Prayer and Theology

We are to come to the Lord with our requests—among other things—but we are to come to the Lord. That is, we do not approach one whom we do not know, are not trying to know better, and who is not worthy. In fact, decency requires that we endeavor to understand him whom we approach with these requests, and reverence demands that we do it to the best of our abilities.

The result ought to be that when we approach the Lord, we not only bring our requests but also our theology. Here can be found the dynamic element in prayer. We tend to think the dynamic element in prayer is found in God. But God never changes. This is not to say that God does not hear and respond to our prayer, but it is to point out that we ought to expect prayer to be dynamic not outside of ourselves only (in a change to a circumstance or situation we have in mind). We ought to expect prayer to change us.

God never changes. This is good theology: he is immutable. How does that influence our prayers? It points out that the one who needs to change is not God. Is God ill-disposed toward us? Is the circumstance we are undergoing unforeseen? Has he run out of ideas and is he looking for some suggestions from us about what to do? God has all the options, all the power, all the wisdom and insight, and he goes so far as to understand the end of the story of which that situation is merely a part. It cannot be said of us that any of this is true.

I have often thought of God as capricious, or intolerant, ill-tempered or irrational. All these are idols and a comment on the state of my heart more than a comment on anything external, let alone anything real. These attitudes and ideas do not reflect reality, and the only thing they affect is me. When God says he is a jealous God, we ought not to think that he is such a being as is affected by the passion of jealousy, that it suddenly overtakes him influencing his behavior so that better thing that he might otherwise have done are eclipsed. This is to approach God without good theology, as if he were a mutable God, or more precisely, a passible rather than an impassible God. This kind of theology discourages prayer.

It is counterintuitive to say the opposite: God’s impassibility encourages prayer. The truth is, however, that a God who does not change is a God who is not like us, and that, after all, is a compelling reason to pray to him. What would God change toward if he were subject to change? One who is omnipotent cannot become more powerful, the only direction of change would be toward less power. Praying with the expectation that God will diminish in power is not really prayer. One who is perfectly good could only become imperfectly good, and that is not what we ought to desire. We do not want to have a God who changes. Impassibility is a part of God’s immutability. God is not affected by things, he does not change his affections, which means he does not have emotions. He does not go from a state of happiness and good-will to one of anger and ill-temper. He is not subject to passions.

Were he to be subject to passions, he could be surprised. God’s omniscience excludes divine surprise. God cannot be surprised. God cannot be informed of our situation either. He cannot be reminded of how it is for us: he knows that already. And what is more, he cannot be persuaded by us to do something less than what he has purposed. What God has purposed is perfect. It is just, it is right, it is good: it is what should be done, and it is what we should want.

And there is that dynamic element: what we want. One of the things prayer does for us is to reconcile us to our situation. It does that if we come to the Lord with adoration, acknowledging that he is impassible and good and wise and that all things are done according to the council of his will. Prayer reconciles us to our situation when we come with thanks, thanking God for not being capricious, for never making a mistake, for always doing what is best, for having foreseen not just more than we can foresee, but for having foreseen because he has foreordained all things.  Prayer reconciles us to our situation when we confess our own faults, our idolatries and evil desires. When we come to God with our requests and our theology, we may find our requests modified, but what we can be sure never will be modified is God himself. And as we draw near to him, he draws near to us, and works in our hearts, and fits us for his plans, rather than fitting himself, or his plans to us. And that is the answer to the great request.

The Qualities of the Glorified Body

Since the blessed soul, owing to its union with the first principle of all things, will be raised to the pinnacle of nobility and power, it will communicate substantial existence in the most perfect degree to the body that has been joined to it by divine action. And thus, holding the body completely under its sway, the soul will render the body subtle and spiritual. The soul will also bestow on the body a most, noble quality, namely, the radiant beauty of clarity. Further, because of the influence emanating from the soul, the body’s stability will not be subject to alteration by any cause; which means that the body will be impassible. Lastly, since the body will be wholly submissive to the soul, as a tool is to him who plies it, it will be endowed with agility. Hence the properties of the bodies belonging to the blessed will be these four: subtlety, clarity, impassibility, and agility.

This is the sense of the Apostle’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:42 ff.: In death the body “is sown in corruption, it shall rise in incorruption;” this refers to impassibility. “It is sown in dishonor, it shall rise in glory;” this refers to clarity. “It is sown in weakness, it shall rise in power,” and hence will have agility. “It is sown a natural body, it shall rise a spiritual body;” in other words, it will be endowed with subtlety.

Aquinas, Compendium Theologiae, 168.

God in the 21st Century Pastiche

The Academy does important things, right? Of course, the people involved are smart people, after all, and they are paid well, and travel and earn their TV-watching time. It’s like the Gospel Coalition. Good things are done: they’re good people. I do not lament the more humane endeavor of classic theism that once took place. I come to bury it, not to praise it. Scholasticism is past, so says von Balthasar, and he is an honorable man. So say Rahner and Barth and Pannenberg, and they are all of them honorable men. Have we not seem them honored? Classic theism cannot have been based on truth we today can acknowledge. How can it, coming in the darkness before Hegel? How can it, distinguishing that which must be conflated? It is not chastened in its thinking, and what has more need of chastity than reason? Reason, after all, is fallen, depraved, promiscuous. Intelligent people can no longer believe reason is innocent, we are no longer so naive. And this is stated by intelligent men, all learned men, with degrees earned and honorary; who can dispute this? Do their writings not bear the mark? If the prose is clear, the ideas are clearly contradictory, and therefore difficult and sublime. If the prose is not clear, then it bears a deep imponderability to lesser minds, a straining of language beyond recognition for the sake at grasping what is beyond reach. They trade in asymmetry, paradox and other such eruditions. It makes for a fecundity of secondary literature, and what could be more vital?

They say that scholasticism must be left behind, that when we confess one holy, catholic and apostolic church we no longer mean as we used to mean, and so it is. It is clear to us where Aquinas stands on this or that: even on difficult issues. Is this not the sign of a weak mind? And what immodesty in men such as Anselm, believing he could be right or think his way through a difficulty without consulting Kant. Let us be charitable however, there was a kind of groping Christianity before Hegel, it is just that it had not come out of the womb. But we cannot go back to the womb, we can no longer be nourished directly, we must stand free and independent of that which enveloped and nourished us while we were yet unborn. It is time to try eating sawdust and concrete, grown-up food, not lesser and more comforting pabulum. Time to drink something modern (petroleum, for instance, which was never even refined in the unenlightened past). Time to put a chip in our heads to do our thinking, so bypassing any taint of original sin.

Thank God for the academy of today! And especially today, for if worse times lie ahead the guys we have to read will no longer be read. That is why it is urgent that we read them, praise them, grapple with them, expound them, remain intoxicated and perpetuate the illusion. Otherwise they would be relegated to the insignificance they naturally deserve and people would sample modern Christianity through that which is more congenial and satisfying: C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tozer, and others of such obvious universal Christianity and perennial philosophy.

A Church Historian and a Baptist

I had a startling question a month or so ago from someone: What did Athanasius have that Origen lacked and which permitted Athanasius to recover the apostolic doctrine of the Trinity?

That is one nicely tangled up question.

One can see that it derives from our ideas of the Reformation: What did Luther have that Tyndale, for example, lacked and which permitted Luther to recover the apostolic doctrine of justification? This kind of question demonstrates a disposition toward doing church history. The idea is that the original was the true and that the task of the church is to keep from drifting from it.

There is nothing wrong with saying that. The problem is when you think that what the church keeps it keeps without doctrinal development. So the problem is that you do not say enough. Let me put it this way: Why didn’t we have the reformation until the 15th century? Was it because then people at last realized they were being unfaithful and had departed from the apostolic doctrine of justification? Sure, but there is another aspect to this recovery. That is the fact that doctrinal development had to take place for the church to be able to distinguish the transformation of salvation considered as a whole from the change of relationship that is justification. The categories for making the distinction did not exist. That does not mean they were unimportant categories, but that they required some time to discover. The development in thought necessary to making the distinctions in the doctrine of salvation, in advancing the doctrinal formulation to that moment available were not in place all along. They precede the time of the Reformation, but not by much.

You can’t just read Scripture and make all the distinctions necessary to arrive at the Protestant doctrine of justification without significant philosophical development in the background. It is more obvious in the first question: you can’t just read Scripture and come away believing there is one God in three persons with inseparable operations, a distinction between the being and the economy and all the rest. You can’t even walk up to Scripture, as we have recently learned, and understand the eternal generation of the Son; you have to have a concept of eternity as out of time, and you will not get that from Scripture. You have to have a category for the uniqueness of the Son which requires some distinctions that are not made in everyday language.

If you read the book of Job you will notice that dialogue never involves abstract reasoning. It was written of a pre-speculative society: Job, his friends and Elihu did not know how to perform abstract reasoning. And we notice that God, whom you can be sure was not pre-speculative, did not tax them with abstract reasoning: it would have been incomprehensible to them. We get abstract reasoning from that interesting moment in Greece, and you could say that in the ancient world a philosopher was one who had achieved and could employ abstract reasoning. This did not transform its societies overnight, but began to permeate the ancient world in the fullness of time.

The apostolic apprehension of the Trinity, the reality which they had contact with and expressed, needed doctrinal formulation: Scripture is not a collection of precisely formulated doctrines buried away in otherwise impractical genres. Scripture reveals God to us, and his rescue, and why we are being rescued to begin with, but we have to do something with what Scripture reveals before we have theology. Just read the Bible first and then read a Systematic Theology and you will notice that they are not the same kind of book at all. And it is misleading to think that Scripture is different from a Systematic Theology because it is somehow inferior in its organization. It is organized on a different principle. In fact, Systematic Theology has no organizing principle until the 12th century or perhaps I should say the 13th, when it is conceived or discovered, and first employed.

What Origen lacked, to answer the first question, was at least a concept of personality. But it would be misleading because it suggests the apostles had a concept of personality, which they did not. Scripture does not have the word ‘person’ because no human being had that concept in the first century. It was not available, and it had to be developed in order to make sense of what Scripture was affirming. The doctrine of the Trinity does not contradict or add to Scripture, but the doctrine of the Trinity is a way to maintain the commitment to the coherence of what God has revealed within the bounds of what today we call the canon.

If one is a Baptist and aspires to church history, one is going to be asked, I have found, how one can be a Baptist and be in any way a reputable church historian. The idea is that Baptist polity has no historical antecedents. It is the same question that is asked about the Reformation: how can you be part of a church that was not there all along?

The answer to that requires at least two considerations. You have to realize that Baptist polity or Protestantism do not arise as a radical discontinuity with the past: they distinguish themselves from something, but in the context of similarities. You do not, in fact, distinguish anything unless there is an implied similarity, as Plotinus pointed out. The doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Christ, of man in its main aspects, of salvation in many aspects, of the Holy Spirit etc., are a great part of what is continuous. These things can be traced through history. So a part of the problem with the question is that it posits too radical a discontinuity.

The other aspect of the answer is to say that doctrinal development has a logic to it. You cannot talk about the relationship of the human and the divine in Christ until you have settled the question of his relationship to the divine in the first place. If Christ is God, then we can begin to consider whether he is also man, but it makes no sense to urge the second question before you have settled the first. Once the question of Christ’s deity is settled, the question of the Holy Spirit’s arises, but not before. And so on. Baptist belief is the answer to a complex set of questions, some of which, the crucial distinctive ones, never arose till after the first 1500 years of the church. These cannot have arisen without certain social and theological developments which brought the particular set of questions into focus, many prior ones having been answered to get there. The London Baptist Confession of Faith provides the answers to a set of questions that represent a new collection never before obtained.

To be frozen in time is sometimes urged as the more historical position. To me that is the least historical position. When you have once settled a theological matter, you will generate another series of question which cannot be ignored. Doctrine must develop if you are to keep the deposit faithfully, because you will have to provide answers which maintain the coherence of Scripture and allow you to formulate accurately the advanced implications of what it reveals. And that is why, if you are a church historian or a historical theologian (which is mostly what I’ve here been doing), it is by no means inconsistent also to be a Baptist.

Classical Theism Stemming from . . .

He was the most acute of Christian Platonists and did much to lay the foundations for the synthesis between Christianity and classical theism stemming from Plato and Aristotle. Plotinus in the third century AD deeply influenced him by his systematization of the Platonic tradition, but Augustine also became one of the most penetrating of all critics of this philosophical tradition to which he himself owed so much.

-Henry Chadwick, Augustine: A Very Short Introduction, 4

Aquinas on Arguments

As other sciences do not argue in proof of their principles, but argue from their principles to demonstrate other truths in these sciences: so this doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else; as the Apostle from the resurrection of Christ argues in proof of the general resurrection (1 Cor. 15). However, it is to be borne in mind, in regard to the philosophical sciences, that the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science; whereas the highest of them, viz. metaphysics, can dispute with one who denies its principles, if only the opponent will make some concession; but if he concede nothing, it can have no dispute with him, though it can answer his objections. Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections—if he has any—against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.

ST 1.1.9

The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity by Stephen R. Holmes

The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and ModernityExtremely readable. Holmes knows how to tell the story. If you’re looking for a condensed historical account of the doctrine of the Trinity in a few chapters, look at the chapters in this book, especially chapters 4-5.

How should we understand the second and third century information about the church’s understanding of the Trinity? He says “we should see this not so much as the development of a new confession, as the discovery of the necessary theology to give firm intellectual grounding to an idea that is so deeply engraved in Christian devotion and confession as to be inescapable.”

The idea, like a Platonic idea, was already there, informing the practice, assumed and uncritically acknowledged in worship. The believer that possesses (or is possessed by) the Holy Spirit has access to this reality, knows God. The church that possesses the Holy Spirit has access to the One who is the object of theology because he is the object of its worship. What was lacking was a coherent account of the idea, of the deeper rationale behind that which had been received. Faith possessed and expressed itself in worship, but sought understanding. When alternative rationales were offered, they were repudiated as it became apparent they did not account for what the church had assumed in order to worship as it did.

He puts it this way: “the theological question of the Trinity is not whether to worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but how to understand the triune life of God.”

The apostles worshiped three without denying the assumption that there was one God alone. What they offered was a received way of speaking which was reliable and was in fact congruent with the Old Testament Scriptures. The church had to work to understand what was assumed in that precise way of speaking, which Holmes says is to understand the triune life of God. When we understand something about Scripture, we return to it with that understanding in order to understand more. The Apostles primed the pump for doing that, we could say, besides providing more Scripture.

“When the debate next flared up, with Arius’s complaints about the preaching of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, two generations of argument would finally lead to an account which allowed the church to understand how it could pray as it always had in fact prayed.”

Arius, in other words, posed a threat to the ongoing worship of the church. The problem was that his explanations would alter the way the church prayed by altering the understanding of the assumptions behind its prayers. He offered an incompatible, an incoherent account.