Monday, June 01, 2015

Baptists and ‘The Phrase’

How great a being, Lord, is Thine,
Which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line,
To sound so vast a deep:
Thou art a sea without a shore
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore,
Thy place is everywhere.

In an earlier post we noted the Baptist Confessional tradition (at least since 1689) consciously using the language of the earlier theology, and of the early church. This is linked in a way that is surprising to some to a greater confessional awareness among some Baptists at the present time. Not just a confession but awareness of it. A confessional awareness that links those who subscribe to such confessions to the theology, specifically to the theism, of the early church. The verse of John Mason’s great hymn given above expresses (with not too much license) the character of this theism. If you haven’t yet learned to treasure a confession of faith then learn Mason’s hymn. It is given in full at the end of this piece.

Theism is what undergirds the character of the remainder of Christian doctrine. You might say, as the theism, so the doctrine. Ours is not an age of doctrine,  but of morality. What divides and unites people is not doctrine (‘doctrine divides’) but morality (‘morality divides’); social morality, social ethics, sex and gender, life  and death, and so on. But what grounds ethics? The Christian church has maintained that ethics is grounded in the character and will of Almighty God and our love of it. Does the doctrine of God matter? It certainly does, it sets forth the character and powers of God.


To some the phrase ‘without body, parts and passions’ appearing in a Christian confession, matters not. What’s in a phrase? Isn’t this just rhetoric? No. it isn’t. This phrase compresses a whole theology, in the narrow sense of a doctrine of God.  'The Phrase', as I shall call it here, expresses the purest theism, the theism of catholic Christianity. Note this use of ‘catholic’. It is distinct from ‘Roman Catholic’. In Roman Catholic theology every one of its councils speak the RC faith, for all of them are regarded as consistent. And the Pontiff settles any differences. In ‘catholic’ theology, the first seven councils are embraced, the ecumenical councils, councils that met and pronounced prior to the division into the Eastern and Western Church. ‘Catholic’ in this sense means the universal church, what is generally believed. Judged by this standard the use of the phrase ‘Roman Catholic’ can be oxymoronic: ‘The universal church that at one and the same time recognizes the authority of the Bishop of Rome as its Pontiff’. ‘Catholic’ in what follows is used in the ecumenical sense, not in the Roman sense.

If someone stops to think about The Phrase, they might wonder at the rather strange grammar, a negative clause. It’s about what God is ‘without'. Not what God is, or even what God is like, but what he is not. If John is without his umbrella when the shower suddenly drenches, he is without shelter. The phrase is negative, it tells us what John is not carrying, that he is lacking shelter. Likewise with The Phrase. It tells  us what God is not, and by implication is not like. Such negative language is frequently used of God in Scripture: He is immortal, invisible, without beginning, endless, uncreated. Using such negative expressions emphasizes God’s apartness, his ‘otherness’ as theologians say. He is not like ourselves who are mortal, visible, born and die, creatures. He is in a class by himself. That is not to say that all our language about God is negative. He is almighty, eternal, pure, holy, loving, jealous, abounding in mercy. He is our Creator and our judge. All these are positive expressions, telling us what God is and is like. The use of such negative expressions has the intention of guarding our thinking, our tendency to be familiar with God, thinking we know what God is like, even the tendency we have to think we know what it is like to be God. God is apart from us, transcending our world of time and space.

The other thing that might strike us is the including of  ‘without…passions’. Why single out the exclusion of passions? Without a body and without parts seems to be more manageable. We know that God is pure spirit and does not have hands and feet, and thus does not have parts. That does not quite say it all, however. God is not only without bodily parts he is also without temporal parts. He does not have a yesterday or a tomorrow. As Isaac Watts put it.
Eternity, with all its years,
Stands present in Thy view;
To Thee there’s nothing old appears;
Great God! There’s nothing new.
There is no past for God, no future, no memory, no part of his life is over, nor any part to come. For he is without  parts.


Returning to this negative expression, ‘without…passions’, it tells us quite a bit that us positive about God when we reflect upon it. To start with it tells us that the life of God is 'above'  the goings-on in our lives, or in the lives of any other creature. It is a way of saying that God is changeless, whereas we change. He is not caused to change by his creation. Rather, besides creating and sustaining it,  he is the decreer of changes in his creation, including the changes that his creatures bring about. God decrees such changes and in that sense he brings them about or permits them. But that fact does not allow us to say that God does not care for his creatures, nor grants his grace to men and women. Care, grace, judgment, mercy are expressions of the fullness of God to us creatures, and (again) have to do with our changes, not with his. When we come to recognize that God loves  in Christ, and fills his people with joy and peace in believing, this is a change, and it leads to further changes in them. It was God’s eternal decree that this be so. If human lives descend into indifference to God, or blasphemous rebellion, these are other changes, different responses, different changes to the one unchanging God. Such changes have effects on our passions, or affections, but not on God’s.

A God without passions is not an uncaring God, or unconcerned, in a state of psychotic withdrawal. Nor he is a deistic God. On the contrary he is rich in mercy, abounding in goodness and truth. He will by no means clear the guilty. He will judge the living and the dead, according to his steady will.  So he is not fitful, given over to the onset of moods and spasms, irritable, impatient, quick-tempered, or languid, or indolent.

It is this side of things that is being chipped away by those who wish nonetheless to be thought of as ‘conservative evangelical’, not to speak of those with an altogether more ‘dynamic’ or ‘theo-dramatic’ approach to theology. Chipped away in the interests of presenting a God who is more accessible to us all.

The relation between the Creator and his creatures is an unequal one. Yes, an unequal one. He made us and not we ourselves. We are creatures of his hand, he is not a creature of our hands. Of course not, some may say. But neither is God our buddy, nor are we his buddies, though Christ tells us that his disciples are his friends, his children. We may want a God who is our buddy but that is not the God we have.


The loss of The Phrase from our consciousness is both the cause and the effect of profound changes in us. For our first and last thought should be that we are in the hands of eternal God. If we discipline our thinking about God in these ways then the manic panic that affects so much modern theology begins to abate.

The fact that there are Baptists who wish to affirm their confessional position emphasises their willingness to stand with the early church, and of course with the Reformers, and those who are similarly confessionally-minded who followed, and who follow them. More on this next month.

John Mason (1646?–94) was a calvinistic minister in the Church of England, a poet and a pioneering, influential hymn-writer.

How shall I sing that Majesty?

How shall I sing that Majesty
which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
thousands of thousands stand around
thy throne, O God most high;
ten thousand times ten thousand sound
thy praise; but who am I?

Thy brightness unto them appears,
whilst I thy footsteps trace;
a sound of God comes to my ears,
but they behold thy face.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
with all my fire and light;
yet when thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.

Enlighten with faith's light my heart,
inflame it with love's fire;
then shall I sing and bear a part
with that celestial choir.
They sing because thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
for where heaven is but once begun
there alleluias be.

How great a being, Lord, is thine,
which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
to sound so vast a deep.
thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.

(You might wonder at the last two lines of the second verse)