Archive for June, 2008

Charnock and the Religious Imagination

June 30, 2008

Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God is one of the greatest works on the person and nature of God. Speaking on God’s being a spirit, Charnock says the following:

Though God hath manifested himself in a bodily shape (Gen. Xviii. 1), and elsewhere Jehovah appeared to Abraham, yet the substance of God was not seen, no more than the substance of angels was seen in their apparitions to men…Sometimes a a representation is made to the inward sense and imagination, as to Micaiah (I Kings xxii. 19) and to Isaiah (vi.1); but they saw not the essence of God, but some images and figures of him proportioned to their sense or imagination. The essence of God no man ever saw, nor can see. John i. 18. (Discourse III On God’s Beng a Spirit, p. 185, emphasis mine)

Charnock’s words will surprise many. He is saying that Isaiah did not so much see God in His essence, but God represented to his finite mind in his imagination. Charnock uses imagination in the classic sense – that faculty of mind which enables you to understand unseen things by analogy. Charnock did not mean that Isaiah was ‘visualising’ God, or inventing scenes of God in his mind. Such is the way we think of imagination today, a concept the ancients referred to as fancy, not imagination. No, Isaiah was illuminated by the Spirit of God, and the illumination involved the use of things Isaiah already understood – a temple, a throne, a robe, an altar, smoke, live coals and seraphim. These images served as analogies – potent ones, which so affected the mind and heart of Isaiah, that he was profoundly humbled, and consecrated to God. God did for Isaiah what He is still willing to do for us: He took the truth of His Word, in which He is universally depicted through analogies, and illuminated Himself to a heart humble, obedient and hungry enough to receive Him.

The catch is this: God’s analogies or word pictures must be supported by careful, sober thought, enriched by the best and noblest influences. If your concept of a robe and its train comes from Disney’s animated The Emperor’s New Groove, if your concept of an altar with live coals comes from Veggie Tales, if your concept of a temple comes from Indiana Jones and if your concept of seraphim comes from some illustrated children’s Bible-storybook, I doubt your reaction to such analogies will be, “Woe is me, for I am ruined.”

The religious imagination is our idea of  God, reality and ourselves. Scripture shapes our religious imagination, but what we include in the life of the mind will further shape our understanding of Scripture’s analogies.

Certain things are analogous by nature, and therefore crucial to the imagination. Music uses sound to picture ideas, moods and feelings. Poetry uses metaphor, rhythm and meter to capture and portray an experience. The plastic arts (painting, sculpture, woodwork, architecture etc.) seek to portray a view of reality, and evoke affections. Literature seeks to ‘remove’ us from our own world, to portray reality in another, so as to return us to our world with a renewed moral vision, a better understanding of God, the world and ourselves. When you think about it, we did not create music, poetry or story – these things were analogies given to us by God. Poetry was not a human invention that He borrowed to write a third of His Word; He used a pattern that had always existed in His mind. In other words, if God has made these things, and given them to us to aid our understanding of who He is, it is up to us to simply obey and try to understand the pattern so as to put it to best use.

If we neglect to understand the meaning of these phenomena which are part of God’s design, we neglect our religious imaginations. In so doing, we harm our ability to see God in His Word.

And if you think that all this sounds elitist, consider the poetry that a rural shepherd-boy in ancient Israel could write.

 

Orthodox Emotion

June 27, 2008

 

Much has been said everywhere about the decline of religious belief; not so much notice has been taken of the decline of religious sensibility. The trouble of the modern age is not merely the inability to believe certain things about God and man which our forefathers believed, but the inability to feel towards God and man as they did. A belief in which you no longer believe is something which to some extent you can still understand; but when religious feeling disappears, the words in which men have struggled to express it becomes meaningless.

– T.S. Eliot

A common view amongst Christians today is that our emotions and feelings are secondary to the information we receive.

In fact, the Bible, many secular philosophers, and Christians throughout history have seen it in reverse: Your affections shape your reasoning. I suppose we need only think of the man in a fit of road rage. He is not ‘unreasonable’, as we would say; he is actually reasoning – his violent rage, though, is shaping his reasoning.

Put simply, the affections and passions shape, guide and provide an atmosphere for our reason, and, by implication, they direct the knowledge we receive. If your affections are inordinate, expect your reason to follow in a perverse fashion. It was the evil desires of pagans that led them to reject the light of God’s revelation (Romans 1:18-32). Their affections drove their decisions. Those, in turn, further warped their affections.

Today, the problem is a misguided view of human nature, even amongst Christians. The thinking seems to be that if we are under sound preaching, that good affections will automatically follow. While ordinate affection certainly won’t come apart from sound doctrine, there is more to it. As Eliot pointed out, when we no longer feel the way we ought to, the knowledge itself can become quite vacuous.

Paul instructed us to make sure our entire thought life is based on truth, beauty and goodness (Phil 4:8). While the Word of God is the primary avenue for renewing the mind, we all know that our world is filled with things that shape our thoughts – the imaginations of our hearts. Music, poetry, literature, sculpture, painting, theatre (TV & film), the Internet, magazines, architecture, nature, and other cultural phenomena are present to shape the affections, for good or ill.

It is a strange myopia in modern Christianity that refuses to see the potential of these things to shape the affections, and thereby twist the very biblical knowledge we receive. Many will object that such a notion is an attack on the authority of Scripture, a denigration of Sola Scriptura.

In response, I think we have all had the experience of being in a church where the sermon was a sound exposition of God’s Word, but the raucous noisemaking for the first half of the service seemed to neutralise or even contradict the message. This phenomenon proves the point. If clear exposition by itself shaped the affections, the believers in such a church would throw that music out after a few sermons. Instead, their affections acclimatise to such strange fire until their reason receives the revelation of God through a lens now comfortable with cheap, trivial, clichéd music. (In fact, they are already acclimatised to such music via pop culture.) Soon, they see no contradiction, and heatedly contest any notion of certain music being inappropriate for worship. All the reasoning in the world will not avail you; their affections have been changed, and their reason follows.

It is true the Spirit can illuminate whenever and whomever He wants to. However, as beings made in His image, we are shaped by whatever has meaning. That is His design, not ours. To be dismissive of the actual meaning of cultural phenomena because we claim to believe in the sufficiency of God’s Word is disguised sloth. And God will not wink at sloth.

 

A Name to Remember

June 23, 2008

Every Christian interested in understanding modern Western Christianity should become acquainted with the name Charles Finney. Charles Finney (1792-1875) represents a turning point in Christianity. Up until his era, the church had been focused on refining and developing the doctrine and biblical Christian heritage it had received. Finney, though, changed all that.

Finney was educated as a lawyer, and after his conversion, became a Presbyterian minister. However, Finney came to reject central parts of the Westminster Confession of Faith, including the idea that humans have original sin. He also rejected the idea that God must sovereignly draw sinners to salvation. He believed that given the right circumstances, right atmosphere, right context, anyone could be brought to repentance and/or experience revival. Therefore, he set about to create circumstances that would, in his words, ‘produce religious excitements’. Finney’s standard for judging if something were appropriate to use in this regard was very simple: its effectiveness.

Finney was wildly successful. Hundreds of thousands were ‘converted’, and his meetings were considered mass revivals. Historians doubt how permanent the conversions of Finney’s revivals were; at any rate, they were nothing like the Awakenings of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.

However, the church could not ignore Finney. Most were enamoured of his success.  The pressure to conform in an increasingly popularised age (the steam-powered printing press had just been invented) was growing. Soon, the changes became evident.

Firstly, ministry became determined by outward results. Soul-winning, increased numbers, growing attendance figures became the yardstick of success. If your church was not experiencing mass-revivals or large numbers of converts, you were somehow in decline or ‘dead’.

Second, the techniques to achieve these results became increasingly pragmatic. Whatever worked became justified simply because it seemed “God was blessing it”. The ends not only justified the means, they demanded them. Finney’s disciples learnt well, and outdid their master. However, it was not long before the tail was wagging the dog. Once results by any means was an acceptable, unquestioned modus operandi, mass appeal became part of ministry. Once mass appeal was considered part of obedience to the Great Commission,  the church increasingly looked to the world for its methods – using the music, songs, emotional manipulation and sensual stimulation that unbelieving marketers had successfully used for decades. Put simply, the church shifted gears from biblical worship to worldly amusement.

Third, the door opened to liberalism. If Finney could revise Christian doctrine and tradition with ‘success’, why couldn’t others do the same? What is the point of conserving things, people reasoned, if the new methods work better? Theological liberalism and methodological liberalism were the tsunamis that followed the earthquake of Charles Finney.

We all live in Finney’s shadow. It is plain as day that Christian worship today is radically affected by the pragmatism popularised by Finney. It is hard to find a professing Christian ministry or church not infected with the bug of pragmatism in its practices. Indeed, it is so with us we may have great trouble recognising its presence within ourselves. Reconnecting ourselves with biblical Christian worship, with an emphasis on quality over quantity, a patient trust in God’s sovereignty and a repudiation of strange fire within the holy place is our goal.

We may find, though, it is not as easy as it sounds.

Why do we need conservative Christianity?

June 19, 2008

 The word conserve implies protection. A conservationist works to protect the fauna and flora against destructive influences. A conservative is one who believes that something exists which must be protected.

For a conservative Christian, that thing is nothing less than truly biblical Christianity. Conservative Christians work to truly understand biblical Christianity and then protect it from those who would warp it.

That raises another question. Why should we be concerned with preserving biblical Christianity?

There at least two reasons that motivate the conservative approach.

First, we have a mandate to pass on the faith. Christianity has to be propagated from one generation to another (Psalm 78:4-7). Therefore, conservative Christians are concerned to pass on the faith once delivered to the saints, not some hybrid species of Christianity. The truth is not something in which we can tolerate the ‘broken telephone’ phenomenon. We are simply one link in a church begun in the past and stretching into the future. Conservative Christians love both their ‘parents’ and their ‘children’ – both the church past and the church future. What we have received through the blood, sweat and tears of 2000 years of Christianity is not something we are authorised to tamper with. We ought to be humbler than that.

That leads us to the second reason we must protect biblical Christianity. All around us are people who seek to innovate when it comes to doctrine and worship, and they present their innovations as genuine, original, biblical Christianity. In other words, conservatives are needed, because threats are always present to the pure biblical faith.

Sadly, many professing Christians within the visible church constitute such threats. Instead of seeking to preserve, refine and pass on what is true, good and beautiful, certain professing believers delight to tear down received traditions, innovate in worship and doctrine, and fly the banner of “relevance” over their innovations. Such kind of people are sometimes misguided; sometimes they are knowingly destructive of conservative Christianity – for it stands in the way of of their personal ambitions. Worse, some of them speak from places of authority, and set themselves up as teachers of the truth.

Against this background, conservative Christians must earnestly contend for the faith (Jude 1:3). This means more than insisting upon pure doctrine, though it certainly does involve that. It means naming and shaming worship innovations. It means calling attention to what is not appropriate in worship or church life. It means defending the integrity of the Gospel from those who would demean it by their actions and attitudes. It means identifying inordinate affection. It means calling people from the thoughtlessness of modern life to a reflective, sober Christianity. It means reminding a church disconnected from its heritage what that heritage is.

We didn’t start the race (Heb 12:1). It may not be us who finish it. But in the presence of the cloud of witnesses, we should determine not to be the ones who drop the baton.

Ordo Amoris

June 18, 2008

Latin scares a lot of people. It scared me when first I studied it (or rather, crammed it) in ninth grade. However, there are times when a phrase in Latin communicates more precisely than English. Ordo Amoris is one of those phrases. A literal translation would be ‘ordered loves’ or ‘the order of love’ which sounds clumsy. It’s what the phrase means that we are concerned with, though. Ordo Amoris means that we should love things according to their value. We are not supposed to love all things equally. Nor are we to love all things in the same way. In other words, every thing has an appropriate love, both in degree, and in quality.

In terms of degree, you do not love coffee as much as you love your child; you do not love your plant as much as you love your spouse; you do not love your car as much as you love your parents (or at least – you shouldn’t!).

In terms of quality, you do not love your dog the way you love your mother; you do not love ice cream the way you love honesty; you do not love your friend the way you love nature; you do not love a sports game the way you love your spouse.

If you love some thing more than it deserves, your love is disordered. If you love some thing less than it deserves, your love is disordered. If you love some thing in a way that is contrary to its nature, your love is disordered. You have what the KJV calls ‘inordinate affection’ (Col 3:5).

On some level, we all suffer from this. In fact, the goal of spiritual growth is to come to a place of ‘ordinate affection’ or ‘ordered loves’. We know this, because the stated goal of the Christian life is to love God (Mark 12:30). Therefore, we must give priority attention to the matter of loving God appropriately.

 

  1. He must be our highest love.

To love anything more than God is to commit idolatry. That’s because nothing in all creation is worth as much as God. He is more beautiful, more desirable, more trustworthy, more worthy of honour and love than anything else. Nothing should occupy first place in our loves except God Himself.

   2.  He must be loved for Himself.

When you love something as a means, you still love something else more. If you love money, it is usually because you love what that money can buy. To love God as a means rather than an end is to love the things we think He must give us – health, comfort, popularity, entertainment, problem-free living. In fact, we are then loving ourselves as our god, not God. When God is a means rather than an end, He is not loved correctly.

   3. He must be loved in accordance with His nature.

As we have said, the quality, or type, of love depends on the nature of the thing loved. You must not love God any old way, and come to Him, expecting Him to be pleased. If you do that, you may in fact be coming to an idol of your own making. God is a thrice-holy God, the Supreme Sovereign, the Sustainer of all, the Most Ancient, Unchanging, Uncreated, Self-Sustaining Great I AM. He is our Father, Saviour, Comforter and Lord. You do not love Him as a buddy, a pal, a chum, a boyfriend, a cuddle-toy, a pet, or as a human. Your approach, your words, your deeds, your music, your attention, your posture must love Him for who He is, not for Who you think He might be. The Bible is full of people who treated God as they thought He was, and came out second best (Cain, Nadab & Abihu, calf-worshipping Israelites, Uzza, Ananias etc.)

This is the goal of our lives, now and through all eternity (where we’ll have it right!). Conservative Christianity is very much concerned with ordinate affection.