Natural Theology and Reformed Orthodoxy (by David Haines)

This article by David Haines appeared in the May issue of Ad Fontes magazineTo subscribe to receive full issues in your inbox, click here.



The last century has seen quite a bit of discussion amongst Protestants concerning the orthodoxy of Natural Theology. Some recent thinkers, such as Karl Barth and Cornelius Van Til, have, either explicitly or implicitly, denied natural theology.[1] In what follows we wish to ask a very simple, yet very important, question: “What place, if any, does natural theology have in orthodox Protestant theology?” To answer this question, we must first explain what we mean by “natural theology” and by “orthodoxy.” Once we have explained these notions, we will attempt to answer the proposed question. Let us begin with the question of orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy: Definitions and Nuances

The word orthodoxy comes from two Greek words which signify, respectively, “right” and “opinion or teaching”. As such, the general notion of orthodoxy can be summarized as follows: A thinker is considered orthodox in any one domain of thought when he possesses right or true beliefs about the object studied in that domain of thought. Concerning theological orthodoxy, Richard Muller says that, “Orthodoxy consists in the faithful acceptance both of the fundamental articles and of those other, secondary doctrines, that sustain and serve to secure the right understanding of the fundamental doctrines.”[2] Thus, a Christian thinker would be considered orthodox when he accepts as true those doctrines which are both true, and are taught by true Christianity. When discussing orthodoxy, we also need to keep in mind that it is possible to be partially orthodox. A person would be partially orthodox when he adheres to a portion (greater or smaller) of those doctrines which are necessary for true Christian belief, but deny a portion of those same doctrines. The question we must now ask is, “how can a Protestant determine what is, and what is not, orthodox belief?”

Read more…

New Online Course in the Theology of Preaching Forthcoming

Following the success of our online Davenant Latin Institute courses, the Davenant Trust is planning to branch out into a wider array of online course offerings in various areas related to our work. These will include, Lord willing, both full semester-length courses, and a variety of mini-courses introducing key texts and themes from the Protestant tradition. Our first such offering, we are pleased to announce, will be a course entitled “The History and Theologies of Great Preachers,” offered by Rev. Dr. Scott Kindred-Barnes, the minister of First Baptist Church, Ottawa, and Convener of the Richard Hooker Society.

The course will offer an introduction to the history and theologies of some of Christianity’s most influential preachers, with particular attention paid to the exegetical and pastoral methods of various eras and Christian movements. The course will introduce and contextual the major theological developments in Christian history as they relate to the practice of Christian preaching. By tracing the development of preaching from the early church through the Middle Ages and the Reformation to the Modern era, the course will aim to assist students to think theologically, historically and pastorally through the intersection of doctrine and devotion as related to the preaching event in Christian worship.

The course schedule will include the following 14 units:

  1. Introduction to the Theme, Purpose and Content: What is Preaching? A Historical and Theological Overview to an Important Question.
  2. The Homily Takes Shape: The Legacy of Origen
  3. The Eloquence in Cappadocia and the Literal Sense of Chrysostom
  4. The Latin Fathers and the Lasting Influence of Augustine of Hippo
  5. Preaching Through the Early Middle Ages
  6. The Pulpits of Spirituality and Protest in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries
  7. The Changing Times of the Renaissance and Reformation: Erasmus and Luther and Melanchthon
  8. Preaching in the Reformed traditions
  9. The Preaching of the Catholic Reform Movement
  10. Upheaval in Britain: Preaching of the English Reformation and its aftermath
  11. The Dawn of Modernity
  12. From Great Awakenings to Revival
  13. Revitalizing Trajectories in 19th and 20th Century Preaching: Part One
  14. Revitalizing Trajectories in 19th and 20th Century Preaching: Part Two

The full course, with recorded lectures and weekly video-classroom sessions, will likely be priced at around $500. Stay tuned for full details; if you are interested in possibly taking this course and would like to learn more, please email

Common Places: Fred Sanders on the Triune God

Systematic theologian Dr. Fred Sanders speaks of his discovery of theology, then discusses the Trinity. How is Trinitarian theology an act of praise? What do the missions of the Son and Spirit reveal about God? In classical Trinitarianism, what is a “person”? This and more!




2:10 Fred Sanders’ advice to prospective graduate students
4:40 Sanders’ journey to the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA
6:20-7:40 His discovery of the Trinity through reading Ephesians 1
8:45-The importance of church membership for graduate students
12:30-16:30 How Trinitarian theology is an act of praise
18:15– The importance of Chalcedonian Christology
20:00– Fred’s program for fixing underdeveloped understandings of the Trinity by grounding confessionalism in Scripture
21:30-24:00 What do the missions of the Son and Spirit reveal about God?
24:00-26:00 In classical Trinitarianism, what is a “person”?
28:00-30:30 Discussion of the Spirit’s procession
31:00-33:00 Fred’s reflections on last summer’s online Trinity debates
33:25-35:45 The distorting influence of the gender debate on Trinitarian theology
36:00-39:45 His view of Eternal Functional Subordination and Eternal Generation
40:00-Jesus’ baptism and its relationship to Trinitarian theology



A Report on the Davenant Trust DC Convivium

This past Friday and Saturday, the Davenant Trust made its Washington, DC debut. The third Mid-Atlantic Regional Convivium Irenicum took place at Redeeming Grace Church of Fairfax, Virginia, in an event ably organized by Dr. Brian Auten of Patrick Henry College, and co-sponsored by Patrick Henry College and Providence Magazine.

The theme of the conference– “Christian Love and National Interest: A Protestant Ethic of National Security” –was broad, and the questions examined were varied. On Friday night, Walter Russell Mead of Bard College and the Hudson Institute opened the conference with a discussion of America’s quasi-religious self-understanding and the impact that this has had on US foreign policy. He focused particularly on eschatology: whether in a Christian form or in a secular form, something like premillennial eschatology has pointed towards a sense of impending doom (or radical transformation) while postmillenial eschatology has driven an expansive sense of American destiny and mission.

Dr. Mark Thiessen Nation of Eastern Mennonite University followed with a paper titled “Eberhard Bethge and the Myth of Bonhoeffer the Assassin: Recovering a Persistently Christ-Centered Ethic in a World Full of Nazis,” which challenged the received notion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Bonhoeffer, argued Nation, never renounced (whether in principle or in attempted practice) his pacifist convictions.

On Saturday morning, a smaller group of graduate students and early-career academics gathered to present and discuss papers on various topics, and on Saturday afternoon, the event opened back up to the public with a paper by Davenant’s president, Dr. W. Bradford Littlejohn. “Caring for Religion and Protecting the Commonwealth in the Protestant Reformation” addressed a variety of approaches to the implied national security (or national self-definition) issues raised by the Reformation, and provided a window into some solutions offered into early Protestant political theology.

Andrew Fulford of McGill University followed Brad with a paper drawing on his recent Davenant Trust book, Jesus and Pacifism.  “Was Jesus a Pacifist? Yoder, Hauerwas and the Meaning of Jesus for Christian Ethics” served as something of a response to Nation’s talk of the previous night, and in the panel discussion that followed, Fulford and Nation, along with others, tackled the questions of pacifism and the just war tradition directly.  

And a lively panel it was. “The World of Surveillance, Spies, and Special Operations Forces: Is the Just War Tradition Enough for Christian Citizenship?” brought together Fulford and Nation, along with Drs. Marc Livecche and Keith Pavlischek of Providence.  Moderated by Dr. Auten, the conversation ranged widely, covering the question of whether the just war tradition was a legitimate approach at all, to more specific issues regarding its application. Brad Gregory was ritually invoked and denounced, and the conversation continued in an excellent question and answer session.

As is always the case at Davenant convivia, the conversations around the edges of the presentations– at meals, over coffee, over drinks– were as engaging and fruitful as the presentations themselves. The gathering was attended by a mix of academics, students, and pastors, along with men and women from the worlds of politics, media, and intelligence, and several who serve (or have served) in the military: the topics discussed were not abstract, not distant from the concerns of those who attended.  It became clear that there is a need- and a hunger- in the DC area for Davenant’s approach to Protestant resourcement: to considering how historical theology and ethics speak to questions of statecraft and security, to the nature and legitimate means of government, and to the challenging loyalties of Christian citizenship.  We look forward to an ongoing presence in the Capital, to continuing the conversations begun over the weekend, and to moving forward with this work of bringing scholarship and theological reflection to bear on crucial issues of the day.  

If you were unable to attend but are in the area and would like to be kept informed about future meet-ups, please sign up here.

Susannah Black received her BA from Amherst College and her MA from Boston University. She is an editor at Plough, associate editor of Providence Magazine, and an editor of The Davenant Trust’s journal Ad Fontes. She’s a founding editor of Solidarity Hall and is on the Board of the Distributist Review. Her writing has appeared in First Things, The Distributist Review, Solidarity Hall, Providence, Amherst Magazine, Front Porch Republic, Ethika Politika, The Human Life Review, The American Conservative, Mere Orthodoxy, and elsewhere. She blogs at Radio Free Thulcandra and tweets at @suzania. A native Manhattanite, she is now living in Queens.


This article by Andrew Fulford appeared in the April issue of Ad Fontes magazine. This is an edited version of a section from the first title in a new series: the Davenant Guides. To subscribe to receive full issues in your inbox, click here.



At last we come to the matter at hand, and answer the question: was Jesus a pacifist? The previous sections in this book have provided strong prima facie evidence from Jesus’ background context and the earliest foreground interpretation of his legacy, that he was not a pacifist. Now a positive explication of Jesus’ teaching and example are needed.

The strongest and most common arguments for pacifism from Jesus’ teaching come from a few places in the Gospels. Primarily, these seem to be: the temptation narrative, the Sermon the Mount (and parallel texts), his teaching about taking up the cross, his teaching about Caesar, his teaching about Gentile rulers, and his teaching about taking the sword. Another argument comes from Jesus’ acceptance of his own crucifixion.


In Matthew’s account, the final temptation given to Jesus is world domination (Matt. 4:8-11):

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

The pacifistic argument from this account usually follows the logic that this temptation represents the “zealot option” for Jesus’ ministry, and that in rejecting it, Jesus rejects violence in toto. However, there are several reasons to reject this interpretation. First, it wrongly conflates a zealot ideology, which is really a Holy War option, with a just war approach. Just war thinking follows certain criteria, including: (a) that a legitimate authority must wage war, (b) that the prospects of success in war must be probable for waging it to be licit, and (c) that acts of war should discriminate between the guilty and the innocent. Holy war thinking need not follow any of these criteria, and often has not in history.

Second, it overlooks the background to these temptations. In the wilderness temptation, Jesus recapitulates Israel’s wilderness wandering, but succeeds where Israel failed. This point is highlighted in the mode of Jesus’ reply: he quotes the word of God as sufficient reason for his obedience to God. He obeys God’s commands where Israel failed. In the desert, Israel caved into the temptation to worship idols. So in the present temptation, the command Jesus cites in reply to Satan is not “You shall not kill”, but “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”

A good positive explanation of this text is provided by the demonology of the NT. Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 10:20 that: “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.” Further, the apostle confirms this assessment of Satan in a sense, when he states that the devil is (2 Cor. 4:4) “the god of this world”, and the apostle John echoes this concept in his first epistle (1 John 5:19): “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” For the NT, to live in any way other than obedience to God is, de facto, to be subject to and in fellowship with demons. Fellowship with evil can give pleasures for a time, including the pleasures of power. This is the temptation Jesus faced, and it is in fact the ultimate temptation: the temptation to replace God with the creature in our moral universe. Jesus’ rejection goes much deeper than a refusal of a certain kind of political tactic; his reply goes to the heart of the problem with the human condition. And this leads to the second background to the text, which is the failure of humanity at its origin, the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. And what was the temptation they faced? Not the temptation to use violence, but the temptation to distrust God, and to strive for their desires in disobedience to his commands. It is this fundamental problem that Jesus’ refusal to worship Satan addresses, and not an ethically downstream matter like zealot violence.


In the preface to his book, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination, Dr. Dale C. Allison writes about two common errors in exegesis of this sermon:

Some people would say that the Sermon on the Mount is the quintessence of Christianity. I am not among them. The erroneous conviction comes from the unfortunate habit of viewing the Sermon in isolation. Readers, especially modern readers, have again and again interpreted Matthew 5-7 as though the chapters were complete unto themselves, as though they constituted a book rather than a portion of a book. Symptomatic is the occasional reprinting of the Sermon in anthologies of literature. But the three chapters that constitute the Sermon on the Mount, chapters surrounded on either side by twenty-five additional chapters, neither summarize the rest of Matthew nor sum up adequately the faith of Jesus, much less the religion of our evangelist. How could anything that fails to refer explicitly to the crucifixion and resurrection be the quintessence of Matthew’s Christian faith? …The Sermon on the Mount is in the middle of a story, and it is the first goal of this little commentary to interpret the discourse accordingly.

There is a second way in which this commentary seeks to place the Sermon in context. All too often in the past–the strategy goes all the way back to Tertullian and Augustine–the Sermon has been read against Judaism. That is, the superiority of Jesus and the church over against Judaism has been promoted by arguing that this word of Jesus or that expression of Matthew brings us, within the world of first-century Judaism, something startlingly new, or even impossible. Most such claims, however, do not stand up under scrutiny. What we rather have in the Sermon is the product of a messianic Judaism… [and] most of the sentiments found in the Sermon already appear, at least here or there, in old Jewish sources. It is primarily the relationship of those sentiments to one another and, above all, their relationship to the person of Jesus and his story that gives them their unique meaning for Christians. So responsible exegesis will seek to highlight the continuity between the Sermon and Jewish teaching, whether within the Hebrew Bible or without, and moreover the immense debt of the former to the latter. The time of polemic against Judaism is over. So too is the time when Christians could pretend, in the words of Adolf Harnack, to find in the Sermon on the Mount teaching “freed from all external and particularistic features.”[1]

The following commentary on Jesus’ teaching will attempt to do what Dr. Allison suggests should be done, i.e. interpret the sermon in these two contexts. In many cases, I will simply be following Dr. Allison’s lead in doing so. Dr. Allison also highlights another important aspect of this sermon that some interpreters throughout the centuries have missed:

One must reckon seriously with the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is partly a poetic text. By this is meant that it is, unlike codes of law, dramatic and pictorial. The reader sees a man offering a sacrifice in Jerusalem (5:23), someone in prison (5:25-26), a body without eye and hand (5:29-30), someone being slapped (5:39), the sun rising (5:45), the rain falling (5:45), someone praying in a closet (6:6), lilies in a field (6:28), a log in an eye (7:4), wolves in sheeps’ clothing (7:15). These images and comments upon the sermon hardly add up to anything can be called legislation. The Sermon does not offer a set of rules–the ruling on divorce is the exception–but rather seeks to instill a moral vision. …

The Sermon’s primary purpose is to instill principles and qualities through a vivid inspiration of the moral imagination. What one comes away with is not a grossly incomplete set of statutes but an unjaded impression of a challenging moral ideal.[2]

Below, we will highlight the texts used most often to support pacifism in order to show how they do not, as well as various other aspects of the Sermon that confirm Allison’s general analysis.


When Jesus said to Peter (Matt. 26:52), “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword”, he uttered a common piece of timeless wisdom. This statement finds OT precedents, where it could not be pacifistic. What it really means is something people have truly recognized forever: that unjust aggression provokes vengeance from others. At least in the OT, however, this was not taken to mean that state coercion could never be effective. Further, it would find clear application in the case of revolutionaries and the seditious. These people, the OT taught, were very likely to meet a nasty end as a result of state vengeance. It is this aspect of the saying in particular which directly applies in Jesus’ context, for Peter’s violent act was committed against deputies of the state, and no doubt had a zealot holy war ideology as its engine. But Jesus knew the zealot agenda had no chance of succeeding against the might of the first century Roman empire. All those who took up the sword in that sense and context would surely die by it. And sadly, because they did not heed his warning, that is exactly what happened to Jewish zealot movements in 70 AD.


By far, the most common event in Jesus’ life used to justify pacifism is his submission to crucifixion. The basic claim is that his refusal to defend himself was an expression of his condemnation of violence in general. He regarded dying as preferable to killing in all situations, and so also in that situation.

But there are problems with this argument. Interpreting the intentions behind actions can often be difficult, for the same actions can be motivated by very different intentions. And such is the case with being willing to die. Granting that Jesus willingly suffered death, a number of possible explanations could provide the rationale for this act, without entailing pacifism.

One such motive would be to provide the propitiation for the sins of mankind. While some scholars have attempted to refute this possibility by denying the NT teaches Christ’s death was a propitiation, that attempt should be regarded as a failure. Though space does not permit defense of this here, Dr. John R. W. Stott’s masterpiece, The Cross of Christ, provides evidence that Jesus himself taught this was a purpose for his death, and interested readers would do well to begin with his survey.[3]   The logic of just war theory provides another [motive.] Given Jesus’ historical situation, where he knew very well that God did not wish to save him by means of legions of angels, and where his human followers had no political power, Jesus could not actually wage a successful war against the Herods, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman empire. He had no prospect of success. Further, in the system of human positive law that he lived under, Jesus had no political authority. These two facts alone mean, by just war logic, that he could not rightly fight the state when its agents came to arrest him. Just war criteria demanded his surrender at this point.

Pacifists will also sometimes suggest that Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans somehow entails that government per se is always unjust, or at least that capital punishment is such. But of course, this does not follow with any kind of necessity from Jesus’ death. This conclusion must be read into his death first before it can be read out of it. For even in Jesus’ day people were well aware that unjust killing could happen (e.g., there were OT laws against murder for a reason) without concluding that capital punishment was therefore always unjust.


Andrew Fulford is currently studying for a PhD in Reformation history at McGill University. He is the author of Jesus and Pacifism and a contributor to the recently released Richard Hooker and Reformed Orthodoxy.


[1] Dale C. Allison, The Sermon on the Mount (New York: Crossroad, 1999), xi-xii.

[2] Allison, Sermon on the Mount, 11.

[3] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ: 20th Anniversary Edition (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 72-79.