In this short series of Analyses I have been attempting to counter the charge that the Christian faith, and Christian theology in particular, is simply words about words about words, possessing no objective reference. Such a charge can be the immediate fruit of the influence of the communitarianism of Lindbeck, and of a certain kind of extreme presuppositionalism, and ultimately perhaps of the pervasive shadow of Karl Barth.
Against this I have argued that grace, God’s sovereign, redemptive grace through Jesus Christ, builds on nature, as the church has taught for 1500 years and more. ‘Nature’ here can be understood in various overlapping and accumulating ways; the use of the five senses, and of the intellect, the use of natural languages in understanding and translating Scripture, itself written in natural languages, the possession of a universal concreated sensus divinitatis, natural, though perverted by the Fall, which gives to all us an intuitive awareness of divinity, a great and glorious creator to whom we are accountable, an awareness so unwelcome that we frequently pervert and silence the voice even though it still is to be heard. The influence of nature can also be seen in the development of arguments for God’s existence, as in Acts 14 and 17. Though we have not paid much attention to the Reformed attitude to natural theology in this series, Michael Sudduth has lately reminded us of its place in the Reformed tradition, and in celebration of this reminder I hope shortly to post something on Charles Hodge and natural theology.
Grace on Nature
But there is more than this. Were to attempt to show how grace builds on nature with regard to the objective basis of our faith, in the Incarnation and the ministry of Jesus, then we'd need to say something about Jesus real humanity, and the the historical reality of these events in the way that they form part of the human history of the planet. But here I touch on the personal appropriation of what Jesus did and suffered for the world, and to highlight two features. The first is to consider the question of how it is that grace builds upon our nature, and the sort of objectivity that grace has. Think for a moment of the regenerating and illuminating wok of the Spirit. How does this go? The indwelling of the Spirit is not that of a new visitor who comes to the house and proceeds to do all the work. What result from his work is a new man, a new creation, but this is not creation ex nihilo but the making of all things, the old things, new. The faculties which produce the old things are not replaced by a ‘new sense’ a sixth sense (despite what Jonathan Edwards appeared occasionally to teach) but they are old faculties which (through Spirit-given penitence and mortification) lose certain propensities, or have them weakened, and (through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit) gain new propensities, or a strengthening of those that exist. The old nature is not expelled, like an evil spirit, but marvellously and mysteriously renewed. We are on the road to becoming truly human, not transformed into angels. So that while the regenerating work of the Spirit is supernatural, it cooperates with the natural, itself taking the initiative and fitting the natural for such cooperation. ‘Enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving them an heart of flesh, renewing their wills……’
So as the natural powers of the soul give us a sense of objectivity and of the distinction between the objective and the subjective, the true and the false (even though the boundary between the to is often oddly-drawn), so the regenerating of these faculties is an extension of the range of that objectivity through a healing of human powers.
Covenant and Response
God is the living God, and his people are called into covenant fellowship with him; and besides the objectivity of divine realities being disclosed through nature, and as grace builds upon nature, they are experienced through the character of that covenant relationship. What is that relationship? At its vaguest, it is the relationship of compliance and resistance. Just as, in negotiating our way through our physical environment, we experience cooperation (as we lean on the chair) and resistance, (as we skid on the ice, or crack our shin against the table-leg), so the Lord calls us into covenant relationship with him, and to the same mix of compliance and resistance, at a different level, at a moral and religious level. The presence of this mix provides evidence of the objectivity of that covenant relationship, and of the Lord, with whom we are in covenant partnership. So that partnership is self-involving (a phrase that Donald Evans coined many years ago) not automatically, but by the Spirit.
When Jesus says ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’, how do we become convinced that he speaks of realities, and that the whole business is not mere make-believe? Because those who come to him find rest. Or consider the phrase ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’. Here we have another expression of this same compliance-resistance pattern, akin to the resistance and yielding of physical relationships. Those who resist may not experience it as resistance. For though the pattern is parallel to that of the physical, it is much more nuanced: the prospect for self-deception is much greater. We cannot carry on for very long telling ourselves that we have not crashed the car when we have. Once again the language of the Westminster Confession provides a good summary of how that sense of objectivity may be built built up in the various exercises of faith – ‘yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come’. It is through the activities of and responses of obedience, trembling, and embracing (as appropriate) that provide us with a sense of the objectivity of him with whom we have to do. We find that the promises of God hold good, that he is as good as his word, and so come to develop a sense of the objective reality of God, to whom we succeed in referring through our covenantal responses.