Saturday, 27 September 2008

The aseity of God

For some unknown reason it decided to snow today, and so, surprisingly having both sermons for tomorrow (kind of) finished, I decided to light the fire, get a cup of tea, and sit down with some theology. A few weeks ago I was kindly given a book of essays entitled Engaging the Doctrine of God - Contemporary Protestant Perspectives. It was time to have a crack at Webster on the aseity of God.

Aseity is a term which refers to the self-existence of God - God is not contingent on anyone or anything else for his existence. I won't provide you with a detailed walk-through of Webster's argument (mainly because it would require more Latin than I can be bothered putting in italics), but rather paint the general vista. It's still hard work, so get ready!

Asiety, notes Webster, has in recent times been thought of largely as the reverse concept of contingency. We require God in order to exist, but God is the opposite - he requires nothing. Problematically, this methodology not only removes the doxological aspect of this doctrine, it also grounds it cosmologically rather than personally (that is, it becomes a property of a god rather than the God).
Aseity becomes detached from the theological metaphysics of God's immanent and economic love and is reduced to the bare self-positing cause of created reality.(113)

The corrective is to think of aseity trinitarianly, and both immanently (God as he is in and of hismelf) and economically (God as he is towards us). Thus God is, says Webster, 'from himself, and from himself God gives himself'. This is a classic Websterian statement, similar to his articulation of the Trinity in reference to ecclesiology (see Webster's essays in The Community and the Word). Webster then takes these two features (God is from himself, and, from himself God gives himself) and addresses each in turn.

A long quote will suffice to express Webster's first point:

Expressed as relations, God's life a se [from/in himself] includes the Son's relation to the Father as the one whom the Father begets (passive generation) and the relation of the Spirit to the Father and the Son (passive spiration). By these activities and relations, each of the persons of the Trinity is identified, that is, picked out as having a distinct, incommunicable personal property: paternity [the Father], filiation [the Son], spiration [the Spirit]. Together these acts and relations are God's self-existence. Aseity is not merely the quality of being (in contrast to contingent reality) underived; it is the eternal lively plenitude of the Father who begets, the Son who is begotten, and the Spirit who proceeds from both. To speak of God's aseity is thus to speak of the spontaneous, eternal, and unmoved movement of his being-in-relation as Father, Son, and Spirit. This movement, without cause of condition and depending on nothing other than itself, is God's being from himself. In this perfect circle of paternity, filiation, and spiration, God is who he is. (115)
Webster goes on to examine the classical doctrine - that while all three persons are a se in essence, only the person of the Father is a se of himself - the aseity of the Son and the Spirit are from their relation to the Father. Whilst such a move dances with subordinationism, (suggesting that the Son and the Spirit are somehow less-god than the Father) , and has at times resulted in a retreat into monism, Webster articulates why this is not necessarily the case.
[Begotteness is not] a "coming-to-being" as the Father's creature, but a relation which is constitutive of the divine essence and of the identity of the Father as well as of the Son.' (116)

Because the relations between the persons are constitutive of God's being in himself, and because they are eternal, we can speak properly of the Father's alone being a se (in his person). The reason for this is because to do so is not to 'promote' the Father or 'demote' the Son, for the Father cannot be Father without the Son, and the Son cannot be Son without the Father. There is a mutually constitutive relationship (with, of course, the Spirit), which allows us to speak so. But sharp lines cannot be drawn. Here, it feels, we toy with the edges of mystery - for God's one-in-threeness and three-in-oneness are both required to be thought of simultaneously for us to seek to grasp God's being.

In the next major part of his work, Webster turns to consider the second part of his statement - 'from himself God gives himself'. God's perfection of being-in-relation includes the outpouring of his love, which is perfect and complete in itself, towards us. Indeed, Webster goes on to suggest that this outpouring of God's love is part of God's aseity.
In its perfection, it is also a movement of self-gift in which the complete love of Father, Son and Spirit communicates itself ad extra, creating and sustaining a further object of love. (119)

Webster acknowledges that this is not a common theme in the Christian doctrinal tradition, but sees support for it in John 5:26 "As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself." Webster then spends a fair amount of time examining Augustine and Calvin's treatment of this verse. A helpful summary is his statement:
But the life with which God alone lives of himself is the fullness of life which quickens. The form of this life-giving overflow of God's life is the Son. (italics original, 122)

God's life a se is, obviously, that of which God is. But, to state it somewhat crudely, because his life is both a noun (what he is) and a verb (what he does), because God is life he gives life. And it is by the Son, the one eternally generated, that God does that. In sum:
Aseity is not only the absence of external causation but the eternal life which God in and of himself is. It is therefore (following the Gospel's usage) inseity as much as asiety. This life cannot be conceived apart from the mutual relations of Father and Son; its perfection includes the perfect mutuality of the Father's giving of life to the Son, who in his turn has life in himself. No can this be conceive apart from its overflowing plenitude in giving itself to creatures. God's aseity, although it marks God's utter difference from creatures, does not entail his isolation, for what God is and has of himself is life and this life includes a self-willed movement of love. (123)

And if Webster left it there you'd be happy. It is an excellent treatment of a difficult topic, which he addresses carefully, clearly (although you might want to read it a couple of times, with a theological and Latin dictionary handy!), and in a way which allows you to see his grounding in historical theology and the Bible (more the former than the latter, unfortunately). It is a thoroughly trinitarian approach which clearly grounds the doctrine of aseity in the Scriptures and deals with the reality of God's self-revelation in Jesus as the grounds for our knowledge of God. Sure, we might have some questions - the Old Testament has much to say about the nature of God - how does this fit in (or is it relegated to a second place given the 'development' of salvation history and the revelation of God as triune in the incarnation).? Also, given the overflowing of God's being as life to his creation, what is the relationship between creation and reemption? Relatedly, there is no real treatment of the Cross, and the implications of this not only for the aseity of God, but how the cross event itself, and the death of the Son, themselves are the heart of God's live-giving love. But overall, it's a fair treatment.

But Webster doesn't leave it there.
If Christian dogmatics wishes to offer a corrective [to a purely philosophical, or non-trinitarian articulation of God's aseity], it can be only by recalling itself to its proper calling, which is the praise of God by crafting concepts to turn the mind to divine splendour. (123)
Webster quotes an early sermon by Jonathan Edwards, who speaks of the natural man, who may have great apprehension of God's attributes, but very little love for him. As Edwards says 'the knowledge of a thing is not in proportion to the extensiveness of our notions, or number of circumstances known, only; but it consists chiefly in the intensiveness of the idea'.

And that is what makes Webster an evangelical theologian. The end of theology is not to be able to write Latin, or quote Augustine or John of Damascus, but to love God and glorify him. And that is what Webster wants us to come away with. The aim of theology is doxological - to rejoice in the glory of God who though perfect in himself and wanting nothing, creates and loves and redeems at an incalculable cost to himself people like us. The aseity of God shows us the distance which is travelled at the cross, and grounds God's love for us and his salvation of us in God's very own being. Theology lifts our hearts for it slows our minds to ponder the depths of the beauty of God in Christ.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Answer the right questions

I preached on Sunday night at a friend's church, and was approached afterwards by a woman who wished to talk about my sermon, and sermons in general. I had just preached on Joshua 14 (Caleb's request to receive his inheritance), and had had as an additional reading Numbers 13. Her concern was that I didn't address who the Nephilim were (Num 13:33). My answer to her was that it wasn't in my passage, it was a contested point amongst scholars, and that spending time discussing a detail which didn't add anything to the meaning of the passage (the point being that the 10 spies were scared of the big guys who lived in the land) wouldn't have been helpful to people.

Her suggestion back was that people don't come to church because we don't make the Bible interesting. People want to hear, it was suggested to me, about the Nephilim. About the interesting things in the Bible. About the details. Those are the questions people have, and the don't come to church because those questions aren't answered.

Don't get me wrong, she was a Christian woman who loves Jesus and wants to see people come to salvation. But at this point I think she is mistaken, although she is not alone. Of course we make our sermons interesting. And of course we deal with the details of the text (when those details actually add to the point of the text). But we do that so that we might answer the questions that the Bible poses, not the questions that people bring with them. For the questions that the Bible poses are the big questions. They're questions which most people, at some time in their lives, ask of themselves. Why am I here. What happens when I die. What's the point. But because they don't have the answers, people don't often admit that they ask those questions. They relegate them to the back-blocks of their minds. Our job is to show how God answers those questions. Interestingly. Through the details. But from the whole counsel of Scripture.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Doctrinal truth

The new edition of themelios is out (read it here), and Trueman has an excellent editorial on Machen's Christianity and Liberalism.

Indeed, one overarching concern in Christianity and Liberalism is simply the vital importance of Christian doctrine to the church: doctrine, he makes clear, is the very heart of Christian testimony. Claiming to honor the Bible without synthesizing the Bible’s teaching into doctrine, into systematic theology, is not really honoring the Bible at all, for the Bible teaches truth, truth which is coherent and can be articulated; and regarding with indifference those things which the Bible clearly sees as important is, in some sense, the worst sin of all.

It's been a long while since I read Christianity and Liberalism (although Trueman has encouraged me to go back to it), and so I can't remember whether Machen develops the point that one of the important aspects of doctrinal formulation is that it states negatives as well as positives. In systematising and articulating the Bible, the theologian articulates what the truth is, but also, by necessity, articulates what is not true. Not the most popular idea to offer up at this time, but a true one, nonetheless.

From the mouths of babes...

Yesterday our new Bishop, Victoria came to visit. Along with all fathers of preschoolers, you're a bit worried about what the little ones will say when they meet important guests. Given that meter-readers on our doorstep have been invited by Liam to come and see his room, we had to have a few words before she arrived.

All was going well - tea and coffee were offered and accepted, and Liam decides he'd like a hot chocolate and so wanders into the kitchen. And then he gets his first proper look at Bishop Victoria.

"Hey! You're wearing a cross" declares the boy. "Jesus died for me on the cross!"

Gold. Solid Gold.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Moral guidance

Packer on an often underestimated aspect of God's work in our lives:

The bottom line, then, is that there are moral conditions of spiritual discernment. We shall not achieve clarity about God's will for us, either through the clamor of well-meant advisors or through the working of our own thoughtful hearts in times of quiet withdrawal, unless our hearts are set first and foremost on following, obeying, and pleasing the Father and the Son. Basic to true wisdom is an unending quest for holiness - purity of heart and perfection of love to God and men. The writer to the Hebrews warns us that without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14), and we are saying that without holiness no one, however well advised and faithfully admonished, will adequately discern the will of God at any point in his or her life. Holiness, which is fundamental to prudence, must always come first.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Teaching Mark 9:42-50 to kids

This morning I was reading Mark 10:42 ff with the kids. Needless to say Jesus' words provoked some questions:

43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. [...] 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. [...] 46
47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell,

One 'explanation' from Ben was that if you cut your hand off then all the sin would 'drop' out of you. Hmmm...Then I had to try and steer the conversation away from the technicalities of how you would actually gouge your eye out.

But, I learnt or was reminded of two lessons:
i. the absoulte horror of sin. While, no doubt, Jesus is speaking hyperbolically (although Origen for one took things more literally), his words graphically capture the seriousness of sin. This is something I think we - speaking as a modern Christian - have lost. Perhaps we gloss over the seriousness of sin, perhaps we cheapen grace...perhaps worst of all the enormity of the cross and just what Jesus had to go through to bear the punishment for our sin has faded form our view. Whatever, we would do well to let these verses remind us just what is at stake.

ii. it is good to read systemtaically through the Bible with our kids - difficult verses can throw up some good conversations. And even if they don't grasp exactly what is being taught - at the very least the impression they get is that the Bible is an interesting book. A book that talks about gouging your eyes out is not boring!

Some more on Machen...

Apparently Machen had some idiosyncracies when he was lecturing. So, he used to read the newspaper while his students parsed Greek verbs out loud – and he would correct them and keep on reading.

Victorian abortion

There is an excellent piece from David Ould on the Victorian abortion bill. Read it here. Ouldy is one of the more insightful (and, occasionally, inciting) writers I know, and he often gets to the heart of an issue.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Cranmer's church

I've been chipping away at a little book on Cranmer by Bromiley. There are some excellent chapters on the bishop's thoughts on justification, scripture, the church, etc. Given some of the contemporary Anglican discussions on ecclesiology and 'communion', the following is telling:

It is the church that "concerning the faith containeth itself within God's word, not that deviseth daily new articles contrary to God's word: the church, by the true interpretation of scripture and good example gathererth people unto Christ, not that by wrasting of the scripture and evil example of corrupt living draweth them away from Christ"

Some points
  • the church deliberately contains itself within God's word - there is an active submission to the Scriptures;
  • the aim of the church is to gather people Christ;
  • this is done through true interpretation of the scriptures, AND the good example of those within the church.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Alternatives to Typing

Given that I will be spending a lot of time reading and taking notes from books I thought it would be worth looking into some ways of speeding up the process. In the last week I have looked at speech recognition and pen scanners.

I tried speech recognition first. Windows Vista has its own built in speech recognition software. You take a twenty minute tutorial that trains it in how you speak and then you are ready for action. Now, admittedly I didn’t have a fancy microphone and my accent is somewhat ‘mixed’ shall we say (!), but this is what it came up with for the quote below:

When we come to seem that it was no mere man who suffered on our own little more than one these are more than warrants operation to help the society then all were Rivers up, and the has smiled up on the battlefields of history

You can see that that would need almost as much work to tidy up as typing the whole thing in the first place. That said – it is free and probably if I spoke properly and had a better microphone I could improve the hit-rate.

I then – on the basis of some on-line reviews – decided to buy a pen scanner. I settled on the C-Pen 20 Scanner which costs around £100 – not cheap at all. When it arrived it came with a hard-wired exit cable to insert into your computer. The problem was it didn’t fit my computer. Further, PC World did not have an adapter for it to USB. Upon some investigation I found it was a USB ‘A’ mini. I spent around 4 hours looking for a converter that will convert USB "A" Male to USB "Mini A", 5 Pin, Female. As far as I can tell it does not exist. Talk about frustration. I then happened to look inside the box that it came in...and there was my converter! That’s right folks four hours of my life gone for no reason whatsoever! Think of all the text I could have been typing in that four hours....

So, anyway, when I plugged it in I scanned the quote below and this is what came out:

When we come to see that it wa^as no mere man who suffered on Calvary but the Lord of Glory, then we shall be willing to say that one drop of the precious blood of Jesus is ofmore value, for our own salvation and the hope of society,than all the rivers of blood that have flowed upon the battlefields of history.”

Which, as you can see, is much better than the speech software.

So, in conclusion – the scanner seems to be the way to go if you can afford it, but it may be worth giving the SRS a better go – or trying Dragon Dictate which is meant to be much better (but seemingly not much cheaper than a scanner).

Whatever you go for - make sure you check the box!

Another Machen quote

When we come to see that it was no mere man who suffered on Calvary but the Lord of Glory, then we shall be willing to say that one drop of the precious blood of Jesus is of more value, for our own salvation and the hope of society, than all the rivers of blood that have flowed upon the battlefields of history.”

J Gresham Machen II

Am interesting (to me at least!) fact and a helpful quote:

Machen studied under Wilhelm Herrmann in Marburg in Germany. Herrmann had two other famous students – Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann.

‘What Machen was searching for was neither an intellectualism devoid of faith nor a faith devoid of intellectual merit. Nor was he after either a rigorous scholarship without piety or a vital piety without roots in scholarship. He longed for piety and intellect fused into one, an intellectually informed and compelling faith.'

Saturday, 13 September 2008

J. Gresham Machen

I have been reading Stephen Nichols’ biography of J Gresham Machen. Machen was a NT scholar at the beginning of the last Century. He was tremendously influential in the Presbyterian church in the US and ended up founding Westminster Seminary after concluding that Princeton had irreversibly moved beyond orthodoxy.
Over the next few days I’ll post a few snippets from the book. For starters, it is obvious where Machen got his love of learning. Nichols points out that ‘often read the classics in the original Greek as a means to relax in the evenings’.
Unfortunately I don’t have borrowing rights for the University Library yet otherwise I could curl up this evening with a copy of Herodotus. I guess I will have to watch TV instead...

Durham Impressions II

Durham has a long and dignified history of NT scholars which added to my surprise that the theological section of the library is seemingly so sparse. Perhaps I have not discovered all the resources, but it certainly seems much smaller than Moore’s. For example, the journals seemed very thin on the ground - there is no JETS, WTJ or Duke Review. In books there was nothing by Vos and only a couple by John Murray. I realise I was looking for the more Reformed evangelical stuff (though Duke would not fall into that category) but still I was surprised at what wasn’t there.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

PhD First Impressions

I met with my supervisor yesterday for the first time, and so even though I don’t officially start until October , I feel like I am getting down to some serious work. One of the key things that was stressed was the need for some serious German work. It is important to be able to read recent German commentaries which may not be translated into English for a number of years. To that end, we will have a weekly (or so) reading group where we will look at a German theological text. I have done a bit of work, but feel this is going to be a painful process....

I have also been assigned to read two books for next week by the German NT scholar Albert Schweitzer: Paul and His Interpreters and The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. Thankfully, these books are available in English! So, my first day has been spent ploughing through 250 pages of the first volume. In many ways, this is a summary of German NT scholarship up to around 1910. At the same time, Schweitzer poses and tries to answer his own questions . For him, the key issue for Paul is why his teaching is different (apparently) to that of Jesus, and why in fact Paul refers so infrequently to that of Jesus. His answer is simply:

It is as though [Paul] held that between the present world-period and that in which Jesus lived and taught there exists no link of connexion, and was convinced that since the death and resurrection of the Lord conditions were present which were so wholly new that they made His teaching inapplicable, and rendered a new basis for ethics and a deeper knowledge respecting His death and resurrection.

There are obviously huge problems with this fact there are obvious problems with the question! Are the teaching of Jesus and the Apostle Paul really so radically different? Did not the other apostles recognise that what Paul taught was identical to what they taught (Gal 2:7-9)?
However, Schweitzer does make some observations that we can use to help us to probe more deeply into Paul. How do we account for the differences between the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul? Is it merely that they are different genres or is something more going on? How did Paul think about Jesus on earth and in his exalted state – what kind of connection is there? These are questions I may spend the next little while looking at...

Durham First Impressions

As Dave noted, we have indeed been busy settling into Durham. Thankfully, we are starting to find our feet and beginning to feel at home here.
Durham is a small town in the North East of England. It feels a bit like Oxford and Cambridge in that the University really is woven into the fabric of the town. It is also an ancient town. Emma and I walked over a bridge that was about 900 years old the other week.
Typical of the North of England, people are generally very friendly and will chat to you on the street – very different to London – especially on the Tube. Our transition has been helped by meeting people (and rekindling old friendships) at our new church – Christ Church Durham. The church has a high proportion of PhD students – most of whom seem to be from the States and looking at some aspect of Pauline theology. So, lots of fun conversations of morning tea for everyone!

When I get more organised, I will try and post some photos and more info.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

A quick catchup

The more observant among you will have noticed that things have been a little silent here for a while. Life has been busy for both of us, so a little background and summary should bring all up to date, and then, hopefully, slightly more regular blogging can commence.

I'm in the middle of a six week series on Joshua, which I'm preaching at St Stephens church in Shirley, Christchurch. A dear friend, Jay Behan, is vicar there, and it is an absolute joy to go in week after week and hear of his faithful, and see his fruitful, ministry. However, it has been time consuming, and so, if you are a person who regularly writes and preaches two (or more!) sermons each week - I tip my hat to you.

We've also had a number of visitors with us - Geoff and Liz Robson, and presently Emma Poulsom. Geoff is the assistant minister at St Andrew's Wahroonga, and Em is at Naremburn-Cammeray. Both are doing well, and it has been wonderful for both Amanda and I to have friends with us, to be able to talk and laugh about the joys and trials of ministry.

I've also been away - a few days in Sydney with the Ministry Training and Development people (that's the Sydney diocese's post-ordination training). Again, it was a wonderful time of sitting under the word, being provoked to careful and biblical thought about ministry and evangelism, and being encouraged by brothers to keep on preaching the word, loving your people, and seeking the glory of God in the face of Christ. After that there were a few days at the annual synod of the diocese of Christchurch. And it's very good to be back in Methven.

As for the Orrsome one - I presume he's moving into Durham, getting settled, and trying to sort out a publisher for his PhD.

The busy-ness of the past few weeks (and, unfortunately, there is more to come this week) has forced me again and again to rely on God's strength, to seek him constantly in prayer, and to thank him for his sustaining and providential power. I have to say that I have known no greater joy than, even in a state of utter exhaustion, to come to him in prayer, trusting that he is at work in his world, that he is faithful, and that he is pleased to use weak and frail instruments in his service.