Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sinners in the hands of an angry God

The late-Puritan Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon with this title in July 1741.  It is a warning shot of a sermon, expounding on the reality of hell in order to wake people up to their plight as guilty sinners.  It is uncomfortable reading; I can only imagine it was uncomfortable to preach, and to hear.  Frankly, it should be uncomfortable: the thought of unrepentant sinners coming before a holy God is terrifying.  Granted that Edwards plays heavily on the Biblical imagery of hell, and granted that this is just imagery - still, the horrific imagery is if anything inadequate for the awful reality.

But here's the thing: there is another way the Bible describes what it looks like for sinners to fall into the hands of an angry God, and it looks frighteningly familiar.

In Romans 1, the Apostle Paul describes the downward ethical and social spiral of a culture which has rejected knowledge of God.  It is an interaction of human and divine: human beings deny God, exchange his glory for the worship of created things, deliberately swap out his truth for falsehood; and God gives human beings over to increasingly depraved behaviour, to the point where they no longer even theoretically approve the good, but give praise and acclamation to those who pursue evil.

Yesterday, the British Medical Association voted overwhelmingly to campaign for the legalisation of in utero murder, on the grounds that we should trust women to choose 'what is best for themselves and their families'.  Foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  All around us, society celebrates what God condemns.  The calendar of Pride events has become our society's new liturgical year.  Those of us who are not directly involved in gay culture are nevertheless called upon to give approval to those who are.  Meanwhile, our politics degenerates into a popularity contest and what passes for public ethics spins out of any sort of control.

According to Romans 1:18, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against such wickedness.  Reading that in connection with verses 16 and 17, I take it that Paul is saying that the gospel - the good news about Jesus - is the message which unmasks what might be called social progress or social degeneration (depending on your political and cultural leanings) as something much more terrible: the anger of God being actually even now poured out on sinful human beings.

We don't need to pore over the imagery of flames and gnashing of teeth to see sinners in the hands of an angry God; we just need to read a newspaper with eyes opened by the gospel to see what is really happening.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Blessed Assurance

As faith is the first vital act that every true Christian puts forth, and the life which he lives is by the faith of the Son of God, so it is his next and great concern to know that he doth believe, and that believing he hath eternal life...
Thus Isaac Chauncey in his preface to John Owen's posthumously published work on the Evidences of the Faith of God's Elect.  Chauncey here envisages a two-step process, if you like.  Firstly there is faith, and by this he means not just intellectual assent to Christian doctrine but a living faith, a trust in Christ, such that the believer's life is now lived in Christ as Christ lives in him.  This first step is the thing which resolves all the biggest questions: by this faith, the believer is united to Christ, and with Christ destined for eternal life and glory.  But there is a second step here.  The believer, having believed, now seeks to know that he has believed.  This is a second-order concern, dependent on the reality of the first step, and with lesser consequences.  Faith leads to life; knowledge of one's own faith leads to assurance, comfort, and the blessings in this life that accompany confidence in one's relationship with God.

But is this right?  Is there a second-order move, after believing, whereby one must examine one's own faith in order to ascertain whether it is possible to discern in it the marks of genuine trust (and therefore, somewhere in the background, the evidences of election)?  Is that how faith works?

One study which might be attempted would be a biblical one.  It would be helpful to have a full contextual exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13:5, for example.  But it is also not unreasonable to ask some theological and pastoral questions of this viewpoint.  For example, theologically, faith is rightly understood as the believer looking away from himself, to place his trust in another, namely Christ.  Righteousness is sought in Christ.  Life is sought in Christ.  This by itself ought to raise a question mark against the idea that having looked away from himself for everything that pertains to life and godliness, the believer is called to a reflexive self-examination to ensure that his faith is genuinely faith.  How is one to avoid making faith a kind of work, on this model?

Pastorally, does this view recognise how impossible it is for the Christian to really know themselves - their true life and identity being, after all, hidden with Christ in God?  Not to mention the mere psychological difficulty of analysing any of one's own subjective actions.  Of course there is value in such analysis, but ought we to resolve the believer's assurance of salvation to such a thing?

A larger question is: does this approach inevitably follow from the classical Calvinist doctrine of election?  Is it inevitable that people will want to answer the question 'well, am I elect or not?' - and if so, how would they go about answering except by examining their own faith?  Of course, the pastoral advice which the good Calvinist would give would be to look to Jesus, but it is not clear on Calvinist doctrine that this actually answers the question.

Personally, I think Chauncey's approach (and, of course, Owen's, since he reflects the theme of the treatise here) is deeply flawed, turning faith into non-faith.  Faith is always and necessarily other-regarding; it always looks away from itself to Christ.  If the believer puts his own faith under the microscope, he will always find it wanting.  (There is a question in my mind over whether the psychological phenomenon of faith - which is all I have access to - is identical with what the NT is talking about, but that's for another day).  If the believer lives by faith in the Son of God, then let them also be assured by faith in the Son of God, and not by second-order reflection on their own state of mind or feeling.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Persuasion, ideology, politics

One thing I noticed about the most recent election campaign was the real lack of effort to persuade.  My social media feeds were full of people posting political things, but I only remember seeing one serious attempt to persuade people to vote one way or another (and even that was framed in terms of 'if you know anyone who is thinking of voting Tory...' - i.e., it wasn't trying to persuade directly, but on the assumption that all our friends think the same as us was advising on how we might evangelise the heathen).  Why don't we try to persuade each other?

My guess is that there are a number of factors.

One is the resurrection, on the left at least, of ideology.  Ideology, which we might perhaps define as a coherent and programmatic set of ideas which are considered to mutually imply or reinforce one another, makes persuasion more difficult, because you have to buy the whole package.  Now, some of us have considered, for example, socialism, and found that it's not a package we want to purchase.  You could still persuade me, though, if you wanted, of various individual policies.  But there is a sense of this being not worth the while.

Part of that sense is driven, I think, by the winner-takes-all setup of British politics.  If you can't persuade me to come over completely to 'your side', there's not much point in trying to persuade me of particular positions.  At the end of the day, one side or the other will be in power.  Note that this is true even after a very mixed election result like last week's.  The Labour party is not talking about how their ideas need to be taken into account, but about how hard they will make it for the Tories to govern.  Similarly, the chastened Conservatives are not chastened enough to consider a cross-party response to anything.

I wonder also if we've stopped trying to persuade because of a combination of statistics and a sense that people will almost always vote their own, predetermined, interests.  One of the most disturbing things about the last election campaign was the division exposed, and I think exacerbated, between young and old.  The implication was that we all know young people vote left, and old people right, and they do so because the right promotes the interests of the elderly and the left the interests of the young.  The determinism implied in this is fueled by stats: we know that the majority of younger people do vote left.  But the assumption that, for example, your dad is bound to vote Tory because he's drawing a pension, and that he does so without a thought for you and your situation is really quite offensive.  This promotes the worst kind of tribalism.  (Speaking from a Christian point of view, I would also want to point out the many, many passages of Scripture which encourage us to respect our elders as those likely to have more wisdom than us!)

Another thought is that we are all thoroughly caught up in post-truth.  No point trying to persuade people who live in different worlds and have different truths.  This is not limited to just the extremists, nor is it a phenomenon of the left or right exclusively (it is interesting to compare, for example, Corbyn's comments on the 'mainstream media' with those of the Donald.  My guess is that if you anonymised the comments people wouldn't be able to tell the difference).  But here's the thing: we're post-truth, but we aren't prepared to go full relativist.  So we're led into this place where we have to assume conspiracy: we know the truth, and all those who disagree are blinded.  It would take something with the force of a religious conversion to open their eyes, and so we don't bother trying to engage and persuade.

There is, of course, a big chunk of reality in the post-truth analysis.  We do all live in different worlds.  We see things hugely differently.  So my last thought is this: we don't want to try to persuade in the political realm because it is really, really difficult.  It is difficult because we can't assume the same priorities, or the same goals - it isn't as if we just disagree on the best way to get up the mountain.  We disagree about what the mountain is, or whether there is a mountain at all.  Attempts to persuade would take us pretty quickly into hard conversations - do we agree on any aspects of human flourishing?  Do we even agree about what a human being is?  And here we're in trouble, because I'm not sure we do.  So persuasion would have to go behind politics to huge issues of anthropology, ethics, and ontology.  Who, frankly, can be bothered?

I am not convinced the future is bright for our political discourse.  I don't think we can assume that democracy can work in such a fragmented society.  I wonder what happens next.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Give us thyself, that we may see...

Give us thyself that we may see
The Father and the Son by thee.
So John Dryden interprets part of the great 9th century hymn to the Holy Spirit, Veni Creator Spiritus - accurately capturing at least part of the concern of the original.  We seek the Spirit, so that by the Spirit we might know the Father and the Son (and, in the slightly more Trinitarian formula of the original Latin composition, might know the Spirit himself also).

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit plays a vital role in the doctrine of revelation.  Put it in the context of the whole Trinity.  The Father is the unseen, and the Son is the visible image of the invisible God.  The ancient argument for the deity of Christ revolved around this: if the Son is not God, then God is not revealed.  Nothing less than God could truly reveal God to us.  But granted the deity of the Son: how does it come about that a human being, who is not God, can have God revealed to them?  If it is true that only God can reveal God, is it not also true that only God can see God?  In other words, even granted the true revelation of God in the person of Christ, we human beings have absolutely no inherent capacity to receive this revelation.

Without God (the Spirit) working in us, we cannot see God (the Son) revealing to us the being and person of God (the Father).  And so we pray, Come, Creator Spirit!