Of the courtly works produced in England during the 15th century, H.S. Bennet has this to say (p.125 of OHEL, vol.II, p.1):

“It was the hey-day of the poetaster, who, with little feeling for verse and no intellectual powers of any consequence, beat out his numbers with growing incompetence.”

The Liberality of God

June 29th, 2007

Douglas Wilson, A Fourth Decade of Psalms, Psalm 36

The true God is prodigal with His blessings. He wastes all kinds of stuff. He just throws it around. The true God does not stint. He invites us to come to heaven, which is an everlasting torrent of pleasures and delights. Why do we come into His presence cringing? Afraid that He is only interested in taking things away? What is it to believe this slander? I am afraid that it is the font of all wickedness.

Singing Requires Thought

June 28th, 2007

It would appear that at least large parts of the church have forgotten this important truth. In hymnals that contain a great wealth of doctrinal treasure, reverent settings of the Psalms, the feelings of a truly spiritual devotion one can also come across meaningless excrescences of perhaps a fervent, but certainly an unintelligent piety. Sometimes we are asked to sing to God things which if they were intended must be lies: or we asked to parrot as our own the testimony of some particular individual. These are not trifles: they are things we cannot away with. When the bride of Christ comes to adore Him, shall she bring lies, trivialities and nonsense into His presence? Nothing we do comes up to the full measure of what God deserves; but this is no excuse for outright blasphemy, disrespect or blithering. On this point I can call additional witnesses:

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.20.33

The principle we must always hold is, that in all prayer, public and private, the tongue without the mind must be displeasing to God. [In context, this includes singing –RZ]

And again, this time with two inspired witnesses and one further uninspired witness incorporated:

Albert Barnes, Notes on Amos 5:23

Take thou away from Me. Literally, “from upon Me,” that is, from being a burden to Me, a weight on Me. So God says by Isaiah, “your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hateth; they are a burden upon Me; I am weary to bear them” (Isaiah 1:14). Their “songs” and hymns were but a confused, tumultuous, “noise,” since they had not the harmony of love.

For (And) the melody of thy viols I will not hear. Yet the “nebel,” probably a sort of harp, was almost exclusively consecrated to the service of God, and the Psalms were God’s own writing. Doubtless they sounded harmoniously in their own ears; but it reached no further. Their melody, like much Church-music, was for itself, and ended in itself. (Lap.):

Let Christian chanters learn hence, not to set the whole devotion of Psalmody in a good voice, subtlety of modulation and rapid intonation, etc., quavering like birds, to tickle the ears of the curious, take them off to themselves and away from prayer, lest they hear from God, ‘I will not hear the melody of thy viols.’ Let them learn that of the Apostle, ‘I will sing with the Spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also’ (1 Corinthians 14:15).

It seems an inevitable deduction to me, that if we are to love God with our minds, we are to worship Him with them as well: and that means we must worship Him with truth, with the great facts and connections and meanings that He has revealed: and with honesty, with things we really mean and can positively affirm. And that means that we can’t turn either our brains or our discernment off, just because we opened our denominationally approved hymnal.

Reason Not a Goddess

June 27th, 2007

From John Dryden’s Religio Laici

[Of the limitations of reason]

Dim, as the borrow’d beams of Moon and Stars

To lonely, weary, wandring Travellers,

Is Reason to the Soul: and as on high,

Those rowling Fires discover but the Sky

Not light us here; so Reason’s glimmering Ray

Was lent not to assure our doubtful way,

But guide us upward to a better Day.

And as those nightly Tapers disappear

When Day’s bright Lord ascend our Hemisphere

So pale grows Reason at Religions Sight:

So dyes, and so dissolves in Supernatural Light.

Some few, whose Lamp shone brighter, have been led

From Cause to Cause, to Natures secret Head;

And found that one first Principle must be:

But what, or who, that universal he;

Whether some Soul incompassing this Ball

Unmade, unmov’d; yet making, moving all;

Or various Atoms’ interfering Dance

Leapt into Form (the Noble work of Chance;)

Or this great All was from Eternity;

Not even the Stagirite himself could see;

And Epicurus Guess’d as well as He:

At this point in my studies I have the uneasy sensation that I have read more generalizations about the Puritans, than Puritans themselves. I suppose I have one distinction, in that I have read Cotton Mather’s book on natural philosophy. I also have the disagreeable feeling that perhaps my condition is rather more common than it should be: that too many of us have read more secondary literature than we have bothered to read source material. And this is a problem, because even good secondary literature (which can easily be a very small proportion of the secondary literature available) is rarely as good as the source –perhaps the most frequent type of occurrence comes in situations where something like Dryden’s Absalom and Achithophel provides the occasion for Dr. Johnson’s criticism of it in his Life of Dryden; that is to say, in cases where the criticism is rather more felicitous than the work criticized.

In order to this inquiry, however, I am afraid that I must base myself upon a generalization, in this case from J.I Packer’s article “The Puritans as Interpreters of Scripture”, to be found in Puritan Papers, volume 1, 1956-1959, pp.191-201.

Packer summarizes the Puritan approach by listing two presuppositions, and six rules.

The first presupposition is that the Bible is the word of God, with the several implications of that position. The second is that Scripture teaches us what to believe about God, and what God demands that we do (at this point Packer quotes WSC Q&A3).

Now follow six rules, in a series of couplets:

1. Interpret Scripture literally and grammatically (where he quotes the fine line from Durham “there is a great difference between an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, and an interpretation of allegorical Scripture”).

2. Interpret Scripture consistently and harmonistically. Under this heading Packer gives a worthy quotation from Bridge:

You know how it was with Moses, when he saw two men fighting, one an Egyptian, and another an Israelite, he killed the Egyptian; but when he saw two Hebrews fighting, now, saith he, I will go and reconcile them, for they are brethren; why so, but because he was a good man, and gracious? So also it is with a gracious heart; when he sees the Scripture fighting with an Egyptian, an heathen author, or apocryphal, he comes and kills the heathen … the Egyptian, or the apocrypha; but when he sees two Scriptures at variance (in view, though in truth not), Oh, saith he, these are brethren, and they may be reconciled, I will labour all I can to reconcile them; but when a man shall take every advantage of seeming difference in Scripture, to say, Do ye see what contradictions there are in this book, and not labour to reconcile them; what doth this argue but that the corruption of a man’s nature is boiled up to an unknown malice against the word of the Lord; take heed therefore of that.

3. Interpret Scripture doctrinally and theocentrically. Scripture is didactic: and one of the fundamental thing it teaches is that God, and not we, are ultimate.

4. Interpret Scripture Christologically and evangelically. Here Packer gives Isaac Ambrose’s 8-point list of how Scripture is about Christ, which mentions types, covenant, promises, sacraments, genealogies, chronologies, law and gospel.

5. Interpret Scripture experimentally and practically. Scripture speaks to our experience and to our doing. [While on this subject, it should be noted that although it is possible to elevate this particular couplet (or part of it) above all other elements of Scripture, that we must not over-react and despise it: when all is said and done, would you draw your ideas of experience and duty from any other source? -RZ]

6. Interpret Scripture with a faithful and realistic application. In preaching the relevance of Scripture must be demonstrated and used.

And to bring these elements into the realm of one’s own Bible study, Packer lists these six questions:

1. What do these words actually mean?

2. What light do other Scriptures throw in this text? Where and how does it fit into the total Biblical revelation?

3. What truths does it teach about God, and about man in relation to God?

4. How are these truths related to the saving work of Christ, and what light does the gospel of Christ throw upon them?

5. What experiences do these truths delineate, or explain, or seek to create or cure? For what practical purpose do they stand in Scripture?

6. How do they apply to myself and others in our own actual situation? To what present human condition do they speak, and what are they telling us to believe and do?

Now my own opinion is that those 6 couplets are pretty good, although 5 and 6 do seem to overlap to some extent. But it does seem necessary to add yet one more:

7. Interpret Scripture covenantally and eschatologically. I suppose there can be little doubt that with the first adverb in that couplet the Puritans would whole-heartedly agree: think of the massive quantities of treatises devoted precisely to the theme of the covenant of grace. As for the second, I am not so sure of the Puritan response. But I think that when you ask, “How is this part of Scripture contributory to the plan of God to manifest His sons and redeem creation?” — I say, when that question is raised, the answer necessarily involves the covenant, and at least begins to tell you what stage of the process that text is in. Which brings it back of course, to the point of interpreting Scripture consistently and harmonistically: of interpreting Scripture as a whole.

God has made a covenant, with a definite end in view: in order to understand His revelation, it is certainly at least desirable to keep this in mind. And so Packer’s summary of the Puritan hermeneutic may well function to aid us toward the better understanding of Scripture; but I think we are well served to add the final couplet, if not to our account of the Puritan hermeneutic itself, at least to our adaptation of it for our own use.

Two quotes, in odd collusion.

G.K Chesterton, The Singular Speculation of the House Agent

“Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction,” said Basil placidly. “For fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it.”

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV:10.11

[Of the “shew of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body] being framed by men, the human mind recognizes in them that which is its own, and embraces it when recognized more willingly than anything, however good, which is less suitable to its vanity.

A remarkable composition

June 19th, 2007

A. Lindsay Gordon, “The Swimmer”

With short, sharp violent lights made vivid

To southward as far as the sight can roam,

Only the swirl of the surges livid,

The seas that climb and the surfs that comb.

Only the crag and the cliff to nor’ward,

And the rocks receding, and reefs flung forward,

Waifs wrecked seaward and wasted shoreward,

On shallows sheeted with flaming foam.

A grim, grey coast and a seaboard ghastly,

And shores trod seldom by feet of men –

Where the batter’d hull and the broken mast lie,

They have lain embedded these long years ten.

Love! when we wandered here together,

Hand in hand through the sparkling weather,

From the heights and hollows of fern and heather,

God surely loved us a little then.

The skies were fairer and shores were firmer –

The blue sea over the bright sand roll’d;

Babble and prattle, and ripple and murmur,

Sheen of silver and glamour of gold.

So, girt with tempest and wing’d with thunder

And clad with lightning and shod with sleet,

And strong winds treading the swift waves under

The flying rollers with frothy feet.

One gleam like a bloodshot sword-blade swims on

The sky line, staining the green gulf crimson,

A death-stroke fiercely dealt by a dim sun

That strikes through his stormy winding sheet.

O brave white horses! you gather and gallop,

The storm sprite loosens the gusty reins;

Now the stoutest ship were the frailest shallop

In your hollow backs, on your high-arched manes.

I would ride as never a man has ridden

In your sleep, swirling surges hidden;

To gulfs foreshadow’d through strifes forbidden

Where no light wearies and no love wanes.

John Newton

Day of judgment! day of wonders!

Hark! the trumpet’s awful sound,

Louder than a thousand thunders,

Shakes the vast creation round.

How the summons will the sinner’s heart confound!

See the Judge, our nature wearing,

Clothed in majesty divine;

You who long for his appearing

Then shall say, This God is mine!

Gracious Saviour, own me in that day as thine.

At his call the dead awaken,

Rise to life from earth and sea;

All the pow’rs of nature, shaken

By his looks, prepare to flee.

Careless sinner, What will then become of thee?

But to those who have confessed,

Loved and served the Lord below,

He will say, Come near, ye blessed,

See the kingdom I bestow;

You for ever shall my love and glory know.

Protestantism and Elitism

June 17th, 2007

I have just started reading an interesting book called Protestantism in Guatemala by Virginia Garrard-Burnett. Protestantism has a long history in Guatemala, by this account, with the Inquisition actually having done some 21 Protestants to death (of course, two of these, at least, were suspected of piracy; but the fact that they were charged as Protestants gives rise to some intriguing reflections on the relative severity of these crimes). However, modern missionary involvement in Guatemala actually came about when the president of Guatemala, Justo Rufino Barrios, in 1882 asked the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions to send him a missionary. The man who was sent was John Clark Hill, originally headed for China, and it seems to have been something of a disaster.

The invitation from President Barrios automatically put Hill into an elite class: indeed, one of the reasons given for his less-than-successful speculation in railroads was that his mission board did not adequately support him to live among his target group –the social elites in Guatemala City.

And that background brings me to the point I would like to comment on here. I hope that in general the churches of our time have not focused on the wealthy and glamorous in their missionary endeavors. Indeed, there are many missionaries who have cheerfully undergone privations to work among the poor of God’s universal flock. But there is one area in which we perhaps have not distanced ourselves adequately from a cultural elitism. It is in the area of training foreign nationals for the ministry. When they are invited to the US to study, it is often with the prerequisite that they should have a bachelor’s degree or some equivalent. Now the reasoning for this policy is understandable: but particularly when speaking of those training for the ministry from third-world countries, the practical result is that the only men given the highly-lauded advantage of a seminary education in their preparations for the ministry, are necessarily those who have something of an elite status when compared to the general population.

Now, let me be clear that I am not calling for uneducated ministers, or that I am an unqualified egalitarian –I am not. But it ought to be patently obvious by this stage in history that a college education does not in itself guarantee that the possessor thereof is in any way a member of an intellectual elite –that ounce for ounce his brain is better stocked or more functional than someone else’s. And so in requiring a college education for entrance to seminary, particularly in cases where such a thing is generally obtainable only by a privileged member of a given society, we do what lies in our power to limit pastoral ministry to members of a sort of aristocracy which though it might have held Moses and Paul, would not have included Peter or indeed, our Lord.

If we seriously believe that a seminary education is essential to a due discharge of pastoral ministry (itself a proposition that would be difficult to sustain with historical example), then surely we cannot confine it to those who may happen to have money or social position: not, that is, unless we have forgotten Paul’s striking words:

not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called.

Now if this is true of effectual calling, by what conceivable logic could we reverse the statement when we speak of the calling to the ministry?

So it seems that we have three courses open to us if our doctrine and our practice are to coincide:

1. We must revise our seminary entrance requirements at least in the case of foreign students.

Or,

2. We must not insist upon a seminary education as always necessary for the faithful discharge of pastoral ministry.

Or,

3. We must revise our theology.

Any takers?


To what an extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects –the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by an infallible wisdom as rules for his government; and on the other, a set of everyday judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance. All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as the reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing, would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers –are not a power in their minds. They have an habitual respect for the sound of them, but no feeling which spreads from the words to the things signified, and forces the mind to take them in, and make them conform to the formula. Whenever conduct is concerned, they look round for Mr. A and B to direct to them how far to go in obeying Christ.

Now we may be well assured that that case was not thus, but far otherwise, with the early Christians. Had it been thus, Christianity never would have expanded from an obscure sect of the despised Hebrews into the religion of the Roman empire. When their enemies said, “See how these Christians love one another” (a remark not likely to be made by anybody now), they assuredly had a much livelier feeling of the meaning of their creed than they ever have had since. And to this cause, probably, it is chiefly owing that Christianity now makes so little progress in extending its domain, and after eighteen centuries is still nearly confined to Europeans and the descendants of Europeans. Even with the strictly religious, who are much in earnest about their doctrines, and attach a greater amount of meaning to many of them than people in general, it commonly happens that the part which is thus comparatively active in their minds is that which was made by Calvin, or Knox, or some such person much nearer in character to themselves. The sayings of Christ co-exist passively in their minds, producing hardly any effect beyond what is caused by mere listening to words so amiable and bland. There are many reasons, doubtless, why doctrines which are the badge of a sect retain more of their vitality than those common to all recognized sects, and why more pains are taken by teachers to keep their meaning alive; but one reason certainly is, that the peculiar doctrines are more questioned, and have to be oftener defended against open gainsayers. Both teachers and learners soon go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field.”