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.)

 

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3 thoughts on “review: Royal Company

  1. Does the author discuss the interpretive principles, and does he give any defence of his own approach?

    In my youth I had long exposure to “exposition” founded on the allegorical position, which left me scarred for life. Mostly, this involved invoking other parts of Scripture for anything remotely edifying or instructive and gave little sense of the wholeness of the Song and its distinct place in the canon; it never answered the question I had: why should allegorical interpretation, rejected for the rest of the Bible, still be allowed a place here, unless solely for reasons of prudery? Does the fact that it can lead different interpreters into “exact opposite” interpretations mean that it’s ever so slightly postmodern?

    I take your point on the silly man from Mars Hill. However, I still wait to be persuaded that we should depart from the hermeneutical principles that we use for all the rest of the Bible. Have you any suggestions?

    (Btw, “disinterest” still has the useful meaning of lack of prejudice; using it to mean lack of interest brings on aploplexy in aging pedants.)

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  2. Ha! I did dither over disinterest before deciding no one would mind. Read ‘lack of interest’ instead :-)

    The book is billed as a ‘devotional’ and seems to be based on a series of sermons, so it mentions technical questions incl hermeneutical principles only in the briefest way. The closest he comes to a defence of this approach (from what i could see) is a reference near the start to the fact that from the early church fathers to the early C20th, commentators treated it as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Also that reading it literally involves you in at least as much intepretative gymnastics as the allegorical approach can be accused of!

    As for rejecting allegorical interpretation in the rest of the Bible – do we? I thought it was more about rejecting allegorical interpretations of texts that don’t basically license them. If it’s a historical narrative, or theological disputation, it shouldn’t be allegorised, but if the text is itself an allegorical poem, then we need to know what it’s an allegory of. Or?

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