Archives For Theology

When Cranmer was on trial for his life because of his views of Holy Communion he made clear his thinking:

“We should consider, not what the bread and wine be in their own nature, but what they import to us and signify . . . that lifting up our minds, we should look up to the blood of Christ with our faith, should touch him with our mind, and receive him with our inward man; and that, being like eagles in this life, we should fly up into heaven in our hearts, where that Lamb is resident at the right hand of the Father . . . by whose passions we are filled at his table.”

J.E. Cox, Cranmer on the Lord’s Supper, p. 398

A great video.  All the more (sadly) amusing as I’ve heard a number of clergy who should know better (but apparently don’t) use these very analogies.

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thomas-becon“As I may unfeignedly report unto you the affect of my heart, verily since that ye declared to us the goodness of God the Father towards us through Jesus Christ I have felt in my heart such and earnest faith and burning love toward God and his Word, that me think a thousand fires could not pluck me away from the love of him.  I begin not utterly to condemn, despise, reject, cast away, and set at naught all the pleasures of this world, wherein I have so greatly rejoiced in times past.  All the threats of God, all the displeasures of God, all the fires and pains of hell could never before this day so allure me to the love of God, as you have now done by expressing unto me the exceeding mercy and unspeakable kindness of God towards us wretched sinners, insomuch that now from the very heart I desire to know what I may do, that by some means I may show again my heart to be full fired on the seeking of his glory.  For I now desire nothing more than the advancement of his name.”

Thomas Becon, A Christmas Banquet Garnished with Many Pleasant and Dainty Dishes

shepherd“When the shepherd finds the lost sheep again, he has no intention of pushing it away in anger once more or throwing it to a hungry wolf.  Rather, all his care and concern is directed to alluring it with every possible kindness.  Treating it with the upmost tenderness, he takes the lamb upon his own back, lifting it up and carrying it, until he brings the animal all the way home.”

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 36, pp. 290-291

AshleyNull“With Cranmer’s four Comfortable Words we have Reformation Anglicanism’s Gospel of transforming grace.  Here is his understanding of apostolic succession.  Cranmer did not believe that the apostles pass down the Holy Spirit through an unbroken line of holy bishops like a pipeline.  No, for Cranmer, the author of the founding formularies of Anglicanism, apostolic succession meant the passing down of apostolic teaching.  Christian faith and morals have been divinely revealed and recorded in the Bible.  Its saving truths were unalterable.  Each generation of the church was to receive, witness to and pass on the Bible and its message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.  As each generation proclaimed this timeless Gospel through Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit would go forth afresh into the lives of that era, changing hearts, moving wills, and inspiring people to love and serve God and their neighbors.”

Ashley Null, Divine Allurement, p. 12

A Feeling God?

January 15, 2015

There is an historic doctrine of the church whose retrieval might be timely.  The Impassability of God.  Timely because more often than not I’ve found Christians of all stripes, many with a loosened grip on Scripture, its idioms, context and content, confused by the biblical writers use of anthropopathisms (the attribution of human emotions or the ascription of human feelings/passions to speak about God).  Several recent conversations were brought to mind when I read Wesley Hill’s most recent article (linked to below) catalyzing an awareness that perhaps the confusion over the matter is more broad than simply my little corner of the world here in Charleston, SC; and that I might perhaps point to a few resources to flesh out the benefits of our reaffirmation of this doctrine.  First though a quick overview.

The doctrine of divine impassability simply states that God is not capable of being acted upon or affected emotionally by anything in creation.  The Anglican Church’s Thirty Nine Articles of Religion begin with the assertion that “there is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions”

For some – all in the above referenced conversations – the idea that God does not suffer, or is in any way affected by what we do or not do (that he is ‘without passions’)  sounds bizarre.  Doesn’t this make God some kind of iceberg?  The idea that God only ever acts upon creation and is never acted upon is often dismissed instinctively as self-evidently wrong.  Divine impassability is completely contrary our culturally formed and therapeutically informed intuition.  To our understanding, it is impossible for God to be impassible, because then God could not in any way identify fully with humanity nor could He be loving in any genuine sense of the word.

It is the thread of divine impassibility that Nicholas P. Wolterstorff picks up in the article, Does God Suffer? (Modern Reformation).  There he tells the reader that he rejected the doctrine of impassibility after the death of his own son. Shattered by grief, Wolterstorff concluded that God could not possibly be unmoved by human tragedy.  Simultaneously, he admits that the denial of this doctrine is like a thread that, when pulled, unravels our entire understanding of God. “Once you pull on the thread of impassibility, a lot of other threads come along . . . . One also has to give up immutability (changelessness) and eternity. If God responds, then God is not metaphysically immutable; and if not metaphysically immutable, then not eternal” (p.47).  I have appreciation for both his paternal instinct as well as his recognition of the necessary end of his argument – which is why I find a reassertion of this historic doctrine timely and necessary.

Is God an iceberg?  Is God indifferent and remote from His creation?  How are we to read the biblical texts where God is described as having emotions? Christian theology has consistently denied that God is cold and remote from his creation. A distinction, though, is necessary.  God’s immutability is not inertia. The assertion that God does not change His mind in no way necessitates that He is absent thought. Likewise, the fact that God is not subject to involuntary passions does not mean He is absent true affections. The Infinite communicating to the finite took upon Himself flesh and blood.  The very human authors of Holy Scripture, seeking to articulate this wonder, employed of necessity anthropopathic language.  The use of such language was not intended to mean that God’s mind and God’s affections are like human thoughts and passions as there is never anything involuntary, irrational, or arbitrary about the divine affections.

Addressing this matter of impassibility, J. I. Packer wrote:

This means, not that God is impassive and unfeeling (a frequent misunderstanding), but that no created beings can inflict pain, suffering and distress on him at their own will. In so far as God enters into suffering and grief (which Scripture’s many anthropopathisms, plus the fact of the cross, show that he does), it is by his own deliberate decision; he is never his creatures’ hapless victim. The Christian mainstream has construed impassibility as meaning not that God is a stranger to joy and delight, but rather that his joy is permanent, clouded by no involuntary pain. (New Dictionary of Theology, edited by Ferguson and Wright, Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998, p.277)

It is instructive to note Packer’s emphasis: God’s affections are never passive and involuntary, but rather always active and deliberate. Packer writes elsewhere,

[Impassibility is] not impassivity, unconcern, and impersonal detachment in face of the creation; not insensitivity and indifference to the distresses of a fallen world; not inability or unwillingness to empathize with human pain and grief; but simply that God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us, for his are foreknown, willed and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart from his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are. (God Who Is Rich in Mercy, edited by O’Brien and Peterson, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986, p. 16)

Does all of this really matter?  If, as has been said, true wisdom consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves, it matters a great deal.  Knowledge of God is the first necessity to know ourselves.  At the very center of our faith is the steadfastness and faithfulness of God.  The doctrine of Divine Impassability is, as Wolterstorff notes a thread.  One thread in the tapestry of the Christian faith.  Woven and interconnected to other doctrines.  Some threads are more integral to the whole, and when pulled, threaten to distort the object of our faith and undermine the foundation of our hope.  My concern is that pulling this thread – divesting God of His incommunicable attributes and undermining the steadfast constancy of His faithfulness takes us a long way down the road of recreating God in our image.

For further reading:

Wesley Hill: The New “New Orthodoxy” : Only the Impassible God Can Help.  The article appeared in First Things.

Mark Baddeley: The God of Love.  This article, a longer article appeared in The Briefing (Matthias Media)

 

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“[T]rue CScreen Shot 2014-12-22 at 7.01.38 PMhristian theology . . . does not present God to us in His majesty, as Moses and other teachings do, but Christ born of the Virgin as our Mediator and High Priest. Therefore when we are embattled against the Law, sin, and death in the presence of God, nothing is more dangerous than to stray into heaven with our idle speculations, there to investigate God in His incomprehensible power, wisdom, and majesty, to ask how He created the world and how He governs it. If you attempt to comprehend God this way and want to make atonement to Him apart from Christ the Mediator, making your works, fasts, cowl, and tonsure the mediation between Him and yourself, you will inevitably fall, as Lucifer did, and in horrible despair lose God and everything. For as in His own nature God is immense, incomprehensible, and infinite, so to man’s nature He is intolerable. Therefore if you want to be safe and out of danger to your conscience and your salvation, put a check on your speculative spirit. Take hold of God as Scripture instructs you: ‘Since, in wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ Therefore begin where Christ began — in the Virgin’s womb, in the manger, and at His mother’s breasts. For this purpose He came down, was born, lived among men, suffered, was crucified, and died, so that in every possible way He might present Himself to our sight. He wanted us to fix the gaze of our hearts upon Himself and thus to prevent us from clambering into heaven and speculating about the Divine Majesty. 

“Therefore when you consider the doctrine of justification and wonder how or where or in what condition to find a God who justifies or accepts sinners, then you must know that there is no other God than this Man Jesus Christ. Take hold of Him; cling to Him with all your heart, and spurn all speculation about the Divine Majesty; for whoever investigates the majesty of God will be consumed by His glory. I know from experience what I am talking about. . . . Christ Himself says: ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me.’ Outside Christ, the Way, therefore, you will find no other way to the Father; you will find only wandering, not truth, but hypocrisy and lies, not life, but eternal death. Take note, therefore, in the doctrine of justification or grace that when we all must struggle with the Law, sin, death, and the devil, we must look at no other God than this incarnate and human God.”

–Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians: Chapters 1-4, trans. Jaroslav Pelikan (Luther’s Works Vol. 26; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963 [1535]), 29

Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour,

When God as man descended unto us

To erase the stain of original sin

And to end the wrath of His Father.

The entire world thrills with hope

On this night that gives it a Saviour.

People, kneel down, await your deliverance.

Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,

Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

May the ardent light of our Faith

Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,

As in ancient times a brilliant star

Guided the Oriental kings there.

The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;

O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,

It is to your pride that God preaches.

Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has broken every bond:

The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.

He sees a brother where there was only a slave,

Love unites those that iron had chained.

Who will tell Him of our gratitude,

For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.

People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,

Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,

Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

From Mortification of Sin:

Biologos has as its mission to spread the message that the Bible cannot be relied upon as a trustworthy guide to human origins (or anything else related to creation). If Biologos were an arm of a secular university or agnostic think tank, that agenda would make perfect sense. But the profane irony is that Biologos purports to be a Christian organization.

Read it all.

From Carl Trueman:

We live in a confessional age. Not in the good sense of, say, the Westminster Confession or of principled Presbyterianism. Rather, the grim cult of counterfeit authenticity seems to mean that every scoundrel and charlatan can find absolution for their sins simply by declaring them in public. We have come to expect this from Hollywood stars and politicians but it has started to make inroads into a Christianity which has been subject to the corrosive effects of sentimental emotivism and had its tastes shaped by an age which loves to excuse its excesses. Putting on a hang-dog expression and clearing your throat with a ‘I broke this and that commandment’ are now apparently the only preparation needed before opining on anything as a moral authority.  Even those of more personal integrity are scarcely immune to this plague of humble self-promotion. Some pastors seem to think that the pulpit (or the plexiglass lectern) is transubstantiated every Sunday into Oprah’s couch.
Frankly, the Bible gives little basis for the kind of baring of the soul which has become so popular. Paul is very thin on details when he talks about his own sins. The examples of sermons in the Bible contain little parading of personal peccadilloes. The failings of the preacher when referenced are merely of the order of brief bridges to discussion of issues which transcend the particularities of the preacher’s own existence.
Yet, interestingly enough, confession lay at the heart of Luther’s own personal Reformation Christian life. But it was not the confession of the self-obsessed exhibitionists of our social media age. It was the private confession of one Christian to another. Our confessional age is an age where the baring of souls is seen as an act which makes the confessor vulnerable or ‘authentic’ and thus serves ironically to enhance their authority or invulnerability. That might sound strange, but who in this present age can criticize the person who has told the world that they suffered abuse as a child or has wrestled with some addiction for many years?   The canons of taste offer immediate, and sometimes total, protection.
Luther’s notion of confession was somewhat different. It took place in two contexts.