Friday, 16 May 2008

Christologia - Chapter 2. Opposition to the Church

It’s been a while since Owen has featured – on the blog that is – Cam and I are still drinking and reading the great one – but the blogging is a little behind. That said, I’ll try and fill you in on chapter two (although it will involve some skim reading on my part (of Owen) and that’s never a good thing).

Building on the foundation he set of Peter’s confession of Christ, and Jesus’ words to Peter, Owen addresses part of those words – that is, that the ‘power and policy of hell’ will be ever raging against the church built on the person, office and grace of the Lord Jesus. He identifies that in both rage and subtlety, Satan uses two agents in his attacks – the unbelieving world (from outside the church) and heresies (from within).

Starting with the attacks from outside, Owen rightly sees that Jesus himself was victim to these – first in his temptation, then in his crucifixion. And, as the master, so too the servants: ‘And he hath assured his followers that such, and no other (at least for the most part) shall be their lot in this world.’ And yet in these attacks Satan cements his own undoing. First and most obviously in the cross, but also I would add, in the strengthening of our faith in the one who has overcome the evil one.

The early church was also victim to these outwards attacks – first from their Jewish countrymen – then from the Roman Empire. And I’m sure had Owen been writing now he would have listed page upon page of the atrocities committed against our brothers and sisters. But he isn’t, and instead turns to the other attacks – ‘by pernicious errors and heresies.’ Here we get an overview of many of the heresies of the first four centuries, and Owen helpful compartmentalises them. There were attacks which introduced other doctrines and ‘notions of divine things’ – gospel plus heresies if you will. Other attacks focused specifically on the denial of the divine nature – upon Jesus not being pre-existent (Ebionism) upon him being a lesser divine being (Arianism), upon his human nature being questioned (Docetism). Lastly, Owen sees that there were attacks upon the hypostatic union (that Jesus was one person with two natures) – most notably says Owen was Nestorianism.

And then, like all good theologians, Owen takes the lessons of the past and recognises that there are present situations where these same issues are coming to a head. He lists a number:

  1. He identifies the attacks the Socinians make on the divine nature of Jesus.
  2. Owen also sees that many around him ‘expressly deny not his divine person, yet seem to grow weary of any concernment therein’. That is, people are happy to be spiritual, to be religious, but to do so without any recourse to Jesus himself. They are, suggests Owen, implicitly denying the divine nature of Jesus, and therefore the foundation of true religion.
  3. Some prefer reason, and say that ‘the common notions of Divine Being and goodness will guide men sufficiently unto eternal blessedness’. It’s a Mick Dundee ‘Me and God – we’re mates’ approach.
  4. Some (and here I struggle to understand Owen) it appears, ‘have so ordered the frame of objective religion, as that it is very uncertain whether they leave any place for the person of Christ in it or no.’ I think what he means is that some have their theological systems – their ways of relating to God and knowing him – so sown up, that the personal mediatorial work of Christ is redundant.
  5. Others so focus on the religiosity of religion – on the form and outwards trappings – and on the discipline of personal holiness – that Jesus is effectively unnecessary. The only place Christ has in this pattern is as an example of how to be good.
  6. Owen also sees that people are encouraged in their displacement of Christ. Writers suggest alternative schemes of religion, those who protest and assert the centrality of Jesus are mocked, and love for Christ ‘is traduced as a mere fancy and vapour of distempered minds or weak imaginations.’ The idea of ‘preaching Chris is become a term of reproach and contempt.’
  7. Lastly, Owen recognises that the cause, or ‘that which all these things tend unto and centre in, is that horrible profaneness of life – that neglect of all Gospel duties – that contempt of all spiritual graces and their effects…’ That is, people’s doctrine is screwed up because their lives are screwed up. Doctrine often follows practice. People want to live or behave a certain way, and soon their theology is used to justify it.

And of course, we would have to be blind to not see the similarities with our time. And not because we are reading ourselves into history, but because Satan is doing what Jesus promised he would do – raging against God’s church. What denomination doesn’t have someone in an established position who would deny the divinity of Jesus? What church doesn’t have a member who thinks that we should just follow Jesus example and love each other? Who hasn’t spoken to a neighbour or friend or family member and heard a self-justifying – ‘I do my best – I don’t need Jesus – God loves a try-er.’ God’s church is still attacked – Satan is still throwing himself against her gates.

Owen’s purpose is not only to bolster us as we stand firm on Christ, but also to equip those who ‘declare and represent [Christ] unto men in the office of the ministry’. His concern is theological, and therefore necessarily pastoral – so that ministers might stop people from wandering away from Jesus in the face of these attacks. The way he will do that is to set forth ‘some few things concerning the person of Christ’ (sure, if by ‘some few things’ you mean 400 pages!). Owen states three things before he does this: First, he recognises that he might go about things in a way different to how others might address the topic. Second, the topic he is about to embark upon is unsearchable – he makes no attempt to understand the person and work of Christ perfectly. ‘Only I shall endeavour to represent unto the faith of them that do believe, somewhat of what the Scripture doth plainly reveal – evidencing in what sense the person of Christ is the sole foundation of the church.’ Lastly, he is not going to attack the people who attack the church in the ways he has set forth (he’s done that elsewhere). Rather, he is going to attack their conviction – he’s playing the ball, not the man.

Owen’s point in this chapter has been to set out the truth of Jesus’ words to Peter. Satan has, is, and always will attack the church. But our comfort and hope comes from the rest of Jesus’ words. The church is built upon Him. The living Lamb is our foundation, the conqueror of death is the one upon whom our faith is built, and therefore we do not need to fear. And as we travel with Owen to see the glory of Christ, may we be strengthened in our faith, and equipped in our ministry to proclaim Jesus as the only ground of true religion – the only basis for confidence before the face of God.

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