Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Unique times?

What has been is what will  be,
and what has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’?
It has been already in the ages before us.

As we saw in the previous post, claiming that these times are the best of times is fatuous, a part of the Sunny Side of the Street approach to history. But are there unique times, without parallel in human affairs? I argue that it is equally fatuous to say that these times are unique, uniquely bad, or good, having unique moral and social features. 

It is stretching things even further to say that these are uniquely difficult times for churches to maintain their faith in our day. Of course, if we were landed in some era in the past, we would be uniquely shocked, in many different ways. And so it would be if we could fast forward. But aren’t suffering, temptation, doubt, the experience of backsliding, departure from the faith, puzzlement at the ways of providence, the operation of false prophets, persecution, the stuff of the Christian church in every age? There is this reminder from Jesus himself. “Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name’. (John 15. 20.) Of course if people have come to be attracted to Christianity as a leisure pursuit, or as the way to riches, or as give a rounding off to their life as consumers, that’s another thing.

Isn’t Calvin's a more realistic estimate of things?

But seeing that, in this earthly prison of the body, no man is supplied with strength sufficient to hasten in his course with due alacrity, while the greater number are so oppressed with weakness, that hesitating and halting, and even crawling on the ground they make little progress, let every one of us go far as his humble ability enables him, and prosecute the journey once begun. (Inst. III.6.5)

These two attitudes - being on the right side of history, and the judgment that the times are uniquely bad - have this in common, that they are each kinds of exceptionalism. To claim that is common to each is that we live live in exceptional times, exceptionally good or bad times, as the case may be. Exceptional such benefitting from our technological advances, and having a Twitter account! For the present day exceptionalist, the ability to send emails or Tweets effortlessly around the world at no cost, creates unique conditions.

Think about the gift of the internet. Such gifts are not only a blessing, but also a curse. For they are pervasive and intoxicating, so it seems. They enable human beings to dissemble on a grand scale, to spread lies as if they were truths, to vent hatred, and to indulge in narcissistic self-promotion. These in turn raise levels of human anxiety. People may feel vulnerable as never before, and their minds set to  continually race. Lives are ruled by these new circumstances. Many seem to be without any anchors that ensure stability in our existence which has become a daily, 24 hour whirl. Sources which we have previously trusted have become suspect. Paradoxically, perhaps, scepticism and cynicism on a grand scale leads to action, to protest, mass demonstration, coarse language, and even insurrection. All the world’s a stage. In this maelstrom, people do not know whom to trust. 


But there is another thing that these two attitudes have in common besides being exceptionalist. Each are instances of environmentalism. The currency of the environmentalist is external states or activities, parts of the world around us and outside us, and the reactions that observations of these promote. So this does not mean they don't affect us? Or that we can turn their effect on us on and off at will?  Certainly not. Malign environments are the subject of warnings by Christ and the apostles. They might strike to kill but they do not succeed. For they do not touch the character or worth of men and women, the springs of heir action, the thoughts and intents of their heart.   A possible case in the New Testament is that of a state of affairs that would, if possible, lead astray even the elect. (Matt. 24/24 )

Those who aver that these are the best of times come to these conclusions by adding up commensurables, those factors which make up our standard of living, our ‘quality of life’. So it’s not simply a question of pounds and pence, but factors that it is not easy to give a monetary value to,  a cost and benefit analysis. Activities as varied as walks in the country, breathing in polluted air, the exercise of freedom of speech, people everlastingly talking loudly into their mobile devices, and many more together make up the quality of life. These are not possible to assign a monetary value to, but they are matters which people value or disvalue, in varied amounts.

And when people, even the same people, tell us that these times are uniquely bad, as compared with earlier times, they play the same  environmentalist game.

The New Testament

Since this malaise is allegedly unique to now, and general in its effects, it must influence religion. For religion depends on who a person trusts who or what that person believes. After all, congregations are not made of theological experts. The congregants may trust Jesus. But can they follow the twists and turns of debate about the person of Christ, say, of monotheletism or diotheletelism, or the latest effort of some ill-informed social critic? They struggle with these handicaps. Worse, such challenged people here other voices than that of their pastor from the omnipresent internet, influences which have the tendency to crowd out the local pulpit and the Christian community.

However, a Christian will see at a glance, these changes in our circumstances – clean running water, central heating, antibiotics, computers – welcome though they are, are not so radical that they require a re-think of the basic conditions of human life.

The New Testament is markedly anti-environmentalist. The word ‘regeneration’ (palingenesis) is used only twIce in the New Testament, but it is nevertheless a key concept. We are familiar with the soteric sense of regeneration, (Titus 3.5). It is in view of being regenerate in this sense that it is impossible for the elect to be deceived. But the same word is used of the cosmos: ‘Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration [‘new world’, unfortunately, In the ESV] when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’. This is not a new world from the outside in, but one from the inside out, indelibly new in its very nature. (That’s why the ESV translation is unfortunate). (Matt. 19. 28)

Other words of Jesus support this
Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach and is expelled? (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said “What come out of a person  is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander. pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”(Mark 7.18-22) 
Unique times, then? No, different times, but with the same problems, and the same solution.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Which side of history are you on?

The beginning of a new year might be thought the appropriate time to begin it by identifying whether we are on the right side of history or not. That phrase, ‘the right side of history’ is not mine of course. Nor is it the best way to think of our relation to the past. But  it  is common to think in these terms. Lately it has been used as an argument for the UK remaining in Europe. To remain would be to join or continue to be on the right side of history, the Sunny Side of the Street, as we might call it. But Brexit is on the wrong side, though the Spectator, a magazine which is for Brexit, opined in a recent editorial that  ‘the world is doing rather well’.

‘Which side of history are you on?’ is also raised in connection with other contentious issues in current politics and culture. This idea of history having a ‘side’, which is liberal, enlightened and so on, harks back to the enlightenment of the 18th century, to the emergence of what David Hume called ‘these enlightened ages’, in sharp contrast to the side of the ‘dark ages’ of medievalism. The idea is that such a surge as the Enlightenment, having begun, is inevitable, tending unstoppably in one direction. This side of history is on the move to better times, and so if we wish these times for ourselves and others, we had better get on the right side. And that direction becomes ‘obvious’ to those with enlightened minds.

The forces of darkness, of barbarism and superstition, are history’s other side, its faltering side, the side of those intent on ‘turning the clock back’, impeding or interrupting and so delaying its progress. Sooner or later history’s other side is to be decisively supplanted by the enlightened. So that dark side is destined to fail. The light side of history will succeed. Who wants to be left behind? So do not get left behind, for the Light and its forces will ultimately triumph over Darkness, reason against unreason, liberty against slavery, and so on. This is somehow connected with what Herbert Butterfield and others referred to as the Whig interpretation of history.  Though this seems to have been, insofar as it existed, a gentler version of the current ‘sides of history’ view, at least insofar as it is view of history that is the outcome of ongoing parliamentary debate. In fact it may be said that so long as freedom of speech and the working of government and opposition in Parliament continues, the enlightened ages continue.

Also linked with the winning side of history view is the idea of Western leadership and hegemony, which causes the rising sun to shine on the Sunny Side until the entire world basks in it. These are the engines of light.  Currently these are the forces of globalism, international corporatism, and the waging of the war against global warming.  Its personal ‘values’ include unlimited tolerance, and the freedom from offendedness of various kinds, along with the renouncing of the vestiges of nationalism and popularism,  two currently-favoured examples.. Though it is said that we are living in a post-Enlightenment period, the confidence of the Enlightenment persists. Whatever ‘post-modernism’ is, it is not pessimistic.  (An oldish sceptic might wonder what has become of a fad of yesteryear, the ‘Small is Beautiful’ claims of Schumacher, which at the time seemed attractive to some, but whose norms seem to go in the opposite direction, or are nothing other than a nostalgic hiccup in the upward march).

What the inevitability of the triumph of such enlightened forces is grounded in is not made clear. Besides, it encounters competition in the ‘sides of history’ stakes. For example Marxism in its pure form holds to the historical inevitability of the international revolution that will usher in classlessness, and so Nirvana. These inevitabilities are not strictly speaking fated. For it seems to be possible to hold to the inevitability of history and yet get one’s timing for meeting the train that will carry you to the destination of personal liberal freedom and plenty, or of communist revolution, wrong.  Nevertheless, he train is to continue in its destination even if presently it is shunted into a siding. But such a view of history is obviously false. There is change and decay as well as periods of seeming advancement.

But though history records moods, and changing habits and priorities, trends and tendencies, it does not have a side, nor two sides. It has, and has had, many sides, some of which have come to an abrupt halt and others which still run. Other sides suddenly appear and invite you to ride, like a scene from Alice in Wonderland – ‘Jump on me’. The rise and fall of empires bear testimony to these, and empires rise and fall still.  It is hard to think that we are at the end of history in this sense. The sun never set in the British Empire, but time has set on it.

The belief in the course of history, if it is worth the name, is an empirical belief, based on the study of the way in which it is going, and then extrapolating that.  It is in this sense of history that in 1992 Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man. He did not assert that history as a sequence of events has ended, but that with the course of Soviet communism being stopped, history as a fundamental clash of ideologies was no more. Fukuyama held that this was true of 1992, when it seemed for a few moments that liberal democracy, helped by global capitalism, was dominating the globe.

History and pilgrimage

Is historical inevitability of any use in understanding the gospel or its spread? I am asking this not with a modernist or liberal form of Christianity in mind, but Christianity in its historic, orthodox expression. I suppose certain millennialist positions of the end of time held by such Christians may be said to take such a view. But is the idea of history having a right or wrong side part of the Christian outlook?

From time to time in Christian history, there have been groups who have pinned their hopes - not usually their fears - to some passage of biblical prophecy or other. Not only radical sects, who have tied their Christian faith to the  events of history, interpreting this and that as giving direction of the progress of the gospel to far islands and to the courts of kings, and to interpreting the ‘signs of the times.’ We  see this temper also at work in those who have a programme of Christian ‘cultural transformation’, perhaps as part of some postmillenial aspiration, or perhaps not. One might think too, that those who stress divine sovereignty, in providence and in saving grace, might be tempted in this direction.

The inscrutability of history

It is a feature of living ‘between the times’ that God’s activity in history, his macro activity we might call it - cannot be correlated with the ebb and flow of history. Why is this?  Because there is now no fixity between the events in history and the saving purposes of God. The only possible exception is the history of the church. But that is also rather uncertain. During the eras if special revelation – in the call of Abraham, and the history of Israel, and of course in the coming into flesh of the eternal Son, there is redemptive history in something like the usual sense of history.  There were times in which the purposes of God  with those with eyes to see, could be discerned. Through the ebbing and flowing, a trajectory of the divine redemptive purpose is discernible. But no longer. There is no ‘open vision’. Attempts to make a connection between historical states as the centuries roll, and the redemptive purposes of God are doomed.

All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath. (Eccles. 9.2.)

There is some other evidence in Scripture for this, in eschatological contexts.   ‘So, if they say to you, Look, he is in the wilderness, do not go out.  If they say, he is in the inner rooms, do not believe it’. ‘ For as in those days before the flood…so will be the coming of the Son of Man.’  (Matt 24 36f.)

Such an  understanding of  history and the place of the Christian church in it throws into sharp relief the New Testament teaching on Christians as pilgrims and strangers, whose citizenship lies exclusively in a future city  whose maker and builder is God.  Any ‘Christian’ activity which seeks to impact dimensions of this present age and its cities –through social policies, political agendas, or arts and crafts - as so many expressions of Christian faith, inevitably compromises the root importance of a pilgrimage of men and women who otherwise may agree on little else, but whose eyes and hopes are in the New Jerusalsem. Besides these, the questions of history, its various sides and significances, matter not.

Augustine of Hippo had his cap on the right way.

When, therefore, death shall be swallowed up in victory, these things will not be there, and there shall be peace – peace full and eternal. We shall be in a kind of City. Brethren, when I speak of that City, and especially when scandals grow great here, I just cannot bring myself to stop. 

Thursday, December 01, 2016


Last time we looked at Reformed Orthodox and Puritan views of soul and body, showing that for them your body is as much you as your soul, being animated by the soul. So the soul and body may be regarded as two essential substances. This has a bearing on how the image of God in man is to be understood.

There are currently many and various ideas about in what the imago dei resides. Is man’s trinitarian structure an image of the Trinitarian God?  Augustine held such a view in de Trinitate, trying (but unsuccessfully) to see the Trinity in the interlocking of the faculties of the self. But much to the chagrin of modern hyper-trinitarians he did not think he had succeeded. Calvin said of such an attempt that

there is no solidity in Augustine’s speculation, that the soul is a mirror of the Trinity, inasmuch as it comprehends within itself,  intellect, will and memory. Nor is there probability in the opinion of those who place likeness to God in the dominion bestowed upon man, as if he only resembled God in this, that he is appointed Lord and master of all things. The likeness must be with in, in himself. It must be something which is not external to him but is properly the internal good of the soul’. (Inst, I. xv. 4)

The Trinity is used in another way as a 'model' of being human. Moderns have postulated what have always seemed to me to be extravagant ideas about the imago  as relations between Individuals in union,  mirroring the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Godhead. A trinity-like community with others, being as the Lord of creation is tri-personal. It seems to have been forgotten that the three  trinitarian persons are one substance, God himself.

To avoid this then maybe they veer towards another modern fad, understanding the Trinity as social, as three persons sharing one divine nature, three individuals of one unique kind. But (again) the trinitarian persons are persons of the numerically one God, not members of a trio of divine persons each in some sense generically divine. In any case there is a distinction between thinking of human nature as having a Trinitarian structure, which was Augustine’s view; and it consisting in one human being as having a perichoretic relationship with others.

Such views are extravagant because they argue that a metaphysical relationship, the necessary relationship of the three hypostases of the one Trinity, is imputed, or their shadow is imputed, when distinct members of the human race are united together in mutual love. There is very little encouragement to going down this road in the New Testament. Christ teaches in an aspect of his High Priestly Prayer in John 17.11,  ’that they [his disciples] may be one, even as we are one’. But the image of God is not mentioned there, is it?  And there are the words of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount urging his people to be like God whose is gracious to the just and unjust alike in showering his goodness on them.But no reference to the image of God there either. 

More promising are passages in the New Testament signifying the renewal of men and women which are these days neglected or overlooked.

….That you put off your old self which belongs to your former manner of like and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4.22-24)
 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you give put off the old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Col.3.9-16)

With the similarities between the two passages – ‘new self’, ‘old self’, ‘creates’, creator’, ‘the likeness of God’’, ‘image’, and with their ‘put off….put on’ structure, are we not reasonable in concluding that we have here a mode of Paul’s habitual thinking? And here are obvious references to the creation of mankind in God’s image, and language about what that image consists in – personal knowledge, renovation of character in righteousness and holiness, with their associated desires and practices. These are  properties of the human mind. Mankind has a rational soul atop the lower powers of his soul, his sensory powers. These denote man both as an ‘animal’, and  as ‘rational’, by the possession of rational and moral powers and capacities.

We use our intellect in what we are told and read and apprehend with a sense singly,  or our senses together. We can reason abstractly in logic and mathematics. We can reason inductively. But in addition, and importantly, there is the practical reason. When we identify objectives for ourselves, we use our reason to do this. We identify ends, and means to those ends, judging which is the best means, or means (plural) to an end or ends. Included in these practical reasonings are moral reasoning, for we seek to achieve moral ends or objectives. This is also a rational activity therefore. So this view of the image can take in the role of mankind in governing his environment. (Gen.1.28)

So without raising any questions about whether Paul had Aristotle’s writings among the books and parchments he asked Timothy to bring with him, (2  Tim. 4.13), or that he was influenced by Aristotle, we can nevertheless see that terms like ‘righteousness’ and ‘holiness’ and ‘practices’ are readily incorporated into an Aristotelian outlook such as the medieval scholastics had, and that the Reformed Orthodox and the Puritans took on.

It is our souls, our reason, our morals, our affections, our plans and goals, and the means to them, that are all affected by the Fall. The Fall is an adventitious change in our persons. That is, the Fall leaves our human nature intact, even though it is in all aspects disordered and weakened, and so ‘totally’ depraved. Reformed theologians referred as a consequence to imago dei  in its wider and narrower senses. A human being though fallen, retains the image of God in the wider sense, but lost the true knowledge, and righteousness and holiness - the image in the narrower sense - that Paul refers to.

However, there is another usage of ‘image’ in the NT which denotes the character of Christ. Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col.1.15), repeated in 2 Cor 4.4. He is the image of God,  being himself God, though the Spirit is never designated with this title, tho’ also  hImself God. The renewal language of Ephesians and Colossians is by this further image language made more explicit. The renewing of the image refers to Christ, the incarnate Logos, and in his perfect human nature  the image of God his Father. When the saints put on the new image, this is not a set of abstract virtues, but something of the moral character of Christ. I suppose an image of an image of A is also an image of A. So by God’s regenerating grace the  elect are to be conformed to the image of the Father’s Son, (Rom. 8.29)  and in the resurrection, they will bear the image of the man of heaven, (I Cor. 15.49) having a resurrected nature free from sin, and possessing spiritual bodies.  We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (I. Jn. 3.2).  And the earthly pilgrimage of God’s people is a progressive realization of this image, to be continued in heaven, from one degree of glory to a further degree. ’And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another’ (2 Cor. 3.18). Note here the recurrence of ‘image’.