Aquinas and Webster on the Studious Pastor-Theologian

Is curiosity a good or bad thing? If anything it is complicated. On the one hand, we encourage our children to be curious, to explore and discover. On the other hand, the old adage, “curiosity killed the cat” still has currency; usually when parents don’t want to explain something.

I was surprised to discover that the Christian Tradition actually has something to say about curiosity, namely that it is a vice. The virtue that contrasts curiosity is studiousness. In this blog post, I will consider curiosity and studiousness in relation to Theology and the Christian life by examining John Webster and Thomas Aquinas on the topic.

John Webster, following and expanding on Aquinas, defines studiousness as follows:

A strenuous application of the powers of the creaturely intellect, the end of which is to come to know something for the first time, or to apprehend under a new aspect or with a new interest some object already known… Studiousness refers to the activity of the well-ordered creaturely intellect coming to know. (The Dominion of the Word, 194).

This is how Aquinas defines studiousness: “Properly speaking, study denotes keen application of the mind to something.” (IIa IIae 166.1). Curiosity, by contrast, is a vice-filled pursuit of knowledge that Aquinas brilliantly dissects.

First, Aquinas argues, the desire to study and pursue knowledge may be right or wrong. If right, Curiosity can take that right desire down a vice-filled path in two ways: 1) either by taking the pursuit of knowledge to gain pride in one’s knowledge, or 2) to study something in order to sin.

Second, the desire to learn itself can be improperly ordered which results in four further forms of curiosity: 1) a person studies something that distracts them from the thing they should be studying i.e., facebook scrolling instead of homework. 2) when a person learns from a source that is evil or unlawful, i.e., an untrustworthy authority or evil spirits. 3) When a person seeks the truth of creatures without seeking their source and end: God. 4) When a person seeks the truth that is above or beyond his intellectual capacity which easily leads to an error (Aquinas, Summa Theologia, IIaIIae 167.1).

Aquinas’s thoughts on curiosity and studiousness apply to all areas of study, but what of theology and the vocation of Pastor-Theologians and Christians?

According to John Webster, curiosity rears its head in at least five ways in the pursuit of the knowledge of God.

  1. Curiosity appears when Christians forget they are under the instruction and teaching of God. Curiosity detaches the mind from the source of Theology: God.
  2. Curiosity seeks the novel and avoids the discipline of the particular object of theology: God and all things that come from God. Webster says, “In acute form, this becomes a species of intellectual promiscuity, driven by addiction to novelty and a compulsion to repeat the experience of discovery” (Dominion of the Word, 198).
  3. “Curiosity in theology stops short at surfaces, and so inhibits theological intelligence in running towards God.” (Dominion of the Word, 198).
  4. “Curiosity debases the manner in which theological work is undertaken, causing the theologian to adopt a posture at odds with spiritual vocation.”(Dominion of the Word, 199). What does this mean? Basically, theologians can be lured by pride, the desire for new knowledge, fame, and isolation from the church and worship. This can be true of any Christian, the desire to know God and love God is a spiritual and communal endeavor.
  5. Finally, “Curiosity disregards the proper end of theology, which are contemplative and apostolic.” (Dominion of the Word, 199). See my blog post on this topic.

This is Webster’s autopsy of The Curious Theologian, what is the remedy? Webster points to the work of the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit, whose mission is to perfect creatures in realizing the divine purpose for them, secured by the reconciling work of the Son is the fulfillment of the Father’s will. In the Spirit’s original work, the intellect is made new; in the Spirit’s governing work, the intellect is maintained and directed on its true course” (Dominion of the Word, 199). In other words, the Holy Spirit sanctifies the intellect by mortifying and vivifying it, bringing it into alignment with the mind of Christ. Webster outlines three aspects of theological studiousness:

  1. “Christian Theology is an exercise of sanctified studiousness, the work of persons whose intellectual acts are marked by the Spirit’s regenerative presence” (Dominion of the Word, 200). The person becomes studious as they are trained by the Holy Spirit who redirects their desires towards their proper end: God.
  2. “Curiosity falls away as Christian theology directs itself to its singular matter with a definite interest” (Dominion of the Word, 201). By which Webster means God and everything in relation to God, including the whole scope of theology from creation to consummation (see my blog post on the proper order of theology).
  3. “Mortification of curiosity happens as theology is directed to its proper end, which is love: Love of God who gives himself to be known, and love of the saints and the not-yet-saints by communicating what theology has come to know” (Dominion of the Word, 201). In other words, studiousness while concentrated, and full of effort is not for oneself, but for the worship of God and the edification of others.

Curiosity is the unnatural state of human knowledge; it is intellectual pursuit post-fall. We can only become truly studious when we are reconciled to the Truth. We become studious as we are taught by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, who orders our intellectual endeavor and the purpose of our endeavors to their proper end God and others. Studiousness is a virtue that takes practice and effort to attain, an effort that is preceded and followed by the mortifying and vivifying work of God the Holy Spirit.

A question I have, and one I cannot follow up right now, is how Aquinas and Webster’s analysis of Curiosity and Studiousness obtains in other intellectual disciplines and the process of education in general?

Questions from the Parish: Is distraction in prayer a problem?

I think distraction is a normal part of the Christian prayer life.

Distraction is a normal part of the human experience of trying to concentrate on one thing. To understand distraction in prayer, we must briefly rehearse and put it in its proper theological context:

Humans are created to behold God and contemplate him forever. Our sin and our twisted desires pull us away from God. When we are redeemed and believe in Jesus Christ we are accepted and brought into fellowship with God in the Holy Spirit. A part of this fellowship is prayer. In prayer, we submit our minds and hearts to God as he teaches us to attend to our final goal and purpose: the face of God in Jesus Christ.  Distraction in prayer is bound up with the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying of our minds and hearts as we are taught by God to desire only God and order all that we do, think, and say towards God in Christ Jesus.  Distraction occurs because we are still on the way towards attending to the one thing needful. However, distraction is not, in itself, a sin. The things we are distracted by might be sinful. What we do with distractions and the feelings we have when we are distracted is what matters. Will we allow God to put to death our thoughts and our distraction and renew our minds or not? That is the question.

For me, it is easy to react to distraction in two ways: either by feeling guilty, which leads to further distraction, and usually some sort of self-inflicted sin or by giving into them totally; turning from prayer to the thoughts themselves. One remedy to this is to turn the distractions into prayer themselves, which leads us back to our primary purpose: being with God. However, sometimes our minds are so busy that our primary objective is drowned out by the distractions, even if they turn to prayer.

In these moments I try to simply surrender them to God, with a prayer like: “God I am powerless over these distractions, please take them from me.”  Additionally, I find that the guilt over distraction is more powerful than the distraction itself. In those moments I have to remind myself that God is patient and gracious and loves it when I am seeking to spend time with him.

I read somewhere that it is helpful to think of distracting thoughts as boat passing down the river of your mind; they are there, and you acknowledge them, and then you let them pass. This sometimes helps me.  But usually, I want to jump on board and go down the river with them. I have to actively surrender that desire and give the desire to get distracted to God.

In the end, our goal is to practice the presence of God, to ‘pray without ceasing” (1 These 5:17) which means constantly seeking to acknowledge and be attentive to the reality that God the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

John Owen and Richard Hooker on Union with Christ and Communion with God

Justification and sanctification are the double grace of union with Christ, as I’ve discussed in a previous post, on John Calvin. One question that arises for me when I think about union with Christ is how we grow in something which is already objectively true. I am united to Christ in his death and Resurrection, so how do I grow more in this union? John Owen suggests that our union with Christ is the objective reality of the whole scope of salvation – justification to glorification, but we can grow in greater, or lesser, communion with each of the persons of the Trinity (he defends this idea via the doctrine of appropriation, see, Communion with God, 95ff).
John Owen says this about Union with Christ:
[Union with Christ] is the cause of all other graces that we are made partakers of; they are all communicated unto us by virtue of our union with Christ. Hence is our adoption, our justification, our sanctification, our fruitfulness, our perseverance, our resurrection, our glory.
Owen makes a distinction between union with Christ and communion with God. He defines communion with God as follows:
Our communion, then, with God consists in his communication of himself unto us, with our return unto him of that which he requires and accepts flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have in him. And it is twofold: (1) perfect and complete, in the full fruition of his glory and total giving up of ourselves to him, resting in him as our utmost end; which we shall enjoy when we see him as he is; and (2) initial and incomplete, in the firstfruits and dawnings of that perfection which we have here in grace (Communion with the Triune God, 94).
Grounded in our Union with Christ, God communicates himself to us, and through the redemption of Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit we delight in God, obey God, and live for God. For Owen, this will be most true when we are with God in Christ in the Eschaton; in the beatific vision, while, in the present, we grow in communion with God through grace.
This idea of being firmly grounded in union with Christ, while at the same time growing in communion with God sounds similar to Richard Hooker’s understanding of participation in Christ and correlates to something I’ve quoted from Richard Hooker in another blog post. 
First, participation in Christ, for Hooker is defined as follows:
Participation is that mutual inward hold which Christ hath of us and we of him, in such sort that each possesseth other by way of special interest, property, and inherent copulation. V.56.1.
Hooker explains that this mutual inward hold is grounded in the life of the Trinity, and the particular reality of the hypostatic union of Christ. Further, Hooker delineates two kinds of participation: the participation of creatures who are sustained by God’s creative work, and the participation of those who are saved by God (see V.56.1). The second kind of participation is defined as follows:
Thus we participate Christ partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are impulsed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are on earth, and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies made like unto his in glory. The first thing of his so infused into our hearts in this life is the Spirit of Christ… V.56.11.
For Hooker, we are united to Christ, and imputed his righteousness and given his grace (read justified and sanctified). Yet we can grow or decrease in our participation in and reception of God’s grace. Hooker continues by noting that while all who are partakers of Christ by imputation are equally in Christ, there is variety in those who grow in grace. This helps Hooker recognize the objective reality of those who are in Christ through Baptism, while there is a variety of spiritual growth and vitality amongst individuals. For Hooker, the location of this growth in sanctification is through the means of grace, i.e., the Sacrament of Holy Communion (V.56.11-13), worship, and scripture.
I don’t know enough about either John Owen or Richard Hooker to say if they agree on this idea of union/communion with God. However, I find both of their approaches helpful in articulating objective union with Christ and ongoing growth in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Theological Thoughts on Ecclesiastes 5:2: Let your Words be Few

0421181819b

 

Ecclesiastes 5:2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.

Talk about God is so blithely thrown around in church and the broader culture, that this verse and its warning seems almost impossible to abide. In the wider culture, the forces of secularity have reduced talk about God to a sarcastic joke, meme, or worse. In the church, we suffer from speaking too much, or too poorly about God, much like our culture we’ve lost our ability to speak of God without catchphrases or cliches.

In this verse, the preacher of Ecclesiastes warns his readers of two things, gives them two reasons for this warning, and concludes with the result of listening to this warning. He urges his readers to not be rash or hasty in uttering a word, either externally (mouth), or internally (internally) about God. Why? 1) because all our words are ‘before God’and 2) ‘God is in heaven and you are on earth.’ For these reasons, our words should be few.

This verse reorients humanity’s pride and arrogance (rash and hasty) to a proper understanding of who we are in light of God’s infinite majesty and creative saving power. What do the two statements about tell us about God?

God is present everywhere and knows everything. God’s omnipresence and omniscience remind us of the utter difference between God and humanity. God is the creator, and we are creatures. The triune God is the creating and sustaining God. To say anything before God, externally or internally, is to stand before the one who made you out of nothing, and who continues to sustain your existence.

In Christian theology, the creation and providential sustaining is the undivided work of the Trinity, but it is often described as the work of each Person, for example, the Father creates, the Son sustains. We see this reality testified to by Paul: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (Col 1:16). The Word of God, the Son of God, incarnate in the Virgin Mary, and maintaining the world in all its contingent reality, is the one in whom and through whom our existence is preserved and brought to its proper end: the vision of God. 

The difference between God and his creation is reinforced by the next clause: “For God is in heaven and you are on earth.” Heaven is the location of God’s reign, rule, and authority. Despite human sin and rebellion, we do not thwart God’s authority, power, and rule by our ineffective and destructive loquaciousness. God’s Word does not return void in the battle for his creation.

Our foolish speech is silenced, redeemed and reordered by the one who is from heaven and has come to earth: the Eternal Word of God who became incarnate. Our prideful ramblings are made quiet in the face of the one who in himself is the eternally Spoken Word, reveals in humility, both in the cry of a baby and the cry of a dying man.

In Christ, knowledge of who God is, who we are, and how we are to speak of God rightly, is revealed, as Paul said, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).  In the mission of the Son, the eternal Word of God silences our pride and hasty words and orders them towards God. How? By revealing himself in the flesh, taking our pride and arrogance to judgment and death, rising victorious and true, and sending his Spirit to teach us to think and speak rightly of God. The Holy Spirit takes Christ’s humility (Romans 12:1-2; Phil 2:5-11) and gives it to those who trust in Jesus, confess him as Lord and are baptized into his death.

It is because of Jesus that our words are “few” and not silenced entirely. For the immensity of God, both as he is in himself and God against sin leads us to baffled silence. We observe this in Job’s confession at the end of God’s speech in Job 42:2-6

“I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.”

But, when God unites us to himself in Christ his immensity, infinity, and plentitude, leads to the fear and knowledge of God which begins to order our minds and hearts rightly. In light of the mission of the Son and Spirit for our salvation, we slowly become wise as we confess that all things are from God and ordered towards him.

In comparison to the infinite Word of God, redeemed and sanctified talk of God, submitted to the continued mortification and vivification of the Spirit, is minuscule in proportion, and yet it is still invited and encouraged. “Let your words be few.” We were created and redeemed to know God and his Son through the power of the Holy Spirit: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

The church is called to witness to the God who is in heaven, who is in control and who in his infinite love sent the Son and Word of God to save the world. To do this in step with the Spirit, our minds – our intellect, emotions, and wills – must be aligned to Jesus Christ. We must allow the Holy Spirit to order our thoughts, our desires, our wills toward God. We must desire what is truly good and keep our minds on what is truly beautiful and long for what is truly true: we must desire the Triune God of Grace. “Delight yourself in the Lordand he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). When we delight ourselves in the Lord, we discover that he is the deepest desires of our hearts. 

Aquinas on The Beginning, Ordering, and End of Theological Contemplation

131500-004-4E3E4827

Mark 12:30-31 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

In a previous blog post, I quoted J.I. Packer who says that the Christian life is at its fullest when we are worshiping God with our heads, hearts, and hands – our minds, wills, and actions (note that emotion is not identified with the heart). Additionally, I’ve talked about John Webster’s understanding of the Pastor as Apostolic Contemplative Theologian. A part of the church’s service to God is thinking about him well, conforming our minds to the mind of Christ (Romans 12:1-2). Jonathan Edwards said it well: “The basic goal of any intellect is to work toward ‘the consistency and agreement of our ideas with the ideas of God.’”

When it comes to studying God, it is wise to ask, how can or should we conform our thoughts with who God is? In Christian theology, there are two primary ways to go about this: the order of knowing and the order of being. The order of knowing is roughly based on the Christian’s experience of encountering the Triune God: so we may start with Jesus Christ, then the Holy Spirit, and then God the Father. In recent years, many theologians have attempted to think about theology with the order of knowing as the primary ordering of theological inquiry. It also makes personal sense to many in the church because it relates to their personal experience. For an engaging and sensitive articulation of the order of knowing, while acknowledging the difficulties with this view, read Fred Sander’s The Triune God.

But, while this ordering makes personal sense, we must consider, who is the subject of theology? The answer is the Triune God. If that is so, shouldn’t the subject of theology, order our study of God even if the way we know the subject is tied to historical revelation? It is a question like this one that has pushed some theologians to order their theological reflection on the revelation of Scripture not in terms of our experience of God, but in terms of who God is and what God does. However, in having our minds conformed to the knowledge and love of God in Christ we must allow the ordering of our understanding of God to be dictated by who God is, not our experience of God. Theological contemplation is grounded in our experience and knowledge of God as he is revealed in Scripture, but it is properly ordered by the subject matter of theology: God and his works.

Let’s turn to a few quotes from Thomas Aquinas to see how he orders his contemplation to God and the works of God, while, founding the knowledge of this ordering on the Revelation of Scripture.

Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae is a masterful example of rigorous theological reflection in this mode of theology. While Aquinas organizes his theology in terms of God and all that relates to God, he offers two other supplementary organizing principles that help make sense of the primary ordering. In the first article in the first question on The Nature Sacred Doctrine, Aquinas ponders whether revelation is necessary, or whether humanity can know what is needed for life via philosophical reflection. Aquinas posits:

It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical knowledge built upon human reason. First, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: The eye hath not seen, o God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee (Isa. 66:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation…Where as man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of the truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. (1.1.1a)

Aquinas distinguishes between philosophical science and divine revelation and argues that knowledge of God must come from divine revelation because humanity was created by God, is directed to Him as our end, and God is the one who saves humanity. In other words, all of the Christian faith is grounded in the divine revelation of Holy Scripture. Tn this Aquinas begins his theological argumentation and contemplation assuming divine revelation for the salvation of humanity as the grounds for contemplation.

Further, he also holds that all of creation finds its beginning and end in God, and thus all creaturely reality is reflected on theologically in relation to God:

“Sacred doctrine does not treat God and creatures equally, but of God primarily, and of creatures only so far as they are referable to God as their beginning and end.” (1.1.3. reply 1).

Therefore, the material of revelation is Sacred Scripture, and the subject of theology is God and his creatures in so far as they are related to God. This thought brings us to our final quote:

But in sacred science, all things are treated of under the aspect of God: either because they are God Himself or because they refer to God as their beginning and end. (1.1.7a).

In theology then, according to Aquinas, God is the primary subject and ordering principle. Everything – Anthropology, Christology, Ecclesiology etc. – must be considered in light of God Himself, and God as the beginning and end of all creatures. Thus, for Aquinas, the order of knowledge, which includes being incorporated into Christ through the Holy Spirit, is assumed for proper theological contemplation.

Aquinas ends up ordering his whole theological account in the Summa along these lines: he begins with God, then all that comes from God. Within this account, he orders the economy of salvation around the reality that all creatures come from God and end in God. Thus, he considers creation, fall, Grace, and finally Christ as the means and end of humanity’s return back to God. In general terms, Aquinas’s ordering of theological inquiry is simply the order of God’s own revelation: “In the beginning, God” and “God created the heavens and the earth.”

How does this ordering help the church in its worship and mission?

First, it puts God at the center of theological endeavors, not humanity’s experience of God. When someone becomes a Christian, they encounter Christ, are filled with the Spirit and brought into the Body of Christ. This conversion reorients them to God as the beginning and end, and thus it is appropriate, if not vital, to begin learning the Christian faith, and the Christian experience in terms of God and then us. In doing so, our minds are sanctified and brought into alignment with the virtue of humility. We need only look at the Apostles and Nicene Creeds to see that this ordering of our knowledge of God and salvation along the lines of God’s Triune being (and only then divine missions) is the proper way to learn the Christian faith.

Second, Theology cannot be separated from the life of the Church or the spiritual life of the individual Theologian. To worship God with our whole minds requires that we are already in the realm of God’s kingdom. Theology done rightly is not rigorously guided by Scriptures and continually submitting to the Holy Spirit’s sanctification of our minds. It is grounded in the worship of the Church and the frequent reception of the means of grace: the Word and Sacraments.

Third, there is no necessary opposition between the order of knowing and the order of being, but the order of being should take precedence in contemplating God because he is the subject of the divine revelation; the one Christians come to know by means of the free divine initiative to reveal God to us. We saw that divine revelation, specifically Scripture, is the grounds for our ability to contemplate God. Scripture is taken as the work of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies the words of the prophets and apostles to reveal who God is and what God does. God reveals himself to humanity as the God who is both infinitely beyond human knowledge and who condescends to share with humanity true knowledge of himself.

Much of what I’ve attempted to say is summarized by Theologian and Thomist Giles Emery in the following quote:

The elaboration of a theology works in three stages, which one can formulate as follows. The first comes from the acknowledgment of the revelation of the Trinity through its action in the world, listening to and following the witness of Scripture. The economic and soteriological current runs through the heart of this unfolding of the Trinitarian mystery… The reading of Scripture and Christian experience is its main resource… In the second stage, beginning from their economic revelation, this theologian puts forward a speculative [read rigorously contemplative] reflection on the persons, in their distinction and their unity. This is the doctrine of the immanent Trinity or in Thomas’ own language, the doctrine of the Trinity ‘in itself.’ A third and final phase uses the two initial moments as a guide into a speculative reflection on the actions of the persons within this world. This is where a genuine doctrine of the ‘economic Trinity, the Trinity as ‘principle and end of creatures,’ is conveyed. (Giles, The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, 415-416).

What we see in our quotes from Thomas is an assumption of the first stage as the content of divine revelation, which then grounds his theological investigation of God in himself and God at work in creation as the beginning an end of all created reality. This leads to the third stage, as one can see in many of his articles in Questions 27-44. Some theologians may prefer to focus on the first stage, but for Thomas, the subject matter of his investigation leads him to order his theology beginning with God and then everything else.

Many questions remain for me in my exploration of Aquinas, such as, how does the Gospel relate to the ordering of theological contemplation? How does God’s knowledge of himself relate to our knowledge of Him? How do we guard against overestimating and underestimating humanity’s apprehension of the Triune God’s divine life? Thus, while I am genuinely taken by Aquinas’s mode of theological contemplation, I have a lot more to consider and learn.

L’Abri a Way of Life for the Church Part 2: Francis Schaeffer Encounters the Trinity

IMG_0889

Have you ever wondered why Christians struggle, or just don’t, live what they believe? Francis Schaeffer questioned that to the extreme:  he let go of everything he believed and started from square one to ask “is any of  Christianity true?” This search for truth led him to experience the beating center of the Christian faith: the reality that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit loves and saves humanity. One could go so far as to say, that the Trinity is the center of all of Schaeffer’s thought.

In my first post about L’Abri, I talked about the foundational reality of life at L’Abri: trusting and dependent prayer. I also pointed to the reason for this way of life: Schaeffer’s desire to live life in total trust in God’s existence and providence.

What are the grounds for this belief? Especially in a world that is immersed in a cynical distance from faith in the supernatural, combined with the suppression of anything that smells of transcendence concerning real things. We are allowed to believe in some kind of transcendence for personal experience, or in the movies, but not in life. Life is brutishly natural. Schaeffer wants to offer a view of reality that is diametrically opposed to this suppression of transcendence.

In this post, I want to show the content of Schaeffer’s belief in supernatural reality with the help of Fred Sanders. I argue that Schaeffer’s life and the life of L’Abri as a witness to the existence of God is grounded in the reality and experience of the Triune God of Christianity.

Fred Sanders, in his book The Deep Things of God, demonstrates a deep, though often implicit, Trinitarian grounding in a broad swath of evangelicals throughout Church history (As an aside, I found this book very healing in my own struggle with evangelicalism. In short, I discovered the doctrine of the Trinity outside of evangelicalism, but this book helped me see the implicit Trinitarian theology at work in evangelical pastors and theologians). Sanders profiles several evangelical theologians and pastors throughout the book, one of those profiles is of Francis Schaeffer (pages 181-189). 

After pastoring for several years, Schaeffer had a crisis of faith. He stepped back from his faith and started exploring it again, to discover whether it was really true and real, and what the implications of Christianity are if it really is true. After wrestling for months. This is what Schaeffer concluded:

I came to realize that indeed I had been right in becoming a Christian. But then I went on further and wrestled deeper and asked, “But then where is the spiritual reality, Lord, amongst most of that which calls itself orthodoxy?” And gradually i found something. I found something that I had not been taught, a simple thing, but profound. I discovered the meaning of the work of Christ, the meaning of the blood of Christ, moment by moment in our lives after we are Christians – the moment-by-moment work of the whole Trinity in our lives because as Christians we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. That is true Spirituality. (Schaeffer, “Two Contents, Two Realities,” in Works vol. 3 (416-417). 

Of course, this quote leaves us wondering, what does this ‘moment-by-moment work of the whole Trinity” look like? What does the supernatural reality of the Trinity look like in our daily lives?

The Holy Spirit indwelling the individual Christian is not only the agent of Christ, but he is also the agent of the Father. Consequently, when I accept Christ as my Savior, my guilt is gone, I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and I am in communication with the Father and the Son as well as of the Holy Spirit – the entire Trinity.  Thus now, in the present life, if I am justified, I am in a personal relationship with each of the members of the Trinity. God the Father is my Father; I am in union with the Son, and I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is not just meant to be a doctrine, it is what i have now (True Spirituality, 271). 

Schaeffer’s point is that the Doctrine of the Trinity is not something to merely be believed, it is the warp and woof of the Christian life. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit inseparably work to bring about our salvation; they meet us in a real and personal encounter, and live with us in daily communion, as the triune God.  That is the Christian life.  True to evangelical form, Schaeffer emphasizes that this encounter is an experience of personal relationship, personal relationship with the whole Trinity.

Our relationship is never mechanical and not primarily legal. It is personal and vital. God the Father is my Father; I am united and identified with God the Son, God the Holy Spirit dwells within me. The Bible tells us that his threefold relationship is a present fact, just as it tells us that justification and Heaven are facts (Basic Bible Studies, 362). 

This personal and vital relationship with the Triune God of the universe is the heart of the Christian life and the center of the Gospel. Evangelicals summarize the personal encounter of the Gospel that leads to conversion with the phrase, “accept Christ as Savior.” Schaeffer uses this phrase and reveals its Trinitarian depth: “When I accept Christ as my Savior, my guilt is gone, I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and I am in communication with the Father and the Son, as well as the Holy Spirit  – the entire Trinity.” (True Spirituality, 269). This is the Christian life, nothing less than life in God.

In a world that lives under the suppressive exclusion of transcendence, Christianity declares that the God of the universe dwells in every Christian who puts their faith and trust in Christ. The reality of the Trinity in the Christian life, True Spirituality, subverts and rebels against the oppression of transcendence. God offers “a moment-by-moment, increasing, experiential relationship to Christ and to the whole Trinity” (True Spirituality, 264). The Transcendent personal triune God breaks upon our brutish naturalism and reveals a whole way of life, real belonging, real wisdom and knowledge, and real joy: life in the happy land of the Trinity.

This is the vision of God and reality that grounds the continued ministry of L’Abri. Should the church seek to live in this reality? yes. Will it? It is my prayer and my pursuit.

 

Desiring the Renewal of the Church? Look to the Trinity

 

222c640e641f279fafa30226a67e6f26.jpgIn my reading this week I skimmed Gordon Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence to see how he frames and articulates the person and work of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s writing. In his conclusion, Fee argues that the path for the church’s renewal is the living experience of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, including, but not focused on the gifts of the Spirit. Here is an extended quote:

A genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will not isolate the Spirit in such a way that “Spiritual gifts” and “spirit phenomena’ take pride of place in the church, resulting in churches which are either ‘charismatic’ or otherwise. Rather, a genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will cause the church to be more vitally Trinitarian, not only in its theology, but in its life and Spirituality as well. This will mean not the exaltation of the Spirit as such, but the exaltation of God; and it will mean not focus on the Spirit as such, but on the Son, crucified and risen, savior and Lord of all. Ethical life will be neither narrowly, individualistically conceived nor legalistically expressed, but will be joyously communal and decidedly over against the world’s present trinity of relativism, secularism and materialism, with their thoroughly dehumanizing affects. And the proper Trinitarian aim of such ethics will be the Pauline one – to the glory of God, through being conformed to the image of the Son by the empowering of the Holy Spirit. 

In recapturing the dynamic life of the Spirit there will also be the renewal of the charismata, not for the sake of being charismatic, but for the building up of the people of God for their life together and in the world. What must not happen in such a renewal is what has so often happened in the past: holding the extraordinary charismata in such awe that they are allowed to exist untested and undiscerned (Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 902). 

Having spent a lot of time wrestling with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the renewal of the church, etc., I found this turn to the Christian life as a life in relation to the Trinity as very refreshing to the extreme. Further, because Fee contextualizes the gifts of the Spirit in the Trinity, and opposes isolation or emphasis of the gifts for their own sake, the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church is ordered to the end goal of transformation into the image of Christ to the Glory of God the Father. Thus, charismatic gifts are for the good of the church and should be desired because they have a particular purpose: to make us like Christ to the glory of God the Father.  This means that we must be free to question and test the extraordinary charismata, to see if they are fulfilling their Trinitarian end goal.

Do you want to renew the church? Seeking the happy land of the Trinity in prayer, worship, and study are where it begins. Because in seeking it, you’ll find, if you are a Christian, it is the happy land you’ve always been in ever since you said: “Jesus is Lord.”

 

 

J.I. Packer on the Christian Life

Packer’s book Growing in Christ is a beautiful book on the basics of the Christian life. He offers brief meditations on the Apostles Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, along with a helpful section on Baptism.

I continually return to this book, and his other books, for clear, simple and faithful articulations of the Christian faith.

The following is probably one of my favorite quotes from him in this book:

“Being a Christian is a blend of doctrine, experience, and practice. Head, heart, and legs are all involved. Doctrine and experience without practice would turn me into a knowledgeable spiritual paralytic; experience and practice without doctrine would leave me a restless spiritual sleepwalker. If Christ is to be formed in me, doctrine, experience and practice must be all there together.” (Packer, Growing in Christ, 127).

I continuously need this reminder that all three, Doctrine, experience, and practice, are necessary for my life in Christ. I hope this quote encourages you to grow in your knowledge of God, your experience of Christ’s love, and the transforming power of his Holy Spirit.