things I never knew were scottish

Turnip. T.u.r.n.i.p.

Turnip. T.u.r.n.i.p.

Obviously I knew about the accent,  oatcakes and shortbread, the general chippiness and snobbery, oxters and the procurator fiscal.

But some things turn out to be Scottish and I would never have known:

  • empire biscuits
  • those pineapple tarts with a blob of cream and yellow icing, a highly sought after delicacy among some southerners apparently
  • the word sook
  • nice water. Even after growing up cringing at that advert for a particular brand of tea leaves ‘specially blended for soft Scottish wottir,’ it comes as a surprise that this far south, English woatah is hard and chalky and does actually do funny things to the taste of your brew
  • the heel of a loaf, meaning the end bits
  • turnips, which down here they call swedes, while perversely they call swedes turnips.

Oh, and I also knew about saying ‘stay’ instead of ‘live,’ but in the heat of the moment in actual conversation I can never remember which is which, so I just always look slightly foolish for getting all tongue tied over such a straightforward factual matter.

In fairness I should probably also compile a list of things I thought were just myths about the English but are in fact true, except the only one I can think of off the top of my head is such a flagrant breach of the norms of civilised society that I’m almost too embarrassed for them to mention it in public, but:

  • the English can actually turn up half an hour early when you’ve asked them round to the house. #mortified

emotion in religion

puzzle heart emotional or medical solutionThis post contains my leftover thoughts that went on too long to include in the review of Stuart Olyott’s book, Something Must be Known and Felt. I refrained from titling it ‘totes emosh.’

Over-emphasising the emotions

Someone still needs to write a book for our times which explains that the emotions are not paramount in the Christian life. If the emotions are granted unique priority in the Christian life, the danger is of a lopsided version of Christianity which causes needless trouble to believers and diverts the focus away from the worship of the Saviour.

In the first instance, we are justified by faith, not by feeling. Then as we go on, we walk by faith, not by sight or sense. Faith, that is, in Christ as he is revealed in the Word – not the absolute, unmediated God, not a Christ of our own imaginings, but the personal Word made known in the inscripturated Word. Losing our conviction on this leaves us in danger of mysticism.

For believers, it is also helpful to remember that some people are naturally temperamentally more emotional than others – more able to enthuse about what’s important to them, more susceptible to tugs at the heart strings. This doesn’t necessarily change when they become believers, as obviously it’s not a bad thing, but neither does it make them more saintly believers when they feel things (or seem to feel, or say they feel) more movingly than other believers. The copious shedding of tears is no guarantee of sincerity of anyone’s repentance, nor the exuberance of their joy any sure sign of having an honest and good heart. What’s important is that the affections of the soul are genuinely drawn out, and in the right direction (to love the Lord, hate sin, etc), not how intensely – to be rightly affected, more than to be deeply affected. Any tendency to forget this leaves us in danger of sentimentalism.

Again, it is surely a fact of Christian as well as human experience that although after a dramatic discovery (such as the gospel, or the liberty of the gospel, may be) our hearts will initially be full of lively reactions, yet over time things calm down, and the excitement gives way to a more settled kind of satisfaction and steady appreciation. When long time believers discern less passion and enthusiasm in their hearts than they used to have for the things of grace, this need not automatically be taken as evidence of a cold dead backslidden state. In the realm of the emotions, an unswerving attachment to the Lord and ongoing opposition to (their own) sin can be the older Christian’s time tested counterpart to the newer Christian’s irrepressible enthusiasm. Similarly, we usually aren’t capable of living at emotional extremes for very great lengths of time. Whether it’s an exalted mountain top experience, or plumbing the depths of sorrow, it doesn’t last all our lifetime. So the fact that at some given moment a believer isn’t consciously consumed with overflowing love for the Lord or prostrating grief for sin is again hardly automatic grounds to write them off as lacking in spiritual life, if, like Peter, they can ultimately appeal to the Lord as to whether they have any attachment to him, and have an abiding weariness for this body of death. Failing to recognise this leaves us in danger of binding hard to bear psychological burdens on ourselves and others.

Finally, there’s something undeniably interesting about yourself and what’s going on in your life, including your inward life. That slightly narcissistic instinct to take magazine quizzes designed to reveal your personality type, or whatever drives you to find your own medical conditions quite fascinating, doesn’t instantly disappear when someone becomes a believer. Instead it can resurface in the form of wanting to monitor your own spiritual condition all the time – only listening to the minister in the hopes he’ll describe your own case and spiritual experience, and only using the Bible to find passages which you can use to gauge how high or low your own spiritual liveliness might be right now. Although there is a place for ministers to describe cases (for reassurance) and although self examination is necessary, a constant emphasis on the inward only tends to encourage people to pursue the thrill of self discovery, always to fallen nature an easier and more enticing prospect than to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings. It tends, in other words, to introspection.

Under-emphasising the emotions

However, someone also still needs to write a book which explains that the emotions are not irrelevant in the Christian life. If the emotions are completely disregarded in the Christian life, the danger is of an underdeveloped version of Christianity where believers don’t grow in a well rounded way and even detracts from the worship the Lord requires, the kind that engages the whole soul.

On the one hand, then, there is the lure of activism. This was Olyott’s original insight about methodology taking the place of experience in contemporary Christianity. Where there is no encouragement to believers to develop their relationship with the Lord, something has to replace it, and often the readiest replacement is shifting the focus away from how the Lord can bless us, and instead on to how we can do great things for the Lord – winning souls, maybe, or lots of busy worship services. Communion with the risen Christ is something that needs to be cultivated – it involves setting aside time for Bible reading, prayer, sermon hearing, sacrament partaking, fellowshipping with the saints, and meditation – and all of these with more of an eye to what we can get from the Lord than what we can give. But the outcomes are barely tangible, at least in the short term, and if you’re reporting in metrics that unbelievers can recognise or appreciate – assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, perseverance therein to the end, and the like. Rather than sitting down with David from time to time to reflect wonderingly and adoringly on the freeness and glory of the grace of God to us, the preference is for action, busyness, doing, and works. If it can’t be overtly observed and measured in earthly terms, it hardly seems worth the effort – even though we purport to serve a God who is more interested in the heart than in the outward appearance – who, even when he gifts a Paul or Apollos, reserves the right to bless as he sees best – and who carefully, tenderly bends his ear to hear poor pitiful cryings from miserable dark places long before he acknowledges the thank yous from people who are too busy with their religious activity to see any particular need of his mercy right now.

And on the other hand, there is the temptation to formalism. This is where believers (especially those who aren’t attracted to activism) pare things down to just doctrine and ethics, and refuse to give experience or the emotions any house room at all. This is, of course, neither good doctrine – as the Scriptures (and our creeds) recognise us and address us in the whole person, not intellect alone, not will alone, and not emotions alone – nor good practice – as formally correct behaviour which doesn’t flow from a heart that’s right with God doesn’t qualify as the obedience of faith at all. While we rightfully want to avoid the pursuit of illegitimate religious experience, this shouldn’t be at the expense of repudiating legitimate religious experience as well. Scripture teaches us, it stands to reason, and a renewed will should choose it, that we should love the Saviour, be kindly affectioned one toward another, sorrow for sin, mourn when God’s law is broken, be refreshed when the Lord makes his face shine on us, and rejoice not in iniquity but in the truth.

In conclusion

Because we are human, we are feeling, affective, emoting beings as well as rational and volitional. Our emotions can be abused (by ourselves or others) when too much prominence is given to what we feel about religion, or in religion – but when the emotions are stifled, this has a bad effect on our souls (and our religion) as a whole. Our feelings as much as our mind and will need to be guided by Scripture – so that we feel, know, and choose as much as Scripture says we should, and at the same time feel, know, and choose only up to the point that Scripture permits. (That’s something for believers, at any rate. As unbelievers we obviously first need regeneration in order to feel, know, and choose anything right in any degree whatsoever.) Our God has planned, accomplished, and is applying a redemption that takes care of the whole person – the whole body and the whole soul – and the thankful response we owe to him for this should now, and will eventually, engage us to the utmost of all our capacities. (‘While I live I will praise the Lord. I will sing praises unto my God while I have any being.’)

known and felt

SomethingMustBeKnownAndFeltStuart Olyott’s new book, Something Must be Known and Felt, wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Wherever I’d seen it advertised, I’d got the impression this was a book on the emotions in Christian experience, and so I looked forward to a useful corrective to sentimentalism and mysticism on one hand and intellectualism and formalism on the other.

What it turns out to be, though, is both something more than that, and yet at the same time something slightly less.

The plus points

The chapters, for one thing, range over a fairly wide set of topics, not limited to the emotions. The most outstanding of these is a chapter on assurance. This covers the teaching of scripture that assurance of salvation is to be sought and is ordinarily to be expected by all believers, before dealing with the various (mistaken) reasons why not all believers do expect or experience it. There is a very straightforward and helpful discussion of how true assurance can be found, and by contrast the characteristics of false assurance. The chapter does not conclude without describing, again very plainly and cogently, the indispensable work of the Holy Spirit in granting assurance. This is all set out so clearly and concisely, in the space of just a few pages, that this chapter alone almost justifies the whole book.

If assurance is the best chapter, the second best is the one on regeneration. In 2009, the Banner of Truth magazine published an article by Mr Olyott on the error of mediate regeneration and the importance of affirming immediate regeneration. (Mediate here obviously refers to ‘using means,’ and immediate to ‘not using means.’) This article was easily the most excellent thing the Banner magazine had published for donkey’s years –fresh, pointed, topical, and compelling. Much of the substance of that article now makes an appearance in the chapter on ‘The Holy Spirit’s work in the soul.’ Olyott sets out the case that when the Holy Spirit regenerates a soul, he works on the human heart directly, without using any means – not even the Word itself. ‘[Regeneration] is not brought about by some influence or instruction from outside, but by the implanting of new spiritual life inside. The Holy Spirit does not work by the Word upon the will, but in the will itself, changing a person’s desires and giving to the active powers of his soul a completely new direction’ (p39). This is of course normally done in the context of the Word – if the first acts of the newly regenerated soul are faith and repentance, it’s only in the Word that the Christ to believe in and the God to repent towards are revealed. Or in other words, ‘The Holy Spirit gives them sight, but what they see is the truth of the Word. The Holy Spirit gives them hearing, but what they hear is the voice of Christ in the Word. The Holy Spirit gives them feeling, but what they love is the Word. The Holy Spirit gives them a new nature, and, as a result, they now freely choose to embrace Jesus Christ, who is presented to them in the Word’ (p39). Again, this chapter contributes considerably to the value of the book.

On the topic of the emotions itself, Mr Olyott has given us a much needed reminder that there is more to biblical religion than doctrine only or practice only. As he says right at the start:

‘Today’s Christianity is largely composed of doctrine (believing the right things), ethics (behaving in the right way) and methodology (doing church and evangelism in the best possible way). It is a three-legged stool, but it is not the same shape as the three-legged stool of God’s Word. There we find that methodology is not of any great importance. The three legs on which biblical religion stands are doctrine, ethics and experience – God’s revealed truth is believed, it is lived out, and it is felt.’ (p5)

Even if I was mistakenly expecting a treatment of the emotions, this book is actually an extended plea for what used to be called something like spiritual mindedness – which does include the emotions, but Mr Olyott is right to includes things like prayer, guidance, and ‘the felt presence of Christ,’ alongside. People don’t always like the term ‘spiritual’ any more, for fear that it’s too reminiscent of contemporary forms of ‘spirituality’ which reject the Scriptures and Biblical forms of worship. But believers do need to be spiritually minded, to care more about unseen, eternal, heavenly, divine realities than about temporal and earthly things. Believers need to be godly, living a life of communion with and adoration of the one living and true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Believers need to be God-fearing, in awe of his holiness and majesty, concerned to be and do what pleases him and careful to avoid what displeases him. But godly, God-fearing, spiritually minded saints are notable more by their absence than by their quiet, unassuming presence among us – probably we can all remember some who were very old when we were very young, who lived and breathed an atmosphere of heavenliness, of devotion to the Lord and prayerful kindness towards the people around them – but there don’t seem to be so many of them around any more, even among older Christians. Mr Olyott’s book is a like a voice out of that dimly remembered past, prompting us to consider seriously that this is a real loss, both to individuals and to the church collectively – and that we shouldn’t be content to go on without having close personal dealings with the Lord.

My quibbles
I did have the occasional reservation though, as I couldn’t help feeling that the high standard of this material wasn’t maintained consistently throughout the book as a whole.

One minor thing to get off my chest to start with is that the discussion of the emotions itself was undermined by what seems to be an unnecessarily strong commitment to a particular view of the makeup of the soul – namely, that it is composed of just two faculties, intellect and will (the emotions are treated as ‘strong movements of the will’). Obviously, this isn’t a technical tome, so any reasonably mainstream view capable of being briefly expressed in layman’s terms is arguably fit for purpose, but as nobody regards the question of the number of the faculties as unequivocally revealed in scripture, it doesn’t seem necessary to insist so strongly on this particular view. (Thomas Boston in the Fourfold State explains in turn how each of five faculties of the soul have been affected by the fall ­– mind, will, affections, conscience, and memory.) It might even be better to avoid discussing distinct faculties of the soul altogether, and instead see what we think of as ‘the will’ as an activity of the whole soul willing, and ‘the conscience’ as an activity of the whole soul judging. But in any case, as I say, this is only a minor point.

Something that bothered me more was towards the end of the chapter on regeneration. The chapter concludes with a series of anecdotes which are intended to demonstrate immediate regeneration – examples of people who were prompted to seek God or pray to God without having first read the Bible. Although there’s no reason to doubt that these situations really happened, they remain unconvincing as evidence for immediate regeneration. The way to demonstrate immediate regeneration is not to search for instances of people who have been regenerated in isolation from the Word, because that is not the Holy Spirit’s normal way of working – in adults, or in anyone with mental capacity to understand the truth, he regenerates them, immediately of course, but nevertheless always in the context of the Word. As it is inaccurate to say the Word regenerates, so it is inaccurate to say the Spirit regenerates apart from the Word – while the act of regeneration itself is an immediate divine act, the environment and atmosphere where souls are regenerated is in the Word. To the challenge, ‘how can you explain these anecdotes if you don’t believe in immediate regeneration,’ at least one possible line of response springs to mind. Specifically, it isn’t right to say that every inexplicable impulse to come to know God is regeneration – granting that what these various people experienced could well have been a prompting from the Holy Spirit, we still can’t say it was regeneration if there was no known Word as to the identity and nature of the Saviour they were to believe in. The prompting, in other words, would be better interpreted as part of a preparatory (or if you don’t like the term, just a previous-to-actual-regeneration) work of the Spirit. Many people have strange impressions about needing to find God, without ever finding him, but mercifully in these cases these people were led on to find a church, find out about the Bible, and be converted. There needs to be a distinction made between ‘the Holy Spirit working outside the ordained means of grace’ and ‘the Holy Spirit regenerating (by definition without means) in the context of the ordained means of grace,’ because examples of the former are not relevant to substantiating the latter.

Something else that would have enhanced the book would have been a discussion of what happens to the emotions in regeneration – what the bible actually means when it talks in terms of taking away a heart of stone and giving a heart of flesh, for example. Unbelievers are obviously not stony-hearted in the sense of being emotionless, and not every emotion is a sign of having undergone the new birth. In fact it is important to be clear that even emotional responses to the truth are not a definitive evidence of regeneration – how hard-hearted must you be, not to feel sad to hear of innocent Jesus being cruelly crucified, or not to exult when the Israelites escape their harsh taskmasters at the Red Sea, or not to spare a longing thought to reach a place where all tears will be wiped away from all faces. But the emotions could be stirred along these lines, while the change from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh still needs to take place. So the hard-heartedness of the unregenerate is more like imperviousness to the promises and threatenings of the gospel, and resistance to acknowledging God as the Lord – it’s the incorrigibility of the carnal mind, which is enmity against God, and does not, can not change unless the Holy Spirit works. When the Holy Spirit does work, then, it’s not so much that he gives new emotions, but that the emotions are given a new channel to flow in, so that Christ is embraced as the altogether lovely one, where before we saw no beauty in him that we should desire him, and sin loses its attractiveness and comes to be felt to be that evil and bitter thing, against the Lord and which the Lord hates. These human emotions of ours, which used to be drawn out at best towards our family and friends and natural good, and at worst towards what’s wrong and impure and our own selves, now incline towards things that are above nature and contrary to fallen nature – the holy God, his holy law, his people being sanctified – and against things that appeal to fallen nature. This is not natural but supernatural – something that only the Holy Spirit can bring about. The first chapter on the emotions rightly says that ‘only those emotions are legitimate which maintain the integrity of the person in the sight of God’ (p28), but a more explicit statement that the emotions which meet these criteria can only exist in a supernaturally renewed soul would have been helpful too.

Finally, a merely stylistic point – that the book seemed to end very abruptly, with nothing by way of a concluding chapter to pull together the various strands. Especially the later chapters, on prayer and guidance, might have benefited from a line or two of summary.


This little book is one that has clearly come from a pastor’s heart, and conveys an earnest wish for believers to walk more closely with the Lord. There is an evident concern for the work of the Holy Spirit to be recognised as indispensible, and for us to plead more directly and specifically for the sovereign Spirit to work powerfully – since nothing happens in the Christian life, from regeneration, or before, to glorification, except as the Holy Spirit moves. When he holds back, no wonder we drift listlessly on at this poor dying rate, imagining that the Word alone does his work for him (chapter 1), failing to look for the comfort of our salvation (chapter 3), failing to feel our loss at the absence of the Lord (chapter 4), and churning out earth-bound, faithless prayers (chapters 6-7). Occasional weak patches aside, this book is an echo of invitations like, ‘O taste and see that God is good, who trusts in him is blessed,’ and the stronger that note comes through, the more this book has its value.

[Actually, that’s not the final word – I’ve got a bit more to say on this, but let me hold it over for a separate blog post, since this one is already long enough.]

Stuart Olyott, Something Must be Known and Felt, Bryntirion Press, 2014. Amazon