Category Archives: Historical Theology
This post is another part of the on-going series of posts on Jonathan Edwards and his writings. I chose to read the book, Treatise on Grace and Other Posthumously Published Writing, which was edited by Paul Helm. This book included three of Edwards writings specifically on the Trinity. First, just a quick plug for the book, Helm does an amazing job of connecting these writings with the more major/well-known writings by Edwards and shows how these writings flow and connect with the other major themes in his bigger writings. This was worth the price of the book itself especially as I will be writing my paper on Edwards’ Trinitarian theology.
I found it very interesting in my readings of Edwards as a whole that there was not an explicit Trinitarian theology presented in them. But after reading, Treatise on Grace, Observations Concerning the Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, and An Essay on the Trinity I realize that much of Edwards’ Trinitarian thought is in his writings just not explicitly. It is hard to understand his use of terms like: love, idea, unity, and beauty, without seeing them in a Trinitarian perspective. Thus, his Trinitarian thought weaves its way into much of his other thought life and treatises but we would not know it if that is all we read. I believe that this also plays a part in Edwards being characterized by his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon. There are many other facets that make up who Edwards is just as Sinners is only one view of who God is to Edwards (see for instance his sermon Heaven is a World of Love, which gives a picture more of God as love).
Edward’s explicit Trinitarian writings are very interesting because he doesn’t seem to take sides on the plurality vs. unity. Today, scholars find it hard to approve of both, arguing that there is only one or the other in the Trinity. But Edwards seems to affirm both. In all three of the writings mentioned above he portrays the Son as the Wisdom and the Spirit as Love of the one God. And by doing this emphasizes their unity. But also in these same writings he reveals the Trinity as a family of Persons thus revealing plurality.
Flowing from this seems to be Edwards’ basis of an Augustinian model of the Trinity. The terms Edwards used for the Son as the Idea, Image, Word, and Wisdom of God brought to my mind the same terms that Augustine used to define the Son. The same goes for the Spirit where both define the Spirit as the divine Love or Joy. His social model of the Trinity with the focus on love and communion brought to my mind what I studied about the Cappadocians, especially Gregory of Nyssa. It seems as though he was borrowing from the thought of Gregory especially when he said in his essay on the Trinity, “…the society and family of three.” I believe seeing these two connections with Edwards’ Trinitarian thought are keys to interpreting his understanding of these themes throughout the rest of his writings.
These writings presented in this book reveal the close connection between Edwards’ understanding of grace and the connection it has to the Trinity and redemption in general. First as was said above most of the things said in these writings are ideas that are stated elsewhere in Edwards’ writings but are given more discussion here specifically. The idea that each person in the Trinity plays a part in redemption is explained more fully. He says in An Essay on the Trinity, “Glory belongs to the Father and the Son that they so greatly loved the world: to the Father that He so loved that He gave His only begotten Son: to the Son that He so loved the world as to give up Himself. But there is equal glory due to the Holy Ghost, for He is that love of the Father and the Son to the world.” Edwards goes on to say in his Treatise on Grace, speaking of the dependence of believers on each person of the Trinity for redemption. “The Father approves and provides the redeemer, and Himself accepts the price of the good purchased and bestows that God. The Son is the redeemer, and the price that is offered for the purchased good. And the Holy Ghost is the good purchased; for the sacred Scriptures seems to intimate that the Holy Spirit is the sum of all that Christ purchased for man (Ga. 3:13-14).” For me personally I have never thought of the doctrine of the redemption in these terms and I love the way Edwards expressed it. Seeing the Holy Ghost’s involvement in redemption was very interesting especially when seen how Edwards characterizes the Holy Spirit as grace that is given to the believer. He concludes his Treatise by saying, “I suppose there is no other principle of grace in the soul than the very Holy Ghost dwelling in the soul and acting there as a vital principle.” I very much appreciated the importance Edwards placed on the Holy Spirit’s role in redemption and in the life of the believer. It seems as of late that the focus on the Spirit’s work in people’s lives is not as important as it once was and I think Edwards has a lot to say on this to bring the Holy Spirit back to the forefront of our minds.
One question I have concerning his Trinitarian thought especially as it pertains to the Son is his overuse of type-antitype. I know that during his day typology was very frequent in all the writings and sermons but he seemed to use it excessively to the point where he was pushing the bounds of seeing Christ in the Old Testament. I know we discussed this a little in class but I am wondering what others thought of his use of typology in his writings (not just the ones listed above)?
The more I study Christian history the more I’m convinced that every Christian needs to have a solid foundational knowledge of it in order to guard themselves from bad theology, understand the origin of their own beliefs, and better realize the forgotten concept of what it means to be the universal church. We stand on the shoulders of faithful men and women who have gone before us, many times without realizing it. Thus, Wednesday (sorry I’m late on this) should officially have been “Thank a Dead Guy Day.” On June 22, 431 Cyril of Alexandria called the Council of Ephesus in order to address the teaching of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius. Nestorius had been wrongly teaching that there was a division between the humanity and divinity of Christ. The way he spoke of Jesus made it sound like there were really “two separate sons”: the Son of God and the Son of Man, the human being the part that the divine Son dwelt in intimate association with. For Nestorius this helped explain several Scriptures that spoke of divine as well as human attributes when speaking about Jesus. After all, how could God be hungry or tired (Matt. 4). Furthermore, people were speaking of Mary as the theotokos (Mother of God) and Nestorius felt it his duty to stop such talk. Enter Cyril! He saw the danger of Nestorius’ teaching. If Jesus was not fully divine, he could not redeem sinners. If Jesus was not fully human, he could not represent man. If Jesus was only a human being with an intimate divine connection, how was he any different from Old Testament prophets? He rightly saw the Jesus was not a split person, but one person with two natures. Jesus was fully man AND fully divine. Cyril referred to the union of deity and humanity in Jesus as the “Hypostatic Union.” Furthermore, since Jesus was God in the flesh, one could, strictly speaking, talk of Mary as the Mother of God. At the end of the Council of Ephesus the teaching of Nestorius was condemned and he was excommunicated for his refusal to recant his false teaching. The decision of the council in 431 has been the orthodox view of the church ever since. Seems fitting to remember this in a day when people want to speak of Jesus as merely a good prophet, teacher, or even divinely inspired human being. He was much more than that!
I’ve never really met anyone that enjoys criticism, especially when it is of the unspiritual and unkind type. I realized early on in ministry that to preach the gospel faithfully you have to have thick skin, unwavering convictions to biblical truth, and a kind and humble heart. I’ll never forget the first phone call I received from an angry parent. I felt defensive, attacked, and discouraged. Luckily it all worked out and I learned a great deal about working with people. Now, imagine you’re Martin Luther. It’s not an angry parent that is calling but the head of the Church, and he’s essentially calling you and your teaching heretical. This does not just mean the possible end of your ministry, but perhaps your life as well. In Luther’s day you did not cross the church. Fortunately for the Church, Luther had the conviction to honor God above men and posted his 95 Theses to the door of his church in Wittenberg. Thus on June 15, 1520 Pope Leo X issued his papal bull demanding that Luther retract a major portion of his teaching, writing, and section of his 95 Theses. (If you’ve never read it, it’s a fascinating read.) He cited 41 errors in Luther’s teaching, which included such things as that purgatory was not in the Bible, that indulgences were not necessary to obtain grace, and that the baptism of infants did not cleanse them from sin. Pope Leo went on to write
“Therefore we can, without any further citation or delay, proceed against him to his condemnation and damnation as one whose faith is notoriously suspect and in fact a true heretic with the full severity of each and all of the above penalties and censures. Yet, with the advice of our brothers, imitating the mercy of almighty God who does not wish the death of a sinner but rather that he be converted and live, and forgetting all the injuries inflicted on us and the Apostolic See, we have decided to use all the compassion we are capable of. It is our hope, so far as in us lies, that he will experience a change of heart by taking the road of mildness we have proposed, return, and turn away from his errors. We will receive him kindly as the prodigal son returning to the embrace of the Church.
Therefore let Martin himself and all those adhering to him, and those who shelter and support him, through the merciful heart of our God and the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ by which and through whom the redemption of the human race and the upbuilding of holy mother Church was accomplished, know that from our heart we exhort and beseech that he cease to disturb the peace, unity, and truth of the Church for which the Savior prayed so earnestly to the Father. Let him abstain from his pernicious errors that he may come back to us. If they really will obey, and certify to us by legal documents that they have obeyed, they will find in us the affection of a father’s love, the opening of the font of the effects of paternal charity, and opening of the font of mercy and clemency.”
So what did Martin Luther do? He had a book burning party in which he burned the Papal Bull in front of his students at Wittenberg. He is reported as saying “Because you have confounded the truth of God, today the Lord confounds you. Into the fire with you!” So on January 3, 1521, Pope Leo excommunicated Luther issuing another bull, the Decet Romanum Pontificem. Needless to say, the Reformation was fully underway.
Let me begin by making two statements: 1. I have read Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. 2. I am not interested in giving a long critique of the book. Several people have already written good ones, and another review from my perspective would add nothing to the conversation. What I want to do here is attempt to answer the question, “Is Rob Bell saying anything different than what Origen and Karl Barth claimed?” In the last month I have heard Bell’s view of hell likened to both of these men as well as C.S. Lewis. (I cannot, however, speak to Lewis’ view b/c – to my shame – I have only read the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity). Ironically, if you Google image “Universalism” both Origen and Bell’s pictures show up. Origen was excommunicated for some of his teaching, being accused of saying that even the devil might have a shot at redemption. At the end of Barth’s life he often had to defend himself against the accusation that he was a Universalist. Is there any correlation between these men?
The notion that Origen taught that all people would be saved, including the possibility of Satan, has been around for some time. The reality is that Origen was much more “orthodox” than what he is given credit for. According to the historian, Justo Gonzales, Origen proposed many doctrines, not necessarily as truths to be generally accepted, nor as things that would supersede the clear doctrines of the church, but as his own tentative speculation, which was not to be compared with the authoritative teaching of the church. He was in line with what was considered orthodox for his day. It is unfair to take later matters settled by the church (some several hundred years later), and then look back on his teachings and scold him for wrestling with them. However, the question is whether or not Origen taught that all men would eventually be saved, even Satan. The answer is that he postulated some type of universal reconciliation because of his view of free will, but never affirmed it as orthodox or in line with Scripture. In his book, First Principles (1.8.4), he says, “So, too, the reprobate will always be fixed in evil, less from the inability to free themselves from it, than because they wish to be evil.” Once in hell, the choice to choose otherwise will never be exercised because the will of man will not choose otherwise. Concerning the possible salvation of Satan, Origen did not teach the possibility that he would be saved. In a debate with a man named Candidus, Origen was defending his notion of free will, and said that Satan could be saved if he wanted, but that he would not be saved because of his choice to live in rebellion. Origen’s point was that Satan did not want salvation because his free will choice. He writes in a letter defending himself against the above accusation, that anyone who would claim that Satan would be saved was a “madman.” Although he was labeled a heretic in 399 by a council in Alexandria, and then excommunicated as heretic by the 5th Ecumenical Council in 553, Henri Crouzel says this was more from the musings of Origen’s followers than Origen himself. Origen postulated a reconciliation of all things, but did not affirm it as orthodox. He also did not teach any type of post-mortem changing of the heart. Although he wanted to defend the notion of free will, he affirmed that the reprobate’s will was fixed in sin and rebellion.
When it comes to nailing down Karl Barth on the issue…good luck! According to Oliver Crisp and Geoffrey Bromiley (translator of Barth’s Church Dogmatics into English) his theology cannot escape the accusation. Karl Barth taught that Jesus Christ was both the subject and object of election. As the subject he is the electing God. As the object he is the elect man. Simply, Barth sees Jesus as the representative of all men, not only some of them. (He had a major beef with Calvinism!) If Jesus represented all men, took the condemnation that was to fall on all men, then the logical conclusion of Barth’s theology would be that all men would be saved. This is what Barth hoped for. The problem is that he wasn’t sure it would happen. When asked if he was a Universalist, he denied the label. Furthermore, he taught that although all men were elected in Christ, their election still had to be actualized through the exercise of faith, and that the gospel had to be preached if there was any hope for man. Thus, in the end you can take one of two approaches with Barth. You can side with Oliver Crisp, who says that Barth was either a Universalist or incoherent in his doctrine. Or, you can opt for George Hunsinger’s view that Barth was not a Universalist but an agnostic. He simply left the question open ended with a strong tilt towards universal hope.
So where is Bell? Again, good luck. I think he wants to keep the free will of Origen, and the hope of universal reconciliation like Barth. Unlike both of these men, however, he seems to go further and claim a definitive reconciliation of all people, including post-mortem redemption. If all are not saved then love does not win, which is the premise of his book. He redefines the term aion to refer to an “intense experience,” not a period of time with beginning and end (by the way, it’s never good to get one definition of a word and apply it to all uses of that word) (57). Going so far as to say that, “forever is not really a category biblical writers use” (92) Thus, hell is not forever in the sense of time. It’s just a “period of pruning” or a “time of trimming” or “an intense experience of correction” (91). Hell can be now, on earth, as we reject God’s way and God’s story of love. Hell can be a place we go to after death. The picture John gives us in Revelation, however, is of a city with open gates in which people can “come and go.” Bell suggests that if someone dies and goes to hell and is finally overcome by the goodness of God in Christ and repents, it is possible that God will let them into heaven whose gates are always open. (I wonder if that also means those in heaven can leave?) Hell, even one of their own making, has finally pruned their resistance. He says that Christians should long for this (111) and admit that these questions “are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires”(115). If he is genuine in this statement, he affirms that he’s not sure if there is a universal reconciliation. (If he’s wrong, though, doesn’t it end really badly for people?!) Furthermore, Bell is not a traditional Universalist (i.e. everyone gets in regardless of what they want). However, he seems to be advocating a type of Christian Universalism. Jesus is necessary. Everyone gets in, but everyone gets in only because of the sacrifice of Jesus. In this sense Bell is exclusive. Also, the sacrifice of Jesus was inclusive of all. Bell says that “Jesus does declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody” (155). He also says that people just might not be aware that it is Jesus doing this for them (155). Buddhist will use a different name. Muslim’s will say Allah. In this case, the gospel in the Bible is not the only way to heaven (i.e. Believe this or you don’t get in). Jesus is the only way, and the Christian church (especially those that mix the warning of eternal conscious judgment in hell with grace) doesn’t get to lay claim on the only exclusive message. The message is really love. So although Bell is not a traditional Universalist, he does appear to be advocating a view of Universalism (i.e. an Exclusive (Jesus alone) Inclusivist (Everybody) Pluralist (Many Ways to Understand) Universalism) that puts the love of God and the cross of Christ squarely in the middle of every persons salvation. This allows him to have some vague tie to evangelical Christianity, even though his definitions behind the terms create something new.
If I’m reading Bell correctly, there is indeed a piece of continuity between his view and those of Origen and Barth. There is the hope of universal reconciliation. I think that all Christians would hope for what these men hoped for, the salvation of all men. At that point our desires would be in line with God’s. However, in the end Bell is very different from Barth and Origen. Bells view is different from Origen b/c he postulates, not a fixed will of rebellion in hell, but the possibility that the will may always change, even post-mortem. Origen may have questioned, but never considered it an “orthodox view” as Bell does. Origen also never separated salvation from the Christian gospel or thought that the beliefs of Roman pagan religions were somehow coterminous with the gospel of Jesus. Bell is different from Barth in that Barth never separates salvation from a choice that is made in the here and now. Barth never spoke of a hell as a time of “pruning.” More pointedly Barth never called for a softening of the biblical text or a “better story” that excluded judgment or widened itself to encompass other religions (Neither did Paul in Acts 17). If anything Barth called for more proclamation and the indiscriminate preaching of the unique Christian gospel (not a widening of it) along with a warning for those who rejected it. They hoped for a universal reconciliation, but thought it not possible or, at best, were agnostic about it. In the end, neither Origen nor Barth, say what Bell is now saying.
Picture in your mind something that you think is a really bad idea. (I’m picturing a cat.) Now imagine someone using something that you wrote many years ago to defend this heinously awful idea. How would you feel?
That’s exactly what happened to Augustine. By the latter part of his life, Augustine had developed a clear reputation for defending divine sovereignty, predestination, original sin, and the “bondage” of the will. But when he was younger, Augustine had written some things, particularly in De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will), that sounded to many like he used to believe something very different. Indeed, some of statements sound very libertarian. And, much to Augustine’s chagrin, his critics used these earlier works against him, contending that they were just saying what himself he used to teach.
That had to have been annoying.
And, it raises a key question: Did Augustine have a consistent position on free will throughout his life, or were his opponents correct that his later position was a dramatic departure from what he wrote in his earlier works?
Those are the issues that Billy Cash dealt with in the paper that he presented to the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society last month, “Augustine and the Consistent Trajectory of Compatibilism“. (Billy is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and a regular contributor to this blog.) And in the paper, Billy contends that Augustine’s early writings are consistent with his later writings, and that we should understand Augustine to be a consistent compatibilist throughout his life.
Billy starts things off by arguing that although Augustine does sound libertarian at times in De Libero Arbitrio, he is still operating from a largely compatibilist framework. Two arguments in particular ground this conclusion:
First, in book three of On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine asserts that the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden consigned all men to a life of “ignorance and difficulty,” a life in which they would find themselves unable to choose the good….
Secondly, although the grace of God is not center-stage in this particular treatise, it is not absent. In his Retractions, Augustine reminds his readers that he does in fact claim in On the Free Choice of the Will, “that anything good in a human person, including any goodness in the will, is a gift of God.”
So, although there are some differences between Augustine’s early and mature writings – differences that can be partially accounted for by the Manichean controversy that Augustine was addressing in his earlier writings – there is enough continuity to conclude that there is a clear and consistent “trajectory” leading from the one to the other, rather than a marked “departure” in the later writings.
In the last part of the paper, Billy turns his attention to an interesting argument presented by Eleonore Stump, which she calls “modified libertarianism.” I won’t go into the details of the argument here, but the essence is that Stump is looking for a way to understand even the later Augustine within the broader framework of a libertarian view of free will. And, although she presents a creative argument, Billy contends that her position is ultimately incoherent (or at least inconsistent).
So, at the end of the day, Billy concludes:
Development in theology does not necessarily imply change, as seen in the early church’s development of doctrines concerning the divinity of Christ. That Jesus was the divine Son of God was never denied by the Orthodox Church. There was development, however, in how that divinity was to be understood, and this development led to a distinction between what was to be considered true or heretical. Likewise, in Augustine’s mature theology he believed that the will of man was free to choose what it desired, but the desire of will to choose the good was enabled by the grace of God, prior to any choice or merit found within the individual. Although his early theology was not as developed and Augustine did not give grace as prominent a position in influencing the will in On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine himself says that the grace of God was not absent, just not the focal point of his argument. In light of the affirmations of the will found in his early writing, On Free Choice of the Will, it may be stated with surety that the trajectory of his argument was compatibilist in nature, and was not altered from early to later works, just more thoroughly developed. Since this is the case, any attempt at construing a libertarian view of the will in Augustine is misleading.
(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)
In my church history class last week, we discussed Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Toward the end, I was struck once again by the powerful way that he used questions to drive home a point. Like any good communicator, he knew how to use questions as an effective rhetorical tool.
Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.
Or, my personal favorite:
Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?
And, just for the fun of it, here are a couple more.
What does the pope remit or dispense to people who, by their perfect repentance, have a right to plenary remission or dispensation?
What the pope seeks by indulgences is not money, but rather the salvation of souls; why then does he suspend the letters and indulgences formerly conceded, and still as efficacious as ever?
I’m relatively certain that Luther knew he was not just asking questions. And, I bet the pope got the hint as well.
At the same time, I’m reminded of a more recent debate. One of the more commonly offered comments in response to the promo video for Rob Bell‘s forthcoming book is that “He was only asking questions.” No, in a context like that, you are never just asking questions.
Now, as with many rhetorical devices, it’s often an interesting task to try and discern exactly what someone is doing with questions. But, let’s all agree that sometimes a question is not just a question.
Sunday morning again. Great. I’m tired, I have a headache from staying up too late the night before, and my wife’s stupid cat won’t stop meowing. Not for the first time, I wish that I kept a BB gun or a large hammer next to the bed.
I really don’t want to get up. I work hard all week, and Saturdays are always full of chores, errands, and other responsibilities. Can’t I have just one morning to relax?
I’m pretty sure my wife didn’t sleep well either. She was up with the kids at least twice, and I’m sure she’s as exhausted as I am. She’s awake; I can tell. But she hasn’t moved yet. I can almost feel her thinking the same question that is running through my mind.
Do we have to go to church this morning?
Which leads to the question: What happens when God’s people start thinking of church as an optional activity in the midst of a busy life?
That’s exactly the issue that the church had to confront during its transition into the early middle ages. I’m sure this wasn’t a new problem, but it certainly took on a new level of seriousness as church attendance declined precipitously during this period.
At least five things seem to have contributed to this growing problem.
- The professionalization of worship. By the middle ages, the professionalization of the clergy was well-established. A clear divide had developed between the average Christian and the priests, bishops, and monks who were the real focal point of Christian worship. Thus, as long as the professionals were there to take care of the business of the church, all was well.
- The mediation of worship. Along with the professionalization of the clergy came the idea that the worship of God’s people was essentially mediated through the clergy. We saw in our last post that the language of the church contributed to this development as only the professional clergy really understood what was going on. It was a short step from here to the idea that the clergy really do the work of worship for the people. Once that becomes the mindset, is it any wonder that people began to think if their attendance was all that important? The real work of worship will happen just fine without them.
- A “What’s in it for me?” Mentality. And, once people begin to view their participation in worship as optional, the only other reason for attending regularly would be the idea that they’ll get something out of it. But, such an individualistic ethos only served to decrease attendance. Certainly my salvation doesn’t depend on regular attendance at church. So, although there may be some other cursory benefits, the bottom line is that my fundamental relationship with God remains unchanged even if I decide to skip church. Why, then, should I take time out of my life to do something with limited apparent benefit to me?
- The Guilt Factor. The only real recourse that the medieval church had was to play up the people’s experience of personal guilt and to emphasize the eucharist as the only effective means for dealing with that guilt. But, the more they played that card, the more they made people feel unworthy to stand in the presence of a holy God. Thus, contrary to expectations, the guilt card actually made people less likely to attend church regularly. Instead, many came just once a year – the least they thought they could get away with and still be in good standing with God.
- The Chaos of Life. We should also recognize that in many ways this was just a difficult time to be alive. The decline of centralized authority and the rise of regionalized powers (the barbarian “warlords”), along with other factors like the rise of feudalism, economic decline, famine, and the Viking and Magyar invasions, all contributed to a laity distracted by the complexity and chaos of everyday life. Such were the “excuses” of the early medieval period.
I think we wrestle with many of the same things today.
- The professionalization and mediation of worship. Although Protestants have long emphasized the priesthood of all believers, we continue to struggle with the dynamics of a professionalized clergy. As long as worship is really what happens on the stage, is my presence all that necessary? Surely I can miss a few Sundays without impacting anyone. The worship team will still be there.
- The “What’s in it for me?” mentality. Why not sleep in today? Am I really going to get anything out of the service? Who’s preaching anyway? I bet it’s that one associate pastor who doesn’t do a very good job. I never learn anything from him anyway. Or (maybe just as likely) I think I’ll go visit another church today; I hear they have better worship. Clearly this mentality did not die with the middle ages.
- The Chaos of Life. This is really what I was alluding to at the very beginning of this post. Life is hectic and complicated today. And for many people, the background noise of everyday life easily overwhelms the unconvincing reasons they have for attending weekly worship. They’ll still attend on occasion, but only as it fits in their otherwise busy schedule.
So, many of the factors that contributed to a declining emphasis on corporate worship in the early middle ages are still with us today. And, just like in the medieval period, The Guilt Factor really doesn’t work. The more people feel guilty for missing church, the less likely they are to go. Hiding from your guilt is often easier than facing it.
The problem today, and in the medieval church, is a failure to cast a compelling vision of what corporate worship is all about. Ultimately, corporate worship is about the people of God manifesting the glory of God in the midst of the creation of God so that all people everywhere can see how amazing God is.
And, if God’s people don’t show up, it can’t happen. It’s not something that anyone can do for us – it can’t be mediated or professionalized. We can pay people so that they have more time to prepare to lead us effectively in this process, but they can’t do it for us. And we shouldn’t want them to. Why would we want to miss out on the opportunity to be involved in something this special, this amazing – the very reason for our existence?
But, when we fail to cast this vision for God’s people, a vision of what corporate worship is all about, it’s easy for it to become a burden – something to be avoided when we’re tired and distracted. That’s when attendance turns into attrition, and the pews sit empty.
[This is the second post in our series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.]
Americans have a long history of touting commonsense as providing a solid foundation for sure knowledge of the world. We’re often skeptical of those whose ideas sound too “theoretical” or “abstract,” and we scoff at people who posit ideas that seem radically contrary to the world as we experience it.
This attitude often displays itself most clearly in how people react to scientific theories. People laugh at the idea that the universe could be made of “strings,” because obviously we don’t experience reality that way. And, many mock the idea of global warming because it happened to be colder in their part of the world the last couple of years. Now, I’m not trying to start an argument about whether these theories, and others, are right. My only point is to comment on how many people use commonsense experience to reject or “refute” more abstract ideas.
For Edwards, this suggests a complete lack of imagination.
I’ve been re-reading Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and this section stood out to me the other day. The specific context has to do with Edward’s philosophical idealism and how contrary to commonsense it is to suggest that the “physical” is not what is ultimately real. But, Marsden goes on to point out that the same imaginative openness to new ideas also characterized Edwards’ approach to scientific developments.
The problem with thinking that commonsense experience was ultimate, he was convinced, was a failure of imagination….’Imagination’ at the time meant literally the faculty by which one forms images of things. The case of prejudices, said Edwards, was that people get so used to perceiving things in common ways that they ‘make what they can actually perceive by their senses, or by immediate and outside reflection into their own souls, the standard of possibility or impossibility; so that there must be no body, forsooth, bigger than they can conceive of, or less than they can see with their eyes; nor motion either much swifter or slower than they can imagine.” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 80)
This isn’t to say that Edwards rejected commonsense. In most situations, commonsense is a fine guide to understanding the world. But, Edwards point is that our perspective is inherently limited. So, if we insist on judging the world on the basis of our own limited experiences, we will necessarily be prejudiced against much larger truths. And, Christians in particular should be able to look beyond our limited horizons and imagine possibilities that border on the absurd.
Why did I choose to follow Jesus? Did God reach out and cause me to want to follow Jesus? Or, did I weigh the various options and choose to follow Jesus as one choice among many?
Why did I pick up my coffee cup and drink just now? Did something cause me to drink? Or, was it a relatively arbitrary expression of my own free choice?
Is there a difference between these two scenarios?
According to Paul Helm, Jonathan Edward viewed both of these from basically the same perspective. And, in the process, he departed from earlier Reformed theologians in significant ways.
As I’m getting prepared for my seminar on Jonathan Edwards this summer, I’m going to blog occasionally on any interesting resources that I’ve run across. Today, I read Paul Helm’s post on “Jonathan Edwards and the Freedom of the Will.” According to Helm, Edwards’ understanding of free will was driven by the “all-encompassing metaphysical principle” that nothing happens without a cause. So, if I make a choice, that choice must have a cause. And, for Edwards, the cause in that case would be my desires. I chose X because I wanted X. And, this same basic framework holds no matter if we’re talking about choosing God or choosing coffee.
For Edwards, operating in a world increasingly influenced by the emerging natural science, and by the empiricist philosophy of John Locke, human action is the result of one sort of cause, a ’volition’, which is in turn the outcome of certain beliefs and desires. Such causal links, of different kinds, necessarily pervade the entire creation. Edwards’s stress is on this all-encompassing metaphysical principle.
All events must have causes.
Helm argues that this is a very different argument from that offered by earlier Reformed theologians. Looking specifically at Calvin, Helm contends that earlier theologians in the Reformed tradition focused more narrowly on “the loss of moral and spiritual freedom as a result of the Fall.” This isn’t because Calvin disagreed with Edwards (which would be hard to do, since Edwards wasn’t alive at the time), but because the nature of the free will debate was different in Calvin’s day. They weren’t concerned with the broader issue of whether every particular event must have a cause, but on the narrower question of whether the human person is free to choose God.
The difference between Edwards and Calvin, according to Helm’s argument, is really the scientific/philosophical context that Edwards operated in. With the rise of modern science and the philosophical turn that took place with John Locke, the issue of causation took a much more prominent place in discussions of free will. So, it’s not that Edwards and Calvin necessarily disagreed on the free will. Helm actually argues that one can find ” clear evidence for what later came to be called a compatibilistic outlook” in Calvin’s theology. But, it does mean that they addressed the issue from very different cultural contexts, and that we need to understand these historical/cultural differences if we are really to appreciate what they were saying.
For more resources on the subject of free will see:
- Contemplating Classical Compatabilism and Where Desires Come From
- A hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will?
- Free will and character are not incompatible