another week

… has passed since any new posts on here. Shameful. A couple of drafts are nearly ready to see the light of day and there are a couple of books that I’d like to tell you about at some point. Next week at the soonest though!

Owen’s vade mecum

John Owen said that William Guthrie’s little book, The Christian’s Great Interest, was his vade mecum – he carried it about with him all the time. There was more theology in it, he said, than in the tomes he had written himself. (Guthrie was a minister in the Scottish church in the 1600s. His cousin James was a Covenanter and was hanged in Edinburgh; his descendant Thomas was a colleague of Chalmers in the nineteenth century and organised the Ragged Schools.)

The whole point of the little treatise was, said Guthrie in the introduction, to speak of two things of the greatest concern: firstly, whether a person could justly lay claim to having been saved; and secondly, what a person should do if they couldn’t make such a claim.

So he describes what is true saving faith. It is variously expressed in Scripture, he says, according to the different ways that it acts. Sometimes it acts ‘by a desire of union with God in Christ,’ or as Isaiah describes it, as a looking to him. Or it is a hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Or, it is an act of recumbency – ‘leaning on the Lord, the soul taking up Christ then as a resting-stone, and so God hath held him out, although he be a stumbling-stone to others.’ Or it may be an act of waiting – ‘They shall not be ashamed that wait for me,’ it says in Isaiah 49.

But, he says, ‘it were tedious to instance all the several ways of the action of faith upon, and its exercise about, and outgoings after, Christ – I may say, according to the various conditions of man.’ Faith acts ‘variously and differently upon God in Christ: for faith is the very shaping out of a man’s heart according to God’s device of salvation by Christ Jesus, … so that, let Christ turn what way he will, faith turneth and pointeth that way.’ In fact:

“[Christ] turns all ways in which he can be useful to poor man, and therefore faith acts accordingly on him for drawing out of that fullness according to a man’s case and condition. As, for example, the soul is naked, destitute of a covering to keep it from the storm of God’s wrath; Christ is fine raiment, Rev 3:17-18; then accordingly faith’s work here is ‘to put on the Lord Jesus.’

The soul is hungry and thirsty after something that may everlastingly satisfy; Christ Jesus is milk, wine, water, the bread of life, the true manna, the feast of fat things and of wines on the lees well refined; then the work of faith is to go, buy, eat, and drink abundantly.

The soul is pursued for guilt more or less, and is not able to withstand the charge; Christ Jesus is the city of refuge, and the high priest there, during whose priesthood (that is, for ever) the poor man who escapes there is safe; then the work and exercise of faith is ‘to flee thither for refuge, to lay hold on the hope set before us.’

In a word, whatsoever way Christ may benefit a poor man, he declares himself able to do so. And as he holdeth himself out in the Scriptures, so faith doth point towards him. If he be a Bridegroom, faith will go out in a marriage relation; if he be a Father, faith pleadeth the man to be a child; if he be a Shepherd, faith pleads the man may be one of his sheep; if he be a Lord, faith calleth him so …; if he be dead and risen again for our justification, faith ‘beliveth God hath raised him’ on that account.

Wheresoever he be, there would faith be, and whatsoever he is, faith would be somewhat like him; for by faith the heart is laid out in breadth and length for him. Yea, when the fame and report of him goeth abroad in his truth, although faith seeth not much, yet it ‘believeth on his name,’ upon the very fame he hath sent abroad of himself, John 1:12.


language acquisition upside down

One place where the thorny problems of linguistic theory become most obvious and demand the most determined engagement is in the area of child language acquisition. (The other, I think, is language variation and change, unless I just say that because these are what I find the most interesting.)

Take the concept of language structure. The belief that language has structure is, naturally, fundamental to the discipline of linguistics. But it is possible to understand this in radically different ways.

According to Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff in their book, Origins of Grammar, theorising about child language is generally done according to one of two broad approaches, which they characterise as “outside-in” versus “inside-out”. “Outside-in” includes social-interactional theories and cognitive theories; “inside-out” includes the various permutations of nativism.

One of these approaches, they say, “contends that language structure exists outside the child, in the environment.” If I didn’t tell you any more, would you be able to say which of the two options – ‘interactionist’ or ‘nativist’ – was being described here?

In fact, HP&G are referring to social-interactional/cognitive theories as believing that language structure exists outside the child (nativist theories rely instead on the innate language-specific knowledge).

Now it is quite possible that some theorists on the interactionist side do believe in language structure as having some sort of real-if-‘abstract’, independent existence. This would betray itself by, for example, the use of terms like “finding” or “discovering” things like “units” (or the boundaries between units) such as segments, morphemes, phrases, clauses in the ambient language. Such interactionists would then share with nativists the view that (spoken) language embodies or comprises real-if-‘abstract’ units organised in a real-if-‘abstract’ structure, and as the job of speakers is to produce speech with these properties, so the job of the listener is to recognise or calculate the identity of the units in what they hear and the relations between these units.

But a much more interesting prospect is the type of ‘interactionist’ approach that does not impute such reality to language structure at all. That is the view that the raw data of spoken language must be clearly distinguished from the analysis which an observer (lay or specialist) might undertake of it. In other words, there is no implicit structure lurking there in speech, whether phonological or syntactic: structures are inferred by analysts and act as handy descriptive/analytical tools, but they’re not really there. It is a serious criticism of some schools of thought that they treat the analysts’ analysis as being in fact what language is composed of – as though analytical constructs such as noun, verb, IP, DP, etc, actually are somehow or somewhere embodied in utterances. It’s one thing to say that when linguists want to get a handle on what people produce/hear they need to identify units and categorise things – these units and categories are convenient as technical descriptions in order that specialists can spot patterns and talk to each other about them. It’s another thing to say that spoken language consists of these units and categories such that the linguist’s task is to discover them (rather than impose them).*

As Joseph et al (2001: 60) put it, “whereas for the psychologistic structuralist speech comes about through implementation of the speaker’s knowledge of a systematic linguistic structure, for Firth the systematic structure is a linguist’s fiction, resulting from the attempt to understand speech.”** Thus (for example) the nativist scours the child’s productions in order to establish which aspects of linguistic structure must have unfolded in their mind by that point – the more interesting varieties of interactionism make use of structure, on paper, in the analysis, only as a tool to understanding what the child understands.

If both sides in the field of language acquisition, the interactionist and the nativist, share the conceptualisation of the linguist’s task as being one of discovering linguistic structure that actually exists out there/in language, then the differences between the two approaches shrink rather dramatically. But when this conceptualisation is not shared, it makes the ‘interactionist’ approach much harder to evaluate on ‘nativist’ terms, for one thing, and more importantly it keeps the idea of “language structure” where it belongs, in the realm of open questions needing discussion. Linguistic descriptions are convenient (-to-the-linguist) if not indispensible ways of categorising bits of utterances, but they have no life of their own.

*Some books/articles talk about things like Ross’s “discovery” of his island constraints: it would be better to think of things like this as inventions, not discoveries.

** Note the F-word. Amazing chap, obviously, this Firth. I was mightily relieved and heartened to come across that section of Joseph (2001) shortly after tortuously writing an essay labouring to express this point in an essay many moons ago.

faith not merely intellectual

James Buchanan (C19th Scottish theologian) and the orthodox view of faith, with original capitalisation retained:

“Some have held that it [saving faith] is a mere intellectual belief, involving no gracious affection of any kind – an opinion which has been maintained on different grounds, and applied to different purposes, by two parties standing apparently at opposite extremes on the subject of Justification – by Popish writers, with the view of showing that faith is only a preparatory disposition, and has no value or efficacy until it is ‘informed by charity’; and by Sandemanian writers, with the view of excluding from it everything but ‘the truth believed’; lest by conceiving it to include trust, or reliance, or gratitude, or love, we should thereby make justification to depend on some other ground than the finished work of Christ. So far these parties, although placed at opposite extremes, have met, and occupied common ground; but beyond this point, they differ materially from each other, since the former have maintained that the faith of which they speak, and which is evidently nothing more than the ‘dead faith’ which James rejects, is not necessarily productive of love, or effectual for justification without it; while the latter have held that a true scriptural faith, although it consists only in the truth believed, is … invariably productive of trust, gratitude, and love, as its immediate effects, and through them of universal holiness in heart and life.

In opposition to both, Protestant divines have generally held that faith itself is a spiritual grace, and that every act of faith is an act of obedience, since it is one of the fruits of the Spirit which can only be implatned along with a spiritual apprehension of the truth, and a cordial approbation of it, while every exercise of faith is in conformity with the requirements of God’s revealed will; and yet they have denied that its being such is at variance with the doctrine of a free justification by the vicarious satisfaction and righteousness of Christ, simply because they exclude faith istself, as well as all its fruits – whether more or less immediate – from forming any part of the ground of our acceptance with God. …

It [faith] is there [in Scripture] described sometimes as the belief of the Truth – sometimes as trust in a Person – sometimes as ‘looking unto Jesus,’ like the wounded Israelite when he looked to the brazen serpent – sometimes as ‘fleeing for refuge to the hope that is set before us’ – sometimes as ‘coming to Christ’ that we may find rest for our souls – sometimes as ‘receiving Christ’ – sometimes as ‘resting on him’ as the sure foundation – sometimes as committing our souls to him …

By all these various expressions, and many more, which are for the most part figurative, … the Holy Spirit has set forth the gracious principle and actings of saving faith, while He has recorded many instructive exemplifications of it, in the life of Abraham and the patriarchs under the Old Testament, and in the cases of ‘the woman that was a sinner,’ the Syrophenician, the malefactor on the cross, the gaoler at Philippi, and many more, under the New Testament, whose faith we are called to follow, considering the end of their conversation, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and for ever.

These figurative descriptions, and practical exemplifications, of Faith, seem to have been multiplied on purpose, to guard us against the danger of resting in defective views of it, and to impress our minds with the conviction that, while all true faith is saving, all faith is not true – that there is a ‘dead’ as well as a ‘living’ faith – and that it nearly concerns our everlasting salvation to discriminate aright between the two, and still more to test our own faith by its fruits.”

walking home

Today I acquired the Book of Mormon and parted with my mobile number.

I’m too embarrassed to put it on Facebook, so I’ll just discreetly mention it to the rest of the world here.

As if I didn’t have enough things to think about than whether to meet with zealous cultists.

Poor souls. Not only wrong, but unhappy with it.

revival and the QIRE

[Warning: Very Long Post.]

Here is a book that cheered me up immensely – Recovering the Reformed Confession, by R Scott Clark. It’s all about what it means to be Reformed, and the need to justify your claim to the label by a clear commitment to the theology, piety, and practice delineated in the historic Reformed confessions of faith (Westminster, Heidelberg, Belgic, etc).

There is something fascinating and thought-provoking on every page, and there’s just a small chance I might get round to a proper review of it at some point. (He identifies several areas where today’s Reformed-by-title community has departed from historic Reformed doctrine, piety, and practice, and outlines what needs to be done in order to recover the lost Reformed identity. Lots of valuable historical perspective, useful insights, and practical suggestions. There is a refreshingly robust and accurate discussion of the Regulative Principle, and of what it means to be “confessional”, and plenty other good things.)

There was, however, one place where it proved quite difficult to follow the argument.

That was in the chapter on the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience. This, I think, is an extremely useful concept in itself – it’s defined on p5 as “the pursuit of the immediate experience of God without the means of grace (i.e., the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments) … the attempt to experience him in a way that he has not ordained.” Examples offered in chapter 3 include mediaeval mysticism, and the contemporary tendency for people to talk about having a word from the Lord on a matter, as if they had received some sort of private revelation. “If someone asks, ‘What is God teaching you these days?’ one has the sense that the expected answer is not to be a summary of this week’s sermon or reflection on the significance of baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but an insight derived from a special experience or private revelation” (p73).

However, the bulk of this chapter is taken up with what I find to be a puzzling critique of revivals. The main point seems to be that, “taken individually or as a whole, the revivals represent a subjectivism that is alien to the Reformed confession” (p82). “American revivalism is a continuous history of the quest for the immediate encounter with or heightened experience of God distinguished by different soteriologies (Calvinism in the eighteenth century and Arminianism in the nineteenth century) and only relatively different methods. The moderate showmanship of George Whitefield … was really a prototype for Charles Finney’s New Measures, Dwight L Moody’s businesslike approach, and the outrageous stunts of Sister Aimee and Billy Sunday” (p98-99).

Rather than expecting Christian experience to be embedded in the due use of the ordinary means, looking for revival entangles you in (i) looking for unusual providences, (ii) focusing on religious feelings/experiences rather than the objective truths of Christ’s person and work, and (iii) striving for personal religious experiences rather than organising the Christian life around the shared means of grace. This, from what I can see, is what the criticism boils down to.

But the reason for finding this puzzling is twofold.

One factor is that no distinction is drawn, so far as I can see, between revival and revivalism. Earlier in the book a helpful distinction was made between piety and pietism – piety being the Christian life (good), as distinct from pietism, ‘a retreat into the subjective experience of God’ independent of doctrinal orthodoxy (much less good). But no parallel distinction is made for revival and revivalism. The position of Iain Murray (which I’m not familiar with in detail) that the two are different and even opposed to each other is stated but dismissed. Yet this is an analogously helpful way of thinking about the issue. For every kind or aspect of religious experience which is graciously and supernaturally given by the Holy Spirit, there is almost always some synthetic approximation or alternative in competition. This is true for the Christian graces, for example – Christian humility is a grace which natural modesty cannot compensate for, and joy in the Holy Spirit is qualitatively different from natural exuberance, etc. It’s also true of the benefits of redemption – the stupor of an never-disturbed conscience, for example, is wholly other than, and not to be confused with, the real benefit of peace of conscience granted by the Holy Spirit as something which accompanies or flows from justification, and so on. The possibility, then, that large scale artificially induced religious excitement might be the ersatz equivalent of a real phenomenon, where divine grace brings about the conversion of many souls at once and the intensifying of the faith/love/devotion of existing believers, should not be dismissed too lightly. The Reformation itself, so many would say, was a revival – the Holy Spirit working on a grand scale, bringing many souls from darkness to light, and granting a deeper and clearer understanding of the Scriptures than there had been for many years. There were also nineteenth century revivals in Scotland which were quite independent of the American import, Moody and Sankey. And the standardly recognised characteristics of these remarkable outbursts of religious activity, which marked them as revivals granted by the Spirit instead of humanly generated ‘enthusiasm’, include things like commitment to orthodox doctrine, a sense of sin which corresponded to the Scriptures’ view of sin, and lasting effects in the holiness of the lives of the professed converts. Looking and longing for revival is distinct from indulging in revivalism, is not guilty of the three accusations (i)-(iii) just mentioned.

The other factor is, I think, that (as a consequence?), the chapter as a whole hits at the wrong targets. The writings of Jonathan Edwards come in for particular criticism: it is said that Edwards “gave himself the nearly impossible task of trying to delineate proper religious experience from improper religious experience” (p92). Edwards did indeed write a great deal on religious experience. His Religious Affections remains to this day a manual for self-interrogation of a most searching, almost frightening, kind – not something to read lightly. But even if it’s a difficult task, it’s not an impossible one, to discriminate between “proper” and “improper” religious experience. There are false kinds of joy, false kinds of attentiveness on the preached Word, spurious shouts of Hosanna, and counterfeits of every thing that the living soul does or feels. Pastors need to be able to demonstrate, in case there is anyone in the pew who is worried, that grace is real, and grace is different from nature, and grace differs from nature in x, y, and z specific ways. Asking the question, How do I know that I’m saved, is not an inappropriate turn to the subjective – focusing on the objective is always necessary, but it’s not sufficient – it doesn’t fully take into consideration (for one thing) the difficulties which people sometimes have, when they fully accept the doctrines but still can’t tell if their use of the ordinary means is giving them any experience of God whatsoever. So it’s all very well to say that the church evaluates a profession of faith by a credible profession a corresponding life (p114), but an individual within the church needs to know that the faith they profess is real. Of course behaviour is the proof of faith, and the proof of your justification is in your sanctification, but how can you tell if your outward behaviours genuinely spring from a renewed heart rather than being merely hypocritical? The truth is true, but is it true to me? And so on and so forth.

It is also said that Edwards expected true converts to show something extra, in addition to orthodox belief and the ordinary Christian life – “he demanded more, an extraordinary experience of grace” (p94). Agan I’m not hugely familiar with everything that Edwards ever wrote. I’ve never been bold enough to read Religious Affections. But it’s one thing to describe and defend the reality of extraordinary experiences, and another thing to demand them in any professed believer’s life. Was Edwards really not sensitive to this distinction? Surely in his treatment of religious experience he was only following the footsteps of the English Puritans, who described in great detail their observations of the effects of grace in people’s spiritual lives – and did indeed describe, not prescribe, out of a desire (often explicitly stated) to respect the sovereignty of the Spirit in the diversity of his operations in individual souls. (Or for a Scottish example, think of Boston’s “strokes” – descriptive, not prescriptive, again.)

Prof Clark is no doubt writing in a context where revivalism is a big problem, a context I know very little about. No doubt there is a crying need for the Reformed church at large to return to a piety that is shaped by the Scriptures (try the Psalms in particular) instead of the traditions of the past 60-80 years, and pious sentimentalism. (Archibald Alexander said something to the effect that Christian experience will be defective to the extent that familiarity with the Scriptures is lacking.) I’m very happy to accept Prof Clark’s repeated statements that he believes there is an important place for the subjective aspects of religion, and that there is such a thing as ardent, heartfelt religious experience, and so on: it would be wrong to read any of this as endorsing some kind of sandemanianism. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that exposing the real and serious flaws of revivalism, or nurturing the ‘right kind’ of piety (p110), is best done in the manner of this chapter.

(This is, though, the only serious question mark that attaches to this book as far as I’m concerned. Recovering the Reformed Confession, by R Scott Clark (2008). It’s definitely worth the read.)