Monday, June 15, 2015

The Word, the Spirit and the churches

The business about Big Men and the reactions to the post at Helm’s Deep (See here and herehas prompted a further thought or two. Once it is recognized that the institutions which the church has adopted to order congregational life are flawed, then the critique of the Big Men is, I am afraid, crippled. Rules and procedure may seem flawless in draft, but it’s another thing when men and women commit themselves to them. All seem agreed on that point. Darryl Hart maintained that presbyterianism produces virtues that other ecclesial patterns fail to reach. He highlights humility. But if it’s humility we wish to cultivate, why not start by making sure that at church we sit in a circle, or take turns to preach?  

But all such suggestions start the wrong way round. First make the tree good and its fruit good. is the dominical rule. When Peter urges the churches to be clothed with humility, I don’t suppose he thought that reading Roberts’s Rules would do the trick. Churches are flawed because the people who make them up are flawed. The churches or congregations, filled with fallen men and women, are not immune to the general imperfections of the institutions of society, what Anthony Quinton called the ‘politics of imperfection’. But it is much worse for the church than it is for a business or a college or the House of Commons.


What is it to be reformed, we ask? Some answer: adherence to the solas of the Reformation: sola fide, sola scriptura, sola gratia and so on. The Five Points? Somewhat out of fashion and in any case they have the drawback that they are confined to the distinctives of reformed Christianity. The Reformed Confessions? Good answer! But if I’m not mistaken they present the answer that we are searching for in only a muted form, I think. They rather muffle it, or perhaps muff it. Here’s a clue; it has to do with another phrase identifying ‘reformed’ that we haven’t yet mentioned: it is word and spirit.

Is Calvin reformed? Throughout his discussion of the Church, one motif recurs: Word and Spirit.  The church is where the Word is preached, and where through the Word, and the Spirit's illumination and application of it, people are justified and regenerated, and as a result undergo life-long conversio.  Word and Spirit is what we were searching for.

But in the Reformation’s  emphasis on Word and Spirit is a source of a more serious tension, or potential breakdown, in the life of churches, which as far as I am aware reformed churches do not recognise formally. It seems to me that both critics and criticised would do well to ponder this phrase.

In the central Reformation motif of 'Word and Spirit' the two elements can only be linked together rather uneasily. The reason is this: matters to do with 'the Word' can be humanly organised. But matters to do with ‘the Spirit’ are divinely sovereign and free, out of human hands. Matters to do with the Word may be dispensed through secondary, creaturely agency alone, but matters to do with the Spirit  can never be so dispensed. People can be trained for the Christian ministry, study the Bible, and preach it. Churches can be set up, pastors, teachers and deacons appointed, the sacraments may be administered, people catechised, and the unruly disciplined.  All this can be undertaken in a routine, institutional way. All very orderly, in the Calvinian manner.  All this is, we might say, (ecclesiastically speaking) concerns the area of 'the Word'.

But what of 'the Spirit'?  Here there is a dramatic difference. For God the Spirit, though he attends the Word, is free not to do so.  Nowhere, as far as I know, does the Reformed faith teach that the linkage between Word and Spirit is automatic or necessary, or that God is under a covenanted  obligation always to accompany the Word with the salvific influence of the Spirit. No such covenant has been established. It is true that in general terms God has covenanted to accompany his Word by His Spirit, but the exact distribution of the Spirit's saving influences are at his disposal. As Calvin puts it:

But who, I ask, can deny the right of God to have the free and uncontrolled disposal of his gifts, to select nations which he may be pleased to illuminate, the places which he may be pleased to illustrate by the preaching of his word, and the mode and measure of progress and success which he may be pleased to give to his doctrine, - to punish the world for its ingratitude, by withdrawing the knowledge of his name for certain ages, and again, when he so pleases, to restore it in mercy? (Inst. II.11.14)

And in the case of the authority of Holy Scripture, while it is possible for human agencies to educate people in an appreciation of the external proofs that it is the word of God, they cannot in a similar way convey the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit to people.  That testimony cannot be, so to speak, boxed and wrapped. (Adapted from Paul Helm. Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed, pp.125-6)


And the confessions? Well, the Westminster Confession makes this important point about persuasion of the authority of Scripture:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverend esteem of the holy scripture, and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole, (which is to give all glory to God,) the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the word of God; yet notwithstanding our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts.(I.V)

In the Chapter on the church (XXV.V) it notes that church may degenerate, but doesn’t go into details. And the same is true of the 1689 Baptist Confession. (Ch. 26)  Nor is the degeneration and regeneration of the church, which is not the same as the regeneration of a soul, a notable theme elsewhere in those documents. No doubt it can be inferred from this and that. But nowhere as far as I can see is it given confessional prominence. Certainly not as much prominence as that, say, in the Letters to the Seven Churches in the prologue to the book of the Revelation.  I wonder why not?


So while certain factors are in human hands, other factors are in the Lord’s hands. This is a point that characterises all Augustinian ecclesiology. (Not, of course Augustinian sacramentalism, which envisages the Spirit being piped into the churches via the priesthood.) We may have a book of congregational or presbyterian rules, be well-versed in points of order, the proposal and seconding of motions, and so on.  By applying these skills,  deacons and elders may be appointed, services organized, the Word, the Supper and Baptism offered, and arrangements made for the discipline of church members. We may have strategies for church growth, a five-year plan and a building programme, and ways for increasing the giving. A pastor for this responsibility and a pastor for that. All these things are under human control.

But there is no church without the work of the Spirit in regeneration and renewal. And that work is manifestly not within human control. Paul plants, Apollos waters, but God alone gives the growth.
So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labour. For we are God’s fellow workers.
Not that God, Apollos and Paul are fellows, but workers who are in concert, like Apollos and Paul, are fellows in God’s work.

So Calvin himself, the Calvinists, the Reformed, Particular Baptists, neo-Calvinists, cool-Calvinists, and whoever else, worshipping in mega churches or small local congregations, fronted by Big Men or small, profess the same dependence on the sovereign giver. And if they believe what they profess they all usually recognise the fact. They cry, Who is sufficient for these things? They know that all may supply the ministry and so be God’s fellow-workers. (Finneyite revivalists and the Roman church see things differently). But only God can give the growth. And only God must be honoured for it. Appreciation of this fact is what is of central importance to those congregations with a Reformed soteriology, and should be uppermost in the minds of the ministers. When compared to this need, the current critique of one group by another surely fades into insignificance. Or perhaps this is a case of ‘These things you ought to have done, without neglecting the others'.

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)