Here is a message I shared with Cupar Baptist Church in May on Mark 15 where Jesus is before Pilate, as we see the innocent presented as guilty and the guilty presented as innocent. Hope you enjoy it.
As I write this the UK is reeling from the use of chemical weapons on its home soil. It was a deadly attack and left two people in a critical condition and injured a third. We are rightly appalled at the blatant disregard for public safety and national sovereignty. It makes us thankful for our scientists who seek to ensure that should something like this happen we have the right antidotes to treat people who have been exposed.
As I have studied Book 8 of Augustine’s City of God this week I have been struck by its profound relevance for our contemporary situation. We are deep into the study now, and Book 8 is a masterpiece in unravelling the deepest desires of the human heart. As I have studied Augustine’s reasoning, it has forced me to wonder whether our modern UK society has been exposed to some sort of spiritually engineered soporific.
Could it be that our spiritual senses have been numbed into a Candy Crush-induced coma? Could our emoji expressions and 140 character limit be trivialising our soul? Like bodies that are weakened by an endless diet of donuts and Danish pastries, we have been feeding our souls on what is neither nourishing nor natural.
If Augustine was alive today I believe he would stand at the highest point of our nation and sound a clarion call for us to reclaim our souls. In this section of the City of God he explores what is the true food for our souls, he calls to us to feed on the right substance, for our souls were not made to consume, but to admire, to aspire, to adore. But what should we adore? Nothing that is of less worth than our soul, he says, for “the homage due from the soul cannot be due to something which is inferior to the soul”.
Throughout this section Augustine is seeking to find the true purpose and calling of our soul worship. To what do the wisest men of his time say we should direct our soul? If we ask people today, many may say that our greatest good is to be happy and to be true to yourself. But is this the right approach? Are we ourselves more worthy of the praise and adoration we give ourselves than anything else in the universe?
To answer these questions Augustine plunges into the philosophy of theology – the study of the divinity. Augustine wants to understand what we can learn from those thinkers who share a belief in a supernatural being. He works his way through the history of philosophers, until he reaches Socrates and Plato. They strived to answer this question by seeking to find the highest good, for when we know what that is, it is only right that we should adore only that which is worthy of adoration. Like a compass pointing to north, our souls will naturally turn towards it.
Socrates was the “first to turn the whole of philosophy towards the improvement and regulation of morality” as his predecessors had focussed on the study the natural sciences. Moreover, Socrates “saw that man had been trying to discover the causes of the universe”. He believed it had its “first and supreme cause in nothing but the will of the one supreme God, hence he thought that the causation of the universe could be grasped only by a purified intelligence”.
“He thought it essential to insist on the need to cleanse one’s life by accepting a high moral standard” in order to “behold, thanks to its pure intelligence, the essence of immaterial and unchangeable light where dwell the causes of all created things in undisturbed stability”. If only we could rid ourselves of our corrupted thinking and deeds, reasoned Socrates, we could as a clean mirror more clearly perceive the mind of God. A noble aim no doubt, but is it possible? Can we lift ourselves up to this spiritual level?
If Socrates was clear on the process he thought would work, he was less clear on what we would discover behind the veil. He sought to understand and identify the Summum Bonum – the Highest or Final Good. “Everything else we desire for the sake of this, this we desire for itself alone” as it alone conveys blessedness. But his approach of refuting various hypotheses and countering every argument left his followers with different opinions on what this Final Good was – was it pleasure or virtue or something else?
Where Socrates brought questions, Plato brought structure. Up until Plato philosophy had been conducted along two lines, one concerned with action, the other with pure thought. Or in other words, practical and speculative philosophy, the former dealing with the conduct of life and establishment of moral standards, the latter concerned with the theory of causation and nature of absolute truth. Plato “brought philosophy to perfection by joining together these two strands”. He then divided philosophy into three parts:
- Moral, relating to action (i.e. ethics…the Summum Bonum);
- Natural, devoted to speculation; and
- Rational (logic) which distinguishes truth from falsehood
Augustine summarises these three elements as relating to questions about:
- “the blessedness of life” – ie how do I live a good life?
- “the origin of existence” – ie why am I here?
- “the truth of doctrine” – ie what is truth?
When the Christian views these three categories we get a deeper appreciation for how our divine creator fulfils and satisfies each question in turn. As Augustine says, the Christian finds in God “the rule of life (moral), the cause of existence (natural) and the principle of reason (rational)”. He then goes on to say that if we have been created to attain to the knowledge of God then “we should seek him in whom for us all things are held together, we should find him in whom for us all things are certain, we should love him, in whom is found all goodness.”
Is this not the true north of our souls? Finding the greatest source and fountain of goodness, the reason for our existence and the source of all truth can only lead to adoration, thankfulness and worship. Only by centring our souls on this spring of life can we avoid the temptation for self-love and discover the satisfaction of all our souls could ever desire.
Long before any of us were born, before we ever had a thought or asked a question, a civilisation had been born, grown, conquered the known world and then died. In this society the great questions of life were asked by the philosophers, portrayed by the plays and idolised by the poets. An intricate web of personalities stood behind the cause and effect of the visible and invisible world. The civilisation was the Roman Empire, and the personalities were their pagan gods.
In chapter 7 of the City of God, Augustine dissects as an expert surgeon the layers upon layers of these gods. A complex hierarchy determined the degree of control or influence of each god. He again goes back to Varro to use one of their own philosophers to ensure he represents their position accurately. Augustine asks basic questions like, is there a logical reason why some gods have more important responsibilities or are given a greater degree of worship? After a lengthy analysis of these so-called principal or select gods, Augustine concludes that there is no logical system to explain the hierarchy, but “simply because those divinities have succeeded in winning greater renown of the general public”.
So far, so good. We, as a modern, sophisticated reader, can look back at these times as naive and easily discard their superstition. Maybe. This is when the chapter gets really interesting! For Augustine pushes on to the deeper question behind and beyond the pagan rituals, to ask, to what purpose was all this constructed? Why did all of this appear? According to Varro, all the images and attributes and ornaments were created in order that those initiated “could fix their eyes on them, and then apprehend with their minds the true gods, namely the Soul of the World and it’s manifestations”.
Don’t miss the significance of this, one of the leading experts and advocates of the Roman gods is saying that these hundreds of gods were created because there is something else that is indescribable, there is something Other that is untouchable. It is this that he calls the Soul of the World, this essence that is not human, or any created thing, that is beyond our senses but we can hear it’s echo in our lives.
What is this essence? Varro describes it using the three degrees of the soul (borrowed from Aristotle): the most basic level is the material body; the next is sensibility, the ability to experience sensation; the highest level is intelligence, “a faculty denied to all mortal beings except man”. Augustine then goes on to say that “it is this part of the World-Soul which, according to Varro is God; in man he calls it genius“. This genius connects all things together, and expresses itself as the god of the earth, Tellus, the Great Mother, and the god of the sea Neptune.
An essence within but beyond the created world? Something intelligent, like a person but not human? We may say we have left all of this superstition behind hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, but when I went to see The Last Jedi at Christmas this could have been the script for Ray’s island training (a story that mirrors the sentiments of many who feel there must be something out there). Feel the force Ray, find the genius Varro. Why are we aching, reaching, yearning to find what is just out of reach? To describe something indescribable? To find a unifying purpose to make sense of all of life? We may have dropped the pagan gods, yet the human heart remains the same…looking for a way to explain our sense of unaloneness in the universe.
The seeking is good, the longing is innate, but the answer is wrong. For what Varro called the World-Soul, what the modern spirit-seekers may call the Force, what the Greeks called the logos, has been revealed once and for all. Not as a thing, or a system, but as a person. The mistake has been to look inside the created order for the answer, when all the signs pointed to the answer being outside of the natural order of things. “In the beginning was the logos (Word)” says John the apostle. And who is this Word? “And the word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us”.
All of the ancient pagan system was man’s Herculean attempt to explain the personality behind the planets. Years before Augustine another church father told us that “by the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry hosts by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33). It is the breath of God that we can see on our rear view mirror, the word of the Lord that we can hear echoing across our our conscience. It is the call of Jesus, the Word made flesh, calling to our lost world to come home.
At the start of Ephesians Paul has been praising and adoring God. Although he writes about “us” and “we” in verses 3-14 he is really inviting us to view God’s wonderful acts on our behalf…it is as if he is stood in front of a beautiful picture and is helping us admire it…do you see this bit? And this? How wonderful the artist is! He says to us. From verse 15 he changes his focus – he moves from adoration to intercession, from worship to supplication.
We are no longer stood beside him viewing the picture – we are now the recipients of a gift he wants to give us. I am praying for you he says…ever since the first day that I heard about your faith. I am praying for all of you, without faltering, without stopping …but what is he praying for them? He wants them to know God. He is praying to God the Father that He would help them to know him better. Paul knows that this is the most important and vital prayer he can pray for another believer. He knows that we struggle to really comprehend the truths of verses 3-14 and our knowledge of God is at times superficial and transient. I want us to notice three things about this request for the knowledge of God:
i) A spiritual knowledge – firstly it is a spiritual knowledge. He prays that God would give them the “spirit” of wisdom and revelation. Over Christmas I had the pleasure of sitting with the in-laws to watch Mastermind. Do you know how this programme works? Have you seen it? Each person has a specialist topic that they answer questions on in round one and then general knowledge questions in round 2. Here are some specialist subjects that were considered not suitable to be used:
- Routes to anywhere in mainland Britain by road from Letchworth.
- Cremation practice and law in Britain.
- The banana industry.
- Orthopaedic bone cement in total hip replacement.
Now maybe you wouldn’t chose those topics, but how would you revise for your own specialist topic? You would get films, books, Internet – whatever you could to research everything about you topic…and hope for the best! Paul says knowing God is not like this. The most learned (but unsaved) university theology professor has less true insight into the knowledge of God than a young child who has come to faith in Jesus. Amassing facts is a futile task, if we come to them as we come to every other piece of knowledge.
So what is spiritual knowledge? It is the ability to understand, accept and hold a conviction about truth that is granted completely and utterly dependent on the movement of the Spirit of God. And it comes to us Regardless of intelligence, race, gender, wealth, age – or any other human quality. We come to understand something we didn’t before, we come to accept something we previously rejected, we come to believe something we previously denied, we come to trust in someone who was previously unknown to us. In essence it is not becoming a mastermind on a favourite subject, but coming to a place where we understand the Master’s mind.
ii) A hidden knowledge – secondly, it is a hidden knowledge. Paul is praying that God would open the eyes of our hearts to help us see the unseen. What is truly humbling is that none of us have the slightest chance of finding this spiritual knowledge on our own, unless God opens our eyes. Yes, there are glimpses that we can get of the divine being from creation, but left to our own we are utterly incapable of discovering truth about God. If God had chosen to remain unknown there would have been absolutely nothing any of us could have done about it. If we come to really understand this it should deeply trouble us…if what I have said is true, then nothing in the strength of my human wisdom can fathom the mysteries of God.
Is this not what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1.20-31? “The world in its wisdom did not know him”. He is beyond our reach. He must reveal himself, and to whom and when and how is entirely at his discretion. The wind blows where it pleases, so does the self-revealing almighty God. It is a knowledge that we are at first entirely ignorant of – all of us at one time were outside of Christ and cut off from this knowledge. As we shall see next time, we were by nature objects of wrath and dead in our sins. This is the natural condition of men and women. We should not be surprised at people’s response to the gospel. To the natural man it is foolishness.
There is nothing wrong with the message, it is not a secret knowledge, it is plain for all to see, but it is us who must be changed to understand it. We must come to know the unknown, and see the unseen. What is hidden must be revealed – that is why the preaching of the gospel is so important. For in proclaiming Christ crucified to a lost world we are the means by which God has chosen to open blind eyes.
iii) A gradual knowledge – thirdly it is a gradual knowledge. Look at what he says…I keep asking… Not only is it spiritual and hidden but it is also gradual in our experience of it. there are times when we receive fantastic new insight into God, but it is not always like this. Remember how it was for the blind man in Mark 8.22 – after Jesus touched his eyes the first time he could see people moving like trees, then Jesus puts his hands on the mans eyes again and he can see clearly. Was Jesus suffering from a temporary problem with his healing power? No, it was a metaphor for how we come to see spiritually, that was immediately played out by Peter – who has been shown by the Spirit who Jesus is…the Messiah, but is blind as to why he came v33 as he tries to rebuke Jesus for talking about going to the cross.
Our knowledge of God generally comes to us little by little and is a slow process! Sure there is the moment when our eyes are first opened and we see Jesus for who he really is, and we are overcome with adoration and awe. By God’s grace he grants more experiences like that throughout our life, but the norm for us seems to be a gradual opening in our understanding to the radiant brilliance of his beauty. Like the years and decades that it takes us to get to know our wife, so knowing God takes a lifetime and beyond, into eternity.
Always you Lord; I do not seek success today, I seek only you
Before all others, you are the one I seek first and constantly
Consciously I turn from all other loves and choose to love only you
Dependent upon your Spirit I ask only to hear your voice and be with you
Everything else fades away when I steadfastly seek your face, help me stay in your presence each moment
Father, I desire you when I do not understand you; I love you when I cannot see you
Great God of the whole universe, help me to trust you are guiding me home and be thankful for your blessings
Hardness of heart is my enemy; give me a tender spirit and a fresh love for others
I am resolved not to base your love for me on my achievement; you love me as I love my children – unconditionally
Just one thing I seek; a full heart of blazing love for you Lord
Knackered is what I am expecting to be for most of the year; help me to accept this is your plan
Life is short and death comes quickly; I have everything I ever needed because I have you
Measure not my life by my accomplishments, or abilities, or reputation but my nearness to you Lord
Nothing… is what I need to be content, fulfilled, at peace. Help me remember this in the bustle of life
Only one day at a time, do not fret about what’s to come or what’s been done…
Peace comes from acceptance and resignation; I completely surrender my life to your hands
Quietness and silence – help me to meditate on you and be still in your presence
Restless is my spirit until you remove all the distractions and I see only you
Spirit, come fill me, lead me, mould me, shape me, satisfy me; all that I desire is more of you
Turn my eyes from worthless things Lord; do not let them dazzle me
Use me as you see fit Lord, no holding back; I do what I do today for you only – show me if you desire something else
Very short is the time I have with my children, they grow so quickly; help me make the most of each day
Work will demand much of me, help me Lord to be strong and do my best every day
X, the sign of the cross upon me wherever I go; always with me, marking me as your property Lord
Youth is disappearing; help me to live each day without deceit, regret or vanity
Zero… the credit in my spiritual account; never more or less than a sinner saved by grace
This post was written for the Scottish Baptist Lay Preachers Association – click here
After watching Amazing Grace a couple of weeks ago, I decided that my next book would be the biography of William Wilberforce written by William Hague. So one day last month I walked into a bookstore to see if this was the biography I was going to buy on the great abolitioner. I had had my fingers burnt before by buying a biography of Churchill, also written by a politician and with a nice cover – only to realise how dull and prosaic it was once I started reading it… I would not make the same mistake twice!
So I walked into the bookshop and looked for the biography section, once there I looked under “W” – no Wilberforce biographies to speak of. “Perhaps they are listed by author?” I thought, so proceeded to “H”. As I glanced along the various H biographies, there he was staring back at me, not William Wilberforce but Christopher Hitchens, and his memoirs, Hitch-22. This would be interesting I thought as I picked it up – flicking through the pages I became transfixed by his younger pictures and those of his family. “What happened to this guy to make him hate religion so much?” I asked myself and decided in that instant to read it.
Hitchens introduces his memoirs from his sickbed – ill with the throat cancer that is hastening his advance towards the final chapter of his life. My copy is a re-edition, with a new foreword, as he now reflects that the first part of the book was unknowingly written with “a strong preoccupation with impending death”. This awareness gives him a heightened sense of irony as he begins his work by reminiscing on the day his erroneous obituary appeared in a magazine. He then moves to his family and childhood upbringing, moving chronologically up until his graduation, after which the book skips through different themes rather than a strict chronology.
Without giving too much away, his chapter on his mother provides a clear motivation for his feelings towards religion in general and Christianity in particular. After reading the things he had to deal with as a young man I can honestly understand why he sees such vice in religion. Indeed, I would have probably felt the same had I gone through such experiences. As always with anyone who has an aggressive anti-Christian philosophy, the roots of this begin in broken relationships, facile explanations and hypocritical believers.
But through it all I found myself warming to the man and finding in him a literary kinship that I wasn’t expecting after reading his God Is Not Great. So to summarise, here are the things I really like about Christopher Hitchens:
- His love of literature – he has read more books, poets and plays than I could ever hope to and he can quote from hundreds of authors to colour his prose. I too love literature, but come from it from the perspective of someone who studied the sciences at school and only discovered the classics in my 20s when I decided I needed to improve my vocabulary. I didn’t have the privilege of education that he had, but share his love for it, in fact if I could do my time again I would do my best to get on the PPE degree – Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
- His concern for the oppressed – reading his memoirs its easy to see what motivates him. He identifies with the down-trodden, the voiceless minorities of militant dictators, the political enemies of the state – all these draw out his love. He champions the cause of those without political power and he is willing to put his name on the line in the cause of creating a more civilised and just society.
- His desire to make a difference – he has made it his aim in life to spend time travelling and living in conflict zones. During the 70s, 80s and 90s he sought to ride the crest of the political wave across the world’s most troubled countries. He seeks to create a more liberal, open-minded society by raising awareness and uncovering injustice in some of the most forgotten places on earth.
- His pursuit of perfection in writing – as someone who has spent most of their career sharpening their ability to craft an argument and present a case, his relentless pursuit of the perfect adjective and striking analogy leaves me in awe. His power is in his prose, and he refines and refines it until it is as sharp as his wit and as penetrating as his intellect.
- His intellectual rigour – strange as it may seem, I actually appreciate the robustness of his thinking and the challenge he presents to his opponents. On the whole, he doesn’t allow his loyalty to friends or his political allegiances to bias his views. He seeks to think things through from first principles – a character trait I admire and seek to emulate. Although often he is more forgiving of himself than his enemies.
Interestingly, he describes at one point his loves and hates “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual and the defence of free expression.” I share many of these values and find in Hitchens a like-minded thinker, someone who ruthlessly examines his own beliefs and the world around him to understand the times we live in, but who also identifies with the rights of the individual to live their lives free of interference and superstition.
Yet through it all I found an undercurrent of sadness – the failure, within Hitchens own lifetime, of the socialist system to produce the just and fair society in practice that it promised in theory; the impact the excesses of his bohemian lifestyle had on his own family and finally and the utter hopelessness of his secular atheism. As he closes the book he gets to the root of this dilemma – how to be so sure of his materialistic secularism? Towards the end of the final chapter he states that “It is not that there are no certainties, it is that it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties”. How can someone so obviously intelligent and penetratingly logical come up with such a statement? “The only certainty in life is that I am right” is what he says in effect. He teaches his followers that there is nothing certain in life, just the certainty of hopelessness.
In an ironic twist he even celebrates his open-mindedness as he closes the book: “To be an unbeliever is not merely to be “open-minded”. It is rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.” But this open-mindedness applies only to those things his pre-assumptions tell him are correct – that there is no God, no spiritual aspect to life, no greater being than humans, nothing beyond the physical. Based upon these assumptions he is happy to entertain any question, but challenge these assumptions and you are either a naive imbecile or a power-wielding megalomanic.
For what Hitchens is missing is humility, the admission that we don’t know it all – we cannot say for certain that what we cannot see is not there. His pride and bitterness blinds him to the possibility of a greater purpose in life. If there really is no certainty or hope then I’m all on for an honest facing of the facts and stoic acceptance of our fate. But if there is even a glimmer of hope, then surely those who search their own assumptions and allow what they experience in their lives and what they know deep in their hearts to challenge their assumptions deserve some respect?
There is a middle way – experiential faith. There is an element of knowing God that requires our obedience, as Calvin says “all correct knowledge of God, originates in obedience”. It begins by participating in the process of faith by assessing the historical evidence, refusing to accept blinkered explanations and challenging our pre-suppositions. The first step is one of reason and logic, the second one of trust. First Jesus says to us – “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7.17 and also see John 14.21), then he says “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20.29).
It is called faith, not because there is no evidence, but because the evidence leads me to believe in something my eyes cannot see. Faith is not inconsistent with reason and logic, but rather on their own they are not sufficient to experience a relationship with God. Hitchens already knows everything he needs to about God, he doesn’t need more evidence or proofs – the question is will he humble himself before this God or demand more from him? That is his Hitch-22 and it is the question we all face.
God Is Not Great, Chapter 5
By chapter 5 Hitchens is well into his stride, his main thesis in this chapter is that religion only flourished in the past due to ignorance and superstition in times of “abysmal ignorance and fear”. In these less enlightened times people could (almost) be excused for believing in fairy tales invented to simultaneously comfort the masses and exert power over them. In an incredible demonstration of speed-assassination he rolls off tabloid-like sound bites on Aquinas, Augustine, Martin Luther and Isaac Newton. Each of these men were incredibly deep thinkers and spent years in seeking to understand the world around them through science and faith, but they are assigned to the intellectual scrap heap because they have a theistic worldview. Yes there are things they believed that we look back on now, with the benefit of hindsight, as primitive and simplistic. But to take this anomaly and assign it as a one sentence strap line, or more like epitaph, over their lives is downright dishonest.
In Surprised by Joy CS Lewis reveals his prejudices about the past: “Here were gods, spirits, afterlife and pre-existence, initiates, occult knowledge, meditation. “Why — damn it — it’s medieval,” I exclaimed; for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse. Here was everything which the New Look had been designed to exclude; everything that might lead one off the main road into those dark places where men are wallowing on the floor and scream that they are being dragged down into hell. Of course it was all arrant nonsense. There was no danger of my being taken in.”
The preconception shows itself by a scoffing at anything older than we are, “how less educated they were back then, how foolish” we say. But this attitude forgets two things – firstly that if we had we lived back then our intellectual capacity would have been dwarfed by the names mentioned earlier and secondly, that in 100 years generations to come may well look back on us and wonder how we could have believed such primitive ideas that we think are the height of sophistication today. A little more humility and a great deal more balanced critique of these historical figures is required if our analysis is to stand the test of time. I cannot say it better than Lewis when countering his friend Barfield who had become an Anthroposophist:
“Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”
It was at this point that I wondered if Hitchens’ one-liners betrayed his journalistic roots – not taking the time to present the case in its entirety – just lifting certain facts to suit the argument. Hitchens seems content to sacrifice a longer piece of even-handed commentary to the quick flashes of an eloquent assault. I began to wonder if Hitchens is only ever able to skim the surface of the arguments, scoring quick points in a tae kwon do style attack, but never plumbing the depths of an Augustine to find the real person behind the fictional caricature. He sums it all up by saying that “we have nothing much to learn from what they thought, but a great deal to learn from how they thought.” Granted, he thinks it is mostly learning from their mistakes!
But wait! There is someone who Hitchens would hold up as a critical thinker of a past century. William Ockham lived in the early 14th century and is most famous for his “Ockham’s Razor” which bears his name – this view describes the attempt to “disposing of unnecessary assumptions and accepting the first sufficient explanation or cause”. Essentially this means he sought to use logic to understand cause and effect behind religious faith. Thus, Hitchens presents Ockham as an orthodox, if controversial, Christian thinker who challenged the religious thinking of his day. In his search to simplify his preconceptions and find a logical explanation to his faith, Ockham realised that the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved. Moreover, in being obsessed with tracing back the cause and effect of each assumption he eventually comes to the wonder “Who created the Creator? Who designed the Designer?” This is music to Hitchens’ ears –a religious philosopher who unwillingly exposes the problem of the origin of God.
However, what Hitchens and Ockham fail to realise is that the “natural law” of cause and effect is not law which binds a free God – it is the expression of a created logical world. Just as within a jigsaw there are inbuilt rules over which piece will fit with which neighbouring piece, but the designer of the jigsaw is not limited by these rules. So too God stands outside of our laws of nature and philosophical assumptions. Yes, within his created world, he has appointed cause and effect to underpin the world, but he is not bound by such spatial-bound sequential laws.
It’s the same with time – it is pointless to ask who or what existed before God, for he stands outside of time, as an eternal being. Yes we can use logic and reason to understand something of God and his world, but at one point we must put down these primitive tools and accept the knowledge of God through his self-disclosed revelation. Not that this divine revelation is illogical or unreasonable, but that logic and reason are limited in their ability, they can only take us so far. It’s a bit like using a step-ladder to reach the stars – it’s in the right direction, but ultimately futile. So our use of logic is good and proper, but they are not sufficient in themselves.
We need to realise that our knowledge of God would have been extremely limited had he not chosen to reveal himself. As Paul reminds us in Romans 1.20, the world around us testifies to his divine wisdom and unlimited power. But it is unable to reveal his character and attributes, for that we needed him to break the silence and speak to us. But even as God reveals that he is “a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34.6), he is still unknowable on a personal level due to our corrupted spiritual hearts. For the knowledge of God must be both experiential and doctrinal, and like oil and water, a pure and holy God and impure, unholy people don’t mix.
We think knowing something is as simple as firing up Google or Wikipedia, but what if I asked you how it felt to win an Olympic gold medal? Do you know how it feels to win a gold medal? Some do, but it’s not something I can know unless I put in the effort, compete and win – there are conditions to be met before we can experience that knowledge. So too with God, we are spiritually incapable of knowing him until he cleanses us and repairs our hearts. This is what Jesus was doing on the cross – making it possible for sinful corrupt creatures to know a holy and pure God. Wining the medal for us, competing on our behalf, and as we become united with him, we come to know what it feels like to win.
It’s not enough to understand and even believe the facts about God (for even the Devil does this), we must experience an awakening of our spirit to a new relationship with him – to be born again in our mind, soul and spirit. Logic and reason can help us to begin to fathom how he made it possible for us to know him, but they can never bring us into that relationship. Only the Spirit of God acting in the humbled heart through the mediatory work of Jesus can create such a knowledge.
Reader Question: From a Reformed perspective (I am relatively new to this thinking in many ways), assuming the Doctrine of Election is true (I believe this to be true myself), what is the role of parenting? Knowing that there is no way to know whether or not your children are “elect”, how can a loving parent subject his children to Biblical teaching – assuming that teaching could some day be held against them on judgement day? (wouldn’t it be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than those who know the Gospel and don’t respond?). If they are elect anyway, perhaps telling them once and seeing how they respond is better than consistent training?
Again, I am not being facetious or devious- but really struggling through this. I grew up in a church and always assumed I was a Christian. Lately, I have doubted that as I have not seen the Spirit’s activity in my life, nor fully reflect the fruit of the Spirit, nor am I sure that I have fully repented from my sin. You may say to just repent and believe, but I am finding it more difficult than that and wondering whether or not I could possibly not be “elect”. Having sat through countless sermons and podcasts and books, am I more accountable?
Then, I take that to my children and wonder if I teach them the Gospel and they don’t respond, are they destined for a much more difficult eternity? Wouldn’t love for them wish for them to find Christ, yet not subject them to countless hours of instruction knowing that they may not choose that?
I am really confused, discouraged and honestly disheartened. I feel like my efforts to find God or grow closer to Christ or even to repent are “works” of my own and can’t any longer separate the true work of the Spirit from my own efforts.
I guess I am not looking for a counselling session, rather perhaps a perspective on what my responsibility is as a parent from the Reformed perspective. Thanks for your time and consideration on this (you can pray for me as well if you desire- I would not pass on that!).
Many thanks for your questions, these are real heart-felt issues that we all sometimes struggle with as we seek to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. I will try and provide some help on the issue of election before then turning to how this impacts our parenting.
As an opening comment I would say that election can be a very controversial subject and, not rightly handled, thinking deeply about it over a prolonged time can get us tied in knots. In some ways I would compare it to a person’s life assurance policy – it needs to be understood and applied, but then put in the back drawer and not obsessed over. Similarly with election, if not rightly understood and applied, rather than confirming and assuring our faith, it can actually have the opposite effect and undermine and make us doubt our faith. But once, in God’s mercy, we are granted a true understanding of the doctrine, we should allow it to support our devotion and growth, without being the test of it.
It might help to think of election as God’s side of the salvation story. Our side is the call to repent and believe and live a life of obedience in thankful response. From God’s side there are the eternal decrees determining each day of his children’s lives, from our side it is the moment by moment experience of living in this world and responding to his word. From God’s side there is ultimate and supreme sovereignty and freedom of will, from our side there is the wrestling with the sinful nature and the secret work of the Spirit in the inner life. No one can understand both sides of these things. We can see our side, and God has revealed some of his side through the scriptures. But much remains hidden and we must eventually reach a place of trust and submission if we would ever achieve assurance of our faith and peace of conscience.
It’s also important to realise that an assurance of our own faith is something that must be nurtured. Like a flower that will eventually bloom under the right conditions of soil, water and sun, so too our faith will be confirmed if we nurture the means to grow that faith. We will come to hear his Spirit confirming with our spirit that we are the children of God (Romans 8.16). At the moment of first confession we may have been told that we are saved, and some may feel assurance based on this their entire lives, but most of us will question it at some point in our lives. You certainly are at the moment, and this is a healthy thing if done for a season.
I’m sure you have heard and read many sermons and books on assurance of faith, so I’ll not go into that in detail. I just want to outline a few practical thoughts that I have found helpful:
1. The danger of relying on our feelings (and ignoring them completely) – do we feel elect when times are good and doubt our election when times are hard and we sin? The question we need to ask is what do we really believe to be true? Do we really truly believe that Jesus died for my sin – and if we do believe have we honestly asked him to forgive us. If so then we have planted the seed of the word in our hearts – we must then examine ourselves to see if the word is bearing fruit. But what is the fruit that we look for? If we seek perfection then we will be disappointed, if we seek love, joy, peace etc, then we will only see partial fruit, for we all are a pale reflection when it comes to these attributes. Perhaps a better indicator is how our desires, motivations, even feelings are being renewed. Do we grieve for sin when once we could have sinned without a second thought? Do we wish we were a better disciple and become frustrated when we fail? Good – so we should, for our desires are sometimes a better indicators than our characters, for character takes years to cultivate and while desires come and go, the fact that they do come sometimes should encourage us that God is at work.
2. The danger of self-deception – the false disciples of Matthew 7 thought they knew Christ when they only knew about him. Many people in churches will realise on the last day that this is true of them. The key question here is – have I personally appropriated the salvation which is freely given? I preached on this topic last year (click here).
3. The danger of despair – we should recognise that our minds are not infallible and are a battle ground for spiritual warfare – the helmet of salvation as Paul describes it, protects our minds. We should guard against entertaining every doubt, and emulate David in preaching God’s truth to ourselves. Don’t let our insecurities trump the truths of God’s word – for example, God has said “Never will I leave you never will I forsake you” – if we have addressed the first two items above then even though we might not feel in our experience the presence of the Lord, if doesn’t mean it is not true. The same can be said about forgiveness of sin – 1 John 1.9 promises complete and utter forgiveness of confessed sin – even if we don’t feel guiltless, or like we have been forgiven.
4. Sin, doubt or fear does not mean you are unelect – each of us face periods of failure and darkness, but like a life jacket that is pressed under the water, we are inevitably brought back to the surface again by the inner workings of the Spirit. The time to worry is when this no longer happens are we are content to wallow in our sin – then we are in danger of having our consciences seared and proving our profession to be false. If we have (as honestly as we are consciously able to) repented of our sins and confessed Jesus as our Lord, then it comes down to trusting in the promises that God has made to us – not the other way around. The promise is clear – “if you repent in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved” (Romans 10.10). If we do this and then doubt it, it doesn’t render the promise void – “for if we are faith-less, God will remain faithful” (2 Timothy 2.13).
5. The doctrine of election does not necessarily lead to complacency – unfortunately some who have misunderstood election have thought that this gives them a carte blanche to behave how they want. Like those objectors in Romans 6.1 who, after hearing that where sin abounds, grace abounds more said “well lets keep on sinning so that God’s forgiveness looks even better.” Election should be viewed holistically – not just in relation to salvation, but also sanctification and glorification (Romans 8.30). God has elected that we will be those who not only begin the Christian walk, but finish it and we will surely finish it more like Christ than when we began. Moreover, he has elected us to one day be glorified in his presence. God has not only ordained (or elected) the end (Christ-likeness in his presence), but also the means (life by the Spirit through our active obediance Galatians 5.16ff).
6. Works are not all bad – at one point Jesus was asked “what are the works that God requires” and he answered “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6.28-29). So we see belief is a work of God. Not all works are to be despised, spiritual disciplines are works that can greatly help us in our daily obedience. The works that are condemned are the reliance on these things for acceptance with God. We should, we must, be a people of (godly) works – abundant in our labour of love, but these are in response to the mercy and grace of God, not a way to gain that favour, or even as a means to confirm our election.
Consider this illustration – election is like the engines of a plane, in the same way that the engines power the uplift and flight of the plane and enable it to make progress towards its destination, so our election is the secret working that enables us to believe, preserve and overcome. But if during the flight the pilot decided to stop the engines while he inspected whether they were really working as efficiently as possible, or if they were needing a service, the result would be disastrous. So too with election – our object and goal in life should be a close walk with the Lord Jesus, filled with His Spirit and obeying his commands, not always scrutinising the reality of our faith.
Once we get diverted off this focus, we risk becoming introspective and our focus shifts to ourselves rather than away from ourselves. Yes, there is a time for examination and personal reflection, but constant examination and persistent introspection is more likely to lead to you coming to a complete stop. The Spirit will guide you as you seek God’s face what is required of you at this point in your spiritual journey.
Finally, all this plays itself out in our parenting. In the same way that we cannot fully see God’s side of the salvation story for ourselves, so we cannot see it for our children. We must allow only God to know his ultimate decrees for their lives. We do not have any guarantees for them. Rather we must see that we are seeking to follow our side of the story – doing the things that we have been commanded by God to do – instruct them in the fear and knowledge of the Lord (Deut 6.7-9, Proverbs 22.6, Matthew 19.4). We must use the means God has given us, if we would have the ends that we desire for them. Again I say that I cannot see any guarantee that God has given Christian parents, and as a father of three beautiful, precious children this scares me. But I believe that God is a good God and that as he used the means of Grace in my life to save my at 9 years old, so he is able to bring my children to himself.
But we must seek to move beyond simply indoctrinating them with abstract truths, to demonstrating the reality of our own faith in the life that we live. We must open our hearts to them that they would see our vulnerability and honest struggles. They must see that it is more than a tradition or a culture for us – that it is our lifeblood. We must exhibit the graces and character that we want them to grow towards, to make room for their questions and doubts, to have spontaneous times of prayer and thanksgiving. Oh that God would grant us the immeasurable blessing of believing children and the grace to love them (and him) no matter what happens.
I hope this is of some help for you in your struggles. I pray that the God of all compassion would make himself known to you in such a powerful and real way that your faith is confirmed, your hope renewed and love deepened. In His name, Martyn
PS You can read my four posts on Calvin’s chapters on election and predestination here:
Well I’ve finally finished the first of the four books – the knowledge of God and ourselves. I’m taking a quick break from the regular posts to share some of my thoughts after reading Book I of Calvin’s Institutes over the last two months. Four things have struck me:
1. He doesn’t try to square the circle. I have been impressed with how far Calvin will go to grapple with complex issues such as the trinity and providence. He uses many different approaches to try and understand these truths and interacts with many controversial views. But he is also more than willing to stop when human intellect can go no further. He is content to submit himself to the Word as the final authority on these doctrines, not human reason.
2. More apologetics than I expected. I expected lots of teaching on the doctrine of God, but there has been much more apologetical reasoning on the credibility of the scriptures, how we know truth, understanding atheists and assessing false religion. It has been great to see how someone of Calvin’s ability writing in the 16th century approached these issues. The truth is that there were many of the same issues back then as there are now… nevertheless, Calvin was…
3. A man of his time. Living and teaching in the 16th century Calvin had no idea the challenges that were to assail the church from evolution and higher criticism (to name just two). For him it was self-evident that even the non-church goer would acknowledge the divine craftsmanship within the universe. While Calvin does spend time arguing for a Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, some of his arguments need to be supplemented with modern evangelical scholarship.
4. More devotional than academic. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Calvin’s warmth and devotion during these chapters. He was a man of deep passion for God’s truth. It is clear he loved his Saviour intensely. Calvin sometimes gets a bad press as cold and calculating, but reading his work for yourself its clear these are more characterures than reality.
So onto Book II – the knowledge of God the redeemer. I’m just about managing to keep up with the blogging and reading, lets see how this next book goes, the plan says I’ll be finished on 21st April… God willing.
Book I Chapter XVIII Section 1-4
If God controls all things and directs them according to His plan and purpose, including even the actions of Satan himself, then how can He also be free from all blame as well? This is the most common objection to the doctrine of providence and it is to this that Calvin applies himself in this chapter. He tries to understand the issue by laying out some proposed solutions:
1. God permits evil but does not will it. This is the idea that God sits back and does nothing when evil occurs, He allows it to happen but does not want it to. The question here is if God “permits” things to happen does He do so willingly or unwillingly? Does He turn a blind eye as a passive spectator or does He in some sense will these things to happen? We know that God cannot be completely in control of all creation, and yet not also be completely in control of evil events occurring in that creation. God Himself testifies in His word that He is in control of events, whether good or evil (e.g. Isaiah 45.7, Amos 3.6). So if we agree that in some sense He is willing, or controlling, these events, that are against His declared will written in the law, does that mean He has two wills?…
2. There are two contrary wills in God. This tries to address the question of how God can decree by a “secret counsel” what He openly prohibits in His law. In Himself His will “is one and undivided, to us it appears manifold, because from the feebleness of our intellect, we cannot comprehend how, though after a different manner, He wills and wills not the very same thing”.
Calvin uses the example of the death of Christ as an event which was against the precept of God (“thou shalt not murder”) but at the same time it was willed by God to happen (Acts 4.28). Augustine puts it this way when speaking of that which is done contrary to His law “nor does He permit it unwillingly, but willingly; nor would He who is good permit evil to be done, were He not omnipotent to bring good out of evil”. Or as Luther put it, “God can use a crooked stick to draw a straight line” or as Dr David Calhoun says in lecture 6 of his lectures on the Institutes: “we do not know how God wills to take place what He forbids to be done”.
3. God is the author of sin. If we agree that God uses the agency of the wicked but also governs their “counsels and affections” for His own purposes then are not the wicked unjustly punished for only doing what He wanted? Is He not complicit in their crimes? But Calvin argues we are confusing God’s will with His precept. for while evil men “act against the will of God, His will is accomplished in them”. He argues that these men are following the evil desires of their hearts and that “they are not excusable as if they were obeying His precepts, which of set purpose they violate according to their lust”. Each is responsible for his own sin, irrespective of how God overrules the outcome.
Confused? That’s probably a good sign, my head hurts. Well does Calvin say “the feebleness of our intellect” in understanding such deep truth. This is a hard teaching and at this point its important not to react by throwing our hands up in the air and saying its impossible to understand any of this so why bother. Calvin recognises this danger and warns against discarding a truth revealed in scripture just because it exceeds our capability to understand it!
He also reminds us that if these truths were not useful to be known God would never have ordered his prophets and apostles to teach them. Even though we cannot understand how God accomplishes His will through evil instruments we cannot deny that this is what the scriptures teach. How should we deal with these hard truths? “Our true wisdom is to embrace with meek docility, and without reservation, whatever the Holy Scriptures have delivered”.
“I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” Isaiah 45.7
Father, once again we have reached the end of human wisdom. Help us to trust in Your wisdom and gracious loving care. As a child trusts their father to do right, we trust you even when we can’t understand you. We are the creatures, you are the Creator. You are infinite, we are finite. Bring us all to the place of clearly understanding what the scriptures teach, and there may we stop and gaze, lost in wonder and adoration at Your infinite wisdom. Amen.