Monday, March 31, 2014

4th Century Wisdom for 21st Century People

Sanity and spirituality from Hilary of Poitier's De Trinitate.

First, some 4th Century wisdom for 21st Century people:
For he is the best student who does not read his thoughts into the book, but lets it reveal its own; who draws from it its sense, and does not import his own into it, nor force upon its words a meaning which he had determined was the right one before he opened its pages. 
Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of Himself, and bow with humble reverence to His words. For He Whom we can only know through His own utterances is the fitting witness concerning Himself.
Secondly, married to that, some 4th Century spirituality to sweeten and guide 21st Century exegetes:
We shall bring an untiring energy to the study of Thy Prophets and Apostles, and we shall knock for entrance at every gate of hidden knowledge, but it is Thine to answer the prayer, to grant the thing we seek, to open the door on which we beat.
Our minds are born with dull and clouded vision, our feeble intellect is penned within the barriers of an impassable ignorance concerning things Divine; but the study of Thy revelation elevates our soul to the comprehension of sacred truth, and submission to the faith is the path to a certainty beyond the reach of unassisted reason. 
And therefore we look to Thy support for the first trembling steps of this undertaking, to Thy aid that it may gain strength and prosper. We look to Thee to give us the fellowship of that Spirit Who guided the Prophets and the Apostles, that we may take their words in the sense in which they spoke and assign its right shade of meaning to every utterance.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fides quaerens intellectum

Fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding) is a famous phrase of Anselm's.  It is a fitting expression for that central vein of faith's quest for intellectual understanding, as fleshed out here by Augustine:
No one believes anything unless one first thought it believable...Everything that is believed is believed after being preceded by thought...Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks, thinks in believing and believes in thinking.
Augustine, The Predestination of the Saints, 44:962-3, cited in Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. xiii-xiv

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The sanity of grace

"There is hardly a page of Scripture on which it is not clearly written that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble" 

Augustine, Reply to Faustus

Unless we understand the freeness and sheer magnitude of the grace of God in the gospel, and the workings of grace in the life of the believer by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we will be left with either a warped view of our own works or a distorted view of God's gracious work. In all likelihood, it will be both.

Grace restores our sanity and our sight.

We see our sin, in greater measure, from God's perspective.

We see his grace, the gift and the Giver, in true perspective too.

Unless we have this vision we will descend into the insanity of trusting in works righteousness, either from believing that our best works merit the favour of God, or in despair because in unbelief we lament our lack of them, as if the free gift of God were not what it is, the giving of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

At root, to despair because of sin is still to be looking within for the cause of God's acceptance of us.

To look away from ourselves, to the Father's love in Christ, to the Son's death in our place and to his resurrection from the grace, to his finished work on our behalf, is to see things as they really are.
Woe even to those of praiseworthy life if you put their life under scrutiny and remove mercy.
If anyone lists his true merits to you, what is he enumerating before you but your gifts?
Augustine, Confessions, Book IX:xiii (34)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Fragments on Scripture and Subordinate Standards

Some fragments on Scripture and subordinate standards:

Scripture is the norma normans (the norming norm, the rule that rules)

Confessions are the norma normata (a norm that is normed/a rule that is ruled)

Christian faith begins with a confession of faith by the individual (e.g. Rom. 10:9) and the reception of confessed truths by the Christian community (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:1-3)

A Confession of faith is not an arbitrary, unnatural, or purely cerebral artefact, that is somehow foreign to normal Christian life and experience, but (as the texts above indicate) belongs to the very essence of Christian existence

A Confession is a corporate ecclesiastical statement of Christian belief and practice

A Confession of faith is a verbal affirmation of truth and implicitly, or explicitly, a verbal denial of error

A Confession is composed out of biblical and extra biblical language, the latter out of necessity in order to distinguish orthodox appeals to the teachings of Scripture from heterodox ones

A Confession is a subordinate standard

As a subordinate standard a Confession is derived in whole and in part from Scripture

A Confession is accepted as authoritative insofar as it is in agreement with Scripture and faithfully represents the content of what the Scriptures teach

When the teaching of a particular Confession is denied, by an appeal to Scripture, a new Confession (personal or corporate, written or unwritten) has been posited in place of the old one (in part or in whole)

It is impossible to be Non-Confessional, even if a church body, or network of churches, has an aversion to written Confessions

Without a written, or unwritten, no fellowship, unity, or co-operation is possible within or between churches

Confessions can be maximal (think Westminster Confession) or minimal (think Apostles' Creed or parachurch statements of faith)

Minimal confessions are implicitly maximal is their exposition as they rely on more comprehensive statements and definitions to clarify, explain, define and defend their brief propositions

And to round off, here is a helpful and thought provoking comment by R. A. Finlayson:

A Confession is referred to as a Church's 'subordinate standard' because it is in very fact subordinate to the Scriptures, the fountainhead of all revealed truth. This subordination, however, does not affect its authority in matters of faith, but rather serves to emphasise the fact that it is derived from Scripture.

When a Confession is accepted, therefore, it is accepted as in accordance with the truth of Scripture, and we profess that we have examined both the Scripture and the Confession and that we have found them in agreement.

For that reason we cannot appeal from the Confession to Scripture in a way of repudiating the Confession, without thereby withdrawing our subscription to it as agreeable to the Scripture and the Confession of our Faith.

To set aside its doctrine in favour of some other interpretation of Scripture is manifestly to abandon the Confession altogether.
"The Significance of the Westminster Confession" in Reformed Theological Writings, p. 231-2

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Against Heresies: Local and Global

In tracing out Augustine's labours in responding to and refuting the Pelagian heresy, B. B. Warfield makes the following comment:
All heresies do not need an ecumenical synod for their condemnation; usually it is best to stamp them out locally, and not allow what may be confined to a corner to disturb the whole world.
From 'Augustine and the Pelagian Controversy', in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield Vol. IV: Studies in Tertullian and Augustine, p.381

In our day the distinction between global and local has been blurred both by the ubiquity of the internet as a means of communication and also by the re-sculpting of the in-scape of communicators and their expansive audiences by social media.  The size, nature, and location of the audience has altered permanently.

In our day it is hard to imagine that any contemporary error could be classified as strictly 'local'.  Perhaps it is even harder to imagine anything resembling an 'ecumenical synod' as the means of assessing and rejecting contemporary errors. Although historically speaking, error has been dealt with not only corporately, but also by the individual skills of brilliant theologians (e.g. an Athanasius or an Augustine).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Augustine on the alluring grace of God

God turns resistance to his will into delight. The fact of it is a great mystery, the reality no less so. As Augustine wrote:
Do not think that you are dragged to God against your will. The mind is drawn by love which is a source of inexpressible pleasure. There is a pleasure of the heart whose sweetness consists in the bread of heaven.
Give me a lover, he feels what I am talking about.
Give me a man in a state of desire, of hunger, a traveller thirsty on a desert road who is sighing for the spring at his eternal home.
Give me a man like that, he knows what I mean.
But if I address myself to a cold person, he has no notion what I am speaking of.
Tractatus in Johannis Evangelium, 26.4

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Augustinian Quest

Henry Chadwick:
Without illusions about himself, he draws his readers into his personal quest for happiness as he feels himself driven to believe that there is nothing to keep the soul from starvation other than truth, beauty, and goodness; and they can be reached only by love, a purified and sublimated love, the beginning, middle, and end of all things.
Augustine of Hippo: A Life, p.2