Saturday, August 01, 2015

Christian Theism and the Particular Baptists

Above  is Edward Reynolds, (1599-1676) a member of the Westminster Assembly who conformed to the Church of England in 1662, and later became Bishop of Norwich. John Flavel referred to him as 'a living library, a third university'. Beneath is Benjamin Keach, (1640-1704) , a signatory to the Baptist Confession of 1689.  He seems to be rather surprised to be so near a bishop.

In what I intended (and still intend) as a brief account of Baptist Reformed Confessional theology began with the striking fact that the Particular Baptists of the seventeenth century were content to use the confessional language of their persecutors and would-be persecutors, including the phrase of God, that he is ‘without body, parts and passions’. This phrase was ascribed to Almighty God in all major English confessional documents of the Reformation and subsequently into the seventeenth century, including the Baptist Confession of 1689. We then thought of divine passionlessness, and saw that it was connected with divine immutability as it is found, for example, in Hebrews 6.  And we also considered divine partlessness, or simplicity, God's metaphysical oneness. We now consider further the connectedness of these with other features - not parts, of course - of God.


To think consistently and clearly about God our Creator, who is or has become our Redeemer in Christ, is unfamiliar to many and it is not easy. Such thinking calls for discipline, and also patience. Consistency should be our aim, since the Lord our God is one Lord. He cannot be at odds with himself. While recognising God’s ultimate incomprehensibility, we should not take short-term relief by appealing to paradox, tension, antinomy and the like. Sometimes people object to the discipline of theology as if it was an attempt to ‘master’ God, to pin him down, or to put him in a box. But to try and think in a straight and consistent way about God is not to make God a plaything. Sad to say, to characterise as clearly as we can what a Pit Bull Terrier is, is not to tame such an unappealing animal. Defined or not, the reality of the dog, and the terror it may arouse, are just as real. Modernity has become used to thinking of God as our buddy, as a familiar friend, or as our benign grandfather. So as we make plans, we may automatically think that God must have the plans that we have. That our plans become his plans. If not, whatever is going on? But that would be a serious misapprehension. God may have plans besides the plans we have, or things may be such that both God and ourselves cannot achieve the same goals. The biblical way is for us to commit ourselves to God's plans insofar as he has revealed them. 'Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth'. It is both lazy and presumptuous to bring down God to our size. He is altogether beyond our imagination, too wonderful and strange to be fully captured in our words. This is so even though it is in our words that he reveals himself as our covenant God, our redeemer.

The basic posture that we are to adopt is to think of God, who transcends our own fleeting existence in space and time, as coming down in grace to us. He comes down to us in his revelation, adapting himself to our language, using figures and similes in order to address us. And he comes down in the Incarnation, which is not God becoming man, as milk becomes cheese, or wood becomes ash, or a boy becomes a man. This God, immaculate and immutable in his perfection, takes on human nature, and so humbles himself to be our mediator and friend.


To begin to grasp this we must learn a new language that befits talking about the Creator who transcends us in ways that Scripture has in characterizing God. The church has coined words like ‘Trinity’ and ‘impute’ to refer to divine realities, that God is three and one, and that in Christ, he has counted our sins to himself, and his righteousness to us. In a similar way there is a language about God that the church, from the Patristic period onwards, has adopted to speak – daringly it must be said - of God as he is in himself.  It is best to think of such language not as the language of a science, theology, but rather as providing us with a grammar. It is not that theologians can see further than anyone else, or are cleverer than other people, or that they can provide explanations for us, like consultant engineers do, for example. Rather, theologians attend to grammar, theological grammar, to try to epitomize God and his ways, to help not to go off the rails by onesidedly stressing data in Scripture at the expense of other data. This is stammering about God, for by it we cannot comprehend God as he is in himself. For how can the finite encompass the infinite? Rather we talk of him in such a way as to avoid fundamental biblical errors in our talk, in the present case we endeavour not to confound the Creator with any of his creatures.

So to speak of God’s simplicity, his being without parts, is to speak not of a simplicity that is to be pitied, but of the oneness or unity that befits the Creator of the ends of the earth. The Lord our God is one Lord.  To imagine that the Creator is composed out of parts,  made out of stuff that is more basic than he is, is to be suppose that his parts were not created, implying that God is not the creator of everything. In physical nature there seems to be a divisibility all the way down. But in God, the creator of nature, there is unity, indivisibility. So one way of thinking about this is to affirm that God does not consist of parts that are more basic than he is.   To think that would reduce him to the level of a creature. So Christian trinitarianism does not assert that God has one part who is the Father, another part the Son and another the Holy Spirit. If we are going to be faithful to the biblical witness we must distinguish three persons in the Trinity, but these three persons are not three parts. Mysterious? Certainly. Incoherent? Certainly not. For this is the fundamental feature of the Christian religion.

So we begin to learn to talk of God, the God of the Bible, when we construe his unity in this sense. Last time we applied this simplicity to eternity and to time. God is not subject to ‘ever rolling stream’, he is not bound by time. For one thing, time is a sign of change. We change by gaining and losing parts, by coming to have thoughts and beliefs, and modifying them, and we have brain cells and body muscles, we age. We are in time. But God has created the universe, with ourselves a part it, from a standpoint outside time. He does not change, he alone has immortality (I Tim. 6.16). So to talk of the age of God, or his memories and anticipations, would be to talk of him in creaturely, not in creatorly terms.

Being atemporal, God is immutable. This does not mean that God has decided to be immutable, but that he is. To suppose his immutability rested upon his decision is confused. For if this we so, on what would we base our confidence in his promises? So God is essentially or necessarily immutable. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews shows, such immutability is one of God’s great-making properties. (Heb. 6. 13-18). He is immutable by nature.

And closely connected with God’s simplicity and his atemporality is his aseity. ‘Aseity’, independence, is an unfamiliar word, yet the idea behind it is a vital one. It is the root idea behind the affirmation of the underivedness of God,, that God is a se, from himself. This does not mean that God has created himself, he is uncreated. This idea of aseity has a strong element of negativity to it, as all the expressions we are considering have. So aseity does not mean that God has made himself, that would be incoherent, but that the child’s question ‘God made me, but who made God?’ rests upon a misunderstanding. In learning the grammar of his faith, the child has slipped up, misspoken. But the mistake is easily corrected. How could anything or anyone have made God, for he is the Creator of everything except himself? He is uncreated. It makes no sense to say that God was made, for to do so once again confounds the Creator-creature distinction. It is a mistake in the grammar of our language of God. The Creator-creature distinction is fundamental to all Christian theology; we must never lose sight of it.

The interconnectedness of the simplicity, the timelessness, the immutability and the aseity of God, (and of God’s full activity) lies at the heart of Christian theism. It is important to stress that this connectedness is not only a work of human reason, but that it is first and foremost grounded in God himself, and made known in Holy Scripture. We noted this about immutability, and it is so with eternality and aseity and the rest. We may make distinctions in our thought of God, as when we say that God is three persons. But such distinctions are not divisions in the reality of God. 


The modern separation of the elements of theological education, the development of separate specialisms, whether in the College or Seminary, or in the pew or the Bible-study group, is a mixed blessing. To be sure, we have the benefit of the various disciplines, Old Testament, New Testament, the Ancient Near East, historical theology, biblical theology, and so on. But who or what is to put Humpty-Dumpty together again?   We must learn to cultivate an appreciation of the synoptic standpoint of our Creator, to whose one universe of creation and redemption every page of Scripture testifies.  Not only is he our Creator, but the very same God is our Redeemer, and wherever the Lord is spoken of in Scripture it is this Lord. His word is the one word of the one God. His indivisible reality provides the basic hermeneutical key to every passage of Scripture.

So the Particular Baptists, so long as they remain true to their historic confessional position, are theists in this, the grandest sense, classical theists. 

Next time in this short series we shall look at the first of two ways (I am not saying that there are only two such ways), in which the early Calvinistic Baptists took a different line from the Westminster Confession and, it seems, from the bulk of Reformed theologians.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015


While the Confederate flag is being lowered in parts of the US the rainbow flag is being raised on UK Government buildings and I suppose on US Government buildings too. If not, then I suppose it is only a matter of time. The policies are different but the thinking behind this difference is the same. The Confederate flag is being lowered because flying it encourages racism, it is said. The rainbow flag is being raised because doing so allegedly encourages ‘inclusivism’, a culture in which many expressions of gender are not only tolerated but actively supported, and at the highest political levels support is given for gays, the governments showing pride in gay pride by raising their flag. But every 'included' supports an 'excluded',  remember.
In our society there is a shocking ignorance of the relation between morality and law in places where one would expect better. And the talk of 'inclusivism' is an example of it. Melvyn Tinker recently publicly protested at the draping of a rainbow flag on the steps of York Minster, and at the plan to offer prayers at the Minster in support of gay pride in all its various hues by a Minister clergyman. This create a stir, and when Melvyn was interviewed on TV the courteous BBC TV presenter ended the interview by referring to Melvyn's possible punishment, despite Melvyn's assertion that he was upholding the present position of the Church of England, and of Scripture, and the legitimacy of civilised discussion of such matters, and of protesting.

The interviewer's remark, and the earlier line of questioning, and the piece in thDaily Telegraph, shows the failure to grasp two elementary points. The first is that even raising the legitimacy of Tinker's action is a muffling of the fact that there is a fundamental distinction between the law as it stands at any one time in a society, and morality, of what is regarded as expressions of what is morally right and wrong, morally better and morally worse, about which the members of that society will, in our current pluralistic culture, have varied and conflicting ideas. Without the recognition that a law may possibly be morally wrong, or that one law may be a moral improvement on an earlier law, there can be no prospect of improvement, and likewise no moral degeneracy, in what a law permits. Or it may be more accurate to say that  the distinction between law and morality is recognised so long as what are regarded as discriminatory laws are being dismantled, but forgotten thereafter. So long as it is forgotten, the situation is characteristic of fascist and communist societies, of having to regard what the law at any one time embodies what is morally right and wrong at that time. In such a situation it takes only a little propaganda to create the illusion that a government’s legislative programme is inevitably making a society more and more inclusive and equal, morally better and better.

In a ‘free’ society, it is possible for a citizen who is a critic of the government to openly, that is publicly, to offer, in print or in speech, a critique of some law passed by the government of the day. This is called ‘freedom of speech’,  and has been the historic position in England since at least the late seventeenth century. But we have reached the position today in which the BBC and other media shut down the prospect of such debate by assuming that the government’s current position on some matter of marital or sexual ethics is the correct one, sidelining or ridiculing views that express a dissenting opinion. This is a curtailing of free speech, and a violation of the BBC’s raison d’etre to report the news objectively.

This odd and unacceptable state of affairs is currently compounded by the widely-held opinion that opposition to some ethical position the state/government enacts  is an the expression of hatred towards some group or other. So the law about morals is buttressed by further expression about the moral position of an objector to that law, that not only is the objector at fault because he is an objector, but that his objecting must be an expression of hatred of his fellows. And who decides whether or not the objector to the law is also a hater – why, the one who gains by the law! If he is offended by his fellow citizens’ free speech, that that expression of opinion may be judged ipso facto to constitute a hate crime. And the evidence that is relevant to establishing this is the say-so of the ‘offended’ party.  If someone expresses the opinion that he is offended by, then the person who has expressed the contrary view is his 'hater'. A triple lock on the suppression of freedom of speech.

Which brings us to the second elementary point. This is that two or more matters can be similar in some respect without being the same. An orange is in the same category as an apple in being a fruit, but that does not mean that an orange is an apple. So Melvyn Tinker’s protest is faced with this headline from the Daily Telegraph running roughshod over that simple distinction: 

A vicar is facing a storm of protest after likening homosexuality to paedophilia and serial adultery as he attacked plans to drape a giant rainbow flag from the steps of York Minster in solidarity with lesbian, gay, and transgender rights.

Well, yes and no. Melvyn Tinker was asserting that it is the Church of England's position, and that of the Bible,  that practicing homosexuality, like paedophilia and serial adultery, is a seriously immoral activity. Nothing less and nothing more. The further question of how these three immoralities should be ranked in respect of their immorality, was not and is not being discussed. But of course it is a moral question well worth discussing.

**For the link to Melvyn Tinker’s interview on Look North, courtesy of St. John’s Newland, Hull,  see  code SJN2015

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Word, the Spirit and the churches

The business about Big Men and the reactions to the post at Helm’s Deep (See here and herehas prompted a further thought or two. Once it is recognized that the institutions which the church has adopted to order congregational life are flawed, then the critique of the Big Men is, I am afraid, crippled. Rules and procedure may seem flawless in draft, but it’s another thing when men and women commit themselves to them. All seem agreed on that point. Darryl Hart maintained that presbyterianism produces virtues that other ecclesial patterns fail to reach. He highlights humility. But if it’s humility we wish to cultivate, why not start by making sure that at church we sit in a circle, or take turns to preach?  

But all such suggestions start the wrong way round. First make the tree good and its fruit good. is the dominical rule. When Peter urges the churches to be clothed with humility, I don’t suppose he thought that reading Roberts’s Rules would do the trick. Churches are flawed because the people who make them up are flawed. The churches or congregations, filled with fallen men and women, are not immune to the general imperfections of the institutions of society, what Anthony Quinton called the ‘politics of imperfection’. But it is much worse for the church than it is for a business or a college or the House of Commons.


What is it to be reformed, we ask? Some answer: adherence to the solas of the Reformation: sola fide, sola scriptura, sola gratia and so on. The Five Points? Somewhat out of fashion and in any case they have the drawback that they are confined to the distinctives of reformed Christianity. The Reformed Confessions? Good answer! But if I’m not mistaken they present the answer that we are searching for in only a muted form, I think. They rather muffle it, or perhaps muff it. Here’s a clue; it has to do with another phrase identifying ‘reformed’ that we haven’t yet mentioned: it is word and spirit.

Is Calvin reformed? Throughout his discussion of the Church, one motif recurs: Word and Spirit.  The church is where the Word is preached, and where through the Word, and the Spirit's illumination and application of it, people are justified and regenerated, and as a result undergo life-long conversio.  Word and Spirit is what we were searching for.

But in the Reformation’s  emphasis on Word and Spirit is a source of a more serious tension, or potential breakdown, in the life of churches, which as far as I am aware reformed churches do not recognise formally. It seems to me that both critics and criticised would do well to ponder this phrase.

In the central Reformation motif of 'Word and Spirit' the two elements can only be linked together rather uneasily. The reason is this: matters to do with 'the Word' can be humanly organised. But matters to do with ‘the Spirit’ are divinely sovereign and free, out of human hands. Matters to do with the Word may be dispensed through secondary, creaturely agency alone, but matters to do with the Spirit  can never be so dispensed. People can be trained for the Christian ministry, study the Bible, and preach it. Churches can be set up, pastors, teachers and deacons appointed, the sacraments may be administered, people catechised, and the unruly disciplined.  All this can be undertaken in a routine, institutional way. All very orderly, in the Calvinian manner.  All this is, we might say, (ecclesiastically speaking) concerns the area of 'the Word'.

But what of 'the Spirit'?  Here there is a dramatic difference. For God the Spirit, though he attends the Word, is free not to do so.  Nowhere, as far as I know, does the Reformed faith teach that the linkage between Word and Spirit is automatic or necessary, or that God is under a covenanted  obligation always to accompany the Word with the salvific influence of the Spirit. No such covenant has been established. It is true that in general terms God has covenanted to accompany his Word by His Spirit, but the exact distribution of the Spirit's saving influences are at his disposal. As Calvin puts it:

But who, I ask, can deny the right of God to have the free and uncontrolled disposal of his gifts, to select nations which he may be pleased to illuminate, the places which he may be pleased to illustrate by the preaching of his word, and the mode and measure of progress and success which he may be pleased to give to his doctrine, - to punish the world for its ingratitude, by withdrawing the knowledge of his name for certain ages, and again, when he so pleases, to restore it in mercy? (Inst. II.11.14)

And in the case of the authority of Holy Scripture, while it is possible for human agencies to educate people in an appreciation of the external proofs that it is the word of God, they cannot in a similar way convey the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit to people.  That testimony cannot be, so to speak, boxed and wrapped. (Adapted from Paul Helm. Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed, pp.125-6)


And the confessions? Well, the Westminster Confession makes this important point about persuasion of the authority of Scripture:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverend esteem of the holy scripture, and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole, (which is to give all glory to God,) the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the word of God; yet notwithstanding our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts.(I.V)

In the Chapter on the church (XXV.V) it notes that church may degenerate, but doesn’t go into details. And the same is true of the 1689 Baptist Confession. (Ch. 26)  Nor is the degeneration and regeneration of the church, which is not the same as the regeneration of a soul, a notable theme elsewhere in those documents. No doubt it can be inferred from this and that. But nowhere as far as I can see is it given confessional prominence. Certainly not as much prominence as that, say, in the Letters to the Seven Churches in the prologue to the book of the Revelation.  I wonder why not?


So while certain factors are in human hands, other factors are in the Lord’s hands. This is a point that characterises all Augustinian ecclesiology. (Not, of course Augustinian sacramentalism, which envisages the Spirit being piped into the churches via the priesthood.) We may have a book of congregational or presbyterian rules, be well-versed in points of order, the proposal and seconding of motions, and so on.  By applying these skills,  deacons and elders may be appointed, services organized, the Word, the Supper and Baptism offered, and arrangements made for the discipline of church members. We may have strategies for church growth, a five-year plan and a building programme, and ways for increasing the giving. A pastor for this responsibility and a pastor for that. All these things are under human control.

But there is no church without the work of the Spirit in regeneration and renewal. And that work is manifestly not within human control. Paul plants, Apollos waters, but God alone gives the growth.
So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labour. For we are God’s fellow workers.
Not that God, Apollos and Paul are fellows, but workers who are in concert, like Apollos and Paul, are fellows in God’s work.

So Calvin himself, the Calvinists, the Reformed, Particular Baptists, neo-Calvinists, cool-Calvinists, and whoever else, worshipping in mega churches or small local congregations, fronted by Big Men or small, profess the same dependence on the sovereign giver. And if they believe what they profess they all usually recognise the fact. They cry, Who is sufficient for these things? They know that all may supply the ministry and so be God’s fellow-workers. (Finneyite revivalists and the Roman church see things differently). But only God can give the growth. And only God must be honoured for it. Appreciation of this fact is what is of central importance to those congregations with a Reformed soteriology, and should be uppermost in the minds of the ministers. When compared to this need, the current critique of one group by another surely fades into insignificance. Or perhaps this is a case of ‘These things you ought to have done, without neglecting the others'.