Reversed Thunder: George Herbert’s Poetic Pictures of Prayer

While there is certainly a place for prosaic instructions in learning to pray, there is also much to fuel the fire of our praying in the power of poetic pictures. George Herbert’s classic poem “Prayer (I)” does precisely this. As much as I have gleaned from reading books on prayer, perhaps nothing has impacted my prayer life more than the rich imagery that Herbert provides in the staccatoed cadence of his most famous sonnet. In reading the poem below, we need to allow the imagery first to wash over us with its tidal force, and then we will dive deeper into the verbal palette with which Herbert paints differing yet complementary portraits of the mystery that we call prayer.

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,

Gebed van Daniel

Anneke Kaai, The Prayer of Daniel

Gods breath in man returning to his birth,

The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,

Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

The six daies world-transposing in an houre,

A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,

Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,

Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,

The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,

The land of spices, something understood.

In his book entitled Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, Tim Keller (New York: Dutton, 2014) offers an excellent exposition of Herbert’s poem. On pages 28-32 he writes:

Prayer is “Gods breath in man returning to his birth.” Many who are otherwise skeptical or nonreligious are shocked to find themselves praying despite not even formally believing in God. Herbert gives us his explanation for that phenomenon. The Hebrew word for “Spirit” and “breath” is the same, and so, Herbert says, there is something in us from God that knows we are not alone in the universe, and that we were not meant to go it alone. Prayer is a natural human instinct.

Prayer can be “softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse”—the deep rest of soul that we need. It is “the souls bloud,” the source of strength and vitality. Through prayer in Jesus’ name and trust in his salvation we come as a “man well drest,” spiritually fit for the presence of the king. That is why we can sit down with him at “the Churches banquet.” Feasts were never mere feedings but a sign and means of acceptance and fellowship with the Host. Prayer is a nourishing friendship.

Prayer also is “a kinde of tune.” Prayer tunes your heart to God. Singing engages the whole being—the heart through the music as well as the mind through the words. Prayer is also a tune others can hear besides you. When your heart has been tuned to God, your joy has an effect on those around you. You are not proud, cold, anxious, or bored—you are self-forgetful, warm, profoundly at peace, and filled with interest. Others will notice. All “heare and fear.” Prayer changes those around us.

Prayer can be a “land of spices,” a place of sensory overload, of exotic scents and tastes—and a “milkie way,” a place of marvels and wonders. When that happens, prayer is truly of “Angels age,” an experience of timeless eternity. Yet no one in prayerhistory has found that “land of spices” quickly or easily. Prayer is also the “heart in pilgrimage,” and in Herbert’s time a pilgrim was someone who was engaged on a long, difficult, and exhausting trek. To be in pilgrimage is to have not yet arrived. There is a longing in prayer that is never fulfilled in this life, and sometimes the deep satisfactions we are looking for in prayer feel few and far between. Prayer is a journey.

Even in spiritually lean times, prayer can serve as a kind of heavenly Manna” and quiet “gladnesse” that keeps us going, just as the manna in the wilderness kept Israel moving toward its hope. Manna was simple food, especially savory, but hardly a banquet. Yet it sustained them wonderfully, a kind of travelers’ waybread that brought an inner endurance. Prayer helps us endure.

One reason for the arduousness is because true prayer is “the soul in paraphrase.” God does not merely require our petitions but our selves, and no one who begins the hard, lifelong trek of prayer knows yet who they are. Nothing but prayer will ever reveal you to yourself, because only before God can you see and become your true self. To paraphrase something is to get the gist of it and make it accessible. Prayer is learning who you are before God and giving him your essence. Prayer means knowing yourself as well as God.

Prayer is not all quiet, peace, and fellowship. It is also an “engine against th’ Almightie,” a startling phrase that clearly refers to the siege engines filled with archers that were used in Herbert’s day to storm a city. The Bible contains laments and petitions and pleadings, for prayer is rebellion against the evil status quo of the world—and they are not in vain, for they are as “church-bels beyond the stars heard” and indeed are “reversed thunder.” Thunder is an expression of the awesome power of God, but prayer somehow harnesses that power so that our petitions are not heard in heaven as whispers but as crack, boom, and roar. Prayer changes things.

Yet Herbert also states that prayer is a “sinner’s towre.” An arrogant spirit cannot rightly use the power of prayer’s siege engines. “Sinner’s towre” means that prayerful dependence on the grace of Jesus is our only refuge from our own sin. We cannot go into God’s presence unless we are dependent on Christ’s forgiveness and his righteousness before God, not on our own. Indeed, prayer is the “Christ-side-piercing spear.” When we pray for forgiveness on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf, grace and mercy come flowing down even as the spear in his side brought water and blood gushing out. Prayer is a refuge.

Though prayer is a kind of artillery that changes the circumstances of the world, it is as much or even more about changing our own understanding and attitude toward those circumstances. Prayer is “a kinde of tune” that transposes even “the six daies world.” The six days is not the Sabbath day of formal worship but the workweek of ordinary life. Yet the one “houre” of prayer completely transposes it all, as the transposition of a piece of music changes its key, tone, and timbre. Through prayer, which brings heaven into the ordinary, we see the world differently, even in the most menial and trivial daily tasks. Prayer changes us.

As plumb lines measured the depths of waters beneath boats, prayer is a “plummet sounding heav’n and earth.” That means it can plunge us by the power of the Spirit into the “deep things of God” (1 Cor 2:10). This includes the indescribable journey that georgeherbert-robertwhite-1674-704prayer can take us through the breadth, length, height, and depth of Christ’s saving love for us (Eph 3:18). Prayer unites us with God himself.

How does Herbert end this dazzling succession of word pictures? He concludes, surprisingly, that prayer is “something understood.” Many scholars have debated the apparent anticlimax of this great poem. It seems to be an “abandonment of metaphor … [yet] its final crowning.” After all the lofty images, Herbert comes down to earth. Through prayer “something”—not everything—is understood, and prayer’s conquests are indeed often modest. Paul says believers in this world see things only “in part,” just as the reflections in ancient mirrors were filled with distortions (1 Cor 13:12). Prayer, however, gradually clears our vision. When the psalmist was spiraling down into deadly despair, he went in prayer to “the sanctuary of God; then I understood” (Ps 73:17).

Prayer is awe, intimacy, struggle—yet the way to reality. There is nothing more important, or harder, or richer, or more life-altering. There is absolutely nothing so great as prayer.

May Herbert’s poem enrich and empower your prayer life as it has mine!

Posted in Devotional, Poetry, Prayer, Tim Keller | Leave a comment

More Fearsome than an Army of 10,000 Men: John Knox and the Power of Prayer (Reformission Monday)

The following is excerpted from Douglas Bond, The Mighty Weakness of John Knox (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2011), Kindle Locations 370-427.

In 1909, on the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, civic and church leaders unveiled the Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland. There stood Calvin and three other leading lights of the Reformation rising eighteen feet high along the ancient wall of the city. On Calvin’s far left stood John Knox, and chiseled in the wall next to him were the words Un homme avec Dieu est toujours Bans la majorite, or, “One man with God is always in the majority.”… Strictly speaking, in the history of redemption there never has been just one man with God. Elijah thought he was alone, but God told him there were seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). Knox had a host of antagonists, but many supporters as well. Few would dispute, however, that Knox was the man on whom the slings and arrows descended in the battle for Reformation in Scotland. What was it about Knox that made him so much the single man in a majority with God that mightyweaknessofjohnknox-temp_2011-01-31-1four hundred years after his life it was carved in stone in Geneva? No doubt it was many things, but perhaps chief among Knox’s God-given qualities was his sanctified understanding of his complete worthlessness unless he was on God’s side, unless he was with God. Knox never saw himself as inducing God to be on his side. He knew he had to be brought to a posture of submission to the will of God.

Furthermore, Knox knew there was only one conduit by which that could happen: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10b). Put simply, Knox knew that without prayer he was “a dumb dog,” a watchdog with neither bark nor bite, of no use to anyone. Knowing this about himself, he humbled himself and fell to his knees, submitting his will, mind, and tongue to God in prayer. But unlike most of us, he did not do this only when things became unbearable. This was the pattern of his life. Those who knew him best called Knox “an eminent wrestler with God in prayer.” Most men are not. We think we can handle things; we believe we can do it on our own. Why do men drive around for hours rather than stop and ask directions? Asking directions forces us to admit that we don’t know where we are. We must admit our weakness, humble ourselves, and request help. Men don’t like doing this. Herein is the proof of Knox’s humility. He knew his profound weakness. He knew how lost he was. So he asked God for directions, and, hence, became the quintessential man of prayer.

In 1566, Knox prayed the following: “Thou has sealed into my heart remission of my sins, which I acknowledge and confess myself to have received by the precious blood of Jesus Christ once shed.” This, his confession of faith, was the foundation of his ministry and his confidence in his praying. This did not come naturally to Knox. He was not great in the pulpit, the public arena, or the closet by natural giftedness and self-confidence. He was giving an honest self-assessment when he said, “I have rather need of all than that any hath need of me.” Unpretentious Knox did not fake words like these to feign humility and thereby ramp up his approval rating ing with his congregation. By the grace of God, Knox was beyond such self-aggrandizement. He had a real sense of his own powerlessness, so he prayed earnestly for God’s power. As the apostle James wrote, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power” (5:16b). Humility showed Knox his great need of prayer, and his earnest praying brought down on him great power.

Words ascribed to Charles H. Spurgeon reveal the wide extent of that power: “When John Knox went upstairs to plead with God for Scotland, it was the greatest event in Scottish history.” Prayer was the engine that advanced Reformation in Scotland, and Knox was the foremost prayer warrior in the realm. Thus, when Knox felt overwhelmed by spiritual and political enemies, when all hope from earthly powers was exhausted, when all seemed lost for the gospel in Scotland, Knox prayed:

Seeing that we are now left as a flock without a pastor, in civil policy, and as a ship without a rudder in the midst of the storm, let Thy providence watch, Lord, and defend us in these dangerous days, that the wicked of the world may see that as well without the help of man, as with it, Thou art able to rule, maintain and defend the little flock that dependeth upon Thee.

Humble Christian that Knox was, he knew his great need of divine enabling, so he both prayed and sought the prayer support of others, something men in the flesh rarely do. Americans, schooled in Emersonian self-reliance, find asking for prayer an awkward, maybe even unnecessary, task. As noted above, seeking prayer is a tacit admission that we are not capable in ourselves, that we are desperately needy, that the arm of flesh is weak and ineffectual. Men don’t like owning up to these realities, but prayer itself, and awareness of our need of it from others, requires an honest admission of the facts. Knox was one who owned up to the facts about himself. Because of his candid acknowledgment of his great need, he sought the aid of the God of the universe, and one way he sought it was through the prayers of fellow believers. Empowered by the Almighty, Knox became the single most significant force to be reckoned with in an entire country. Yet it was not only Knox’s friends and supporters who appreciated the wide-ranging effect of his ministry of prayer. According to historian John Howie, Knox’s ardent enemy, the queen regent, Mary Guise, admitted that she was “more afraid of [Knox’s] prayers than of an army of 10,000 men.” If every Christian prayed like Knox, the Devil and his minions would melt like wax before the fire.

Posted in Church history, John Knox, Mission & evangelism, Prayer, Reformation, Reformission | Leave a comment

Happy Easter! He is Risen!

O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?

auferstehung

Posted in Resurrection, Seasonal | Leave a comment

The Blood of God: Understanding the Atonement as a Work of the Trinity (A Reflection for Good Friday)

On this Good Friday, I would like to offer a reflection from Adam Johnson on the way in which we must understand the atonement accomplished in the crucifixion of Jesus as not merely a work of the Son, or of the Son over against the Father and the Spirit, but as a work of the Trinity as a whole. Sometimes we can fall into the trap of thinking that Christ was merely passive in bearing the wrath of the Father while the Father was the active one, pouring out his wrath on Christ. As we will see below, it is this kind of thinking that gives rise to such crass caricatures of the atonement as some kind of “divine child abuse”. The problem stems from an understanding of the atonement that stretches the doctrine of appropriations beyond its breaking point and runs roughshod over the important theological principle that opera ad extra sunt indivisa, that the persons of the Trinity are always, as in their divine essence, undivided in all of their works. I know this may sound overly esoteric, but its vital importance is underscored by Johnson when he writes (with reference to Karl Barth):

[W]e find the doctrine of God’s triunity energizing Barth’s account of the doctrine of reconciliation. For instance, the doctrine of appropriations enables Barth to attribute acts or qualities to specific persons of the Trinity, such as the wrath of the Father that is poured out upon the Son. Scripture permits, even forces, Barth to make such differentiations, speaking ‘in terms of [them] … with great seriousness, i.e., in such a way that we are in no position to remove them without exegetical wresting’ (CD I/1, 372). Along these lines, Barth writes that Jesus was obedient in choosing ‘to suffer the wrath of God in His own body and the fire of His love in His own soul’ (CD IV/1, 95), and affirms with the Heidelberg Catechism that ‘during the whole time of His life on earth Jesus … bore the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race’ (CD IV/1, 165). Even more boldly, he specifies that ‘God’ in such cases refers to the Father: the Son of God made flesh ‘stands under the wrath and judgment of God … He concedes that the Father is right in trinity-cruifixionthe will and action which leads Him to the cross’ and ‘the suffering of children chastised by their Father’ he there experienced (CD IV/1, 175).

The doctrine of appropriations never stands on its own, though: we must dialectically relate any conclusions made on these grounds to the rule opera ad extra sunt indivisa, such that we do not conclude that the Father’s wrath of itself distinguishes the Father from the Son. Such a conclusion collapses into tritheism (and a non-Trinitarian understanding of the divine perfections), ultimately undermining the possibility of both revelation and atonement. To the contrary, Barth affirms the oneness of God’s acts and perfections. Just after the passage last quoted, Barth writes:

In Him God has entered in, breaking into that circulus vitiosus of the human plight, making His own not only the guilt of man but also his rejection and condemnation, giving Himself to bear the divinely righteous consequences of human sin, not merely affirming the divine sentence on man, but allowing it to be fulfilled on Himself. (CD IV/1, 175)

He thus demonstrates the necessary dialectical tension between the doctrine and rule we have been examining, affirming the work of Christ simply as a work of the one God. And nowhere is Barth’s commitment to the outworking of this dialectic more evident than in his account of Christ’s passion in the life of God, his modified affirmation of Patripassianism, the consideration of which brings us to our governing interest in the relationship between the doctrines of the Trinity and atonement.

This event of God’s giving of Himself in which the ‘divine sentence on man’ is ‘fulfilled on Himself’ is a Trinitarian event in which the sentence and judgement of the Father is fulfilled on the incarnate Son: in Jesus’ suffering and death. The imminent danger is that we too rigidly distinguish the Father and Son in this event, breaking apart the unity of God’s being. Eschewing this danger, Barth writes:

It is not at all the case that God has no part in the suffering of Jesus Christ even in His mode of being as the Father. No, there is a particular veri in the teaching of the early Patripassians. This is that primarily it is God the Father who suffers in the offering and sending of His Son, in His abasement … [He suffers] in the humiliation of His Son with a depth with which it never was or will be suffered by any man—apart from the One who is His Son … The fatherly fellow-suffering of God is the mystery, the basis, of the humiliation of His Son. (CD IV/2, 357; KD, 399)

Elsewhere, he adds:

With the eternal Son the eternal Father has also to bear what falls on the Son … In Jesus Christ God Himself, the God who is the one true God, the Father with the Son in the unity of the Spirit, has suffered what it befell this man to suffer to the bitter end … It is of this fellow-suffering of God Himself borne on earth and also in heaven to the greater glory of God and the supreme salvation of man; it is of the God who has not evaded, and on the very grounds of His deity could not evade, this suffering with and for the world, that the crucified man Jesus Christ speaks … He speaks … [of] the peace the price of which He Himself willed to pay and did pay in the person of this man, and therefore in the person of His own Son, and therefore in His fatherly heart. (CD IV/3.1, 414–15; KD, 478)

While Barth does not mention the ‘rule’ or ‘doctrine’ with which we are here concerned, they lie just below the surface, manifest in the dialectic of God Himself on the one hand and the incarnate Son and the Father on the other. The doctrine of appropriations affirms that we can and must distinguish between the Father and the incarnate Son, such that only the Son is incarnate and suffers death and abandonment of the Father. On the other hand, the rule opera ad extra sunt indivisa demands that we step back, dwelling on the fact that Christ’s passion is the work of the one God, such that ‘the death of Jesus Christ in God-abandonment, precisely as a human experience, is understood by him to be an event in God’s own life’, the life of the one God. This explains why, as Berthold Klappert notes, Barth is more inclined to speak of the suffering of God (theopaschitisch) than the New Testament emphasis on the suffering of Christ (hyiopaschitisch), interpreting the prevailing New Testament witness in light of the theopaschite statement in 2 Cor. 5:19. For this reason Barth refers to the ‘fellow-suffering of God Himself’ and subsequently distinguishes that suffering according to the various ‘ways of God’s being’, such that the Father, in fact, suffers with the Son in his ‘fatherly heart’ precisely by giving him up to this suffering.

According to Barth, as long as the Church properly balances the doctrine of appropriations and the rule opera ad extra, it has the right and responsibility to use provisional and temporary distinctions and appropriations (such as ‘the wrath of the Father’) in its theological discourse. This conclusion has a double edge in relation to current discussions. First, it forces critiques of the doctrine of the atonement based on a putatively fatal distinction between the Father and Son (typically referred to as a form of divine child abuse) to a greater depth of analysis, such that they must examine the arguments not only for appropriations (which, as we have seen, are one-sided even when warranted), but also for the balancing presence of the rule opera ad extra sunt indivisa. Likewise, this conclusion demands that proponents of traditional forms of the atonement be wary of concluding or giving unnecessary grounds for others to conclude that such appropriations finally and absolutely distinguish the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[1]

Now some of this might seem like theological hair-splitting, but I am convinced that it is absolutely essential. At stake is nothing less than the certainty that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19) and that the God redeemed his church “with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Statements like these can sound shocking, and they should. God on the cross? God’s own blood? How could such a thing be possible? And yet it is the heart of the Christian gospel: had God not been in Christ in the fullness of his Trinitarian being reconciling the world to himself, then Good Friday would ultimately have no meaning for us. Countless people were crucified on Roman crosses; so what would make the execution of one more Jew from Nazareth any different? Or, even if Jesus were the Son of God in the flesh but in a manner separate from the Father, then how could we ever know that what he did on the cross opens a window into the very heart of the Father’s infinite love? Apart from implying a heretical tritheism, inserting a wedge between the Son and the Father in the atonement makes it seem as though the latter was merely inflicting wrath on the former and only gave approval of that sacrifice after seeing Christ’s perfect obedience.

But surely this is not good news; this tells us of a wrathful God hidden and obscured behind the back of the crucified Son. Certainly there is a pouring out of wrath, but as Johnson emphasizes, it is a pouring out of wrath that falls within the trinitarian life of God himself. That is to say, the pouring out of divine wrath on the cross was, in fact, the greatest manifestation of the divine love, for it involved nothing less than God himself taking upon our lost and damned condition and extinguishing the flames of judgment against our sin.The cross is not the Father against the Son, but the Father with the Son (and the Spirit!) against sin. Surely this could never be called “divine child abuse”! It can only be called what it is: the incomprehensible and boundless love of God for us sinners, so vast and deep that it will stop at nothing, not even at death, to rescue and reconcile us. This indeed ample reason to rejoice this Good Friday!

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[1] Adam J. Johnson, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth (London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp.80-83.

Posted in Atonement, Doctrine of God, Gospel, Judgment of God, Karl Barth, Love of God, Seasonal, Soteriology, Trinity | 4 Comments

Undivided in Being and Act: Karl Barth on the Inseparable Operations of the Trinity

As a prelude to what I plan to post for Good Friday, I would like to offer Karl Barth’s summary of what St. Augustine called the orthodox faith of the catholic [universal] church, namely, that as the being of the Triune God is indivisible, so are his works indivisible. Just as we cannot conceive of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as separate beings or Gods unto themselves, but only as one God with one being, so also we cannot conceive of the works that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit accomplish as being separate acts unto each person. Thus, for example, we cannot say that only the Father was the Creator, or that only the Son is the Savior, or that only the Spirit is the Sanctifier, for in all the works of creation, salvation, and sanctification, each person of the Trinity is fully united with the others in act just as they are in being.

Barth explains this somewhat technical but highly important concept as follows:

Just as Scripture is to be read in context as the witness to God’s revelation, just as, e.g., Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost can only say together what they have to say, so we must say that all God’s work, as we are to grasp it on the basis of His revelation, is one act which occurs simultaneously and in concert in all His three modes of being. From creation by way of revelation and reconciliation to the coming redemption it is always true that He who acts here is the Father and the Son and the Spirit. And it is true of all the perfections that are to be declared in relation to this work of God that they are as much the perfections of the Father as of the Son and the Spirit. [By appropriation] thisTrinity-shield-cross-diagram-from-oxford act or this attribute must now be given prominence in relation to this or that mode of being in order that this can be described as such. But only [by appropriation] may this happen, and in no case, therefore, to the forgetting or denying of God’s presence in all His modes of being, in His total being and act even over against us….

From the eternity of the relation of the Father and the Son, in which that of the relation of both to the Holy Spirit is also contained, it necessarily follows first that not only God the Father is to be claimed as the Creator and as our Father, and that God the Father is not only to be claimed as the Creator and as our Father. We have said above that the use of the name Father for this relation and act of God ad extra is a derived and improper use. Revelation in so far as it is the revelation of God the Creator and our Father, and in so far as this its content is not to be separated from its form as revelation in Jesus, leads us to the knowledge of God as the eternal Father. But in this very knowledge we cannot separate the Father from the Son and from the Holy Ghost. In this knowledge, then, there necessarily becomes plain to us the purely relative significance of the way of isolation on which we have reached this knowledge. It implies an “appropriation” (cf. § 9, 3) when by isolation we regard specifically God the Father as the Creator and as our Father and when we regard God the Father specifically as the Creator and as our Father. The triunity does not mean that three parts of God operate alongside one another in three different functions. [The external works of the Trinity are undivided], as also the essence of God is a single and undivided essence…

Thus not only the subject of the first article of the Creed is the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, but with Him, in the order and sense pertaining to each, the subjects of the second and third articles too. And again the subject of the first article is not only the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, but also, again in the appropriate order and sense, the subject of reconciliation like the subject of the second article and the subject of redemption like that of the third article. Not the Father alone, then, is God the Creator, but also the Son and the Spirit with Him. And the Father is not only God the Creator, but with the Son and the Spirit He is also God the Reconciler and God the Redeemer. The very knowledge of the intratrinitarian particularity of the name of Father is thus a guarantee of the unity of God which would be endangered by regard for the particularity of God’s revelation as the Creator and our Father if this were not guided by this apparently—but only apparently—very speculative intratrinitarian insight. Because God is the eternal Father as the Father of the Son, and with Him the origin of the Spirit, therefore the God who acts in reconciliation and redemption, and who reveals Himself as the Reconciler and Redeemer, cannot be a second and third God or a second and third part of God; He is and remains God [one and indivisible] in His work as in His essence.[1]

Barth notes here that while it is possible and legitimate, on the basis of Scripture, to attribute (i.e. appropriate) certain acts to one specific person of the Trinity, it must be kept in mind that this way of speaking should not be thought to imply that the other two persons are uninvolved in that work. Any appropriation of the divine works to one person of the Trinity is a means by which Scripture stoops to human understanding in order to helps us comprehend the incomprehensible, so in no way should it be hardened into a clear-cut division. “For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). Thus, the Father, Son, and Spirit are indivisibly united in their works just as they are in their essence.

Although it may not be immediately apparent, this doctrine of “inseparable operations” has massive implications for the rest of theology, not least for the atonement and election. Without going into great detail, suffice it to say that we must theologize according to following rule: the person and work of Jesus Christ in history corresponds completely and without remainder to the being and will of God in eternity. We cannot, therefore, attribute to God’s eternal design some intention that is not fully manifested in Christ, particularly in his death and resurrection. Thus, the doctrine of inseparable operations establishes an indivisible link between atonement and election, as it also interweaves together all other aspects of Christian theology. Interpreting Scripture and doing theology in terms of this key doctrine is what thinking theo-logically is all about.

So tomorrow: what does inseparable operations mean for our understanding of the atonement?

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[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.374-375, 394-395.

Posted in Atonement, Augustine, Biblical interpretation, Doctrine of God, Karl Barth, Orthodoxy, Patristic theology, Trinity | Leave a comment

Forgotten in the Dust: Martin Luther, Scripture, and the Insignificance of Theological Writing (Reformission Monday)

This past Friday I had the privilege and opportunity to debate Don Ermis Segatti, an eminent Catholic priest and professor of theology, on the topic of Martin Luther and the start of the Reformation. Although both of our presentations were well received by those in attendance, it was clear that we had both prepared quite differently. Don Ermis spent most of his time addressing the various religious, cultural, historical, and political factors that contributed to turning Luther into the Reformer that we remember. I, on the other hand, endeavoured to spend less time speaking about Luther himself and more time on that which, I am convinced, Luther himself would have wanted: Holy Scripture. Luther, in fact, expressed concern later in his life about the tremendous reception that his writings had received. I find this fascinating. Wouldn’t most people be thrilled if their works were published, let alone achieve the far-reaching influence that Luther’s did? I know I would be!

However, as had happened to many books written in the history of the church, Luther feared that his own works would be disseminated, read, and studied more than the Bible, the very thing to which his works intended to point people. How tragic, Luther believed, would it be for his (or anyone else’s!) writings about Scripture to supplant Scripture itself as the primary school of Christian instruction and discipleship! Thus, in the preface to the 1539 edition of his collected works, Luther wrote:

I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all, remain in obscurity and go by the board. Among other reasons, I shudder to think of the example I am giving, for I am well aware how little the church has been profited since they have begun to collect many books and large libraries, in addition to and besides the Holy Scriptures, and especially since they have stored up, without discrimination, all sorts of writings by the church fathers, the councils, and teachers. Through this practice not only is 0000001655Lprecious time lost, which could be used for studying the Scriptures, but in the end the pure knowledge of the divine Word is also lost, so that the Bible lies forgotten in the dust under the bench (as happened to the book of Deuteronomy, in the time of the kings of Judah)

Although it has been profitable and necessary that the writings of some church fathers and councils have remained, as witnesses and histories, nevertheless I think, “Est modus in rebus,” and we need not regret that the books of many fathers and councils have, by God’s grace, disappeared. If they had all remained in existence, no room would be left for anything but books; and yet all of them together would not have improved on what one finds in the Holy Scriptures.

It was also our intention and hope, when we ourselves began to translate the Bible into German, that there should be less writing, and instead more studying and reading of the Scriptures. For all other writing is to lead the way into and point toward the Scriptures, as John the Baptist did toward Christ, saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease” [John 3:30], in order that each person may drink of the fresh spring himself, as all those fathers who wanted to accomplish something good had to do.

Neither councils, fathers, nor we, in spite of the greatest and best success possible, will do as well as the Holy Scriptures, that is, as well as God himself has done. (We must, of course, also have the Holy Spirit, faith, godly speech, and works, if we are to be saved.) Therefore it behooves us to let the prophets and apostles stand at the professor’s lectern, while we, down below at their feet, listen to what they say. It is not they who must hear what we say.[1]

I am profoundly convicted by these words. How often I (and I’m sure many like me) spend more time reading books about the Bible than reading the Bible itself! How often I tend to overestimate the importance of my own teaching, preaching, and writing in comparison to the inestimable worth and power of Scripture! Would that all of us who are in some way involved in speaking or writing about the Word of God have the same humility as Luther did in relation to his own, far more insignificant words. Luther well knew, as he himself testified, that he had done nothing to spark the Reformation, for the Word had done everything. He would simply drink Wittenberg beer with his friends while the Word was busy toppling kingdoms! Thus, rather than posing any risk to the supremacy of Scripture, Luther hoped that his own works would eventually fall into obscurity. Luther preferred to be forgotten so that the Word of God would not be. Had we the kind of literary output and influence of which Luther could have boasted, how many of us would say the same?

This is the passion of a true reformissionary: the Word of God must increase while my own words must decrease. If all that we say and write does not ultimately lead people to look away from all that we say and write and give ear above all else to Scripture alone, then we have failed in our mission. Jesus did not send us out into the world to make disciples by teaching all the things that we command! Christian mission is witness to Christ and his Word, not to us and our own theological prowess. Of the writing of books there is no end, but only the Word of our God will stand forever.

The famous exhortation of Count Zinzendorf is an appropriate conclusion to this matter: “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.” Even so, amen.

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[1] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), pp.39-40.

Posted in Church history, Five Solas, Martin Luther, Mission & evangelism, Protestant theology, Reformation, Reformission, Scripture, Sola Scriptura, Word of God | Leave a comment

Come, Lord Jesus! (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 22)

Revelation 22:6-7, 16-17, 20-21

And [the angel] said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” “And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” … “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price…. He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.

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(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.152-5. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

“The time is at hand.”… Faith knows that the eternal God has entered into this estranged world in Christ Jesus and therefore this world must pass away in its present form before the full unveiling of His glory. Jesus Christ is intensely near to faith, and therefore faith ever stands on the threshold of the new world, in intense consciousness of the Advent of the Lord. The New Testament does not think of the difference between the presence of Christ here and now and His Second Advent so much in terms of a passage of time as the difference between the veiled and the unveiled. That is why the whole of the New Testament by an inner necessity of personal faith thinks of that day as imminent. The pressure of that imminence may be so great upon the mind as to turn the thin veil of sense and time into apocalyptic imagery behind which it is given to see the consummation of all things. That is what has been happening in this book. Jesus Christ is so intensively near that St. John feels Him always at his elbow, immediately behind him, about to be revealed in all His transcendent glory. In a context of intimate communion like that, the testimony of Jesus is always the Spirit of prophecy….

[T]he voice of Jesus Himself comes to us breaking through the voice of the angel, and also through the voice of the Apostle, but never more clearly and insistently than at the points of desperate urgency. “I come quickly!” The words of this book are human words, and the images used in these visions are images such as we find in the dreams of men. Throughout them all there comes the great voice from the throne that authenticates itself as none other than the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ. Clear as a bell and with the note of supreme certainty and absolute authority it peals in the thunder of judgment over the rebellious forces of evil. It is ever the recognizable voice of Him who, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, spoke as no other in words that we may understand, gracious words of love and truth, the words of eternal life….

The voice that speaks through these visions can be heard today. It is the voice of the everlasting Gospel, the voice that rises in clear and beautiful tones above all the hubbub of a rebellious world, the voice of Jesus through the Spirit and through the Church…. To participate in all that it reveals of the everlasting love of God and of the glory of the holy city a gracious invitation is extended to whosoever will. There is but one condition — to be thirsty. It is only they who may drink of the water of the river of life live themselves forever in the life of God.

Posted in Devotional, Eschatology, Gospel, Preaching, Prophets & prophecy, Revelation, T.F. Torrance | 3 Comments

The Final Word: H.R. Mackintosh on Jesus Christ as Revelation Made Flesh

Why is it that, as claimed by John Calvin, T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth, and many others, Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation of God, the Word revealed to which the Word written attests in its whole and in all of its parts? Why is Jesus Christ the full unveiling of God such that we cannot, nor dare not, seek another God hidden somewhere behind his back, another dark mysterious deity whose final word of self-revelation has been hitherto concealed? H.R. Mackintosh explains from the gospel of John:

At various points the writer opens up, beyond this unity of Father and Son, a vista of its eternal character. He transcends the first three Gospels by insisting on the fact that the Sonship of Christ is increate and un-beginning, the presupposition of all time and history. In the beginning…He had been the Word with the Father. Ere coming from heaven He had lived a life somehow characterised by spiritual relationships (17:5); it was not some impersonal moment or tendency in God which had taken flesh and dwelt among men, but the Son, eternal object of the Father’s love (17:34), and possessed word-made-fleshthereby of a perfect knowledge of the Father which was capable of reproducing itself in His earthly consciousness.

As one whose place is in the Father’s bosom (1:18) He presents God in propria persona. He knows God thus because He has always known Him so. “I speak the things which I have seen with My Father”; “no man hath ascended into heaven, but He that descended out of heaven.” Numerous other salient passages dwell on this prior life of Sonship. To the Jews’ question where He will go that they cannot come, He answers, “I am from above” (8:38). In the mysterious declaration, “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58), the tense is apparently chosen to denote, as far as human speech permits, the timeless and unbecoming eternity of His inmost being. And in the upper room, He speaks to the Father of “the glory which I had with Thee before the world was”(17:5) and prays that it may be restored to Him.

Yet the main object of these statements is not to make certain speculative predications, in a so-called metaphysical interest, but to exhibit Jesus as the final revelation of the Father. This is the pivotal and organising idea in St. John’s theology. We can see the conviction in his mind that none can reveal perfectly save He who is that which He reveals. In His essential love, accordingly, the Father has poured forth His being in Jesus, that a perishing world may have life through Him. “Believest thou not,” Jesus asks, “that I am in the Father and the Father in Me? The words that I say unto you I speak not from Myself: but the Father abiding in Me doeth His works” (14:10). [H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp.103-4.]

Quite simply, Mackintosh’s answer (which is nothing other than the apostle John’s answer!) is that Jesus is the final, ultimate, and definitive word of revelation because he is revelation himself. He does not come on God’s behalf to relay information about God; he is God himself, the Son in full equality and coinherence with the Father and Spirit, who makes God known within the confines and structures of our human capacities. Inasmuch as Christ is flesh, he is God accommodating himself to our understanding, as it were, with a lisp and a stammer (as Calvin put it); yet as God in flesh, he is eloquent and radiant (as Barth put it). Jesus is what he reveals, and therefore there can be no other revelation of God than what we see and hear and know in him, from now and throughout all eternity. In Jesus we have heard that eternal Word, and it is Love.

Posted in Christology, H.R. Mackintosh, Image of God, Incarnation, Knowledge of God, Revelation, Word of God

“Always Inseparably Joined”: John Calvin, T.F. Torrance, and the Relation between True Knowledge of God and Salvation (Reformission Monday)

In my last “Reformission Monday” post, I explored one of the practical implications of a theology of mission and evangelism that is, from start to finish, shaped by Christology, by Christ himself as revealed in his gospel. We saw, in reference to John Calvin and T.F. Torrance, that Christ is the sole apologetic of the gospel, the single point of contact between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5) that rules out any appeal to some kind of “natural” theology or knowledge of God as a precursor to the gospel message. In this post, I would like to extend that argument a bit more by examining the link between what, according to Scripture, constitutes true knowledge of God and right-relatedness to God.

Here, once again commenting on Calvin’s view on this matter, is Torrance:

Calvin holds, then, that if we are to reach a real knowledge of God we must not just know that God is, but we must know His will toward us. “It concerns us not only to know what He is in Himself, but also in what character He is pleased to manifest Himself to us. We now see therefore that faith is the knowledge of the divine will in regard to us, as ascertained from His Word.” [Instit. 3.2.6] Accordingly, it is not just the bare will with which we are concerned, for “the Law of the Lord kills its readers, when it is dissevered from the grace of Christ, and only sounds in the ear without touching the heart.” [Instit. 1.9.3] “Hence there is need of the gracious promise, in which He testifies that He is a propitious Father; since there is no other way in which we can approach to Him, the promise  being the only thing on which the heart of man can rely.” [Instit. 3.2.7] “…No one, except he be blinded by presumption and mc8hfascinated by self-love, can feel assured that God will be a rewarder of his merits. Hence this confidence of which we speak relies not on works, not on man’s worthiness, but on the grace of God alone; and as grace is nowhere found but in Christ, it is on Him alone that faith ought to be fixed.” [Comm. Heb. 11:6]

It is through the Cross that we see this grace, for there we have a “Mediator who delivers us from our fears, and who alone can tranquillize our conscience, so that we may dare to come to God in confidence”. [Comm. 1 Pet. 1:21] It is only through the death of Christ, by which the whole order of things has been restored, and only within this circumscription of our minds by His grace and reconciliation, that we may reach true knowledge of God in an order corresponding to that in which He graciously reveals Himself to us. “There is no other way in which God is known, but in the face of Jesus Christ — that is, by the intervention of a Mediator … that knowledge which forms us anew into the image of God from faith to faith, or rather, which is the same with faith, by which, having been ingrafted into the body of Christ, we are made partakers of the divine adoption, and heirs of heaven.” [Comm. John 17:3] “Therefore let us set this down for a surety: that there was never since the beginning any communication between God and man, save only by Christ; for we have nothing to do with God, unless the Mediator be present to purchase His favour for us.” [Comm. Acts 7:30]

The conclusion one must draw here is that if there is no real knowledge of God apart from God’s gracious action in restoring the disorder of nature, then there is no real knowledge that is not also saving knowledge. “One thing is certain, that these two things, salvation and the knowledge of the truth, are always inseparably joined together.” [The Doctrine of the Secret Providence of God, Art. 1] [1]

Here we see that for Calvin, as well as for Torrance, knowledge of God that can be considered “true” is exclusively knowledge that obtains in reconciled relations with God. To know God truly is to know his loving, fatherly will for us and our eternal good, and we can know his will in this way only when we have been reconciled to him in Christ. Because our sin has alienated us from God, and because we stand under his judgment and wrath, we will never be able to look to God and gain assurance of his loving and gracious will for us except that we look to him in the face of Christ and experience the reconciliation that is in Christ alone. When we know that we have been reconciled to God, being justified by faith, we know that we have peace with him (Rom. 5:1), and it is on this basis, and this basis alone, that we can truly know him for who he truly is.

Once again, we see why appealing to any so-called “natural” knowledge or theology of God as a sort of preamble to the proclamation of the gospel is wholly illegitimate and ill-advised. Proofs of God’s existence, for example, will not necessarily lead people closer to Christ. In fact, as Paul indicates in Romans 1:18ff, it will simply lead people to twist the knowledge of God so obtained into an idolatrous ruin. Only repentance and submission to the folly of the cross will enable the enemies of God to come to a true knowledge of God for, as Calvin emphasized, such knowledge is “always inseparably joined” with salvation. As Torrance argues (again citing Calvin):

…the essential motion of true knowledge entails “the submission of the whole of intellectual wisdom to the foolishness of the Cross”. [Introd. Comm. Genesis] The Cross depotentiates all natural theology, and entails a change in the natural man which is complete and entire. “The Kingdom of Christ cannot be set up or established otherwise than by throwing down everything in the world that is exalted. For nothing is more opposed to the spiritual wisdom of God than the wisdom of the flesh; nothing is more at variance with the grace of God than man’s natural ability, and so as to other things. Hence the only foundation of Christ’s Kingdom is the abasement of men.” [Comm. 2 Cor. 10:4].

In all of our missionary and evangelistic efforts, then, we should preach nothing other than what Jesus himself did when he “came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'” (Mark 1:14-15).

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), pp.177-8.

[2] Ibid., pp.178-9.

Posted in Gospel, John Calvin, Knowledge of God, Missiology, Mission & evangelism, Preaching, Reformission, Revelation, T.F. Torrance

The New Heaven and the New Earth (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 21)

Revelation 21:1-4

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

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(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.144-6. 150. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

It has been said that the great purpose of God, which begins with creation, narrows down in a fallen world first to the people of Israel and then to the suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, but in Jesus Christ it widens out through the Church, the Israel of God, and at last breaks into a new heaven and new earth. It is the road from the many to the One, and from the One to the many. At its center is the Lamb of God, He who is, who was, and who is to come, gather up in Himself the purpose of the original creation and fulfilling it by redemption in the new creation….

[T]he Kingdom of God is not a realm characterized by heaven only. It is a homely Kingdom with earth in it. Whatever else that may mean it certainly implies a physical existence of created beings, and implies too that eternity will not be a timeless monotone but an eternity with time in the heart of it…. This much, too, is clear that God’s original creation will be fully restored in redemption. It is a redemption, however, that transcends that original creation in glory though it is not divorced from it. The original purpose of love will be more than fulfilled. The Garden of Eden meant that God has made man to have communion with Him in a perfect environment, and that true human life is essentially life in such a perfect environment. Therefore the perfection of the Christian life involves the perfection of earth as well as heaven. The Christian hope is fulfilled only in a new heaven and a new earth peopled with human beings living in holy and loving fellowship with God, with one another, and in harmony with the fulness of creation….

The new heaven and the new earth are the perfect environment, and now St. John tries to describe the perfect form which the Kingdom of God will take…. “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people….” The language reminds us of the beginning of the Fourth Gospel: “And the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among men, and we beheld his glory, full of glory and truth.” That is the very heart of the eternal Kingdom, God among men in grace and truth, God in intimate fellowship with His children in a life from which evil and pain have been utterly eradicated and which draws its abundance from Jesus Christ….

Who can say all that the Lord has laid up for those who trust Him?… Certainly it is true that the great reward of all who serve Him here is that they shall ever serve Him there, and see His face, and become like Him. He who has seen Christ, has seen the Father, and that vision more than suffices him. The Father whom we shall see yonder is none other than Him whom we see in Jesus. Yonder we shall see Him in fulness of vision which is denied to us here, but it will ever be God as revealed to us in Jesus and no other for there is no other. In the heart of transcendent Deity there will still be One like unto the Son of Man, and the light in which we shall see Him will ever be the light of the Lamb.

Posted in Assurance, Devotional, Eschatology, Preaching, Prophets & prophecy, Revelation, Soteriology, Suffering | 1 Comment