From James Sutherland, The Late Seventeenth Century:

As Dr. Samuel Mintz has shown, Hobbes forced his critics to debate with him on his own terms, and not by simply citing Scripture or falling back on traditional authority. ‘The critics were satisfied that they had cut Hobbes down to size; in fact they had yielded, slowly and imperceptibly but also very surely, to the force of his rationalist method.’

There is much in Coventry Patmore that is superficial or wrong or even abominable, but from time to time there is a good remark as well. Here is one such, from the “Magna Moralia” section XXXII in The Rod, the Root, and the Flower:

The world is not scandalised by anything so much as by the inconsistencies of believers, which it attributes to hypocrisy. But a great deal of ‘inconsistency’ and shortcoming is consistent with an entire absence of hypocrisy. The world having to do only with objects of the senses, discerns and believes a thing fully or not at all, and acts accordingly; and expects that Christians should do the same. But God and the truths of faith are ‘infinitely visible and infinitely credible’; and discernment and belief vary infinitely in degree, from the obscure longing which cries, ‘O God, if Thou be a God, save my Soul, if I have a Soul’, to that of the Saint who sees God, as it were, face to face; and as faith thus varies, so varies the life which comes of it.

Despair confers no holiness

April 11th, 2010

Stephen Charnock on the grace of God:

It presents us with the strongest motives to obedience. ‘The grace of God teacheth us to deny ungodliness.’ What chains bind faster and closer than love? Here is love to our nature in his incarnation, love to us, though enemies, in his death and passion: encouragements to obedience by the proffers of pardon for former rebellions. By the disobedience of man God introduces his redeeming grace, and engages his creature to more ingenuous and excellent returns than his innocent state could oblige him to. In his created state he had goodness to move him, he hath the same goodness now to oblige him as a creature, and a greater love and mercy to oblige him as a repaired creature; and the terror of justice is taken off, which might envenom his heart as a criminal. In his revolted state he had misery to discourage him; in his redeemed state he hath love to attract him. Without such a way, black despair had seized upon the creature exposed to a remediless misery, and God would have hail no returns of love from the best of his earthly works; but if any sparks of ingenuity be left, they will be excited by the efficacy of this argument.

God the Comforter

March 28th, 2010

Martin Luther, speaking of John 14:16, shows that the true God is the God of comfort:

What are the devil, death, and all things over against the eternal, almighty majesty of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who want to be and are our Comforter? For if He who is sent is called a Comforter, then both He who sent Him and He by whom He is sent must be the same Comforter. Then there is surely no God besides Him who is a Comforter. And henceforth he who wants to know God aright and name Him appropriately must call Him “Comforter” or, as St. Paul terms Him in Rom. 15:5, “the God of Comfort,” namely, for those who are frightened and have no other comfort. They must not conceive of God otherwise than as a Comforter of the wretched and troubled. They must give the lie both to the devil, who threatens with God’s wrath and with hell, and to their own heart, and say to the devil: “You are a false spirit of lies!” and to their heart: “You are a false, foolish heart!”

(From Sermons on the Gospel of St. John Chapters 14-16, which is v.24 of the 55-volume Works edited by Jaroslav Pelikan.)

The Baptist stands in the advent period. He fits into our Advent season. For isn’t our life still Advent: faith, expectation, patience, and longing for what is not yet visible? Do not we Christians have to build on what is “merely” hoped for and believed in? If we really want to be Christians, do we not, with God’s folly, have to sacrifice the bird in the hand here on earth for the sake of the two in the heavenly bush — monetary advantage, pleasures of the body, harsh insistence on our rights, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, that kingdom of heaven, alas, which no eye has seen?
The Baptist of today’s Gospel belongs to such an Advent of waiting for what is still to come. He is in reality what we ought to be in our lifelong season of Advent. He was in prison. He had been stupid enough to speak the truth even to the master of the state. How could anyone be as politically unrealistic as that? He sits there. It serves him right. No one gets him out. His friends do not start a revolt. They are much too insignificant for that, only interested in theology and quite ineffectual in real life, or so it seems at any rate.
And God, too, leaves his preacher of penance where he is. He too seems to be on the side of the big battalions. And yet he was working miracles in his Son. But — is it tragedy or comedy — those miracles cured a few poor wretches of apparently no great importance for the kingdom of God. Those miracles did not free the holy prophet, the blood relation and quite official precursor of the man who was working the miracles. He remained imprisoned until he was “liquidated.”
It is not easy for a prophet to sit in prison waiting for certain death, written off, and at the same time to take an interest in miracles which are of no help to himself.
But the Baptist is not a reed shaken by the wind. He believes despite everything. He is the messenger preparing the way for God, in his own life and heart first of all, preparing the way for the God who takes such an inhumanly long time to come and does not even hurry when his prophet is perishing, the God who always seems to arrive only when it is too late. The Baptist knows that God always makes his point, that he wins by losing, that he is living and gives life by being put to death himself, that he is the future which seems to have no future.
In a word, the Baptist believes. It was not easy for him. His heart was bitter and the sky overcast. The question in his heart has a rather agonized ring: Are you he who is to come? But that question was nevertheless addressed to the right person, to God who is man. In prayer we may show even a frightened heart to God, a heart that can practically do no more and no longer knows how long its strength will hold out. In a heart that prays there still remains faith and this receives a sufficient answer: “Go and tell John what you see… and blessed is he who takes no offence at me” even if he sits abandoned in prison.
We are in Advent all through our lives, for we Christians await one who is still to come. Only then shall we be proved right. Until then, however, the world seems to be right. The world will laugh, you will weep, our Lord said. We too are sitting in a dungeon, in the prison of death, of unanswered questions, of our own weakness, our own meanness, of the hardship and tragedy of our life. We shall not get out alive. But everyday we shall send the messengers of our faith and prayer to him who will come thence to judge the living and the dead. These advent messengers will come back each time with the answer: I am coming; blessed is he who takes no offence at me.

Karl Rahner, The Advent of Faith (on Matthew 11:2-10)

Freedom for Fashion

February 3rd, 2010

Grandiose claims are not always the best way to make your point.

Announcing that the Board of Trade is about to remove the ban on turned-up trouser-ends, a tailor’s advertisement hails this as “a first instalment of the freedom for which we are fighting”.
If we were really fighting for turned-up trouser-ends, I should be inclined to be pro-Axis. Turn-ups have no function except to collect dust, and no virtue except that when you clean them out you occasionally find a sixpence there.

George Orwell, “As I Please” Tribune 4 February 1944 (in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, v.3 “As I Please”)

Valuing Christ Alone

November 27th, 2009

John Calvin, Harmony of the Gospels, V.2 on Matthew 17:8

They saw no man but Jesus only. When it is said that in the end they saw Christ alone, this means that the Law and the Prophets had a temporary glory, that Christ alone might remain fully in view. If we would properly avail ourselves of the aid of Moses, we must not stop with him, but must endeavor to be conducted by his hand to Christ, of whom both he and all the rest are ministers. This passage may also be applied to condemn the superstitions of those who confound Christ not only with prophets and apostles, but with saints of the lowest rank, in such a manner as to make him nothing more than one of their number. But when the saints of God are eminent in graces, it is for a totally different purpose than that they should defraud Christ of a part of his honor, and appropriate it to themselves. In the disciples themselves we may see the origin of the mistake; for so long as they were terrified by the majesty of God, their minds wandered in search of men, but when Christ gently raised them up, they saw him alone. If we are made to experience that consolation by which Christ relieves us of our fears, all those foolish affections, which distract us on every hand, will vanish away.

It’s obvious that being seized by prejudice against Calvin is simply a way to deprive yourself of great blessing.

Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, IV.13,22

So far is the doctrine of the certainty of grace from being the mother of security and the midwife of licentiousness, that there is no greater incentive to true piety than a vivid sense of the love of God and of his benefits. This so powerfully lays hold of and inflames the mind that it is all on fire with a reciprocal love of him from whom it receives so great favors and has been so highly preferred over others left in the common mass of perdition.

While the books commonly known as Apocrypha are not to be any otherwise approved or made use of than other human writings (and while claims for their divine authority naturally meet with revulsion and even tend to discourage their use), like other human writings they have some worthwhile theological reflection, some poetic forms of expression, and some shrewd common sense. Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 38 & 39 deal with the value of the varying contributions that different sorts of people make to society. In between treating of physicians and intellectuals, there is this forceful and valuable statement:

Sirach 38:24-34

24: The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure: and he that hath little business shall become wise.
25: How can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough, and that glorieth in the goad, that driveth oxen, and is occupied in their labours, and whose talk is of bullocks?
26: He giveth his mind to make furrows; and is diligent to give the kine fodder.
27: So every carpenter and workmaster, that laboureth night and day: and they that cut and grave seals, and are diligent to make great variety, and give themselves to counterfeit imagery, and watch to finish a work:
28: The smith also sitting by the anvil, and considering the iron work, the vapour of the fire wasteth his flesh, and he fighteth with the heat of the furnace: the noise of the hammer and the anvil is ever in his ears, and his eyes look still upon the pattern of the thing that he maketh; he setteth his mind to finish his work, and watcheth to polish it perfectly:
29: So doth the potter sitting at his work, and turning the wheel about with his feet, who is always carefully set at his work, and maketh all his work by number;
30: He fashioneth the clay with his arm, and boweth down his strength before his feet; he applieth himself to lead it over; and he is diligent to make clean the furnace:
31: All these trust to their hands: and every one is wise in his work.
32: Without these cannot a city be inhabited: and they shall not dwell where they will, nor go up and down:
33: They shall not be sought for in publick counsel, nor sit high in the congregation: they shall not sit on the judges’ seat, nor understand the sentence of judgment: they cannot declare justice and judgment; and they shall not be found where parables are spoken.
34: But they will maintain the state of the world, and [all] their desire is in the work of their craft.

There is no wealth apart from natural resources, the fruit of the earth, and the products made by skill and labor.

Poets’ Politics

August 9th, 2009

George Orwell, “As I Please” Tribune 28 January 1944

Whether a poet, as such, is to be forgiven his political opinions is a different question. Obviously one mustn’t say “X agrees with me: therefore he is a good writer”, and for the last ten years honest literary criticism has largely consisted in combating this outlook. Personally I admire several writers (Céline, for instance) who have gone over to the Fascists, and many others whose political outlook I strongly object to. But one has the right to expect ordinary decency even of a poet.