Mere Fidelity: Augustine’s Confessions, Book 1

 

Mere FiThis week Alastair, Derek, and Matt take up and read Book 1 of Augustine’s Confessions. If you’d like to read along–which we encourage you to do–Henry Chadwick’s translation is available widely at a reasonable price.

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Soli Deo Gloria

The Trinity in the Destruction of Sodom (Or, the Weirdest Argument for Consubstantiality of the Son)

Reading the Church Fathers on Scripture can be illuminating, surprising, and sometimes weird. This is part of what’s so fun about reading them. They come to the text of Scripture from a different time and place, with slightly different questions, exegetical instincts, and theological approaches, which present a question and a challenge to our own. I was reminded of this when diving into a little of Cyril of Alexandria’s work on the Gospel of John.

The Patriarch Cyril is best-known for his polemic against Nestorius and the central role he played in Christological controversies which leading up to the Council of Chalcedon (at which point Cyril was dead). Many will have read his little work On the Unity of Christ, which is what I have. I was not aware, though, that his commentary on the Gospel of John was translated until recently (Brandon Crowe quotes it in his excellent book The Last Adam). On a whim I looked it up and found online for free because, well, Cyril of Alexandria. Anyways, I started poking around and stumbled on one of the oddest bits of trinitarian reasoning I’ve read in one of the Fathers.

It comes in his comments on John 1:1, “and the Word was with God”, in his chapter arguing that the Son is consubstantial with the Father and therefore God in his own person. The trouble he’s dealing with specifically is the oddity of thinking of the Son as properly God but somehow also being “with God”, alongside him. Cyril proceeds to explain how this is so by commenting on various relevant Scriptures you might expect him to. For example, see this entirely unsurprising bit on John 14:

Consubstantial is the Son with the Father and the Father with the Son, wherefore They arrive at an unchangeable Likeness, so that the Father is seen in the Son, the Son in the Father, and Each flashes forth in the Other, even as the Saviour Himself says, He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father, and again, I in the Father and the Father in Me. But even though He be in the Father, and have again the Father in Him, Himself full well, as has been already said, perfectly exact unto the Form of Him Who begat Him, and depicting again in Himself without any shortcome, the Father whence He is:—-not therefore will He be deprived of His separate existence, nor will the Father lose His own special Being; but neither will the surpassing Likeness and Resemblance work any confusion of Persons, so that the Father Who begat and the Son Who is Begotten of Him should be considered as one in number. But sameness of Nature will be confessed of Both, yet the Individual Existence of Each will surely follow, so that both the Father should be conceived of as indeed Father, and the Son as Son. For thus, the Holy Ghost being numbered with them and counted as God, the Holy and Adorable Trinity will have Its Proper Fullness.

Alright, so far so classic Trinitarian. It doesn’t get more basic than Jesus’ discourses in the Gospel of John.

Now, jump down six or seven texts and we arrive at this fascinating bit of exegesis of Genesis 19:24:

Another. The Divine Scripture says that the cities of the Sodomites were burned by the Anger of God, and explaining how the Divine wrath was brought upon them, and clearly describing the mode of the destruction, The Lord, it says, rained upon Sodom brimstone and fire from, the Lord, since this too is the portion of the cup most befitting those who are wont to commit such sins. What Lord then from what Lord sent the fire on and consumed the cities of the Sodomites? It is clear that it was the Father Who worketh all things through the Son, since He is too His Might and His Arm, Who caused Him to rain the fire upon the Sodomites. Since therefore the Lord sends the fire from the Lord upon them, how is not the Father Other, in respect to His own Being, than the Son,, and the Son again than the Father? For the One is here signified as being from One.

I have to admit, Sodom and Gomorrah is not one of my top 10 go-to texts in proving the distinction-within-unity of the persons of the Godhead.

Still, the text is illuminating for a number of reasons. First, Cyril picks up on a real oddity in the repetition of the LORD twice in the verse. Calvin suggest the repetition emphasizes the God’s agency. Robert Alter says its a repetition of emphasis as well, but he focuses on connecting the phrase, “from the heavens” which links it to the destruction of the Flood. Gordon Wenham doesn’t comment on that repetition, but right before it he notes that the whole passage is riddled with ambiguities “the LORD”, “the men”, and “the angels” in chapter 18, but here in chapter 19 and in the encounter in, it is clear one represents or is the LORD, the Angel of the YHWH.

It seems, then, Cyril is picking up the Angel of YHWH reading and suggesting the repetition indicates something about the complexity of the agency of the One God being depicted. The argument depends on the doctrine of inseparable operations and its corollary: the outward works of the Trinity are undivided, but that doesn’t mean the persons are indistinguishable or confused in them either. In the incarnation, Father, Son, and Spirit are at work, but only the Son is incarnate and so forth. Cyril discerns a distinction of activity here as well.

Connecting this to the broader Patristic habit of seeing an order to the works of the economy as proceeding from the Father, through the Son, and perfected in the Spirit, Cyril focuses on the fact that all of God the Father’s works are “through the Son”, whom he has identified with the Angel of YHWH. And so, when “the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven”, we should understand that it is the Son who rains down fire on Sodom from the Father.

Weirder still is that while in other places the Fathers might describe the Son as the Wisdom of God, or the Power of God, by which he acts, it seems Cyril may be identifying him as the “Anger” of God, or God at work in the execution of his judgment against Sodom. (Though, it could be the capitalization in the translation is misleading me here.)

In any case, the point is that Cyril wants us to see that while the text is clear that while there is an overall unity to the act of judgment as that of the One God, there is a distinction in the agency implying an internal otherness appropriate to the two persons of Father and Son. There is one Judgement, but it comes through the Son from the Father.

Turning a bit from “trinitarian” issues, it’s worth noting that Cyril sees no problem reading the affair at Sodom and Gomorrah as an instance of active divine judgment and retributive punishment, with no mediators involved. We have here a deeply Christological exegesis which places the Son plainly at the center of the Old Testament text, but does so by making him the active agent of judgment in God burning a city to the ground. Suffice it to say this is markedly different from other recent proposals for relating Jesus to Old Testament violence. Though, it does seem consistent with Paul’s reading in 1 Corinthians 10.

At which point, it’s worth reiterating that this isn’t some weirdo outlier. This is Cyril of Alexandria, revered Patriarch, central figure in formulating and consolidating the Christological Orthodoxy for the whole Church, East and West. Now, you may be unconvinced by his reading (and I’m not sure I buy it myself),  but it does present a striking instance of the way the Fathers often don’t fit our popular expectations on these matters, which are often shaped by 20th Century prejudices, Eastern polemics, or recent progressivish retrievals.

Now, I don’t really have a big point here except that sometimes you find odd, things reading the Fathers. Though, I suppose the next time you’re teaching on the Trinity, maybe consider the story of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Soli Deo Gloria

Calvin on “He descended into Hell” (Guest Post by Tim Keller)

KellerToday I have the honor of hosting an original, guest post by Dr. Timothy Keller, chairman and co-founder of Redeemer City to City, VP of The Gospel Coalition, and former pastor and founder of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. 

Is it right for preachers to speak of Jesus experiencing the loss of the Father’s love on the cross?  After all, orthodox Trinitarian theology teaches that at the ultimate level, ontologically, the Father did not ever hate the Son. The Trinity remains completely unbroken. Indeed, when the Son was dying for us he was offering the Father a ‘pleasing sacrifice’ and a ‘satisfaction’ for sin.

But then what was the “forsakenness” that Jesus experienced on the cross? If in the ultimate sense he did not lose the Father’s love, what did he lose?  Is it wrong to say that when Jesus was on the cross he experienced estrangement from God? Is it wrong to say that he lost any sense and even assurance of God’s love?

Preachers will do well to read Calvin closely when he expounds the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” (Institutes II. 16. 8-12)

Calvin argues this Jesus ‘descent into hell’ was not merely descending into physical death and the grave. He believes it represents biblical teaching that Jesus suffered not just bodily pain but all the torments that a soul in hell, cut off from God’s presence, would experience. He “bore all the punishments [evildoers] ought to have sustained” with only one exception, that those torments could not keep hold of him forever. He “suffered the death that God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked.” (II.16.10). Calvin does not mince words here. “Not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man. (II.16.10) And he says: “Surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God; and when you call upon him, not to be heard. It is as if God himself had plotted your ruin.”  (II.16.11)

That is what Jesus experienced on the cross. As far as Christ’s experience was concerned, he lost everything he had with the Father, just as a damned soul would. He lost God’s presence, favor, communication, and therefore any feeling sense of God’s love.

Calvin knows that the strength of his language will make some people nervous. He rightly assures readers that there is no rupture in the Trinity. Though Christ experienced God’s wrath, “Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him…. How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God?” (II.16.11) This of course sounds confusing to many listeners. Jesus received the wrath of God and yet God was not angry with him? But that fits the Biblical data. Calvin sifts this data and shows us that ontologically, there was no alienation. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that Father never loved and admired his Son more than when he was dying to save us.

But existentially, Calvin wants us to know and preach that Jesus was as bereft of God’s love and presence as a damned soul. Of course the Father continued in his love for his Son, but on the cross Jesus lost all sense and experience and any practical possession of it. He felt like a soul in hell. On that Calvin is emphatic. He goes on to argue against those who rightly stress this continual love of the Father to the Son but who go on to over-emphasize it to the point of trivializing or minimizing what Jesus suffered. Here Calvin speaks directly to those who don’t want us to ever say that Jesus existentially “lost the Father’s love.”

Calvin engages those who say, for example, that Jesus did not actually feel forsaken or estranged. “They hold it incongruous that he would fear for the salvation of his soul.” (II.16.12)  But Calvin insists that Jesus did indeed lose his assurance of God’s love and did fear for his soul. He insists that Jesus “wrestled hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell” and so “he was victorious and triumphed over them.” (II.16.11)

Calvin addresses others who say that although Christ feared death, he did not fear God’s curse and wrath, from which he knew himself to be safe.”  (II.16.12) These are people who say that Jesus never feared or felt the loss of God’s favor and presence. He feared, perhaps, the pain of physical death, but he never felt damned and cut off from the Father’s love. They believe that Jesus on the cross thought, as it were, “Though I’m physically suffering I know the Father loves me, and this will be over soon.” Calvin says this makes Jesus more “unmanly and cowardly than most men of the common sort”. Why, he asks, was Jesus in such torment in Gethsemane? If Jesus was only afraid of physical pain and death, then plenty of human beings, who “bear it calmly” have faced death better than Jesus. (II.16.12) Instead, Calvin argues, he was trembling before the spiritual torments, “the terrible abyss”, of the loss of God’s presence and love, the experience of being “estranged and forsaken.”  If Jesus did not face and experience the dreadfulness of damnation, and the feeling that he was not “safe”, but lost and cursed, then he didn’t really take the penalty we deserved.

In summary, Calvin goes so far as to say that Jesus, in order to truly be our substitute and pay our penalty, had to have feared for his soul and his eternal safety. That is how severe a loss of the Father’s favor and love he experienced.

I think Calvin’s warnings are important.  If we say that Jesus never felt the loss of God’s love on the cross, then it diminishes his astonishing faithfulness. When he quotes Psalm 22, calling the Father “My God”, he not only calls God by his covenant name, but he is invoking a Messianic psalm with a triumphant ending.  If he did this when he felt nothing of God’s love and presence—as Calvin argues—it was then an act of obedience unique in the history of the universe. He clung in hope to God’s covenant love even when feeling utter divine abandonment, even when in hell.  Jonathan Edwards’ great sermon Christ’s Agony explains why. To the first Adam God said—obey me and I will be with you. But he didn’t. To the second Adam he said—obey me and I will forsake you and cut you off. Yet Jesus still obeyed.  Unlike Captain Ahab, who said, “from Hell’s heart I stab at thee”, Jesus said, as it were, “from Hell’s heart I will obey you still.” Calvin adds,  “For even though he suffered beyond measure, he did not cease to call him his God, by whom he cried out that he had been forsaken.” (Institutes, II.16.12).

Let’s heed Calvin’s warning not to think or hint that, ontologically, the Father ceased to love Jesus or, existentially, that Jesus did not lose all sense and assurance of that love. We must neither veer into the appearance that the Father was abusing Jesus nor into minimizing the depths of the suffering of Jesus on the cross for us.

Calvin summarizes his argument against those who, he believes, diminish the sufferings of Christ.

“From this it appears that these quibblers with whom I am contending…. have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God’s judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God.” (II.16.12)

Do not “prejudge divine things from human”: Tertullian on Divine Anger

tertullianI have been doing a little digging in Tertullian’s work The Five Books Against Marcion the last couple of days. The five books cover an astonishing amount of ground (creation, hermeneutics, prophecy, goodness, Christology, etc.), which makes sense once you consider what a convoluted mess Marcion’s theology actually was. They didn’t call him the “arch-heretic” for nothing.

One important area is his treatment of divine anger.Obviously, the Marcionites thought attributing anger or wrath to God was unfitting, which partially motivated their rejection of large portions of the Old Testament and New.  Mark Sheridan has touched on the issue of the Fathers’ handling of Biblical anthropomorphism in Language for God in Patristic Tradition, and shown how the different strategies involved were concerned with making sure we were reading the Bible in a way that is “fitting” to God’s dignity and majesty.

Tertullian engages one argument from fittingness he thinks utterly flawed. He says that some say that if God is angry, or jealous, etc. then that leads to the thought that he is changeable, therefore corruptible, and open to death. He responds thus:

Superlative is their folly, who prejudge divine things from human; so that, because in man’s corrupt condition there are found passions of this description, therefore there must be deemed to exist in God also sensations of the same kind. Discriminate between the natures, and assign to them their respective senses, which are as diverse as their natures require, although they seem to have a community of designations. We read, indeed, of God’s right hand, and eyes, and feet: these must not, however, be compared with those of human beings, because they are associated in one and the same name. Now, as great as shall be the difference between the divine and the human body, although their members pass under identical names, so great will also be the diversity between the divine and the human soul, notwithstanding that their sensations are designated by the same names. These sensations in the human being are rendered just as corrupt by the corruptibility of man’s substance, as in God they are rendered incorruptible by the incorruption of the divine essence.

Tertullian argues that it’s folly to pre-judge realities predicated of God based on the human reality named with the same word. He doesn’t use the term, but he’s essentially arguing for a form of the doctrine of analogy. We must “discriminate between the natures” and realize that God’s “hands” and “feet” couldn’t possibly mean God has the same sorts of hand we do, only bigger.

In a similar way, we need to think of the movements of the soul of God (if we can speak that way), in a way that distinguishes the from our human experience of these realities. In humanity, these are corrupted and corruptible. But God is incorruptible, so we need to purify our conception of these realities before we think about whether this sort of “sensation” is truly dignified or worthy of God.  In which case, to think anger of unworthy of God on the basis of the fact that our sinful, corrupt, hasty anger would be unworthy of God is a crass mistake.

Tertullian makes the point that this principle is also applicable when it comes to the “good” qualities nobody has a problem with:

Then, again, with respect to the opposite sensations,—I mean meekness, patience, mercy, and the very parent of them all, goodness,—why do you form your opinion of the divine displays of these (from the human qualities)? For we indeed do not possess them in perfection, because it is God alone who is perfect.

His warning should be considered when we come to discussions about the love or compassion of God. Nobody tends to raise any red flags at the thought that God is love. Nobody’s trying to cut that doctrine out. But we still move far too quickly from our experience of love, of compassion, meekness, and goodness to trying to explain what God’s love, compassion, meekness, and goodness. We are corruptible, and so even the emotions we tend to thing of as “good”, can go bad. Mercy can become leniency, meekness can become cowardice, empathy can lead into over-identification and co-dependence.

He moves again to anger and then broadly speaks to a variety of affections which God can have:

So also in regard to those others,—namely, anger and irritation. we are not affected by them in so happy a manner, because God alone is truly happy, by reason of His property of incorruptibility. Angry He will possibly be, but not irritated, nor dangerously tempted; He will be moved, but not subverted. All appliances He must needs use, because of all contingencies; as many sensations as there are causes: anger because of the wicked, and indignation because of the ungrateful, and jealousy because of the proud, and whatsoever else is a hinderance to the evil. So, again, mercy on account of the erring, and patience on account of the impenitent, and pre-eminent resources on account of the meritorious, and whatsoever is necessary to the good. All these affections He is moved by in that peculiar manner of His own, in which it is profoundly fit that He should be affected; and it is owing to Him that man is also similarly affected in a way which is equally his own.

The Five Books against Marcion, Book II, chapter XVI

Tertullian’s rule is that God has affections, either negative or positive, only in such a way that they do not disturb his incorruptibility, goodness, or happiness. God is perfect and so every affection he has will be consistent with that perfection. And all movements he engages in out of those affections will only be those which are consistent with his ultimate goodness. We are not sure exactly what they are like in God, but we can be sure they will only happen “in the peculiar manner of His own.” And this is true of even those affections such as indignation, wrath, and anger.

While I’m not sure how much this tracks with later, more detailed, articulations of the impassibility of God, it does highlight a few helpful points.

First, Tertullian’s points themselves are just worth heeding. Distinguish the natures. Understand that you can’t simply read human experience up into God’s life without remainder, or the need to purify it on the basis of his perfection.

Second, while not all Church Fathers were comfortable ascribing anger and wrath to God, at least some (see also Lactantius’ De Ira Dei). They weren’t crass literalists, either. They knew about the limits of human speech and about the perfection of the divine nature. But instead of purging anger or wrath as the Marcionites (as well as some Fathers who nonetheless disagreed with them), they moved to purify, or clarify it, and not “prejudge divine things from human.”

It seems both of these lessons are still relevant today.

Soli Deo Gloria

“God Is” by Mark Jones (Review)

God isJesus Christ testifies that eternal life is “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). With his latest book, God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God, Mark Jones aims to help you attain a little more of that eternal life now in the present.

I know of no better way to summarize the thrust of the work than Jones’s own preface where he writes:

“The true and living God is too much for us to bear, to handle, to conceive, to adore, to know, to trust, to understand, and to worship. The Incomprehensible One is simply too much for us in every conceivable way.

However, that the Son became flesh makes our human nature appear lovely to God. But he also makes God appear lovely to us. Take away Christ, the God-man, and we are reprehensible to God and he to us. But in Christ, God is well pleased with us and we with him.

We look at God through Christ, who makes the attributes of God more delightful to us.” (11)

Here is the heart of the work. Our greatest good is to know God. But God is beyond us, so he comes to us in Christ and reveals himself to us. God Is, then, is an exposition and introduction to the attributes of God whose signal contribution is keeping them tied squarely to the person and work of Jesus.

In many ways, Jones is following up works like J.I. Packer’s Knowing God and A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy, and giving them a Christological twist. But that’s not all. Unlike more recent, academic treatments, in the style of the great Puritan and Orthodox thinkers like Charnock, Watson, and Leigh, Jones has also made it his aim to connect each attribute or “doctrine” to applications or “uses” in our daily lives, loving God and our neighbors.

For instance, when Jones treats the patience of God, he turns to key Old Testament texts which testify to God’s forebearance, his willingness to restrain judgment so that sinners might be saved and his purposes would stand. But then, he turns to point out Christ’s death on the cross is the key to God’s patience. There God enacts his justice against all the sin formerly past over, saving sinners, but maintaining his holy nature. As application, Jones points us to the comfort of knowing God’s patience with us through Jesus, which then points us to the way we ought to be patient with others.

Or again, speaking of God’s glory, Jones points to the essential glory of God, the display and sum of his attributes in all of their beauty, as well as “glory” we ascribe to God in praise. But then, he turns to Christ and speaks to the way he displays the glory of God in human flesh. This, in turn, gives rise to a very careful discussion of the unique glories which Christ has as a composite person, the Godman, as well as his glory as the mediator who accomplishes salvation on our behalf.  By way of application, Jones points to our joy in worship of a great God, the beauty of being able to commune with this glorious God in Jesus, and our hope to experience this glory in person when Jesus returns in unveiled glory.

Jones goes on like this for some 26 chapters, touching on God’s independence, justice, love, holiness, immutability, and so forth, as well some surprising “attributes” like God’s name, his triunity, and his being “anthropomorphic.”

I’ll just be blunt and say it’s a good book that I think most should consider buying and reading. Jones is a friend, but I have worked my way through every page these last couple of weeks as devotional literature and found it very challenging and encouraging. I know I’ll be returning to it regularly whenever I want to think or write on a particular attribute of God. That said, I’ll add a couple more notes.

First, a word about style. The subtitle calls it a “devotional guide”, and I did use it as a sort of devotional, but you should know that’s a bit misleading. Indeed, I suspect Jones didn’t pick that subtitle. What I mean is that while the book is not an academic work, it’s not what passes for much popular, devotional literature, either.

The chapters are short, maybe 5-7 pages, but they are dense with theological instruction, biblical citation, and (fantastic) quotations from theologians like Watson, Charnock, Leigh, Pictet, and occasionally a “modern” like Bavinck. He’ll do little historical dives and let you know about debates regarding the necessity of satisfaction for atonement, or the way the pactum salutis (covenant of redemption) play into our understanding of an attribute. Distinctions like ad extra and ad intra are sprinkled throughout.

Now, I think this is a very good and helpful thing. I really hope more popular theological literature moves in this direction. And if you find yourself intimidated at that thought, I would encourage you to read it anyways and allow yourself to be challenged. Still, I just figured I’d let you know.

Second, if you are a pastor who is struggling to think of ways to connect theology, and especially the nature of God, to your people in the pulpit and in your counsel, I think this is a good model to look at. You don’t have to follow Jones everywhere he goes either in application, or even in particular content points. But what he is doing is modeling a way of tracing the impact of how we think about God into every area of our worship and life.

We were made “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The aim of the gospel is God in Christ. He is our great end and our great joy. Reading God Is, is not a bad place to pursue more of him.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Immutable and Infinite Holiness of God

burning bushStephen Charnock’s treatment of the Holiness of God in The Existence and Attributes of God stands as the high watermark on the subject among Reformed Orthodox theologians of the period. Working my way through it, I’m struck by its comprehensive and seemingly exhaustive definition, defense, and exposition of the attribute. There’s much to dive into, but one particular section on the ontology of God’s holiness struck my attention.

To set it up, briefly, Charnock defines God’s holiness as:

Positively, It is the rectitude or integrity of the Divine nature, or that conformity of it, in affection and action, to the Divine will, as to his eternal law, whereby he works with a becomingness to his own excellency, and whereby he hath a delight and complacency in everything agreeable to his will, and an abhorrency of everything contrary thereunto.

God’s holiness is his utter purity of will, the love of the goodness which he has and is, as well as his opposition to everything opposed to that goodness which he is.

He goes on to clarify that this attribute is not a secondary, or ancillary perfection of God’s life, but one that is “essential and necessary” to his being. God would not be God without God being holy. God has been holy from eternity and will be holy forevermore.

Following this, he clarifies that “God only is absolutely holy: ‘There is none holy as the Lord’ (1 Sam 2:2).” This may strike some of us as odd because many things are spoke of in Scripture as holy besides God. In fact, isn’t holiness one of the communicable attributes which creatures can share with God? What could Charnock mean?

Well, he means that God’s holiness is qualitatively distinct and original to God. It’s not just that God is holy, he is, in fact, holiness itself. He only is originally holy and everything else is made holy as it is related to him (“by derivation”). Things set apart to the Lord become holy precisely because they are the Holy God’s. It’s borrowed holiness, in a sense, sort of like the light of the moon is borrowed from the Sun. And even then, their purity is just a dim reflection of the purity and holiness of God.

Charnock wants to drive home the qualitative difference between our holiness and God’s holiness. He compares God’s holiness with the holiness of the angels whom he has blessed with holiness and says their purity comes up short, causing them to cover their “feet out of shame in themselves” (Cf. Isa. 6). They know that:

…though they love God (which is a principle of holiness) as much as they can, yet, not so much as he deserves; they love him with the intensest degree, according to their power; but not with the intensest degree, according to his own amiableness; for they cannot infinitely love God, unless they were as infinite as God, and had an understanding of his perfections equal with himself, and as immense as his own knowledge. God, having an infinite knowledge of himself, can only have an infinite love to himself, and, consequently, an infinite holiness without any defect; because he loves himself according to the vastness of his own amiableness, which no finite being can.

Since love to God’s own perfection and goodness is the heart of holiness, only the perfection of God can muster it. Only the Triune God has the infinite capacity to love his infinite beauty properly, “according to the vastness of his own amiableness.” (I love that phrase.) And it’s precisely for that reason that his holiness is qualitatively distinct from all finite, creaturely holiness. What an astonishing and marvelous thought!

And it’s here we come to the fascinating passage that struck my eye.

Following off of this insight into the importance of God’s infinity for appreciating the distinctness of God’s holiness, he moves on to consider its immutability by comparison with changeableness of angelic and human nature. It’s a long quote, but worth it:

Holiness is a quality separable from them, but it is inseparable from God. Had they not at first a mutability in their nature, none of them could have sinned, there had been no devils; but because some of them sinned, the rest might have sinned. And though the standing angels shall never be changed, they are still changeable in their own nature, and their standing is due to grace, not to nature; and though they shall be for ever preserved, yet they are not, nor ever can be, immutable by nature, for then they should stand upon the same bottom with God himself; but they are supported by grace against that changeableness of nature which is essential to a creature; the Creator only hath immortality, that is, immutability (1 Tim. 3:16). It is as certain a truth, that no creature can be naturally immutable and impeccable, as that God cannot create any anything actually polluted and imperfect. It is as possible that the highest creature may sin, as it is possible that it may be annihilated; it may become not holy, as it may become not a creature, but nothing.

The holiness of a creature may be reduced into nothing, as well as his substance; but the holiness of the Creator cannot be diminished, dimmed, or overshadowed (James i. 17): “He is the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness or shadow of turning.” It is as impossible his holiness should be blotted, as that his Deity should be extinguished: for whatsoever creature hath essentially such or such qualities, cannot be stripped of them, without being turned out of its essence… The sun is essentially luminous; if it should become dark in its own body, it would cease to be the sun. In regard to this absolute and only holiness of God, it is thrice repeated by the seraphim (Isa. 6:3)…the holiness of God is so absolutely peculiar to him, that it can no more be expressed in creatures, than his omnipotence, whereby they may be able to create a world; or his omniscience, whereby they may be capable of knowing all things, and knowing God as he knows himself.

Humans and angels are changeable (mutable) beings. We came into existence and can wink out of existence. Our natures can shift from good to evil and evil to God.  We have fallen, but thankfully we can be saved and sanctified to God once more (humans, at least). And we only stay holy by the mercy and sustaining perfection of God’s work in us.

And yet in the starkest contrast, God is unchangeable. He is immutable. There is no shadow of turning with him. And this holds true of his holiness as well. There isn’t the slightest chance that God could ever be less than the infinitely pure love of good. It is the distinct, sine qua non of the divine life. It is inseparable from him.

Besides the magnificence of this vision of God’s absolute holiness, what struck me about this was how thickly ontological this discussion was. It’s all too easy and common in some contemporary discussions to make clean distinctions between God’s “ethical” or “moral” attributes emphasized in Scripture and his more “metaphysical” or “ontological” ones derived from philosophical or “Greek” speculation. (Typically, the distinction is pressed by theologians looking to revise the ontological ones.) Charnock doesn’t play that game.

In fact, it is precisely the “metaphysical” or “ontological” qualities of God–his infinity and his immutability–that distinguish and characterize God’s holiness as his own. It is the limitless and unchangeable purity, rectitude, and love of all that is good and according to his own perfect will that makes God’s holiness what it is.

This is good news. For God’s holiness is a crowing attribute among the rest, giving them their distinct character:

As all would be weak, without almightiness to back them, so all would be uncomely without holiness to adorn them…As sincerity is the lustre of every grace in a Christian, so is purity the splendor of every attribute in the Godhead. His justice is a holy justice; his wisdom a holy wisdom; his arm of power a holy arm (Ps. xcviii. 1); his truth or promise a holy promise (Ps. cv. 42). Holy and true go hand in hand (Rev. vi. 10). His name, which signifies all his attributes in conjunction, is holy (Ps. chi. 1); yea, he is “righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works” (Ps. cxlv. 17): it is the rule of all his acts, the source of all his punishments. If every attribute of the Deity were a distinct member, purity would be the form, the soul, the spirit to animate them. Without it, his patience would be an indulgence to sin, his mercy a fondness, his wrath a madness, his power a tyranny, his wisdom an unworthy subtilty. It is this gives a decorum to all.

Praise God, then, that it is this holiness which is unchanging and without end.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Note on Experienced Pain, Truth, And Developing Doctrine

job and friendsI recently saw a discussion online about hell. In the course of things, one person noted their childhood trauma connected with teaching on this doctrine. Another (or possibly the same) went to suggest they couldn’t possibly see how growing up with a particular view of hell didn’t lead to childhood trauma. The doctrine itself was inherently trauma-causing and the implication was that this in itself counted strongly against its truth. Others chimed in, both for and against, either disagreeing or trying to defend the doctrine in question.

I didn’t have time to jump in at the moment, but I’ve been chewing on the issue for a bit. Not so much the doctrine of hell, but more generally what role considerations about a doctrine’s adverse psychological effects ought to play in doctrinal construction. So I wanted to test out a few tentative thoughts on the issue.

Words Matter. Let me begin by saying I am not doubting the experiences of trauma of those who were claiming it in that conversation. I don’t know some of them and I don’t have reason to doubt the ones I did know.

I will say, I do think there is a general tendency towards carelessness with words on this point, though. A friend of mine who is doing work in the area of trauma and theology has helpfully pointed out that words like “trauma”, “abuse”, “trigger”, and so forth, have specific, technical meanings related to qualitatively different sorts of psychological conditions and events. This is missed when we sloppily overuse them and apply them broadly to any generally unpleasant or disturbing experience (as is sadly common today).

This is unhelpful because it can illegitimately (even if unintentionally) be used to gain unfair and manipulative leverage in conversations by those who are not actually trauma sufferers. What’s more, in so doing, it actually minimizes and waters down the experiences of said, actual trauma sufferers.

Be Careful Not to Universalize Your Particular Experience. On that point, while I wouldn’t for a moment want to ignore or deny their experiences of dread and psychological distress connected to the doctrine, I would also caution we mustn’t deny the experience of those who did not have those same experiences. Because it seems empirically not the case that growing up with this particular view of hell is universally and necessarily traumatic, even if it sadly was so for some.

I’ll dangerously use myself as an example. I grew up being taught some version of that same doctrine from a very early age. It wasn’t something my parents or Sunday School teachers dwelt on obsessively, but they didn’t ignore it. And while I remember a short season in junior high being quite worried about judgment (I had been cursing at school and it haunted me at night), I eventually came to an assurance of the gospel and it passed. It’s not to say I don’t still find the reality of it troubling, or worth wrestling with—much the way I do many other awful realities. But it is not something that has left a lasting, psychic scar on me. And I know a great many of my friends and families and members of various churches who could say the same. What’s more, it’s entirely plausible that a larger survey would reveal the non-universality of this doctrinally-driven trauma far beyond my anecdotal evidence. Indeed, if we expand that survey across the globe and across the history of the Church, that seems manifestly obvious.

I suppose I am making a version of the argument against cultural imperialism in theology. One of the things that’s become clear over the years is that people from other times, cultures, and places read the Bible and experience Christian teaching in different ways than affluent, Post-Enlightenment Westerners. Go back a thousand years in church history. Or maybe a thousand miles across on an ocean. Texts we find shocking, they do not. Texts they find shocking, we do not. And it would be presumptuous to assume that our cultural-driven theological instincts automatically give us more insight. They don’t necessarily give us less insight, either. But considerations like that ought to give us pause.

My point is that we similarly shouldn’t be psychological or experiential imperialists, assuming the texts or doctrines which trouble us particularly, will trouble or shock others in the same way. There is a certain intellectual and empathetic myopia involved there—one which I have found myself guilty of on numerous occasions—which needs to be reckoned with. My experiences, my position, my place, my psychological make-up incline me in a particular direction theologically. But so do others. And it’s not that I need to always assume I’m wrong, but I need to acknowledge that. And this is true not only for positive experiences, but also negative ones and how we related them to our doctrine.

One example that comes to mind is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over suffering and evil. Some find the idea that God has a purpose (either immediate or mediate) behind allowing their pain and suffering—the loss of a child to early death—to be one of horror and disgust. Others find it absolutely necessary to maintain any sort of faith in God’s goodness in the face of the exact same tragedy. At that point, we have two instances of sufferers reacting to the very same teaching in diametrically opposed fashion. Whose psychological experience with that teaching should be weighted more strongly? Whose comfort is more trustworthy?

Truth Can Be Troubling. Following on this, we must keep in mind that the truth of an idea, may indeed be troubling—even traumatic. Growing up on a mountain, a child may be taught to take care not to shout too loudly in certain areas lest they trigger a rock slide, or an avalanche. They may then come dwell on that idea incessantly and obsessively. This is sad and possibly psychologically traumatic. Now, this may be a good reason to not live on that mountain, but it would not be a reason for rejecting the belief that avalanches are a liability in in their locale. The truth of the reality is fairly independent of whether it is potentially traumatic to believe it.

I would go on to point out, though, that even good truth, inappropriately introduced or dwelt on, could probably cause trauma, or at least have adverse psychological effects. Let’s be a bit Freudian and use sex as an example. That nearly every child has been begotten by an act of sexual love between a mother and a father is a good and beautiful truth. That God created sexual love as a pleasurable experience is as well. Both are good for people to know.

Yet we can all agree that exposure to pornography at a young age (or at all) would be a wrong, distorting, and harmful way to learn about them. Or, turning away from the immoral, it seems quite possibly traumatic to be introduced to these truths at the age of 7 by walking into your parent’s bedroom at the wrong moment, forcing a subsequent explanation. This could easily have adverse effects that, in the right sort of child, lead to sad, unhealthy fixations later on in life. But this being the case by no means counts as an argument against the good truth of the reality of sex. It is an argument for bedroom locks, discretion, and a game-plan for talking to your child about sex in an appropriate fashion.

A Diagnostic, Not a Criterion. But then is there any place someone’s psychological experience of a teaching should play in the way we think about it? I think there is. But we must not confuse what kind. I would suggest that it at least plays the role of a diagnostic light on your dashboard, warning you that something needs to be addressed.

Now, what needs to be addressed is not always immediately clear. Someone might experience great distress—unhealthy pain—at a doctrine for a few reasons. First, yes, the teaching itself is possibly flawed. I’m not saying that’s never a possibility. It definitely is. Second, it could also be that the teaching is not flawed but it is being taught and applied in a harmful and unhelpful fashion which needs to be addressed.

For instance, it’s possible to take doctrines and distort them—even wonderful doctrines about forgiveness, reconciliation and grace can be used abusively. Here the social and moral context of the teaching proves toxic and that toxicity affects how it is being received. Or, it could be that a doctrine is being taught not wrongly, or falsely, or “abusively”, but is being over-emphasized or without being properly set in the context of the rest of Christian truth.

One friend pointed out that doctrines like hell, or the fear of losing your salvation (or that you’ve never had it) can take on an extra psychological pressure in environments where much emphasis is laid on having a visible “conversion” experience, a second blessing, etc. The monastic context in which Luther struggled against the judgement of God might be another. Or one thinks of Kierkegaard’s testimony about the effect his father’s tumultuous personality paired with a pietistic focus on Christ’s sufferings hand on him as a young child. An individual doctrine isn’t doing the work here alone, but rather the way it functions alongside everything else.

All this to say, widespread experience of adverse psychological effects associated with a doctrine can definitely alert us of a problem we need to address. But it’s not immediately clear the solution is doctrinal revision. Often it is a call to greater pastoral discernment about the uses of doctrine, not the doctrines themselves. As the old maxim has it, “improper use does not nullify proper use“, but we can’t be so busy defending good doctrine we never stop to think about how to use it properly.

Avoiding Projection. To sort of round things out, I suppose one worry at the back of my mind is that an instinct to rewrite, or to tweak, Christian teachings in order to make sure it’s always psychologically affirming in some direct way, can turn our theology into a species of projection. Atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said all theology was basically our anthropology magnified to the Nth degree and then projected up onto the screen of heaven. Freud makes a version of the same argument: God as wish-fulfillment. Believing in God is the comfort of having an ideal earthly father, simply projected into eternity.

And the thing is—when it comes to a lot of theology—they have a point. Much modern theology explicitly buys the premise that we’re basically just coming up with revisable metaphors for God that work for us and contributing to “flourishing”—however Late Moderns have come to define the term. In other words, my worry is conceptual idolatry, despite the admirable motive of concerns for those in pain.

All of this comes around to how do theology for the Church. It’s an obvious truism that all theology is done by humans, from particular perspectives, who inevitably have their favored theological paradigms informed by their experiences. But are we at least trying to give priority to God’s self-revelation, his self-testimony in the Gospel and recorded in Scripture? Are we at least attempting to let God’s Word beyond our experiences speak a word of comfort about God into our experiences? Or do we explicitly make our variable, subjective, and relative experiences, cultures, and intuitions function as a normative authority or criterion?

Again, I’m not saying we never rethink doctrine, or how we’re teaching in light of people’s adverse psychological experiences. What I am saying is that we must make sure that these realities drive us to humble ourselves before Christ’s voice in Scripture—to hear what we may have missed, to have him clarify what we have muddled, or to have him reaffirm what we might be tempted to dispense with in our haste and pain. For ultimately it is his words–even those which initially confuse and confound us–which heal our deepest wounds.

Soli Deo Gloria