Thursday, January 28, 2010

Divine Realities

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.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


I’ve now read Carl Trueman’s piece on Packer in J.I. Packer and the Evangelical Future (ed. Timothy George, Baker), ' J.I. Packer: An English Nonconformist Perspective'. It is tough and tender, sharp-edged and analytic, as you would expect. Though somewhat critical of JI, it ends by paying him a gracious tribute. If you are interested in its topic, and you haven’t read this piece, you should do so. He brings together the business of the closing down of the Puritan Conference and Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ call to all evangelicals in mixed denominations to ‘come out’, and maybe he’s correct to do so. Together they are parts of the one call to ‘separation’ of over forty years ago, the failure to heed which has, in Carl’s judgment, blighted British evangelicalism in the years since. His thesis is that

The disaster of 1966, from which British evangelicalism is only just emerging, could have been much less damaging if Packer had listened to Lloyd-Jones’s negative call to come out and supplemented it with that which Lloyd-Jones failed to do: a proper ecclesiological, doctrinal, confessional alternative to remaining in mixed denominations’. (128)

The twin anomaly

He thinks that Packer was and is an anomaly within the evangelical wing of the Church of England: a working class, first-class Reformed theologian in a coop of Bash pietists. He was an anomaly culturally, and an anomaly theologically. A lodge in a cucumber field, so to speak. Being a working-class lad, he should have been attracted to Dissent but for some reason wasn't. (Trueman is good on reminding us of the historically important divide between the Church of England and Protestant Dissent. This still lingers, though few non-Anglicans seem to know the first thing about their history. The words ‘dissent’ and ‘nonconformist’ have largely changed their meaning. Few members of the Church of England too, I suspect, realise that their church once persecuted and marginalised fellow-Christians.)

Packer was also an anomaly among his non-Anglican evangelical and Calvinist brethren who were led (and mesmerised) by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the revivalist, conversionist, somewhat mystical orator-preacher incessantly talking about the church but with no doctrine of the church. For Packer did (and does) have a view of the church. According to Carl, in Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones met his theological match, could not take the heat, and forced the break. (Here Carl relies on Gaius Davies’ analysis of Lloyd-Jones’s character defects. Trueman and Davies may be correct on these, but as character analysis is not my field, I shall leave that to the more qualified. Save to say that Carl may at this point have lost sight of the overall thesis of Davies’s book, Genius, Grief and Grace, (Mentor, Second Edition, 2001) which is that the Lord may use deeply faulty people. You don’t have to be perfect to be a blessing, and you ought not to conclude from the fact that you are a blessing that you are perfect).

The call to 'come out', in 1966, and Packer's part in the book Growing Into Union (published in 197o) led to separatists dissociating themselves from JI in the running of the Puritan Conference, which was disbanded. Together these two events formed the critical time for this doubly-anomalous theologian. If he had taken Trueman’s advice (so to speak) Packer would have stood up to Dr. Lloyd-Jones. But at the same time he himself should have heeded his call to ‘come out’, and obtained a faculty position at the London Theological Seminary (a Lloyd-Jones establishment which came into being some years later than this critical time). (126) And then (as far as I can discern from what Trueman says), the mantle of Chalmers or Machen falling on him, and arm-in-arm with a chastened Dr Lloyd-Jones, Packer should have led his fellow separatists, those like him who had ‘come out’, away from independency, with its sectarian tendencies. He should have crafted and led the formation of an English equivalent of the Free Church of Scotland or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Not to have done this, not to be the leader that he should have been, was Packer’s ‘failure’. (128) Trueman comments, 'No wonder he had to leave for Canada'. (126)

There seem to me to be two strong arguments against this analysis, arguments which are, in effect, two sides of the same coin. An argument about the man, and then an argument about his beliefs about the visible church, and what those beliefs imply.

The man

First, Carl’s view of JI requires one to think of him as something of an evangelical and Reformed free spirit, with Dissent in his working-class veins, forming deep theological convictions that strongly tend to separatism from those who disagree with him on vital matters. (After all, Packer became a public figure largely through the sponsorship of the IVF, as it was then). But in fact Packer grew up as a working-class nominal Anglican. Anglicanism ran (first somewhat sluggishly, it seems), in his veins. So Trueman seems to think that Packer was and is an Anglican with a bad conscience for being so, all the time looking for a way out from Anglicanism that is consistent with his Reformed outlook.

But the evidence points the other way, that (despite the difficulties JI sees in being and staying an Anglican, difficulties that have surely grown since the time he went to Canada), he remains an Anglican with a good conscience. There is no evidence, as far as I know, that he ever toyed with ‘coming out’, that it was ever a live option for him. Nor was it that in a Lloyd-Jones - Packer stand-off Packer blinked first. There was no such stand-off, to my knowledge. Rather, while there was heartache (on Packer’s side at least) over the break, the likelihood is that he could not understand what all the fuss was about. And if JI was reviled, he most certainly did not revile again. As far as he was concerned there was nothing to get hot under the collar over, no ‘dilemma’, since in his eyes his adherence to Anglicanism was consistent both with his ‘Puritanism’ and with his fellowship with other evangelicals who differed from him over his churchmanship.

Trueman writes of a virtual world in which Packer had left the Church of England, and of what would or might have followed. As it happens, on Packer’s arrival in Canada aspects of that virtual world had a chance to become part of the real world. For once he was in Canada he certainly had plenty of opportunity to join a confessional, separatist Reformed congregation or denomination had he so wished. I imagine that had he done so, he would have been received with open arms. But he chose not to; the virtual world in which Packer leaves Anglicanism for some form of separatism remained virtual. Like so many emigrants to North America he lovingly took his old church with him. Why? The obvious answer is: because it was a part of his identity.

The ecclesiology

This brings us to the second argument against the analysis, Carl’s thoughts on Packer’s ‘ecclesiology’. Carl faults the run of Anglican evangelicals for having no doctrine of the church, and being in effect Anglican opportunists. By contrast Packer, he says, being a truly Reformed theologian, did have a doctrine of the church, (122) a ‘passionate love for the church and its visible unity’. (127) He appreciates ‘Reformed theology as elaborately doctrinal, confessional and thus ecclesiastical’. (119) Yet for all this, Carl tells us, ‘Packer remained an Anglican. That was, I believe, a mistake’ (128), a mistake to stay in ‘a body with an unacceptably mixed theological makeup and lack of doctrinal discipline’. (123) (A strategic mistake, presumably, because the longer he remained an Anglican, the longer he denied himself the realisation of his Reformed ecclesiology.)

But what Carl seems not to appreciate is that the Anglican church, with her episcopacy, her state connection in England, and her theologically-mixed character, is (as our earlier posts have shown) a state of affairs fully consistent with JI's ‘doctrinal Calvinism’, his avowed 'Puritanism', and with his brand of Reformed ecclesiology, even though maintaining that view over the years has occasioned him much personal pain and humbling. Carl quotes Packer as believing that ‘the claims of evangelical unity do not require ecclesiastical separation where the faith is not actually being denied [i.e. where it is not made impossible to express oneself] and renewal seems possible [i.e. it is possible to have influence for good on such a mixed church]’.(122) This is one expression of JI's commitment to Anglicanism as a ‘mixed’ church.

Another part of JI’s ecclesiology (as we have also already seen) is that he holds that no issue of principle is involved if some fellow Christian dissents from his view. So his Reformed ecclesiology is not monochrome, or imperialistic, nor (at the same time) does his own version of it have separatistic implications. For him Reformed ecclesiology is a genus with several species. The species that he has committed himself to is a consistent working out of the Anglican denial of the regulative principle: it is permissible to do (in church government, and in worship) what Scripture does not forbid. This denial of the regulative principle permits (Packer judges) the inclusion within the Anglican zone of those with deep theological differences, as in the church of Corinth in Paul’s day, perhaps, or in one or another of the Seven Churches of the Revelation, even though these differences are deplorable, just as it equally permits fellowship with the separatists should their separatism allow for such fellowship.

On both these counts I believe that Carl, in writing an interesting and absorbing piece, has nevertheless missed the mark. But I think I may now have discerned in his own character a trait that I had not seen before - romanticism, ecclesiastical romanticism!