Fear & Wonder

There is obviously a boundary on human knowledge. The finitude of our being requires a boundary on what we can understand, or boundaries. That boundary is a very important one.

We can, for instance, understand God, but not altogether. We can apprehend God truly, but we never comprehend—to use an old expression. We speak things about God that are true, but we place on him no definition; in fact, we understand him to be altogether unbounded. God is without temporal boundaries, God is without spatial boundaries, God is without ontological boundaries—he is infinite in his being, he is absolute being and the ground of being, nothing exists which does not participate in his being, deriving from him that which it is.

All that is not-God has boundaries. Even the universe, which seems from our perspective infinite, is only a gesture of true infinity; it has its bounds. The category of that which is limited is creation, since all that is not-God is created. God makes boundaries, and limited beings are creatures to whom he says: thus far and no further.

God makes limited things. He puts boundaries on real objects, and these exist because they participate in something of God but not everything. The limits that creatures have also mark the boundaries that represent potential. It is only when you have limits that you have potential, and this is also why we affirm that God is pure actuality.

God is pure actuality because there is no perfection God is lacking. There are many perfections we lack. All creation is a lack of the kind of perfection God enjoys, though it is nevertheless good. Everything in its own way manifests something of God by participating in a limited way in God, and in that way it manifests something about him, and that is its good.

There are things that go beyond our understanding, and God is the chief one because he goes beyond in every way. There is a place at which our limits make the understanding we can have of something fade from our cognitive grasp.

What I am really concerned with here is the manner of that fading. There is a fading of fear, of something that is overwhelmingly terrible, amazingly so and beyond our comprehension. We sense there is more of the awfulness we are aware of existing in ways we cannot comprehend. But there are things that also fade out as they transcend our comprehension that beckon, not with dread, but with desire and amazement. This is wonder.

And it is God who excites both.


Something Up Above Was Calling Him Imperiously

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!’ and also ‘Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

The Wind in the Willows

Confessional Observations

Reading the Belgic Confession again I’m reminded of how odd it seemed to me the first time that it should not only contain affirmations, but as many denials. I was baffled by the denial of Epicureans in the article on providence. Why were they all that concerned about Epicureans?

Can it be Guido de Bres just had to thrust some classical allusions into it? Knowing a bit more about the situation this time around, I wonder if it doesn’t mean instead that this is an embattled confession, that the situation in the low countries was one in which there were so many errors both high and low that a confession had to contain the many denials that it did.

It makes me think of the present situation. There is a lot of softness in what ought to be more firm, and when it is pointed out that things are soft, expect the pointer-out to become embattled.

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It is an interesting study, what a confession contains. Have you ever tried it? You can get four volumes of them all in English and with brief introductions. It wouldn’t be a bad way to structure a class on the Reformation. The theological issues being dealt with would be foregrounded in the texts.

What mattered to them? What did they use to draw boundaries? What ordering principle appears to apply? Once you start looking at them, differences stand out, and inquiring about these is fruitful.

It would even be an interesting Sunday school series if done properly. You’d want to explain the background of the confession and then talk about its more salient characteristics, and obviously make sure you select which ones you did so as not to be too repetitive.

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Consensus Tigurinus (Bullinger along with a concessive Calvin):

When it is said that Christ, by our eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood, which are here figured, feeds our souls through faith by the agency of the Holy Spirit, we are not to understand it as if any mingling or transfusion of substance took place, but that we draw life from the flesh once offered in sacrifice and the blood shed in expiation.

Scots Confession (Knox, missing a Lutheran view by not a whole lot):

Notwithstanding the distance between his glorified body in heaven and mortal men on earth, yet we must assuredly believe that the bread which we break is the communion of Christ’s body and the cup which we bless the communion of his blood. Thus we confess and believe without doubt that the faithful, in the right use of the Lord’s Table, do so eat the body and drink the blood of the Lord Jesus that he remains in them and they in him; they are so made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone that as the eternal Godhood has given to the flesh of Christ Jesus, which by nature was corruptible and mortal, life and immortality, so the eating and drinking of the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus does the like for us.

Belgic Confession (Guido channeling Calvin):

He did this to testify to us that just as truly as we take and hold the sacrament in our hands and eat and drink it with our mouths, by which our life is then sustained, so truly we receive into our souls, for our spiritual life, the true body and true blood of Christ, our only Savior. We receive these by faith, which is the hand and mouth of our souls.


A Suitable Block

Scripture is not a book of philosophy, and because of this it does not explicitly provide an epistemology or an ontology. It does not do what philosophy does for us. But Scripture is not ignorant of such things, and does assume the truth. Because it is infallible, it does not contradict accurate philosophy. It does more, it provides parameters within which correct philosophical insights can be tested for compatibility.

Origen, the Bible man of his day, understood that. He understood as Clement of Alexandria did that a coherent and orderly faith would not be coherent and orderly according to private criteria for coherence and orderliness, but according to public and universally acknowledged criteria of coherence and orderliness because these were grounded in the being of God and manifested in creation.

(Behind all of this is a pervasive intellectualism that is the Christian Platonism of what Craig Carter calls the great tradition.)

Ancient philosophy, to put it into an illustration, provided a block of marble. It provided several blocks of useful stone, but the best for carving the Christian masterpiece was the perennial philosophy of Plato. The Christian masterpiece of metaphysics came from that quarry.

What Origen did was to understand how to begin sculpting that marble, roughing out the basic shape. He knew because Scripture provided parameters for what needed to be accomplished, as it were. He had from Scripture an idea of where the project was headed, and as a result criteria for the kind of material required. What Origen understood, was then taken up by a Christian world pervaded by his influence, and so wonderfully integrated as Christianity developed, that it eventually repudiated even some of its sources.

Heat Waves of the Unexamined Life

Wonderful are the words of T.S. Eliot. He can be read for nourishment. His works are familiar, and yet they are as strange as the green sparks of the ligtning-bugs ascending from the grass. Spend an evening watching those, and another one perusing Eliot.

* * *
Argentina’s manager looked like such a sleazeball. I am convinced he is the reason they crashed and burned. What an agonizing World Cup for Argentina.

As a Uruguayan, I enjoy it. What a great day of soccer this day was!

* * *
I think I’m getting a handle on Van Til. It is frustrating because I don’t really want to spend time grubbing around in all that stuff. It really is apologetics for people who have no working knowledge of ancient philosophy. But what I’m appreciating is the mistaken assumptions they smuggle in unexamined. The Lord is stretching me. I just got through one of the worst troughs of stress yet. My mom enjoyed one of the sentences the whole things provoked. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

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It results in a guilty pleasure for me: putting the loathsome AP and wonky ST down to refresh myself with my true discipline, CH! I’m giving myself the luxury of putting together a series of lectures on the major confessions of the Reformation. This I record and dispatch to Colombia, where they are posted.

Reading Confessions

William Farel wrote a summary of Christian belief in 1529. He has got to be one of the most adventurous reformers. If memory serves, his rural activities included pamphleteering and iconoclasm, he escaped from jail in his 70s, and was also married to a 16-year-old girl at 69. A life of Farel unmitigated by the hagiographical impulse that mars so many protestant biographical endeavors would be so much more interesting than a life of Calvin! Perhaps because he was more concerned with the active than the contemplative, one of the interesting missing features of Farel’s summary is any explicit statement of the doctrine of the Trinity.

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Overlooked in the Diet of Augsburg, Zwingli nevertheless sent Charles V an account of the faith known as the Fidei Ratio. He speaks at length of his views on the supper in the eighth article. It is not a bad place to go for Zwingli’s considered views on that controversial topic. From Dennison’s translation:

I believe that in the holy Eucharist, i.e., the supper of thanksgiving, the true body of Christ is present by contemplation of faith. This means that they who thank the Lord for the benefits bestowed on us in His Son acknowledge that He assumed true flesh, in it truly suffered, truly washed away our sins by His blood; and thus everything done by Christ becomes as it were  present to them by the contemplation of faith. . . . As the body cannot be nourished by a spiritual substance, so the soul cannot be nourished by a corporeal substance.

And from his Fidei Expositio from a year later (1531), the year he was slain on the battlefield by he-who-must-not-be-named, same translator:

 . . . that the natural, material body of Christ’s, in which he suffered here and now sits in heaven at the right hand of the Father, is not eaten literally and in its essence, but only spiritually, in the Lord’s Supper. . . . the sacraments bring increase and support to faith, and this the Eucharist does above all others.”

How Words Are Employed

As I study the WTS ideology I find the irritation of terminology which need not be morally freighted and still nevertheless is.

Platonism, for example, whatever truth from it is grudgingly accepted has to be on the whole rejected because it can’t really be true since it comes from Plato. And so the term Platonism is not used simply as a descriptor of an epistemologically oriented philosophy which Plato elaborates in his dialogues and many subsequently refined but retain, but rather as an opprobrious term.

Dualism is used the same way. I notice that if you need to distinguish two things the term dichotomy tends to prevail. Is it the –ism ending? I hear it often from Presbyterians: beware of –isms. And I think: Presbyterianism! An –ism does not have to have moral connotations. Baptism, for example. In Spanish Christianity is an –ism, and it is fine. A dualism is wrong when it is inaccurate, but it does not therefore follow that all observable dualisms are inaccurate, or that the category is not useful for more than dismissals merely.

Some of the telling antonyms they use with moral overtones are the terms abstract and concrete. As if there were no moments when abstractions would be useful! The concept of person, or hypostasis, or of subsisting relations—to be precise—is necessarily and deliberately abstract. The idea is that an abstraction carries little meaning of itself and so has to derive its meaning in context, or, to put it more plainly, in relationship. There are incorrect abstractions, of course, but there is a lot of good to be done with abstract thinking. The difference between the reasoning going on in the book of Job and that which necessarily goes on in the formulation of Nicene Trinitarian orthodoxy in the fourth century is that the first is done by pre-speculative thinking and the second by speculative thought, which harnesses the power of abstract thinking. Concrete is not necessarily better—for heaven’s sake!—but definitely has its place. The Romans gave us concrete, you know. And it was Nominalism which gave an unreality to the metaphysical that made possible the prejudice expressed when abstract is to be avoided and concrete to be preferred. I think it is an Idealist’s Nominalist conscience being sensitive.

It is the same with objective and subjective. These are categories that have their place: there are objects of knowledge, but they are not objective because knowledge is personal and participatory. Knowledge reposes in subjects. When we take the categories as more than descriptors, when we evaluate them in terms other than correct usage of the adjective, they get moral overtones: objective = good; subjective = bad; or, objective = to be preferred because reliable; subjective = to be avoided because unreliable. This is hocus-pocus. It is mystifying and misleading. And I still object to it in the strongest possible terms.