God is a Spirit

20170504_082315Our almost-two year old suddenly started saying the word “God”. All his words started off as sequences of a consonant followed by a vowel, before he started adding word-final consonants. It was a proud day when I ceased to be “ma” and became “mum”. But it didn’t seem right for him to wander around seeming to casually break the Third Commandment. So I racked my brains for a sensible thing to give him to say about God.

Naturally the first thing that came to mind was the wording of the Shorter Catechism. “What is God?” asks one of the early questions, with the reply, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable…”

So I told the boy, “God is a Spirit” and he now knows to say “God Spirit” [gɔd bi:t]. The answer continues, “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,” but I thought we could leave that bit until he’s slightly older.

But then I had a qualm about the usefulness of what I’d just done. Does this statement only refer to his immateriality? Is that the most useful concept to offer a child as a starting point for thinking about God? Maybe it was really both too basic and too complex? Don’t you just skip over these first few words to get to the meat of the definition in the bit he’s too young to start on yet?

Around the same time I started catching up with some new books that had recently arrived in the house. Among them was the five-volume set of Reformed Dogmatics by Geerhardus Vos, now translated from Dutch into English for the first time. These volumes consist of lectures Vos gave in systematic theology, structured in a question and answer format.

There on page 14 of the first volume was a section headed, “What does Scripture mean when it calls God Spirit?”

The Hebrew and Greek words that mean ‘spirit’ are both ‘wind’. From this starting point we discover the following:

  • Wind is that power among material powers that seems to be the most immaterial and invisible. We feel it but we do not see it. When God is called Spirit, it therefore means his immateriality.
  • Wind or breath is the mark of life and thus stands for life or in place of enlivening power. Thus it is the case that God’s spirituality also means his living activity. As Spirit God is distinguished from man, indeed all that is created, that is flesh, that is powerless and inert in itself. Spirit is thus what lives and moves of itself.
  • Wind as the spirit of life or the breath of life belongs with something else enlivened or activated by it. God can also in this sense be called Spirit insofar as he is the enlivener and source of life for the creature. That is so both in a natural sense as well as in a spiritual sense. That agrees with the fact that man can be called flesh in a twofold sense, both insofar as he naturally has no power of life in himself and insofar as he is spiritually dead and cut off from God. …
  • The spirituality of God implies that He is a rational being, with understanding, will, and power.

What else does God’s spirituality involve?

That God’s being also exists as personal. However, we should consider that God’s being may not be called personal in the abstract but only in his threefold existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In God personality is not one but three. There are not four but only three persons in the Godhead.

This was immensely reassuring to read. The statement, “God is a Spirit” encapsulates not only the idea that God is immaterial but also that he has life of himself, is the source of life for the creature, is rational, and exists as three persons. The statement is meaty in its own right, and the rest of the Shorter Catechism’s answer only builds on it. Clearly, a 22-month old isn’t going to grasp much of what even this basic statement references, but it provides him with a vocabulary now which he will be able to fill with increasing meaning over time.

I’ve since read further into volume 1 and dipped in and out of the other four volumes of Reformed Dogmatics, and I’m happy to report that there is much more to Geerhardus Vos than a pageful of unwitting encouragement in navigating the parenthood jungle.

In fact I was pleasantly surprised at how fresh Vos’s treatment of familiar doctrines was. He is also admirably clear (something I wouldn’t have expected from my previous few attempts to tackle his other writings) and concise. The question and answer format works as well as can be expected – there are the odd questions of the type “What belongs to the first category?” and “Where have we now arrived in our treatment?” which make sense only in their contexts – but largely the questions are used adeptly as tools for developing arguments and announcing new topics (e.g., “How does the work of the Holy Spirit relate to that of the Son?” “In what differing respects does the Holy Spirit carry out his distinguishing work?” “Which attributes are particularly ascribed to God the Holy Spirit as a result of this distinguishing work?” and, “What is the relationship of God’s decree to his reason and his will?”)

It might not be best to recommend these volumes to an absolute beginner as a very first introduction to systematic theology, but for anyone who has a basic familiarity with the doctrines of the Catechism or Confession, say from regular church attendance, these would be an excellent, non-threatening way to start sharpening up their theological understanding. The individual volumes are not hefty tomes, only a couple of hundred pages each. They are the only multi-volume systematic theology I know of that someone could sit down and read from cover to cover in the space of a couple of weeks, as a pleasurable experience. But each would work as a stand-alone book on the topic it covers. (Volume 1 is Theology Proper, covering the doctrine of God, God’s decrees, and creation and providence. Volume 2, Anthropology, covers human nature, sin, and the covenant of grace. Volume 3, Christology, is about Christ. Volume 4, Soteriology, covers the order of salvation, regeneration and effectual calling, conversion, faith, justification and sanctification. Volume 5, Ecclesiology, The Means of Grace, Eschatology, covers the doctrine of the church, the Word and sacraments, and the doctrine of the last things.) So pick your topic and dive in.

evaluating the new calvinism

Jeremy Walker’s recent book on the ‘New Calvinism’ is a useful and, as far as I can tell, accurate overview of this movement. By sometimes seeming to bend over backwards to be even handed, The New Calvinism Considered gives as warm an appreciation as could be hoped for, while delivering some pungent criticisms where deserved.

The so called New Calvinism is a conglomeration of big personalities with huge followings of mainly college age young people, mainly in the US, enjoying a sort of rediscovery of broadly Reformed theology in a contemporary (technological and cultural) setting.

Walker’s short book devotes a chapter to identifying characteristics that can be commended. These include the sincere intention to glorify God, joyful enthusiasm about grace, concern to reach the lost, commitment to ‘biblical manhood and womanhood,’ willingness to use cutting edge technology to consume and disseminate theological material, and valuing expository preaching. Walker makes these six commendations warmly and frankly, although not always unqualifiedly.

There follows a chapter of concerns. These include a tendency to pragmatism and commercialism, an unbalanced view of culture, a troubling approach to holiness, a potentially dangerous ecumenism, a tension with regard to spiritual gifts, and a degree of triumphalism. Walker raises these six concerns as gently as can be imagined.

So what characterises Walker’s treatment throughout is its evident striving for scrupulous fairness. There is a sense that his criticisms are offered with the greatest reluctance, and that a more positive verdict would have been much more to his liking. His is a painstakingly diplomatic assessment, where the objections are wrung out of him – not, you understand, that he regrets taking a stand for more biblical doctrines and practices, but more that he earnestly wants to avoid either indulging or licensing a censorious spirit from outwith the New Calvinist movement, and is most anxious not to stumble anyone within the movement who could be persuaded to settle down into a more firmly scriptural pattern. So far as I can see, Walker succeeds admirably both in avoiding swingeing accusations that can be called misleading, and in presenting a critique that gives any readers from within the movement maximum opportunity to reflect dispassionately rather than with instant defensiveness.

There are indeed places where you might sometimes be tempted to wonder at how damming the evidence brought out about elements of the New Calvinism is, and how surprisingly lenient the eventual conclusion. But on the one hand, there is an important question of balance – of giving as much credit as can be due to people being well meaning (in wanting to honour God) and successful (in communicating their enthusiasm for grace and the gospel). On the other hand, there is the question of their trajectory and direction of travel. People who have come from a background of doctrinal vagueness or evangelical legalism or plain irreligion can be forgiven a lot more by way of faults and shortcomings as they (hopefully) progress towards clearer and clearer views of the truth than can people whose starting point is a heritage of full orbed Calvinism and associated practice which they only seem inclined to jettison.* It will be interesting to see, in time, how the trajectory of this movement develops, and how much more closely it will converge on more scriptural belief and behaviour.

One perhaps surprising feature of The New Calvinism Considered is how non-theological it is. Calvinism, you might think, is primarily a theological system, a comprehensive body of doctrine. Of course, flowing from that doctrine is a particular kind of practice, more or less consistent with the doctrine professed. But what seems to most adequately describe the New Calvinism is apparently more sociological (even tribal) than theological. The main points of reference are names and figureheads rather than creeds, doctrines, or theological positions, especially if the charismatic gifts are treated as not worth taking a view on, while complementarianism (also wishfully known as ‘biblical manhood and womanhood’) is fundamentally non-negotiable.

In fact, one of the most striking points about the New Calvinism is how barely Calvinistic it is. Walker comments on how some of the leading lights can openly profess themselves ‘four point Calvinists’ without seeming either to raise any controversy or to show any inclination to relinquish the name of Calvin, even though rejecting any of the five points by definition puts you outside the theological circle labelled Calvinism. As Walker neatly puts it, ‘while there is a very real sense in which Calvinism is more than just the five points, it is not so easy to argue that it is less than those points’ (somewhere early in chapter 2 – what’s the convention for referencing kindle texts?).**

And if Calvinism proper is defined by doctrine, there is also something more indefinable that seems to have characterised those Calvinists and Calvinistic churches who flourished prior to the advent of the New Calvinist movement. That has to do with atmospheres and attitudes, priorities and perspectives – whether someone’s orientation is predominantly heavenly or predominantly earthly. Walker discusses how the valid desire among New Calvinists to be ‘relevant and accessible’ can drift into an unhealthy striving to be constantly cutting edge. ‘Not so long ago you had to reference The Matrix (although frankly that is already a little old school) and then it was The Lord of the Rings (and that will be out of date before long, but at least we have The Hobbit to keep us going for a while) … You get a mass of cultural buzzwords, riding the wave of the latest big film series or the book that everyone is or should be talking about.’ In short, this movement, however sympathetically it’s described, leaves you with the uncomfortable feeling that it’s really actually pretty worldly – not simply that it seeks to engage with contemporary culture in innovative ways, but that it actually cares about being cool.

This is markedly different from the (five points plus) Calvinists of the past, not to mention the apostles and prophets, whose focus was always more on eternal realities than on the ephemeral trivialities that absorb people before they know the Lord. It’s not that pastors can never relax with a book or film, or that believers should never have anything to say about things of interest in the world, but more that urgency for perishing souls, your own included, generally has a tendency to make the hip and trendy fade into insignificance, just because of its fatal tendency to distract fallen minds away from the pressing claims of divine authority, blunt the edge of scripture warnings, and take the shine off the glory of gospel blessings. If you’re not in the affluent West (even, if you’re not in the US), or if you’re elderly, ill, bereaved, overworked, needy, or otherwise not very cool, most of what’s cutting edge becomes transparently superficial, unsatisfying, and ultimately irrelevant. This was understood by old time Calvinists like the McCheynes, Bonars, Milnes and Guthries of the nineteenth century – educated and sophisticated as they were, they weren’t so bothered about engaging with culture and keeping their finger on the pulse of fashionable Edinburgh compared to engaging in prayer and immersing themselves in the truth (and to call them the young, restless and reformed of their day, as I read somewhere recently, is manifestly silly, and not only because they were, actually, reformed).

Walker concludes that those outside the movement should neither embrace nor reject the New Calvinism wholesale. His hope is clearly that at least some of the people within it will soon be looking for something with more depth and more closely conformed to scriptural doctrine and practice. This is something to look forward to and pray for. At the same time, ‘old’ style Calvinism could do worse than praying for a clearer grasp of the truths most surely believed and a more consistent way of living them out in the believer’s daily walk. Everyone building on the foundation should build with care, because eventually their work will be tried and tested to see what sort it is, whether gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or stubble.

_______

Jeremy Walker, The New Calvinism Considered, Evangelical Press, 2013. Amazon.

__________

*Compare, for instance, the thousands singing two thirds traditional hymns with a piano only sometimes, as reported in the Banner of Truth of the 2014 T4G conference, with a congregation of Highlanders, twenty on a good day, who just decided one day that purity of worship had a whole new meaning, even though they were totally brought up to know better.

** Similarly there seems little to no uneasiness about the concept of ‘Christian hedonism,’ John Piper’s revision of man’s chief end in the Shorter Catechism (‘to glorify God by enjoying him for ever,’ instead of ‘to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’). Jerrold Lewis’s discussion of several years back remains the go to critique of Christian hedonism: ‘Within the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition there is a clear understanding that the chief object of the Christian experience is holiness not happiness. Happiness is the unavoidable consequence of the long and often painful process of sanctification. Even then, the pleasures that are unveiled in Christ are not of this world.

 

Ceremony of Innocence

Ceremony of InnocenceIf you only read one novel this summer, let Ceremony of Innocence be it. Dorothy Cummings McLean has been entertaining hundreds of readers for years on various incarnations of her blog, and finally a publishing house has done the wider world a favour by making one of her full scale novels available in book form.

Although the most obvious peg to hang Ceremony of Innocence on is the style of Graham Greene, this is a fresh and original work in its own right. Whatever debts may be owed to Greene, in McLean, the atmosphere is less seedy, the drama more wholesome, the moral dilemmas sharper – and all leavened with flashes of comedy that are entirely McLean’s own.

Without giving away the plot – watch out, by the way, for clever flashbacks, as the Canadian/Scottish journalist narrator Catriona McClelland covers terrorist bombings across Germany, attends wild parties, splits up with her boyfriend, and comes under suspicion of involvement in the death of a student activist – let me tell you what else is striking about this book.

For one thing, the writing is so evocative. The naivety of young Western liberals in their sympathy for Islamic extremism is captured perfectly. Students too – their chat, their parties, their noughties wide-eyed cynicism. Catriona – cynical and hard-bitten, but vulnerable. Throughout, the dialogue is brilliant (including, I must say, the German/English and German/English/Scottish code-switching).

Then, the strong female characters – the one key protagonist who is beautiful, intelligent, and nevertheless very much in the background is not one of the women, but Dennis, Catriona’s unlikely boyfriend. It’s Catriona who is the complex character who does lots of things – has run-ins with neo-Nazis, wins popular and critical acclaim for her work, gets mired in intrigue, survives explosions – she’s likeable but with complicated edges, she’s deeply compromised but in nevertheless a very identifiable way. And the other characters driving the plot forward are Suzy, and Anna-Maria and Silke, even the GP and Aisha. Dennis, meanwhile, just provides home comforts and is the object of competition among other eligible women, in a delightful inversion of conventional characterisation.

And of course, the wrestling with big scary moral issues. War guilt – the bombing of Coventry, the bombing of Dresden. How violence breeds violence, the far right responding to home grown terrorism responding to interventionist foreign policy. Catriona living with Dennis and so also with prickles of conscience and social and ecclesiastical disapproval. And, throughout, how to deal with treachery – when Suzy brazenly betrayed Catriona in pursuing Dennis, when Catriona self-servingly hid information from Dennis, and, darkest of all, when somebody seems to have done something to lead to Suzy ending up dead. Complicity, betrayal, cowardice, selfishness… people doing things you know are wrong, but which seem in their complex circumstances to be almost unavoidable – but they know they’re wrong too, so guilt and unease abound.

Although some of these themes will be very familiar from Graham Greene, what McLean has done is to take the best of Greene, dust it down and give it some of her unique sparkle. There is nothing cosy or fluffy about Ceremony of Innocence, but the writing is stellar, and it will make you think.

(Ceremony of Innocence by Dororthy Cummings McLean – available from Amazon in hardback or kindle)

 

Unsearchable Riches

Unsearchable Riches - selected sermons of Rev Donald MacLeanUnsearchable Riches,’ an edited collection of sermons preached by Rev Donald MacLean, is now available to order from here:

– in your choice of ebook, paperback, or hardback.

The sermons included here range from the very good to the excellent – just the right mix of doctrine and experience, and simultaneously plain-speaking and profound.

(Disclosure of interest – I was involved in a bit of the transcription. But everyone should still rush off and order a copy straight away. And tell everyone at church who doesn’t read blogs!)

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.)

 

faith in action

I’m part way through a new book by Malcolm Maclean, and thinking it would be a good idea to write a review once I’m finished (but not promising, because of my abysmal rate of both reading and reviewing). It’s Royal Company, a section-by-section discourse on the Song of Solomon. In advance, although it may turn out to be in lieu, of a review, here is an excerpt, with my recommendation on everything I’ve read of it so far.

On Song 2:3, ‘As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.’

~

“The attitude of the woman here is a useful picture of faith being exercised by a believer. I would suggest that the order is important, in that believers need to find rest in Christ before they can feed on Christ. They need to sit down and discover afresh the rest of Jesus before they can taste his other benefits. They need to get rid of the distractions before proceeding to his attractions.

We can imagine a harassed believer being distressed by one or more of the things that we mentioned previously. He senses that he needs Jesus but cannot focus his mind on him. He needs to sit down and apply to himself appropriate promises from the Bible. As he does this, a sense of peace begins to develop.

Sometimes, the believer has been so weakened by the harassment that Jesus graciously throws, as it were, apples to the weary saint. As the Christian sits seeking rest from Jesus, he discovers that apples are faling into his lap or around him. Jesus sends to him by the Spirit specific details about himself. In this we see the compassion of Jesus.

At other times, they need to stretch out the hands of faith and choose particular pieces of fruit. Faith at times acts intelligently, choosing appropriate aspects of Christ to reflect on. It also acts innovatingly and attempts to discover new things about Jesus. Such attempts are ways to progress in the Christian life. Faith also acts increasingly because every apple on the tree is hers to enjoy, so faith moves on and picks as many apples as it can. And faith acts incessantly, because there are countless apples on this tree.”

~

Malcolm Maclean (2012), Royal Company: A Devotional on the Song of Solomon. Christian Focus. (Excerpt from p88.) Warmly recommended.