Stoicism is inadequate

October 30th, 2006

J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul & Seneca in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians

[Writing about why Stoicism failed and Christianity succeeded] So far we have been speaking of conditions of success which were wanting indeed to Stoicism, but which nevertheless are not peculiar to Christianity. All creeds, which have secured any wide and lasting allegiance, have had their sacred books and their religious organization. But our Lord’s language, of which Seneca’s image is a partial though unconscious echo, points to the one distinguishing feature of Christianity. It is not a record nor a community, but a Person, whence the sap spreads to the branches and ripens into the rich clusters. I have already alluded to Gibbon’s account of the causes which combined to promote the spread of the Church. It will seem strange to any one who has at all felt the spirit of the Gospel, that a writer, enumerating the forces to which the dissemination and predominance of Christianity were due, should omit all mention of the Christ. One might have thought it impossible to study with common attention the records of the Apostles and martyrs of the first ages or of the saints and heroes of the later Church, without seeing that the consciousness of personal union with Him, the belief in His abiding presence, was the mainspring of their actions and the fountain of all their strength. This is not a preconceived theory of what should have happened, but a bare statement of what stands recorded on the pages of history. In all ages and under all circumstances, the Christian life has ever radiated from this central fire. Whether we take St Peter or St Paul, St Francis of Assisi or John Wesley, whether Athanasius or Augustine, Anselm or Luther, whether Boniface or Francis Xavier, here has been the impulse of their activity and the secret of their moral power. Their lives have illustrated the parable of the vine and the branches.

It is this which differentiates Christianity from all other religions, and still more from all abstract systems of philosophy. Those who assume the entire aim and substance of the Gospel to have been the inculcation of moral precepts, and who therefore rest its claims solely or chiefly on the purity of its ethical code, often find themselves sorely perplexed, when they stumble upon some noble and true utterance of Jewish or Heathen antiquity before the coming of Christ. A maxim of a Stoic philosopher or a Rabbinical schoolman, a saying of Plato or Confucius, startles them by its resemblance to the teaching of the Gospel. Such perplexity is founded on a twofold error. On the one hand they have not realised the truth that the same Divine Power was teaching mankind before He was made flesh: while on the other they have failed to see what is involved in this incarnation and its sequel. To those who have felt how much is implied in St. John’s description of the pre-incarnate Word as the life and light of men; to those who allow the force of Tertullian’s appeal to the ‘witness of a soul naturally Christian’; to those who have sounded the depths of Augustine’s bold saying, that what we now call the Christian religion existed from the dawn of the human race, though it only began to be named Christian when Christ came in the flesh; to those who can respond to the sentiment of the old English poem,

‘Many man for Cristes love

Was martired in Romayne,

Er any Cristendom was knowe there

Or any cros honoured’;

it cannot be a surprise to find such flashes of divine truth in men who lived before the coming of our Lord or were placed beyond the reach of the Gospel. The significance of Christ’s moral precepts does not lose but gain by the admission: for we learn to view Him no longer as one wholly apart from our race, but recognising in His teaching old truths which ‘in manhood darkly join,’ we shall only be the more prompt to

‘Yield all blessing to the name

Of Him that made them current coin.’

But the mere ethical teaching, however important, is the least important, because the least distinctive part of Christianity. If there be any meaning in the saying that Christ appeared to ‘bring life and immortality to light,’ if the stedfast convictions of St Peter and St Paul and St John were not a delusion, and their lives not built upon a lie, then obviously a deeper principle is involved. The moral teaching and the moral example of our Lord will ever have the highest value in their own province; but the core of the Gospel does not lie here. Its distinctive character is, that in revealing a Person it reveals also a principle of life—the union with God in Christ, apprehended by faith in the present and assured to us hereafter by the Resurrection. This Stoicism could not give; and therefore its dogmas and precepts were barren. Its noblest branches bore neither flowers nor fruit, because there was no parent stem from which they could draw fresh sap.

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This is pretty good stuff, negatively considered. He is correct that ethical teaching is the least distinctive part of Christianity; He is correct that union with Christ –with that Person revealed in the Gospel is what distinguishes Christianity. I could wish he had been clearer to pointing out that it is the uniqueness of Christ, as well as the uniqueness of the doctrine of union with Him that is so distinctive. I am not sure if he is correct in locating so much uniqueness in the doctrines relative to immortality, but he knew a lot more than I do. The section on how people stumble in the face of the ethical teaching of other systems was great; the explanation less so. I am not in doubt that the ethical teaching of various sages was in fact a function of the work of God upon them. I am not in doubt that people who would ground the uniqueness of Christianity on its ethics fail to grasp the implications of the incarnation and its sequel. But in this passage Lightfoot either does not grasp them himself, or fails to develop them. His stress does not fall on the uniqueness of Christ’s Person (the basis for His unique office and work). It was not in accounting that there was a difference between right and wrong, it was not even in precising the definitions that the fundamental uniqueness of Christ lay (though of course as an expounder of the law He is without equal); it was in His being, and what He accomplished. Christianity is a total system, as such it has a system of ethics; but that system of ethics has of course many points of contact with other ethical systems. But in its doctrine, and supremely in its Apostle and High Priest, Christianity stands alone. All moralists and legalists ought to read Seneca and discover how similar his ethics are to Christ’s; hopefully that will impel them to the realization that it is not there that the glory of Christianity chiefly resides.

Better than Julicher

October 23rd, 2006

Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p.402

Another characteristic of the Parables, in the stricter sense, is that in them the whole picture or narrative is used in illustration of some heavenly teaching, and not merely one feature or phase of it, as in some of the parabolic illustrations and proverbs of the Synoptists, or the parabolic narratives of the Fourth Gospel. Thus, in the parabolic illustrations about the new piece of cloth on the old garment (Luke 5:36), about the blind leading the blind (Luke 6:39), about the forth-putting of leaves on the fig-tree (Matt. 24:32); or in the parabolic proverbs, ‘Physician, heal thyself’ (Luke 4:23); or in such parabolic narratives of St. John, as about the Good Shepherd (John 10), or the Vine (John 15)—in each case, only one part is selected as parabolic. On the other hand, even in the shortest Parables, such as those of the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29), the leaven in the meal (Matt. 13:33), and the pearl of great price (vv. 45,46), the picture is complete, and has not only only in one feature, but in its whole bearing, a counterpart in spiritual realities. But, as shown in the Parable of the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29), it is not necessary that the Parable should always contain some narrative, provided that not only one feature, but the whole thing related, have its spiritual application.

In view of what has been explained, the arrangement of the Parables into symbolical and typical [by Goebel per footnote 16] can only apply to their form, not their substance. In the first of these classes a scene from nature or from life serves as basis for exhibiting the corresponding spiritual reality. In the latter, what is related serves as type (Gr:túpos ), not in the ordinary sense of that term, but in that not unfrequent in Scripture: as examples—whether for imitation (Phil. 3:17; 1 Tim. 4:12), or in warning (1 Cor. 10:6,11). In the typical Parables the illustration lies, so to speak, on the outside; in the symbolical, within the narrative or scene. The former are to be applied; the latter must be explained.

This, it seems to me, is far more in harmony with the fact recorded in the Gospels, that the parables that Jesus explained (the Sower: Matthew 13:1-9 explained in vv.18-23; and the Weeds: Matthew 13:24-30 explained in vv. 36-43) every item in them is explained.

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Knowledge of Good and Evil

October 21st, 2006

This is from a larger statement by T.E. Wilder, made on the Puritanboard.

This is the point of the command in the garden, not to eat of the fruit of the tree. Adam saw that the fruit was good: that, by natural law so to speak, there was nothing wrong about eating it.

But the tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What was this knowledge? That good and evil are determined by the word of God and not by external nature (the goodness and beauty of the fruit) or by man’s internal nature (hunger, desire for nutrition, etc.). The tree, taken together with God’s command, gave this knowledge without man’s having to eat from it. Eating the fruit from the tree is not acquiring knowlege of good and evil but going against that knowledge.

Which is a way of looking at this that I had never thought of.

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D.A. Carson, ‘ “I Am” Sayings’, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology

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In the NT, many “I am” sayings are supplied with a subjective completion (e.g., “I am the light of the world,” John 8:12) and therefore do not qualify as “I am” utterances in the absolute sense. More difficult are the few instances outside John’s Gospel where the text offers a simple eg? eimi (lit. “I am”) but where the context makes clear that the meaning is “It is I” or “I am he”—with the antecedent of the “I” or “he” apparent in the surrounding verses. These are probably at best ambiguous self-disclosures of deity, hints for those familiar with OT; for many of Jesus’ prepassion self-revelations adopt such a stance of planned ambiguity. For instance, when Jesus walks to his frightened disciples across the surface of the water, he calms their fears by saying, eg? eimi, The context demands the conclusion that Jesus is identifying himself (“It is I”), showing that what they perceive is not a ghostly apparition (Mark 6:50). Yet not every “I” could be found walking on water: it would be premature to discount all reference to OT theophany. Again, Jesus warns his disciples against those who will lead many astray by claiming “I am” (Mark 13:6; Luke 21:8); but the context demands this be interpreted as “I am the Christ”—as Matt. 24:5 makes explicit. Jesus used identical language at his trial (Mark 14:61-62) and similar language after his resurrection (Luke 24:39), in each case bearing some ambiguity.

The Fourth Gospel raises new questions. Although many of Jesus’ “I am” utterances recorded by John are supplied with explicit predicates (“I am the true vine,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the bread of life,” “I am the resurrection and the life”), two are undeniably absolute in both form and content (8:58; 13:19) and constitute an explicit self-identification with Yahweh who had already revealed himself to men in similar terms (Isa. 43:10-11). Jesus’ opponents recognize this claim to unity with Yahweh (John 8:58-59); in 13:19-20, Jesus himself proceeds to make it explicit. These two occurrences of the absolute “I am” suggest that in several other passages in John, where “I am” is formally absolute but a predicate might well be supplied from the context (e.g., 4:26; 6:20; 8:24,28; 18:5,6,8), an intentional double meaning may be involved.

And that was so good that I think I shall have to do something revolutionary, something that almost never happens, and add more books by D.A. Carson to my Amazon wish list.

The Death of Israel

October 14th, 2006

Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, pp.298,299

It was, surely, a wondrously linked chain of circumstances, which bound the Synagogue to the Church. Such a result could never have been foreseen, as that, what really was the consequence of Israel’s dispersion, and, therefore, indirectly the punishment of their sin, should become the means of fulfilling Israel’s world-mission. Another instance this, of how Divine judgment always bears in its bosom larger mercy; another illustration how the dying of Israel is ever life to the world; another manifestation of that supernatural Rule of God, in which all is rule, that is, law and order, and all the supernatural, bringing to pass, in the orderly succession of events, what at the outset would have seemed, and really is, miraculous. For the Synagogue became the cradle of the Church. Without it, as indeed without Israel’s dispersion, the Church Universal would, humanly speaking, have been impossible, and the conversion of the Gentiles have required a succession of millenial miracles.

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The dying of Israel is ever life to the world. I believe Edersheim makes his case with regard to the synagogue (fruit of the dispersion) and the church. But this principle, as is obvious from the very form of its statement, is also true in other ways. Paul takes up this thought, when thinking of the the Gospel reaching to the Gentiles, and says:

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass mean riches for the world, and if their failure mean riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean, but life from the dead? (Romans 11:11-15, ESV)

The dying of Israel is life to the world in that through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles. An example of this can be found in the narrative of Acts 13. There Paul and Barnabas have come to Antioch of Pisidia and preached in the synagogue with a good deal of acceptance. However, in view of their popularity the Jews were jealous and opposed Paul. At which point Paul and Barnabas boldly say: It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold we are turning to the Gentiles For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to thend of the earth.” (Acts 13:46,47: see also Acts 18:6.)

But there is yet another way in which it is true that the dying of Israel is life to the world. It is in connection with the Ideal Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God. He is called out of Egypt in fulfillment of Hosea 11:1 (Matthew 2:13-15). But Hosea 11:1 is an historical statement relative to the Exodus. Jesus repeated that Exodus, however, that it might be clear that He is the true Israel, the true prince who has power with God and man. The Exodus pointed to Jesus. Isaiah 44 also established that Jesus is the true Israel:

But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by the flowing streams. This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s,’ another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’ and name himself by the name of Israel. (Isaiah 44:1-5, ESV)

That this is about Christ is established by the context: for instance, the parallel with Isaish 42:1-9, which Matthew applies to Christ (Matthew 12:15-21). Taking that as a given, then, it is very clearly true that the dying of Israel is life to the world. Jesus died: He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; Jesus died: He offered Himself without spot to God; Jesus died: He triumphed over principalities and powers in the cross. Jesus died as the saviour of the world. And so His dying is the life of the world: And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh (John 6:51). And this dying of the new Israel was also through old Israel’s trespass –as Peter says to the “men of Israel”, this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Acts 4:23).

And that points us to another facet of this truth, something that Paul emphasizes and that is demonstrated clearly in Jesus. Death is not the end of the story. Paul anticipates the acceptance of Israel. They have stumbled, but not in order to fall. Their full inclusion will mean yet greater riches. And Jesus rose from the dead. That was His vindication: in it He was declared to be the Son of God with power (Romans 1:3,4). And His resurrection is for our justification (Romans 4:25). The dying of Israel is ever life to the world. The dying of Israel is always in connection with transgression. But the dying of Israel results in resurrection: and the resurrection of Israel is ever the inauguration of the unimaginable fullness of blessing.

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A Letter from John Knox

October 11th, 2006

John Knox to his mother-in-law, 1553

Where God saith, “It repenteth me that I made Saul king,” he means not, that Saul at any time was a member of Christ’s body; but that he was a temporal officer, promoted of God, and yet most inobedient to his commandment; and therefore, that he would provide another to occupy his room: and that where he says, “I repent,” we must understand him to speak after the manner of men, attemperating himself to our understanding. For otherwise, God repenteth not; for before, his majesty knew the inobedience and rebellion of the wicked king. But, Sister, God the Father cannot repent, that he hath engrafted us members of Christ’s body; for that were to repent the honor of His own Son, yea, and his own good work in us.

Abide patiently, and give no place to the temptations of the adversary. Let him shoot his darts in his despite; but say you in your heart, The Lord is my defender, and therefore shall I not be confounded: dolor shall be but for a moment, but ever and ever shall we reign with Jesus our Lord; whose Holy Spirit be your comfort to the end.

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Leo the Great, “On the Lord’s Ascension, ii”

[Speaking of the apostles, he says that they] “made such progress after the Lord’s Ascension that everything which had previously filled them with fear was turned into joy. For they had lifted the whole contemplation of their mind to the Godhead of Him that sat at the Father’s right hand, and were no longer hindered by the barrier of corporeal sight from directing their minds’ gaze to That Which had never quitted the Father’s side in descending to earth, and had not forsaken the disciples in ascending to heaven.”

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The Day of Wrath

October 6th, 2006

A translation by Walter Scott of Thomas of Celano

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That day of wrath, that dreadful day

When heav’n and earth shall pass away!

What powe’r shall be the sinner’s stay?

How shall he meet that dreadful day?

When, shriveling like a parched scroll,

The flaming heav’ns together roll;

When louder yet, and yet more dread,

Swells the high trump that wakes the dead;

O on that day, that wrathful day

When man to judgment wakes from clay

Be thou the trembling sinner’s stay

Though heav’n and earth shall pass away

Where Grace Reigns

October 4th, 2006

Rev. Matthew Winzer (armourbearer on the Puritanboard on this thread) made the following statement (emphasis mine)

…in reformed churches, where free grace is proclaimed loud and clear, blessings joined to obedience should never be called law-preaching. I tend to think it is only a soul stricken by the law that could construe it that way; where grace reigns every precept is a precious promise of God’s goodness to His people.

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…not that that ever happens to me, of course.

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Thomas Decker, quoted in Dorothy Sayer’s “Gaudy Night”

Do but consider what an excellent thing sleep is: it is so inestimable a jewel that, if a tyrant would give his crown for an hour’s slumber, it cannot be bought: of so beautiful a shape is it, that though a man lie with an Empress, his heart cannot beat quiet till he leaves her embracements to be at rest with the other: yea, so greatly indebted are we to this kinsman of death, that we owe the better tributary, half of our life to him: and there is good cause why we should do so: for sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together. Who complains of want? of wounds? of cares? of great men’s oppressions? of captivity? while he sleepeth? Beggars in their beds take as much pleasure as kings: can we therefore surfeit on this delicate Ambrosia? Can we drink too much of that whereof to taste too little tumbles us into a churchyard, and to use it but indifferently throws us into Bedlam? No, no, look upon Endymion, the moon’s minion, who slept three score and fifteen years, and was not a hair the worse for it.