Three Solid (and Readable) Books on the Trinity

I love reading about the Trinity. Between the Trinity and the Cross, you have the core of my theological interests. I’ve been reading about the Trinity on and off since the end of college. While I can’t say I’m an expert or that I’ve read everything out there, or even all of the essential works, I can say I’ve read a few. Ironically though, up until a year or two ago, I didn’t know of any that I could recommend to somebody looking to get started on the subject. Now, I have three. They’re listed in order of ease and immediate accessibility, but all of them are in the novice-intermediate category. I commend them to any who are interested.

Our Triune God: Living in the Love of the Three-in-One (2011) — Philip Graham Ryken and Michael Lefevre provide a wonderful little work chock-full of insights into the workings and ways of our gloriously Triune God. Unlike a lot of other works on the Trinity, instead of going through a long digression into the historical development of the doctrine, or the various key figures and disputes by which we arrived at Nicene Orthodoxy, it cuts to the chase, going straight to the Biblical material, showing that very warp and woof of the Bible is Trinitarian through and through. After a quick little introduction, Ryken and Lefevre immediately plunge into a very readable-yet-penetrating exposition of Ephesians 1, laying out the Trinitarian shape of salvation, making it quite clear that the Christian Gospel is unintelligible apart from the workings of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. From there, we enter a number of illuminating discussion on the Trinity and the practical life, apologetic sections dealing with the consistency of Trinitarian doctrine with Old Testament revelation, and a delightful chapter on the impact this has for the way we think about life in community.  It is a short work, less than 130 pages, but out-sized in terms of actual content. I highly recommend this for readers with any level of theological education.

The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (2010— Fred Sanders just nails it with this book. I read it a couple of years ago with great appreciation and was surprised once again at it’s richness this summer while working through it with a few of my college students. Sanders is an Evangelical who wants the rest of his brethren to understand that when we’re talking about the Trinity, we’re not wandering into enemy-occupied territory–Evangelicals are Trinitarians because Evangelicals are Gospel-people. These “Deep Things of God” are not a subject foreign to the practical, Gospel Christianity preached from the pulpit every Sunday, but absolutely central to it. In order to make his case, Sanders takes us through some very helpful discussions of theological method and doctrine of God proper. He then sets about connecting the dots between the central Gospel message and the eternal, Trinitarian reality underlying great Gospel truths such as the Incarnation, Atonement, Union with Christ, and the Grace of Adoption.  He also has excellent chapters on the way Evangelical approaches to the Bible and practices of prayer simply don’t make sense outside of a properly-Trinitarian framework. Really, the chapter on prayer, “Praying with the Grain”, is quite eye-opening. Again, as with Ryken and Lefevre, Sanders takes us into to Scripture in order to make his case. While not quite as easy for the absolute novice, I strongly commend this work to anybody interested not only in the Trinity, but how to think theologically. Sanders is an excellent guide.

The Triune God; An Essay in Post-Liberal Theology (2007) — William C. Placher has quickly become one of my favorite theologians to engage with. As a student of Hans Frei, he does Trinitarian theology from a post-liberal perspective, with an emphasis on narrative theology, as well as a keen appreciation for insights of philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Levinas, especially when it comes to the problem of too-quickly speaking about God. At the same time, he exhibits that wonderful Reformed Catholic sensibility by doing theology in conversation with Calvin, Edwards, Barth, Aquinas, the Cappodocians, and Balthasar in a way that is intellectually-sophisticated, yet remarkably readable. Placher constructs a contemporary, orthodox, Trinitarian theology, rooted in Scripture while organically incorporating the best of the tradition. He does so with a special eye on the epistemological issues involved with speaking fittingly of the transcendent and holy God, who nonetheless draws near to us in Jesus Christ, and blesses us with understanding through the agency of the Holy Spirit. While I don’t embrace all of his assumptions about scripture, not being a post-liberal myself, I find Placher to be a first-rate chaperon into the company of serious theologians, navigating the reader through various theological mine-fields in such a way that those uninitiated aren’t even aware of the skill with which they are being guided. Again, this is a slight step up from Sanders’ work in terms of rigor, still, I would say that it is not beyond the serious newcomer to Trinitarian theology.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #3: How Do We Come to Know About God?

If God exists, then coming to know what he’s like is surely the most important task we could set ourselves. Not only would we be studying the deepest reality of the universe, but the source of all other reality–in which case, learning about him would seem crucial for knowing the deepest truth about everything else. How then do we come to know about God? William Placher helpfully points us to the simple but profound answer that Christians have been giving for centuries:

In sum, Christians say, if you want to know about God, you need to know about Jesus, and if you want to know about Jesus, you need to read some Bible stories: first stories about Jesus himself, then stories about God’s covenant history with Israel and about the early church. The stories about Jesus provide a kind of center around which we can interpret the other stories we find in the Bible, and the whole collection of biblical stories helps us understand all the other stories in the world.

-William C. Placher, The Triune God, pg. 46

It really doesn’t get more simple than that. God has come to his world in the Word, Jesus Christ. (John 1:9, 14) The word of God, the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the scriptures is where we read about him, especially in the Gospels. To understand those properly, you have to read those as the fulfillment of the long history of God’s dealings in the world with his chosen people, Israel. When you begin to immerse yourself in those stories, understand yourself in light of that grand drama, the sweep of history, the deep moments in every other story, every movie, every fable, every play that rings true, every episode in your life freighted with meaning, begins to take on its proper sense in light of the wonder of God come among us.

So, how do you come to know about God? Go read your Bible. Look for Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is Jesus Actually Smart?

It’s really a good question and one that I hadn’t considered until encountering Dallas Willard’s masterpiece The Divine Conspiracy in college. I had not thought about it in a while until Dr. Todd Hunter came to guest-teach at our church this Sunday. He was making the basic point that unless we actually consider Jesus to be a competent instructor about life and reality, we will never actually listen to him and follow him. This called to mind one of my favorite passages in The Divine Conspiracy where Willard calls our attention to the simple fact that Jesus is really smart:

Our commitment to Jesus can stand on no other foundation than a recognition that he is the one  who knows the truth about our lives and our universe. It is not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters where we do not believe him to be competent. We cannot pray for this help and rely on his collaboration in dealing with real-life matter we suspect might defeat his knowledge or abilities.

And can we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart? If he were divine, would he be dumb? Or uninformed? Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived?

That is exactly how his earliest apprentices in kingdom living thought of him. He was not regarded as, perhaps, a magician, who only knew “the right words” to get results without understanding or who could effectively manipulate appearances. Rather, he was accepted as the ultimate scientist, craftsman and artist.

The biblical and continuing vision of Jesus was of one who made all of reality and kept it working, literally, “holding together” (Col 1:17). And today we think people are smart who make light bulbs and computer chips and rockets out of “stuff” already provided! He made “the stuff”!

Small wonder, then, that the first Christians thought he held within himself, “all of the treasure of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). This confidence in his intellectual greatness is the basis of the radicalism of Christ-following in relation to the human order. It sees Jesus now living beyond death as “the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth…the first and the last, the living One, ” the one who can say “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forever more, the master of death and the world of the dead” (Rev. 1:5, 18)…

He is not just nice, he is brilliant. He is the smartest man who ever lived. He is now supervising the entire course of world history (Rev 1:5) while simultaneously preparing the rest of the universe for our future role in it (John 14:2). He always has the best information on everything and certainly also on the things that matter most in human life.

The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, pp. 94-95

When considering this reality, the fact that Jesus is the all-competent Lord of the universe who holds all things together, it has to strikes us that he must be absolutely, colossally wise, and an excellent guide into the reality of all things. In which case, we have to ask ourselves, why don’t we listen to him more often? Why is it that of all the places to go for an opinion, a point of view, sound advice on any and all questions concerning my relationships, my family, my work-stresses, my finances, I always seem to come to Jesus last? What are the areas that I seem to act like I know more than he does? “Well, Jesus, that’s a nice thought, but you see, my situation is a little different than what you were talking about in your sermons…” Really? Honestly? Jesus is God, but he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about when it’s your life, because you’re so special? Hmm….

This is where the rubber hits the road. Do I really trust Jesus as Lord or don’t I? If I trust him with my death, I ought to be able to trust him with my life. Even more to the point, if I don’t trust him with my life, am I really trusting him with my death?

Friends, we can trust Jesus. He won’t let us don’t or lead us astray. He knows what he’s talking about–he’s really smart.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #2- B.B. Warfield on the “un-Biblical” but Scriptural Doctrine of the Trinity

What does it mean for a doctrine to be ‘biblical’? Does there have to be a verse expressly stating it? Can we use only biblical words to express it? Is any teaching that departs from the explicit language of the Old and New Testaments thereby suspect? The Old Princeton giant B.B. Warfield helpfully shows us how a doctrine can (and sometimes must) be expressed in un-biblical language and yet be thoroughly scripturally-rooted.

The term “Trinity” is not a Biblical term, and we are not using Biblical language when we define what is expressed by it as the doctrine that there is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence. A doctrine so defined can be spoken of as a Biblical doctrine only on the principle that the sense of Scripture is Scripture. And the definition of a Biblical doctrine in such un-Biblical language can be justified only on the principle that it is better to preserve the truth of Scripture than the words of Scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity lies in Scripture in solution; when it is crystallized from its solvent it does not cease to be Scriptural, but only comes into clearer view. Or, to speak without figure, the doctrine of the Trinity is given to us in Scripture, not in formulated definition, but in fragmentary allusions; when we assembled the disjecta membra into their organic unity, we are not passing from Scripture, but entering more thoroughly into the meaning of Scripture. We may state the doctrine in technical terms, supplied by philosophical reflection; but the doctrine stated is a genuinely Scriptural doctrine.

-The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity, B.B. Warfield

You can read the whole article here. It’s dense at some points and the language is a little dated, but this gem is entirely worth your time.

The Most Important Thing You Can Ask for in Ministry

Ever since I was a kid, the story of Solomon’s prayer for wisdom has been a favorite of mine. My mom would read it often to me and recall it to mind when we were talking about pretty much any subject, so that I should always seek wisdom from God before anything else. I think she knew I was going to need it.

For those of you who don’t know the story, the first half of 1 Kings 3 recounts the story of God appearing to the young Solomon in a dream after the death of his father King David. God grants him one request at the beginning of his reign. To God’s great delight, Solomon replies:

And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?
(1 Kings 3:7-9)

Understanding, wisdom is Solomon’s request. God has put him in charge of a great people and he knows that he needs wisdom in order to administer justice among them for he is only a young man. God hears this and is greatly pleased and tells him that because he did not ask for money, power, the defeat of enemies, or anything of the like, but rather wisdom to administer justice, he will have all of these things and in spades. Not only will he be wise, but he will be wiser than any that have come before and any that follows. Beyond that, God will bless him with peace, wealth, and general prosperity in a way that Israel will not experience under any other king.

Ruling a Great and Mighty People I come back to that story now as a young guy starting out in ministry and I read it with new eyes. As a minister of the Gospel, I’ve been called to “rule”, administer, and care for the people of God. Call it what you want, there is an authority and a responsibility to shepherd God’s flock given to those of us who work in the church, paid or not. This is a scary task. Many of us don’t stop to think about it, but we are taking care of GOD’s people. They’re his. He cares about them. They are his blood-bought  people, so for him to place them in our hands is a weighty thing. It’s the kind of thing that we probably need a lot of understanding to accomplish.

When I read this story it is humbling and kind of convicting to think about my prayer life (and, at times, lack thereof.) What am I praying for as a minister? Working at an North American church it’s really easy to get caught up in asking for all sorts of things besides wisdom. We can get caught up asking for numbers so the attendance sheets look full and your ministry seems effective. Or how about funding? It’s easy to think that if I just had a bigger budget, I’d be able to buy the right tools to make my ministry cutting-edge, or position us to host the right events, etc. Or maybe we pray for more leaders? If I just had a little more help this thing would come together, more people would be ministered to, and the Gospel would go forward.

Now, all of these things would be nice. They’d be great. It’s no shame to ask for them. In fact, you probably should be praying for these things. Funds do help. The harvest is plentiful and we need more workers in the field. Numbers are not a bad thing. A lot of really “spiritual” Christians think that it’s a virtue to not care if your church is empty. It can be when that means fidelity despite unpopularity, but otherwise we should want people to be joining the family of God in our congregations. Still, none of these things means anything if you don’t have the wisdom to know what to do with them. Without wisdom you will spend your cash foolishly, your leaders will fail, and people will walk in and then walk out the doors–or worse still, remain in your church unchanged.

We need to be praying for wisdom. Much of Solomon’s wealth, success, and the peace of his kingdom came as a result of his wisdom. Wisdom helps you find good leaders, work with the funding you have, and know what to do with your people when you get them.  Thankfully, God is rich in wisdom and generous with it. He gives it to any who asks in faith. (James 1:5) So, just ask.

(What are some things that you pray for your ministry about? What do you usually feel is the most pressing need? Why? How good would it be without wisdom?)

Wisdom is Needed Even for Two  Something else to realize is that this goes for you–whoever you are. Everybody needs to be asking for wisdom to care for the people of God, even if you only have a congregation of two.

That’s one of the things we see in the final story of the chapter, with Solomon’s famous decision about the two women and the child. (1 Kings 3:16-28) Two prostitutes who were room-mates bore children within days of each other. One woman’s child died in the night and so she switched the two babies, claiming the live one was hers. They came before Solomon with a plea for justice. Solomon came up with a way of determining who was the true mother by offering to chop the baby in half and give each a piece. The true mother said to give the child to the other mother in order that it might be spared; the other one didn’t care. Solomon then gave the child to the one with compassion. Scary, kinda gruesome, but wise.

In context, the story shows Solomon’s wisdom was sufficient for administering justice within the whole of the nation. But here’s the thing, essentially the problem occurs between two women. That’s all it takes. Small-group leaders and one-on-one disciplers need wisdom just as much as mega-church pastors running congregations of thousands, because people are people no matter the size of the group.

Really Ask for Wisdom A final point when considering this story: we really need to be asking for wisdom. No, this is not just pointless repetition. One bad way of reading this story is to think that if we ask for wisdom, God will automatically give us all these other things. No, that’s not how it works. You can’t trick God into giving you a bigger budget or a bigger congregation. If your real desire is these things, wisdom will not come because you’ll fall into the foolishness that comes with obsessing over these things. Worry about getting wisdom first, seeking righteousness in the way that you care for the flock of God, and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

Soli Deo Gloria

Will I Eat Pancakes Next Tuesday? A Thought or Two on Open Theism

“Derek will eat pancakes next Tuesday.”

Question: Is this statement true or false?

“Are you serious, Derek?”

Well, it seems like it has to be one or the other doesn’t it? I can’t both eat pancakes and not eat pancakes on Tuesday, (considering the whole 24 hour period as Tuesday.)

“Sure, but really? Pancakes? Why are we talking about pancakes?”

Seems like a dumb question, but in fact, it’s connected a much bigger issue: What does God know and when does he know it?

Open Theism and the Future

According to some theologians, Open Theists, there are some things that God doesn’t know that we typically imagine that God knows. For instance, he apparently doesn’t know large chunks of the future. Now there are a number of ways that Open Theists can arrive at this conclusion, but for some of them this thought is supported by the idea that future doesn’t exist. Like Greg Boyd, they hold that while God is “omniscient”, all-knowing, his knowledge does not extend to large segments of what will happen in the future because they aren’t settled yet. Some parts, like the parts where God has already figured out, “Well about that time I’m gonna save the world, and in two years I’ll eat Chinese food”, he knows. Also, he knows that the weather will work in about 25 years because that’s just kinda rolling out from what’s going on now. He can reliably infer that. Still, the chunks that have to do with us making decisions certainly don’t because that part’s not “settled”–I haven’t made that choice yet. Due to this, God does not have “exhaustive foreknowledge” of the whole of the future. This is not a knock on God though, because it is impossible to know that part of the future given its non-existence. For them, it’s kind of like him not being able to make a married bachelor–it’s a logical contradiction. According to them, the issue then isn’t God’s knowledge, but with the nature of the future. God simply cannot know the future exhaustively because it’s not there to be known.

No biggie.

Is this really the case, though? Now, there are a number of issues that might be discussed with respect to Open Theism be they theological, philosophical, biblical, pastoral, etc. because Open Theists forward reasons for taking their view in all of these areas. Now, I’ll just come clean and say that I think the view, in all of its forms, is seriously deficient on all counts and have never found it even remotely appealing–and that was before I was Reformedish. Also, as I noted, there is a variety amongst them. This post won’t deal with every type. I can’t go into the various issues today without this being way too long. I simply want to make a few small points in this little post on this one claim: that God doesn’t foreknow significant chunks of the future because it’s not there to be known.

Is that Right? Does it Follow?

Theories of Time The assertion that the future does not exist for God to know assumes one of two possible theories about time. (Really, there are a number of formulations of each and the literature is complex and dense.) The first is called A-theory and it basically says that there is an objective present, that NOW is what exists–temporal becoming is objective. There are at least two families of this view. Some theorists think that the present and the past “exist”, and others hold that only the present moment exists. On both, the future does not exist yet. The second theory, B-theory, also has a few versions but holds something along the lines that what we call “past”, “present”, and “future” objectively exist on something like a line. In a sense, the future is “already” there.

I raise this point not because I think A-theory is wrong. I don’t. In fact, I haven’t landed anywhere on this point. I do so just to point out that there are a number of options here. One could adopt B-theory and avoid this whole issue. Plenty of philosophers and theologians do. But let’s assume A-theory. Does it immediately follow that God can’t know the future because it’s not there? I don’t think so.

How Does God Know That? For in addition to holding a particular view of time, this type of Open Theism also takes a particular view of God’s way of knowing. William Lane Craig points out that are at least two ways of thinking about God’s way of knowing, two pictures of the way God comes to possess knowledge. (The Only Wise God, pg. 121) The first is the empiricist or perceptualist picture. On this view God comes to have knowledge about the world either by immediate perception or causal inference. In a sense, God knows things about the world by “seeing it”, or inferring it based on what he “sees.” If there’s nothing there for him to see, then he can’t know it. This is the basic picture that underlies Boyd’s form of Open Theism.

But Craig points out that this isn’t the only way to think of God’s knowledge of the world. One could think of it in a rationalist or conceptualist fashion. On this view, God simply possesses knowledge of all true statements. In our own experience, much of our knowledge about the world does not come by way of perception or inference. We simply know it immediately, innately. For instance, we know that other minds exist, even if just looking at other humans and animals or argumentation alone cannot prove that they’re not just robots or mindless automata, programmed to function the way we do. We know they’re not, but we can’t prove it and direct perception doesn’t gives us that knowledge. (Don’t believe me? Philosophers have tried. It’s really stinkin’ hard.) In any case, a belief about the world like that, is kind of like the conceptual furniture that comes with our minds. We don’t come to know it, we just know it.

In the same way, on a conceptualist view of God’s knowledge of the world we might think that God knows only and all true statements about the world. If there are true statements to be known about the future (even those about human decisions), then he knows those, which would be foreknowledge. Now, there are a number of ways to think about just how God happens to possess this innate knowledge of the world (cf. Molinism, God’s decree, etc.). I won’t go into them, but it is at the very least possible to think of God’s knowledge of the world in this fashion.  If it is possible, then it does not immediately follow that God couldn’t foreknow the future, even on the A-theory of time. If there are true statements about the future, God could know them without the future “being there.”

Is the Future True?

This brings us back to the issue of whether or not I will eat pancakes on Tuesday. In order for the Open Theist’s objection to work, you have to deny that future-tense statements are either true or false. The main (if not only) objection against it is something along the lines of, “The future doesn’t exist, therefore there is nothing for future-tense statements to correspond to.” But as Craig points out, this is idea is based on a confused view of the correspondence theory of truth. (pp. 55-60)

On the classic correspondence view, “It is raining outside” is true, if and only if, it is the case that it is raining outside. It must be made clear though, that “the correspondence theory does not mean that the things or events which a true statement is about must exist.” (pg. 56) This is true only of present-tense statements. It’s obviously not true of past-tense statements like, “Obama won the election in 2008.” All that is required for their truth is that they have been the case so that the present-tense statement “Obama is winning the election” is true at some point. In the same way, for future-tense statements, “Derek will eat pancakes next Tuesday”, all that is required for their truth is that the event will exist. At that time the present-tense version of the statement will be true.

A future-tense statement is true if things turn out the way it asserts, and false if it doesn’t. This is pretty common-sense stuff. In fact, Craig goes on to list good reasons for thinking that future-tense statements are true.

1. “The same facts that make present- and past-tense statements true or false also make future-tense statements true or false.” (pg. 58) The point is that it is difficult to distinguish, “It will snow tomorrow” stated May 20 from, “It snowed yesterday” stated May 22. The same event makes both true. Craig asks, “If ‘it is raining today’ is now true, how could ‘it will rain tomorrow’ not have been true yesterday?”

2. “If future-tense statements are not true, then neither are past-tense statements.” (pg. 58) If future-tense statements are neither true or false because their corresponding realities are not there, then neither are past-tense statements because they realities they speak to no longer exist. That’s silly to think, though. By the same logic then, it is silly to think that future-tense statements have no truth-value.

3. “Tenseless statements are always true or false.” (pg. 59) You can make any statement tenseless. “The Allies invaded Normandy” can be rendered tenseless by adding a date, “on June 6, 1944 the Allies invade Normandy.” There’s some loss of meaning, but it’s essentially the same content in a tenseless statement. The point is that tenseless statements are always true or false. It’s either always true that the Allies invade on June 6, 1944, or it’s not. And if the tenseless statement is true, then so is the tensed version addressing the same realities. Therefore, past- and future-tensed statements corresponding with the tenseless ones will be true. Beyond that, tenseless statements are always true or false. If that’s the case, then before June 6, that tenseless statement was true, in which case the tensed version was also true, in which case if God knows all truths, he has foreknowledge. To recap, “Derek will eat pancakes next Tuesday” can be rendered tenseless by transforming it to “On Tuesday October 9th, Derek eats pancakes.” That statement is either true or false, in which case the future-tense version is true or false. If God knows that truth he has foreknowledge.

4. “The denial of the truth or falsity of future-tense statements leads to absurd consequences.” (pp. 59-60) So, for instance, if future-tense statements are neither true or false, then the statement “Mitt Romney either will or will not win the 2012 presidential election” would not be true. This is a compound of two future-tense statements, “Mitt Romney will win the 2012 election” and “Mitt Romney will not win the 2012 election.” But, if future-tense statements are neither true nor false, then neither or these statements, nor their compound is true or false. But that is absurd because those two options exhaust the logical possibilities. He either will or he won’t win. Even more, we can’t even say that a statement like “Romney will and will not win the 2012 election” is false because that’s another compound of two future-tense statements. But that’s a self-contradiction that seems manifestly untrue. But on this view, you can’t say that.

For these reasons it seems safe to say that future-tense statements have truth values. If future-tense statements can be true or false, even ones that have to do with human decisions, like me eating pancakes next Tuesday and Romney winning the election, then it follows that God can have knowledge of them which constitutes foreknowledge.

How ‘Bout Dem Pancakes?

So, just because I haven’t made them yet, it doesn’t necessarily mean that God is ignorant as to my future breakfast choices. Now, to be sure, this isn’t a definitive statement on the foreknowledge issue. Far from it. Open Theists have plenty of other arguments at their disposal, (although, again, I think they have been handled multiple times over), and even this short treatment of this one issue is incomplete. Still, I think we’ve seen here that even if we grant that the future doesn’t exist yet, it by no means necessarily follows that God cannot have exhaustive foreknowledge of it. That idea rests on a confused idea of the nature of truth, and an unnecessary picture of God’s knowledge. In fact, I think given the fact that future-tense statements can be true or false, we’ve even gained some reasons to think that God does have knowledge of them, in which case the denial of God’s foreknowledge because of one picture of the nature of the future is a bit hasty.

And that’s all I really wanted to show today.

Soli Deo Gloria

Talk is Blessed, Talk is Cheap (Or, Holiness is More than a Change in Vocabulary)

I continue to find gem after gem in my travels through Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Both the instructive and lively narrative portrayals of the Christian life (Christian’s rousing battle with Apollyon), and the conversations between the various virtues (Charity, Faithful), vices (Sloth, Pliable), and typical attitudes (Shame, Discontent) are rich in spiritual depth and comfort.

One such exchange comes during a part of the journey when Christian and Faithful run into one claiming to be on the road to the celestial city by the name of Talkative. Faithful is quite glad to have him join them and talk of spiritual things on the journey, which it seems that Talkative is quite eager to do:

TALKATIVE: That’s it that I said; for to talk of such things is most profitable; for by so doing a man may get knowledge of many things; as of the vanity of earthly things, and the benefit of things above. Thus in general; but more particularly, by this a man may learn the necessity of the new birth, the insufficiency of our works, the need of Christ’s righteousness, etc. Besides, by this a man may learn what it is to repent, to believe, to pray, to suffer, or the like: by this, also, a man may learn what are the great promises and consolations of the Gospel, to his own comfort. Farther, by this a man may learn to refute false opinions, to vindicate the truth, and also to instruct the ignorant.

FAITHFUL: All this is true; and glad am I to hear these things from you.

TALKATIVE: Alas! the want of this is the cause that so few understand the need of faith, and the necessity of a work of grace in their soul, in order to eternal life; but ignorantly live in the works of the law, by which a man can by no means obtain the kingdom of heaven.

Apparently Talkative knows his stuff. He clearly knows the benefits of wise speech about God. Many of us could profit from an eagerness to discuss and speak about God, theology, the Bible, and our own spiritual lives more often than we do. By it we are “may learn what are the great promises and consolations of the Gospel, to his own comfort. Farther, by this a man may learn to refute false opinions, to vindicate the truth, and also to instruct the ignorant.”

Can we imagine what our general outlook would be, the witness of our lives, or the state of our faith would be if we spent more time discussing God’s goodness and not the mere trivialities to which we devote most of our conversations? How much holier would we be if we were constantly calling to mind God’s faithfulness in the face of daily temptations? Wouldn’t our constant doubts and anxieties begin to shrink in front of our eyes, if we were constantly reminding each other of the magnitude of God’s power and the unshakeable character of his promises?

The benefits to frequent godly conversation are many and deep indeed. When we read on though, we find out that Bunyan is teaching us that along with the benefits of spending our time discussing God and the Gospel, there are dangers as well.

CHRISTIAN: That is, to them that have not a thorough acquaintance with him, for he is best abroad; near home he is ugly enough. Your saying that he is a pretty man, brings to my mind what I have observed in the work of a painter, whose pictures show best at a distance; but very near, more unpleasing.

FAITHFUL: But I am ready to think you do but jest, because you smiled.

CHRISTIAN: God forbid that I should jest (though I smiled) in this matter, or that I should accuse any falsely. I will give you a further discovery of him. This man is for any company, and for any talk; as he talketh now with you, so will he talk when he is on the ale-bench; and the more drink he hath in his crown, the more of these things he hath in his mouth. Religion hath no place in his heart, or house, or conversation; all he hath lieth in his tongue, and his religion is to make a noise therewith.

FAITHFUL: Say you so? Then am I in this man greatly deceived.

CHRISTIAN: Deceived! you may be sure of it. Remember the proverb, “They say, and do not;” but the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. Matt. 23:3; 1 Cor. 4:20. He talketh of prayer, of repentance, of faith, and of the new birth; but he knows but only to talk of them. I have been in his family, and have observed him both at home and abroad; and I know what I say of him is the truth. His house is as empty of religion as the white of an egg is of savor. There is there neither prayer, nor sign of repentance for sin; yea, the brute, in his kind, serves God far better than he. He is the very stain, reproach, and shame of religion to all that know him, Rom. 2:24,25; it can hardly have a good word in all that end of the town where he dwells, through him. Thus say the common people that know him, “A saint abroad, and a devil at home.” His poor family finds it so; he is such a churl, such a railer at, and so unreasonable with his servants, that they neither know how to do for or speak to him. Men that have any dealings with him say, It is better to deal with a Turk than with him, for fairer dealings they shall have at their hands. This Talkative (if it be possible) will go beyond them, defraud, beguile, and overreach them. Besides, he brings up his sons to follow his steps; and if he finds in any of them a foolish timorousness, (for so he calls the first appearance of a tender conscience,) he calls them fools and blockheads, and by no means will employ them is much, or speak to their commendation before others. For my part, I am of opinion that he has, by his wicked life, caused many to stumble and fall; and will be, if God prevents not, the ruin of many more.

FAITHFUL: Well, my brother, I am bound to believe you, not only because you say you know him, but also because, like a Christian, you make your reports of men. For I cannot think that you speak these things of ill-will, but because it is even so as you say.

CHRISTIAN: Had I known him no more than you, I might, perhaps, have thought of him as at the first you did; yea, had I received this report at their hands only that are enemies to religion, I should have thought it had been a slander-a lot that often falls from bad men’s mouths upon good men’s names and professions. But all these things, yea, and a great many more as bad, of my own knowledge, I can prove him guilty of. Besides, good men are ashamed of him; they can neither call him brother nor friend; the very naming of him among them makes them blush, if they know him.

FAITHFUL: Well, I see that saying and doing are two things, and hereafter I shall better observe this distinction.

CHRISTIAN: They are two things indeed, and are as diverse as are the soul and the body; for, as the body without the soul is but a dead carcass, so saying, if it be alone, is but a dead carcass also. The soul of religion is the practical part. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” James 1:27; see also verses 22-26. This, Talkative is not aware of; he thinks that hearing and saying will make a good Christian; and thus he deceiveth his own soul. Hearing is but as the sowing of the seed; talking is not sufficient to prove that fruit is indeed in the heart and life. And let us assure ourselves, that at the day of doom men shall be judged according to their fruits. Matt. 13:23. It will not be said then, Did you believe? but, Were you doers, or talkers only? and accordingly shall they be judged. The end of the world is compared to our harvest, Matt. 13:30 and you know men at harvest regard nothing but fruit. Not that any thing can be accepted that is not of faith; but I speak this to show you how insignificant the profession of Talkative will be at that day.

This is the danger Bunyan warns us of: apparently Talkative is just that–all talk and no action. In this passage Christian instructs Faithful in the difference between saying and doing. It’s an easy one for us to forget.  It’s easy to feel like having the right answers makes us righteous. It’s easy to feel like being able to distinguish properly between justification and sanctification means that we’ve been justified and sanctified. It’s easy to think that condemning sin with our mouths means we’ve cut it out of our lives. It’s easy to think that because we can discourse about the Trinity, we’re actually engaged in the life of the Triune God.

Bunyan reminds us that while it’s important for pilgrims on the way to discuss the beautiful things of God, we must not be satisfied with mere discussion. The Christian life is one of active participation. We must practice Christianity as well as speak of it. Faith that truly is worth the name, is one that results in a changed life, not merely a different vocabulary.

Talking about God is a great thing as long as it encourages us to talk to God; to move from conversation about the Christian life, to participation in a real Christian life.

Soli Deo Gloria