Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The necessity of getting down to the heart

For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart that it may be an invincible defense to withstand and drive off all the stratagems of temptation.
Calvin - Institutes III.ii.36

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The confidence of faith

I've gone back to reading Calvin on faith in his Institutes - it's just wonderful stuff (Bk. III Ch. 2). Consider this question: what should faith look like as it approaches God? How about this for an answer:

'...the apostle derives confidence from faith, and from confidence, in turn, boldness. For he states: "Through Christ we have boldness and access with confidence which is through faith in him" (Eph. 3:12). By these words he obviously shows that there is no right faith except when we dare with tranquil hearts to stand in God's sight." (III.ii.15)

Now that's confidence! But it's true; he's hit the biblical nail right on the head. Through Christ we can do just that - stand in the presence of the God burning white-hot in his holiness with absolute tranquility.

But doesn't that sound somewhat idealistic - maybe even unrealistic? What about when we doubt and struggle with the temptation to unbelief? Does that mean I've lost my faith? Not at all, for faith is always imperfect in this life, and we must contend with the permanent battle between the flesh and the spirit (e.g. Rom. 7:13-25). But in those circumstances, the true believer will always be victorious. The example of David, and the struggles we see recorded in his Psalms is so encouraging here (III.ii.17). What is to be our response when the temptation to unbelief seems to be overwhelming us? We repel it with the shield of faith (Eph. 6:16) which takes the word of God and repels such unbelief with the truths of what God has really said. For example, a Christian may feel they are experiencing God's wrath for their sin as they pass through difficult circumstances. Does this 'work' in such a situation?

'A proof of this is that while the saints seem to be very greatly pressed by God's vengeance, yet they lay their complaints before him; and when it seems that they will not at all be heard, they nontheless call upon him. What point would there be in crying out to him if they hoped for no solace from him? Indeed, it would never enter their minds to call upon him if they did not believe that he had prepared help for them.' (III.ii.21)

Faith, then, will always ultimately be victorious in the Christian life. It cannot be otherwise, for faith is at the heart of his identity as a new creation - without it there is simply no Christian. That must mean that it is unbelief that is now the foreigner in the Christian's life. Therefore Calvin can conclude with absolute confidence:

'Unbelief does not hold sway within believers' hearts, but assails them from without. It does not mortally wound them with its weapons, but merely harasses them, or at most so injures them that the wound is curable. Faith, then, as Paul teaches, serves as our shield (Eph. 6:16). When held up against weapons it so receives their force that it either completely turns them aside or at least weakens their thrust, so that they cannot penetrate to our vitals... And he [John, in 1 John 5:4] affirms that our faith will be victor not only in one battle, or a few, or against any particular assault; but that, though it be assailed a thousand times, it will prevail over the entire world.' (III.ii.21)

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Muddling through with N.T. Wright

Ok, so I've managed to find a bit of time recently to plod on a little further with Tom Wright's book on Justification. I'm now ready to launch into the exegesis section, but I found reading the last chapter of the first section - 'Justification: definitions and puzzles' rather unsettling. My problem is this: it's just so muddled.

My biggest issue is this: Wright happily wanders from describing and critiquing what is essentially the Catholic view of justification, stemming from Augustine, that sees the term justification as referring to pretty much the whole of salvation, and then switches back and forth to John Piper and his like - representing the reformation position - as though there were no difference between them! Yet it was the Augustinian position that Luther (the source of so many of our ills according to Wright) reacted so strongly against! I cannot believe that Wright is so incompetent a scholar as to not realise the massive difference between the two positions - his reputation would forbid it. Surely he must see that there is a world of difference between the instant imputation of Christ's righteousness of the Reformation doctrine and the slow life-long infusion of righteousness (roughtly equating to sanctification) of Augustine - yet he seems to imply the two are identical by simply switching the discussion from one to the other without notification (pg. 71). I hope that this is merely a very badly written chapter, but to the uninformed reader it would certainly very unfairly prejudice them against the Reformation doctrine of justification simply because it isn't clearly set out, other than those bits of it that Wright likes. The Catholic position, however, receives ample description and critique, but along the way Wright pauses to engage with... John Piper et al - who don't hold this position at all!

Here's my other big complaint: in a chapter concerning the definition of justification, I would hope to discover how Wright considers his doctrine to differ from the Reformation doctrine, but all I've worked out is that it's different from Catholicism, and seems to approve of an awful lot of the Reformation teaching. It would seem to me that the only thing like a definition of justification offered (pg. 69f) is in real agreement with the 'Old Perspective'. I've yet to discover what the big deal is from Wright's own pen. On points where I want clarification he is vague and on points that I understand (e.g. covenant theology, Christology etc) he is full of detail!

What I find most concerning is that he seems content to be vague on areas such as the role of the cross (other than that Jesus dealt with sin there somehow), what grounds God has for justifiying us etc. These things may not be the doctrine of justification per se, but a reasonable doctrine of justification cannot stand without them. Dare I suggest (well, yes I do - it's my blog and I can say what I like!) that it just sounds so Anglican - the aim is to remain vague where reasonably possible so as to accommodate as many positions as possible (apologies to the many evangelical Anglicans I know to be glorious exceptions to this rule). Maybe that explains the surprising range of people that give commendations inside the front cover - Michael Bird being a lecturer at a seminary that advertises itself as Reformed, and Brian McLaren being no advocate of orthodoxy. Will that be the end result? A biblical-sounding doctrine that actually crosses very few t's and dots as few i's as possible so that when the rubber hits the road you can mould it to suit nearly whatever brand of teaching you like? I know this approach is very popular in contemporary Christianity, but it does nothing for the cause of biblical truth or biblical unity. It is only the truth that will set us free. Vagueness leads only into the fog.