the reunion question

The outline of a proposal for tackling the schisms in Scottish presbyterianism has recently been put in the public domain. It’s by Rev K Stewart, titled ‘Reformed Scottish Presbyterianism: Reunion in the 21st century?’ and you should read it for yourself by clicking here.

This is a serious document which deserves to be taken seriously. The single biggest problem of our time (as far as I can see) is the lack of visible unity between the Lord’s people. That is to say, between Christians who confess the same Confession. Disunity is a glaring contradiction of our presbyterian principles and we are all implicated to a greater or lesser extent in the sins of schism and of tolerating schism.

The ecumenical movement has given unity a bad name. People who belong to doctrinally aware denominations which maintain a separate existence for known doctrinal principles are tired of explaining that mere organisational unity is not a desirable goal in itself. In these denominations, visible unity is maintained around a shared confession of faith, which by definition excludes from fellowship those who are doctrinally divergent. This is not schism. It is not schismatic to be separate from heretics. Organisational unity is worthless unless it is unity around the truth.

But although it is right to resist calls for unity with people and groups who we share nothing doctrinally in common with, it is never right to settle down comfortably in a state of separation from those who are in fact fellow-believers. Not heretics. When our brothers and sisters belong to different communions, that should always be a source of grief to us, something we can never regard complacently. Separateness from others is a statement to the effect that, as to doctrine, they are heretical, as to worship, profane, and as to discipline, immoral. This is why it matters so much. If we are one in Christ, we should be seen to be one in Christ. Organisational disunity is a scandal when we all hold to the same truth.

At the same time, achieving unity among those who all hold to the same truth is not straightforward. Mr Stewart’s paper identifies four denominations as requiring strict subscription to the Westminster Confession and committed to purity of worship as historically understood: APC, FCC, FP, RP. To recognise (even in general terms) each other’s commitment to the Confession and purity of worship is to acknowledge that we already share the most important things, and that it is the things of lesser importance which divide us. But the lesser things are not trivial things. There are reasons why we are separate and these reasons need to be faced squarely, evaluated honestly, repented of where necessary, and sincerely put behind us.

To be perfectly honest, I do not find that easy even to contemplate. Unfortunately for my own life of ease, I find it unavoidably necessary.

If we seriously accept the presbyterian vision of one united church, and the need to work towards it, then there are two possible ways of achieving it. Let me for the time being skip over several discussion-worthy points in Mr Stewart’s paper (did I mention that you should read it?) and zoom to the end where these possibilities are outlined. They are: either a new church solution or else an existing church solution. A new church solution would be where the four denominations form one new one, called, perhaps, the Reformed Church of Scotland. An existing church solution would be where one of the existing four acts as ‘host’ for the other three to merge into (the paper nominates, gently, the RPs for that role, although not ruling out another contender).

Trying my hardest to suppress my inner loyal Free Presbyterian and view the situation dispassionately, I can see enough pros and cons to both possibilities that I can’t actually decide which would be better even in theory. Even supposing things could be neatly agreed on the constitutional level, we would still be left with a complex tangle of sociological, cultural, and attitudinal factors to sort out. Since the only thing I’m clear on at the moment is that our current situation is unjustifiable, I’m just going to leave things here and not speculate from a position of uncertainty. Our splits are incompatible with our presbyterianism, so what can we do about it?

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chalmers

To my astonishment I learned last week that Thomas Chalmers has been accused of both Sandemanianism and Amyraldianism.

Frankly, I’m not sure which is worse.

Does anyone know if there is any substance to these accusations? If you google, you’ll only find people with axes to grind. So don’t google. Just tell me off your own bat what you know about Chalmers and his orthodoxy.

 

the risk

Still slowly working my way through the complete set of John Owen, currently in my custody until its rightful owners reclaim it, which hopefully won’t be any time too soon.

~

Faith is, actually, taking a leap. Not a leap into the unknown, though, but into the known, the truth. It’s still heart-stopping in its awfulness though, because of how your everything depends on the truth being true. Is it safe to take God’s word at face value? And look at all your stuff you’ve got to leave behind.

~

John Owen, Vol 9, p106:

In the midst of all our obedience which is our own, we must believe and accept of a righteousness which is not our own, nor at all wrought or procured by us – of which we have no assurance that there is any such thing, but by the faith we have in the promise of God: and thereupon, renouncing all that is in or of ourselves, we must merely and solely rest on that for righteousness and acceptance with God.

… [Paul] reckons up all his own duties – is encompassed with them – sees them lying in great abundance on every hand – every one of them offering its assistance, perhaps painting its face, and crying that it is gain. But saith the apostle, ‘You are all loss and dung – I look for another righteousness than any you can give me.’

Man sees and knows his own duty, his own righteousness and walking with God – he sees what it costs and stands him in. He knows what pains he has taken about it – what waiting, fasting, labouring, praying it hath cost him – how he hath cut himself short in his natural desires, and mortified his flesh in abstinence from sin. These are the things of a man, wrought in him, performed by him, and the spirit of a man knows them. And they will promise fair to the heart of any man that hath been sincere in them, for any end and purpose that he shall use them.

But now, for the righteousness of Christ – that is outside him. He sees it not, experiences it not – the spirit that is within him knows nothing of it. He has no acquaintance with it, but merely as it is revealed and proposed in the promises – wherein yet it is nowhere said to him, in particular, that it is his, and was provided for him, but only that it is so, to and for believers.

Now, for a man to cast away that which he hath seen, for that which he hath not seen – to refuse that which promises to give him a fair support in the presence of God, and which he is sure is his own, and cannot be taken from him, for that which he must venture on upon the word of promise, against ten thousand doubts, and fears, and temptations that it belongs not to him: – this the heart of a man is not easily brought unto.

Every man must make a venture for his future state and condition. The question only is, upon what he shall venture it? Our own obedience is at hand, and promises fairly to give assistance and help: for a man, therefore, wholly to cast it aside upon the naked promise of God to receive him in Christ, is a thing that the heart of man must be humbled unto. There is nothing in a man that will not dispute against this captivity of itself: innumerable proud reasonings and imaginations are set up against it, and when the mind and discursive, notional part of the mind is overpowered with the truth, yet the practical principle of the will and the affections exceedingly tumultuate against it.

But this is the law of God’s grace, which must be submitted unto, if we will walk with him. The most holy, wise, and zealous, who have yielded the most constant obedience unto God – whose good works and godly conversation have shone as lights in the world – must cast down all these crowns at the foot of Jesus, renounce all for him, and the righteousness that he hath wrought out for us. All must be sold for this pearl – all parted with for Christ.

In the strictest course of exactest obedience in us, we are to look for a righteousness wholly outside us.

i like the cycling best

Until recently, my attitude to the intergalactic egg and spoon race (as they’re calling it over at the Scottish Review) was nicely captured in this image doing the rounds on Facebook.

Nothing to do with the fact that we’re not actually coming last in everything, but it turns out that watching fantastically skilled people perform extremely well at things they already excel at is kind of amazing. The speed, the tension, the achievement – maybe Britain does got talent after all.

review: Royal Company

So like I say, I liked Malcolm Maclean’s book on the Song of Solomon.

First off, it’s safe to read. None of that sacrilegious misinterpretation that you get from, inter alia, that silly little man on ‘Mars Hill’, whose profanities once encountered remain impossible to scrub completely out of your mind. In Mr Maclean’s treatment, the Song is only one kind of poetic version of the same idea as is found all throughout the rest of the Scriptures, that the life of faith is an interaction between the soul and heaven, elsewhere portrayed as the relationship between anything from parent, shepherd, or potter, and child, sheep, or clay. If these images represent how the Saviour cares for his people and guides them and shapes them, then the Song shows us his love for them, and how they love him because he first loved them.

This is also an accessible book. I mean that, knowing you’re in safe hands as to the overall approach, the next worry is that you’ll be too unspiritual to reach the exalted heights of Christian experience that might well be dazzlingly displayed when the topic is something like this. But while I don’t doubt that older and wiser Christians will appreciate this book, it still somehow manages to let you follow along in your dim and plodding way. They say, in the context of describing marks of grace, that the hardest thing is to make the bar high enough to keep the goats out, while yet low enough that the sheep won’t stumble at it. To the extent that I’m capable of commenting, I think that some of that skill is behind a lot of the contents of this book.

But don’t let that make it sound superficial or simplistic. It’s not necessarily an easy read. If the life of faith is meant to include the kind of relationship between the Saviour and the believer that can be appropriately symbolised the way the Song does, then it exposes how little we know the Saviour when we love him so little, and show such disinterest in fellowship with him. It’s because he’s so trustworthy that we trust him. He is at least as loveable, so why don’t we love him, and want to spend time with him?
There is one school of thought, or maybe just an undercurrent of thinking, to the effect that if we’ve once trusted, then all we need to do is keep trusting and everything else will work itself out automatically – as if any talk of discipline, or self-discipline, or effort, in the Christian life is certain to be legalism, just a more subtle kind because it’s more about intangibles than external morality. But while we must affirm that the soul is completely passive in justification, we also affirm that there needs to be activity not passivity in sanctification. Activity in the sense of searching for Christ in the Scriptures, hoping to meet him in the sermon, wanting to hear back from him in prayer.
A different school of thought argues that fellowship with the Saviour is a myth or imaginary or vapid emotionalism, or similar. But while we must affirm that it is a mistake to prioritise internal experiences over the objective truth of the Word, we also affirm that believers enjoy communion as well as union with Christ (LC65) and experience in varying degrees things like assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, etc (SC36). Subjective and all as they are, they’re part of the ordinary package of benefits conferred on every believer from their effectual calling onwards.
Royal Company avoids drifting off in either of these unhelpful directions. There is both resting and working. There is both Christ for us and the Spirit in us. Which, when you think about it, is the obvious outcome of following the text itself: the reality of the believer’s love for Christ, the reality, causes, and consequences of fluctuations in the degrees of the believer’s love for Christ, and the constant, unwavering, infinite love of Christ for his people.

Something else I found helpful about this book is that it’s the first time I’ve seen the Song of Solomon interpreted as a consistent whole. (I’ve still to make the acquaintance of Durham and Moody Stuart.) Countless communion Saturday sermons on the Song of Solomon gives you some general impressions, but of course different preachers interpret the same verses in exactly opposite ways – unsurprisingly, when it’s such a richly metaphorical text. I’m already convinced that nobody will agree with Mr Maclean’s interpretation of every piece of symbolism in the book, but that’s nothing to worry about. What you get instead is a series of sensible suggestions which make the whole Song coherent and which fit with what can be established as Scripture’s teachings on doctrine and experience from other plainer places.

Just a couple of further points to comment on. One is that there is a refreshing emphasis on the fact that individual believers with their personal interactions with the Saviour are actually functioning in the context of a whole group of believers. Of course this is familiar as a doctrine: each believer needs, and has, a whole Christ – our Saviour is not shared out among us but belongs wholly to each, is a complete Saviour for each, however many are all exercising faith on him at the same time, and the fellowship of the saints is principally fellowship in Christ. But there are frequent reminders of how believers should (do, and should) provide a context where individual grace can flourish because collectively they have faith in living exercise. A congregation can be blessed when one individual is converted, or is recovered from backsliding, or grows in grace. And one individual is supported and encouraged and promoted in the faith by belonging to a whole congregation of believers. If grace in exercise is an intensely personal thing, it’s not something selfish, and this principle (souls are saved individually, but souls are not saved into isolation) crops up helpfully in several places in this book.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that there is also a useful emphasis on the use of the means of grace. Growth in grace doesn’t just happen automatically – it happens as the Holy Spirit blesses the diligent use of the means of grace. This includes both the private and (as if in a bid to forestall any concerns among our friends here at the Outhouse and here at Old Life) public means of grace. This book is no gateway to mysticism, as if spirituality should be measured in terms of how far it has succeeded in rising above the ordained means. Rather, this book understands sanctification as a process which takes place through the use of the means, including preaching, sacraments, bible reading, and prayer. The believer’s interaction with Christ in heaven takes place here and now on the earth, in the due use of ordinary means. The places where believers meet with Christ are in the pew and on the page – the Saviour they love is the one who reveals himself in word and sacrament. Since the end envisaged for these means is clearly communion and fellowship with Christ, this book strikes the right balance again, between resting in the means as an end in themselves, and grasping at the end to the neglect of the means.

So if you’re looking for a fresh and helpful comment on the Song of Solomon, this would be a good candidate.

Malcolm Maclean (2012). Royal Company: A Devotional on the Song of Solomon. Christian Focus. (Amazon.)