Monday, August 30, 2010

Bernard on Loving God

One of Calvin's favourite Church Fathers was Bernard of Clairvaux (for more see here and here). 
He may have had his faults, but he believed in truly free grace and Bernard's treatise "On Loving God" is perhaps his richest writing (listen to it here). 

"He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God's claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4:19)" Chapter I, 5.

"So it behoves us, if we would have Christ for a frequent guest, to fill our hearts with faithful meditations on the mercy He showed in dying for us, and on His mighty power in rising again from the dead. ... surely there is proof enough and to spare in that Christ died for our sins and rose again for our justification, and ascended into heaven that He might protect us from on high, and sent the Holy Spirit for our comfort. Hereafter He will come again for the consummation of our bliss. In His Death He displayed His mercy, in His Resurrection His power; both combine to manifest His glory." - Chapter III, 5.

"What could result from the contemplation of compassion so marvelous and so undeserved, favor so free and so well attested, kindness so unexpected, clemency so unconquerable, grace so amazing except that the soul should withdraw from all sinful affections, reject all that is inconsistent with God's love, and yield herself wholly to heavenly things? No wonder is it that the Bride, moved by the perfume of these unctions, runs swiftly, all on fire with love, yet reckons herself as loving all too little in return for the Bridegroom's love. And rightly, since it is no great matter that a little dust should be all consumed with love of that Majesty which loved her first and which revealed itself as wholly bent on saving her. For 'God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life' (John 3:16). This sets forth the Father's love. But 'He hath poured out His soul unto death,' was written of the Son (Isa. 53:12). And of the Holy Spirit it is said, 'The Comforter which is the Holy Ghost whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you' (John 14:26). It is plain, therefore, that God loves us, and loves us with all His heart; for the Holy Trinity altogether loves us, if we may venture so to speak of the infinite and incomprehensible Godhead who is essentially one." - Chapter IV, 5.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

principia ecclesia

This excellent lecture on church principles made me think a little about the first principles of the Church.

There are first (foundational) principles and derived principles. First principles are self-evident truths that as postulates cannot be derived or deduced from any other truths. Aristotle writes that first principles are the primary source from which anything is, becomes or is known.

The Church is not a first principle in itself but derived. The first principles of the Church are the same as those for religion and theology. The foundation of being for the Church is God himself (principium essendi). It is the Church of God. Without God the Church has no meaning or being and no knowledge of God - all of which originate in himself (Matthew 11:27 and 1 Cor. 2:10). Only God's knowledge of himself is complete and exhaustive, the Church's knowledge of Him is while true - creaturely, finite and dependent.

This brings us to how the Church gains its knowledge. The external foundation of knowing for the Church is the Holy Scriptures which are the Word of God. This is God's special revelation of Himself or self-communication. The Scriptures are the constitutive principle of the Church. It has only regulative, ministerial and limited power to teach and to observe all things that have been commanded in Scripture (nothing more or less). It is therefore free from the commandments and doctrines of men which are not only contrary to but beside the Word of God.

What Herman Bavinck says concerning theology could be said concerning the Church:
“The fact that theology exists we owe solely to God, to his self-consciousness, to his good pleasure [God as principium essendi]. But the means, the way, by which that knowledge of God reaches us is God’s revelation… This is implied in the nature of the thing. Other people only become knowable to us when they reveal themselves to us, i.e. mainfest their presence, speak, or act… The same is true in the case of the Lord our God; his knowledge, too, flows to us only through the channel of his revelation. Furthermore, that revelation, too, can only be his appearance, his word, and his deed. Accordingly, the principle by which we know (principium cognoscendi), the principle of theology, is the self-revelation or self-communication of God to his creatures.”

The internal foundation of knowing is the work of the Holy Spirit (principium cognoscendi internum) “the illumination of human beings by God’s Spirit” - working faith in the heart (Rom. 10:17; Gal 3:3; Heb 11:1-3). Bavinck writes: “"We do not only confess a ‘principium externum’ i.e. Holy Scripture, but also a ‘principium internum’ i.e. the Holy Spirit, who dwelling in the church makes the things of the kingdom known to her."”
"“Accordingly, the confession of the church can be called the dogma quoad nos or the truth of God as it has been taken up in the consciousness of the church and confessed by it in its own language".

Bavinck also notes concerning these principles: "These three are one in the respect that they have God as author and one identical knowledge of God as their content". One can see how some have been able to discern a trinitarian dimension to these foundational principles if one associates the external principle of knowing particularly with the Eternal Son as Logos or the Word.

From these foundations or first principles the general principles of the Church are derived. We can consider these later.

sola scriptura

sola Scriptura: Scripture alone; the watchword of the Reformation in its establishment of the basis for a renewed and reformed statement of Christian doctrine. We find the concept of sola Scriptura, Scripture alone as the primary and absolute norm of doctrine, at the foundation of the early Protestant attempts at theological system in the form of exegetical loci communes, or common places. In the orthodox or scholastic codification of Lutheran and Reformed doctrine, the sola Scriptura of the Reformers was elaborated as a separate doctrinal locus placed at the beginning of theological system and determinative of its contents. Scripture was identified as the principium cognoscendi, the principle of knowing or cognitive foundation of theology, and described doctrinally in terms of its authority, clarity, and sufficiency in all matters of faith and morals.

Finally, it ought to be noted that sola Scriptura was never meant as a denial of the usefulness of the Christian tradition as a subordinate norm in theology. The views of the Reformers developed out of a debate in the late medieval theology over the relation of Scripture and tradition, one party viewing the two as coequal norms, the other party viewing Scripture as the absolute and therefore prior norm, but allowing tradition a derivative but important secondary role in doctrinal statement. The Reformers and the Protestant orthodox held the latter view, on the assumption that tradition was a useful guide, that the trinitarian and christological statements of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon were expressions of biblical truth, and that the great teachers of the church provided valuable instruction in theology that always needed to be evaluated in the light of Scripture. We encounter, particularly in the scholastic era of Protestantism, a profound interest in the patristic period and a critical, but often substantive, use of ideas and patterns enunciated by the medieval doctors.

Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985), 284.

Friday, August 20, 2010

How worldly am I?

First, what are the objects before your mind in times of recreation? What do your thoughts most run upon?
Second, what are the objects of your choice? When you have to decide how to spend an evening or the Sabbath afternoon, what do you select?
Third, which occasions you the most sorrow, the loss of earthly things, or lack of communion with God?
Which causes greater grief (or chagrin), the spoiling of your plans, or the coldness of your heart to Christ?
Fourth, what is your favorite topic of conversation? Do you hanker after the news of the day, or to meet with those who talk of the “altogether lovely” One?
Fifth, do your “good intentions” materialize, or are they nothing but empty dreams? Are you spending more or less time than formerly on your knees? Is the Word sweeter to your taste, or has your soul lost its relish for it?

A. W. Pink, Profiting from the Word (Banner of Truth, 1970) found here

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The knowledge that we need

Man does not know himself or God truly. He does not know the greatness of his sin and misery. Neither does he know where he is going. He knoweth not his time, there is not a heart in him to be wise and understand his latter end, numbering up his days and so applying his heart to wisdom. We read in Ecclesiastes that ‘the labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city’. Man does not know the way to everlasting life unless the Scriptures reveal it to him and even then he will seek to follow his own way and not heed the clear instruction of the Word. At the beginning of Pilgrim’s Progress we witness a man all deserted, with the burden of sin upon his back, he is reading in the book, weeping and trembling and crying out: ‘What shall I do?’ There is a man with some knowledge but he has not that saving knowledge that he requires. O what a pitiable condition.

There is a paradox in religion also that although there may be much knowledge about religious things, about God and his requirements, there is no true and real experimental and saving knowledge of God. This was true of the Pharisees of whom Christ said that they knew neither him nor his Father. It was true of the Jews of Paul’s day. They had the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law. He bore record of them that they had a zeal of God but not according to knowledge, For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. If they knew truly the righteous character of God and what he requires they would never be so zealous to seek to establish their own righteousness. Paul knew himself that he trusted in many religious privileges but yet it was all nothing to him when he came to a true experimental knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. We read in Hosea that God ‘desired mercy, and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings’.  You must be clear as to this, it is not your religious privileges or observances that will make you right with God, you must come to a saving knowledge of God by faith.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How many books? #3

Returning to books, W.S Plumer records the following in relation to Psalm 27:4. 'When some one admired Leighton's library, he said: "One devout thought is worth more than it all." He was right'. 'When we have a good thought or desire, we must not yield it up to temptation, but hold on to it and cherish it'.

The reference is not to Lord Leighton but to the godly but misguided prelate Robert Leighton. It is not a reference to Leighton's Newbattle library but to his Dunblane Library. True to his sentiments, Leighton bequeathed his books to the Cathedral of Dunblane in Scotland, to remain there for the use of the Clergy of that Diocese, thankfully not to remain a diocese for many years after. The library was opened in the year 1688. Various books have been lost over the years c.100. I remember a summer job over 10 years ago was to remove and store the books while work was being done to the library building.

Leighton filled his library with the best books of divinity then available and numerous markings and pencillings show his avid reading of authors such as Richard Sibbes. It appears that next to his Bible his most treasured book was a miniature pocket edition carried everywhere "Of the Imitation by Christ" by Thomas A Kempis which we quoted from at the end of 'How Many Books? #1'. There were notes upon all the margins, many of which no doubt were devout thoughts...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"his passing is epochal"

This obituary puts some words on an event that is very difficult to describe. Some sermons from "one of the great teaching ministries anywhere in post-war Scotland" (also here).

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Adam's knowledge

When God had created all things, he ‘saw every thing that he had made, and behold, it was very good’.  God looked upon man, body and soul and he saw that he was very good.  Man was also created in the image of God, in knowledge, righteousness and holiness with dominion over the creatures.  We read that when the image of God is renewed it is ‘renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him’ (Col. 3:10). It is apparent that the reference is to the original image of God in Adam for when something is renewed it must have once been possessed but now lost. What was this knowledge that Adam possessed as he came from the hand of God?  It was primarily moral and spiritual but it is important to recognise that man’s knowledge naturally speaking is nothing now to what Adam had before he fell.

Adam’s natural knowledge was perfect, not in the sense of being infinite or exhaustive but because his faculties of understanding, discernment and memory were not impaired by sin and the fall, he would have had a full knowledge of things and their nature. This was seen when the animals were brought to Adam. They came as it were to acknowledge their lord who was crowned with this glory and honour, that all things were put under his feet. God delegated to Adam as one that had dominion over the creatures the authority to give them their names. This signified his authority – ‘whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof’. What an insight and understanding he possessed to discern the nature and characteristics of a creature in so short a time and to assign it an appropriate name. What a naturalist might take years to understand about a living organism Adam was able to fathom in a short while. No doubt the knowledge that he possessed, as one in harmony and fellowship with God, was also God-given. He was placed in the garden to dress it and keep it. This meant that he would have had a full understanding of that which he was appointed to steward and attend to. He knew the best ways to preserve them and care for each creature and organism according to their nature. We do not know fully what his service entailed but we know that he rendered a perfect service.

His knowledge of the nature of things would have been of service to him spiritually. ‘He that is spiritual judgeth [or discerneth] all things’. The Lord Jesus Christ instructs us to consider the nature and characteristics of created things and to draw spiritual instruction from them. Everything would have been full of spiritual profit in this way to the holy discernment of Adam. Even after the fall certain things are apparent to man. Man after the fall must acknowledge that ‘that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead’ (Romans 1:19-20). We do not know all that Adam was able to read in the book of Nature but we know that sin has darkened our minds to this and would seek to deny even what is clearly manifest. He knew at any rate what it was to have contentment with all that God had given to him, he knew by experience that to be spiritually minded is life and peace. He knew nothing else.

Men boast of their advancement in knowledge but their capacities and understanding are nothing to what Adam possessed.  Adam’s thoughts and desires were well ordered and had not the disorder of sin. His thoughts would have been kept under the government of his will so that he would not have found himself distracted with a multitude of thoughts but would have been able to concentrate upon one thing without distraction and follow a thought through to its ultimate conclusion unerringly and without deviation. His powers of reason and understanding were perfect.

Much more wonderful in Adam, however, was the moral knowledge that his soul possessed. God made man upright.  His knowledge was upright. What he knew and how he came to understand it was altogether regulated according to a holy nature. He had the law of God written upon his heart and conscience.  The conscience was not restrained or impaired by sin in any way but witnessed fully to the spirituality and breadth of the law of God. He delighted in the knowledge of the law of God after the inward man. It revealed to him the character of God. He had the revealed will of God not only in his heart but there was also a sign given to him to show and prove his obedience and love of God in a simple outward way. That was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from which he was forbidden to eat. He had the opportunity of making an open demonstration of his knowledge of the holiness that God requires and his delight in that. Holiness unto the Lord was written across all his actions and thoughts. He understood in a real experimental and perfect sense what that means – whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God

The knowledge that he had was also spiritual and experimental. He was made a living soul, spiritually alive towards God. He knew God in a holy and perfect way. He was in covenant with God, brought into the secret of his covenant. God promised life to Adam in his covenant – this was implicit in the threatening of death upon disobedience – life was promised upon perfect obedience. ‘With length of days unto his mind, I will him satisfy’. What was said of the second Adam could be said of the type: ‘because my great name he hath known, I will him set on high’. O surely the soul of Adam, as one who had the breath of God in it and was made a living soul, surely that was borne along sweetly by the gales of the Holy Spirit upon it. Surely his soul was set on high, made like the chariots of Amminadib. The favour of God shone upon him, His countenance was lifted upon him to give him peace. He knew Him in the bond of adoption or sonship, as one who was called the son of God.  He knew God face to face as a man speaketh with his friend. He dwelt within the veil and walked with God upon this earth. The Spirit of God that ‘searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God’ was surely revealing such things to Adam.  He knew what the worship of God was. The worship of the Sabbath day was heaven upon earth in Eden. We do not know how soon Adam fell but we know that he had at least one Sabbath, the very first which God hallowed and blessed. Eden means delights and the chief delight there was communion with God whose presence tabernacled with man.

Although man had such a high provision of knowledge the devil came to tempt him to sin in this area. The temptation was that God had reserved some greater knowledge that they might have had and kept it from them. God was holding them down, Satan implied. This was within their grasp and he insinuated that it was their right as it were to lay hold on it. There was an independent source of knowledge open to them – they would not need to be dependent upon God any more. ‘For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil’.  The lust in the heart of the woman was after this higher knowledge that the devil held out to her since she saw that the tree was ‘to be desired to make one wise’. The feet that hasted sinned. There was a rushing headlong into what had been forbidden. Man fell – his soul lost the knowledge that he had in reaching after knowledge that he could never had. The devil had promised that their eyes would be opened and indeed their eyes were opened to see themselves stripped of the glory and dignity that they had. They now had a practical knowledge of evil and became unable to spiritual good. How blinded many are by the devil – they do not see that he only promises to them that which they cannot possess and which will be their eternal ruin.

O what we have lost in Adam – the glory and dignity of it. The crown is fallen from our heads indeed, what a thief and extortioner sin is that has robbed us of so rich and glorious an estate and inheritance. Our head was held aloft to heaven in him, but now through sin our eyes and minds are set upon earthly things. Man is a ruined temple – only a little of the glory and magnificence that he one possessed can now be discerned.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How many books? #2

The puritan Thomas Fuller put things in a more succinct way than the previous post attempted to do: "A few books well chosen, and well made use of will be more profitable than a great confused Alexandrian library." Perhaps Samuel Johnson was aware of this when he said famously, "Books like friends, should be few and well-chosen." Fuller was a very prolific and extensive writer, there were 11 volumes of The Church History of Britain (1655) for instance. How many of his own books were among the "few chosen"? 

How might we identify "a few books well chosen"? As to lists - usually I don't concur entirely with their contents but I quite like this one. We might ask various questions of the book. Does the book promote holiness of life either by precept or example? Does the book extend knowledge and understanding usefully? Does the book promote spiritual edification? The best books are well-defined by Thomas Watson, however:

"Get books into your houses, when you have not the spring near you, then get some water into your cisterns; so when you have not that wholesome preaching that you desire, good books are cisterns that hold the water of life in them to refresh you; So, when you find a chillness upon your souls, and that your former heat begins to abate, ply yourselves with warm clothes, get those good books that may acquaint you with such truths as may warm and affect your hearts." 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How many books?

"The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments." 2 Timothy 4:13.

As Spurgeon points out, even an apostle needed books. Paul needed books, more than one book, at least a few. Yet hardly a few thousand when they had to be brought. We emphasise that he needed books not that he was a book addict.

Paul was awaiting his martyrdom just as was Tyndale in 1535 when incarcerated in Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels. He wrote to the prison governor requesting him kindly to let him have his Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar books and a Hebrew dictionary, as well as warmer clothing for the coming winter.

I suffer greatly from cold in the head and am afflicted with perpetual catarrh. I ask to have a lamp in the evening; it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark. Most of all I beg and beseech Your Clemency to urge the Commissary that he will kindly permit me to have the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar and Hebrew dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study.

It was not long before those that were burning his translation of the Scriptures into English were able to have him garrotted and his body burnt at the stake.

The fact that Paul writes "especially the parchments" shows a particular regard for the Scriptures. These he cannot do without. The books may have been his own or those of other men and of particular value but no book has anything approaching the value of the Bible.

Reading has so declined that we can feel it needs all possible emphasis. Spurgeon's application of this verse is very appropriate:
You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible. We are quite persuaded that the very best way for you to be spending your leisure, is to be either reading or praying.

We are well able to stop short of reading real books by skimming information on the internet or reading popular books with no real content and more comfortable with it too. But we are also able to use books in order to avoid the real labour of engaging with the Scriptures for ourselves. Our lives are more than saturated with extraneous information. It doesn't take a professional to diagnose the fact that this deluge washes away our concentration never mind our productivity and creativity. The modern phenomenon of infoglut - being flooded with more information than we can process with the knowledge that there is always more queuing up for us - is not just a data problem it can also be a problem in scanning an overstocked library and thinking that any and every book must be held onto tenaciously "just in case" or because given world enough and time we will actually open its covers one day. Electronic books will probably increase rather than reduce this problem since we can store more and more and the fact that we can access any at instant speed may induce paralysis in deciding which to select.

Books are to be read and used; they're not window dressing or commodities. This brings us to the main point. How many books? Surely no more than necessary. That necessity will be related to our calling.

After sending some more unused books to the attic to join the rest it was providential to come across these reflections here and here. I particularly valued these thoughts:
How many books do you have? If you serve in the first world, the answer is almost certainly more than you need; it’s often more than you can justify; and it’s sometimes more than you can accommodate.

These reflections are more valuable than a cult of minimalism for its own sake (although some attempt at minimalism probably wouldn't hurt most of us). Is it relevant that those that have contributed most probably have had the smallest libraries? ANS Lane points out that "Calvin was very skilled at reading the minimum and making the maximum use of it". Surely that is a minimalism to aspire to. Thomas Boston was someone with an exceedingly scarce library but was nevertheless a powerful theologian. Debates continue as to what books Bunyan had access to, evidently a little more than his Bible and concordance but probably not much more and certainly entirely overshadowed by his use of these as his bibline writings demonstrate.

We are not disparaging books - many have received a blessing for eternity from them. As the Puritans would have put it - we need to be less like the butterfly in flitting from flower to flower and more like the bee in selecting the flowers that will yield most and spending time in extracting what we need. We need to be more selective about what we buy, what we read and why. We need to ask ourselves how this will profit ourselves and others in glorifying and enjoying God aright. Rev. James S. Sinclair wrote that: "The value of good books is not be estimated by their commercial price...The value of good books is to be reckoned according to the amount of moral and spiritual benefit they are fitted to convey to the understanding, heart and life of men. A bargain is only a bargain if it is going to be useful. A interesting set of notes in relation to this is found here. This begins with the searching words of Thomas A Kempis:

When the day of judgment comes, inquiry will not be made of us of what we have read, but what we have done, not how well we have spoken, but how piously we have lived (Imitation of Christ I.3.4).

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

M'Crie on Baptism #1

Although over 200 years old (published in 1801) Thomas M'Crie's Lectures on Christian Baptism remain a useful classic work on this subject. He describes it as "the result of the readings and reflections of many years". M'Crie is not so much writing in order to advance polemic as to state his case clearly. "On the subject in general, it is to be feared much ignorance and misapprehension prevail. The first and simplest of the Christian institutes has been involved in a labyrinth of metaphysical subtlety and theological discussion, the very aspect of which deters many from examining it." His intention is to provide a discussion "in a plain, popular, and practical manner, adapted to the comprehension of all". What is particularly noteworthy is the gracious manner in which he approaches the subject. "It is extremely difficult to speak on the point at all without offending cherished prejudices; and it is our special unhappiness in this question, that we are brought into collision with brethren whose personal piety and public zeal in the cause of Christ entitle them to the highest praise. But the interests of truth (and this seems eminently a part of " the present truth ") require that we should take up the question under this disadvantage; and it has been the author's intention, however he may have succeeded in carrying it out, to avoid all uncharitable invective and needless irritation".

He concludes his preface in the attitude of prayer using "one of the Prayers anciently used at the celebration of baptism in the French and Scottish Churches:— 'Hear us, Father of mercy, that so the Baptism which we dispense, according to thy institution, may produce its fruit and virtue, in such sort as thou hast declared to us in thy Gospel!'"

Is this not the spirit to approach this and all such similar controversies?