears the Christian conscience is not whether war is good, but whether it is in all cases entirely avoidable.” [1]  Christians further debate whether God’s people should be involved in political entanglements at all.  The church is confronted with the question, “Is a decision not to stand and defend our neighbors an act of righteousness, or a sin of omission?”  These and other questions have troubled the conscience of the church since its inception.  By examining the Scriptures relevant to the discussion, considering the underlying hermeneutical principles by which the different traditions interpret these texts, and weighing the theological, philosophical, and political entailments, this article will make an investigation of the two traditions, pacifism and just war theory, which broadly represent the church’s historical positions toward war.  This article will then defend the position that sin, by pervading every aspect of humanity, and the Bible, in offering no suggestion that peace will be attained in the present age, together dictate that in times where peace is interrupted and cannot be restored by non-violent means, Christians have a duty to honor and support their governments’ operations as God-ordained institutions for the administration of order and the protection of the innocent. For the purpose of upholding justice and the preventing of greater evil, Christians should follow the leadership of their sovereign magistrates’ by taking up arms to act as an arbiter of justice for the restoration of peace.

Pertinent Matters to Christian War Ethics

When debating the Christian ethics of war there are a few matters which should be understood to impact the Christian’s potential response.  These issues include the Scriptures applicable to the discussion, the underlying hermeneutical approaches, and the theological and political entailments resulting from the pacifist and just war positions.  These issues will be examined in the discussion of each tradition below, but before entering the discussion it should first be established that all Christian orthodoxy, in some form or fashion, affirms that mankind is depraved, and that evil is a pervasive reality for humanity.  It must second be acknowledged that the Bible teaches that in the end there will be wars and rumors of wars (Matt 24:6-8), and an idealistic perpetual peace, whether sought by virtue or imposed by duty, is not the future the Bible depicts for the entirety of mankind.   “The New Testament does not, in other words, envisage a simple triumph of good over evil in history,” [2] and the tragic character of contemporary history must persuade Christians to take the fact of human sinfulness and the reality of war seriously. [3]  “Though war remains a tragic fact of human life, the ideal we should strive for in national and international affairs is peace with justice.” [4]  Further it must be acknowledged that life in a fallen world will not allow for evil to be avoided in every circumstance.  In each generation, there will arise times of conflict in which Christians will be required to take a conscious stand on the topic of war and peace.

Engaging Pacifism

Believing deadly force is inconsistent with the ethics of Christ, the pacifist position maintains that the community of God’s covenant believers is to be a minority movement[5] called to a spiritual vocation, and a kingdom distinct from the world,[6] for the purpose of offering witness to Christ by honoring the sanctity of every human life. [7]

The first Scriptural encounter which might lead one to adopt the pacifist position is the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exod 20:13).  Many pacifists consider human life to be sacrosanct, saying that each person is of infinite worth and must be treated as an end in themselves rather than as a means to an end to be sacrificed for the sake of goals. [8]  As Augsburger states, “We cannot be involved in anything, whether it is social injustice, violence, war or poverty, which interrupts a person’s opportunities for a full life.” [9]   The pacifist further bolsters their foundation in their interpretation that Christ’s Sermon on the Mount instructs that Christians are to “not resist evil, to “turn the other cheek,” and to “love [their] enemies” (Matt 5:38-48).  The pacifist sees these actions to be carried out literally as acts of obedience to Matthew 5:11-12, a Scripture in which they see Christ instructing His disciples that they are blessed in their passivity in persecution.  Additionally, pacifists will reference texts like Matthew 26:52 in which Christ says, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” and He instructs Peter that he should return his sword to its place.  This is clear precept for the pacifist that he should never resist evil in such a way that might result in the use of force.

Seeing the Bible as moving along a trajectory of progressive revelation, in which God reveals His will more clearly with passing time, the pacifist typically arrives at her position by an underlying hermeneutic that stresses a discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments.  This hermeneutic views the New Testament as superseding the example of the Old in such a way that justice is now superseded by a new law of love. [10]  This view of the law of love dictates that God no longer desires a geographical theocracy but a spiritual kingdom, and therefore warrants no taking of life or land by force, but desires the advance of His kingdom by the means of the gospel.

The pacifist reasons that non-violence is the appropriate response to evil because the weapons of God’s kingdom are spiritual, and not earthly. [11]  The pacifist expresses a genuine biblical desire for world peace, and hopes that whether by faithfulness, example, rationality, social contract, or non-violent resistance a greater peace might be achieved.  While it might not be the direct contention of any notable pacifist, Reinhold Niebuhr contends that pacifists imply “the Church’s failure to espouse pacifism unanimously can only be interpreted as apostasy, and must be attributed to its lack of courage or to its want of faith,” and further that pacifists see justice by means of violent intervention as rarely executed apart from sinful motives. [12]  A pacifist, Augsburger confirms the latter point by insisting that Christians typically fight wars for the purposes of nationalism, protecting property, for the achieving of Christ’s goals through force, and out of desire for power.  It is Augsburger’s contention that the Christian should take seriously Jesus’ commands to be content and to serve and sacrifice for the sake of character, for fidelity to the heavenly kingdom, and for the church’s witness to Christ, all of which are more valuable than power or material goods. [13]

The pacifist position entails that Christians must practice absolute non-resistance, and under all circumstance remain non-violent.  Christians are therefore only reasonably able to serve the government in positions in which they can perform the functions of office without compromising their pacifist ethic. [14]  For some pacifists this has meant a complete inability for any political involvement, and for others, it has excluded them from serving in positions such as police officer, mayor, judge, and any other force-executing role. [15]

In Defense of the Just War Theory

Contrary to pacifism the just war theory considers that while war is assuredly evil, it is sometimes biblically appropriate to fight for the sake of restoring peace.  Just War theory postulates that “under some circumstances the Christian should participate in war for the sake of the preservation of justice.” [16]  Rarely one to mince words, Luther was convinced that “without armaments peace cannot be kept; wars are waged not only to repel injustice but also to establish a firm peace.” [17]

A proper exegetical understanding of the sixth commandment is a helpful beginning toward understanding the Bible’s teaching that there is, in fact, a time to kill, and a time for war (Eccl 3:3, 8).  In the common historical rendering, “thou shalt not kill,” the Hebrew word ‘ratsach,’ translated in the King James as ‘kill,’ does not, in fact, share the same meaning as the English word ‘kill’ in the broad sense.  ‘Ratsach’ rightly understood is something closer to ‘manslaughter,’ personal vengeance, or personal negligence.  This becomes clearer when one considers that both the Old and New Testaments command the exercise of capital punishment by the will of God (Num 35:30, Rom 13:4).  This demonstrates that there are indeed biblical circumstances in which life is not considered so sacrosanct that it should never be taken, and there are circumstances in which it is lawful to kill.  Arthur Holmes further delineates that because Romans 13:1-7 grants that the governments use of lethal force “may be used to resist criminal and violent attacks from within a country or community, by implication it may be used to resist criminal and violent attacks from without.” [18]  Thomas Aquinas expresses his agreement with this reasoning saying of Romans 13:4, “He beareth not the sword in vain:  [. . .] it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies.  Hence it is said to those that are in authority (Psalm 81:4):  Rescue the poor:  and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner.” [19]  Augustine, speaking to whom should wield power to make a pronouncement of war professes, the “power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold supreme authority.”  As Peter exhorts in 1 Peter 2:14, the just war theorist obeys God by submission to government authority, and in this case by leaving such punishment of evil to the Lord’s ordained human institutions.

Contrary to the passages referenced by the pacifist to suggest the proper Christian position is one of non-resistance, the just war theorists call upon verses like John 2:15 in which Jesus drives out the money changers by use of a whip.  Just war theorists also point out that Christ says He “came not to bring peace but a sword” (Matt 10:34), and says, “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” Responding to the pacifists interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount John Jefferson Davis asserts “The actions of Jesus Christ himself and of the great apostle to the Gentiles clearly indicate that the sayings on turning the other cheek are meant to promote an attitude of nonrevenge [sic], rather than the posture of a ‘doormat’ for abuse.” [20]

Recounting the hall of fame of the faith in Hebrews 11, the writer of the epistle asserts in verses 32 to 34 that Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, became mighty in war, [and] put foreign armies to flight.  The epistolarian plainly calls their courageous enforcement of justice by means of war acts of faith.  Interpreting Matthew 5:9 in light of the Epistle to the Hebrews would suggest that one who brings about peace by the upholding of justice is blessed for faithful service, as Matthew 5:9 does not say blessed are the peaceful, but says blessed are those who bring about peace.

Seeing a continuity between the Old and New Testaments, and acknowledging a standard and unchanging morality for all people, “the just war theorist . . . is apt to see the law of love in the Old as well as the New, so that the New fulfills, reinforces and interprets the Old rather than superseding it.” [21]  The just war ethic sees the spirit of justice as being an integral part of the law of love and acknowledges that love requires justice for the maintenance of order and the keeping of peace.  This hermeneutic sees the teaching and example of the Old Testament as intimately relevant for Christians today, holds stronger concord with canonical biblical theology, and makes better sense of the entirety of the biblical metanarrative.

Borrowing from the prior work of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas developed an early outline by which the morality of war could be judged, positing that a just war meets three necessary demands:  proper authority, just cause, and just intent.  First, war must be waged by the sovereign governing forces whom God has granted authority.  “It is not the business of private individuals to declare war,” or “to summon together the people.”  Second, Aquinas references Augustine’s view that a just war must be one that avenges wrong or punishes a nation or state for refusing to make amends for wrongs.  Third, a just war requires a rightful intention, namely the advancement of good, the avoidance of evil, and the securing of peace. [22]  Later thinkers have made useful additions to these criteria among which is the idea that uses of force are to be employed only to the extent necessary to restore peace and no more. [23]

In direct contrast to Augsburger’s contentions about war primarily being waged for unrighteous motives, Luther contends that war is nothing other than the punishment of wrong and evil, and asks, “Why does anyone go to war, except because he desires peace and obedience?” [24]  Augustine agrees saying, “We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace.”  Hence it is the position of the just war theorist never to instigate conflict, but only to defend against conflict for the purpose putting an end to war.  The just war theory further reasons that if all ethical wars must be defensive wars, then universal adherence to the ethic would result in no war.  In conceding instances for defense, the just war theory, where necessary, allows for small misfortunes for the sake of preventing great ones.[25]  The just war theory, however, considers its function to be more than merely an arbiter of justice, but also an ethic by which wars are judged, regulated, and potentially prevented. [26]

Believing that the Bible’s cultural mandate instructs that it is the task of the church to make inroads into the secular world for the transformation of the corrupt and the redemption of brokenness, the just war position encourages Christians to pursue full participation in governmental functions including legislation, law enforcement, and military action. [27]  The just war hermeneutic believes that more is required biblically of the Christian than to bear witness to Christ in passivity.  Just war calls Christians to resist committing sins of omission – standing by in times of grievous evil, and to instead be prepared to defend innocent lives by seeking justice for the sake of compassion and love.  “To let violence and aggression go unchecked does not eliminate the evil, nor does it leave [the Christian] unimplicated if [they] could do something about it.” [28]  The just war theorist clearly identifies circumstances in which inaction results in significantly greater atrocity, and believes in some cases inaction is a greater evil than military action.


By the clear evidence of the pervasiveness of sin in society, and the Bible’s plain warning that war will persist until the end of the age, it is reasonable to deduce that the Bible implicates Christians, in circumstances where peace is interrupted and cannot be restored by non-violent means, to honor and support the government in its God-ordained role as sovereign keeper of order and protector of the people.  Further, despite just war theory being the predominant view of the historical church, it remains the responsibility of just war theorists to both protect and celebrate the lives and views of their pacifist brothers and sisters.  As the church is one in body, we are supported and edified by one another, and the witness and perspectives of those who do not think exactly as we do are helpful in keeping us from venturing too far in any direction.  The crusades stand as historic evidence of the pitfalls of a Christian mentality overly comfortable with the practice of war. The pacifists’ desire for peace and love are undeniable and should provide encouragement to the church to continually reexamine our position.  Ultimately, the Scriptural, hermeneutical, and rational evidence demand Christians to embrace a position that takes both peace and evil seriously.  While the just war theory is subject to the judgments of fallible men, and will never be a perfect practice, it remains necessary that Christians stand prepared to support the civil magistrate as the God-ordained institutor and maintainer of civil order.  A failure on the part of Christians to honor this duty for the sake of avoiding a small atrocity can ultimately lend itself to the permission of a great one.  As John Stuart Mill said, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

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Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, preacher, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.





[1]Arthur F. Holmes, “The Just War” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) War:  Four Christian Views (Winona Lake, IN:  BMH Books, 1986), 117.

[2]Reinhold Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics (Hamden, CT:  Archon Books, 1969), 4.

[3]Ibid, chap. 1.

[4]Arthur F. Holmes, War and Christian Ethics:  Classic and Contemporary Readings on the Morality of War (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 2005), 6.

[5]Myron S. Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) War:  Four Christian Views (Winona Lake, IN:  BMH Books, 1986), 85.

[6]Menno Simons, “A Reply to False Accusations,” in L. Verduin (trans.) and J. C. Wenger (ed.) The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Harrisonburg, VA:  Herald Press, 1956).

[7]Herman A. Hoyt, “Christian Pacifism,” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) War:  Four Christian Views (Winona Lake, IN:  BMH Books, 1986), 43.

[8]Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace,” in Lewis White Beck (ed.) On History (New York:  MacMillan Press, 1963).

[9]Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” 96.

[10]Arthur F. Holmes, “A Just War Response to Nonresistance,” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) War:  Four Christian Views (Winona Lake, IN:  BMH Books, 1986), 65.

[11]Simons, “A Reply to False Accusations.”

[12] Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics, 3.

[13]Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” 87-92.

[14]Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” 89.

[15]Holmes, “A Just War Response,” 69.

[16]John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics:  Issues Facing the Church Today (Phillipsburg, NJ:  P & R Publishing, 2004), 246.

[17]Cited in Ewald M. Plass, compiler, What Luther Says (Saint Louis:  Concordia, 1959), 3:1428.

[18]Holmes, “A Just War Response,” 69.

[19]Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas (Westminster, MD:  Christian Classics, 1981), 2.2.40.

[20]Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 244.

[21]Holmes, “The Just War,” 124.

[22]Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2.2.40.

[23]Holmes, “The Just War,” 123.

[24]Martin Luther, “Whether Solders, Too, Can Be Saved,” in C. M. Jacobs (trans.) and R. C. Shultz and H. T. Lehman (eds.), Luther’s Works Vol. 46 ‘The Christian in Society’ (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1967).


[26]Holmes, War and Christian Ethics, 4.

[27]Holmes, “The Just War,” 124.

[28]Ibid, 118.

A Christian Ethic for Treating Mental Illness

Research by the U. S. Burden of Disease Collaborators indicates neuropsychiatric disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States.[1]  Consequently, the “raging epidemic of mental illness,”[2] results in “psychotropic medications [being] among the most commonly prescribed of all pharmacological agents.”[3]  Pointing to the Church’s intersection with this issue, Christian psychiatrists Paul Meier and Frank Minirth say estimates indicate “pastors do more than half of all the counseling in the United States.”[4]  While proponents of psychiatry suggest “psychotropics have improved the lives of millions of individuals living with mental illness,”[5] many Christians still find themselves hesitant to throw their full support behind psychotropic medication.  In an article from Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer calls out Christians as having “a tendency to tiptoe around [mental illness] as if . . . on eggshells,”[6] and says Christians likely struggle more than their mainstream-society-peers in reaching positions on the topic.[7]  Further, complicating matters are psychiatric professionals who themselves acknowledge “significant controversy exists surrounding ethical best practices in the prescription of psychotropics.”[8]  Granted, mental illness remains a broad sweeping, debilitating, and sometimes dangerous affliction that can’t be ignored.

Christian best practices must be established for the safety and well-being of our communities.  This article will first consider reasons why some Christians are resistant to psychopharmacology. Then, the ontological nature of human beings will be considered before expressing reasons why Christians should support the field of psychopharmacology.  Finally, the paper will consider some further concerns Christians might have in fully embracing psychopharmacology, and will offer a response to those concerns.  Following this outline, this paper will argue a proper view of health recognizes human beings as whole persons and incorporates all God-given means, both spiritual and physical.  In understanding the treatment of mental illness, Christians must choose the narrow position between over-spiritualizing mental and emotional struggles, and conversely over-materializing the mind.  This paper will further contend this narrow position is the ethical high ground and falling into the ditch to either the left or right is done to the detriment of both the mentally ill and the community around them.

Reasons Christians Reject Psychopharmacology

In mental health, a tension exists that Christians must admit they are sometimes unsure how to navigate.  While some Christians are open to discussing mental illness as a physiological reality to be benefitted by psychiatry and pharmaceutical science, others believe granting too much weight to secular practices undermines the authority of Scripture.[9]  Within Christianity is a spectrum of viewpoints resistant to psychopharmacology.  A fringe element of Christians rejects medication out of hand in a convicted adherence to faith healing.  This group believes all healing should be sought through the supernatural activity of God alone.

More common are Christians who accept medical science as helpful to physical healing but view matters of the mind as spiritual and emotional rather than physical.  This group’s actions suggest the belief that symptoms of mental illness come as the result of sin, lack of faith, or other spiritual deficiencies.  Issues like depression and bipolar disorder are combatted with more sincere faith, repentance, prayer, and spiritual disciplines.  Referencing these Christians, Ed Stetzer recounts, “When I became a Christian, the initial reaction I heard regarding [mental health] issues was that if people would trust the Lord enough they would be healed.”[10]  Christians of this mindset say things like, “It is impossible for a Christian to be depressed or to need psychiatric counseling for an emotional problem,”[11] and ask, “Shouldn’t faith alone be enough to solve a Christian’s [emotional] problems.”[12]  It is also not uncommon for these Christians to conflate instances of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia with demon possession or the occult.[13]

The more prevalent view among Evangelicals, however, acknowledges the physical nature of some mental health issues but finds difficulty discerning which issues are primarily spiritual, behavioral, or physical.  Knowing the field of psychiatry often diverges from the Christian worldview, many Christians are hesitant to celebrate the practice of psychiatrists.  Additionally, many in the Church expect that Christians should possess an inner strength uncommon to the world.  Emotional struggles that challenge this expectation and cause Christians to fall short of behavioral expectations often lead to a feeling of personal failure.  These factors, in combination with the historical stigmatization of mental illness, leads many afflicted Christians to hide mental illness out of guilt and shame.

Robert H. Albers writes, “Ignorance concerning mental illness has historically often resulted in brutal treatment of suffering persons, of their being fettered both literally and figuratively by the chains of helplessness.”[14]  For these reasons, many Christians who are potentially afflicted choose to suffer quietly in emotional isolation.  Likening this shame and isolation to that of biblical lepers, Albers points out that “the stigmatization associated with both leprosy and mental illness elicits feelings of ‘disgrace shame’ within the afflicted as well as the affected persons,” and the net result of general insensitivity toward mental illness is “a progression of evaluative judgments by others, resulting in depersonalization, dehumanization, and finally ‘demonization’ of the one afflicted.”[15]  In these cases, it is not a misunderstanding of mental illness, but the fear of judgment that leads Christians to reject medication despite the clear acknowledgment of an issue.  Stetzer laments, “At the end of the day, part of the reason it’s difficult to acknowledge these real issues is that there can be a perception that Christians are not supposed to have these issues.  Part of our belief system is that God changes everything.”  Thus, whether Christians acknowledge mental issues may be physical, shame may still render them reluctant to embrace medication.

Ontology and the ‘Whole’ Person

The first step in determining a view toward treatment of mental illness demands clarification be given to the nature of mental illness.  This requires definition be given to the ontological status of the person.  The pertinent ontological question asks, “What is the relationship between the body and the mind?”  Two erroneous answers permeate this discussion.

There exists an errant view of human ontology that understands all matters of the mind to be purely spiritual.  This view divides human ‘parts’ into a dichotomy or trichotomy – two or three distinct substances respectively.  This view draws a hard distinction between the mind/soul and physical body.  In this mind-body dualism, souls are perceived to be distinct from, but presently existing within physical bodies.  Crudely, this view reduces humans to “entrapped souls,” or “souls on sticks,” and separates mental and spiritual aspects of the person from the physical.


A second errant view is naturalism, which views humans as purely physical beings.  This view rejects the existence of the soul and reduces all experiences of cognition to physical processes within the brain.  This view reduces humans to “meat computers,” and believes all mental and physical problems are corrected through physical means.

The Bible, however, does not depict humans as minds on sticks or meat computers.  In an elaborate word study, Anthony Hoekema summarizes the Bible’s ontological view of man with the phrase “psychosomatic unity.”  Man has “a physical side and a mental or spiritual side, but we must not separate these two.  The human person must be understood as an embodied soul,” and Scripture insists the human “must be seen in his or her totality, not as a composite of different parts.”[16]  Esteemed Christian ethicist Russell Moore agrees, “God created us as whole persons, with body and psyche together. . . . We don’t ‘have’ bodies or ‘have’ psyches.  We are psychosomatic whole persons, made in the image of God.”[17]

Minirth and Meier explain this understanding of the person implies the “separate dimensions of human nature interact so closely that ‘health’ on one level always impinges on ‘health’ on the other,” and “the state of our mental/emotional health affects our physical well-being, and vice/versa.”[18]  This points to a need for a holistic approach to healthcare.  Holistic healthcare “emphasize[s] the necessity for looking at the whole person, including physical condition, nutrition, emotional makeup, spiritual state, lifestyle values, and environment.”[19]  The holistic view suggests “mental problems should not be thought of as totally distinct from physical problems because neither type of problem is ever separate from the other. . . . The counselor ought not to think of spiritual and mental health as somehow totally separable.”[20] Thus, the Biblical view agrees with the psychiatric contention that physical factors are involved in functions of the mind while refusing the notion that human cognition is reduced to physical processes alone.

Reasons to Embrace Psychopharmacology

Crucial to embracing the necessity of psychopharmacology is understanding mental illness involves a “broken brain.”[21]  More technically, “schizophrenia is correlated with a chemical imbalance in the brain and causes varying degrees of abnormal behavior,” including “a basic loss of touch with reality.”[22]  Similarly, victims of clinical depression have brains with extremely low levels of neurotransmitters.[23] These physical issues are said to be virtually impossible to treat without medication.[24]  Prompt medical intervention, however, often alleviates faulty mental function, restores ordinary behavior, and makes full recovery possible for many people.[25]

Tragically, when “a psychotic person goes six months without medication to correct the dopamine imbalance in the brain, the psychosis nearly always becomes permanent and uncurable [sic].”[26]  People suffering from psychosis are also prone to extremely poor judgment, financial impulsivity, and action that brings peril to themselves and others.  Not every person suffering from mental illness suffers such severe symptoms, but Christians too frequently allow calamity to grow out of circumstances that could have been avoided with professional evaluation and treatment.

In cases of mental illness, “More often than not, more prayer and more faith are not the only remedy. [sic]”[27]  In cases of other physical ailments, like broken bones and malfunctioning organs, Christians rarely refuse medical care.  Likewise, Christians are not judged for suffering these ailments, and likewise do not feel guilt or shame because of them.  The Apostle Paul’s statement, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” is not a calling to Christians take a “grin-and-bear-it” approach to physical affliction when medical treatment is available – especially in the case that an affliction, left untreated, may increase in intensity until irreparable damage is done.  Additionally, it is flat out unethical to reject help for an affliction that could potentially threaten the emotional and physical well-being of others.  Christ himself said those who are sick are in need of a doctor (Matt 9:12).  Christians must acknowledge there is a serious difference between spiritual struggle and physical mental sickness.  While they can relate, they cannot be flattened into one or be considered the same.[28]  Mental illness must instead be viewed similarly to physical illness in cases of genuine mental illness.

Doctors Minirth and Meier caution, the Bible is fundamental to human wellness, but applying it as a “Band-aid” for every physical or mental disorder is more than a simplistic solution – it’s dangerous.”[29]  Additionally, it is not Christian to shame someone for having a birth defect or contracting a virus.  Therefore, it is unacceptable to blame a person for having a chemical imbalance.  Limiting treatment for physical mental afflictions to prayer and spiritual counsel is like telling a destitute brother to be well while offering him no blanket for warmth or bread to fill his stomach (James 2:16).  The Christian has an ethical responsibility to be concerned for fellow Christians’ physical well-being.

Regarding psychopharmacology, the ethical question becomes, “Will this course of action bring the afflicted person closer to physical and emotional wellness and better enable him to fulfill his purpose?”  This question is closely followed by a second question which asks, “Is this course of action the best and most appropriate means of reaching that end?”  If the answer to these questions is yes, then the onus is on the Christian to help his brother or sister in this way.  “People are crying out for help, and we cannot afford to be ignorant or afraid.”[30]  Christians must fight ignorance on these issues, conquer fear in addressing them, and eliminate the stigma and shame surrounding mental illness and psychopharmacology.

Remaining Concerns About Psychopharmacology

Despite acknowledging psychotropic medication as a helpful tool in whole-person health, there remain concerns for a wholesale embrace of psychopharmacology.  Many Christians fear that a locking of arms between the Church and psychiatry is a slippery slope which gives way to an increasingly materialistic view of humanity.  Increased materialism results in the elevation of medicine as the solution to all problems, and diminishes the value of faith.  Additionally, both Christians and non-Christians worry that the normalization of anti-depressants is redefining “normal” human emotional experience.  The normalization of psychopharmacology has also led to an increasing comfort with the unethical practice of abusing psychotropic drugs to exceed the limits of natural human ability.  Each of these issues feeds the exponential rise in the consumption of these substances and creates valid concern considering pharmaceuticals (especially those affecting the mind) are known to come with significant side-effects and inherent risks.

Psychotropics are among the most commonly prescribed of all pharmacological agents, and alter the emotional receptivity of the brain.  This creates a growing concern that Americans are losing a healthy understanding of what “normal” is, and are becoming increasingly confused between what qualifies as depression and mere circumstantial sadness.  There is growing concern that twenty-first century America has lost any appreciation for the importance of healthy and natural emotions like sadness and shame, and no longer values the formative and healing functions of suffering and mourning.  Increasingly, people are attempting to medicate away unwanted feelings due to a misguided expectation that they should be happy all the time and should not be bothered with feelings of sadness and guilt.  Russell Moore suggests that whether a person’s issue is ultimately chemical or circumstantial, it is important that they start with a realistic picture of what “normal” is.  The “normal” human life is not the one marketed by pop culture or the pharmaceutical industry, but the one the Bible clarifies as a “groaning” along with the persecuted creation.  If the expectation of normal life is a kind of all-the-time tranquility, people might be attempting to bypass a purposeful part of the human condition itself.[31]  An endorsement of psychopharmacology cannot allow that every feeling of sadness, guilt, anxiety, or confusion is abnormal, unhelpful, or needing medical attention.

Concern for the redefinition of what is normal to human cognition is not limited to the emotional realm.  The field known as cosmetic neuroenhancement has already begun responding to patient requests for medications to enhance cognitive-affective function for the purpose of intellectual and vocational achievement.[32]  Widespread swaths of otherwise healthy American teens have already made a common practice of abusing ADD (attention deficit disorder) drugs like Ritalin and Adderall for the purpose of enhancing cognitive function in academic pursuits.[33]  Acceptance of psychotropic medication could open the door for the cosmetic neuroenhancement industry to become a growing market within psychopharmacology in the twenty-first century.  These medications threaten the underlying assumption that the ethical goal of medicine is to restore afflicted individuals to normal function.

Ultimately more pressing, however, are concerns regarding the anxiousness of pharmaceutical companies to push medications without first having comprehensive knowledge of side effects.  Neuroscience expert Sarah J. Meller confesses, “In truth, we know very little of the working of the human mind.  Although we do know what some individual medications do to a specific receptor in the brain, the huge jump from molecular interaction to improvement in mood, cognition, and reality testing remains a mystery.”[34]  Further concerning is the reality that the present applications of many psychotropics were discovered by accident. Valium, chlorpromazine, tricyclic antidepressants, the MAOI family, and lithium were all originally intended to treat illnesses unrelated to the brain. Meller continues, “None of these medications were [sic] initially produced to treat the illness they are now treating. . . . No one had a clue as to why medications work as they do.”[35]  This demonstrates that the discovery of popular psychotropic drugs did not come from an advanced awareness of the chemical compositions needed to correct problems in the brain, but instead by testing these substances on patients and observing the results.  The history of psychopharmacology is a trail littered with drugs once thought promising but ultimately found to be dangerous.  The drugs include barbiturates, opium, and hundreds of potions and herbs now known to be more dangerous than helpful.  Even Sigmund Freud had an early optimistic obsession with cocaine. [36] “This illustrates a common experience with psychotropic medications, in which the beneficial effects are often embraced before the unintended side of effects are known.”[37]  Therefore, embracing psychopharmacology as a helpful tool in the holistic approach to whole-person health assumes certain ethical, pastoral, and personal risks.

Responding to Concerns About Psychopharmacology

When making a nuanced consideration of psychopharmacology one must be concerned to perform actions that best help individuals achieve their God-given purpose.  Consideration of psychopharmacology must first suspect the individual in question is inhibited from “normal” function, and second, that medical treatment offers potential for assisting in restoring “normal” function.  Christians believe that each person’s purpose is to glorify God by imitating Christ in becoming more perfectly human.  Noting concerns surrounding psychopharmacology, the questions that persist are, “Will psychopharmacological intervention help restore the afflicted individual to a state of mental fitness in which he can better fulfill his purpose of imitating Christ without moving him beyond the God-given abilities natural to man?” And secondarily, “Does this individual’s need outweigh the potential risks involved with employing medication?”  In some cases, symptoms of the afflicted make the answers clear.  Other cases are less obvious, and the complicated nature of these situations requires openness.  A general ethical position, however, should not be formulated based on ethical dilemmas.

When navigating most ethical issues the right path is the narrow path and ditches lie to the left and right.  Virtue always butts up against vice on both sides.  C. S. Lewis aptly instructed, “[The Devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. . . He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.  But do not let us be fooled.  We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors.”[38]  In the case of psychopharmacology, one deception leads to the over-spiritualization of mental illness and fear of physical means for assisting healing.  The other deception leads to an over-materialization of health and is overly anxious to rely on medication.  Both are misguided and fail to care for the whole person.

In The Loss of Sadness, Horwitz and Wakefield contend that the “false epidemic” of psychiatric disorders has been driven by a dramatic rise in “false positive” diagnoses.[39]  While the merit of such contentions is a subject of necessary debate, this concern cannot be the primary factor in determining the value of psychopharmacology.  Improperly practicing doctors do no more to invalidate medication’s proven ability to help mental illness than misbehaving Christians do to invalidate the transformational power of God’s grace.  The value of psychopharmacological medications themselves is not determined by the behaviors of the psychiatrists who administer them.  “Most people would agree that in many ways we are an overmedicated society,” but “just because we need to be careful in how we prescribe and administer medication does not mean we should be afraid of medical intervention entirely.”[40]

Granting the value of psychopharmacology, medication is not a cure.  Many of these medications don’t fix the problem as much as they alleviate symptoms.[41]  People who believe medication will cure mental illness, or eliminate the need to work through difficult emotions, are mistaken. Treating symptoms alone is like going to the dentist and receiving nothing more than anesthesia.  Alleviating symptoms is not the same as fixing the problem.  Russell Moore advises, “God doesn’t want [the mentally ill] to be . . . ‘comfortably numb.’  He wants [them] to be whole.”[42]  Medication is a necessary and helpful tool but is not the long-term solution to underlying causes.[43]

The Scriptures, faith community, medicine, and therapy all have a place in healing the whole person.[44]  Recovering from mental illness is a long process, and there are aspects of healing that need to be addressed alongside medication.  These include a commitment to glorifying God, understanding one’s identity in Christ, spending regular time in prayer and Scripture, looking to God for primary support, avoiding sin and temptation, drawing near to loved ones, fellowshipping with Christian community, letting go of bitterness by practicing forgiveness, serving others, exercising the gifts of the Spirit, developing a life of routine and moderation, recognizing and accepting human limitations, and practicing humility in seeking help from others.

When a person belongs to a religious community, this is often their first means of support and counsel in a time of crisis.  “Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and a host of other psychological problems are rooted in physiological problems that call for medical treatment, not simple talk therapy.”[45]  At the same time, the embrace of medication does not diminish the responsibility of the spiritual community in healing.  Returning to the parallel between the mentally ill and the leper, restoration to the faith community is as notable as the healing of the illness itself (see Matt 8:4).[46]

While the ethical position sees psychopharmacology as necessary and right in treating genuine mental illness, concerns stemming from its embrace still need to be considered.  Constant changes in the pharmaceutical industry demand Christians should continuously reevaluate and revise their views.  What is consistent, however, is the Christian calling to love one another as “whole persons” and to take ethical positions that bring healing and restoration, opposed to positions that subject God’s image bearers to suffering and to potentially injuring themselves and others.

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Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – Senior Pastor of Indian Hills Baptist Church in Silver City, New Mexico, former Interim Preaching Pastor of Church on the Rock Katy, Houston, TX, and a Master of Divinity graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY,




[1]US Burden of Disease Collaborators, “The state of US health, 1990-2010: Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors” in Journal of the American Medical Association 310/6 (2013), 591-608.

[2]Marcia Angell, “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?” (The New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011), Retrieved November 20, 2016. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/23/epidemic-mental-illness-why/.

[3]Laura Weiss Roberts and Shaili Jain, “Ethical Issues in Psychopharmacology” (Psychiatric Times, May 6, 2011), Retrieved November 20, 2016.  http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/ethical-issues-psychopharmacology.

[4]Frank Minirth and Paul Meier with Kevin Kinback, Ask the Doctors:  Questions and Answers from the Minirth-Meier Clinic Broadcast (New York:  Guideposts, 1991), 188.

[5]Roberts and Jain, “Ethical Issues.”

[6]Ed Stetzer, “Mental Illness & Medication vs. Spiritual Struggles & Biblical Counseling” (Christianity Today, April 23, 2013), Retrieved November 20, 2016.  http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/april/mental-illness-medication-vs-spiritual-struggles.html.

[7]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[8]Roberts and Jain, “Ethical Issues.”

[9]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”


[11]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 183.

[12]Ibid, 44.

[13]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 201.

[14]Robert H. Albers, “Introduction” in Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2012), 2.

[15]Albers, “Introduction,” 3.

[16]Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1986), 216.

[17]Russell Moore, “Is it Right for a Christian to Take Anti-Depressants” (Russellmoore.com, February 28, 2012), Retrieved November 20, 2016.  http://www.russellmoore.com/2012/02/28/is-it-right-for-a-christian-to-take-anti-depressants/.

[18]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 10.

[19]“Holistic Medicine” in Encyclopedia Americana vol. 14 (Danbury, CT:  Grolier, 1983), p. 294.

[20] Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 216.

[21]Albers, “Introduction,” 7.

[22]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 120.

[23]Ibid, 184.

[24]Ibid, 121.

[25]Ibid, 122.

[26]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 193.

[27]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”


[29]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 182.

[30]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[31]Moore, “Is it Right?”

[32]D. Larriviere, M. A. Williams, M. Rizzo and R. J. Bonnie, “Responding to Requests from Adult Patients for Neuroenhancements: Guidance of the Ethics, Law and Humanities Committee” in Neurology (2009), 73:1406-1412.

[33]M. Talbot, “Brain Gain: The Underground World of “Neuroenhancing” Drugs” in New Yorker (April 27, 2009). 32-43.

[34]Sarah J. Meller and William H. Meller, “Conclusion: Psychopharmacology” in Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2012), 229.

[35]Meller and Meller, “Conclusion,” 233.

[36]Ibid, 230.


[38]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  HarperOne, 2001), 186.

[39]A. V. Horwitz, J. C. Wakefield, The Loss of Sadness (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2007).

[40]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[41]Moore, “Is it Right?”

[42]Moore, “Is it Right?”

[43]Minirth and Meier, Ask the Doctors, 184.

[44]Ibid, 182-183.

[45]Stetzer, “Mental Illness.”

[46]Albers, “Introduction,” 3.

The Relation of Good Works and Justification to God

A historical survey of the Church’s understanding of the relation between the doctrines of justification and sanctification

During the Reformation, intense debate centered on how and when people gain right legal standing before God.  The understanding of this doctrine, justification, directly affects the theological understanding of how (and for what purposes) a person is brought to Christ-likeness and sanctified over the course of the Christian life.  On one side of the debate, theologians contend that justification is contingent upon a person’s progress in sanctification.  People are motivated to (by the aid of grace) make efforts to grow in righteousness, and achieve righteous character through good works, so that, in achieving righteous character, people can by their own nature be justified before God.  At the other extreme, theologians make justification a legal matter in which sanctification becomes an unnecessary redundancy and an afterthought to God’s clearing of legal guilt.  In this case, Christians rest in the belief that, because God has given them pardon and made them positionally justified, the pursuit of holiness is not requisite to salvation, and sanctification depends primarily on the Spirit’s work and requires little of their own effort.  This paper will broadly survey the history and development of the doctrines of justification and sanctification by key historical theologians, surveying the theological thought of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Francis Turretin.  While there are many notable heirs to the Reformed tradition, Francis Turretin has been chosen because he is considered by many as the most precise theologian in the Protestant tradition.  The comparison of these surveys will help to show how the Church has come to understand the doctrine of justification, and demonstrate that, while Calvin’s understandings of justification and sanctification are iconic representations of Reformation thought, they are fairly unique among historical theology.

Pre-Reformation – Augustine and Aquinas

Because it is sometimes asserted that Augustine changed theological course midway through his life, this paper will work exclusively from Augustine’s Retractions, collected and edited in his final four years.  It is common to hear Augustine referred to as the first of the Reformers (because of his doctrine of predestination), but this survey will clearly demonstrate that despite any consistencies with the Reformation tradition, Augustine’s temporal ordering and  understanding of the relationship between justification and sanctification are more closely echoed by Aquinas than by Luther, Calvin, or the Protestant tradition.

A prime motive of Augustine’s work on the doctrine of justification was to address concerns raised by the teaching of his heretical contemporary Pelagius.  A vehement opponent of predestination, denier of the doctrine of depravity, and ardent moralist, Pelagian was accused by Augustine of denying the necessity of God’s grace for the performance of righteous works or the attaining of salvation. Conversely, Augustine contended that it is only when the will has received grace that man can freely will good rather than evil.  Thus, salvation can only be achieved by the grace of God.  Referring to the Pelagians, Augustine said, “They, however, must be resisted with the utmost ardor and vigor who suppose that without God’s help, the mere power of the human will in itself; can either perfect righteousness, or advance steadily towards it,” [1] and, “The works of righteousness [man] never does, except as he receives ability from that fountain [of grace].” [2]  It was not, however, Augustine’s contention that God’s grace necessitates man’s certain response.  Saint Augustine wrote in his Retractions, “There are some persons who so defend God’s grace as to deny man’s free will, or who suppose that free will is denied when grace is defended,” [3] but it is the “free will of man [Paul] appeals to . . . when he says . . ‘We beseech you that you receive not the grace of God in vain’” (2 Cor 6:1), suggesting that God’s grace could have been in vain, but “neither was it the grace of God alone, nor was it [Paul] alone, but it was the grace of God with Paul.” [4]  Hence, upon the receiving of God’s grace, the power of decision becomes truly free with respect to all possible choices (good and evil) that the circumstance allows.  For Augustine, Man does not attain the power to will good apart from grace, and grace opens the freedom of man to will to good, but Augustine is clear in stating, “Nowhere . . . in Holy Scripture do we find such an assertion as, There is no volition but comes from God, And rightly is it not so written, because it is not true. . . . [Christ says,] ‘Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above’ (John 19:11).  But still, when the ability is given, surely no necessity is imposed.” [5]  Thus, for Augustine, good works require volitional agreement between God’s grace and the will of man.

Augustine’s “view was not Pelagian because the Spirit is the effectual cause of this renewal.  Yet, in his schema, God declares believers righteous because they are, in fact, being made righteous through the holiness [gradually] imparted and infused by the Spirit.” [6]  Augustine’s further contention is that while justification precedes the justified as doers of the law, it is still the believers’ grace wrought good works that accrue to their realized justification. [7]  “It is well known that Augustine does not distinguish between justification and sanctification,” but Augustine instead “emphasizes the necessity and priority of God’s grace as an antecedent condition to a person’s justification.” [8]  For Augustine, God, in his election, determines to justify those he chooses.  God then extends grace to his chosen, allowing them to perform the meritorious works which bring them progressively (by a lifelong process) to a regenerate state, and consequently renders them finally justified before God.  Augustine corrects those who afford themselves too much credit in obtaining their salvation, saying, “You did not obtain favor by yourself so that anything should be owed to you.  Therefore, in giving the reward of immortality, God crowns his own gifts, not your merits.” [9]  Thus, for Augustine, the righteous nature which justifies the elect is not imputed, nor is justification a heavenly change in legal status. For Augustine, justification is wrought within the individual by the gift of imparted grace.  Succinctly, Augustine suggests, “Whosoever shall put his trust in [Christ] . . . shall have good works by [God’s] grace; and by them he shall be even in his body redeemed from the corruption of death . . . not temporal but eternal.” [10]  Unlike the Reformers, Augustine’s thought is colored by realism, and Augustine does not treat justification as a forensic declaration. [11]  Commenting more extensively on the means by which God works to sanctify the believer, Augustine suggests that “God acts upon us by the incentives of our perceptions . . . either externally by evangelical exhortations . . . the commands of the law . . . or internally, where no man has in his own control what shall enter into his thoughts.” [12]  “God acts upon the reasonable soul in order that it may believe in Him,” and “to yield or consent . . . to God’s summons is the function of our own will.”[13]  Hence, for Augustine, a person aided by God’s grace, must by his contrary free volition, become truly righteous by his own merit, before he can be declared righteous by God.  Justification thus hinges upon the precedent sanctification of the believer.

Working from the view of justification inherited from Augustine, theologians of the middle ages continued in a tradition that saw “righteousness not as a state, but as a continuous process.” [14]  Boniface explained that Medieval Christians “never suppose that we are righteous enough, but constantly beseech God to increase our merits.”[15]  “Like Augustine . . . Aquinas does not distinguish between justification and sanctification.  For Aquinas, justification is a process by which man grows in his sanctification.”[16]  Reflecting the prevailing thought of the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelian language to pen the theology that would become the Roman Catholic understanding for several hundred years.  Aquinas explained justification as a movement initiated by a prime mover that is “brought about in man by a movement from one contrary to the other.” [17]  In this movement, man travels from the state of sin to the state of justice.   Rejecting full-scale Pelagianism, Aquinas explains the necessity of grace as follows:  “Eternal life is an end exceeding the proportion of human nature. . . . Hence man, by his natural gifts, cannot produce meritorious works proportionate to eternal life; and for this, a higher force is needed.” [18]  Aquinas continues, “Without grace man cannot merit eternal life; yet he can perform works conducting to a good which is natural to man.” [19]  Thus, for Aquinas, a person can perform good acts apart from grace, but without the infusion of grace man cannot perform the quality of good works that accrue to righteousness and render him justified.

Sharing similarities with Augustine, Aquinas stated, “That which flows from free will is also of predestination,”[20] and further agreed that justification was preceded by sanctification.  Where Aquinas ventured beyond Augustine was in more clearly defining the metaphysic that prescribes to man the important role of cooperation in obtaining salvation, ascribing to man the necessity of achieving remission for sin, and carrying these efforts beyond death into purgatory.  In Aquinas model, God moves the person by his initiating grace, and correspondingly the person moves toward God and away from sin and into forgiveness.  God “so infuses the gift of justifying grace that at the same time he moves free choice to accept the gift of grace.”[21]  This cooperative effort is clearly a synergistic work between God and man in a life-long process (and into purgatory if necessary) of moving toward justification. [22]    For Aquinas, justification (into which sanctification is collapsed) can be understood as a four-stage movement from sin to righteousness.  This process requires (1) the infusion of grace, (2) the movement of the free will directed towards God through faith, (3) the movement of the free will directed against sin, and (4) the remission, or forgiveness, of sin. [23]  By this understanding, justification is in no way the product of an imputed alien righteousness, but is the product of an infused grace that actually brings about the righteous nature of the person, whose subsequent actions and nature, qualify his justification.  Aquinas says, “Grace is given to us that we may do good and keep from sin.” [24]  For Aquinas, it is by the infusion of grace that the will is moved away from sin and toward God by faith; and the recipient of grace is ultimately declared righteous based on the person’s own merit, having achieved remission for sin and having been made righteous both in nature and deeds.


Where the Reformation was in many ways a revival of Augustinianism, and more specifically the Augustinian doctrines of depravity, grace, and predestination, the Reformers saw themselves as providing a corrective to Augustine’s formulations of justification and sanctification.  Where Augustine explains justification as being contingent upon the life-long internal regeneration of the believer by grace, Luther argues that justification refers to a change in God’s judgment toward believers based not on the result of the individual’s internal transformation, but on a change in legal status afforded them by the external alien righteousness of Christ, and accounted to believers by faith. [25]  Rather than the temporal impartation of grace seen in the Augustinian and medieval tradition, this alien righteousness is, in a single moment, imputed to the believer via union with Christ.  “The language of imputation moves from the imagery of medicine to that of the law court.  God accepts the righteousness of Christ, which is alien to our nature proper, as our own.  Though our sins are not actually removed, they cease to be counted against us.”[26]  Further, where Augustine espoused that, “when the ability is given, surely no necessity is imposed,” [27]  the Reformers suggest that the justified, while not justified by their works, do necessarily grow in sanctification.

Calvin, a second-generation member of the Reformation movement, inherited the doctrine of justification by faith through grace alone, as well as the basic conviction that justification is “God’s declaration of Christ’s external righteousness upon the believer, making the internal process of [sanctification] notionally distinct from justification.” [28]  Calvin follows Luther’s lead in abandoning Augustine’s definition of justification as an internal transformation and instead sees justification as a change in status before God owed to the alien righteousness of Christ.  Calvin is particularly notable among the Reformers, however, for his broad application and heavy emphasis on the doctrine of union with Christ. Calvin calls the multivalent sum of the gospel the double grace of justification and sanctification and locates the source of this double grace in the believer’s union with Christ via the Holy Spirit.    For Calvin, justification incorporates forensic and transformation images of salvation together, with no temporal gap, holding justification and sanctification as inseparable yet distinct, “not because one necessarily causes or motivates the other, but because the benefits cohere” in Christ.[29]  Thus, Calvin states, “Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. . . . He cannot be divided into pieces. . . . [Christ] bestows both of them at the same time. . . . Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works.” [30]  Thus, because Christ cannot be divided into pieces, there is no salvation without justification, and there is no salvation without sanctification.  The Christian’s legal pardon is of grace in the same way that his good works and obedience are.  Calvin says, “In this way [God] sometimes derives eternal life from works, not intending it to be ascribed to them . . . but he makes the prior grace [justification], which is a step to that which follows.” [31]   Unlike other Reformed thinkers, who see sanctification as subsequent to justification, and good works flowing from gratitude and gradual healing by the Spirit, Calvin does not place the elements of salvation in a temporal chain, but as united and hierarchically ordered in the aforementioned union with Christ.

Being that Calvin was an exegetical theologian, rather than a systematic theologian, “there is a sense in which Calvin did not have a sharply defined ‘theology’ of ‘union of Christ’ as a distinct doctrinal locus.” [32]  There is, however, a definite emphasis on union that runs throughout Calvin’s theology, and the terms “adoption, engrafting, and participation in Christ” are among many terms he uses to image justification.  For Calvin, there is a “distinctly communal accent to these images for salvation (incorporated into Christ means being incorporated into Christ’s communal body, the church).” [33]  Thus, union with Christ is not merely an individualistic faith relationship with the person of Christ, but the incorporation of the Christian in God’s covenant community.  Calvin emphasizes that justification belongs to God alone, but is adamant to emphasize that there is no salvation apart from sanctification.  For Calvin, salvation consists of a fourfold causality.  In this fourfold metaphysical distinction, Calvin explains (1) the efficient cause is God’s love and mercy, (2) the material cause is Christ’s work and obedience, (3) the instrumental cause is faith, the instrument by which man receives the Spirit’s illumination, and (4) the final cause is God’s divine justice for the praise of His glory.[34]   While giving justification priority (in hierarchical order) over sanctification, Calvin describes good works as an inferior cause of salvation, though salvation ultimately comes by God’s determination to save the sinner.[35]  Calvin says, “The whole value of works is derived from no other fountain than that of gratuitous acceptance. . . . Not by our own merit but by faith alone, are both our persons and works justified. . . . Justification of works depends on the justification of the person.” [36]  Therefore, on Calvin’s account, salvation is not conditioned upon works, but does not happen without the simultaneity of works.  Salvation comes by the sovereign grace of God, in which justification and sanctification concurrently and inseparably cohere in union with Christ, and are hierarchically ordered by metaphysical distinction.

A 17th-century heir of the Reformed tradition, Francis Turretin agreed with Calvin in attributing the benefits of justification and sanctification to union with Christ, and in subordinating sanctification to justification.  For Turretin, however, salvation is an unbreakable chain that he terms the catena salutis (or chain of salvation). [37]  In Turretin’s model, God’s effectual calling begins the sanctification process which brings about the faith response in the new believer.  By this faith, the believer is justified.  Turretin saw God’s effectual calling as the beginning of the Christian’s sanctification, and because justification comes by faith alone, sanctification thus begins (in part) temporally prior to justification. [38]  Where Turretin sees effectual calling as the beginning of a person’s sanctification, he sees glorification as sanctification’s conclusion.  Thus, it is Turretin’s contention that sanctification should not be included under justification, but instead under effectual calling, and also under glorification.  Consequent to justification the believer bears fruit by growing in righteousness and good works (further sanctification).  These good works are the means by which the believer continues down the path of salvation toward taking hold of final glory (sanctification in whole).   Turretin is adamant to exhort Christians to make efforts to grow in righteousness, suggesting that increasing in good works is the necessary means by which sanctification achieves its ends, glorification. [39]  In Turretin’s catena salutis, effectual calling is the means to the end, justification; justification is the means to the end, sanctification; and sanctification is the means to the end, glorification.

While not affirming that good works are necessary for justification, Turretin does clearly affirm the proposition that good works are necessary for glorification (and logically salvation).  J. V. Fesko explains that in Turretin’s model, works “are not necessary out of a need of personal merit or causality or efficiency, that is, that the believer’s good works somehow effect salvation or secure the right to salvation,” [40] but works are necessary to salvation as “the necessity of means,” or “the means and way” [41] of taking possession of the secured outcome.  Turretin precisely explains his catena salutis saying, “[Works] are related to justification not antecedently, efficiently, or meritoriously, but consequently and declaratively.  They are related to sanctification constitutively because they constitute and promote it. They are related to glorification antecedently and ordinatively because they are related to it as the means to the end.”[42]  Thus, Turretin denies the role that good works play in justification but says good works are, however, the substance of sanctification, and without sanctification, the salvation chain is broken, and glorification lacks its means.  In this sense, one cannot be certain of their justification if they do not bear the consequent fruit; one cannot be certain of final glorification if they do not bear the antecedent works; and one cannot be certain of their salvation if they are not exercising the “required means and way” by which the secured reward (salvation) is possessed.[43]  A break in the chain of salvation is cause for the questioning of one’s salvation by faith.


Unlike his pre-Reformation predecessors, and his post-Reformation successor, Francis Turretin, Calvin resists temporally indexing the process of sanctification.  Where Augustine and Aquinas make sanctification the (temporally prior) requisite concurrent work of God and man for achieving justification, the Reformed tradition fundamentally agrees that justification takes logical precedence over sanctification.  When Richard Baxter and Jacob Arminius disturbed the priority of justification, making it contingent on sanctification, they drew the ire of their contemporaries. [44]  Calvin, like his Reformed partners, subordinates sanctification to justification, but gives unique emphasis to the duplicity of the two, seeing the dual graces as flowing simultaneously to the believer by union with Christ.  While Calvin is in some ways unique in his use of metaphysical distinctions and hesitance to assign temporal order, Calvin remains one voice in a chorus of confessionally Reformed theologians who hierarchically prioritize justification ahead of sanctification for the reasons that (1) Scripture teaches it, (2) it is the Reformed desire to protect and defend Christ’s work for sinners in their justification, and (3) this issue of the justifying work of Christ is the article upon which the Church stands or falls. [45]

family photo 2017 high res

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, preacher, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.




[1]St. Augustine, The Retractions (The Fathers of the Church) vol. 60 (Washington, DC:  CUA Press, 1968), IV.

[2]Ibid., XI.vii.

[3]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LXVI.i.

[4]Ibid., LXVI.xii.

[5]St. Augustine, The Retractions (The Fathers of the Church) vol. 2 (Washington, DC:  CUA Press, 1968), XXXVII.liv.

[6]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology:  On the Multifaceted ‘Sum’ of the Gospel” in International Journal of Systematic Theology 11/4 (October, 2009), 430.

[7]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, XLV.

[8]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin:  Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700) (Bristol, CT:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprect, 2012), 106.

[9]St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 1-10 (Fathers of the Church Patristic Series) trans. John W. Rettig (Washington, DC:  CUA Press, 2000), John 1:15-18.

[10]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LVIII.

[11]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 106.

[12]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LX.xxxiv.

[13]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 60, LX.xxxiv.

[14]Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology:  An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2011), 505.

[15]Boniface, “Sermon 4.4,” in James Pelikan, The Christian Tradition:  A History of the Development of Doctrine vol. 3 (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 28.

[16]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 111.

[17]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 113, art. 1.

[18]Ibid., 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 109, art. 5.

[19]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 114, art. 5.

[20]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa of the Summa:  The Essential Philosophical Passages of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Edited and Explained for Beginners ed. Peter Kreeft (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1990), 177.

[21]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 113, art. 3.

[22]Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology, 505.

[23]Ibid., 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 113, art. 6.

[24]St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1st pt. of pt. 2 q. 109, art. 9.

[25]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology,” 430-431.

[26] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville, TN:  B&H Academics, 2013), 70.

[27]St. Augustine, The Retractions vol. 2, XXXVII.liv.

[28]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology,” 431.

[29]Chuck Colson, “Calvin:  No Salvation without Sanctification” (Mere Orthodoxy:  October 25, 2013), Retrieved May 6, 2016.  https://mereorthodoxy.com/calvin-no-salvation-without-sanctification/.

[30]John Calvin, Institute, III.xvi.1.

[31]Calvin, Institutes, III.xiv.21.

[32]J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology,” 429.

[33]Ibid., 429-430.

[34]John Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Romans and Thessalonians trans. Ross MacKenzie (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1995), 73.

[35]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 38.

[36]John Calvin, “Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote,” in Selected Works vol. 7 trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker, 1983), 3.128.

[37]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 335.

[38]Francis Turretin, Institutio Theologiae Eclenticae (Whitefish, MT:  Kessinger Publishing, 2009), XVII.i.11.

[39]Francis Turretin, Institutio, XVII.ii.19.

[40]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 335.

[41]Francis Turretin, Institutio, XVII.iii.3.

[42]Ibid., XVII.iii.14.

[43]Francis Turretin, Institutio, XVII.iii.3.

[44]J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin, 382.

[45]Ibid., 384.