De Moor IV:21: God's Absolute Power and Matthew 3:9

To confirm what our AUTHOR asserts concerning the Absolute Power of God, he also appeals to Matthew 3:9, following many other Theologians, both Ancient and more Recent; see our AUTHOR’S Exercitationes Textuales XXVI, Part III, § 1, 2. Nevertheless, this argument for the Absolute Power of God, dealing with those things that are never done or are future, is denied by many others that either of old or in more recent times have expounded this text concerning that which actually happened; in which case, with the literal sense abandoned, the Stones are interpreted of the Gentiles, who after the likeness of stones are stangers to Abraham, devoid of all spiritual sense and life, inflexibly hard and injurious to others, barren, cold, vile, fixed to the earth and seeking things below, and indeed given to the worship of Stones; from which God through effectual vocation was going to make and has now long made spiritual sons to Abraham, imitating his faith and piety, and so partakers of the benefits of the divine covenant before his carnal lineage: see our AUTHOR’S Exercitationes Textuales XXVI, Part III, § 3, who subjoins the reasons for this exegesis, § 4. Contrariwise, our AUTHOR adheres to the literal sense of the text, expounding it of that which was never actually done, but is said to be able to be done through the Absolute Power of God. In support of which opinion he argues in such a way that with the same attention to the individual arguments he might enervate the force of the reasons previously produced for the contrary opinion. 1. Our AUTHOR argues from the application of the Name Stones, the common and proper notion of which he does not wish to be deserted unless it be necessary. Still less does he wish it to be exchanged with another metaphorical notion of stones as hardened men, which is nowhere found in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, in which, nevertheless, with Stone are compared the faithful as excellent to behold, joined to Christ, the foundation of the spiritual structure, 1 Peter 2:4, 5 compared with Isaiah 54:11, 12. While the proper notion of Stones he wishes also to be preserved in Luke 19:40, in which place many do indeed have regard again unto heathen and stoney men; but less agreeably, because these were going to speak concerning His praises, not as over against the silence of Christ’s disciples, but in addition to their speech. That the same proper notion is perfectly accommodated to this passage, our AUTHOR adds, in which the most vile and unsuitable thing was to be named, so that the Jews might be so much the more humbled by that in their inane glorying concerning their descent from Abraham. Certainly, just as Christ thus treats of the speech of Stones in the passaged adduced from Luke; likewise He treats of giving a Stone in the place of bread, Matthew 7:9: moreover, the devil speaks of Stones to be changed into bread, Matthew 4:3. Our AUTHOR subjoins many other things, which argue a most apt mention and notion of Stones according to others, § 5. 2. From the Pronoun τούτων/these added to Stones. That is plainly demonstrative of a thing, both distinct from the persons addressed, or the Jews warned to repent; and present, which was able to be pointed out with the finger; and not at all lying hidden but conspicuous, even to those to whom the speech was addressed, even under that form the name of which was used. And so our AUTHOR advises that we be guided entirely by this Pronoun, not spiritually and invisibly relating the Stones to men, whether present or absent, but to Stones of the true name, which more than other things ought to have appeared to those considering common, rude, hard, or clumsy, and so unsuitable for the effect proposed here. That there was an abundance of various Stones of this sort at hand is not able to be doubted, since he was in the Desert of Judea near Jordan, unto which a finger could be extended and an eye cast: so that it is not necessary that John spoke elliptically of the twelve Stones that in the crossing of Jordan the Jews set up of old at the commandment of the Lord, § 6. 3. From the expression of raising up Children to Abraham, which again literally leads us to the natural posterity of Abraham, to be roused by divine power a little while after his departure. As the name of the Children of Abraham by a metaphor is indeed transferred to believers, but literally leads us to his natural progeny, with the many passages cited by our AUTHOR duly compared: so much the less again is there to be a withdrawal here from the proper notion of the words, where it is also now evident from another source that it is treated of Stones properly so called, from which as altogether different from their own substance men are said rather to be made Abrahamides, who have their human nature from him, than whatever faithful and believing men with respect, not so much to a new human nature, as to a new human quality. Even especially, where the Jews are refuted, glorying concerning their father Abraham, certainly not with respect to the imitation of his virtue, but on account of their natural birth from him, on account of which they were consequently judging that his virtues and goods pertained to themselves. So that the one part of the speech might now better cohere with the other, a transition ought not here to be made from the natural posterity of Abraham to the spiritual, of whom the Jews had been able to excuse themselves from speaking at all; and, if they as many be admitted from elsewhere, it nevertheless remained proper to them that they had Abraham as the father of their flesh, § 7. 4. From this manner of speaking, in which that Raising of Children of Abraham from the Stones is attributed to God, not necessary as something that is certainly or perchance going to happen, but as merely possible by divine power, ὅτι δύναται ὁ Θεὸς, etc., that God is able, etc. Which expression, if it at length by the nature or context of thing designated also leads us to a certain exercise of divine Power, does not necessarily do that of itself, nor always; compare Ephesians 3:20; Hebrews 11:19; Matthew 10:28. Add the introductory formula, λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν, for I say to you, by which it appears that some singular, unheard of and incredible specimen of Power belonging to God alone is being set before us in these things. Of which sort is what is found, not so much the conversion of stoney men, which is frequently seen, or the calling of the Gentiles everywhere foretold by the Prophets; as indeed the production of Abrahamides from common and rough Stones. Salmeron:[1] “John indicated some great power and might, even in the eyes of the Pharisees: yet, if God should make of the Gentiles children of Abraham and partakers of the promises, the Pharisees would by no means think that to be a great power; for even under the existing situation of the old law many of the Gentiles were converted unto the Jewish rites, and were made children of Abraham and partakers of the promises:” § 8. 5. From the Context, both antecedent and consequent, which our AUTHOR believes to support his position. Specifically, the Baptist had instructed the Jews to bring forth fruits meet for repentance, and had subjoined, καὶ μὴ δόξητε λέγειν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς· πατέρα ἔχομεν τὸν Ἀβραάμ, and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father, as if he would say, lest ye should wish to say that vainly and with pride. By which advice John means this; not that they were now illy and false saying that Abraham was their father, if they imitate not his faith and piety, with respect to the spiritual sense of that appellation; but that they hold not their earthly Father so much in memory that they forget their heavenly Father and the works commanded by Him; that they ought not to glory overmuch only in that birth from such a Father; and that in that tie of blood with him they ought not, with the imitation of his faith and virtue spurned, to found their confidence; as all these things were to frequently done among them. And, to press this advice, it is now added, λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι δύναται ὁ Θεὸς, etc., for I say to you that God is able, etc. Now, nothing more powerfuld was able to be set forth to draw them away from that prohibited saying, than the diminishing of that natural birth from Abraham, as that by which they were and, unless something else supervene, would remain children of this earth, which sort, if God will, He was able to bring forth to Abraham even from Stones, the most worthless and unsuitable part of the earth. But, in the following context, verse 10, John treats of no other thing than that he urges the Jews to fruit worthy of repentance, in consideration of the impending punishment that remains to the unfruitful and disobedient, under the similitude of an ax laid unto the root of a tree, etc. Which was following most aptly, when, through the demonstration of the worthlessness of this alone, they were just now called away from vain confidence and glory in their natural birth from Abraham. For, the destruction, here denounced conditionally and metaphorically by trees not bearing good fruit among the Jews, is to be taken directly in a prophetic manner concerning the approaching destruction and rejection of that entire nation, § 9.


The principal Objection moved against the literal Sense of this saying of John is that by the same a thing altogether impossible would be asserted, which is not able to be said to be an apt object of the absolute Power of God; which SPANHEIM the Elder[2] thus sets forth in his Dubiorum Euangelicorum, part III, Doubt XXXV, § 3, “There is no doubt here, that He that formed man from the mire of the earth, indeed that made all things from nothing, is able to form men from stones. But it is doubtful that He is able to make the name of the children of Abraham agree with men formed from stones; since according to that hypothesis they are not going to arise from Abraham’s seed, thigh, or substance either mediately or immediately, neither are they the children of Abraham more than of any other.” Which knot, indeed, with others that Most Celebrated Man attempts to loose, returning here to the children of Abraham that are such, “according to the Spirit, on account of spiritual imitation, who go in the steps of father Abraham, who by the relation of faith are connected with him, who are grafted onto him, and who are going to be the heirs of the promises made to him and the blessings declared.” But, apart from the fact that thus one part pronouncement is now taken allegorically, the principal knot even still remains, if we consider that for such spiritual sons or children of Abraham is required his faith and blessing, which is not outside of Christ the Mediator, with whom men sprung, not from the same blood with him, but from the Stones of the earth, would have nothing in common, comparing Hebrews 2:11 and the Law of the Kinsman Redeemer. And so, the necessity also appears thus to remain inevitable, that in the case of the Stone we should understand stoney men, from whom God would be able to raise up sons to Abraham, in such a way that He was willing to do that and was altogether going to do that, now under the New Testament by the Calling of the Gentiles, more than formerly.


Our AUTHOR Responds in § 10, α. Generally, that the words of the Spirit most often are not so to be applied to the letter, as indeed to be taken proverbially, and to be regarded in their scope more than in the sound of the words. Just as the Baptist here was able proverbially to express to a certain extent the meanness of their natural birth from Abraham and the infinite greatness of the divine Power; in which one may acquiesce: compare Matthew 19:24; 5:29, 30, 39-41. And, if the reasonings adduced against our text should prevail, it could likewise be said concering the Stones about to cry out in Luke, if the disciples should be silent,[3] that it was not possible, because for the Speaking of divine praises are required both internal reasoning ability, and its sanctification by the Spirit, and the several organs by which that expresses itself; if these things be present, they are now no longer going to be Stones, but men that speak.


β. Our AUTHOR adds some more Specific considerations. Namely, 1. Many have recourse to the spiritual filiation of Abraham through the imitation of his virtue and beneficence; which either commonly without a specific necessary respect to Christ the Mediator was certainly able to be produced by God in men made from stones, just as much as wisdom and true holiness were placed in Adam created from the earth; or specifically to be bestowed also by God, not according to His Counsel or Word, but according to His most absolute and incomprehensible Power and Might, with faith in Christ, a partaker of the same human nature, although not of the same common father, on men made from Stones. Others think them here to be the Children of Abraham from Stones that would be such by appropriation or adoption of his posterity, and thus would be his children externally in this world, and equally would constituted his heirs. 2. But our AUTHOR thinks that there is absolutely no need for all these subtleties, which arise from mere prejudice concerning the immediate conversion of Stones into Abrahamides; which nevertheless is not found in the words of John, nor is it necessary to his Scope. And so, just as every man is said to be born, to arise, to be nourished from the earth, which nevertheless is not immediately transformed into a man, but first undergoes various other mutations; and just as posterity are raised up from their ancestors, but through many hidden and untraceable conversions of their bodily substance; so also our AUTHOR thinks that children of Abraham are said to be raised up from Stones, when the common and hard substance of Stone, altogether inept naturally for nourishment, yields in the place of the softer and more apt parts and products of the earth nourishment, even seminal nourishment, to the Abrahamides, who hence in turn beget other children from that substance of Stones now transformed into them. Which, as it is not able to be denied to the absolute Omnipotence of God to be an altogether fitting object, since upon His cooperation depends all the nourishing and fertilizing power of the creatures; so it ought to humble the children born of Abraham, as those whose origin thus springs, not only of the earth, but also is able to be derived, with God willing, from the very humblest and inept Stones. Which manner of resolving every doubt our AUTHOR then also finds in Estius[4] and Poole.[5]

[1] Alfonso Salmeron (1515-1585) was a Catholic priest, and one of the first Jesuits. He wrote sixteen volumes of New Testament commentary, including expositions on Acts and the Pauline Epistles.


[2] Friedrich Spanheim the Elder (1600-1649) studied at Heidelberg and Geneva. He served the academy at Geneva, first as Professor of Philosophy, then as a member of the theological faculty, and finally as rector. In 1642, he was appointed as Professor of Theology at Leiden, and became a prominent defender of Calvinistic orthodoxy against Amyraldianism.


[3] Luke 19:40.


[4] William Estius (1542-1613) labored first as a lecturer on Divinity, then as the Chancellor at Doway. Theologically, he bears the imprint of the modified Augustinianism of Michael Baius. In his commentary writing, as exemplified in his Commentarii in Sacram Scripturam and Commentarii in Epistolas Apostolicas, he focuses on the literal meaning of the text; and he is widely regarded for his exegetical skill and judgment.


[5] Matthew Poole (1624-1679) was an English, Noncomformist Presbyterian Pastor, Theologian, and Exegete. Having been ejected from the ministry by the Act of Uniformity (1662), he undertook the compilation of his massive and masterly Synopsis Criticorum, a verse-by-verse history of interpretation. Poole’s Synopsis was tremendously influential in the work of Matthew Henry and Jonathan Edwards.

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Dr. Steven Dilday holds a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Campbell University, a Master of Arts in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), and both a Master of Divinity and a  Ph.D. in Puritan History and Literature from Whitefield Theological Seminary.  He is also the translator of Matthew Poole's Synopsis of Biblical Interpreters and Bernardinus De Moor’s Didactico-Elenctic Theology.

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