“This Grim Fire I Fear Not”: The Forging of Scotland’s Reformer in the Burning of George Wishart

One of the important historical sites in the lovely seaside town of St. Andrews in Scotland is the ruins of its historic castle. Just outside of the castle along the street there is an inconspicuous marker laid into the pavement consisting in the letters “GW” which stand for the name George Wishart. The marker quietly commemorates the exact spot upon which Wishart was burned at the stake on the orders of Roman Catholic Cardinal David Beaton for preaching the Reformed faith. Compared with his disciple John Knox, Wishart is not nearly as well known or widely remembered, having died when he was only aboutDSC_0423 33 years old. Apart from a relatively short period of itinerant preaching in Scotland, Wishart does not appear to have accomplished much in promoting the Scottish Reformation. Yet, as many have remarked, had there been no George Wishart, there would likely have been no John Knox, at least Knox as the Reformer that we esteem today.

Knox himself paid tribute to his courageous mentor in his History of the Reformation of Scotland when he wrote the following account of Wishart’s execution on 1 March 1546:

The manner of Master George Wishart’s taking was thus:—Departing from Haddington, he took his good-night, as it were for ever, of all his acquaintance, especially from Hugh Douglas of Longniddry. John Knox pressing to go with him, Master George said: ‘Nay, return to your [pupils], and God bless you. One is sufficient for one sacrifice.’ He then caused a two-handed sword, which commonly was carried with him, to be taken away from John Knox, who, albeit unwillingly, obeyed and returned with Hugh Douglas…. Before midnight, the place was beset about so that none could escape to make advertisement. At the first word, Master George said, ‘Open the gates. The Blessed Will of my God be done!’…

The Bishops, with their complices, condemned this innocent man to be burnt as a heretic, thinking verily, that they should do to God good sacrifice … When all was done and said, my Lord Cardinal caused his tormentors to pass again with the meek lamb unto [St. Andrew’s] Castle, until such time as the fire was made ready…. When the fire was made ready, and the gallows, at the west part of the Castle of St. Andrews near the Priory, my Lord Cardinal, dreading that Master George should have been taken away by his friends, commanded to ben all the ordnance of the Castle right against the place of execution, and commanded all his gunners to stand beside their guns, until such time as he was burned. They bound Master George’s hands behind his back, and led him forth with their soldiers from the Castle, to the place of their cruel and wicked execution….

When he came to the fire, he sat down upon his knees, and rose up again; and thrice he said these words: ‘O Thou Saviour of the World, have mercy upon me! Father of Heaven, I commend my spirit into Thy holy hands.’ Then he turned to the people and said: ‘I beseech you, Christian Brethren and Sisters, be not offended at the Word of God, for the affliction and torments which ye see prepared for me. But I exhort you, love the Word of God and suffer patiently, and with a comfortable heart, for the Word’s sake, which is your undoubted salvation and everlasting comfort.

Moreover, I pray you, show my brethren and sisters, which have heard me oft, that they cease not to learn the Word of God which I taught unto them, for no persecutions in this world, which lasteth not. Show them that my doctrine was no 1024px-The_martyrdom_of_George_Wishartwives’ fables, after the constitutions made by men. If I had taught men’s doctrine, I had gotten greater thanks by men. But for the true Evangel, which was given to me by the Grace of God, I suffer this day by men, not sorrowfully, but with a glad heart and mind. For this cause I was sent, that I should suffer this fire for Christ’s sake. Consider and behold my visage. Ye shall not see me change my colour! This grim fire I fear not; and so I pray you to do, if any persecution come unto you for the Word’s sake; and not to fear them that slay the body, and afterward have no power to slay the soul. Some have said I taught that the soul of man should sleep until the Last Day; but I know surely that my soul shall sup with my Saviour this night, ere it be six hours, for whom I suffer this.’

Then he prayed for them which accused him, saying; ‘I beseech Thee, Father of Heaven, forgive them that have of any ignorance, or else of any evil mind, forged lies upon me. I forgive them with all my heart. I beseech Christ to forgive them that have condemned me to death this day ignorantly.’ Last of all, he said to the people on this manner: ‘I beseech you, Brethren and Sisters, to exhort your Prelates to the learning of the Word of God, that they may be ashamed to do evil, and learn to do good. If they will not convert themselves from their wicked errors, there shall hastily come upon them the Wrath of God, which they shall not eschew.’

Many faithful words said he in the meantime, taking no care of the cruel torments prepared for him. Last of all, the hangman, his tormentor, upon his knees, said; ‘Sir, I pray you, forgive me, for I am not guilty of your death.’ To whom he answered: ‘Come hither to me.’ When he was come to him, he kissed his cheek, and said: ‘Lo! here is a token that I forgive thee My heart, do thine office!’ Then, the trumpet sounding, he was put upon the gibbet and hanged, and there burnt to powder. When the people beheld the great tormenting of that innocent, they might not withhold from piteous mourning and complaining of the innocent lamb’s slaughter.[1]

As Knox goes on to recount, Wishart’s martyrdom set off a chain of events that in God’s providence brought Knox to the forefront of Scottish Protestantism, under whose leadership the Reformed faith would arguably have its most widespread, unified success. The outrage over Wishart’s execution led to the storming of St. Andrews castle, the establishment of a consolidated Protestant movement, and the recognition of Knox as the movement’s primary preacher and driving force. Not only this, but as reflected in Knox’s History, the passionate preaching and dying exhortations of George Wishart fueled a fire in Knox’s bones equal to the flames which had consumed his beloved mentor. Little did Cardinal Beaton know, the fire that he kindled in an attempt to stop the spread of Reformation preaching in Scotland was the spark that ultimately set the entire country ablaze.

When Wishart went to the stake, the prospect of the Reformation’s success was tenuous at best. It would be understandable if in a passing moment of weakness prior to his execution Wishart had questioned if his short life really amounted to all that much some accounts, he had failed in what he endeavoured to do. Yet his was his self-sacrifice thatWishartKnox played a significant, if not determinative, role in shaping John Knox into the Reformer that he became and in galvanizing the Scottish people as a whole under the banner of the Reformation.

I am reminded of Jesus’s words to Peter at the end of John’s gospel: When Peter saw [the disciple whom Jesus loved], he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!'” No doubt Wishart would have wanted to remain to continue to preach alongside Knox for many years to come. Perhaps he may have questioned God in allowing his ministry to be cut short. Yet in the providence of God, what perhaps seemed like a failure and a defeat in the immediate time turned out to be the catalyst for Scotland’s Reformation. We never know all that God intends to do with us, and it may take eternity before we discover the marvelous beauty and perfection of his sovereign plan. Yet discover it we shall. So let us not despair in our present sufferings, failures, setbacks, and defeats. In God’s redemptive economy, nothing is ever wasted.

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[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 52, 55-56, 58-59, 62-65.

The Ineffable Blowing of the Spirit: Karl Barth, Causality, and the Mystery of Prayer

The question of causality in both theology and philosophy (not to mention the sciences) is definitely a thorny one. Much ink (and blood) has been spilled in controversy over this very point. Is God sovereign over all things? If so, how? Does God’s sovereignty mean that creaturely freedom is an illusion? If creaturely freedom is not an illusion, is God’s sovereignty thereby limited? What about prayer? If God is sovereign, then what good will prayer do? How can we possibly expect to have an effect on God’s ways and works if he has already planned everything out from before creation? Or if prayer is effectual, does that mean then that God really isn’t totally sovereign?

These are the kinds of difficult questions that arise in relation to question of causality. On the surface, it may seem somewhat of an abstract and abstruse discussion. Yet when we begin to think about it, we come to realize that the way we understand causality, bothkarl_barth divine and human, has a massive impact on our lives, from prayer to evangelism to finances to suffering.

I have personally found Karl Barth helpful in working through these questions. As most readers of Barth know, however, he can sometimes be difficult to follow through all the twists and turns and heights and depths of his thought, especially when it comes to issues like causality and concursus (that is, the relation between divine and human action). Christopher Green helps to illuminate our journey with Barth just a little bit when he writes:

While Barth avoids the traditional use of the causal terminology, he still adopts it for his own nuanced reasons. In the Spirit, God works something that is rightly called “causality” in divine providence because he and his covenantal partner (i.e., the creature) mysteriously “condition” each other. God’s Spirit makes this “conditioning” possible on each side, and the irreducible mystery of providential causality is grounded within God’s own life. For this reason, the question of the “causality” of the Spirit in the created world is an incontrovertible enigma:

The divine pattern must be normative on both sides. In His procession from the Father and the Son, the Spirit is a particular Spirit, the Holy Spirit. He is always a Spirit of love and peace and order, but now He is the Spirit of the love and peace and order which according to the eternal mystery of the unity of Father and Son will always be a mystery in the ways and works of the Spirit in the created order, and therefore in Christian existence. The Spirit can never be observed or imprisoned by the creature, and therefore by the Christian, but in all His majesty He will always be a free Spirit and—therefore the Holy Spirit.

This element of pneumatic mystery in concursus opens a door for Barth to talk about causality without thinking of it as a “mechanical” causality. The Spirit is the effect of Jesus Christ’s action in providence, and this is a conditioning of his partner, the creature. Due to the fact that Christ’s action takes place in the Spirit, his action on the creature transpires in such a way that it is causal and yet, ineffably nonmechanical. Christ’s providential action is “causal” because it is a “conditioning” of the creature, but this is not a “mechanical” conditioning.

Barth’s appropriation of “causal” language refers to a kind of covenantal “conditioning” that is meaningful in two ways: First, and in the light of the importance that is placed on the atonement in §49.1, it may be more accurate to say that God’s work in providence is “causal” in the sense that it is a soteriological “conditioning.” Barth’s way of soteriologically adopting the term causa should not be a surprise on account of his “radical correction.” Since Barth’s doctrine of election is elevated above his doctrine of providence, the traditional terminology is not only placed in a soteriological context, it is retained so that it can be meaningfully redefined. Second, and regardless of the way that Barth’s soteriology qualifies his account of the appropriate use of causal terminology, divine and human agents do have a real impact on each other due to this soteriological context. God may even be said to be “determined” by the creature in the act of prayer. This happens, furthermore, because God allows this exchange to occur mysteriously in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the “Lord of our hearing” in such a way that “no method” can approach him on the side of the creature.

For Barth, this solution will only satisfy the theologian if the “cause” question originates within the context of a prayerful commending of the Word. That is, the question of God’s ongoing relation with the creature in concursus can only be properly raised when this is done from the standpoint of Barth’s soteriology. The creature will only pray in the context of providence when this also occurs in the context of reconciliation. Creation cannot be isolated and investigated here. All too often, however, the “cause” question is motivated by a need to safeguard the doctrine of divine omnipotence with a conceptual apparatus and, therefore, the theologian attempts to gain knowledge of creation apart from reconciliation, that is, apart from prayer. Attempting to gain knowledge of creation in se and apart from reconciliation is characterized by Barth in §49.2 as motivated by fear. However, a practical knowledge of the divine concursus that arises out of prayer is satisfied with the irreducible mystery of the Spirit’s action, which embraces both creation and reconciliation as mutually supportive contexts. I will elaborate on this version of causality more fully in the following three chapters. However, at this point it suffices to say that the prayer that the Spirit encourages is one that jettisons dissatisfaction and suspicion from theology, and therefore, the motive that traditionally encourages the use of causa.

Barth makes it clear in §49.2, and especially in his discussion of succurrit, that Christ is certainly omnipotent over all things. However, for Barth, Jesus Christ is the King who enacts the omnipotent rule of God because the Spirit that enacts this causality in the created world is “His Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is a predicate of Christ’s action in providence that not only safeguards the inexplicability of the mysterious relation between reconciliation and providence, but conceals the historical effect of his power in practice.143 The Spirit is “a subjectivisation of the objective Word of God.” In other words, only in the context of faithful prayer can the creature come to apprehend what it means that she is the “partner” of God. Just as Christ possesses the Spirit, he possesses the creature’s prayer and directs it to apprehend this mystery analogically, without grasping it fully. This also offers a clue for understanding what Barth means when he speaks of human freedom in §49.2.

As a predicate of Christ’s work, the Spirit is God’s action that guarantees the origin, execution, and effect of every event in history. Therefore, this leaves us with one final implication: that the act of the creature is truly free because the Spirit is the mystery of God’s empowering love in Jesus Christ: “Where the Word and Spirit are at work unconditionally and irresistibly, the effect of their operation is not bondage but freedom.” At once, in the Holy Spirit, divine providence is incomprehensible, but is also faithful to the Creator’s purpose for the creature—that she should be free. The ongoing freedom of the creature in divine concursus is guaranteed in Christ’s action on account of the mystery of the Spirit’s mediation.

Now this may leave us with just as many questions (if not more!) than before. There is certainly mystery here, and I doubt that we will ever fully comprehend the ways and works of God, especially with what pertains to our own role as human beings in relation to them. What we can learn, however, is that we must not reduce God’s sovereign and providential activity, especially the mysterious “blowing of the Spirit wherever he wills”, in mechanistic or logico-causal terms. God is not a machine (neither are we for that matter!), nor does he operate like one. The ineffability of the Spirit means that all of our explanations will ultimately fall short of the reality to which they point.

In the end, Barth and Green help us to see that however we may understand this mystery, it is only in prayer that we can actually begin to grasp it – not necessarily in systematic or explicable categories, but in the kind of knowledge that we can only acquire by participation in the reality of which we speak. This is indeed why Barth often stressed that apart from prayer, all theological work is done in vain.

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[1] Green, C.C., 2011. Doxological Theology: Karl Barth on Divine Providence, Evil, and the Angels J. Webster, I. A. McFarland, & I. Davidson, eds., London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.87-90. For citations of Barth, see Green.

To Give Thanks: Francis Turretin vs. Karl Barth on God’s Sovereignty vis-à-vis the Problem of Evil

I found Christopher Green’s comparison between the views of the two theological giants that were Francis Turretin and Karl Barth regarding God’s sovereignty vis-à-vis evil very illuminating, so I thought I would share it. Green writes:

In the traditional teaching, the orthodox make a hamartiological distinction in order to accommodate the providentia circa malum [providence in relation to evil], between an “order of being” and an “order of morals.” The order of being is the proper object of the voluntas beneplaciti [God’s decretive will] in the providential disposing of all created things. That is, as God orders all events according to his will, these events are arranged to align with his will according to their being. Since opposition against God’s will is impossible, he reveals the sin which opposes him through a different will, that is the voluntas signi [God’s prescriptive will]. It is in this domain that the will of God may be resisted. Sin may take place, then, in the context of an order of morals, and the creature’s being may still be secure beneath God’s sovereignty. The francisturretinportraitethical domain must be kept separate for the orthodox, as God providentially allows the creature to choose sin but does not condone it in the sense of his actio. With another reversal, Barth asserts that the creature’s acknowledgment that all of creation is one order is a matter of thankful obedience to Christ.

Francis Turretin, as an example of an orthodox thinker, finds that the order of morals is the arena where God reveals his opposition against sin. Turretin states: “In every moral action we must necessarily distinguish the substance of the act in the genus of being from the goodness and wickedness of the same in the genus of morals.” It is on the basis of this distinction that God can be said to change his mind in the biblical narratives, as the voluntas signi does not univocally echo the will of God ad intra. Turretin continues:

Thus the volition of stealing reduplicatively and circumstantiated here and now, is indeed essentially evil with regard to another’s property; but the volition, to which that circumstance happens by which it is a volition to steal, is not essentially evil in like manner […] God was unwilling that the brethren of Joseph should sell him and that the Jews should crucify Christ, since they were most heinous crimes against the law. Yet he is said to have willed, yea, even to have done these things. (Gen. 45:7; Acts 4:28) [Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, p.510-511]

Importantly, this position leads Turretin to make statements similar to those belonging to Barth during the Göttingen period. In some sense, God must be said to be the “cause” of sin. In this manner, Turretin’s explication of the providentia circa malum describes the situation that originally causes Barth to suspect a difficulty with the orthodox position with respect to divine holiness. When this same strain begins to show in Turretin’s writing, he reiterates the distinction between an order of being and of morals. Turretin states:

God is the cause of the human will; therefore he is the cause of sin—for when the created will sins, it turns aside and fails from the order of the first cause. And God who is the cause of the will per se, cannot be called the cause of the evil action, which is from the will not simply in the genus of being (as it is from God), but from the will failing as to the law in the genus of morals. [Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, p.525]

Barth’s repudiation of the orthodox position on the will of God has implications for all of creaturely life, life that undergoes both moral and immoral action. Consistent with Barth’s position on the voluntas beneplaciti and signi, he invests both the being of the creature and her ethical life in her response to the self-revelation of God in Jesus 6a00d83451cfe769e201310fb8506c970cChrist. Since the dual-order structure in the life of God has been merged in Christ, the very essence of the creature must also be said to be equivalent with his own act of praise: “Gratitude is to be understood not only as a quality and an activity but as the very being and essence of this creature.” Barth’s position comes full circle in this way: praise is the realization of God’s will not only for the creature’s moral life, but for his physical being as well. Sin can never be a power in the hands of the creature, enabling it to establish a secondary order outside the sovereign Creator’s will: “Thus we must not focus our attention on the sinner, as though by his sin he had founded a new order of things which had an independent meaning.” Rather, “by doing this and this alone does he distinguish himself as being from non-being […] ‘To be or not to be? that is the question’ and it is decided by the way in which we answer the question: To give thanks or not to give thanks?”[1]

I wish to make no other comment on this than to simply reiterate the final question posed by Barth via Green: which of these ways of conceiving God’s relationship to the ever-present problem of evil provide us with this greatest grounds for living life doxologically, in praise and gratitude for all of the ways and works of God?

I leave it to you to ponder this question.

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[1] Green, C.C., 2011. Doxological Theology: Karl Barth on Divine Providence, Evil, and the Angels J. Webster, I. A. McFarland, & I. Davidson, eds., London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.33-35.

The Apostles’ Creed and the Election of Jesus Christ: Karl Barth on the Christ-Conditioned Nature of Divine Providence

To begin this post, I would simply like to quote a section from Christopher Green’s book Doxological Theology in which he examines Karl Barth’s formulation of the doctrine of divine providence in strict accordance with the inner theo-logic of the Apostles’ Creed (after which I will conclude with a few comments of my own):

It is germane to Barth’s doctrine of providence that he should argue that the first article of the creed must be read in the light of the second, and so he states this criterion for his doctrine in a number of key places in III/3…

In the second article of the creed one finds the true meaning of the first, that God the Father of Jesus Christ is the “Almighty.” This correction of the creed is the “climax of the whole doctrine of creation.” For Barth, the previous generations that recited the creed in full should have, so to speak, “known better” than to accept a philosophical barthversion of simplicity, as the second article puts Christ’s face on the first. This makes the God of providence, that is, the God of the first article, identifiable as noncapricious. Barth consistently argues in 1949 that, despite the creed, the God of Western theology on the whole is unfortunately a philosophical monad, “the absolute, the general, the digit 1.” In this volume, he states that the most common cause for this dogmatic distortion is confusion between divine unity and simplicity. The default Western position on simplicity, he says, is grounded in an analogia entis which contrasts God with the world by identifying him as a philosophically “simple” being. Barth often raises this complaint about the Western view, which is implicit in his critique of J. P. Sartre, whose concept of man, he says, is a displaced version of the generic god of the West:

It is as man that man assumes the functions of deity, and in spite of the strangeness of his form is clotted with the attributes of at least the conventional Western conception of God, existing of and by and for himself, constituting his own beginning and end as absolute actuality without potentiality, unique, omnipotent, and certainly omniscient […] All that is lacking is the slightest trace of the biblical concept of God. [CD III/3, pp.342-343]

It is the Apostles’ Creed that points to God’s election in Jesus Christ in its summary of the whole of Scripture, safeguarding the God of providence as the triune God. According to Barth, the doctrine is commonly obscured when God’s power as “Father” is abstracted from his revealed work in Christ. Thus, the God who reveals himself in an undivided way is slighted, severing the One who is the Son from his constitutive relation with the Father. Against this, Barth states at the beginning and end of his writing the Church Dogmatics that “the theological rule with respect to the Trinity [… is] opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa.” For Barth, his commitment to the unity of the triune God means an approach to divine providence will not be grounded in a metaphysical concept of the simple. Rather, he apprehends the work appropriated to the second person of the Trinity (i.e., election, reconciliation) as a context for understanding the variegated unity of the triune Subject who acts providentially. It is not hard to see, then, why Barth chides his opponents in III/3 for not “deducing” providence from the doctrine of the Trinity. As Barth sees it, his predecessors lost the programmatic role that should be played by the triunity of God because they failed to understand the doctrine of predestination in the context of the person and work of Christ. This is the purpose of the second article of the creed, which should have been sufficient for pointing to the centrality of Christ, and consequently, to the triunity of God. It is in the second article that the hidden God becomes manifest.[1]

What I find immensely helpful about this is the way in which Barth, via Green, uncovers the fundamental “theo-logic” (i.e. the unique logic that accords with the way of God’s self-revelation in Christ) that underlies the various affirmations of the Apostles’ (and one could say the same of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan) Creed. This underlying theo-logic is signalled in the very first words of the Creed that recognize God as “Father” before identifying him as “Creator”. This is highly significant in that it gives a distinctly trinitarian and christological shape to the Creed’s reading of Scripture. The Creed interprets the “God” who “in the beginning…created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) not as, in Green’s words, a “philosophical monad” but rather as God already existing as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. On this basis, Barth rightly discerns that a proper understanding of the Creed, and through it a proper interpretation of the biblical witness, is that the first article – that affirms God as Creator and Sustainer of creation – must be read strictly in accordance with the second article concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. Another way of saying this would be that the Creed affirms the trinitarian election of Jesus Christ – the divine determination to not be the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father through the Spirit apart from enlarging that communion to include, through the incarnation of the Son, human creatures in the overflow of the triune life, love, and light – as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.

Thus, if we are to remain (apart from compelling reasons not to do so) faithful to the universal consent of the early church, set forth in the Creed, regarding the essential content of the Christian faith, we must learn, as Barth did, a rigorously Christ-centered hermeneutic that does justice to the election of Christ as the ground, means, and goal of all that Scripture teaches. In relation to the doctrine of providence, this means that we do not merely have a God as Creator who rules over creation and governs it according to his will, but a triune God who relates to his creation and exercises his providence over it primarily as loving and gracious Father who orders all things by his Spirit towards their intended summation in Christ (Eph. 1:10). To know this is to rest secure, as question 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism states:

That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ the Son. I trust God so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me in this sad world. God is able to do this because he is almighty God and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.

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[1] Green, C.C., 2011. Doxological Theology: Karl Barth on Divine Providence, Evil, and the Angels J. Webster, I. A. McFarland, & I. Davidson, eds., London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.36-38.

Prayer Falls Burning (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 8)

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. (Revelation 8:1-5)

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.59-61.)

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“Grace” by Aneeke Kaai

In the series of visions that precede these two chapters we have looked deeply into the dark impetuous career of the world…In the first six seals we see the dark hinterground of human history, the principalities and powers and spiritual wickedness that master the events of history and bring in their anti-Christian career such terrible calamities upon the earth. There we see the dark powers of the world apparently triumphant over the cause of God. But now we see further and deeper into the secrets of God. As the seventh seal is opened we read the profounder mysteries of world events.

What is it that we see? What are the real master-powers behind the world and what are the deeper secrets of our destiny? Here is the astonishing answer: the prayers of the saints and the fire of God. That means that more potent, more powerful than all the dark and mighty powers let loose in the world, more powerful than anything else, is the power of prayer set ablaze by the fire of God and cast upon the earth. And so St. John tells us he saw the angel take the censer which was filled with the prayers of the saints, kindle it with fire from God’s altar, and then cast it upon the earth. With that were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake. And the seven angels began to sound their trumpets one after the other and to let loose seven plagues upon the earth. The real cause of the world-disturbance is the prayer of the Church and the fire of God!

The real aggressor is the man or the woman who prays in the name of the God. The prayers of the saints and the fire of God move the whole course of the world. They are the most potent, the most disturbing, the most revolutionary, the most terrifying powers that the world knows. Would to God we in Christ’s Church really understood the power of prayer like that! It is through prayer that the Spirit of God comes upon the Church in tongues of fire. It is through prayer that Satan falls like lightning to the ground. It is through prayer that the Voice of the Gospel thunders through the clouds of darkness. It is prayer that causes earthquakes and shakes history to its very foundations.

That is the deeper secret of Heaven and of God’s Book in Heaven, and the first fact revealed by the opening of the seventh seal. Jesus Christ came not only to bring peace, but a sword. He came to cast fire upon the earth. All history is tortured by that fire burning at its heart. All history moves at the impulse of prayer. The real initiative is not held by the riders of the white, red, black, and pale horses, but by the saints under the altar, by the prayers of the saints and the fire of God.

The Lion-like Power of a Lamb-like Weakness (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 5)

And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain…And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb…And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:2-10

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 35-36, 40-41.)

Here is the message of this chapter. In spite of the monstrous and demonic upheaval of the world, in spite of the fact that the whole world seems to have broken loose from God in our time, in spite of all the unbelievable disorder and ruthless sway of evil, there is a book in Heaven carefully and decisively written by the hand of God about the destiny of the comp-anneke-kaai-de-verzegelde-boekrol-en-het-lam-apocalypse-4-1988world. There is order behind the chaos. There is plan behind the confusion…God still holds the world in His hand and He will not be thwarted. His purpose will be and actually is being fulfilled here and now…

[But] this is our trouble….[P]eople in our modern world imagine that God’s power is like the bare power we use in science, only absolutely almighty, and we think of the action of God’s power in terms of mechanical action and of the sheer crushing weight of atomic energy…Thank God His power is revealed to us in this vision as absolutely different. God’s almighty power, God as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, is revealed as the Lamb as it had been slain. He is God who has stooped to enter into our weakness and into our guilty past, in order to break its power from within. This is the undreamed-of thing, something that was not. A little babe was born, despised and rejected of men. On the Cross He became the weakness of God, a sacrificial Lamb, but as such the mightiest power in heaven and earth. That is the power that may enter our life and break it of its fetters and sin. It may deliver us from the clutches of sin-infested time and bestow upon us the pure freedom of the children of God. The world still laughs at this power and calls it weakness, but this is the God who chooses the foolishness of the world to confound the mighty…

No one anxious and troubled about the fateful chaos of our world need weep any more at the bitterness of its destiny. “Weep not,” says the voice of the vision. “Behold the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, . . . the Lamb as it had been slain”…Thus there breaks out from all creation, represented here by the four strange-faced creatures, and all the race of redeemed humanity represented by the four and twenty elders, a new song…It is a new song, because in spite of all the dire wickedness of the earth, at last the lion and the lamb lie down together in the paradise of God. It is a new song which the angels of heaven sing at the summons of God every time a sinner repents and turns back to the heavenly Father. “Rejoice with me,” says the Father, “for this my son was lost and is found. He was dead and he is alive again” (Luke 15:24).

Beyond Chaos (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 4)

Daniel declared,”I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another…After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet.” (Daniel 7:2-3, 7)

After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:1-8)

annekekaai_2010
“A Door Opened in Heaven” by Anneke Kaai
(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 31-33.)

In [this chapter in the Book of Revelation] we are bidden to look beyond the wild chaos of the ages. The Throne is still there and the Majesty of God upon it, but all is changed at last. The sea no longer rages; it is smooth as glass and as clear as crystal. Once again as in Ezekiel’s vision the rainbow is in the cloud. That is the sign that the fierce floods are past and gone forever. It is the sign of God’s everlasting covenant with His creation. This is the age in which the lion lies down with the lamb and there is no hurt in all God’s holy mountain. The whole of creation is tamed and redeemed. The four symbolic creatures of the earth are no longer devil-ridden bestial monsters that devour flesh and trample the residue in the dust. The iron teeth, and the braggart triumph of evil boasting that God does not rule, are gone…

But the nightmare is still here. You and I actually live in a world in which these fantastic monsters are a terrifying reality. It is for you and me then that this fourth chapter of Revelation has been written, that we too may hear the voice like a trumpet talking with us and saying “Come up hither and I will show you these things which must be hereafter.” There is no uncertain sound about that trumpet! This nightmare world must pass away – there is no doubt at all about that. Lift up your eyes and see already the kingdom of peace and a new creation enthroned above the world and about to break into our troubled world. The seas may rage but there is a Throne above the seas. The monsters may still roam the earth but only for a season as their time is short – therefore their extra rage! It is because the breath of God already blows upon us that the sea rages. It is because the Kingdom of God has already invaded this world and is breaking up the kingdoms thereof that evil is provoked to such extreme bitterness and to its final desperation. No doubt the nations may seem still to be in the iron grip of a destructive fate, rushing headlong to disaster, but that is only the storm before the dawn of the eternal morning. Look with the vision of the Revelation and you will discover all creation is full of eyes watching for the day of redemption, waiting for the manifestation of the Son of God…

Perhaps for you all the meaning of creation is overwhelmed in the wrath of man, but God is on the Throne and He is able to make even the wrath of man to praise Him. Even the beasts of the earth will soon be saying: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” All things have been created by God to serve His will and declare His glory and God’s purpose will not be thwarted. His love persists in spite of the chaos. At last the trees shall clap their hands and the very hills shall skip like lambs for joy, and every tongue shall praise Him. “The Lord God omnipotent reigneth.”

 

Hearing Harmony in Dissonance: Karl Barth on the Music of Mozart

These are troubling times in which we live. From the depressing state of American politics to the disconcerting international tensions, it would be easy to become cynical and pessimistic. Although we who are Christians may give lip service to the providence of God 41holvoysplin governing world affairs, we (and I speak first and foremost of myself!) can sometimes fall prey to a kind of ‘practical atheism’ evident in the fear and trepidation with which we speak and act. Objective observers might almost conclude that instead believing that our lives are being directed by the loving and faithful God revealed in Jesus Christ, we have actually resigned ourselves to a rather bleak future!

During his discussion of evil in CD III/3, Karl Barth pauses in an intriguing excursus to reflect on the music of Mozart. It is of course no secret that Barth was an ardent admirer of Mozart, making frequent reference to him in his work. When I had the opportunity to visit his final home and workplace in Basel (now the Karl Barth archive), Barth’s love of Mozart was further impressed upon me by the prominence of the famous composer’s portrait in his study (notably placed on the same level as his portrait of Calvin) as well as the location of a collection of books on Mozart that, among all of the works in his library, Barth had purposefully situated for easiest access. It has been said, not incorrectly in my opinion, that Barth wrote theology in the same way that Mozart wrote music.

Regarding the thorny question of the problem of evil in relation to the providence of God over creation, Barth finds great insight and hope in Mozart’s compositions. Although not waxing exegetical, Barth invites us to see the world (or rather hear the world) through the unparalleled ears of Mozart:

I must again revert to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why is it that this man is so incomparable? Why is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which “beautiful” is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always “moving,” free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign? Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work?

It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express and maintain
as he did. In this respect he was pure in heart, far transcending both optimists and pessimists. 1756–1791! This was the time when God was under attack for the Lisbon earthquake, and theologians and other well-meaning folk were hard put to it to defend mozartHim. In face of the problem of theodicy, Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves. This problem lay behind him. Why then concern himself with it?

He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even today, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well. Et lux perpetua lucet (sic!) eis—even the dead of Lisbon. Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light.

Hence it was fundamentally in order that he should not hear a middle or neutral note, but the positive far more strongly than the negative. He heard the negative only in and with the positive. Yet in their inequality he heard them both together, as, for example, in the Symphony in G-minor of 1788. He never heard only the one in abstraction. He heard concretely, and therefore his compositions were and are total music. Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold and yet harmonious praise of God…

I make this interposition here, before turning to chaos, because in the music of Mozart—and I wonder whether the same can be said of any other works before or after—we have clear and convincing proof that it is a slander on creation to charge it with a share in chaos because it includes a Yes and a No, as though orientated to God on the one side and nothingness on the other. Mozart causes us to hear that even on the latter side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect. Here on the threshold of our problem—and it is no small achievement—Mozart has created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could. This is the point which I wish to make.[1]

There is so much here to make the heart burst that it is difficult to know how to conclude this post, so I will simply say this. As Barth hears it, Mozart’s music leads us to confidently live in the sure expectation that however dark the darkness, the light will break through and will not be overcome. Mozart’s music tells us that however loud the ‘No’ of evil may sound to us, it can never drown out the unequivocal and ultimate ‘Yes’ that God pronounces over the world in Christ. Mozart’s music exemplifies how the dissonance that makes us cringe in the present, far from destroying the beauty we crave, will in the end be caught up into the divine symphony and, under the direction of the Master Composer, will be woven as a harmonious counterpoint into the most unimaginably glorious melody ever conceived.

So as we continue to root our faith and hope ultimately in the Word of God, we may perhaps benefit as well, as did Barth, from giving ear to the music of Mozart. Speaking from personal experience, I can testify that listening to Mozart can raise our spirits and lighten our hearts, filling us with a bit of radiant joy with which to ward off the clouds of despair.

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[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of creation, Part 3 3rd ed., London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.297-299.