Archive for the ‘Piety’ Category

The Knowledge of the Holy & The Pursuit of God

June 28, 2013

The Knowledge of the Holy and The Pursuit of God are A.W. Tozer’s most popular titles and understandably so. Those who read them find genuine spiritual insight, heartfelt piety, and an invitation to worship from one in the very act of doing so.

They are different works, that came about in different ways. The Pursuit of God was the culmination of decades of thought on the Christian life, which flowed out of Tozer in one sitting. During an all-night train ride, with some toast and some tea, he wrote the entire book. The Pursuit of God opposes spiritual complacency, and calls for the deliberate, vigorous pursuit of knowing God in conscious personal experience. This book follows no predictable pattern, nor can it be comfortably pigeon-holed. Instead, it covers notions of surrender, consecration, spiritual apprehension, the need for illumination and self-denial, in a unity that makes sense once read in its entirety. Years of spiritual experiences surround the exhortations of each chapter, and those with seeking hearts will resonate with Tozer.

The Knowledge of the Holy began as a series of sermons which Tozer preached in his last years, while ministering in Toronto. Those sermons, also published as The Attributes of God, were hammered into book-form by Tozer, and published in 1961, two years before his death. A study in God’s attributes, it could not be more different than a work on the same topic by A.W. Pink. Tozer’s work is musical: poetic descriptions break off into a quoted quatrain from Faber, Watts, or Tersteegen. Sprinkled through the work are quotes from church fathers, puritans, and mystics. Tozer’s wordcraft is probably at its best in this work, combining both theological precision with imaginative metaphor to fire the religious imagination. Twenty one chapters deal each with one attribute of God. And worth the price of the whole book is the first chapter: “Why We Must Think Rightly About God”. I’ve often referred Christians to this chapter as an introduction to understanding the importance of the religious imagination.

Not everyone will agree with Tozer’s understanding of sovereignty and free will, or his views on prevenient grace. These seem to me to be small matters to overlook, given the genuine gold in the rest of the works. I encourage every believer to include these two books in his or her reading list.

Invitation to the (Devotional) Classics – De Contemptu Mundi

June 21, 2013

The first duty of man ordained and brought forth into this world for that end, — my most dear Valerian! — is to know his Creator, and being known, to confess Him, and to resign or give up his life — which is the wonderful and peculiar gift of God, — to the service and worship of the Giver.

Eucherius was bishop of Lyons from around 434 till his death in 449. His most famous work, De Contemptu Mundi (On Contempt for the World) has enough nuggets for the devotional prospector.

Eucherius advocated the ascetic lifestyle of the Egyptian hermits, but remained connected to a life of learning and active service. On Contempt For the World has much more to say on loving God than it does on bodily mortification. The theme of this epistle to Valerian is essentially 1 John 2:15 – to love not this world.

For Eucherius, that meant a two-pronged approach: seeing the pain and inferiority of a life lived for this world alone, and meditating on the far greater reward that is God Himself and Heaven.

“And indeed I know not which should soonest or most effectually incite us to a pious care of life eternal, either the blessings which are promised us in that state of glory, or the miseries which we feel in this present life. Those from above most lovingly invite and call upon us; these below most rudely and importunately would expell hence.”

While exhorting Valerius to do so, Eucherius wrote words of admiration and praise for God that will make the heart of any worshipper rejoice:

“But if pleasure and love delight us, and provoke our senses, there is in Christian religion, a love of infinite comfort, and such delights as are not nauseous and offensive after fruition. There is in it, that which not only admits of a most vehement and overflowing love, but ought also to be so beloved; namely, God, blessed for evermore, the only beautiful, delightful, immortal and supreme good, Whom you may boldly and intimately love as well as piously; if in the room of your former earthly affections you entertain heavenly and holy desires. If you were ever taken with the magnificence and dignity of another person, there is nothing more magnificent than God. If with anything that might conduce to your honour and glory, there is nothing more glorious then Him. If with the splendour and excellency of pompous shows, there is nothing more bright, nothing more excellent. If with fairness and pleasing objects, there is nothing more beautiful. If with verity and righteousness, there is nothing more just, nothing more true. If with liberality, there is nothing more bountiful. If with incorruption and simplicity, there is nothing more sincere, nothing more pure than that supreme goodness.”

Of course, we wish that Eucherius had seen the manifold ways in which we can worship God and glorify Him in this world and in this life. But we don’t read Eucherius for earthy, everyday piety. We read Eucherius to remind us that this world, as good as it is, is not our home. We read this short, dense work (less than 11 000 words) to be reminded that the Christian faith is not merely a means to earthly ends. Instead, God Himself is the quest of the human soul.

“Take up your eyes from the Earth and look about you, my most dear Valerian; spread forth your sails, and hasten from this stormy sea of secular negotiations, into the calm and secure harbour of Christian religion. This is the only haven into which which we all drive from the raging surges of this malicious world. This is our shelter from the loud and persecuting whirlwinds of Time. Here is our sure station and certain rest; here a large and silent recesse, secluded from the world, opens and offers itself unto us. Here a pleasant, serene tranquility shines upon us. Hither, when you are come, your weather-beaten vessel — after all your fruitless toils — shall at last find rest, and securely ride at anchor of the Cross.”

Invitation to the (Devotional) Classics – 1

May 24, 2013

Who knows how many volumes have been written by Christians through the centuries? Spurgeon’s works alone are 63 volumes, which are equivalent to the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Unlike Spurgeon’s works, not every Christian’s writings have been preserved, or been worth preserving.

Wesley said we ought to be people of one book, but students of many. With Scripture being our Book of books, we’d do well to learn from those Christian writings that have seemed to rise to the top, and withstand the winnowing of time. These ‘devotional classics’ span time, denomination or tradition, and genre, for lack of a better term. They come from Ante-Nicene, Nicene, post-Nicene periods, from the Middle Ages, and from Reformation, Enlightenment, Awakening and modern periods. They were written in Africa, Asia, Europe and America. Their authors are early bishops, martyrs, monks, scholastics, reformers, separatists, mystics, puritans, pastors, and missionaries. They are from the Eastern and Western church, reformers who were in the Roman Catholic church, reformers who came out, and reformers who remained in. They are Anglican, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Baptist. And they write sermons, poems, confessions, prayers, autobiographies, letters, and general treatments of the Christian life. I’d like to begin doing a brief description and review of some of these classics, with some choice excerpts from each.

What is the value of reading these dusty treasures? I can think of two reasons.

First, the value of reading some of the best devotional works is of inestimable spiritual value. A.W. Tozer wrote, “After the Bible the next most valuable book for the Christian is a good hymnal. Let any young Christian spend a year prayerfully meditating on the hymns of Watts and Wesley alone and he will become a fine theologian. Then let him read a balanced diet of the Puritans and the Christian mystics. The results will be more wonderful than he could have dreamed.”

Second, to be truly helpful to our generation, we should live with these past saints. Much of modern Christianity has made a host of the non-culture we call secularism, and to the degree that it has become identified with this non-culture, it has become a non-religion, simply an eclectic set of parochial pieties, idiosyncratic moralisms, prejudices and assumptions. Reading these classics is a way of hearing what generations other than our own have said. T.S. Eliot pointed out in Tradition and the Individual Talent that to enter into the stream of historical understanding is to begin to know more than the thoughts of your own generation. “This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.” You only understand your times, and can speak to them effectively, or dare I say it, with relevance, if you have viewed your own generation from the perspective of other generations. You will only know what is distinctive (for good or ill) about your generation if you have regularly inhabited a world that transcends your particular time and place. Failing this, you are just an echo-chamber for the thoughts of our day, and if they be in error, you are a repeater-station for widely accepted error.

Someone might be understandably skeptical about the notion of orthopathy, or right loves. But let him vigorously work his way through these classics, and he will find a similarity of sentiment across the ages that seems to fit very well with the idea of orthopathy, and in many cases, makes the pieties of our age seem foreign. Don’t take my word for it. Live with Christians from other ages, and then decide whose piety is the odd one out.

A few words about this mixed multitude. The list we’ll be working through includes people from doctrinal traditions quite different from our own. We sit at their feet not because we want to embrace all their errors, nor because we seek to re-make them in our image (or vice-versa). A bee can find nectar in the weed as well as in the flower, said the holiness preacher Joseph H. Smith.

Finally, reading these works will mean some spiritual effort, which I heartily encourage. Again, Tozer: “To enjoy a great religious work requires a degree of consecration to God and detachment from the world that few modern Christians have experienced. The early Christian Fathers, the mystics, the Puritans, are not hard to understand, but they inhabit the highlands where the air is crisp and rarefied and none but the God-enamored can come.”

A Catechism on Judgement in Worship

December 14, 2012

How are we to worship God?
We should worship in all of life, but we have been told most explicitly to worship God corporately through the following:
– The reading of Scripture
– The preaching of Scripture
– The singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs
– The offering of public prayer
– The observance of the ordinances

How do we know which songs, what kind of music, what kind of sermons, what kind of prayers we should offer God?
We know this through exercising sound judgement.

What is sound judgement?
At the very least, it is the ability to discern between good and evil (Heb 5:14), to approve what is excellent (Phil 1:10), and to be able to to recognise what is true, just, noble, pure, lovely, praiseworthy, commendable, and excellent (Phil 4:8) – and the opposites of these. Judgement can also be thought of as discernment, discrimination, prudence, taste, or more broadly, wisdom.

Why is judgement fundamental to worship?
1) To worship God for His excellence, we must be able to distinguish excellence from inferiority, beauty from ugliness, good from bad. We cannot admire God if we do not know what is admirable. We cannot see the beauty of God if we are poor at recognising beauty.
2) To offer God what is worthy of Him, we must be able to judge the worth of our offerings. God is worth our very best offerings, but if we cannot tell tacky from elegant, we will end up offering him what is profane. We are required to discover what is excellent (Phil 1:10) and use it for God’s glory. Moreover, since God is true, we must never offer God what is false in any way: false in statement, or false in sentiment.
3) To rightly respond to God from the heart,  we must be able to distinguish between affections, and judge what is appropriate for worship. To recognise inordinate joy from ordinate, to distinguish between familiarity and boldness, between joyful exuberance and impudent flippancy, or between shades of joy, fear, or sorrow, requires judgement.
4) To understand how a song, prayer, sermon or other act of worship represents ordinate or inordinate affection, we need good judgement. We must understand the meaning of the prayer, song, music, or sermon and judge its worth for worship.

Isn’t it wrong to judge?
No, judgement is at the very heart of a mature Christian life (Heb 5:14). If you cannot judge good from bad, you will never worship meaningfully, or be protected against profanity. In fact, good judgment is placed side-by-side with a holy and fruitful life (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 5:8-11, Philippians 1:9-11, Colossians 1:9-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).
Proud judgmentalism is what is forbidden to us, which is the same as ‘thinking evil’ of another, assuming the worst, or claiming to be able to perfectly read motives.

Won’t these judgements be subjective?
Yes, that does not mean they will not be true. Judgements made by subjects can still conform to the good.

Why can’t we just be given a list of approved hymns and songs?
If everyone does nothing more than submit to another’s list, then no one is learning to judge, discriminate and sing with understanding. It is fine for children and beginners to trust the judgements of others, but a maturing conscience is meant to be formed with knowledge and judgement.

Do you have to be a literary or musical critic to worship?
No, because we are all commanded to worship, and that would mean everyone on earth should be a literary critic. We should not be afraid to learn from them, though.

What about just giving simple offerings?
God loves simple offerings. He does not love cheap and tacky offerings. Discernment is learning to tell the difference.

How shall we go about learning judgement?
First, we should commit to living in the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of sound wisdom and discretion. No judgement or discernment will come to irreverent, flippant people. We must determine that we wish to revere God, whatever that might mean.
Second, we should commit ourselves to godliness of life. Discernment comes by reason of use, as we seek to know the difference between good and evil for application to life (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 5:8-11, Philippians 1:9-11, Colossians 1:9-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).
Third, we must embrace the examined life. That is, we must seek a life in which we become thoughtful about the meaning of the various technologies, media, forms, and devices in our lives. We must become thoughtful and contemplative about meaning, if we are to grow in discernment. This is the same as Proverbs’ instructions to pursue knowledge, wisdom and understanding. We are to vigorously pursue an understanding of God, ourselves and the world.
Fourth, we should root ourselves in the genuine Christian tradition, immersing ourselves in it so that it gives us a sense of its discerning judgement by example and exposure.

How can I judge something that I already like or dislike?
First, we should make our prejudices explicit. If we like something, or dislike something, we should own that to be true.
Second, we should ask why we like what we like or dislike what we dislike. If we do not have reasons, we ought to seek them. Understanding why we love something is part of the way to learning what it means, and learning about our own hearts.
Third, we need to compare what we currently like, or dislike, with some standard of what is good, or true, or beautiful. What I like does not become good by virtue of my liking it; rather, I must learn to love what is good. What I dislike may not necessarily be bad; rather, my sinful heart may dislike things that are true. We should not defend our preferences because they are familiar; we should learn to like something because it really is good, and then make the good familiar. Sanctification is all about unlearning some loves, and learning new ones.

Where shall we get this standard?
The standard already exists in God. He is the source and standard of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. In God’s common grace, He has allowed both believers and unbelievers to produce works of imagination that conform, more or less, to God’s view of what is excellent. Therefore, we come to know this standard as we:
1) Consider what has been loved and cherished by God’s people for centuries.
2) Listen to people, who, by God’s common grace, have proven judgement – people who explain the meaning of works of imagination.
3) Compare and contrast different works, considering what they are trying to do, how they do it, and whether or not they achieve it.
4) Write poems, songs, prayers and sermons that are true, good and beautiful for God’s glory.

What shall we do with growing discernment?
We must weed out and reject offerings that trivialize God, humanity or creation. We must choose the good and the true. We must learn to write our own apprehension of God’s glory in poems, songs, prayers and sermons. We must worship God in our generation, in our words. And yet our words and works must also be true, good and beautiful.

Ten Ways To Raise a Secularist

September 26, 2012

Webster’s defines secularism as “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.” Judging by the expressions on the faces of young people during worship in many churches, we are doing quite well at raising a generation of robust secularists. To help parents along in this task, here are ten suggestions:

1) Attend a church where God rests lightly upon the worshippers. If the church does not know the difference between worship and entertainment, then this is sure to happen, and you should make such a church your spiritual home. Make sure that the programs (and there should be many of these) and ministries mostly emphasise fun as the supreme good. After Sunday School, ask your children, “Did you have fun?” Make sure the level of fun-making becomes more sophisticated as the children get older. During church, shrug off any efforts by the pastors to involve you in reflection, repentance, humility or adoration. Let your children see your impatience and restlessness with that kind of thing. If it continues, speak to the leadership and inform them of the wrong direction they are going with worship.

2) Treat the Lord’s Day as a tiresome chore. Arrive at church, proceed with the formalities, and then get home for the good stuff: lunch, computer games, and ideally, some TV or movies. Don’t mention the sermon at home, and definitely avoid any display of emotion in speaking of how the revelation of God affected you.

3) Fill the home, and the car, and the schedule with noise. That is, fill your children’s lives with continual distraction: cartoons, lightweight sitcoms and movies, sports, computer games and the like. Keep everyone entertained from moment to moment, and keep meditation, silence and reflection far from your home.

4) Let your child’s peers be his cultural mentors. Let other children define for him what is to be prized, valued, loved and treasured. Do this by making sure the bulk of his time is not spent with you, and when it is, don’t bother to tell him what you think is true and good and beautiful. When he appears to be taking on the sullen, sceptical, and cynical attitude of his peers, you know you’re making progress.

5) Fill his mind and his life with pop culture: pop music, movies, and TV. Let him be shaped by songs that trivialise the human condition, stories that evoke good feelings but forbid reflection, and generally art that the child enjoys without having to to reflect, learn or struggle to understand. Make sure his whimsical feelings direct and form his tastes, and don’t ever, ever, force him to listen to serious music, learn an instrument, read good poetry and literature or go to an art gallery. Remember, you want to keep central to him his love of himself; therefore, anything that challenges him to enter into another person’s world is bad. If he doesn’t like something, let him know that it is bad, and if he likes it, it is good.

6) Don’t teach him to compare and criticise things for their goodness, truth or beauty. If he develops any ability in this area, he will be developing the tools for worship, and that’s not what you want. Ideally, find some nicely mixed-up forms – pop music posing as worship, juvenile poems posing as worship, cartoons and movies posing as Christian, and kitsch religious artwork. Once worship and self-gratifying entertainment are mixed up, he’ll never be able to pull them apart, and will default to entertainment.

7) Celebrate the idols of our culture: sports, cars, technology, toys, brand-name clothes, great meals, and popular entertainments. Talk about these with enthusiasm and excitement, spend your money on them liberally, and let your children see that here is where your soul takes repose and finds delight. Rejoice together in your material acquisitions, reserve your highest words of praise for sports stars, and drool over catalogues, car shows and coming attractions. Involve your children in a pursuit of these things from their earliest years, so that they know that these are the things that truly matter. Set it up so the highlight of the week is ‘movie night’, speak of it with anticipation, visibly show your delight when it comes, and surround it with all kinds of comfort ceremonies.

8) Keep his eyes glued to a screen of sorts: phone, iPad, computer, TV – it doesn’t matter what kind. This will keep him away from seeing the works of God’s hands, particularly the sky or the intricacy of growing and living things. Ideally, don’t travel, but if you must, make sure that your car has a TV, the destination has satellite TV, and that he brings his screen with him.

9) Let him be careless about words and language. Clear ideas require clear thought, which requires precise language. You don’t want this; you want your child to live in a vague, blurry world of contradictory notions and ideas. Vocabulary and diction are some of the techne of worship, so make sure he uses incoherent grammar, rejects clear definition, prefers slang, and never learns to write his thoughts out coherently.

10) Avoid all forms of manners, etiquette or everyday beauty in the home. These kinds of things teach him to think of appropriateness, order and decency (which belong to worship), to say nothing of the fact that they elevate his existence from the merely physical and material. Let informality seem natural and ‘real’, and let all custom, ritual and form seem like hypocrisy and phoniness. In fact, tell him it is so.

Do this consistently for around, say, twenty years, and I can nearly guarantee you that by that time, your children will be thorough-going secularists. Best of all, they’ll have been with you in church all that time. You can say that they were raised in a Christian home, and their irreligious ways are their own fault.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 26 – Encouraging Reflectiveness

September 30, 2011

Ours is not a particularly reflective age. When a pastor begins speaking of the meaning of the media, devices and technologies that surround us, he may receive something of a puzzled, if not combative reaction. Many today are oblivious to the meanings of the things they read, the music they listen to, the films they watch, the technologies they use, or the very words they use. The ambient culture tends to scoff at reflectiveness as impractical philosophising. The pace of urbanised culture discourages serious consideration of the meaning of things. Further, our lives are populated with media which serve the end of perpetual distraction, with its background noise drowning out the clarity and curiosity that come with silence. A pastor can attempt to cultivate a spirit of reflectiveness in his people through several measures.

First, if he is doing the kind of reading suggested in the last post, it is inevitable that his sermons will end up applying Scripture with a broader range of examples. At the same time, those examples will become more incisive and particular, often surprising and awakening parishioners with the meaning of things they had ignored, passed over or simply failed to consider. With these applications, he will be explicitly or implicitly calling for discernment and a careful use of technology, media, and other cultural phenomena. Discernment, or judgement, is only possible when people understand the meaning of the thing or activity under consideration. True discernment comes about by encouraging the examined life. Eventually, parishioners may begin to realize that applying Scripture takes some work on their part: the work of understanding the world, so as to apply the Word.

A bolster to this kind of thinking would be a Sunday School-type class on biblical ethics. A study of gender issues, bio-ethics, war, justice, economics and other such matters encourages people to consider the meaning of these things in our world, so as to rightly apply the Scriptures.

Second, he can teach the doctrine of vocation. Gene Veith has done helpful work on this doctrine. This important teaching, recovered largely by Luther, insists on the truths of 1 Corinthians 7:18-24 that every person has a calling. I spent many years in a church where the pulpit teaching seemed to suggest that the only two God-pleasing career options for a Christian are pastor and missionary. By contrast, Scripture makes it clear that God calls people to various stations in life for His glory. While pastor and missionary are honourable callings, the world needs Christians who are plumbers, lawyers, composers, horticulturalists, soldiers, farmers, nurses, and mechanics. This is not merely so that we can witness to others in the professions we are in. It is because God is glorified by the industrious and creative work of men. Christians ought to excel at learning the meaning of a section of God’s world, and bring Him glory through their useful and valuable work. Here the pastor also has the opportunity to learn from his members, as they explain meanings discovered from their particular callings. Against this biblical view, people are encouraged by their culture to simply ‘get a job’ so as to have enough money to spend on their pleasures. While one’s income may not always coincide with one’s calling, this approach generally pushes out any real pursuit of meaning. Pastors can resist this mindlessness in the Christians they teach by encouraging them to value their callings, learn within them, and excel at them.

Third, he can teach the doctrine of true leisure. Partner to an unbiblical view of vocation is an unbiblical view of leisure. Leisure is seen by the world as respite from ‘the job’, and essentially an opportunity to ‘goof off’ or ‘veg out’. This kind of idleness has the paradoxical effect of filling the soul with an empty boredom, which requires more distraction to satiate it. Josef Pieper argues that the real point of leisure is freedom from the constraints of servile work, to be able to reflect on ultimate ends. Leisure involves a passivity which considers the meaning and value of things as they are in themselves, and not merely for their function. This requires stepping outside our routine to look upon the world as a gift from God. This ultimately depends on worship, and the act of corporate worship.

This happens to be close to the biblical idea of sabbatical rest. For God’s Old and New Testament people, there exists the principle of coming apart from the world of servile work to worship, meditate and ponder. This has implications for how we use the Lord’s Day. If the Lord’s Day services are a brief pause in an otherwise secular use of leisure, we have missed the point entirely. If Sundays contain nothing of reflection, contemplation and meditation, but are filled with the usual distractions, albeit punctuated by a service or two, then God’s people are not resting in the way He intended. If Sunday is a chance for Christians to do what unbelievers mean when they speak of  ‘unwinding’, then we ought not to be surprised when Christians do not grow in their ability to perceive meanings. Nothing wrong with hobbies, games, or distractions in their place. But the aim of leisure is not mere distraction; it exists for the reflection that makes sense of life.

I have occasionally pointed people to Tozer’s thoughts on simplicity and solitude:

The need for solitude and quietness was never greater than it is today. What the world will do about it is their problem. Apparently the masses want it the way it is and the majority of Christians are so completely conformed to this present age that they, too, want things the way they are. They may be annoyed a bit by the clamor and by the goldfish bowl existence they live, but apparently they are not annoyed enough to do anything about it. However, there are a few of God’s children who have had enough. They want to relearn the ways of solitude and simplicity and gain the infinite riches of the interior life. They want to discover the blessedness of what Dr. Max Reich called “spiritual aloneness.” To such I offer a brief paragraph of counsel.

Retire from the world each day to some private spot, even if it be only the bedroom (for a while I retreated to the furnace room for want of a better place). Stay in the secret place till the surrounding noises begin to fade out of your heart and a sense of God’s presence envelops you. Deliberately tune out the unpleasant sounds and come out of your closet determined not to hear them. Listen for the inward Voice till you learn to recognize it. Stop trying to compete with others. Give yourself to God and then be what and who you are without regard to what others think. Reduce your interests to a few. Don’t try to know what will be of no service to you. Avoid the digest type of mind—short bits of unrelated facts, cute stories and bright sayings. Learn to pray inwardly every moment. After a while you can do this even while you work. Practice candor, childlike honesty, humility. Pray for a single eye. Read less, but read more of what is important to your inner life. Never let your mind remain scattered for very long. Call home your roving thoughts. Gaze on Christ with the eyes of your soul. Practice spiritual concentration.

 All the above is contingent upon a right relation to God through Christ and daily meditation on the Scriptures. Lacking these, nothing will help us; granted these, the discipline recommended will go far to neutralize the evil effects of externalism and to make us acquainted with God and our own souls.

(A.W. Tozer, Of God and Men)

The fourth way of encouraging reflectiveness is for a pastor to become aware of how form shapes meaning. We will consider this in our last exploration of the seventh mark of a conservative Christian church.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 20 – More than Cognitive

August 12, 2011

The cultivation of ordinate affection depends on several areas we have already covered in this series. A pastor determined to conserve biblical Christianity will be conserving several areas, each of which affect the others. Bear with me as we tie several elements already discussed to the shaping of the affections.

Since regeneration is essential to ordinate affection, a conservative Christian church preserves and propagates the biblical gospel. Apart from the heart being given an entirely new disposition, it will always love creature more than Creator, and therefore become more warped in its affections.

Since a right understanding of God, ourselves and the world is essential to right loves, a conservative Christian church conserves and teaches a comprehensive biblical and systematic theology. Without a systematic exposition of God’s Word, with practical submission to it, no one will love what God loves and hate what God hates.

Since example and exposure are necessary for the shaping of appropriate loves, the conservative Christian church conserves biblical worship, and understands one of its roles as a ‘catechism of the affections’. Corporate worship, with its forms, order and structure provides a lesson in proportion, decorum and appropriate responses. Corporate worship is the opportunity for adjusting the sensibilities of the worshipers, so that a common sentiment towards God, the world and ourselves is developed. It is not meant to be a venue for competing sensibilities to all find expression in the name of personal taste and Romans 14.

Since sanctification is essentially re-ordering our loves to bring them in line with God’s, the conservative Christian church gives much attention to teaching personal piety, and encouraging discipleship relationships. When Christians observe ordinate love for God, mankind and the created order, it is often caught. Therefore, piety is to be encouraged in the life of the individual and the family. Practical obedience is to be stressed as essential to knowing and loving God.

Since understanding a biblical view of man is crucial to loving God ordinately, the conservative Christian church gives time to teach on the importance of the affections, the nature of the affections, and their application: what ought to be loved and how. A pastor who gives himself to all these things is well on his way to shaping ordinate affection in his hearers.

However, all of the above is not sufficient. The conservative pastor must become aware that the affections are not only shaped by regeneration, sound doctrine, sound worship, true piety and teaching on the affections. My point in the previous post was to illustrate how God shaped the affections of His people, and it was not only through information and obedience. He filled their lives with a large variety of symbols, ceremonies and rituals. These did more than regulate health and civil life in Israel. They dressed up the mere material existence of God’s people with the drapery of symbol, metaphor and analogy. Notice, God did this in addition to the moral imperatives of the Law. God knows that while our hearts can be partly shaped by what our minds know, and by what we choose, the heart’s responses are primarily affective responses, taught by analogy. Affective responses are essentially about proportion: an object deserves a particular kind of love. There is a response to an object or person that is proportionate to what it is in reality. This kind of proportionate response or just sentiment, is not taught cognitively. It is taught through analogy, wherein the analogy provides the sense of proportion. The symbol, if correctly chosen, contains the kind of affections required for the observer to correctly respond to the realities behind the symbol. Seeing an animal die at the altar evoked certain affections commensurate with repentance for sin. Comparing God to a captain of an army called for certain affections proportionate to His nature. Conversely, the high places with their analogies of sexual potency and fertility evoked inordinate affection.

All of this is to say that the pastor who wishes to shape ordinate affection in his people must become aware of how our knowledge of God and ultimate reality is analogical knowledge, and therefore our affections are shaped by the right analogies. Since God cannot be seen, how can we know how to love Him justly and appropriately? When our affective responses are responses to biblical or well-chosen images, analogies, metaphors, symbols, and signs, they will be correctly proportioned. In other words, the conservative Christian pastor must give attention to the imagination, and to form. This we will examine next.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 17 – Cultivating the Affections

July 22, 2011

One of the most difficult tasks facing the conservative Christian pastor is teaching that the affections are shaped, and that Christians ought to give attention to what shapes them.

Once again, most Christians live with an incorrect view of the affections. They see the emotions as more or less reactions to various stimuli. In that sense, their focus is merely on controlling (or suppressing) emotional expression. They become oblivious to the whole discussion of shaping or molding the affections, and tend to regard such discussions as extra-biblical pontificating or even legalism.

However, if we see the affections as expressions of value or worth, or more simply, our loves, it becomes obvious that what we love or treasure or value can be shaped. We do not love all things immediately, but learn or acquire some loves over time. We can grow certain loves, and weaken others.

The problem we encounter is that the loves are not under our direct control. While some of our loves may have been pursued by an act of will, others have been picked up without our knowing why. Many of our loves are loves that grew because of what our family loved, what our peers loved, what was loved by people we respected. Some loves came very late in life, while some were there early. Some loves were hard to develop, while others seemed almost natural. Not many people can explain why they love what they love without some serous thought. The affections do not come by sheer acts of will.

The fact that we have a responsibility to shape our loves to be ordinate, alongside the fact that these affections are not all seemingly under our direct control, leads many to deny that such a responsibility exists. It is at this point that many call the affections mere expressions of personality, personal preference and varying tastes. And since no one wants to pass judgment on these things, the discussion is given up altogether. After all, God would only require us to change those things that we can directly change, right?

I sometimes wonder if this kind of thinking comes from imagining humanity as some kind of machine or computer. You hear this kind of language all the time: our brain is a ‘supercomputer’, the body is ‘an amazing machine’, thinking is allowing people to ‘process things’, to ask for people’s views is to look for ‘inputs’ or ‘feedback’, people tell you that they are just ‘wired a certain way’ and so forth. With this kind of idea forming the backdrop of our view of man, we can easily see sanctification as a matter of ‘entering the right information’ so as to ‘gain the right outputs’. To be honest, some biblical counseling material sometimes makes it sound that way. When you think of mankind like this, you believe every issue is a matter of finding the right Bible verse, programming it into the CPU, and looking for obedience as an output. This then, is sanctification. None of that elusive affection-shaping stuff. Just give me the “put off/put on” pair of verses, and I’m on my way.

Unfortunately for this theory, we cannot so lightly dismiss the place of the affections in the make-up of man. His nature will have its revenge on our mechanistic views of sanctification and prove them insufficient to replace inordinate loves (i.e. lusts), with ordinate ones. Nor can we deny that the affections must be shaped (Phil 1:9-10, 1 Thes 5:21). And we cannot deny that their shaping involves matters not under our direct control.

This then brings us to the sixth mark of a conservative Christian church: understanding and teaching the means of furnishing the inner life with those ideas and images that encourage these loves and affections. We turn our attention to that next.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 15 -The Centrality and Nature of the Religious Affections

July 8, 2011

Restoring a right view of the affections may take many years of teaching and instruction. Most Christians exist with very foggy notions of ‘the emotions’ and their relationship to Christianity. Many Christians have either been taught to ignore the affections as irrelevant ‘by-products’ of a mental-volitional kind of Christianity, or they have been taught to place themselves at the whim of every ephemeral ‘feeling’ they experience in their bodies. This is a far cry from a biblical view of the affections, and it will take some work to address.

The first task is to teach on the centrality of the affections to Christianity. This can be done by teaching those Scriptures which make an affective response to God the most important thing, such as Mark 12:28-29, Proverbs 9:10, Psalm 27:4, or Deuteronomy 10:12. Other Scriptures insist that certain affections ought to characterise our lives, such as 1 Corinthians 16:14, Philippians 4:4, and 1 Peter 1:17. The affections are at the heart of worship, service and obedience, therefore we cannot help teaching that these (and many other) affective responses are at the heart of Christianity.

Though I wish he would distinguish between ordinate affection and the inordinate kind, John Piper has written several books which make good arguments for the centrality of the affections, Desiring God being the most straightforward apologetic for this view. In fact, Piper has simply brought to a modern audience the arguments of several older theologians of the affections, such as Augustine, Anselm, Jonathan Edwards and C.S. Lewis. Whether we pass on these older works, or more recent ones, it is wise to have these books in the hands of our people to allow their arguments to overturn years of wrong thinking about the affections.

The second, harder task goes hand-in-hand with the first. To restore a right view of the religious affections, we must teach that they are more than what most people think of when they think of emotions. As mentioned in the last post, many people view emotions as an internal stirring, with no referential character beyond the self. Certainly they will point to causes for their emotions outside themselves, but they do not see their emotions as corresponding (or failing to correspond) to anything beyond their own mind. It’s “just how they feel about it”. This is much closer to what Jonathan Edwards called the ‘animal spirits’.

Perhaps a helpful way of explaining the affections is to point out that the affections are, in some ways, expressions of value. Psalm 29:1-2 describes worship as the ascription of glory due to God. In other words, God’s nature in reality demands, deserves and calls for a particular kind of response. God, because of who He is, deserves a certain kind of treasuring or honouring or valuing, and such a response is payable by all His creatures. Whether the affections are those of joy, fear, exultation, thanksgiving or reverent awe, we are called to present a worship-response (which is always an exercise of the affections) that gives God what is due to Him.

When described this way, the affections are more than butterflies in the stomach or sweaty palms, they are the means by which humans express value or worth. Our affections express and describe the nature of what we are encountering (or think we are encountering), and what it is worth. Consequently, one can devalue, or overvalue, or correctly value the object of our affections, depending on which affections are present, and how those affections are expressed. This is an oversimplification, I grant, but it is a start towards getting people to see their affective responses as expressions of how they view the worth and nature of the object they are responding to.

Perhaps the most helpful book for explaining this concept is The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. Some kind of discussion or mini-study of this book would be very helpful to help crystallize the view of affections corresponding to the beauty or value of things in reality.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 13 – Teaching Piety

June 24, 2011

Beyond the matter of exposing Christians to past and present examples of Christian piety, a pastor or leader within the local church can seek to encourage Christian piety through his teaching ministry. What follows are some thoughts on how this plays out in a local church, along with some recommendations.

First, as leaders, we ought to become aware of the differing views of the Christian life. There are some fairly recent books which have compared major views of sanctification. Beyond that, we ought to steadily chip away at a reading list of the great classics of Christian devotion. This will enable the thoughtful leader to work out what he believes is the biblical view of Christian piety. It is a confusing experience to have a pastor who seems to sound Keswick one week, Reformed the next, and Wesleyan the week after that. Instead of regurgitating the last book we read, we need to absorb the strengths and biblical nature of differing schools of Christian piety, and consistently teach what we think is the most thoroughly biblical approach to Christian living.

This inevitably appears when we provide applications within our sermons. Our applications are both examples of the principles being taught and miniature ‘how-to’ instructions. A preacher’s applications reveal his view of how the Christian life is to work.

I remember sitting in several sermons where the sin of gossip and murmuring was addressed. The solution given was for such people to be more faithful to the corporate meetings of the church. If people were more involved, they wouldn’t have time to gossip, the reasoning went. Very transparently, the preacher’s view was that consecration to service would cleanse the life.

In some services, I have been led to believe that uber-deluxe quiet times will place the believer in an almost insulated state of holiness for the entire day. Every sin, problem, or pain is referred back to a lack of prayer and Bible study.

In other sermons, I have walked away with the sense that I should simply stop doing some things, and start doing some others in their place. It was all so simple, and I scolded myself for not being cerebral and rational enough about the Christian life.

The point is, a preacher cannot hide his view of Christian piety. If he cares at all about sanctification in those he preaches to, he will keep referring them back to his idea of the Christian life. This is as it should be. I disagree with the school of thought which suggests we ought to keep our sermons as works of pure explanation and interpretation, and leave all application to the Holy Spirit. While I agree our sermons ought not to be distracting by the degree of specificity of the applications, God’s people grow in their understanding of true Christian piety when sermons keep giving examples and descriptions of what this looks like in all kinds of situations, circumstances and conditions. Therefore, we need to strengthen and settle our view of the Christian life, for it cannot help coming out when we preach the Scriptures.

Finally, in teaching on sanctification, a pastor ought to keep referring his listeners back to their loves as the root of all thinking and acting. In recent years, there has been a gratifying trend, particularly in some teachers within the biblical counseling movement, to deal with idolatry and heart desires in Christian living, and not merely with outward behaviors. While such writers seldom go as far as I would like – calling Christians to embrace the religious affections as central to Christian living – , some of them have at least pointed people in the right direction: seeing the loves of the heart as fundamental to Christian living. That is the fifth mark of a conservative Christian church, and we turn our attention to that next.