PT Forsyth on doing theology

Theology simply means thinking in centuries. Religion tells on the present, but theology tells on the religion of the future and the race. Moreover, there are always natures among Christian people who refuse, and properly refuse, to remain satisfied with superficial experiences or current views of their faith. They are bound by the spirit that moves within them – by the kind of temperament God has given them they are bound to penetrate to the heart, to the depths of things. Their work does not immediately pay; and while they grind in their mill the Philistines mock and the libertines jeer. But it would be a great misfortune if the whole of the work of the Church were measured by the standard which is so necessary in the world – the standard of what will immediately pay, or promptly tell.

Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Work of Christ (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910), 144.

H.H. Farmer on hospitality

H.H. Farmer on hospitality

“You may not know it, you may be surprised when you are told it, but in the giving or withholding of a cup of cold water you are directly involved with God, so directly, so inescapably, that the first thing and the only thing God will want to speak to you about at the end will be just that.”

Herbert H. Farmer, God and Modern Men: Four Sermons, King’s Chapel Publications: New Series 25 (Julia Lyman Fund, 1934), 27.

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Helmut Thielicke on faultfinding

I don’t believe that God is a fussy faultfinder in dealing with theological ideas. He who provides forgiveness for a sinful life will also surely be a generous judge of theological reflections. Even an orthodox theologian can be spiritually dead, while perhaps a heretic crawls on forbidden bypaths to the sources of life.

Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, trans. Charles L. Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1962), 37.

Whose God? What sort of glory? At what cost to whom?

Whose God? What sort of glory? At what cost to whom?

I am uncomfortable when I hear God’s glory upheld as an ultimate telos, purpose, or good. Whose God? What sort of glory? At what cost to whom? Giving “God” the “glory” is a risky business. In fact, traditional notions of “God” and “glory” may render the whole exercise futile. Zeal without knowledge in this area can do more harm than good.

Consider the ancient dispute between Job and his three friends. Job suffers a great calamity — the loss of his family, wealth, health, and reputation. Traditional wisdom, shared by Job and his friends, dictates standards for what God ought to do. God ought to bless the righteous and curse the wicked. Job is cursed. Therefore, according to traditional wisdom, either (a) Job is wicked or (b) God has done Job wrong.

Eager to glorify God, Job’s friends condemn Job. They condemn a righteous man to glorify God within their traditional framework. Their refrain is consistent — the Lord would never strike down the innocent; the Almighty is always right by virtue of unsurpassed power. Job’s cries for justice are therefore doubly misguided.

By comparison, Job knows that he is innocent. He cannot suppress his moral experience. Unlike his friends, Job cannot blame the victim. Even so, Job shares the traditional wisdom of his friends — either Job or God is guilty. Therefore, innocent Job accuses the Lord of wrongdoing and demands an audience with the Almighty. Such boldness is blasphemy in the eyes of Job’s friends yet a moral necessity for Job.

Speaking from the whirlwind, the Lord challenges the traditional wisdom shared by Job and his friends. First, Job must not submit on account of the Lord’s power (Job tries to do so after the Lord’s first speech). The Lord’s power must not obscure the Lord’s wisdom. Second, Job’s traditional standards for divine justice are inadequate to the Leviathan task facing the Lord — the task of overcoming all prideful opposition to the Lord. It would not be best for all concerned if Job, sufficiently empowered, were to govern the universe according to his traditional wisdom.

In response, Job worships the Lord in dust and ashes. Job was slow to glorify God and quick to contend. Yet, in the end, Job has spoken rightly about God. The Lord can easily address Job’s accusations by testing Job’s traditional wisdom. One who seeks the Lord is easily guided.

By comparison, Job’s friends tread righteous Job underfoot in their hurry to glorify God. They cannot recognize righteousness in the flesh because they are in the grips of a theological idol. This theology requires human, rather than divine, sacrifice. As such, they do not know the Lord. Even so, the Lord cares for them. The Lord requires Job, one who hallows his name from the depths, to mediate on the Lord’s behalf.

If we (Christians) worship a self-emptying God through Jesus, then we should expect God’s glory to take on a surprising inglorious form. God is glorified through the obedient death of his son, even death on a cross. Very strange. As such, we should be slow to glorify God.

First, the glory of God must be a moral glory — the glory of God’s holy character and sublime wisdom, not the glory of sheer power. A morally glorious God invites us to contend with the Almighty.

Second, the God we glorify must be the living God rather than a theological idol. This God is found amongst the downtrodden and often unknown to the mighty. This God is no respecter of traditional wisdom, in any era. Expect a profound challenge if you seek the Lord — even a challenge to theology as usual.

Finally, as we hear cries of “Glory to God”, we must ask “At what cost to whom?” If “glorifying God” demands the sacrifice of those for whom the living God cares then we miss the mark. Let us tread carefully here lest we harden our hearts to the purposes and character of the living God.

Image: Flickr (credit: Alexandre Dulaunoy)

Why I post rarely

Why I post rarely

Because, “The private judgment of a Christian man about religious questions of any intricacy is only valuable in proportion, first, to the general competency and training of his mind; and, second, to the special amount of attention he has given to the particular topic.”[1]

The more I read the less I want to say. Also, the more I read the less time I have to write about it.

[1] Peter Taylor Forsyth, Socialism, the Church and the Poor (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1908), 40.

Image: Flickr (credit: Wiertz Sébastien)

John Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift”: notions of grace

John Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift”: notions of grace

This past week I read John Barclay’s wonderful new book Paul and the Gift. Divine grace is central to Christian theology and preaching. Barclay challenged many of my assumptions in a good way. I’d like to sketch his framework for understanding interpretations of grace/gift.

First off, there is no single historic universal notion of “pure gift” or “pure grace”. Instead, notions of gift/grace can be “perfected”—i.e. carried to an extreme—in various independent ways. Here are the six potential perfections that Barclay identifies (quoted from 185-186):

  1. superabundance: the supreme scale, lavishness, or permanence of the gift;
  2. singularity: the attitude of the giver as marked solely and purely by benevolence;
  3. priority: the timing of the gift before the recipient’s initiative;
  4. incongruity: the distribution of the gift without regard to the worth of the recipient;
  5. efficacy: the impact of the gift on the nature or agency of the recipient;
  6. non-circularity: the escape of the gift from an ongoing cycle of reciprocity.

Barclay carefully stresses that these are independent perfections of grace. “To perfect one facet of gift-giving does not imply the perfection of any or all of the others” (75).

For example, just because one thinker perfects the priority of grace, i.e. they require that pure grace entails that the giver initiates the gift, it does not follow that they perfect the efficacy of grace, i.e. they may not believe that the perfect gift need have the perfect effect.

Another example: just because a thinker requires that a gift be given without regard for the worth of the recipient (incongruent), it does not follow that they do not expect those who receive the gift to reciprocate in some way (not-non-circular).

I find this framework very helpful.

First, I can see how theological debates about grace often amount to disagreement about the perfections of grace. For example, Barclay writes, “Augustine did not believe in grace more than Pelagius; he simply believed in it differently” (77). Pelagius taught the superabundance of grace without its incongruity; Augustine required incongruity. Neither party failed to teach grace, broadly construed. (Even Marcion taught a version of grace, namely one that perfected the singularity of grace.)

Second, within this framework the notions of grace that I grew up with turn out to be just that—notions and not essential definitions. I typically understand grace to be undeserved favour (incongruity), a free gift requiring nothing in return (non-circularity), and something given on God’s initiative (priority). Barclay’s framework allows me to read Paul with due caution lest I simply project my notion onto his letters (I have!).

Grace can mean different things to different people. When Paul preaches grace I need to ask myself, “what does he mean by grace?”. This is what Barclay’s book is all about.

Image: Flickr (credit: Serge Melki)

Human value and the cross

Human value and the cross

Randal Rauser critiques the view that we are valuable because Christ died for us. “Rather,” he argues, “Christ died for us because we are valuable.”

Here’s an alternative inspired by PT Forsyth: Christ died for his Father’s sake, for the sake of his holy name.

The first effect of the Cross was neither to acknowledge human value nor to impute value to humans. That is secondary, whichever it is. As such, the great value of Jesus’ death reflects on the value of God’s holy name before it addresses our value as humans. In fact, the cross is a place of judgment upon humanity, a place where our human value is forfeit next to God’s holiness in judgment upon our sin.

I think there are good arguments for human value from the death of Jesus, but a theo-centric interpretation of that event must come first.

A relevant Forsyth passage:

All the reconstruction of belief must begin with the holiness of God. . . . Herein is love, not that we loved who easily forgo propitiation, but that He loved, who so loved as to make His own unsparing propitiation under the conditions of judgment. Herein is love, not as we love, but as He loves who loves His holy name before all His children. His holy name before all His prodigals, and therefore spared not even His only Son. Herein is our salvation as sure and perennial as the holiness for which we are saved. And love is thus sure, because it is the holy foundation of the real, the moral world (255).

Forsyth, Peter Taylor. Positive Preaching and Modern Mind. New York, NY: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1907.

Image: Flickr (credit: ressaure)