Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A definite Incarnation

Do remember what really happened in the Incarnation. God in the person of the Logos came into this world of time and space and fallenness, taking our nature, with a definite propose, which he is achieving. If at this time of the year you are inclined to peruse the chapters of the Gospels that give us their various accounts of the events, or bear them in mind, remember first of all that these events came to use already interpreted.

Beginning with Matthew -


Why is the baby to be called Jesus? Because ‘Jesus’ means Saviour. And who is he to be the Saviour of? ‘His people.’ And what is he saving them from? ‘their  sins.’

He will save his people from their sins. (1.18)

Herod’s chief priests and scribes knew this from the Scriptures. They tell Herod that

Jesus is to be ‘a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’ (2.6. citing Ezekiel 34.23)

The wise men rejoiced at this news. But what did it have to do with them?


Mary was also told that her child was to be called ‘Jesus’

‘He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most high. And the Lord will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ (1.32-3)

The king of Israel, king of an endless kingdom.

‘And his mercy is for those who fear him, from generation to generation’. (1.50)

That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all hate us. (1.71) 

And the Angels said

Glory to God in the highest, and among earth peace among those with whom he is pleased. (2.14)

And Simeon said

A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel. (2.32)

And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,

‘behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel’ (2.34)

‘coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem’. (2.38)

The great thing about Luke’s account (by far the most detailed) is how it shows the piety and conceptuality of those who waited for the redemption of Jerusalem,  rejoiced at Christ’s coming is expressed on OT terminology.  Jesus is a ruler, a shepherd, he sits on the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob. He is a light for revelation to the Gentiles, epitomised by the rejoicing, worshipping, Wise Men.  Here the world of the godly remnant of Israel explicitly overlaps with that of the NT such that we, who have the benefit of these later writings, have been given further light to interpret what the spokespeople for the remnant had to say.


‘To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’ (1.12-3)

The incarnate Saviour and the new birth.

The work of the Saviour was not some vague thing, mere ‘good will’, but a precise redemption, embracing Jew and Gentile, for some Jews are not true Jews, and some Gentiles are.

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical, But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.’ (Rom 2 28-9)

To all those, for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them; and revealing unto them, in and by the word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by his Spirit to believe and obey; and governing their hearts by his word and Spirit; overcoming all their enemies by his almighty power and wisdom, in such manner and ways as are most consonant to his wonderful and unsearchable dispensation. (Westminster Confession of Faith,  VIII.VIII)

Monday, December 01, 2014

Vices and Virtues

By an interesting coincidence Bradford Littlejohn has written a piece on virtue ethics. Not an historical piece, as my mini series on William Ames and the Westminster catechisms is, but a contemporary piece, expressing a concern with ethics in a world coming to terms with new technology. I’ll briefly summarise Littlejohn’s approach. You can read it in here for yourself, and there’s more besides this.

Littlejohn claims that Protestants have blind spots when it comes to ethics, though it’s not all Martin Luther’s fault, the trouble with his framework of the Law and the Gospel. We think using that framework that the moral life is in terms of what particular actions we ought to do and to avoid, and then we swing to the opposite by ‘emphasizing the good news that Christ has set us free and given us new hearts, From this standpoint, ethics is above all about having a right heart, and everything else will take care of itself.’

So the bind Protestants are in is that they veer between legalism (Luther) or ‘the good will of a new heart’. For if we do that have ‘sometimes left out the crucial middle ground, the well-developed medieval conception of virtue, which many leading Reformers were careful to retain’. Virtue gives us an emphasis not on rules but on habits, as the medieval taught us, and this gives us a route into thinking ethically, Littlejohn is concerned exclusively or firstly about the use of technology; but this is bye the bye. (Personally I cannot see what this fuss about technology is all about, but maybe we are going to be shown in the treatment of virtue and vice in later pieces. These are to be concerned, Littlejohn tells us, with the Seven Deadly Sins (which should actually be called the ‘seven deadly vices’).

The Littlejohn story

A Protestant today will or ought to wonder about this story of the helpfulness of the medieval church on the Reformers on the question of virtue, if only because they regarded the Roman Church, by and large, as a vicious organization with its own particular set of legalisms to boot. What was the source of this critique? It was that the Roman church was too like the pagans, the philosophers of Greece and Rome who

When they give exhortations to virtue, can only tell us to live agreeably to nature…who, in their commendation of virtue, never rise higher than the dignity of man. 

Calvin diagnoses their chief error as not having any doctrine of the fallenness of human nature.

Whether this appeal to the concept of virtue, or rather of vice or vices – the seven deadly sins or lusts - helps us ethically in a ‘technological age’ – is a question which does not concern us here. The question is whether the virtues or gifts of the Spirit – which doesn’t have prominence in Littlejohn’s account – take us to a more distinctive view of Christian ethics generally.

Ames would I think applaud the adoption of the language of virtue rather than that of law, though he by no means despises the law. Yet he would say that switching concepts from law to virtue by itself does not take us very far. To think of virtue in a distinctively biblical say – of Christian virtue -  one has to pay attention to both the source of Christian virtue, and the character of the virtues themselves, as given to us in the several lists of them that we have in the NT. 

So let us look at what Littlejohn says. About virtues he says this:

Moral habits, habits of the rational will, are the same, except that they require conscious cultivation and, to a greater or lesser extent, divine grace: they are learned patterns of behaviour which enable us to excel  at being the kind of creatures God made us to be, to act excellently  toward ourselves, our neighbors, and God. A virtuous person may still sin, and a vicious person may still make a right choice, but in both cases it will be harder to go against habit than with it.

Some of this is true. But there’s an optimism, a semi-perfectionism, that the New Testament teaching on habits lying at the base of virtue) does not have. Or to say that they have divine grace ‘to a greater or lesser extent’ does not do justice to the NT idea that Christian virtues are the fruit of the Spirit, born of regenerating grace. Of course naturally upheld virtues – of honest and fidelity say – are of social importance, but they are to be distinguished from the virtues of the Christian life, which have a different motivation and end.  Strange, in this connection, that Littlejohn does not mention the contrast between the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the natural virtues of honesty, courage and so on.
(I think incidentally that Luther’s gospel-law dialectic is much less important for the rise of legalism than Calvin’s and especially the Puritans ‘third’ use of the law.)

What would Ames say? 

He denies that virtue has only to inward religious dispositions, but it extends to actions. What actions? Those that respect only the life to come? No, religion respects not only the life to come, but  this life. Further, virtue does not respect only civil conduct. Nor has religion to do only with the inward but the outward as well.  (200) So Ames sees a (true) virtue to be a disposition of the will brought about by Spirit and word, ‘a gift of God and inspired by the holy Spirit’ (201) of a comprehensive nature. So, Prudence, called ‘spiritual understanding and wisdom’ (Col.1.9); Fortitude (boldness, perseverance and constancy); and Temperance, ‘sobriety, purity and sincerity’. (204) And in a virtuous person these four virtues are seen comprehensively across his character, and do not respect only one line of conduct. (206-7)

All these virtues do seem to be prescribed together, and almost by name. 2 Pet.1, 4 and 6. Add to Faith Virtue: that is Justice or an universal rectitude; to virtue knowledge, that is Prudence directing aright all your ways: to prudence, continence, that is, that temperance whereby ye may contained your selves from all allurement of pleasures, wherewith men use to be fleshed, and drawn away from the right way: to continence, patience, that is fortitude; whereby ye may endure any hardship for righteousness sake. But that which follows there of piety and charity doth contain a distribution of virtue, to be propounded in its proper place. 

We see that Ames’s view is very similar to Calvin’s. He also takes it that each virtue affects the others, making possible a 'distribution' of virtue.  Without taking into account and making central the ethical consequences of the Fall and its recovery through Christ’s Spirit in the giving of a ‘new man', the substitution of the language of law by the language of virtue is inconsequential by itself. We need an inner change. The emphasis on rule-following makes it possible that a decline to moralism and to legalism will occur - that Christian will not readily think that living  is a matter of following a list of do's and don'ts. The acquisition of true virtue. - though fitful and imperfect -  makes it much less likely that the Christian will respond to the commands of the law of God legalistically. But for  proper virtue we need the Spirit.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Visit to an Abbey

Whitby Abbey

I was at a service at an Abbey last Sunday, an unfamiliar venue for me. When I am at a service in an strange place, such as the service in this gaunt but undoubtedly beautiful building, being a visitor I tend to try to adopt the outlook of a visitor. What impression does what goes on in the great venues of English religion give to someone, who, like me on this occasion, joins the service as a one-off?

Such venues are these days almost invariably homes to High Anglicanism, and the Abbey provided the congregation with a share of the ceremony and ritual associated with Anglo-Catholicism. The bowings, and crossings, the processions, the physical separation of the clergy from the laity, the smell and vapour of incense, the rich regalia of those officiating. Easy to sneer. These goings-on have exact significances that I would need to be taught, but they are centred on sacramental presence, the idea of a localised presence of Christ. The idea that Christ is nearer the 'altar' than the congregation is, the Holy Spirit is where the incense is, and so on. But to the uninitiated like me these goings-on are largely an expression of ‘religion’ that is pretty strange, and of nothing more. 

In case one is inclined to look down one's nose at High Anglicanism, I wonder what a stranger would make of the current evangelical equivalent – the band, the informality of the service,  and the easy-going bonhomie exuded by the minister. The Abbey service was at least serious throughout. 'A serious house on serious earth as Larkin puts it in 'Church Going'.

In the service there was a short homily. The reading for the day, read earlier in the service, was the Parable of the Virgins. (The words of the Old Testament reading for the day were not read to us, for some reason.) In the address, after a brief nod in the direction of the Parable, it was left behind, like the five foolish virgins. Even though, this being the teaching of the Gospels, of words of the Saviour himself, we stood up to hear it. We stood in the manner prescribed in the Prayer Book. This was not simply Scripture but special Scripture, the Gospels.  Yet no mention in the homily of Christ who taught in parables, and whose teaching in them was largely of himself and his kingdom. Christ the heavenly bridegroom. The church the bride. In any case teenage contraception and  ‘gay-marriage’ have largely dulled the significance of the parable. So some care is needed in explaining it.

The words of the speaker centred on ‘watchfulness’, like the virgins some of whom were watchful and patient and some not. On watchfulness in the nation (against terrorism, I suspect, though the word was not used); on watchfulness in our communities, for the needy, the unloved, the unwashed. And finally, with time running out (ten minutes, if that), the need for watchfulness in ourselves, in our 'own lives’. But why? And what for? I do not recall being told.

But the point of the Parable, above all points, the point no one can read the Parable and miss, surely, is its particularism. Five of the virgins were wise, and five foolish. You don’t need to be Thomas Shepard to be  impressed on you the importance of the differences between the wise and foolish, and the finality of the Bridegroom’s word to the foolish: ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you’. (Matt. 25)

You see, while the Parable certainly cautions watchfulness, its peculiar, strange significance – watchfulness in waiting for the Bridegroom – was missed. In fact I’d hazard that it was not narrowly missed, but that the theological world of Christ’s teaching was a thousand miles away from this homily spoken in his name.

The consequence of being prepared to be watchful was glossed as watchfulness in regard to current social and political concerns. (But at least there was not much effort, in the prayers, devoted to petitioning heaven for the success of the foreign policy of the United Kingdom and the West more generally. I was glad of that, if only because there is no NT precedent for such prayers. We never find the Apostles praying, or urging prayer, for the success of the Roman Emperor’s latest thrusts against the barbarians).

In his off-hand remarks on the parable the Christian minister circumvented a whole Christian order of things, even though platitudes were uttered by him that we could all nod in agreement with. And the impression was once more reinforced that in the Christian faith and its preaching there is nothing much to trouble us, much less to ‘offend’ us. 

It is this lack of  an  ‘edge’ that is most sad. The difference between being one of Christ’s watchful virgins, and a sleepy virgin. The difference between being the church of Christ and the world, of his kingdom and the passing kingdoms. No edge, no clarity, no urgency. Which left me wondering, where is there edgy, clear, urgent preaching anywhere in England? We are drifting into a state in which, if they think at all about Christianity, the public think that being a Christian is an entitlement like the NHS. Universalism by default. Who will tell them any different? On the basis of this visit, certainly not the ministers of this Abbey. So who?