Clarity

clarityGraham has recently done some thinking on clarity so I wanted to write to clarify my views, not so much for the reader but for my own sake. My major concern with popular articulations of clarity (or, if you prefer, perspicuity) is its limitation to the “gospel”. That is, the definition that goes something like, “Clarity is that doctrine by which we mean the elements essential to salvation are clear in Scripture”. The implication of this definition is that there are parts of Scripture that are unclear and this implication is leveraged as an explanation of why differing interpretations arise from a single passage.

Two important points the proponents of clarity make are (1) Scripture interprets Scripture (the unclear in light of the clear) and (2) clarity is not partial (that is, the “elements essential to salvation” are not only partially clear; they are fully clear). This is because the idea of clarity, if partial, is emptied of meaning: how is the interpreter to know which bit is unclear and which bit is clear? Following this, how is the interpreter to know which bits of Scripture to interpret in light of which others? Both of these points are important Scripture must guide our reading of Scripture and for clarity to mean clarity, it cannot be partial.

focusMy concern, however, is that by limiting clarity to “the elements essential to salvation” we are defining our clarity as partial. This leads, in my mind, to having to say that if we disagree about what is essential to salvation, either we must acknowledge that it is not essential (since it is not clear, and what is essential is clear), or we must conclude that our opponent is not a Christian since he cannot see what is clear. In our day and age we would probably opt for the former and the outcome would be a lowest common denominator kind of ecumenical Christianity but there are those who would err on the other side ending up with a “my way or the highway” type of Christianity. Let me, therefore, articulate the points I would want to make about clarity.

What Clarity Is

First and foremost, clarity is the promise of God to communicate. Scripture, as the revelation of God, is His Word to us; we no longer have prophets but we do have the written Word, the communication of the incarnate Word. If Scripture is not clear, God fails at his attempt to communicate. Clarity flows from the character of God as light, communicating himself to us and penetrating our darkness.

Second, the promise of clarity is not to say that the truth is equally accessible and comprehensible to all though. Rather, clarity is the promise that the truth is there and it can be searched out. Varying interpretations do not testify against clarity as though the commentators were wanderers in the dark. Nor does our clarity mean that each commentator is coming to his own truth as though the meaning is wrapped up in the subjectivity of each reader. Rather, varying interpretations testify to the fact that there is something to be gained by grappling with the text and more so in community with others who approach the same text illumined by the Spirit. Hermeneutics and exegesis are not aimless exercises where anything hit becomes a target; clarity teaches that truth is there to be sought.

informationFinally, the promise of clarity is unique to the reading of Scripture. This means that, where in any other field of reading and understanding, critical and creative thinking are at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, this is not the case when reading Scripture. The telos of the communication of God is not information but transformation. The scientific study that common grace affords the unbeliever does not, therefore, achieve the purpose of reading Scripture. The objective meaning of Scripture does not arrive at the recipient as a quiet guest but as one who would ransack the house of the sinful mind leaving everything on its head.

agree? disagree? tell me what you think…

Doodle: Perseverance or Preservation of the Saints

Persevering with the world on our shouldersIn my first year at theological college, one of my lecturers warned students away from beginning essays with dictionary definitions; let’s hope he doesn’t read this post. If you survey a few dictionary entries on perseverance you will notice the word is unmistakeably active, not passive. Perseverance carries with it the idea of persistence in spite of opposition or discouragement; the steady continuation on a course of action in the face of difficulties and obstacles.

I find this quite interesting because the resounding note of perseverance in faith is that it is guaranteed by God’s electing, redeeming and calling (Horton, The Christian faith, p683). In other words, Christians are assured of their perseverance because of God’s grace, which has already been experienced by the believer at conversion, a result of regeneration. Justification by faith announces an irreversible verdict in the courts of heaven and union with Christ, the communion mediated by the Holy Spirit, doesn’t merely signify that the glorious future of the gospel has begun in the creature’s present, but it also guarantees that future. Why then do we speak about perseverance?

Preserving ChristiansWouldn’t we be better off talking about preservation of the saints? If you’ll forgive another definition, preservation seems more consistent with what historic or confessional Reformed theology affirms: to keep safe from destruction and decay; to protect from harm and maintain unchanged, without injury and away from peril. Well, that doesn’t really cover it either, especially if preservation conjures images of jam jars and your kitchen pantry. I don’t think the doctrine can be understood as God simply hiding us away until glory. That being said, God’s preservation of the elect is, in my opinion, more assuring than my perseverance as a saint.

In conclusion the notion of preservation fails to give proper ground to a believer’s persistence, with saints being spared this life’s suffering from sin and the ongoing struggle with it. On the other hand, perseverance might overstate the believer’s effort in faith. Preservation moves us towards a kind of “quiescent passivity” (to steal John Murray’s phrase), yet perseverance could be seen to exaggerate the creaturely endeavour in faith. Both extremes undermine grace. For Calvin’s duplex gratia (double grace) emphasises God’s initiative which is first experienced in justification and then expressed in sanctification, positional before progressive. But the duplex gratia doesn’t render believers passive. Therefore, perseverance is both the call to cling to Christ in faith and the wonderful assurance that he will not lose anyone the Father has given to him.

On fear and Christian faithfulness

While helping a friend prepare for one of their exams last week, I found myself getting rather frustrated with the portrayal of views the lecturer clearly disagreed with. Their understanding of other views seemed rather shallow, and their criticisms were stock-standard and fairly superficial. It seemed as if they had not really grappled with what was really going on in the subject. They were just on their way to a presentation of an accepted evangelical view, and they chose the path of least resistance.

As I read a bit more, I was driven to thinking about this year, and some of the issues I’ve become aware of. I was reminded of how massive these issues are, and how terrifyingly complicated. Sure, there are guys who take the easy way out and bury their heads in the sand by either denying issues or superficially dismissing them. But this is just cowardice, and is often seen to be so! [To be fair, this is not what the lecturer usually does – he was teaching a class outside of his area of expertise.]

And to make matters worse, now that I’ve seen how morally reprehensible this easy path is, there is no going back. I am only left with a much harder path before me. And, as I turn my eyes toward it, I’m petrified. If I want to walk that path I have to recognise that there are really (REALLY) difficult questions that everyone is bashing their heads against – even the people who believe the Bible is the Word of God. And I’ve got to face those questions, and try to understand the real issues involved. And look to Scripture, wrestling with the relevant texts. And find various answers, taking into account both the strengths and penetrating criticisms of each view. And, then, before the face of God, I’ve got to take steps forward. I’ve got to develop convictions in this world. Not the world of my forefathers.

It is easy to be patriotic about a world which has passed, for we are the offspring of that world, and we have been reared by its heroes. But those lands which we nostalgically look to held out no security for our heroes. To them, they were entering uncharted territory. They carved the paths for us because they faced the challenges of their day under God. They allowed God to shape, challenge and wrestle with them through his Word.

I ask that God would allow me to be a person of like character. And I thank him for the brave, thoughtful evangelicals whom he has raised up in my day; men of courage, who I can look up to.

Doodle: Was Calvin a Calvinist?

Calvin's Institutes SpineI can still remember it as if it were yesterday, though it was something like 7 years ago. I had been a Christian for around a year and my growth had been nourished by the ongoing conversations with my youth leaders, as well as sitting at their feet as they discussed the higher, hallowed ground of my newly discovered faith. As an inquisitive 18 year old, I loved to sit within earshot of my leaders thrashing out – what I would later know as – theology. And a name mentioned in those discussions more often than others was that of John Calvin, the 16th century Reformer. Though, to be fair, I probably only knew him as Calvin; his (first name,) historical context and immense influence in the development of Protestantism was unknown to me. Yet I knew this: Calvin was the root of another word, ‘Calvinism.’ And Calvinism, which could simply be summed up with the acronym TULIP, was his major contribution to theology.

And now we are approaching the point (I use this word loosely) of my doodle. The moment which I remember so plainly was the first time I got hold of John Calvin’s Institutes. But turning up the contents page, to my dismay and sheer horror, I found that the book wasn’t structured into five headings, beginning with (1) Total depravity, (2) Unconditional election, and so forth. There weren’t even five, but only four, chapters! And to further my astonishment, these chapters were called ‘Books.’ What was going on? “How could this be?” Had I not stumbled onto the writings of another John Calvin, who happened to also written an Institutes? Because I knew that John Calvin’s theological system turned on 5 major points, “It does. Doesn’t it?” No. It doesn’t. The Synod of Dort might have had 5 points, in answer to Jacobus Arminius’ theology. Calvinism might be put plainly, simply stated under those 5 points. But let’s stop pigeon-holing John Calvin into every Reformed Protestant’s favourite acronym.

Allow me to make two points in conclusion. The first is that Calvin’s theology is much richer, diverse and more glorious than those tired headings. The Institutes present a more cohesive and grand theological system than TULIP ever did, or could. I am not suggesting that he does not develop and draw on aspects of what we would call Calvinism, but to argue that they are the touchstones of his theology is going too far. The second point, which is more of a challenge to both reader and myself, is that we should be reading Calvin instead of trading in overly simplified phrases that are becomingly increasingly embattled, just think of (3) Limited atonement. You might disagree with everything I have said. But if you’re going to do that then you need to first suspend the idea that TULIP does the best job of explaining Calvin’s theology (my first point) and dust off the Institutes to find out for yourself if I’m wrong (my second point). But whatever you do, please stop reducing John Calvin to Calvinism, simply for namesake.

John Owen and Asceticism

 

John Greenhill - John OwenI think most Christians have at some point wondered what to make of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:27. For Paul seems to affirm a form of ascetic practise in Christian discipleship, “I discipline my body and keep it under control” (ESV). Other renderings speak of forcing our bodies into submission, striking it with blows, and making it our slave. These are unsettling words coming from the lips of Paul because they seem to suggest a disciplined and self-wrought hardship on our bodies. The horrors of self-flagellation spring to mind, as well as the studied loneliness of monasticism, and the guilt-ridden, heavy-laden notions of Catholic penance or contrition. There is no doubt that Christians throughout history have overplayed the role of guilt in Christian life and enforced practises that leave people desolate and disconnected from the world. But as John Owen says: “A man may have leanness of body and soul together” (Collected Works VI, p61).

This year, for my honours dissertation, I have had the privilege of working through Owen’s ‘Of mortification of sin in believers, etc.’ I have found myself greatly blessed through careful study of this luminary, Puritan and pastoral giant of the 17th century. In his fifth direction for the mortification of sin (see chapter XI), Owen exhorts us to carefully study our own natural dispositions and distempers which make us more prone to certain sins, in specific situations. His first point is quick to state that being naturally susceptible to any particular sin is not an extenuation of that sin. In the second point Owen challenges believers to serious and vigilant watchfulness against situations that advantage that disposition; he calls us to fix ourselves upon its account. The third point, which I want to tease out a little more, is that mortification of sin (which is rooted in our nature) takes us further than the standard evangelical arsenal: praying, reading Scripture, being accountable to each other, issuing gospel challenges to fellow saints and sitting under preaching. Owen moves beyond these and underscores that must we bring our bodies into subjection.

Mortification - John OwenOwen is resoundingly and repeatedly emphatic throughout his treatise when it comes to the duty of believers. His application often cuts close to the bone of my Reformed convictions. However it is irresponsible to ignore the carefully robust gospel foundations Owen lays at the beginning of his discourse, and reminds us of throughout: firstly we are “meritoriously mortified” (p40) at the cross with Christ, baptised into his death and raised with him to new life; secondly by the Spirit we have communion with the triune God, and therefore our growth in holiness always has its source in our union with Christ. Owen loved the doctrines of grace. So when he tackles the subjection of our bodies, through “rigour”, he starts by denying the Catholic (or “Papal”) practises which, despite putting great emphasis on mortification as a voluntary service and part of penance, are ignorant of the righteousness we have in Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and therefore the true nature of mortification. But perhaps the Reformed are guilty of the other criticism Owen supplies: have we become negligent of subjecting our bodies for fear of upsetting the sentiment of sola gratia?

Owen gives us two limitations that we must bear in mind when subjecting our bodies. Firstly, it is merely the means to an end, the weakening of our natural disposition at its root. The ascetic weakening or impairing of our bodies is not good in itself, but must result in the mortification of sin. Secondly, these practises possess no virtue in themselves for they are accomplished by the Spirit. It is he alone who strengthens us to the successful mortification of sin. I might as well finish with quoting Owen’s own summary of this direction emitting his usual brevity and brilliance, “When the distemper complained of seems to be rooted in the natural temper and constitution, in applying our souls to a participation in the blood and Spirit of Christ, an endeavour is to be used to give check in the way of God to the natural root of that distemper” (p61). Owen would say that the endeavour is our duty, and I agree with him. But what are we doing about it?