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 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.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Thomas Hardy and the doctrine of providence

"What has Providence done to Mr Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex
and shake his fist at his Creator?"
Edmund Gosse (1896)

As with all of his novels, Thomas Hardy's magisterial Tess of the D'Urbervilles is replete with allusions and references to the Bible.  The beauty of Hardy's prose only partially conceals the splinters in the text intended to wound traditional Christian belief in the public mind.

Yet, for all his invectives against the doctrine of providence, invectives that lie in the text like sermons in miniature, for all his widening of the fissures in Victorian Christianity, for all his undermining of confidence in the God of the Bible, the name of the malevolent deity who causes Tess Durbeyfield to suffer so much at the hands of men is of course none other than Thomas Hardy.

As the author of the tragedy, Hardy is both the primary cause of all the events and the determiner of how the secondary causes fall out.

The following three examples from the novel bear this out:

When Tess joins in with the laughter directed toward Car Darch, the Queen of Spades, Car singles her out for retribution.  Tess, says Hardy, "could not help joining in with the rest" but "It was a misfortune -- in more ways than one."  The confrontation is soon followed by the untimely arrival of the would-be rescuer Alec D'Urberville.  As they ride off Car's mother remarks that it is "Out of the frying pan into the fire!"  Tess will soon be "Maiden no more."

As the narrative unfolds, Hardy's prose, laden with biblical imagery, presents us with a sermon in miniature against the doctrine of providence:
Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around.  Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which there poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares.  But, might some say, where was Tess's guardian angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith?  Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was on a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.
Later in the volume, Tess's attempt to reveal her past to Angel Clare, before their marriage, is thwarted by a trivial occurrence.  Having slipped her written confession underneath the door of his den at Talbothays she finds it unopened a few days later having "in her haste thrust it beneath the carpet as well as beneath the door."  With the revelation still sealed, Hardy comments that "The mountain had not yet been removed."

Hardy's own explanation for invoking the "President of the Immortals" whose work of sporting with Tess ends with her execution, was that it was not uncommon in imaginative prose and poetry for "the forces opposed to the heroine" to be "allegorized as a personality."  The offering of the explanation was one thing, the plausibility of the explanation another.  Many of the principle characters suffer at the hands of the author.

The observations of Hardy's critic Irving Howe are worth noting:
Because Hardy remained enough of a Christian to believe that purpose courses through the universe but not enough of a Christian to believe that purpose is benevolent or the attribute of a particular Being, he had to make his plots convey the oppressiveness of fatality without positing an agency determining the course of fate...The result was that he often seems to be coercing  his plots...and sometimes...he seems to be plotting against his own characters.
A similar assessment has been made by Claire Tomalin in her biography of Thomas Hardy:
To suggest that readers should see that "the President of the Immortals" is meant only to symbolize the forces of society that brought Tess down will not do as a defence.  There is something more there, something that makes sport with her sufferings, and making sport with suffering is cruelty.
Given the opaqueness of his bleak fatalism, even though he regarded himself as a meliorist, Tomalin offers the following summary:
Neither Hardy nor anyone else explained where his black view of life came from.  I have suggested that something in his constitution made him extraordinarily sensitive to humiliations, griefs and disappointments, and that the wounds they inflicted never healed but went on hurting him throughout his life.  In a sense he never got over his loss of Christian belief, which removed hope.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Let the reader understand: Theology, History & Literature

In his prodigious volume A Theology of John's Gospel and Letters, Andreas Kostenberger has the following helpful schema for biblical interpretation:
Interpreters of Scripture are faced with three inescapable realities they need to address in their interpretive practice:
(1) The reality of God and his revelation in Scripture (theology)(2) The existence of texts containing that revelation that require interpretation (language and literature)(3) The reality of history...the fact that God's revelation to humans...conveyed by the biblical texts, took place in human history.
In essence, therefore, the interpretive task consists of considering each of the three major elements of the "hermeneutical triad" in proper balance: history, language or literature, and theology, with the first two elements being foundational and theology occupying the apex. (p. 42-44)
Theology is mediated through history and literature, through the events of history recorded and interpreted in the text of Scripture. But that same theology is also communicated by, among other things, the specific genres, literary devices, word choice, and structure of each book in the canon. The implications of this are considerable for interpreters be they readers in the pew or preachers in the pulpit.

Let the reader understand.