Yearly Archives: 2013

"O Spare Me" for the New Year (W.B. Pope)

Should a Christian pray for a longer life on earth? Never mind admitting that that’s what you want; the question is whether you have any grounds for asking God to give you more years of this life.

In 1869, Methodist theologian William Burt Pope published a sermon for the new year, on the last line of Psalm 39: “O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more.”

It’s not what you’d call a cheery line of scripture.

But as W.B. Pope turned the passage over in his mind, read it in the context of the entire psalm, and then considered how this verse could be prayed by Christians, he produced a remarkable sermon. Its virtues are its seriousness, earnestness, and sobriety rather than its cheerfulness or inspiration, yet it is a sermon with a fundamentally joyful outlook and an affirmation that life is fulfilled in the happy enjoyment of God’s blessings. Pope does not conceal from his readers that as the new year dawns he has a strong desire to remain alive; even less does he attempt to conceal this desire from his God. Instead, he meticulously draws out the reasons why it is a good thing to ask God for more days in this life, for more time in this world.

You can read the sermon as originally printed in the Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine of 1869, or read it below. It’s about 4,000 words long; I’ve broken up the paragraphs a little bit, and have added some things like block-quoting and bullet-pointing to make it easier to read online.


A Prayer for “All Men Everywhere” 

“O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more.” Psalm 39:13

With this prayer David closes a most affecting meditation upon the mystery of human life. Chastened for his sins, and not yet assured of the Divine favour, he muses upon the misery of his own condition, and upon the wretchedness of man generally, under the displeasure of God. To his thought the race is groaning hopelessly and helplessly under a burden too heavy for it to bear. His meditation on God as the Ruler of his life is not this time sweet: it begins in a tone of inexpressible sadness which it scarcely loses to the end; and his appeal to his Maker is almost entirely desponding. Though he restrained his lips before men, before God he is under no restraint.

Lord, Thou hast smitten me for my sins and Thine anger darkens my life. O make me to know my end, and tell me when this time of discipline shall cease, that I may hasten to my rest.

But here as always the Psalmist recovers at the last, and his dirge expires in a supplication that strikes a different note, and goes straight to the heart of all men everywhere.

O spare me! Bring me not to my end; turn from me Thine angry glance and let me yet see good days under the light of Thy countenance before I go hence!

We must throw over this prayer a brighter influence, and give it wider meaning, when, as the children of a better dispensation, we make it our own. We also at this solemn time enter into the presence of Him in whose hands our breath is, and ask Him to give us life. The meaning of the prayer, as it includes us all, its words will tell us, if we carefully weigh them.

*As we are sinners whose lives are forfeited, we ask to be spared to enjoy a new and better life in the Divine favour.

*As we are the regenerate children of God, we ask to be continued in probation, that we may recover our perfect soundness.

*And as we are sojourners in a transitory world, we ask for a little longer space to prepare for our entrance into heaven.

Thus it is a supplication appropriate to every one without exception: it is the cry of the sinner who is making his first appeal to God; it is the Christian’s humble request through every stage of his probationship; and it is the prayer that keeps the end of life in view, and prepares for the close of all.

May the Spirit who helpeth our infirmities teach us all thus to pray!


I. A Prayer for Sinners

O spare me! is the cry of the sinner returning to God. He feels that his life is miserable under the displeasure of his Maker; he prays for the blessedness of the Divine favour; and he cannot ask in vain. 

The spirit of David’s prayer is that of one who has been awakened to the conviction that his life has been wasted and is overshadowed by a terrible doom. That conviction, wrought by the Holy Ghost, lies at the root of all religion. By the rebukes that chasten man for iniquity –reproofs of providential visitation, or reproofs of God’s voice in His word– the sinner dead in trespasses and sins is made to feel the burden of his death and to know what it involves.

This is the Christian undertone of David’s ancient lamentation: life is forfeited and darkened by the rebuke of God’s holy anger. But he who learns this bitter lesson from the Spirit’s teaching is pointed to the Cross, and bidden to plead the cause of his condemned soul with humble confidence in the mercy of God in Christ.

And the prayer He inspires is twofold: Spare me! asks, on the one hand, for the withdrawal of that angry glance that blights the life, and, on the other, for the shining of the countenance of God’s returning favour. We may thus distinguish the petitions, as our text does in its true interpretation; but they are really one. And how vast a petition it is!

To be spared, in the full meaning of the word, is to have an infinite penalty remitted; to have the sentence of death cancelled: not that sentence which is written in the members of the body, but that which is written on the soul, –the sentence of eternal death. The sinner flies to God for refuge from the death which is the final and everlasting wages of his sin; from those rebukes which wither the soul for ever; from that anger which endureth through the never-ending night; with no hope of joy to come in the morning. From this, and nothing less than this, the trembling petitioner of this Psalm prays to be delivered. He asks for the forgiveness that cancels the pains of hell.

Nor does he ask in vain. For the sake of Him who in the deepest sense died for us, the utmost iniquity of the sinner may be forgiven, and the life that is all but ended under the cloud of the Divine displeasure may be redeemed from destruction.

But this is only half the prayer: it is very bold, and asks for the full restoration of the joy of life. David’s words strictly mean, Turn away Thine angry look, that my darkened countenance may shine in Thy favour! We may interpret them by the strain which he uttered at a happier time, when the candle of the Lord shone upon him: In Thy favour is life, Thy lovingkindness is letter than life. The strength and joy of existence is the sense of the Divine love. When that blessed secret of energy, happiness, and hope is shed abroad in the heart by the renewing Spirit, then we enjoy the more abundant life that Christ came to impart. Then does the spirit know and understand the unspeakable gift of life.

And for all that God’s assured favour can confer the returning penitent may confidently ask. No matter how far the country from which he comes back, he may plead for the full measure of the joy of his Father’s house both on earth and in heaven. The prayer demands all that God has to give to make His creatures happy. It asks not for pardon to be followed by extinction; it asks not to be blotted at once from the book of doom and the book of life. It dares to expect –and its high daring is inspired by the Spirit– a perfect release from the penalty of the past and a justified future in which that past shall be no more remembered. In the exceeding greatness of God’s mercy in Christ this prayer also shall be granted.

O spare me! is a prayer which, to a certain extent, is answered to every one of us, without our asking. The sinner who never felt his sin or fought for mercy is already spared, because One has been pleading for him while he has been keeping a guilty silence. He whom the Father spared not, but delivered Him up for us all, has hitherto interceded for your life, and therefore you still live. His mercy has until now rejoiced against judgment, and secured for you forbearance. But the mercy that endureth for ever in its reign over the fallen world, and in its issues towards those who accept it, will not be found everlasting by the impenitent. You have been spared hitherto, but there is no assurance that the decree will wait much longer. The Hand that has protected you from the executioner of holy justice will not always shield your unhappy soul.

Begin then, at once, to account the long suffering of God to be salvation, as one apostle bids you, but only, as another says, by remembering that it leadeth to repentance. Ask the Divine Spirit to reveal to you your guilt and your ruin; go with your lost soul before the Giver of pardon and of peace; plead the promises of the covenant of life ratified in the death of Christ; and God will remit your sentence, and give you back tho life which you have forfeited, and give it back to you much more abundantly. But take this added warning to your heart. You have been spared till now only in provisional compassion; the sentence has been suspended, but not reversed; and should you still neglect to make the prayer your own which the Lord is urging for you, He who has spared you yet another year may make this the last of His intercession. Your life will then be darkened and lost for ever.


II. A Prayer for the Forgiven

Taking this prayer precisely as it stands in the Psalm, it is a petition for continuance in life in order that perfect spiritual soundness may be obtained before going hence.

He who has begun the true life of the Spirit in Christ must needs be conscious of a deep desire to redeem the past, so far as that may be. He shares indeed the common instinct that clings to this present existence; but this instinct is sanctified into a generous and healthy desire to undo the effects of past sin, to attain the full standard of excellence, and to become strong to do the Divine will. This gives its warrant to the supplication for continuance in this life in the flesh.

Although the iniquity of the past is fully forgiven, and to the visitation of justice is as though it had not been; although the bent and bias of the nature is renewed by the power of the Spirit; the consequences of the pardoned sin more or less remain, a sad inheritance from sinful youth. The understanding that has been long perverted and darkened, the will that has been enslaved to evil and averse from good, the affections that have been prostituted to vanity, do not suddenly and at once regain their strength unto holiness. Inveterate habits of iniquity, though broken off for ever, leave their effect upon the character, and render necessary the establishment of opposite habits, created by steadfast continuance in well doing.

And what can be more worthy of the converted soul than the desire to live to recover wholly from the effects of the deep rooted disease of sin, and to efface from the most hidden fold of the heart every remembrance of evil? The forgiven transgressor looks back with shame upon his former self; his sin is ever before him, and he remembers with loathing the deeds that God remembers not. His desire is to take a holy vengeance upon the past by making the future one continual contradiction to it. Hence the energy with which he prays to be spared, that he may recover from the effects of his guilty rebellion, and make what reparation he may to his God and himself.

But the prayer has an object still higher than this: it values life and asks its continuance that the full work of sanctifying grace may be wrought on the nature, raising it to perfect soundness. As this is the work of grace, it is also the work of time. The Healer of our souls does not ordinarily deal with our spiritual maladies as He once dealt with our physical ills, making us by a word or a touch perfectly whole. There is a sense in which He can and will do this. But, generally speaking, the Spirit of life within us works by a law. He gives the new principle of life, provides for its nourishment, sets before us the commandment and the pattern of obedience unto holiness, and blesses us in our career to perfection. But the attainment of perfection is still a career.

And although the accepted penitent cannot perish, being found in Christ, but is translated by death to another scene of eternal development, yet it is the secret instinct of the regenerate soul to desire to grow up to the full stature of a man in Christ Jesus, under the influences of grace, and amidst the scenes of probation. Here where his sin abounded he longs that his grace may much more abound. Here in the tabernacle of the once-polluted flesh he desires to attain and reflect the beauty of a consummate holiness. He sets his heart upon the apostle’s triple idea of the perfect life, the sanctification of body, soul and spirit. With his Master’s glorious image before him, and by the side of that image the ideal of his own self made perfect, he asks for life that he may realize both. Whatever may be the transforming power of the vision of Christ in the other world, he feels that the change from glory to glory is the appointed privilege of this life; and that the maturity of the Christian character is the exceeding great reward of religion upon earth. He would reach his spiritual perfection below, and before he begins the higher career of heaven. He would not leave this life and its religious education a babe, or even a young man, but a father in Christ; and hence the ardour of his prayer, Spare me that I may recover strength before I go hence.

Again, the prayer for lengthened days has its justification in the laudable desire to recover strength for the performance, and in the performance, of the Divine will. The remembrance of the guilty past finds its most wholesome bitterness in the thought of a stewardship neglected, and opportunities of doing good gone for ever. The mercy of God has pardoned that great and long-continued wrong, removing a burden that the soul could never otherwise endure. But the time past forfeited makes the rest of our time unspeakably precious. The strong desire, the passion, of the labourer late in the vineyard, is to have the afternoon lengthened, to repair the defect of the morning. To redeem the past entirely, so as to do all the good in the remainder that might have been done, is in the nature of things, and in the order of grace, impossible. And yet the lengthened life may be in some sense a reparation, if not an atonement.

The word of God, while it dwells most impressively, and sometimes in a tone of most terrible warning, upon the neglect of the stewardship of life, does not suffer the accepted convert who has begun to live in earnest to waste his fruitless regrets upon the retrospect. Let it suffice is its most merciful command. It must be left with God to repair what may still be repaired. The most vehement exhortation of Scripture is for the future; and it uses a term that sounds very much like an encouragement to make the remainder of life redeem the past. If our honest desire for lengthened days springs from a determination to employ our best faculties and our every talent in the service of His Church, and in the care of our own personal charge, and for the good of our fellows generally, we may be sure that He approves our prayer, whether He grant it to our hearts’ content or not. Then let us take this spirit with us when we ask to be spared, that we may recover our forfeited place among the agents of the Divine will; that we may recover our strength; the strength of our obedience, the strength of our devotion, the strength of our charity to man.

Thus, brethren, we have sought to find the secret of the prayer put by the Holy Spirit into our lips. It is the humble request to have the full measure of our days vouchsafed that we may rectify the errors of the past, attain the perfection of the religious life, and learn to be strong in duty and charity. Our prayer is already granted to us in so far as we are now alive to offer it. How long it will be granted we know not: it is one of the laws of the providence of God to keep us in ignorance of that. All we have to do is to stamp upon our minds the great reason for which we may ask to live and our life is spared: that we use our time diligently to the glory of God in our own restoration and the discharge of our duty to others.

And let us remember that in the accomplishment of these ends, time is not to be measured altogether by the procession of its hours and days and years. It is God who perfects that which concerneth us, and He can hasten His work before He cuts it short in righteousness. There is no restraint with Him to work by many days or few. He is able to pour His Divine influence into our souls in such measure as shall transcend human computation of time. He can make the work of grace swifter than ever was the effect of sin. He can give strength to overcome old habits faster than they were formed; He can make the growth of the new man more rapid than was the growth of the old; and He can make our feet like hind’s feet in the way of duty, in the pursuit and redemption of neglected obligations. And should He see fit earlier than you would desire to cut short your life –not granting your prayer for the full measure of life,– He will still see to it that you have that deeper desire of the heart from which the prayer sprang. You shall not go hence until you can say like Elijah, It is enough take my life, but without Elijah’s weariness and despondency. You shall be satisfied: though much has been lost, enough shall have been gained to make it an endless blessing to have lived.


III. A Prayer for Sojourners

Our prayer lastly regards life as a sojourn upon earth before going hence, and asks reprieve that the spirit may be strong to take the last journey: a request that is inwrought by the Holy Ghost, and which we may be confident will be granted.

It springs from the deep conviction that life is in its profoundest meaning a pilgrimage to eternity. I am a stranger with Thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were: this is the language of the renewed soul alone. He that is born from above knows that he is a wayfarer among men: he has a new citizenship, and, while a stranger with God, has also become a stranger among his brethren. Though still wearing the old form, and speaking the old language, and conversant with the old institutions and habits of life, he knows that a great change has passed upon his relations to the world. But the Christian can adopt this language with a deeper meaning than that which David gave it. He has a clearer disclosure of that pilgrimage unto God to which the sojourning with God leads. He has a clearer revelation of the state in which he will be found when no more seen, of the judgment that he must pass through, and of all that is meant by perfect preparation. Hence it is with a peculiar emphasis and with a more certain assurance that we offer this prayer, and ask to be spared awhile on this side the great hereafter.

The Prayer implies a solemn sense of the preparation that is needful. Spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, expresses the spirit’s anxiety to be strong to endure the judgment of the great day: an ordeal of which the Scripture speaks as if it were coincident with the end of life, as the judgment before the judgment that determines in death the state of every soul. And what is the strength that will fortify us to endure the awful test of the day that will reveal the secrets of all hearts, and assign to every man his lot as his work shall be!

Doubtless the strength that will endure the judgment, is a sure confidence of acceptance through the infinite merits of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. He who is accepted in the Beloved now, and in the consciousness of this departs hence, will most assuredly be accepted of the Beloved, who is the only Judge the soul will ever meet. We look for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life; and the assurance of that mercy now is the strength of the pilgrim’s soul. But when the eye is steadily fixed upon the judgment of the great day, and all its inquisition, as the merciful Judge Himself has described it, the uppermost feeling must ever be to make the assurance itself sure. Without holiness no man shall see the Lord, is a declaration that qualifies and guards every exultation of faith in the hope of mercy. To have boldness in the day of judgment, St John assures us, is the prerogative of a perfected love; it is the tranquil confidence of one in whom perfect love hath cast out fear, and who is upon earth what Christ is in heaven.

The prayer, therefore, that shrinks with humble diffidence from the dreadful scrutiny that will disclose every secret, does no disparagement to the infinite provisions of grace when it asks for time to make the issue sure. It has a deep solicitude to be right in a matter of eternal importance. The highest saint, that is, the lowliest believer, seeks with trembling anxiety to be protected from himself; to be saved from the last possibility of self-deception. He has indeed no distrust of the Saviour’s present mercy; no vacillation as to the one final condition of his acceptance; no secret confidence in the virtue of anything he can do, or anything that he can make himself, to give him boldness in the day of judgment. But he can never forget that all the work of preparation must be accomplished in time; that in these outer courts the last stain must be removed and the wedding garment woven and worn; and that the spirit which is to be presented faultless in the other world must be made faultless in this. Hence his never ceasing cry, continued to the very verge of heaven: Spare me, that I may recover strength before I go hence.

But the healthy instinct of the Christian has here its own interpretation of the prayer, and one suggested or permitted by the Holy Ghost. This life of probation is the scene of the spirit’s education for the vision of God and the glory of heaven. And are there not gradations of eternal privilege corresponding to the gradations of opportunity improved in time? Here we have the irrepressible sentiment of our own heart to listen to, and are not without hints in the Word of God to confirm it. The spirit of him to whom the Lord has granted many days wherein to contemplate the glory of His character and emulate it, to exercise his regenerate faculties in profound study of His word, and to work out by grace a finished conformity to His example of self-sacrifice and devotion, will surely be capable of a nearer access and closer vision of God than that of him who is saved as by fire, through the infinite merits of Christ, and goes into the Divine presence with a soul just sprinkled from its guilt. Concerning this the infallible Guide says little, lest our wayward minds should pervert its teaching. But our strong sentiment does not mislead us, or rather the pleading Spirit within does not mislead us, when we covet earnestly tine for riper preparation. With that feeling we may desire life as inestimably precious, and ask of God to spare us that we may enter heaven in the full maturity of spiritual senses well exercised, and trained to the utmost pitch of which our nature is capable for the glory that shall be revealed.

And there is a relation between the seed-time of earth and the harvest of heaven. Saved by the free grace of our Saviour, the same Saviour will render unto every one of us according to his work, dispensing to each his reward –it is His own word– as his labour shall be. With these He will adorn His free gift of eternal mercy. The pilgrim’s preparation, therefore, for his final state includes the abundance of the good deeds, wrought through grace, which going before Him will declare the genuineness of his profession and be the measure of the dispensation of his Saviour’s favour in heaven. It is not therefore an unevangelical prayer –it is rather one of the purest fruits of the indwelling Spirit teaching us what to pray for– when we ask to be spared to lay up treasures in heaven, treasures not heaped up for others but for ourselves; to have many days granted wherein to weave by Divine grace a garment that the moth shall not fret, and to make the utmost preparation that the scanty residue of life will allow for a rich eternity. Our days are lengthened, like Hezekiah’s, that we may not only set our house in order upon earth, but also prepare for ourselves eternal habitations. We need not know how long we have to live to accomplish this. Every added day may do its part. Nor is this desire the only one, or even the strongest, that enters into the request. To be ready for the judgment is the great concern for our fear; to be prepared for the vision of God the noblest incentive to our hope; but the attainment of our great reward is a secret object of solicitude that never need he shut out when we utter our supplication O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence and be no more.

Thus brethren we have been taught by the Holy Spirit a prayer which is always appropriate, which especially befits the beginning of another year, and which adapts itself to every one of us. Let him who has never yet entered among the living ask boldly for the restoration of his forfeited life, to be spent hereafter in the joy of the Divine favour; and his cry shall not be unheard. Let those who have begun the true probation of eternity pray that they may not go hence until they have achieved a perfect health; and this cry also shall most assuredly go up with acceptance. And let us all, beginning another of the few remaining terms of life that separate us from the great futurity, ask for time, and improve the time that is given in the one pursuit of an entire preparation to go hence.


Christmas Playlist 2013: Instrumental Good Cheer

Instrumental Christmas:  The Sanders household just wasn’t in the mood for the all-out onslaught of the familiar Christmas music in the early days of this December, so we put together a set of wordless wonders, and we sought out as many unfamiliar tunes as possible. It’s a nice change of pace (though if you want to see our other playlists, including the more traditional ones, you can find 9 of them here). The rough draft was overpowered by too much banjo and bluegrass, so we cut as much of it as we could stand to, and tried to showcase less conventional instruments: ukulele, accordion, steel drum, B3 organ, surf guitar, toolboxes, and the whole catastrophe from the rowdy lands of klezmer, polka, and zydeco.

Below is the track list with links to Amazon mp3s; most of it is also available as a Spotify playlist here.

01 Silver and Gold; Chance Turcotte, Christmas 2012

02 O Christmas Ukulele; Cary Kanno, Uke-Banjo Christmas

03 Jolly Saint Nick: Larry Chesky Orchestra, Polka Christmas

04 The First Noel; Jo-El Sonnier, Cajun Christmas

05 Christmas Carol Rock; Art Greenshaw, Surf n Swing Christmas

06 Christmas Dance; Clarke Family w/Billy Oskay, Christmas Pickins

07 Over the Rainbow / Merry Christmas; Ukulele Christmas

08 O Holy Night; Art Greenshaw, Surf n Swing Christmas

09 Hark/O Come All Ye Faithful; John Fahey, The New Possibility

10 Silver Bells; Booker T & the MGs, In the Christmas Spirit

11 Dance of Sugar Plum Fairy/ Woody Phillips, A Toolbox Christmas

12 Bells of St Mary’s; Smokey Montgomery, Surf n Swing Christmas

13 Deck the Halls; Toolbox Christmas

14 O Come all Ye Faithful; Pine Street String Band, Banjo Christmas

15 Carol of the Bells; Christmas Grass

16 Little Town of Bethlehem; Doug Munro and La Pompe Attack, Gypsy Jazz Christmas

17 Deck the Halls; Nokie Edwards, Surf ‘N’ Swing Christmas

18 Let it Snow; Gary Ferguson, Surf n Swing Christmas

19 Irish Christmas Guitar Jig; Dan Kirby

20 We Three Kings; Doug Munro and La Pompe Attack; Very Gypsy Christmas

21 We Three Kings; Klezmonauts, Oy to the World

22 Angels from the Realms of Glory; Mambo Folk, Mambo Christmas Fiesta

23 Holly and the Ivy; Doug Walker, Ultimate Reggae Caribbean Christmas

24 Joy to the World; Smokey Mtn Band, Christmas Pickin

25 Now to Conclude our Christmas Mirth; Ethan James, Ancient Music of Christmas

26 New Year’s Rendezvous; Art Greenshaw, Surf n Swing Christmas

27 Auld Lang Banjo; Cary Kanno, Uke-Banjo Christmas


Personhood According to Pannenberg

Wolfhart Pannenberg is one of the most accomplished theologians of the twentieth century. His skill as a rigorous doctrinal thinker is well served by his mastery of historical materials on every Christian doctrine. Pannenberg’s first major publication was in 1963 (a multi-author set of essays entitled Revelation as History), and he completed a three-volume Systematic Theology in 1993. Along the way, he wrote a lot of other important books on Christology, metaphysics, science, and anthropology.
That anthropology book, the somewhat sprawling Anthropology in Theological Perspective, weighs in at over 500 pages. One of the key claims Pannenberg makes in his theological anthropology is that we must trace the notion of personhood itself back into our conception of God. To argue in this direction is to move in the opposite of our default sensibility: we tend to think of ourselves as persons and of God as somehow analogously a person. But Pannenberg marshals psychological, historical, and social-sciences arguments for moving from divine to human in the definition of personhood.
The argument is complex, but a sketch of it can be found in at least one place: Pannnenberg wrote the encyclopedia article on “person” in the German reference work Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart

At some point in graduate school, I made a rough translation of the key parts of the article for my own benefit. Recently a colleague asked me to recap Pannenberg’s argument, and I sent him this excerpt.  I thought others might be interested also, so here it is.

What is designated today by the word “person” was first made accessible to humanity through Christianity. Antiquity did not differentiate person from (spiritual) individuality (so , Latin persona indicates the mask and later the role of an actor, hence also social roles and character).

The identification of personhood and individuality brought about considerable difficulties in the understanding of the Trinity and the union of God and man in Jesus Christ: The thought of three divine individuals must lead, at least for Aristotelian thought, to the acceptance of three substances. When, on the other hand, the divine-human unity in Jesus Christ came to be understood, by way of the Alexandrians and Chalcedon, as personal unity, the conclusion appeared unavoidable that the human nature in Jesus was not individual, and the Antiochenes not unjustly saw in this an abridgement of the Incarnation, the participation of Jesus in all things human. In spite of these difficulties the ancient church was not able to fundamentally overcome the identification of person and individuality. Therein, for the most part, is the coherence of the remaining aporias of its doctrine of the Trinity and Christology. The famous and influential definition of person by Boethius characterized it as rationalis naturae individua substantia (MPL 64, 1343 C).

The apprehension of personhood as spiritual individuality remained operative into the modern era, especially in Humanism and the Enlightenment. The latter saw the kernel of spiritual individuality in self-consciousness. It was customary to think of God too as person in this sense, until in 1798 J.G. Fichte established that if God were infinite he could not be personal: Self-consciousness always presupposes the existence of another, in distinction from whom one is conscious of self. God, therefore, is neither infinite nor the creator of all, if he is personal. Since Fichte’s attack, the “personhood of God” has become the battle-cry of the struggle against German Idealism and its supposed Pantheism (actually present only in Schelling). Whenever German Idealism has been attacked under this banner, personhood has been understood as spiritual individuality (self-consciousness): In theology following Kant, both along rationalistic lines as well as on supernaturalistic lines leading to Ritschl, and likewise in the speculative theism of mid-century, which–in dependence on Kant–bound the reality of God’s personhood closely to that of humanity. Beyond Germany, this personal metaphysic has reached to Sweden, France, and America, becoming the philosophical basis for a personal humanism in the sense of spiritual individuality and freedom.

The Christology of the ancient church had already attained the goal of understanding personhood as relation; the personhood of Jesus is constituted as an enhypostasis (Leontius of Byzantium) through its connection with the Logos. This relational character of personhood as relatedness to God was first precisely comprehended in the course of the wider history of the doctrine of the Trinity. Augustine had already understood the Trinitarian persons as relations: The Father is only Father in relation to the Son, the Son is only Son in relation to the Father. Richard of St. Victor, in the 12th century, was the first to draw out the consequences for the understanding of personhood in general. By reason of the relational character of personhood, he defined it as existentia: a Being (sistere) which is apart from (ek) another. Only in this opposition is the person irreplacable (incommunicabilis); only in relation to the Father is the Son Son and not another (De Trinitate IV, 12; MPL 196, 937f.). Duns Scotus substantially deepened Richard’s conception of person, primarily with regard to the ontological and anthropological problems. In opposition to Thomas Aquinas, who, based on his distinction between esse and essentia, considered the act of being to be the constitutive moment of human personhood, Duns Scotus understood only the relationship to God to be constitutive for humans as persons. For Duns Scotus, a human could be a person in two ways: In autonomy from God or in devotional opening to God.

The 19th century seems to have won back, through its own approach, the concept of person as relationship. The idea of Fichte that self-consciousness only originates from self-differentiation from an outer world, was formulated personally by Jacobi: “Without a ‘You,’ an ‘I’ is impossible.” This situation was rediscovered as the basis of the concept of person by Hegel in his philosophy of religion, significantly once more in connection with the Trinitarian problem. The objections of the understanding against the impossibility of a triad’s unity were answered by Hegel with the idea that it is the essence of a person to surrender himself to another, and precisely in the other to receive himself. The unity of God is to be understood as the unity of love, brought to its fullness in the mutual submission of the three persons. Thereby Hegel overcame Fichte’s argument that God could not be personal, through a deeper understanding of personhood; and that not only in the doctrine of the Trinity, but also with the similarly emphasized thesis that God is subject. Theology did not appreciate this service of Hegel’s. Instead, misunderstanding him as a pantheist and thus an adversary to the idea of God, theology nevertheless did not itself find a satisfying answer to Fichte’s argument. The young Hegelians, meanwhile, mistook this idea of Hegel’s for a compromise with church doctrine. Feuerbach reduced Hegel’s Trinitarian statements to their anthropological content, retaining the relationship of submission between I and You as a basic human relationship. Feuerbach influenced Ebner and Buber, who blazed the trail for the understanding of person as relation in the 20th century. The idea has spread quickly in philosophy (Cohen, Rosenzweig, Litt, Löwith, Grisebach, Marcel, Jaspers) and in theology, especially on the protestant side (Brunner since 1924, Gogarten since 1926, Heim since 1931) but also in Catholic thinking (Guardini, P. Wust, Th. Haecker) since the first World War, and is public property today.

A human is first a person in finding himself face to face with God as person. God is a person, not a thing, because as the unknown power over existence he is essentially incomprehensible. Not by accident did ancient man–and children even today–personify everything important to them, which is not thoroughly known, and therefore has a hidden, inner side. Whatever is at least in principle entirely available becomes a thing. Therefore, the Deity remains personal, as long as it is not dissolved into a cosmic function. The Biblical God is essentially personal, because he always brings forth new contingent events, constantly behaving unforeseeably, thereby proving the infinitude of his freedom. That God in the unity of his essence is personal lays the foundation for the personal character of both the distinction of the Son from the Father and the Spirit at work in the Church.

God makes the human being a person. God, being indeed almighty without us, has mankind at his disposal and can deal with humans as things. But in so far as God enters into a history with humanity, to reveal himself to them, he takes them as a “You”. Because the will to revelation and therefore to condescension are characteristic of the eternal being of God, God grants to humanity personhood, not just for show, but from eternal faithfulness. This matter has found expression–Biblically inspired–in the theology of an Augustine, a Duns Scotus, a Luther.

Humans are persons through their orientation to God. The openness to the world which distinguishes humans from all animals, and whose full meaning should be understoood as openness to God, constitutes personhood. This is realized, as Duns Scotus discerned, either as attentive openness to God or as sealed independence from God, which as such (which Duns Scotus did not perceive) has the character of sin. Therefore the human being is not a person on account of a spiritual capacity he possesses, however understood, but on the contrary: He is only to be understood in his individuality as a spiritual being, from his personhood, from his essential openness.

Humans exist as persons in relation to other humans. The co-human relation of I and You is not the basis for personhood, but flows from it: In other humans the I meets with a being which, just like the I, is distinguished by a constant determination (openness to the world!). The other human, therefore, is not at his disposal, and cannot be entirely turned into a thing. Further, this human determination for God, since it is in all people just as it is in the You, can never be the aim of isolated individuals for themselves. Personhood tends to this great extend toward community and the arrangement of every particular in the entire community. Personhood is fulfilled in the act of loving surrender to the particular other and at the same time to the entire community: In the duality, which does not just seek to satisfy itself, but to bless the society, in the calling to serve not just its own state, but to recognize international responsibilities.

In individual life-histories the personal attains form as personhood. From birth, every human is a person by virtue of his determination. Every one must first become a personality through the posture he takes in view of his human determination, through the answer he gives with his life to the question of his determination.



The Advent of Good Will

By far my favorite story about the celebration of Christmas is the Christmas truce of 1914. On the night of December 24th, entrenched and fully engaged in deadly combat, German soldiers in Ypres began to observe Christmas festivities. They lit candles, decorated a tree, and began to sing carols. After a short while, the British troops in the opposing trenches began to sing carols of their own. Singing led to laying down arms, and soon the soldiers who had been and would continue to be at war with each other were leaving their trenches, exchanging gifts, playing football and even giving each other haircuts. I cannot imagine a celebration of Christmas more fitting.

That buying the best gifts and throwing the best parties is a poor way to celebrate Christmas is a truism so tedious that I hesitate to even mention it. Charles Schultz has expressed the spiritual failures of a commercial Christmas as well as anyone will need to in my generation, and perhaps in many yet to come. Yet as I watch the ways in which we try to eschew the easy trap of commercialism for better means of celebration, I wonder if even these better ends would turn out to be cheap if we could find a way into the spirit that made enemies into brothers in Belgium.

An impossibly ironic phenomenon in recent Advent seasons has been the “battle” over the public celebration of Christmas. Christmas is a thing so powerful that it stopped a world war just by existing, just by the nature of what it is. That so many have believed that one either can or ought to do battle over it seems to me to be proof that they have not seen the thing at all. The thing itself simply, easily and absolutely dispenses with battle.

I suspect that one aspect of this failure comes from our tendency to locate Christmas either in the far past, or in the distant future. When we walk through the season of advent in liturgical practice, we primarily look back on the first coming of Christ and forward to his future coming. So I wonder, when we hear words like peace and goodwill bandied about in carols and Christmas readings, whether we think either quite locally about those few people nearest to us for whom we already feel goodwill, or far into the future towards a time when at Christ’s second coming peace will come through the final elimination of all enmity.

We may expect at Christmas a saccharine and momentary oblivion to pain and suffering, but it is an unfamiliar thought that Christmas might bring meaningful peace and goodwill in the present. I think of Longfellow’s familiar lament, written as Christmas came in the midst of another war:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the very words which haunted Longfellow are the ones that Linus speaks to Charlie Brown:

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’

If we are to believe Linus, and I can hardly think of a more credible source, the meaning of Christmas resides somewhere in these verses. God was with us, and God will be with us again, but the work of Christmas means that even at this moment God is with us. What has Immanuel to do with us? I think the answer to this question lies in Ypres. After the truce ended, many units had to be permanently relocated. The work of Christmas had made further battle between those men impossible. As another Christmas Carol concludes, “May that be truly be said of us, and all of us.”

With the Current, Not Across It

I’ve stopped saying “Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus gave his disciples the Great Commission.” Here’s why:

When I teach about the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20), I underline its importance by showing that these are the last words Jesus speaks at the end of the gospel of Matthew. I love to explore how ideas and motifs from the beginning of the gospel are fulfilled here: the angel tells us at the beginning of Matthew that Jesus’ name will be Immanuel, God with us, and here at the end Jesus assures us, “I am with you always.” I love to point out that the language of “the Father and the Son” in the Great Commission builds on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 11 (“No one knows the Father except the Son,” etc.).

The Great Commission, especially with its ringing trinitarian formulation, sometimes strikes us as a surprise ending to the gospel, but in fact it’s a fabulous consummation of leading ideas in the book. It’s how the gospel of Matthew ends with a bang. To see this is to see that all 28 chapters are part of the trinitarian gospel message that finally comes to articulation at the end.

Over the years of teaching on this passage, I have also developed a habit of saying that these are the last words that Jesus says before he ascends into heaven. It sounds more dramatic to put it that way: that his death and resurrection are behind him, he has spent 40 days with the disciples, and is now going to the Father. And his final words are the command to make disciples.

But here’s the problem: When I put it that way, I jump from Matthew to Luke. I cut the lines of argument that Matthew has carefully laid out, or I tangle them with the ascension story that is so crucial in another gospel, Luke’s gospel.

How bad is it to do that? I don’t know. 

No, I mean I really don’t know, it’s beyond me. I can name and describe a few of the dynamics of Matthew. But I can never be sure I’ve seen everything, because it’s holy, and deep, and written by two authors (one human, one divine) who are way ahead of me.

But one thing I’ve noticed is that Matthew does not end his gospel with the story of the ascension. His gospel is about God being with us in Christ, and it ends with… God being with us in Christ. He stands there and says, “I am with you always.” Wouldn’t it be a little silly if he had said this and then had flown away? Wouldn’t that be the wrong way to conclude? Wouldn’t that be a worse ending for a gospel that has emphasized how God is present among us in the person of Jesus? Doesn’t Matthew have to end with Jesus standing exactly there, as the narration just stops?

By innocently jumping from one gospel to another, I’ve been messing up the flow of thought of at least one of them. What I ought to do is be more careful about how I embellish the biblical accounts of things. I need to attend much more closely to what the Spirit is saying in the words of each biblical book.

I think of this as learning to trust the words and thought-patterns of scripture. I want to swim with the current that is flowing through Scripture, not across it. If I can stay consistent with Matthew’s way of thinking and talking, I can be in a position to pick up all kinds of momentum and nuance from what the Holy Spirit has planned and put in place in that book. If I jump from one frame of reference to another, my arguments may only be as good as I can make them with my own clever connection-making. But if I’ve got the current of Matthew behind me, I may say something that can hit an audience with a power greater than my own words or insights.

Of course by comparing the two gospels, we are able to say that, historically speaking, Jesus must have said these words and then later ascended. That’s how the end of Matthew and the end of Luke can be harmonized. That must be how it actually happened in history. But by presenting it that way, I am opting out of the stories told by both Matthew and Luke, and am preferring a historical reconstruction of my own making. Even though it’s a pretty good reconstruction, it’s not divinely inspired. So it could be faulty, and it will certainly be weak in comparison to God’s word.


The Classical Question of the Origin of Evil

At a recent panel discussion (ETS 2013 in Baltimore), I was asked to say a few things about John Wesley’s view of the origin of evil. The first thing I wanted to say is that Wesley thought of the origin of evil as a classical question.

By calling the question of evil’s origin “classical,” I mean that it is a problem that was clearly seen and carefully articulated by the Greek and Roman classics of pre-Christian philosophy and culture in the West. Wesley was a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, and had an education that emphasized the Greek and Roman classics. Even when he preached for the common person, he was prone to sprinkle short Latin quotations here and there, and to assume that a little dash of Horace or Cicero would be a welcome addition to a Christian sermon. As a matter of his style, then, classical allusion is a pervasive technique. But classical allusions are far more prominent whenever Wesley takes up this topic. The question comes to him in Latin: unde malum? Whence evil? On the subject of evil’s origin, I believe Wesley used a Latin vocabulary and classical allusions because he habitually framed the topic in terms of pre-Christian reflections. Horace and Cicero were satisfactory dialogue partners in framing the question.

A good place to see this is the remarkable Sermon 62, entitled “The End of Christ’s Coming.” The sermon is on the text from 1 John 3:8, “For this purpose was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” But to illuminate this text, Wesley calls on classical witnesses:

Many eminent writers, heathen as well as Christian, both in earlier and later ages, have employed their utmost labour and art in painting the beauty of virtue. And the same pains they have taken to describe, in the liveliest colours, the deformity of vice; both of vice in general, and of those particular vices which were most prevalent in their respective ages and countries. With equal care they have placed in a strong light the happiness that attends virtue, and the misery which usually accompanies vice, and always follows it. And it may be acknowledged, that treatises of this kind are not wholly without their use.

It will take Wesley some paragraphs to explicate the connection between his text, “to destroy the works of the devil,” and his classical way of expounding it; in due course he will talk about the fall of man and the fall of the angels. But taking his lead from the Roman classics, he sets the question of evil in the context of vice and virtue, which he considers to be a sub-section of the doctrine of human happiness. The question of evil’s origin is, for Wesley, squarely to be located in a eudaemonistic context with ethical implications, because that’s how it has always been discussed, and Christians are joining the conversation.

Wesley knows that pagan insight into ultimate questions was limited:

The best of them either sought virtue partly from God and partly from themselves, or sought it from those gods who were indeed but devils, and so not likely to make their votaries better than themselves. So dim was the light of the wisest of men, till “life and immortality were brought to light by the gospel;” till “the Son of God was manifested to destroy the works of the devil!”

Wesley also knows that the question can only be answered by biblical revelation. But before we turn directly to the biblical answer, let’s look at the kind of answer Wesley was satisfied with in classical philosophical mode.

When Wesley was  26 years old (dec 19, 1729), he wrote to his Father a brief letter from Oxford in which he copied out a concise treatise on the origin of evil.

DEAR SIR, — As I was looking over the other day Mr. Ditton’s Discourse on the Resurrection of Christ, I found, toward the end of it, a sort of essay on the Origin of Evil. I fancied the shortness of it, if nothing else, would make you willing to read it; though very probably you will not find much in it which has not occurred to your thoughts before.

Warm introduction! The text itself, from Ditton’s Discourse:

Since the Supreme Being must needs be infinitely and essentially good as well as wise and powerful, it has been esteemed no little difficulty to show how evil came into the world. Unde malum [‘Whence did evil arise?’] has been a mighty question.’”

Since Wesley was struck by this text at age 26, it may be the reason why Wesley filed the question of evil in his mental catalog under u, for Unde Malum.

There were some who, in order to solve this, supposed two supreme, governing principles; the one a good, the other an evil, one: which latter was independent on and of equal power with the former, and the author of all that was irregular or bad in the universe. This monstrous scheme the Manichees fell into, and much improved; but were sufficiently confuted by St. Austin, who had reason to be particularly acquainted with their tenets.

But the plain truth is, the hypothesis requires no more to the confutation of it than the bare proposing it. Two supreme, independent principles is next door to a contradiction in terms. It is the very same thing, in result and consequence, as saying two absolute infinities; and he that says two, had as good say ten or fifty, or any other number whatever. Nay, if there can be two essentially, distinct, absolute infinities, there may be an infinity of such absolute infinities; that is as much as to say, none of them all would be an absolute infinite, or that none of them all would be properly and really infinite. ‘ For real infinity is strict and absolute infinity, and only that.’

‘From the nature of liberty and free will we may deduce a very possible and satisfactory (perhaps the only possible just) account of the origin of evil.

‘There are, and necessarily must be, some original, intrinsic agreements and disagreements, fitnesses and unfitnesses, of certain things and circumstances, to and with each other; which are antecedent to all positive institutions, founded on the very nature of those things and circumstances, considered in themselves, and in their relation to each other.

‘Farther: it noway derogated from any one perfection of an infinite Being to endow other beings which he made with such a power as we call liberty — that is, to furnish them with such capacities, dispositions, and principles of action, that it should be possible for them either to observe or to deviate from those eternal rules and measures of fitness and agreeableness, with respect to certain things and circumstances, which were so conformable to the infinite rectitude of his own will, and which infinite reason must necessarily discover. Now, evil is a deviation from those measures of eternal, unerring order and reason; not to choose what is worthy to be chosen, and is accordingly chose by such a will as the divine. And, to bring this about, no more is necessary than the exerting certain acts of that power we call free will. By which power we are enabled to choose or refuse, and to determine ourselves to action accordingly. Therefore, without having recourse to any ill principle, we may fairly account for the origin of evil from the possibility of a various use of our liberty; even as that capacity or possibility itself is ultimately founded on the defectibility and finiteness of a created nature.’

That was the whole letter! And Wesley concludes,  “I am, dear sir,  Your dutiful and affectionate Son.”

Though Ditton is no pagan author, note that he is engaging in classical disputation without taking recourse to revelation; he believes he is resolving a classical philosophical conundrum using classical tools. I know of no reason to think that Wesley ever deviated from Ditton’s view of the origin of evil. This is the kind of thing that Wesley thought through once, was satisfied, and assumed for the rest of his life. 


Fittingness: How Conveniens

(From a paper I read at ETS 2013 in Baltimore, as part of a panel responding to “Hillbilly Thomist” Fritz Bauerschmidt’s new book on Thomas Aquinas.)

The first helpful theological tool I found in Bauerschmidt’s version of Thomas Aquinas was an approach to teaching summed up in the motto contemplata aliis tradere.

The second thing, even more helpful and of even broader application for contemporary theological work, is the scope and clarity Bauerschmidt gives to the category of fittingness, or convenientia. If the caricature of Thomas is that he is primarily a philosopher, mainly an Aristotelian, principally a metaphysician, then categories like necessity will come to the foreground. Indeed, in various waves of interest in Thomas, from the generation of Suarez and Cajetan to now, great emphasis has been laid on necessity, and on Thomas’ development of nascent rules for analogical predication. Bauerschmidt shifts the emphasis to covenientia, which he points out is “important in Thomas’ theology, particularly when dealing with the events of salvation history.” (161)

Bauerschmidt points out that fittingness “offers a form of reasoning that is in a way suppler than that of the syllogistic demonstration and which reveal what might be called an ‘aesthetic’ dimension to Thomas’ theology.” (161) What he has in mind shows up especially in the series of articles on events in the life of Jesus: why did the messiah come so late in salvation history, but not at the very end? Why did he die a violent death? Why the virgin birth? Etc. There was a long tradition of raising these questions and answering them with elaborations of how eminently fitting it was that God should do what he in fact did. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation proceeded thus, and so did Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. Thomas takes up this traditional tool of convenientia and hones it considerably. “Arguments ex convenientia are a way of displaying the ‘necessity’ of the events of salvation history,” Bauerschmidt explains, but he has scare quotes around “necessity” and he quickly makes a distinction in different meanings of the word.

Unless there is some kind of necessity in our understanding of the economy of salvation, we are only putting forth opinio rather than scientia: It is the character of scientia to give reasons for what is asserted. But in the economy of salvation we are dealing with the free acts of the living God, and these are not subject to strict necessity. “Thomas readily admits that the economy of salvation could have been ordered differently –e.g. it could have not included the incarnation or Christ’s death on the cross.” (141) As a result, there can be no argument from necessity for such events.

But arguments ex convenientia are quite appropriate in this sphere: insight “is not arrived at by the discursive progress of the syllogism, but by the holistic insight in which we see the ‘rightness’ of salvation history.” (161) Syllogistic argument from necessity lets us see the binding connections between two things, like using geometric argument to see the implications of axioms. But argument ex convenientia lets us see how the thing itself holds together, analogous to seeing how a piece of architecture works.

These arguments ex convenientia have wide application throughout Thomas’ work, and Bauerschmidt has an especially helpful section explaining how they shape Thomas’ presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity, which turns on whether “procession” is the kind of thing it is fitting, conveniens, to ascribe to God. But arguments ex convenientia come into their own in telling the reasons for the gospel story. Human reasoning, according to Thomas, is “utterly incapable of demonstrating the truth of the mysteries of faith, such as the incarnation or salvation through the cross of Christ.” (162)

I find Bauerschmidt’s account of fittingness in Thomas’ thought to be highly suggestive. It is the kind of motif that needs only to be pointed out and named in order to be thereafter observable all throughout the field of theology. In the locus of trinitarian theology alone, to which Thomas gave massive attention and to which Bauerschmidt also gives much, arguments ex convenientia enable theology to navigate a number of narrows and rapids that have sunk lesser crafts in recent decades. Much of the confusion generated by the Rahnerian style of radically economic trinitarianism could have been much better handled if the role of fittingness arguments had been recognized and respected.

With such a framework in place, may we not have bypassed the problematic, strong necessitarian arguments of “Rahner’s Rule,” and said instead that the economic Trinity fits the immanent Trinity?


Contemplata Aliis Tradere: Aquinas according to Bauerschmidt

(From a paper I read at ETS 2013 in Baltimore, as part of a panel responding to “Hillbilly Thomist” Fritz Bauerschmidt’s new book on Thomas Aquinas.)

The Oxford University Press series Christian Theology in Context promises to situate theologians in their cultures and histories, to “understand how theologies are themselves cultural products” and how theological texts are “forms of cultural power, expressing and modifying the dominant ideologies through which we understand the world.”

The series description opens with references to the sociology of knowledge and the discipline of cultural studies, and even launches out with a quotation from Karl Marx, reminding us that “life determines consciousness.” As manifestoes go, it sounds pretty subversive of settled orthodoxies.  But the series itself has not been programmatically subversive in any predictable way, proving instead to be an equal-opportunity subverter of orthodoxies, calling into question not only the ancient orthodoxies of Christian doctrine, but recent orthodoxies of critical scholarship. So while it has included some volumes that throw traditional theological figures into surprising cultural relief, it has also carried out its promise of “radically interdisciplinary analysis” by giving us rich readings of theologians in their ecclesial, spiritual, devotional, and in this case, monastic contexts.

Bauerschmidt’s Thomas Aquinas: Faith, Reason, and Following Christ is a book of this latter kind: it serves as an introduction to Thomas Aquinas and an overview of his work, but it does so by situating him a context often ignored. Thomas’ theology is, according to this book, “without reserve a theological project oriented to Dominican ends,” (x) and he is “a theologian who is aware in all that he writes of the evangelical purpose of the community of preachers to which he has given his life” (x). Acknowledging that “depending on the background, different aspects of Thomas’ thought stand out more vividly” (315), Bauerschmidt has tried to show “how Thomas appears when set against the background of the methods and aims of the thirteenth-century Order of Preachers” (315). The result is

a Thomas whose project is more ‘evangelical’ than philosophical –or perhaps philosophical in order to be evangelical—a Thomas for whom Jesus Christ is the one thing necessary, a Thomas who for all his affirmations of the world’s goodness is still a restless wayfarer who yearns for God’s kingdom. (315)

If the inevitable thrust of a “theologians in context” approach is to relativize doctrine, then at least in the hands of a Bauerschmidt the doctrine is being rendered relative to the right thing: the spiritual life of the church in service to divine revelation.

Blessed relativizing!

The attempt is successful, the volume is delightful, and the results are fruitful, in particular for putting the evangelical program of the thirteenth century into dialogue with the evangelical program of the twenty-first century. From among many possibilities, I would like to point out two prominent contributions that Bauerschmidt’s presentation of Thomas makes, which are instructive for evangelical theology in particular. The first one will be in this blog post, and then the second in a future blog post.

Contemplata aliis tradere: Handing on to others what has been contemplated.

It is a commonplace of medieval thought that theology is fides quarens intellectum, faith seeking understanding. But in a luminous section of this book, Bauerschmidt shows how Aquinas complemented this Anselmian insight with another phrase, one which he seems to have coined and which subsequently came to characterize the Dominican vocation: contemplata aliis tradere, or “handing on to others what has been contemplated.” For Thomas, theology is both, but the first is incomplete without the second:

The faith that seeks understanding finds its terminus not in the formulation of more and better theological conclusions, but in the simple act of gazing upon divine truth. In fides quaerens intellectum, one moves form the articles of faith through a discursive process to a deeper contemplative perception of the object of faith. In contemplata aliis tradere one moves from that deepened contemplative perception back through a discursive process of rearticulation of the truth that has been seen, so that others might share in the fruits of one’s contemplative insights. (174)

Bauerschmidt uses this spiritual and vocational key to unlock some of the puzzles of Thomas’ career path. Why was he in and out of university posts, serving two separate times in Paris as magister? Why did he return insistently to his vocation as a Dominican friar, such that “Paris and its university… were merely episodes in Thomas’ life,” while the network of Dominican schools in Naples, Viterbo, and Rome were his “natural habitat?” (ix) Why not become a secular master rather than a preaching friar? Why not take the tenured job and the opportunity to write more systematically in the exposition of Aristotle?

Bauerschmidt insists on “the obvious answer,” which is that “Thomas became a Dominican” because he “wanted to do what Dominicans were in fact founded to do: to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to care for souls, primarily through hearing confessions.”

 Thomas became a Dominican because he recognized with St. Dominic that, as Jean-Pierre Torrell puts it, ‘to announce what one has understood of the Gospel truth to someone deprived of it is to come to the aid of the worst poverty and to participate in the highest act of divine mercy.” (175, citing Torrell 381-2)

Thomas had a staggering desire to understand the truth, of course. But equally strong was his desire to hand on to others what he had come to learn. In the passage of the Summa where Thomas coins the phrase contemplata aliis tradere, he has been discussing why the contemplative life is superior to the active life. But he presses on to say that the highest life is the one that moves beyond contemplation to the teaching of the fruits of contemplation. “Faith seeks understanding not simply for its own edification, but in order to communicate the mysteries of faith in a way that conforms to the exigencies of rational animals.” (175)

At least two characteristics seem to be connected to the way Thomas conceives of the spiritual vocation of teaching, and both of them would be medicinal for contemporary theology, not least evangelical theology. First, there is a self-effacing character to this contemplata aliis tradere, emphasizing the things contemplated, the fruits of the encounter with them, rather than the personal characteristics of the theologian doing the contemplating or the passing along. Many writers on Thomas have said that he “doesn’t really have a personal style; you have the feeling that for him nothing he writes is his.” In his recent life of Thomas, Denys Turner traced this refusal “to be scintillating” or to draw attention to himself to his Dominican vocation:

 Everyone loves to quote the Thomas who says that it is better to cast light for others than merely to shine for oneself, and truly the Dominican motto, contemplata aliis tradere, the passing on to others what one has encountered in contemplation, is nearly as good as it gets as a précis of Thomas’s holiness.

Second, handing on the fruits of contemplation is an approach that keeps just the right amount of appropriate activism in the theological life, yoking our research and teaching directly to at least one of the spiritual works of mercy. Thomas the Dominican, or Thomas according to Bauerschmidt, exemplified this practical or active thrust for theology. It may be mind-boggling to think of the Summa Theologiae as a handbook designed to enable a vigorous preaching ministry, but such it is. If academic theology needs to learn to pay attention to the lives and needs of pastors and ministers of the word at the congregational level, which it can learn by taking on a little of the mendicant’s mindset, it also needs to learn from the astonishing attention span exhibited by the great Dominican teacher of preachers.

The churches of the Reformation have sometimes defined themselves over against the Roman Catholic church as confessing churches, churches that stand before God and are summoned to speak the truth to him and then about him, in distinction from the Roman magisterial stance of ecclesia docens, the authoritative church that hands down teaching to the people. There is a contrast of posture even when the substance of the doctrines is the same: Reformation churches look up to God and speak openly before his face, while the Roman church looks down responsibly to those who it is charged with teaching.

Whatever gestural indication of the truth this contrast may evoke, it is an overdrawn contrast and  has fallen out of fashion as “comparative symbolics” has declined. I only bring it up to indicate the way Roman Catholic and Protestant evangelical theologians may differ in their application of “handing on the fruits of meditation.” Protestant evangelicals have much to learn from Thomas about this vocation of the theologian. When we have learned this well and truly appropriated it, no doubt it will take on the Protestant inflection, and perhaps will be manifest in our theology as “passing on the fruit of confession.”


C.S. Lewis: on faces and how to get them

This morning, Fred Sanders and I participated in a chapel honoring C.S. Lewis’ life and works. Here’s a little reflection on a passage from Till We Have Faces:

Be careful of the story you tell yourself. This is some of the best advice my husband has ever given me. And, as we listen to the words of Orual in the climax of Till We Have Faces, she is coming to terms for the first time with the story she has been telling herself for her whole life.

Orual had always believed two things with perfect certainty: that she loved her sister Psyche, and that the gods had tricked her into betraying Psyche and ruining both of their lives. Here, Orual is finally given permission to bring her accusation against the gods. But when she tries to speak, a strange thing happens. Orual doesn’t end up giving all the arguments she had been rehearsing. She doesn’t justify her own actions, and she doesn’t prove that the gods were to blame.

I looked at the roll in my hand and saw at once that it was not the book I had written. It couldn’t be; it was far too small. And too old – a little, shabby, crumpled thing, nothing like my great book that I had worked on all day, day after day. I thought I would fling it down and trample on it. Yet I found myself unrolling it. It was written all over inside, but the hand was not like mine. It was all a vile scribble – each stroke mean and yet savage, like the snarl in my father’s voice. A great terror and loathing came over me. I said to myself, “Whatever they do to me, I will never read out this stuff. Give me back my Book.”

But already I heard myself reading it. And what I read out was like this: “I know what you’ll say. You will say that I was shown a real god and ought to know it. Hypocrites! I do know it. As if that would heal my wounds. You know well that I never really began to hate you until Psyche began talking of her palace and her lover and her husband. Why did you lie to me? You said a brute would devour her. Well, why didn’t it? I’d have wept for her and buried what was left and built her a tomb and . . . and. . .. But to steal her love from me! It would be far better for us if you were foul and ravening. We’d rather you drank their blood than stole their hearts. We’d rather they were ours and dead than yours and made immortal.

If you’d gone the other way to work – if it was my eyes you had opened – you’d soon have seen how I would have shown her and told her and taught her and led her up to my level. But to hear a chit of a girl who had (or ought to have had) no thought in her head that I’d not put there, setting up for a seer and a prophetess and next thing to a goddess . . . how could anyone endure it?

Oh, you’ll say you took her away into bliss and joy such as I could never have given her, and I ought to have been glad of it for her sake. Why? What should I care for some horrible, new happiness which I hadn’t given her and which separated her from me? Do you think I wanted her to be happy, that way? It would have been better if I’d seen the Brute tear her in pieces before my eyes. You stole her to make her happy, did you? I’ll thank you to let me feed my own; it needed no titbits from your table. Did you ever remember whose the girl was? She was mine. Mine. Do you not know what the word means? Mine! You’re thieves, seducers. That’s my wrong.”

“Enough,” said the judge.

There was utter silence all round me. And now for the first time I knew what I had been doing. While I was reading, it had, once and again, seemed strange to me that the reading took so long; for the book was a small one. Now I knew that I had been reading it over and over – perhaps a dozen times. I would have read it forever, quick as I could, starting the first word again almost before the last was out of my mouth, if the judge had not stopped me. And the voice I read it in was strange to my ears. There was given to me a certainty that this, at last, was my real voice.

At last the judge spoke.

“Are you answered?” he said.
“Yes,” said I.

The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

Instead, Orual gets confronted with herself. She says out loud for the first time the real thing that she had been saying in her heart all her life. And it turns out that while she has lots of justifications for her actions, Orual hasn’t known until this moment what her true motivations were. Orual finds out that she didn’t love her sister the way she thought she did. In fact, Orual was so angry that Psyche had been chosen by the gods, had been taken out of her control, that she would have preferred the gods had killed Psyche instead. Orual learns at this moment that she acted the way she did because wanted Psyche all to herself forever. She chose to destroy Psyche’s happiness, rather than allow Psyche to be happy without needing her.

Lewis is getting at so much in this myth, but I think one of the most important things he is doing is reminding me that really knowing what’s going on in my heart is way harder than I think it is. Even when I take the time to look inside myself (which is hard enough in a world as shiny and full of distractions as this one), I still have to examine what I find there carefully. Sometimes when I ask myself why I did something, my heart will try to tell me I had good reasons for doing what I did, that I was totally justified. My heart covers up the real reasons why I act, especially when those reasons are sinful.

You’re probably all familiar with Jeremiah 17:9 which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, who can understand it?” Most of the time when I hear that verse, I think it’s talking about other people’s hearts. I don’t remember that my heart is deceitful, and that sometimes the person it’s deceiving is me.

Sometimes after a fight with my husband, I lie in bed and rehearse all of the reasons why I’m in the right and he’s in the wrong. I revise my complaint again and again until I’ve phrased it perfectly, and then I imagine saying it to him, and watching him fill with remorse and beg for my forgiveness. But when I really consider my story honestly, I realize that I’m telling myself a lie. I’m telling the story so that I come out on top. I’m making myself the heroic victim, the one who did everything right, who suffered unjustly, but I know this isn’t true. This loud complaint is only masking my own fault; all of the ways I could have done better, but didn’t.

We all have motives we’re ashamed of. And we’re all pretty good at covering up those shameful motives, even to ourselves. But in this passage, Lewis is challenging us to uncover the true content of our hearts and take a good look at it.

In the end, Orual gets a gift from the gods. She gets to hear her story, not as she would like it to be, but as it truly is. She gets to meet herself face to face, and when she does that, she gets to meet God too. This is something I am still learning to do, and I need grace to do it. I want to know whether the story I’m telling myself is true. Am I making myself out to be the hero by editing out all of my selfish motivations? Am I making myself a victim to cover up the fact that I’m really feeling guilty for hurting someone else? When I know the answers to those questions I will be able to hear my own, true, voice. And only when I know what I’m actually saying will God be able to answer me.




The Praise of Perelandra

Excerpt from a chapel on the stories of C.S. Lewis, at Biola on Dec. 2, 2013.

I want to read to you a passage from the second book of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, from the book Perelandra. Though it’s from the final pages of the book, you don’t need any spoiler alert, and there’s no need to worry that I’m giving away the plot. Anything you could call a plot is long since over by this time, and all the characters have carried out all their significant actions. Yet the book keeps going on, and it goes on like this:

The Great Dance does not wait to be perfect until the peoples of the Low Worlds are gathered into it. We speak not of when it will begin. It has begun from before always. There was no time when we did not rejoice before His face as now. The dance which we dance is at the centre and for the dance all things were made. Blessed be He!

Maybe I should set this up a little bit more. It happens on Venus, after the Venus version of Adam and Eve face temptation and conquer it. An earthling named Ransom is there, along with a regular Noah’s ark of Venusian wildlife, and a bunch of angels. But angels are called eldila or Oyarsas, and Venus is called Perelandra, and Adam and Eve are called Tor and Tinidril, and they’re very tall. And green. And naked. Everybody’s naked for pretty much the whole book, which is one reason I’m not hoping for a movie version.

There are seventeen chapters in Perelandra, and it’s in the seventeenth that all the characters gather in a mountain valley and have a kind of awards ceremony like the one at the end of the first Star Wars. But unlike that celebration, this one features a speech. I wish I could tell you what kind of speech, but Lewis isn’t very much help with that. He describes it as a series of speeches, though they might have happened all at the same time. He describes it as a conversation, but he can’t specify which words were spoken by whom. He describes it as a game, as the Great Game, but then immediately switches the title to the Great Dance. It fits into a few pages, but when it’s over it has apparently taken one whole year –a Venusian year, of course.

The main character, Ransom, has just come through a gruesome struggle, really grappling hand to hand with evil incarnate in a disgusting and dehumanizing form. Weston the Un-man is worse than a zombie or a vampire, even worse than a demon. Ransom has won, but he hasn’t got his equilibrium back yet, and just before this final passage he fills most of a page with a series of questions: “I am full of doubts and ignorance,” he confesses, and asks one question after another about the structure of the cosmos, the meaning of life, the point of it all.

Ransom’s questions are good ones, but they’re not really answered in any direct way. They’re not exactly ignored, but they are thoroughly recontextualized. The closest he gets to an answer is “we would not talk of it like that.” Take that, puny mortal: “We would not talk of it like that.”

Well, how would they talk of it? Like this:

‘Never did He make two things the same; never did He utter one word twice. After earths, not better earths but beasts; after beasts, not better beasts, but spirits. After a falling, not a recovery but a new creation. Out of the new creation, not a third but the mode of change itself is changed for ever. Blessed is He!’

And another said, ‘It is loaded with justice as a tree bows down with fruit. All is righteousness and there is no equality. Not as when stones lie side by side, but as when stones support and are supported in an arch, such is His order; rule and obedience, begetting and bearing, heat glancing down, life growing up.  Blessed be He!’

That’s how they talk. Ransom wants to know where the center of the universe is, and guess what? They would not talk of it like that. The spirit of a planet speaks:

‘Though men  or angels rule them, the worlds are for themselves. The waters you have not floated on, the fruit you have not plucked, the caves into which you have not descended and the fire through which your bodies cannot pass, do not await your coming to put on perfection, though they will obey you when you come. Times without number I have circled Arbol while you were not alive, and those times were not desert. Their own voice was in them, not merely a dreaming of the day when you should awake. They also were at the centre. Be comforted, small immortals. You are not the voice that all things utter, nor is there eternal silence in the places where you cannot come. No feet have walked, nor shall, on the ice of Glund; no eye looked up from beneath on the Ring of Lurga, and Iron-plain in Neruval is chaste and empty. Yet it is not for nothing that the gods walk ceaselessly around the fields of Arbol. Blessed be He!

I was probably about seventeen when I read this, and it blew me away. I read that paragraph and immediately got up and paced the room and sat back down and wrote a sonnet. A terrible, terrible, terrible sonnet, bristling with semi-colons and too many exclamation points and fancy words. I will never let you read that poem. I also drew some pictures and later on I dug a hole. But the point is, this strange conclusion to a science fiction story just knocked art out of me. It took all the things I was taking for granted and proposed them to me as things that could actually be believed, embraced with the whole self, counted on, explored, investigated.

I don’t know what you think your deepest needs are. When I was seventeen, I had lots of ideas about my deepest needs. But this story came along sideways and bumped me out of those ruts, bumped me right out of the center of my own story, and let me know that I wasn’t the most important thing in the world. I think I already kind of knew this –I had recently become a Christian, so I had some idea of what the most important thing in the world was. But here was an angel or a planet or a planet-angel telling me this: “You are not the voice that all things utter.”

“You are not the voice that all things utter.”

All through the Space Trilogy, whenever an angel appears to an earthbound creature, the angel looks like it’s standing at a funny tilt. When Ransom asks why, the angel answers, “”I am not here in the same way you are here.” Ransom figures out what’s happening:

The planet which inevitably seemed to him while he was in it an unmoving world  … was to them a thing moving through the heavens. In relation to their own celestial frame of reference they were rushing forward to keep abreast of the mountain valley. Had they stood still, they would have flashed past him too quickly for him to see, doubly dropped behind by the planet’s spin on its own axis and by its onward march around the Sun.

You see what’s happening here? An earthling is realizing his frame of reference is not the absolute frame of reference! Maybe not even the right one, though it’s an understandable one.

Somehow this message was easier to understand when it came from naked green people on an imaginary planet in a science fiction novel. I’m not sure why. It’s Lewis’ fictive sneak attack, I suppose. He probably says something just like this in Mere Christianity. But most of Mere Christianity was boring to me the first time I read it. I didn’t have a taste for theology yet. But it was Perelandra that met me where I was.

In  Perelandra, Lewis was able to loosen up a little bit and say things more wildly than he would let himself get away with in sober, prosaic essay-writing. He may even have spent the whole book setting up a structure in which he could be this exuberant, this giddy, this effusive and lavish with his praise. I think chapters 1 through 16 are an excuse to get to 17. 

How about one more piece of it:

In the plan of the Great Dance plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed. Thus each is equally at the centre and none are there by being equals, but some by giving place and some by receiving it, the small things by their smallness and the great by their greatness, and all the patterns linked and looped together by the unions of a kneeling with a sceptred love. Blessed be He!

All things are by Him and for Him. He utters Himself also for His own delight and sees that He is good. He is His own begotten and what proceeds from Him is Himself. Blessed be He!

If I told you that a Christian novelist wrote a book about Adam and Eve in space, and that after the plot is resolved he devotes a whole chapter to the characters having a church service where they praise God, many of you would vomit. If I told you the chapter where they sang praises was the best chapter, you might be polite, but in your heart you’d question my literary judgment. But it’s the truth. Imagine that: every word of it is true.


First Lines of Theology Books

Joan Didion once said that the first line of a book is the decisive part. “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”

Didion was talking about essays, I think, but others (Hemingway?) have made the same claim about fiction. It got me thinking about theology books: what’s the best opening line of a theology book? The worst? As I wondered, I reached out and pulled down from the shelves the best-known texts I could see from my desk. Here’s what I came up with. Comments are open: if you know an especially good or especially bad first line, feel free to share.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism:

The purpose of this book is not to decide the issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself.

Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle. Here is no ‘genius rejoicing in his own creative ability.’ (Zundel).

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1:

The subject-matter, origin and content of the message received and proclaimed by the Christian community is at its heart the free act of the faithfulness of God in which He takes the lost cause of man, who has denied Him as Creator and in so doing ruined himself as creature, and makes it His own in Jesus Christ, carrying it through to its goal and in that way maintaining and manifesting His own glory in the world.


We enter that sphere of Christian knowledge in which we have to do with the heart of the message received by and laid upon the Christian community and therefore with the heart of the Church’s dogmatics; that is to say, with the heart of its subject-matter, origin and content.

Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope:

Eschatology was long called the ‘doctrine of the last things’ or the ‘doctrine of the end.’

Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God:

The cross is not and cannot be loved.

Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, v. 1:

Theology, as a function of the Christian church, must serve the needs of the church.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship:

Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church.

H. R. Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation:

What is the meaning of revelation?

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, v. 1:

The word ‘theology’ has many meanings.

T. F. Torrance, The Doctrine of God:

The Christian doctrine of God is to be understood from within the unique, definitive and final self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son, that is, from within the self-revelation of God as God become man for us and our salvation, in accordance with its proclamation in the Gospel and its actualisation through the Holy Spirit in the apostolic foundation of the Church.

Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, v. 1:

Publishing a system of theology is an irremediably hubristic enterprise.


The introductory chapters of this work are less ambitious than may be expected.

Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity:

What can be said prior to God’s identification must be said.

Colin Gunton, The Triune Creator:

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Colin Gunton, The Christian Faith:

To create is to establish, to bring into being something previously without existence.

Colin Gunton, The One, The Three, and The Many:

When William Morris said that ‘Modernism began and continues, wherever civilisation began and continues to deny Christ,’ he indicated that salient aspects of modern culture are predicated on the denial of the Christian gospel.

John Webster, Holiness:

This book is a Christian theological essay on holiness.

John Webster, Holy Scripture:

What follows is a dogmatic sketch of a topic much neglected in contemporary theology, namely, the nature of Holy Scripture.

David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite:

The rather prosaic question that initially prompted this long, elliptical essay in theological aesthetics, stated most simply, was this: Is the beauty to whose persuasive power the Christian rhetoric of evangelism inevitably appeals, and upon which it depends, theologically defensible?

Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: 

The apostle Peter distinguishes the gospel from ‘cleverly devised myths’ by rooting the former in eyewitness testimony (2 Pet 1:16).




The Dazzling Dusk

There are a few lines from a poem by Coventry Patmore that stick in my mind for their remarkable, evocative power. I first read them in a 1939 anthology by Walter de la Mare called Behold This Dreamer, a rambling collection of prose and poetry about “Reverie, Night, Sleep, Dream, Love-Dreams, Nightmare, Death, the Unconscious, the Imagination, Divination, the Artist, and Kindred Subjects.”

Smitten by the lines, I looked up Coventry Patmore and found that the lines were from the very long poem “The Angel in the House,” much of which I found uncongenially treacly. So I retreated from Patmore and stuck with the judicious selection of de la Mare. Less is more. In fact, one of the things I like about these lines of verse is that they capture the quintessence of romanticism, and I think I can see in them something that Wordsworth, though a finer poet, can’t manage to get across in a hundred pages.

Here are those lovely lines:

And then, as if I sweetly dream’d,
I half-remember’d how it seem’d
When I, too, was a little child
About the wild wood roving wild.
Pure breezes from the far-off height
Melted the blindness from my sight,
Until, with rapture, grief, and awe,
I saw again as then I saw.
As then I saw, I saw again
The harvest-waggon in the lane,
With high-hung tokens of its pride
Left in the elms on either side;
The daisies coming out at dawn
In constellations on the lawn;
The glory of the daffodil;
The three black windmills on the hill,
Whose magic arms, flung wildly by,
Sent magic shadows o’er the rye.
Within the leafy coppice, lo,
More wealth than miser’s dreams could show,
The blackbird’s warm and woolly brood,
Five golden beaks agape for food;

And, dearer far than anything,
Came back the songs you used to sing.
(Ah, might you sing such songs again,
And I, your child, but hear as then,
With conscious profit of the gulf
Flown over from my present self!)
And, as to men’s retreating eyes,
Beyond high mountains higher rise,
Still farther back there shone to me
The dazzling dusk of infancy.
Thither I look’d, as, sick of night,
The Alpine shepherd looks to the height,
And does not see the day, ’tis true,
But sees the rosy tops that do.