Saturday, October 06, 2018

Creatureliness and freedom





By ‘creatureliness’ I mean the creatureliness of  human beings. This is a dominant fact about you and me and our neighbours. And somewhat underplayed at present. We are, together, creatures of the living God. That is, to use a more familiar word, we are his products. We are in the state of creatures whether we like it or not. But though all of this is true, the fact of creatureliness is one that few people gave much thought to. The fact that we are made by him in the most intricate fashion, and are what we are by virtue of his creatorship and by his providential upholding of us, has  been surrendered by most of us. At best, it is a notional rather than a real fact.

Having done no research on the question, nonetheless I have the conviction that this awareness, the awareness of creatureliness, has in our culture shrunk to almost disappearing point. So that those who are aware of being creatures are exclusively to be found among conservative Christian and perhaps also the conservative Jewish communities, and Islam. Among its fate in other groups I am almost totally ignorant.

And even among Christians there is often only a token recognition of the point. Which is a great pity. There is not such a thing as a doctrine of creatureliness; a doctrine of creation, yes, and of the Creator – creature distinction, of course. Without an awareness that we are creatures of God it is hard to see us ever being aware of those ills that Jesus came to deliver us from.

The sense of creatureliness is a state of mind which is the fruit of other, more obvious doctrines, but which has its own part to play for those who are aware of it. These other doctrines, of creation, and providence, when they also are not merely notionally believed, may water and feed it. To say that they function as an ingredient in a state of mind shows that it can ebb and flow in our awareness of it. Why it is rather stricken in the modern Christian western mind is not hard to guess. This fundamental truth is forgotten:

Know that the Lord, he is God
It is he who made us, and we are his;
We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. (Ps.100.3)

Such words are now never heard in public, not even at harvest time, which is now a somewhat antiquated festival. The ‘tone’ of our fellow citizens of themselves is much more likely to be of one who is an initiator in human life, here to make, to enjoy and to fulfil, understood a set of purely  human projects. Human life is for expressing and enjoying ourselves, and so for ‘making’ ourselves.  In this sense we view ourselves not so much as creatures but as creators. Our horizons are this world, in the sole enjoyment of some of its riches and of its temptations.

In the pride of his face, the wicked does not seek him
All his thoughts are, ‘There is no God’ (Ps.10.4)

Insofar as such pride is true of ourselves, it shows signs of a lack of belief in our creatureliness. From this lack flow some of the dominant features of our culture: a preoccupation  with fairness, and with physical fitness, and of gaining and maintaining our rights.

Christians hold that God’s eye is on us; and that in him we live and move and have our being. I suppose, therefore,  godliness is not  next to cleanliness, as we were taught, but it is certainly next to creatureliness! Unlike sheep and seals, say, human beings can be aware of being a creature, and this asymmetry between the Creator and his self-aware creatures is a fundamental factor in God’s providence and grace, and of taking stock of human life more generally.  


Creatureliness and freedom

Being creatures having the awareness of our creatureliness does not make us robots, or puppets, or fated by the stars, for we are obviously not. But the point is, human choice can only do so much. From God who ordains who we are, we receive gifts and are ourselves gifted one way or another, as we say without realizing what we are saying. And he supports and works through us to bring to pass his own purposes, re-creating us moment by moment. As the Westminster Confession puts it, by God’s providence, ‘ordereth them [all things] to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.’ (V. II)  God, our creator and Lord, works through us, and so to speak ‘respects’ our individuality, an individuality which is distinct of each person, another part of our creatureliness.

There are contemporary philosophers who hold that it is an infringement of human autonomy to come into the world with a particular endowment, and subject to parental nurture and example, and further formed by an early education. In their view we ought to have the right to choose  what character we have, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and what life chances we are given. What we would the ‘me’ be like who has to plan his or her own life, selecting one’s DNA and all,  is not made clear. It looks incoherent and it in any event is fantastical. This fantasy can be regarded as an  attempt to destroy or erase the features of our creatureliness or at least to circumvent them.

The desire for a 'freedom' in which we are at first, or constantly, or periodically,  can ave some freely chosen new start in our lives is an illusion. In such situations we believe that we are  faced with a blank future on which we can impress our character uninfluenced by other effects from sources not solely our own.  In sharp contrast to this human, freedom is conditioned freedom. Each choice, free in the sense that the choice is our choice, and is not forced upon us, and  is the product of our inner likes and dislikes, our character as creatures. Libertarian or countercultural freedom, unconditional choice,  is a illusion, in my view, whether it is the character of our everyday choices, or as the ability exercisable at some definitive turning point of our lives.  It is an attempt to be free from the shape of our creatureliness. Our creatureliness here is invariably expressed in terms of preferences or goals, the product of our beliefs and desires, and they are the result of our initial endowment of genetics, culture, upbringing. We own these as our own, as indeed they are, and not anyone else’s. We face choices that we may not know the outcome of. These familiar situations are the results of creatureliness. This is the nature in which the regenerating grace of God operates. If we would be pilgrims, then try as we may we cannot avoid our heteronomy.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Met With Jesus Lately?



Met with Jesus lately? At church? The prayer meeting?  Or at your bedside? Or on a walk through the country? Or maybe when you are watching TV news?

To meet with Jesus, is that we go to church for? We go to theatres and concert halls and stadiums to meet famous actors or musicians or players. And then do we round out our weekends (or start our weeks) by going to meet with Jesus Christ, God’s anointed? Not to have met with  Jesus is usually regarded as a failure on the worshipper’s part, perhaps a sign of unspirituality or worse.

For this language, that of personal encounter, is often used to describe the nature of our Christian religion. It is these days popular among Christian worshippers, and a sign of success if we think we have met him. . By having this aim is to make religious services and other like activities important and ‘meaningful’. It is true that there was a time when some met Jesus as we meet each other. Notably, his mother and father, and sisters and brothers, met him. And then his disciples met him, who when they talked with Jesus more often than not seemed to be puzzled by what he had to say about himself. Then there was the crucifixion, watched by quite a few; and his rising again, when he was seen by his disciples again, who talked to him, and more importantly, were talked to by Jesus. One was told not to attempt to touch him, while on another occasion one of the disciples was invited to touch him, though it is not clear whether he accepted the invitation or not. And then :

‘[H[e was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1.9) That was that. No more meeting Jesus. Except for the notable case of the short conversation between the risen Lord and Saul of Tarsus. What was the significance of this mysterious disappearance? It more or less closed his ministry on earth. As he came by being born so he left in this startling way.  Strictly, he did not go, as someone might climb the stairs and disappear. He was ‘taken up’. It is possible that this expression figures the manner he left the earth. He was swept up, taken up, and then he disappeared behind a cloud, not to be seen again.

Where is Christ now? We have no information about an answer, as far as I can tell. But it is important that wherever he is he retains a normal human body, no doubt glorified, whatever that may mean. That is suggested by the remarks of the two men in white robes who provided a commentary on his ascension. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1. 11) A bodily resurrection, and a bodily ascension, and a bodily return.  

The words of the two men  signalled an action of Jesus that has  abiding redemptive significance. As he came from the Father and incarnated in the womb of Mary, and was attended by an angelic host, so having done the work his Father gave him to do, he returned to the Father with angelic accompaniment. The modern language about meeting with Jesus, understood literally, disregards what we must call redemptive history. We live in the ‘last days’ await the return of Jesus. That is also to be a bodily appearance, as we have already noted. As Jesus does not come again each Christmas, so he does not come again each Sunday.

So efforts to meet Jesus on a Sunday morning or at other times in the twenty first century are delusional. For Jesus is now  ‘localised’ in heaven. Because his body is a human body, it is localised as all human bodies are at all times. One reason the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is false is because it requires the substance of Christ’s body, whatever that is, a body less its accidents, presumably, to be present in simultaneous acts as mass is performed in Peru and in Poland, say. But no normal human body can be in two places at once, much less be in thousands of venues at once.

Jesus has disappeared. We must be thankful, then, that before that He taught of the coming of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him or knows him’. (See John 14. 16-17) But we do not meet the Spirit; by God’s grace we are indwelled by him, if we are believers. And there are more clues about the Spirit’s operations here: ‘But the Helper the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’(14. 26) So we get from these words a different set of ideas than those of ‘meeting Jesus’. We are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, the Helper or Comforter, the teacher sent in Christ’s name to bring to the memory of the apostles the words of Christ, and reliable accounts of what he did, reports that are to be with the church - the body of Christ in a different sense -  for ever.

We get a further idea about still what was to happen after Jesus Ascension from the well-known words of the Great Commission. ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Sprit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’. (Matt.26.16-20)  The apostles are the first to be taught and then to be teachers in turn, for Christians are indwelt by the Spirit, whose role it is to bring to mind the authoritative teaching (what is ‘commanded by Jesus’) of the Gospel. To this we must add the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who was solemnly charged by the risen Christ, through Ananias, to be a ‘chosen instrument of mine before the Gentiles and the kings and the children of Israel’. (Acts 9.15) Saul was very quickly transformed from being a persecutor of the church to being a preacher of God’s grace through Jesus Christ.(Acts 9.26f.)

Not surprising that some years later Paul taught Timothy about the nature of the Christian ministry with advice and injunctions such as  'Command and teach'  (1Tim. 4.11)  'Until I come, devote yourself to the teaching of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching...Practise these things, devote yourself to them' (I Tim. 4. 13-4). 'Preach the word..reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching' (2 Tim.4. 2, 3) Note the emphasis on teaching. No suggestion in any of this regarding arranging meetings with Jesus!

So the posture of the leaders of the church is not to prompt our imaginations with the idea of meeting Jesus each week or more frequently, but to listen to  an authoritative teaching ministry by which we are taught and come to know, and to apply,  the teaching of Christ during his earthly ministry. We are to discipline our imaginations as best we can, keeping them in check, just as we need to restrain our minds from wandering when confronted by the apostolic message.

How often do we hear this sort of thing: “I like to think of God as the Great Architect (or Mathematician: or Artist.”) I don’t like to think of God as a Judge I like to think of Him as a Father”…..To follow the imagination of one’s heart in the realm of theology is the way to remain ignorant of God, and to become an idol-worshipper – the idol in this case being a false image of God, ‘made unto thee’ by speculation and imagination’. (J. I. Packer, Knowing God (1975), 48.)
The entire section, 'The Only True God' (Ch.4) is worth pondering.

Let us have done with a ‘meeting Jesus’ religion that has no appreciation of the presently risen Christ, and that takes us away from the revealed truth of Jesus, into the world of imagination and speculation. Let us resolve to be content with the words of Jesus himself and with the message relayed by Word and Spirit to the disciples and to ourselves.


Friday, June 01, 2018

The Fallen Reason




In his work on the Holy Spirit (Works, Vol III) Owen spends a good deal of time considering the fallenness  of human nature because in his view and that of the Reformed  generally the key to the sanctifying work of the Spirit is regeneration. Regeneration is new life from God, not the alteration of our natural states, however noble and useful those states may be. However, in the course of his discussion Owen interestingly while affirming total depravity – that fallenness affects every faculty of the human mind - he does not commit himself to what might be called  uniform depravity. There is a different degree in respect of different faculties. So we find him stating

That the will and affections being more corrupted than the understanding, - as is evident from their opposition unto and defeating of its manifold convictions – no man doth actually apply his mind for the receiving of the things of the Spirit of God to the utmost of that ability which he hath; for all unregenerate men are invincibly impeded therein by the corrupt stubborness and perverseness of their will and affections. (268)

What Owen has to say is based on 1Corinthians 1 and 2. (257 onwards)  So in the case of 1.14, where Paul states that ‘the natural person does not accept the things of the  Spirit  of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned’. The same is true of every natural person notwithstanding their ‘parts’ [talents] and education. Humanity is divided into the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘natural’. The natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God no matter what else is true of him. He cannot understand them, nor receive them.

A person may understand the meaning of the words in which the gospel is expressed, but that is not equivalent to having a ‘spiritual discernment’ of them. What is such a discernment? Owen says that it requires ‘their [that is, the words understood] conformity and agreeableness to the wisdom, holiness, and righteousness of God’. (He cites 1 Cor. 1.23-4)  This discernment is seen as a personal judgment, a recognition of the mind as it benefits from the regenerating work of the Spirit. But not otherwise. And consistently with this Paul wrote ‘The spiritual person judges all thing, but is himself to be judged by no one’. (1 Cor.  2.15) So that he or she is not to take any lessons on such judging from a purely ‘natural’ person, whoever he or she may be.

These ends [of setting forth the gospel in preaching and so on] being the glory of God in Christ, with our deliverance from a state of sin and misery, with a translation into a state of grace and glory, unless we are acquainted with these things, and the aptness, and fitness, and power of the things of the Spirit of God to effect them, we cannot receive them as we ought; and this a natural man cannot do. (261)

This leads Owen to develop the distinction between a two-fold ability a person may be said to receive or understand spiritual things. There are natural powers. The exhortation, promises and threatenings of the gospel shows those who are in their conversion, are not treated like animals or stones, but as having ‘rational minds’.

So “natural impotency” respects the understanding, fallen in Adam. And “moral impotency” respects the will and affections. Yet such impotence regarding the will and affections is “more corrupted than the understanding.” Each of these are  It is interesting that Owen judges that some faculties are more disabled in the Fall, but though all were equal in being disabled, less so in the case of those who were less depraved. As a result of this corruption, there is “no man doth actually apply his mind to receiving the things of the Spirit of God to the utmost of that ability which he hath…. There is not in any of them a due improvement of the capacity of their natural faculties, in the use of means, for the discharge of their duty toward God herein.” (268) Owen says that there is natural inability in the case of the reason, but a moral  ability in the case with the will and the affections.

Such impotency is “absolutely and naturally insuperable.” “This impotency is natural because it consists in the deprivation of the light and power that were originally in the faculties of our minds and understandings.” (267)  “Natural,” because human nature; “the natural capacity of the human faculties of our minds” suffered loss, the loss of its “accidental perfections,” as Owen states later, (285) in the Fall. It is broken and needs repair. It cannot repair itself.


The Context

These comments occur at a place in Owen’s work on regeneration where he has for several pages ruminated about what Paul says about the ‘natural man’ in ICor.1 and to a lesser extent to Jesus’s observations about unbelief in John 6? Owen says that many of these things are ‘the things of a man’. That is, they can be understood by the reason of the unregenerate. ‘These things being in some sense the ‘things’ of a man [an allusion to I Cor.2.11] may be known by the ‘spirit of a man that is in him’. ‘[H]owbeit they cannot be observed and practised according to the mind of God without the aid and assistance of the Holy Ghost’. (259) To the natural man the words of the gospel are not nothing, ‘they are foolishness to him’. ‘They are represented unto him under such a notion as that he will have nothing to do with them.’
(259)

So Owen says that the transmission of the gospel involves it teaching, preaching and receiving from person to person, and something is transmitted.

For instance, ‘That Jesus Christ was crucified’ mentioned by the apostle, 1Cor. 2.2 ) is a proposition whose sense and importance a natural man may understand. And in the due investigation of this sense, and judging thereon concerning truth and falsehood, lies that use of reason in religious things which some would ignorantly confound with an ability of discerning spiritual things in themselves and their own proper nature. This, therefore is granted… None pretend  that men are, in their conversion to God, like stocks and stones, or brute beasts, that have no understanding’.(261) But ‘between the natural capacity of the mind and the act of spiritual discerning there must be an interposition of an effectual work of the Holy Ghost enabling it thereunto’. (262)

Owen mentions this view incidentally, but the distinction is of some importance and interest. ‘Total depravity is a part of the famous ‘TULIP’. `the ‘total’ refers to the totality of the parts or powers of the human soul. People are depraved in all their parts, the totality of them, including especially the will and the affections. Hence the need for regeneration, But it does not follow from depravity in all the parts that each part is depraved to the same intensity. And Owen is expressing the view that the intellect, or reason, is not depraved as intensively as the will and the affections.

The natural man is here allowed to be the rational man, the learned philosopher, one walking by the light of human reason; which complies not with their exception to this testimony who would only such a one as is sensual and given up to brutish affections to be intended…..The apostle in the whole discourse gives an account why so few received the gospel, especially of those who seemed more likely so to do, being wise and learned men, and the gospel no less than the wisdom of God; and the reason hereof he gives from their disability to receive the things of God, and their hatred of them, neither of which can be cured but by the Spirit of Christ.[268]

Can he have meant it?










54 –5 -  2 scientia of god, one of which is superior to the other








                           















  

The Fallen Reason


In his work on the Holy Spirit (Works, Vol III) Owen spends a good deal of time considering the fallenness  of human nature because in his view and that of the Reformed  generally the key to sanctifying work of the Spirit is regeneration. Regeneration is new life from God, not the alteration of our natural states, however noble and useful those states may be. However, in the course of his discussion Owen interestingly while affirming total depravity – that fallenness affects every faculty of the human mind, he does not commit himself to what might be called  uniform depravity. There is a different degree in respect of different faculties. So we find him stating

INSETThat the will and affections being more corrupted than the understanding, - as is evident from their opposition unto and defeating of its manifold convictions – no man doth actually apply his mind for the receiving of the things of the Spirit of God to the utmost of that ability which he hath; for all unregenerate men are invincibly impeded therein by the corrupt stubborness and perverseness of their will and affections. (268)

What Owen has to say is based on 1Corinthians 1 and 2. (257 onwards)  So in the case of 1.14, where Paul states that ‘the natural person does not accept the things of the  Spirit  of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned’. The same is true of every natural person notwithstanding their ‘parts’ (talents) and education. Humanity is divided into the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘natural’. The natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God no matter what else is true of him. He cannot understand them, nor receive them.

A person may understand the meaning of the words in which the gospel is expressed, but that is not equivalent to having a ‘spiritual discernment’ of them. What is such a discernment? Owen says that it requires ‘their [that is, the words understood] conformity and agreeableness to the wisdom, holiness, and righteousness of God’. (He cites 1 Cor. 1.23-4)  This discernment is seen as a personal judgment, a recognition of the mind as it benefits from the regenerating work of the Spirit. But not otherwise. And consistently with this Paul wrote ‘The spiritual person judges all thing, but is himself to be judged by no one’. (1 Cor.  2.15) So that he or she is not to take any lessons on such judging from a purely ‘natural’ person, whoever he or she may be.

INSETThese ends [of setting forth the gospel in preaching and so on] being the glory of God in Christ, with our deliverance from a state of sin and misery, with a translation into a state of grace and glory, unless we are acquainted with these things, and the aptness, and fitness, and power of the things of the Spirit of God to effect them, we cannot receive them as we ought; and this a natural man cannot do. (261)

This leads Owen to develop the distinction between a two-fold ability a person may be said to receive or understand spiritual things. There are natural powers. The exhortation, promises and threatenings of the gospel shows those who are in their conversion, are not treated like animals or stones, but as having ‘rational minds’.

So “natural impotency” respects the understanding, fallen in Adam. And “moral impotency” respects the will and affections. Yet such impotence regarding the will and affections is “more corrupted than the understanding.” Each of these are  It is interesting that Owen judges that some faculties are more disabled in the Fall, but though all were equal in being disabled, less so in the case of those who were less depraved. As a result of this corruption, there is “no man doth actually apply his mind to receiving the things of the Spirit of God to the utmost of that ability which he hath…. There is not in any of them a due improvement of the capacity of their natural faculties, in the use of means, for the discharge of their duty toward God herein.” (268) Owen says that there is natural inability in the case of the reason, but a moral  ability in the case with the will and the affections.

Such impotency is “absolutely and naturally insuperable.” “This impotency is natural because it consists in the deprivation of the light and power that were originally in the faculties of our minds and understandings.” (267)  “Natural,” because human nature; “the natural capacity of the human faculties of our minds” suffered loss, the loss of its “accidental perfections,” as Owen states later, (285) in the Fall. It is broken and needs repair. It cannot repair itself.


The Context

These comments occur at a place in Owen’s work on regeneration where he has for several pages ruminated about what Paul says about the ‘natural man’ in I Cor.1 and to a lesser extent to Jesus’s observations about unbelief in John 6? Owen says that many of these things are ‘the things of a man’. That is, they can be understood by the reason of the unregenerate. ‘These things being in some sense the ‘things’ of a man [an allusion to I Cor.2.11] may be known by the ‘spirit of a man that is in him’. ‘[H]owbeit they cannot be observed and practised according to the mind of God without the aid and assistance of the Holy Ghost’. (259) To the natural man the words of the gospel are not nothing, ‘they are foolishness to him’. ‘They are represented unto him under such a notion as that he will have nothing to do with them.’
(259)

So Owen says that the transmission of the gospel involves it teaching, preaching and receiving from person to person, and something is transmitted.

INSET For instance, ‘That Jesus Christ was crucified’ mentioned by the apostle, 1Cor. 2.2 ) is a proposition whose sense and importance a natural man may understand. And in the due investigation of this sense, and judging thereon concerning truth and falsehood, lies that use of reason in religious things which some would ignorantly confound with an ability of discerning spiritual things in themselves and their own proper nature. This, therefore is granted… None pretend  that men are, in their conversion to God, like stocks and stones, or brute beasts, that have no understanding’.(261) But ‘between the natural capacity of the mind and the act of spiritual discerning there must be an interposition of an effectual work of the Holy Ghost enabling it thereunto’. (262)

Owen mentions this view incidentally, but the distinction is of some importance and interest. ‘Total depravity is a part of the famous ‘TULIP’. `the ‘total’ refers to the totality of the parts or powers of the human soul. People are depraved in all their parts, the totality of them, including especially the will and the affections. Hence the need for regeneration, But it does not follow from depravity in all the parts that each part is depraved to the same intensity. And Owen is expressing the view that the intellect, or reason, is not depraved as intensively as the will and the affections.

INSET The natural man is here allowed to be the rational man, the learned philosopher, one walking by the light of human reason; which complies not with their exception to this testimony who would only such a one as is sensual and given up to brutish affections to be intended…..The apostle in the whole discourse gives an account why so few received the gospel, especially of those who seemed more likely so to do, being wise and learned men, and the gospel no less than the wisdom of God; and the reason hereof he gives from their disability to receive the things of God, and their hatred of them, neither of which can be cured by the Spirit of Christ.

Can he have meant it?










54 –5 -  2 scientia of god, one of which is superior to the other








                           




























The Fallen Reason


In his work on the Holy Spirit (Works, Vol III) Owen spends a good deal of time considering the fallenness  of human nature because in his view and that of the Reformed  generally the key to sanctifying work of the Spirit is regeneration. Regeneration is new life from God, not the alteration of our natural states, however noble and useful those states may be. However, in the course of his discussion Owen interestingly while affirming total depravity – that fallenness affects every faculty of the human mind, he does not commit himself to what might be called  uniform depravity. There is a different degree in respect of different faculties. So we find him stating

INSETThat the will and affections being more corrupted than the understanding, - as is evident from their opposition unto and defeating of its manifold convictions – no man doth actually apply his mind for the receiving of the things of the Spirit of God to the utmost of that ability which he hath; for all unregenerate men are invincibly impeded therein by the corrupt stubborness and perverseness of their will and affections. (268)

What Owen has to say is based on 1Corinthians 1 and 2. (257 onwards)  So in the case of 1.14, where Paul states that ‘the natural person does not accept the things of the  Spirit  of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned’. The same is true of every natural person notwithstanding their ‘parts’ (talents) and education. Humanity is divided into the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘natural’. The natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God no matter what else is true of him. He cannot understand them, nor receive them.

A person may understand the meaning of the words in which the gospel is expressed, but that is not equivalent to having a ‘spiritual discernment’ of them. What is such a discernment? Owen says that it requires ‘their [that is, the words understood] conformity and agreeableness to the wisdom, holiness, and righteousness of God’. (He cites 1 Cor. 1.23-4)  This discernment is seen as a personal judgment, a recognition of the mind as it benefits from the regenerating work of the Spirit. But not otherwise. And consistently with this Paul wrote ‘The spiritual person judges all thing, but is himself to be judged by no one’. (1 Cor.  2.15) So that he or she is not to take any lessons on such judging from a purely ‘natural’ person, whoever he or she may be.

INSETThese ends [of setting forth the gospel in preaching and so on] being the glory of God in Christ, with our deliverance from a state of sin and misery, with a translation into a state of grace and glory, unless we are acquainted with these things, and the aptness, and fitness, and power of the things of the Spirit of God to effect them, we cannot receive them as we ought; and this a natural man cannot do. (261)

This leads Owen to develop the distinction between a two-fold ability a person may be said to receive or understand spiritual things. There are natural powers. The exhortation, promises and threatenings of the gospel shows those who are in their conversion, are not treated like animals or stones, but as having ‘rational minds’.

So “natural impotency” respects the understanding, fallen in Adam. And “moral impotency” respects the will and affections. Yet such impotence regarding the will and affections is “more corrupted than the understanding.” Each of these are  It is interesting that Owen judges that some faculties are more disabled in the Fall, but though all were equal in being disabled, less so in the case of those who were less depraved. As a result of this corruption, there is “no man doth actually apply his mind to receiving the things of the Spirit of God to the utmost of that ability which he hath…. There is not in any of them a due improvement of the capacity of their natural faculties, in the use of means, for the discharge of their duty toward God herein.” (268) Owen says that there is natural inability in the case of the reason, but a moral  ability in the case with the will and the affections.

Such impotency is “absolutely and naturally insuperable.” “This impotency is natural because it consists in the deprivation of the light and power that were originally in the faculties of our minds and understandings.” (267)  “Natural,” because human nature; “the natural capacity of the human faculties of our minds” suffered loss, the loss of its “accidental perfections,” as Owen states later, (285) in the Fall. It is broken and needs repair. It cannot repair itself.


The Context

These comments occur at a place in Owen’s work on regeneration where he has for several pages ruminated about what Paul says about the ‘natural man’ in I Cor.1 and to a lesser extent to Jesus’s observations about unbelief in John 6? Owen says that many of these things are ‘the things of a man’. That is, they can be understood by the reason of the unregenerate. ‘These things being in some sense the ‘things’ of a man [an allusion to I Cor.2.11] may be known by the ‘spirit of a man that is in him’. ‘[H]owbeit they cannot be observed and practised according to the mind of God without the aid and assistance of the Holy Ghost’. (259) To the natural man the words of the gospel are not nothing, ‘they are foolishness to him’. ‘They are represented unto him under such a notion as that he will have nothing to do with them.’
(259)

So Owen says that the transmission of the gospel involves it teaching, preaching and receiving from person to person, and something is transmitted.

INSET For instance, ‘That Jesus Christ was crucified’ mentioned by the apostle, 1Cor. 2.2 ) is a proposition whose sense and importance a natural man may understand. And in the due investigation of this sense, and judging thereon concerning truth and falsehood, lies that use of reason in religious things which some would ignorantly confound with an ability of discerning spiritual things in themselves and their own proper nature. This, therefore is granted… None pretend  that men are, in their conversion to God, like stocks and stones, or brute beasts, that have no understanding’.(261) But ‘between the natural capacity of the mind and the act of spiritual discerning there must be an interposition of an effectual work of the Holy Ghost enabling it thereunto’. (262)

Owen mentions this view incidentally, but the distinction is of some importance and interest. ‘Total depravity is a part of the famous ‘TULIP’. `the ‘total’ refers to the totality of the parts or powers of the human soul. People are depraved in all their parts, the totality of them, including especially the will and the affections. Hence the need for regeneration, But it does not follow from depravity in all the parts that each part is depraved to the same intensity. And Owen is expressing the view that the intellect, or reason, is not depraved as intensively as the will and the affections.

INSET The natural man is here allowed to be the rational man, the learned philosopher, one walking by the light of human reason; which complies not with their exception to this testimony who would only such a one as is sensual and given up to brutish affections to be intended…..The apostle in the whole discourse gives an account why so few received the gospel, especially of those who seemed more likely so to do, being wise and learned men, and the gospel no less than the wisdom of God; and the reason hereof he gives from their disability to receive the things of God, and their hatred of them, neither of which can be cured by the Spirit of Christ.

Can he have meant it?