Tuesday, August 21, 2012


September will include the closing blog, at least for the time being, on Princeton theology's attitude to faith and reason, particularly to 'right reason'. So we shall round things off by a short post on Turretin's account of the subordinate but positive role that the senses play in theology. It is in these accounts of the place of reason and the senses that Reformed theology, in common with the approach of Christian theology more generally,  emphasises that grace builds on nature. Turretin's Institutes was of course the systematic theology text at Princeton prior to the publication of Charle Hodge's Systematic Theology in 1875. (As it was in the early days of the Free Church College, Edinburgh,  under Chalmers, Cunningham, and Smeaton.)

Later in the month I shall post a piece on Pascal's Wager and religious scepticism, suggesting a positive place for a version of that argument in situations of spiritual doubt.

I've recently been reading Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism and the Aseity of the Son, by Brannon Ellis. (O.U.P) This erudite but difficult book set me thinking again about the eternal begottenness of the Son, and the procession of the Holy Spirit, and the outlook of the English Independent divine Thomas Ridgley on these matters, which while so mysterious have yet been so divisive.

Thomas Ridgley (1687-1734) was a firm and clear Trinitarian, but expunged from his understanding of the Trinity was any suggestion of causal or ontological dependence of the deity of the Son or Spirit, on that of the Father (for did they not each have the one essence the one God?); or of their persons (‘Personalities’) on the person of the Father (or, in the case of the Spirit) on those of the Father and the Son, for were not each ‘as much independent, and underived, as the divine essence’?  (A Body of Divinity, (1731-33) new ed., revised, corrected and illustrated, with notes by Rev. J. M. Wilson, Edinburgh, 1844) (I. 263) Besides which, he writes in a firm, no-nonsense style, with an independence of mind characteristic more of the 18th rather han the 17th century.

 So it may be that Ridgley should have an innings in a future post.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Prayer & Groaning

I don’t know how it is with you, but I cannot cope with times in services of worship when the minister or leader invites the congregation to ‘spend a few moments of quiet praying for someone in special need’. My mind starts to think about anything or nothing except a person I know of who’s in need. It’s rather like someone who says ‘Don’t think of a white horse’, an invitation that it’s impossible to accept.

We could spend a few moments reflecting on the view of public worship that it is implied by the ‘periods of silence’ invitation, of whether it is appropriate to think of public worship as involving the sum of the private devotions of the people who are present. Ought we not rather to think of public worship (as a general rule) as common worship, as in ‘The Book of Common Prayer’, as expressing in public the common, communal  needs and aspirations of Christian people? But instead of thinking out loud along these lines I would rather spend these few minutes thinking out loud with you about what I shall call The Affliction of a Failure of Concentration.

Here’s my suggestion – not a novel one, but still, I think, worth airing and emphasizing – that praying, and particularly that branch of praying that is called petitioning or asking, including of course interceding for others, is not primarily, or even, a matter of acquiring and processing information, and then presenting it in bite-sized pieces to Almighty God. It is not a condition of responsible and genuine Christian prayer that it is ‘intelligent’ i.e. well-informed.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against the provision of information. I have spent much of my adult life as a teacher and writer, engrossed in the world of ideas and arguments. I expect the students I teach to be able to absorb, understand, weigh and produce information. The more the merrier. But the point is that not all speech is primarily informative, and most certainly Christian petitionary and intercessory prayer is not primarily informative. Fellow-prayers in the prayer meeting may learn all sorts of things about Mr Smith when he prays publicly. But the living God is in a rather different position from our fellow worshippers in the pew. Does he need educating? Is he ignorant of any detail? Has he overlooked any of the needs of his people?

Scripture makes clear what the answer to these questions is in a number of different ways.  God knows what we are going to ask before we pray, for we are praying to the One who, as the Lord himself tells us, knows what things we have need of before we ask Him. Matthew 6:7-8. We might even wonder,  if that’s so, why pray at all?

Although He warns against much speaking,  Christ nevertheless exhorts us to pray.  He says that men and women ought always to pray and not to faint. We are given the example of a widow who, desiring to have justice done to her against her adversary, did by her persistence persuade an unjust judge to listen to her, because he was overcome by her persistence. She went on and on. How much more, Jesus teaches, will the Lord God, who is merciful and just, listen to those who pray continually to Him. And Paul in a similar way implores his readers to pray without ceasing. If we think of petitionary prayer in purely informational terms then the question, why we should pray without ceasing, and importunately, to Him who before we ask Him knows what things we have need of, might perplex our minds. We’ll not understand that the Lord our God requires us to ask not so that by asking our wishes may be revealed to Him, for to Him what’s on our heart cannot be unknown.

So here is a paradox: we are not to pray to inform God because God already knows (as you might expect from what Scripture generally teaches about the knowledge and power of God), but we are nevertheless commanded to pray, and to pray without ceasing. But we are not heard for our much speaking.  How is this paradox to be resolved? By noting and remembering that prayer is an expression of the desire by which we may receive what the Lord prepares to bestow, and continual prayer may therefore be evidence of a strong desire. So the paradox is solved once we realise that petitionary prayer has to do with desire, and such desire may be wordless, though not object-less. 

So we are not to use many words in praying, yet we are to pray without ceasing, expressing in our prayers both the simplicity of our faith, and the strength of our hope, and the depth of our desire, just as the when the widow, by her unremitting supplication, showed the depth of her desire to an unjust and wicked judge.  But words, even unspoken words,  are not necessary as the means by which we expect God to be either informed or moved to comply with our requests. As Augustine puts it, ‘When we cherish uninterrupted desire along with the exercise of faith and hope and charity, we pray always’.

This is why even though we may not know how to pray as we ought, groaning will do, a groaning which may continue even as we walk along or drive, or rest, or are occupied with demanding duties.

So let’s think for a moment about groaning. There are situations where we do not know what to pray for. What then? Paul says, ‘We groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies’ Rom 8. 23. Words fail us not only because of the strength of our desire, but because of our ignorance. For Paul, Christians in prayer are ‘infirm’. They do not know what they should pray for. We would ask if we knew what to ask for. What then? Are we to give up altogether? Certainly not.  We groan, and in those situations the Spirit groans for the people of God in their need, groans with ‘groans that words cannot express’, Paul says. The Spirit intercedes on our behalf and God the Father, who knows the mind of the Spirit just as he know our own minds, receives the intercessions of the Spirit.  Is the Sprit an intercessor, as is our Great High Priest? Perhaps he is. Perhaps Sprit and the Saviour each intercede for us to the Father. That’s what John Murray thought: ‘The children of God have two divine intercessors’. As he puts it in his rather convoluted style, the groanings of the Spirit ‘While far from being devoid of content, meaning, and intent, they nevertheless transcend articulated formulations’. Murray goes on to say that it is not reasonable to think of the Sprit himself as presenting his intercessions to the Father in the form of his groanings. Why not, I wonder?

Often when we pray, all the information in the world will not make clear to us what we ought to pray for. Paul’s thought seems to be that in that predicament the Spirit formulates what is best for us ‘And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God’. According to Paul the Spirit does not simply energise our prayers, as we conventionally think, but he is himself our intercessor. Knowing what we need he prays with groans according to the will of God.  Commenting on this Calvin refers to ‘emotions of the Spirit’, emotions prompted in us by him who knows our needs.  This is one of the ways, perhaps the way, through which all things are made to work together for good, for those who are called according to God’s purpose.

The Psalmist was often in a similar predicament. In Psalm 37 are these word:s ‘I groan because of the tumult of my heart. O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you’.

So, how are we to cure  The Affliction of a Failure of Concentration, if indeed we are afflicted in this way? Not principally by displaying our knowledge to God, but by heart-felt desire, which is one of the fruits of the Spirit. When all else fails, groaning will do.

Prayer is the soul's sincere desire,
Utter'd or unexpress'd;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear;
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is near. 

Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try;
Prayer the sublimest strains that reach
The Majesty on high. 

Prayer is the contrite sinner's voice,
Returning from his ways,
While angels in their songs rejoice,
And cry, "Behold, he prays!" 

Prayer is the Christian's vital breath,
The Christian's native air,
Our watchword at the gates of death;
We enter heaven with prayer. 

The saints in prayer appear as one
In word and deed and mind,
While with the Father and the Son
Sweet fellowship they find.

Nor prayer is made by man alone,
The Holy Spirit pleads,
And Jesus on the eternal throne,
For sinners intercedes.

O Thou, by whom we come to God,
The life, the truth, the way!
The path of prayer Thyself hast trod:
Lord, teach us how to pray.

--James Montgomery, 1818 

A Regent College Chapel address, July  2012

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Francis Turretin on Faith and Reason

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology

I‘m not sure why it is that fewer systematic theologies were produced in the UK during the Puritan era than on the continent, particularly in Holland but also Geneva. Continental theologies are very thorough, dealing not only with the various loci of theology but also, under prolegomena, discussing the place of reason and the senses in the work of theology in general terms. Francis Turretin is a good example. So he gives his readers a general account of the place of logic, reason and judgment in theology at the beginning of his Institutes. In Book I question 9-11 he outlines what he takes to be the role of reason in theology, and in question 12, the role of the senses, albeit in his usual compressed and economical way. In the light of current ferment about foundationalism and its alleged evils I think that it is helpful to regard Turretin not as an epistemological foundationalist in the optimistic Enlightenment sense of providing self-evident proposition or propositions as foundational, like Descartes’ cogito, or providing undeniable foundational data, like John Locke’s simple ideas, ideas of sensation and reflection, but as thinking of the senses and intellect as fundamental instruments of knowledge. And intrinsic to his account of the place of the reason and the senses in theology is the claim that grace builds upon nature.

Nature and grace

Writing of what Paul says about the captivity of our thought to Christ (2 Cor. 10.5) Turretin writes: ‘He [Paul] does not therefore mean to take away the reason entirely because grace does not destroy, but perfects nature. He only wishes it to serve and to be a handmaid of faith and as such to obey, not to govern it as a mistress….’ (I.31)

This idea that grace builds on nature may not make him friends with the more fideistically-inclined Reformed folk. Nevertheless this is the historic position of the church back at least as far as Augustine. The phrase is not to be understood as an endeavour to naturalise Christian theology, as if the materials of that theology are to be drawn from nature. Grace builds upon nature by, for example, not denying the powers of the human intellect and the senses. Jesus was not a fideist or a gnostic, any more than he was a sceptic. As his sufferings involved the pain and agony of his human body, so his teaching employed all the powers of his human nature, which in turn appealed to the senses and intellects and imaginations of his hearers. He uses human reason, and appeals to what hs disciples may see and touch, as with Doubting Thomas. Such facts do not deny the effects of sin on human nature any more that they make the illuminating, regenerating activity of the Holy Spirit, unnecessary. The fact that the Apostles had seen, heard and touched the Messiah was an intrinsic part of the Apostolic testimony, to show that the Christian Gospel is not a 'cleverly devised myth' ‘He that has ears to hear, let him hear’.

The subordinate place of reason

In the remainder of this post I shall look at something of what Turretin has to say about the place of reason in answering Question 9, Does any judgment belong to reason in matters of faith? Or is there no place at all for it?

In brief, his answer is that reason has a real but subordinate role. It exercises what he calls the 'judgment of discretion' in matters of faith. That is, in weighing up evidence and in drawing inferences from Scripture.  Here Turretin refers to the reason that is to be employed in such work as ‘rightly instructed’. By this he means reason enlightened by the Holy Spirit. But even this does not warrant those who possess such judging or arbitrating the controversies of the faith. Because the reason plays a subordinate role.

He makes a distinction between reason’s role in helping to establish the truth of propositions known by nature, and known by the word of God. In the case of the propositions of the word of God reason has a secondary rule.  Where the word includes ‘something unknown to nature’, that is, unknown to natural reason’  – I presume that this is a reference to miracles - then reason ought not to pass judgment on this, but only the word. Much more so is reason subordinated to revelation in the case of the mysteries of the faith. So while he is emphatic that the mysteries far exceed our comprehension, and that reason is ‘slippery and fallible’ unless enlightened by the Spirit, there is nevertheless a real if subordinate place for it in understanding what has been revealed.

To begin with,  there are propositions which the reason intuitively recognizes the truth of, such as the whole is greater than the part, an effect supposes a cause, and it is impossible for something both to be and not to be at the same them. Without the recognition of these there could be neither science nor art nor certainty about any thing. And these first principles, as he calls them, are true not only in the realm of nature, but also in the mysteries of the faith. Faith borrows these from reason, and uses them to strengthen its own doctrines, (that is, to prevent them from being misunderstood).

Reason therefore does not provide us with theological norms, and so our faith does not become a mixture of philosophy and theology. For the principles of reason do not afford us with the foundation and principles of faith, but have an instrumental and therefore a subordinate role.

At this point Turretin distinguished between reason and right reason. This is already anticipated by what he has said about rightly instructed reason. From some of the things he says right reason may be reasoning in accordance with the results of natural religion. In any case it means at least right creaturely reason, reasoning from the standpoint of admitted creatureliness, a standpoint that recognizes the limitations of human, creaturely reason due to ignorance and finitude.  The right reasoner does not complain when he cannot comprehend the mysteries of the faith, nor does he seek to overturn the first principles of natural religion and to establish errors of his own. As a result right reason subordinates itself to the revealed mysteries, and to the understanding of them (or the preserving of them from misunderstanding) as best it can. I do not think that Turretin held that the recogniton of such reason, or a willingness to possess it, is necessarily the immediate fruit of regeneration, for it may be held at times generally in the culture, and so be a part of 'public doctrine'.

In the formulation of the place of reason and particularly of the senses in the understanding and elucidation of the faith a crucial role seems to have been played by controversies over the nature of the presence of Christ in the Supper, both the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s presence and the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. We shall look at this side of things in a further post.