September 17th, 2007

This quote has recently taken on a new layer of meaning to me.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

The creeks—Tinker and Carvin’s—are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection. The mountains—Tinker and Brushy, McAfee’s Knob and Dead Man—are a passive mystery, the oldest of all. Theirs is the one simple mystery of creation from nothing, of matter itself, anything at all, the given. Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.


September 9th, 2007

I quote Thomas Scott quoting:

With respect to the figurative language of the poetical and prophetical books, the following observations may be given from the work of W. Jones on that subject.

From the difficulty we are under of comprehending such things as are above natural reason, the manner of the scripture is as extraordinary as its matter; and it must be so from the necessity of the case. Of all the objects of sense we have ideas, and our minds and memories are stored with them. But of invisible things we have no ideas till they are pointed out to us by revelation; and as we cannot know them immediately, such as they are in themselves, after the manner in which we know sensible objects, they must be communicated to us by the mediation of such things as we already comprehend. For this reason, the scripture is found to have a language of its own, which does not consist of words, but of signs or figures taken from visible things. It could not otherwise treat of God who is a Spirit, and of the spirit of man, and of a spiritual world; which no words can describe. Words are the arbitrary signs of natural things; but the language of revelation goes a step further, and uses some things as signs of other things; in consequence of which, the world which we now see becomes a sort of commentary on the mind of God, and explains the world in which we believe. [Compare Aquinas’ beautiful statement on this point. -RZ]

It being the the professed design of the scripture to teach us such things as neither see nor know of ourselves, its style and manner must be such as are no where else to be found. It must abound with figurative expressions: it cannot proceed without them: and if we descend to an actual examination of particulars, we find it assisting and leading our faculties forward, by an application of all visible objects to a figurative use, from the glorious orb which shines in the firmament, to a grain of seed that is buried in the earth.”—

To one or other of these five heads, the spiritual language of the scripture may be reduced, and from them the matter of it borrowed: 1. From the images of nature, or visible things as representations of things invisible. 2. From the institutions of the law, prefiguring the things of the gospel. 3. From the persons of the prophets, as types of the great Prophet and Saviour that was to come. 4. From the history of the church of Israel as an ensample to the Christian world. 5. From the miraculous acts of Moses, Christ, and others, as signs of the saving power of God towards the souls of men. All these things compose the figurative language of the bible; and that interpretation which opens and applies them to the objects of faith, is called a spiritual interpretation; as being agreeable to that testimony of Jesus, which is the spirit of prophecy.”—

Where Did They Get It?

September 8th, 2007

It is not pure antiquarian interest that inspires the ongoing interest in the theology of the Reformers and the Puritans. If it were antiquarian interest, I suppose, The Boke of Margery Kempe, or Albertus Magnus’ (or Cotton Mather’s) writings on the properties of minerals would be read quite as much now as any other document from balmier times.

No, the ongoing interest in the Reformers and Puritans is too wide to be chalked up to antiquarian interest. Of course, between agenda-driven reading (“Oecolampadius anticipated my favorite theologian”), a desire to be in the inner circle, and a sense of obligation, we may have exhausted the sources of this interest. But I would like to think that people recognize the persistent value in the older theologians. When one turns from the often insipid or superficial modern treatments of a given question to a Reformer or a Puritan, it is to meet again the fact that theology is stimulating, profound, precise and an ocean which easily overcomes our feeble thrashings. We are on firm ground against even the most violent waves in the wading pool: but already the surf at the edge of the beach is too much for us, and we cannot remain unmoved in the face of that invincible pull.

So we wonder, how did they get that way? How do the perenially great theologians come to that grasp and enjoyment of their doctrines which stuns and overwhelms us?

While I most certainly cannot speak as an expert, I believe I can hazard a tentative guess, in the illustrative example of Calvin.

The easy answer, which is perfectly true, is that the Holy Spirit taught him. But he was taught by means.

As you read Calvin, something that stands out is his grasp on the church fathers. Time and again he can summon testimony after testimony from Augustine, can put perverted citations in their true context and restore their intended force, or can adduce an explicative parallel from another work. It is obvious that Calvin has not merely read, he has digested, the teaching of certain great predecessors in the theological realm. The Holy Spirit has taught him; but the Holy Spirit has taught him in part by having taught others first.

What is true of Calvin’s grasp of certain fathers, can be stated with more force with regard to his grasp of Scripture. It is a book with which he is intimately familiar, as demonstrated not solely by the Institutes, but also by his sermons and commentaries. To take just one example, in commenting on Psalm 48:2 he has no trouble comparing Isaiah 14:13 –on the basis of the word “north”. The Holy Spirit has taught Calvin by a minute acquaintance with the letter of sacred Scripture.

There is yet another element. Apart from the citations of Scripture or the church fathers, you find in the pages of Calvin a host of rather despective references: Osiander, Servetus, Abelard, the Schoolmen, to mention only some, come in for what is often amusingly scathing reproof. He knows their opinions, he knows their arguments, and he thoroughly takes them apart. The Holy Spirit taught Calvin –but he taught him through the instrument of analyzing and opposing error.

Scripture: sound theologians; errorists. These were the instruments the Holy Spirit employed. By embracing and assimilating and rejecting these, Calvin came to the stature of a perenially great theologian: a teacher of the church for all times since his own.

And this we can apply to ourselves: not in the almost certainly vain dream that we will become the Calvins of our own time; but in the hope of extending our grasp on God’s truth –or of more perfectly submitting to its grasp on us. There is no replacement for Scripture: for personal, detailed engagement with the Biblical text in the measure that we are capable of. This is, after all, the principium cognoscendi externum of our theology. Yet we are by no means the only people doing this: and it is to be fervently hoped that we are not so foolish as to conceive that we are the only ones with the Holy Spirit. And so the great teachers are to be respectfully and honestly listened to: not for absolute unanimity with them—Calvin can baldly disagree with Chrysostom or Augustine when necessary: and note that he prefers to express disagreement than to attempt to foist his views upon them—but for the benefit of consecrated intellect led by God along the same path we endeavour to pursue. So that it is not so much breadth of reading, the number of differing names we can add to our lists of conquered books, but depth of understanding, the degree to which we have justly appreciated the writer’s statements and assumptions, which is the great desideratum. Reading should not be narrow; but nor should it be so wide that it is necessarily shallow. And then there is controversy. Rev. Matthew Winzer has noted that the profoundest theology is often found in polemical works. In arraigning the subtleties of error, the nuances of truth must be drawn out. In defending the citadel from enemy hordes, we become more intimately familiar the intricacies of its walls than from many leisured walks to admire the sunset from its battlements: for we have studied how their footholds can be turned against them and have a detailed knowledge of each contour. And yet not all are called upon to be direct defenders throwing down the scaling ladders and repulsing the grappling hooks: the wall is also familiar to those who build, those who maintain, those who adorn; but it is never well known to those who merely take it for granted.

Here are some comments on a book I happened across. I am glad I didn’t spend any money on it.

What Every Preacher Should Know!

The Pastor’s Success Handbook

by Hugh F. Pyle (SWORD of the LORD Publishers, Murfreesboro, TN 1981).

There is obviously a grave problem here. It is that the book sets out to do what its title promises: it tells you how to be a successful pastor. Now success seems to be defined primarily along two lines: soul-winning and church attendance (other points such as finances are means to these ends).

That soul-winning is a measure of success is seen in this statement from pp. 361,362: “After we got them saved most women looked around and realized that our ladies wore dresses to church. And most boys when they became Christians went out and got a haircut. If they didn’t they would often drift on to another church, but at least we had a chance to evangelize them first”

And to demonstrate that the size of the church is a measure of success to which other elements are subordinated see: the chapter, “Making Sunday Night Services Sparkle!” –the reason for attempting this is so that people return; p.89, which begins the chapter “Make a Joyful Noise!” which is about how to obtain a high profile for your church; p.103 “As you become successful and your church grows….”; he states this on p.317 saying with regard to the designing of bulletins, “…the Sunday morning crowd is already there when they get that bulletin. The big thing is to get them back that night!”; or the long discussion on naming your church on pp.341-343 introduced with the words, “Names can help to make or break a church. Think of the churches you know that are big and flourishing and then study their names.”; or this sage counsel: “Expository preaching—preaching through a book in the Bible—is another way of keeping things going, either on Sunday morning or Sunday night, and you may be able to go longer than two months on such a series. This is also true for Wednesday night studies. But watch your people. If the crowds begin to diminish and interest lags, I would abandon or postpone the series and move over into greener pastures.” (p.137)

A global statement is found on p.102: “A bus ministry will be rewarding. Souls will be won, families will be reached, children will be kept out of trouble, Christians will have a good opportunity to serve, people will know you love them, and your church will grow.”

Stemming from this telic error, the pastor is encouraged to follow a business model for his church. This can be seen in the book recommendations: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (p.22); or the instruction to occasionally read “a self-help book by an outstanding motivator in the business world. Or listen to the tapes of men like Clement Stone, Zig Ziglar, or “Tremendous” Jones” (pp. 53,54); again, on p.73: “Be Sure the Money Is Handled and Used in an Honest and Businesslike Manner” –a section heading which by itself is perhaps not objectionable: but in combination with his other statements reveals that he does consider the business world a model for the church. The recommendation to read motivational authors is emphasized again on p.238, speaking of books that it is good for the minister to have: “Every preacher should read some self-help and motivational books. One of the very best is See You at the Top by Zig Ziglar. Get it!” Or consider this quotation from p.371:

(25) Q: HOW DOES A PREACHER BUILD SELF-CONFIDENCE? A: Nothing succeeds like success. Keep working at those sermons and at that visitation until you see some results. Every victory should spur you on. Then read Zig Ziglar and other motivators. Listen to their tapes. Read Jack Hyles. Read Proverbs. And by all means, read the successful men of the Bible—Paul, John, Moses, David, Samuel, Abraham. It is not as much self-confidence as it is God-confidence!

Finally, here is a clear statement from p.64:

By the time the choir or quartet takes their seats, the pastor should already be making his next introduction or the song leader should be starting the next song. If there was as much “dead space” on television productions as in the average church service the sponsors would lose millions of dollars in advertising time.

Obviously it is a book of techniques, of methods for accomplishing your goals. As such the book itself, perhaps, cannot be criticized for not justifying the ends proposed or setting out the theology undergirding them: but the assumptions that emerge are a profound indictment of what “the Lord’s work” was conceived to be among the fundamentalists who bore the brand of The SWORD of the LORD”.

The good theology is conspicuously absent –to a woeful degree. Consider his book recommendations, from the chapter, “The Books I Would Not Part With” (pp.323-331). There is only one systematic theology, Chafer’s, which was recommended by another pastor. He cautions against A.W. Pink’s “extreme views on the sovereignty of God” (p.325); and there are only a few books that he mentions that I would consider worth reading: Pilgrim’s Progress, Young’s Analytical Concordance, Spurgeon’s Lectures to His Students, An All-Around Ministry, Memoirs of McCheyne, Matthew Henry’s Commentaries. He also mentions Baxter’s Saints Everlasting Rest as a book his readers should own, but follows up immediately: “…along with Finney’s Lectures on Revival and his autobiography.” We might think he is simply unaware of the issues dividing some of his recommended authors from others: but we should observe that he does note: “Keep in mind that I do not recommend all of the books mentioned for their doctrinal content, but many of them for their practical value.” But this is not all of the evidence. He comments on p. 152: “One noted British preacher and writer has stated (in a book I just finished reading) that does not believe in nor practice the public invitation!” Or consider this, from p. 153:

One advantage of the personal workers’ starting to move at the beginning of the invitation is that, psychologically, the movement is already right and sinners find it quite easy just to move out into the flow of those who are going forward to deal with others. That way the sinner cannot feel that he is all alone and that every eye in the congregation is upon him. He may even think that some of those going forward are making the decision he should be making and his resolve to go forward may be increased and made easier.

Perhaps more shocking is this, from pp. 154,155:

Don’t let the song leader change hymns during the invitation. If a change is to be made the pastor (or whoever has been preaching) will be the one to make such a decision. Sometimes, when no one is moving on “Just As I Am,” you might find it best to switch to “Almost Persuaded” or “Where He Leads Me I Will Follow”. This advice is repeated on p.156, where we also have this somewhat moderating statement: “If no one comes after several verses are sung, and you feel you have delivered your soul and done all you can, then there is nothing to do but leave the rest up to God and conclude the invitation.”

This is not to deny that he says some true and accurate things. He is obviously sincere and well-intentioned. But that is scant comfort, for it means that he believes he is doing God service. He doesn’t seem to be a religious charlatan, in that he can make such statements as these (p.132):

They may not think of you as a jolly good fellow, or a good builder, or a fancy talker or a sharp administrator—but whatever else they think, make sure they think of you as a man of God! There is no substitute for that. And there’s a wide open market for such men. Be a prime minister!

“The man preaches as if God were at his elbow,” was said of one Spirit-filled preacher. Never forget that. You are representing Him. When you preach the truth it is God’s truth. You never have to apologize for that! Give them what God says. “Speak. . .all the words that I command thee to speak unto them; diminish not a word,” God told Jeremiah (Jer. 26:2). Notice, “diminish not a word“—don’t water it down, don’t softpedal the truth, don’t spread cool whip on the cancer of sin.

Still the other side of the book remains. The author seems quite unconscious of any tension: indeed, his lack of self-consciousness is one of the alarming features about this whole thing. It would seem that he has no qualms in instructing ministers whose ambition is success (defined in very visible terms) and whose model is business on how to use techniques built on a very inadequate doctrinal foundation to accomplish their goals.

So that ultimately the problem is that there is an essential and unrecognized worldliness about these separated, fundamental brethren.

And yet, I confess to a certain fondness for Dr. Pyle (Doctor of Divinity from Tennessee Temple –p.7). His style at times is racy and vigorous, and always energetic (“hillbilly whang”, p.108; “Print an Attractive Card on Slick Stock and Salt the Town Down With It”, p.101.; [of visitors] “They will be less likely to be embarrassed to give you their card and meet the pastor this way than to have to be “shown off” and introduced to the entire twelve tribes of Israel at the morning service”, pp.52,53). What with one thing and another, though, in spite of such occasional flashes of earthy brilliance, I can’t bring myself to finish the book. Even the suspicion that I have, perhaps, through such foolhardiness consigned myself to unsuccessfulness does not cause me to move forward.

Augustine’s End

September 2nd, 2007

Here is some Karl Rahner, to prepare your heart for worship:

“Feast of St. Augustine”

When Augustine, a tired old man of seventy-five, lay down to die in 430, he had to await death in his city under siege. And when he looked back upon his life’s work, from his human viewpoint at that time, he could really speak his words: nihil sum nisi quod expecto misericordiam Dei*. I am no longer anything; yet only one thing am I: a clinging to the mercy of God.

His African church at the beginning of the end, the parties of the Arians and the Donatists, whom he might have believed to have eliminated by his spirit, again in ascendancy; the world of an ancient culture waning, everywhere dark night and terrestrial hopelessness. And his embattled heart often put itself the question whether the last judgment stood before the door: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me.” Augustine did not doubt that he would not stray when it came to his God. The light of eternity lit up for him the darkness of his times, and faith’s hope in the eternal sabbath helped him endure courageously the heavy darkness of the six terrestrial days of unhappiness and need. For him the God of unfathomable ways and judgment was still also the God of love and mercy.

*[I am nothing but what I expect of the mercy of God {Editors Note}]

The Source of Good

September 1st, 2007

Cicero, The Nature of the Gods

Balbus speaks:

If Reason, Faith, Virtue and Concord are to be found among men, whence can they have come down to earth but from the gods? Since we have some measure of sense, rationality and wisdom, the gods must have them in far greater measure. They must not only have them but use them too in the greatest and most admirable works.