Monday, June 23, 2014

Luther on true and false theologians (and donkeys)


The inimitable Luther on true theologians:

For as soon as God's Word takes root and grows in you, the Devil will harry you and will make a real theologian of you, for by his assaults he will teach you to seek and love God's Word. I myself am deeply indebted to my critics, that through the Devil's raging they have beaten, oppressed, and distressed me so much. That is to say, they have made a fairly good theologian of me, which I would not have become otherwise.

And Luther on false theologians (and donkeys):

If, however, you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it--if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears. Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, "See, See! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well." That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, in that heaven where hellfire is ready for the Devil and his angels. 

The Path to Wisdom: Luther, theology and Psalm 119


Packer wrote the following gem about Luther's approach to doing theology:
When Martin Luther wrote the Preface to the first collected edition of his many and various writings, he went to town explaining in detail that theology, which should always be based on the Scriptures, should be done according to the pattern modelled in Psalm 119.

There, Luther declared, we see three forms of activity and experience make the theologian.

The first is prayer for light and understanding.

The second is reflective thought (meditatio), meaning sustained study of the substance, thrust, and flow of the biblical text.

The third is standing firm under pressure of various kinds (external opposition, inward conflict, and whatever else Satan can muster: pressures, that is, to abandon, suppress, recant, or otherwise decide not to live by, the truth God has shown from his Word.

Luther expounded this point as one who knew what he was talking about, and his affirmation that sustained prayer, thought, and fidelity to truth whatever the cost, became the path along which theological wisdom is found is surely one of the profoundest utterances that the Christian world has yet heard.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Eternal Generation


Here's some clear thinking to straighten out any wonky thoughts about the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son of God:

Herman Bavinck:
In using these terms we are of course speaking in a human and hence an imperfect language, a fact that makes us cautious.  Yet we have the right to speak this language.  For just as the Bible speaks analogically of God's ear, eye, and mouth, so human generation is an analogy and image of the divine deed by which the Father gives the Son "to have life in himself."
But when we resort to this imagery, we must be careful to remove all associations with imperfection and sensuality from it.  The generation of a human being is imperfect and flawed.  A husband needs a wife to bring forth a son.  No man can ever fully impart his image, his whole nature, to a child or even to many children...But it is not so with God. (Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 2, p. 308)
We must, accordingly, conceive that generation as being eternal in the true sense of the word.  It is not something that was completed and finished at some point in eternity, but an eternal unchanging act of God, at once always complete and eternally ongoing.  Just as it is natural for the sun to shine and for a spring to pour out water, so it is natural for the Father to generate the Son.  The Father is not and never was ungenerative; he begets everlastingly. (RD Vol 2, p. 310)
 Gregory of Nyssa spoke well and wisely on this very point:
Again when it interprets to us the unspeakable and transcendent existence of the Only-begotten from the Father, as the poverty of human intellect is incapable of receiving doctrines which surpass all power of speech and thought, there too it borrows our language and terms him "Son,"--a name which our usage assigns to those who are born of matter and nature.
But just as Scripture, when speaking of generation by creation, does not in the case of God imply that such generation took place by means of any material, affirming that the power of God's will served for material substance, place, time and all such circumstances, even so here too, when using the term Son, it rejects both all else that human nature remarks in generation here below,--I mean affections and dispositions and the co-operation of time, and the necessity of place,--and, above all, matter, without all which natural generation here below does not take place.
But when all such material, temporal and local existence is excluded from the sense of the term "Son," community of nature alone is left, and for this reason by the title "Son" is declared, concerning the Only-begotten, the close affinity and genuineness of relationship which mark his manifestation from the Father. (Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, Book II:9)

Incredulity towards the atonement


I'm re-reading Mike Horton's tome The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (a mere 990 pages if one chops off the glossary and indices).  There is a fascinating footnote (p. 64, n.81, to be precise) with some representative extracts from Immanuel Kant.

Note the following from Religion and Rational Theology:

It is totally inconceivable, however, how a rational human being who knows himself to deserve punishment could seriously believe that he only has to believe the news of a satisfaction having been rendered for him, and (as the jurists say) accept itutiliter [for one's advantage], in order to regard his guilt as done away with...No thoughtful person can bring himself to this faith.
That is Enlightenment man showing incredulity toward the atonement.

What lays at the very heart of sophisticated unbelief?

An attempt to deny the claims of God.  The exclusion of God's assessment of our condition by nature and as a result of sin, the silencing of the voice from heaven in favour of our own meditations on our nature, identity and capacities.  The declaration that man and not the living God will have the final say as to what is right, true and good.

At the epistemic level Kant located himself on the side of the serpent.  The thoughtful and rational person, in Kant's vision, is too good to need saving, and certainly too thoughtful to flee to Christ and his cross for refuge, even if he is deserving of punishment.  Instead of bowing his head before the claims of the Heavenly King we are confronted with a resistance at every turn against the external pressure of God's revelation.

Horton sums it up perfectly:

Kant, therefore, saw with great clarity the correlation between one's presuppositions about the human predicament and religious epistemology.  None of the Enlightenment figures wanted knowledge for invoking the name of God (i.e., the gospel), because they did not believe they needed to be saved. (p. 110)

Saturday, June 07, 2014

The Ending of Thomas Hardy


Here are some fascinating extracts from the closing chapters of Claire Tomalin's biography of Thomas Hardy:
On Boxing Day [1927] he asked for the Gospel account of the birth of Christ and the massacre of the innocents, and also the entries in the Encyclopedia Biblica, remarking when she [his wife Florence] had finished that there was not a grain of evidence that the Gospel was true.
On the final day of his life Tomalin notes the following incident:
Then he dictated to Florence two rough and rude epitaphs on disliked contemporaries.  One was George Moore, who had attacked him and was now accused of conceit.  The other, ungrammatical but clear in its intentions, went for G. K. Chesterton:

The literary contortionist
Who prove and never turn a hair
That Darwin's theories were a snare...
And if one with him could not see
He'd shout his choice word 'Blasphemy'.   
It was his final word against Church doctrine and in favour of rational thinking, exemplified by Darwin -- a magnificent blast from the sickbed.

One of the final comments in the book breathes an air of sadness:
He knew the past like a man who has lived more than one span of life, and he understood how difficult it is to cast aside the beliefs of his forebears.  At the same time he faced his own extinction with no wish to be comforted and no hope of immortality.
 The contrast between this ending and that of the seventy third psalm could not be more pronounced:
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
   you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
   and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
   And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Friday, June 06, 2014

There is no shallow end of the theological pool


Before I learned to swim I would always look for the shallow end of the pool.  When it comes to the doctrine of God there is no shallow end:

His judgements are unsearchable (Rom. 11:33)
His ways are inscrutable (Rom. 11:33)
No one has known his mind (Rom. 11:34)
No one has been his counsellor (Rom. 11:34)

His greatness is unsearchable (Psalm 145:3)

His understanding is unsearchable (Isa. 40:28)

Heaven, even the highest heaven cannot contain him (1 Kings 8:27)

He inhabits eternity (Isa. 57:15)

From everlasting to everlasting he is God (Psalm 90:2)

The depths of God are searched by the Spirit, and the Spirit comprehends the thoughts of God (1 Cor. 2:10-11)

No one has seen God, God the only begotten, who is at the Father's side, has made him known (John 1:18)

The love of Christ surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19)

Until and unless the weight of God's infinite being is straining your thoughts to breaking point, until and unless you have felt the finitude of your mental powers in contemplating the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, you have not even begun to fathom the unfathomable depths of the One, Living, True, and Triune God.
When we say that Jesus existed "pre" his incarnation, we do not mean he preceded it by any finite amount of time.  The Son of God preexisted his incarnation the way that the Creator preexisted creation: infinitely.

Preexistence may be easy to say, but that one little syllable, pre-, is a quantum leap from Here to There, from time to eternity.  Before you have finished that syllable, you have left behind everything measurable and manageable.
Fred Sanders, Embracing the Trinity, p. 85

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Speaking & Sending: Some textual trinitarian distinctions



A minimal framework for Trinitarian belief would include the following affirmations:

A. There is only one God

B. There are three distinct persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son and the Spirit

C. Each of these persons is fully God

What should we consider to be the necessary and sufficient evidence to affirm these points?

1. That it can be shown from Scripture that there are distinctions between the persons, distinctions that show that the threeness of persons and oneness of essence are equally ultimate.

2. That it can be shown from Scripture that the titles, works, and worship that belong properly to the one true and living God, are given to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

3. That we read and interpret the biblical data conscious that the lens through which we view the Trinity is that of the economy of salvation (the Father sending the Son, the Son humbling himself and becoming incarnate as the last Adam, the Spirit of God coming to glorify Christ and apply his saving work). This lens is itself part of the biblical data.

On point (1) this evidence would include texts that speak of :

1.1. The sending of one divine person by another (e.g. Exodus 23:20-21; Isaiah 48:16; Malachi 3:1-2; John 15:26)

1.2. The work of one divine person in relation to another divine person (e.g. Isaiah 61:1-2; Hosea 1:7)

1.3. The ascription of divine titles and works to more than one person within the same literary unit (e.g. Genesis 19:24; Zechariah 2:9-12; Psalm 110:1; Joshua 24:2-12 cf. Judges 2:1-4; Malachi 3:1-2; John 1:1, 18; Galatians 1:3; Revelation 1:8, 17; 22:12-13)

1.4. Reference being made to more than one divine person within the same literary unit, to whom elsewhere in Scripture divine titles and works have been ascribed (e.g. Isaiah 48:16; 63:9-12)

1.5. One divine person speaking of another divine person (e.g. Exodus 23:20-22; Isaiah 48:16; Isaiah 52:13, cf. Isaiah 6:1, 57:15, Hosea 1:6-7; Mark 1:11; Mark 9:7; John 15:26)

1.6. One divine person speaking to another divine person (e.g. Genesis 1:26-27; Psalm 45:6-7; Psalm 110:1; John 17:5)

Some of the texts and categories above are obviously interconnected. Exodus 23:20-21 fits into 1.1./1.3./ and 1.5. The selection of passages above is only representative. As there is a superabundance of NT passages I have chosen more from the OT.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Ascension of Christ

Enjoy the summary of the biblical teaching about the ascension of Christ in the Heidelberg Catechism:

46. What do you understand by the words “He ascended into heaven?”
That Christ, in the sight of His disciples, was taken up from the earth into heaven,1 and continues there in our behalf 2 until He shall come again to judge the living and the dead.3
1 Mt 26:64; Lk 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-11; 2 Rom 8:34; Eph 4:10; Heb 4:14, 7:23-25, 9:11, 24; 3 Mt 24:30; Acts 1:11, 3:20-21
47. But is not Christ with us even unto the end of the world,1 as He has promised?
Christ is true man and true God. According to His human nature He is now not on earth,2 but according to His Godhead, majesty, grace, and Spirit, He is at no time absent from us.3
1 Mt 28:20; 2 Mt 26:11; Jn 16:28, 17:11; Acts 3:19-21; Heb 8:4; 3Mt 28:18-20; Jn 14:16-19, 16:13; Eph 4:8; Heb 8:4
48. But are not, in this way, the two natures in Christ separated from one another, if the manhood is not wherever the Godhead is?
Not at all, for since the Godhead is incomprehensible and everywhere present,1 it must follow that it is indeed beyond the bounds of the manhood which it has assumed, but is yet nonetheless in the same also, and remains personally united to it.2
1 Jer 23:23-24; Acts 7:48-49; 2 Mt 28:6; Jn 1:14, 48, 3:13, 11:15; Col 2:9
49. What benefit do we receive from Christ’s ascension into heaven?
First, that He is our Advocate in the presence of His Father in heaven.1 Second, that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge, that He as the Head, will also take us, His members, up to Himself.2 Third, that He sends us His Spirit as an earnest,3 by whose power we seek those things which are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God, and not things on the earth.4
1 Rom 8:34; 1 Jn 2:1; 2 Jn 14:2, 17:24, 20:17; Eph 2:4-6; 3 Jn 14:16; Acts 2:33; 2 Cor 1:21-22, 5:5; 4 Jn 14:3; Col 3:1-4; Heb 9:24

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Counsel of the Ungodly: Thomas Hardy & Horace Moule


As a teen the great English novelist Thomas Hardy was friendly with the Moule family and their seven impressive sons.  Mr Moule was vicar at Fordington, his son Charles became president of Corpus Christi in Cambridge, Handley became Lord Bishop of Durham, and two others went to China as missionaries.

Thomas Hardy was a year older than Handley Moule but became close friends with Horace Moule, eight years Hardy's senior.  Horace became 'Tom's special friend', he was 'the charmer, handsome and gifted' but also 'a tender-hearted son to his mother, writing to her almost every year on the anniversary of the death of the baby brother who had died before he was two'.

Horace had studied at Oxford and Cambridge but failed to gain a degree from either university.  Hardy's biographer, Claire Tomalin, describes the changes in Horace's thinking that put him at odds with his upbringing:
Horace introduced Hardy to the newest and cleverest of the weekly magazines, the Saturday Review, London based naturally, in which social issues were discussed and religion treated with small respect.  He bought himself books on geology and science that alarmed his father, because they cast doubt on accepted religious ideas, and handed them on to Hardy.
Horace's upbringing had been more robustly Christian than Tom's, but, making his way in metropolitan literary journalism, he could not miss the spread of scepticism, and he was too quick and intelligent to ignore it.
Tomalin also notes the impact of all this on the young Hardy:
Tom's situation was different and easier.  Christianity was something he had taken for granted as part of the fabric of everyday life, and Christian theory was never discussed in the family.  He read the Bible, he knew all the church services and most of the psalms by heart; indeed, the year was a sequence of church festivals quite as much as it was a sequence of the natural seasons for him.
And he remained a fully practising Christian into the 1860s, but his mind was on the move, and with Horace he began to see that there were questions to be asked and lines of thought to be followed that eroded the old faith.  As their friendship ripened, they read the notorious Essays and Reviews of 1860, religious pieces that offended the orthodox by their attacks on doctrine and by their textual criticism of the Bible.
Hardy also claimed to have been an early admirer of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, though it is not clear exactly when he read it, or how much it influenced his thinking at the time.  He could well have found his own way along the path towards free thought, but Horace was an encouraging companion on the journey, and with his access to books, guided his steps at many points.
Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, pp. 54-55

I don't think that it is necessary for me to spell out the implications here.  It seems to me self-evident that this was a form of discipleship, and that it possessed many of the elements that we associate with and encourage in that type of relationship.  Tragically, in the case of Horace Moule and Thomas Hardy, it was a path along which the younger man was led to follow the counsel of the ungodly.

Concerning the impact of Essays and Reviews (1860), and the climate of plausibility that a new approach to Biblical scholarship brought in, Roger Beckwith made the following remarks:
The ‘accepted results’ of critical study tend to be taken for granted as a basis for one’s own further study, and radical questions are rarely asked about them. When they are asked, and in a public manner, the presumption is against those who ask them, and any attempt the questioners make to turn back the tide of critical opinion is disregarded, as self-evidently perverse. New ideas receive an open-minded reception, but attempts to revive old ideas are, not unnaturally, seen as simply reactionary.
There is more to the clash of orthodoxy and heterodoxy than learning.  There is also more to it than spiritual conflict in the lives of individuals.  There is also this sociological dimension, and the embedding of new orthodoxies in institutions, guilds and in the public mind.  All of which makes the championing of older, historic, mainstream views appear to be little more than a retrograde step, a recrudescence of ideas considered untenable, obsolete and unworthy of re-examination.

Beckwith's conclusion is fitting:
All things considered, therefore, the revolution in Biblical study which began in England with Essays and Reviews, and the similar revolution which preceded it in Germany a hundred years before, is a revolution which did more harm to the Church than good...in so far as it taught us to approach the Bible unbelievingly, it has hindered the mission of the church ever since. It lies at the root of many of the calamities which have afflicted the church in our own day, and from which, until we repent of unbelief, the church will never recover.