Results tagged “doctrine of sin” from Reformation21 Blog

Rhyme Thee to Good

|

In the first post in this short series on the theology of the seventeenth Anglican poet, George Herbert, we considered the centrality of salvation by grace in the altar poem. It shows up throughout his other poems as well. But of course the Gospel is only good news if preceded by the bad news of sin, and Herbert has several striking poems that explore the nature and nurture of sin. One of them is "Sin's Round."

Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am, 
That my offences course it in a ring. 
My thoughts are working like a busy flame, 
Until their cockatrice they hatch and bring: 
And when they once have perfected their draughts, 
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts. 

My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts, 
Which spit it forth like the Sicilian hill. 
They vent their wares, and pass them with their faults, 
And by their breathing ventilate the ill. 
But words suffice not, where are lewd intentions: 
My hands do join to finish the inventions. 

My hands do join to finish the inventions: 
And so my sins ascend three stories high, 
As Babel grew, before there were dissentions. 
Let ill deeds loiter not: for they supply 
New thoughts of sinning:
wherefore, to my shame, 
Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am. 

Keep in mind that the "round" suggests both a circle and a song with overlapping repeating parts (such as "Dona Nobis Pacem" or "Scotland's Burning"). The poem presents repetitions or circles in the first and last lines, at the beginning and ends of adjoining stanzas, and the "thoughts of sinning" that start in stanza one and restart in stanza three. Herbert has brilliantly pictured the vicious cycle, the hamster wheel of sin; and his picture implies that only God's grace can break us free.

"Sin's Round" and "The Altar" are good examples of Herbert's so-called "emblematic" poems, which develop a theme in terms of a simple, concrete image named in the title. Many of the titles bear playful senses; for instance, "The Collar" suggests God's yoke and vocation. And some of the emblematic poems are rather enigmatic ("Jordan," "The Pulley"), leaving the reader to puzzle out the exact meaning of the image. Near the middle of The Temple we find a sequence of these poems based on the parts of a church building: "Church-monuments," "Church-lock and key," "The Church-floor," "The Windows" (discussed below). Each of these poems uses a feature of the church as an allegory of some aspect of the sin and sanctification of the church's people. The poems put to rest the thought that Anglican Herbert might prefer neat externals to the grit of applied redemption.

One of the emblematic poems develops Herbert's most ingeniously subtle and thoroughly Reformed image of Sola Gratia. Here is the "The Holdfast":
I threaten'd to observe the strict decree
Of my dear God with all my power and might;
But I was told by one it could not be;
Yet I might trust in God to be my light.
"Then will I trust," said I, "in Him alone."
"Nay, e'en to trust in Him was also His:
We must confess that nothing is our own."
"Then I confess that He my succour is."
"But to have nought is ours, not to confess
That we have nought." I stood amaz'd at this,
Much troubled, till I heard a friend express
That all things were more ours by being His;
What Adam had, and forfeited for all,
Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.

Christ owns and takes credit for everything, including our confession that he owns everything. We might glimpse several biblical texts behind this poem. First Colossians 3:3, which was a favorite of Herbert: "Our life is hid with Christ in God." Then there is the more familiar Ephesians 2:8: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God." The poem is a wonderful expression of the way works righteousness creeps in the backdoor even of the good Protestant soul: the speaker gets backed down from his desperate attempts to do something, have some credit, for his salvation. But no, it's all grace, from first to last. (Ephesians 2, by the way, goes on to say "we are his workmanship," literally his "poems" [poiema], which take us back to the message of "The Altar" and might suggest a greater role for poetry in spiritual formation than we are used to allow.)

The Spiritual Life: Practicing What You Preach

A major emphasis of the Reformation was a concern for the holiness of the church in daily life, especially the holiness of her shepherds. Recall Luther's scandal at the pomp and licentiousness of the Roman Catholic clergy. Herbert picks up this emphasis on faithful living in a poem called "The Windows."

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word? 
He is a brittle crazy glass; 
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford 
This glorious and transcendent place, 
To be a window, through thy grace. 
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story, 
Making thy life to shine within 
The holy preachers', then the light and glory 
More reverend grows, and more doth win; 
Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin. 
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one 
When they combine and mingle, bring 
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone 
Doth vanish like a flaring thing, 
And in the ear, not conscience, ring.

The Christian life means we are to be scratched and broken windows, remade by Grace, through which others see God's life "annealed"-- that is, glazed or stained. With "doctrine and life" together, the Word preached takes shape and color, and the shapes and colors have meaning because the doctrine is sound. The image is provocative because it is Christ's "story" depicted in ours (the window) but also God's light that shines through us so that others may read the story. What, then, is the light? The Holy Spirit? Herbert is saying our lives are in a way sacraments that complete the Word.

But how do you become a "window"? Through the disciplines of the spiritual life--prayer, through Scripture reading and meditation, and through self-examination. Here Herbert celebrates the power and beauty of "Prayer":

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age, 
God's breath in man returning to his birth, 
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, 
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth 
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r, 
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear, 
The six-days world transposing in an hour, 
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear; 
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, 
Exalted manna, gladness of the best, 
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest, 
The milky way, the bird of Paradise, 
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood, 
The land of spices; something understood. 

This poem, which partly inspired Tim Keller's book of the same name (see chapter two), illustrates how poetry can take something familiar and show us its poignancy, depths, and cosmic resonances. Every image here could bear fruit in meditation. Prayer, if accompanied by faith, is "reversed thunder;" but the poem ends with the whisper that prayer is "something understood." Herbert is saying, "let me remind you, after the fireworks, of the still, small, but amazing truth that your father listens."

Conclusion

When we think about the Reformation, we think mostly of institutions and doctrines and liturgy and famous theologians. However, doctrine shapes worship and worships shapes culture, which in some ways shapes doctrine. The Reformation also gave us Charles Dickens and John Milton and Jane Austen and Marilynne Robinson and George Herbert. These broken altars, these crazy windows, these things understood, were also, as Calvin put it, "theaters of God's glory." They too are the Reformation.

What's more, our interest in the literary legacy of the Reformation should go beyond mere historical concerns. We are not just concerned with acknowledging the "fruit" and thereby importance of the Reformation. Although the modern novel is a largely Protestant effect, and although most of the great English poets of the past four centuries years have been Protestant, the last century saw a sharp decline in Protestant letters from the richness of that tradition. C. S. Lewis put his finger one of the symptoms:

"The difficulty we are up against is this. We can [often] make people attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from the lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. Every newspaper, film, novel, and textbook undermines our work. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy's line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects--with their Christianity latent."

I think it is self-evident that today we have too many of these "little Christian books." Moralistic, platitudinous, sentimental, dry, clotted with the skim of a thousand proof-texts--these books pretend to inspire, pretend to feed our hearts, pretend to structure our minds; but when we close them much of that melts away, dissipates. Then our fancy returns to the charms and rage of pop culture, an allure that better imitates, tragically, the heavy fire God's kabod.

When we neglect the power of the imagination and the beauty of style, we are running with the world, and we but poorly worship the logos of John 1:1 and Hebrews 1:3. When we favor content over form and logic-chopping consistency over beauty, we not only disservice our Gospel and slight the Incarnation; we also depart from the best of our tradition.

Faced with this criticism and Lewis's call for an enchanted "mere Christianity," we could hardly find a better champion than George Herbert. Employing over a hundred different stanza forms, Herbert is inarguably the most structurally inventive of any English poet. What's more, he is a remarkably honest and subtle excavator of experience--of one's inner struggles with God and oneself over faith, doubt, the nature of redemption, the attractions of worldliness, and the hard road of sanctification. And yet, as mentioned earlier, we find consistent simplicity in his images and mindset, reflecting a childlike faith and anchorage to the Word. Herbert maintains some classic Reformed values--the importance of personal holiness, preaching, and the doctrines of Grace--but he can help enrich our currently impoverished theological imagination. For he shows that poetry can be emotionally honest and gripping, but also tightly and deeply biblical. Thus it plants truth in the heart and emotions as well as in the mind.         

You can, ironically, preach that doctrine must be completed by living, that faith without works is dead; but saying that can't draw the soul, inspire the heart, or sting the conscious the way the poem itself can. Let us, then, be willing to

Harken unto a Verser, who may chance
Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may find him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice." ("The Church Porch," st. 1)


Bret Saunders is Associate Professor of Humanities John Witherspoon College.

Aquinas Reconsidered

|

Richard A. Muller, Review of Thomas Aquinas by K. Scott Oliphint, foreword by Michael A. G. Haykin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017).

Scott Oliphint's highly negative verdict on the thought of Thomas Aquinas demands some response if only because of the need to have, in Reformed circles, the balanced understanding of Aquinas' theology and philosophy that Oliphint fails to provide. It is a fairly consistent refrain throughout Oliphint's study that Aquinas failed in an attempt to "synthesize 'purely' philosophical with theological principia"--failed because "the two principia cannot be merged" (p. 124). These "ultimately incompatible principia" are, according to Oliphint, "the neutrality of natural reason ... and the truth of God's revelation" (p. 126). I propose to take up the two questions that are the focus of Oliphint's book, the problem of knowledge, specifically knowledge of God; and in a second part of the review, Aquinas' understanding of the analogy of being, the proofs, and the relationship of divine simplicity to the Trinity. Concluding comments will follow as a third part.

Oliphint rests his examination of the praeambula fidei on Ralph McInerny's recent study as if McInerny argued that the preambles, namely, the proofs of Thomas' Summa, are autonomous "purely philosophical" arguments, products of "pure nature" (p. 79, n63), "outside the realm of theology," viewed by Aquinas as necessary "in order properly to assess the knowledge of God" (pp. 25-26, 27). What McInerny actually says is that "It is obvious that the phrase 'preambles of faith' is one devised and used from the side of belief; it is the believer who compares truths about God that he holds only thanks to the grace of faith and those truths about God that philosophers come to know by way of demonstrative proof."1 This is a very different reading of Aquinas than Oliphint's claim that "Thomas thinks that natural reason forms the foundational structure of which revelation is the superstructure" (p. 13). Oliphint is mistaken in his reading of Thomism as attempting to merge the antithetical "principia" of a neutral "natural reason" and the truth of revelation.

When Aquinas makes his distinction between those truths concerning God that can be known through human reason and those that exceed the capability of reason and must be known by revelation, he is not segmenting off rational from revealed truths: rather he is placing his entire rational presentation within the compass of sacred doctrine which deals with God "not only so far as he can be known through creatures just as philosophers knew him ... but also so far as He is known to himself alone and revealed to others."2 Aquinas did not view truths of reason and truths of revelation as incompatible or in need of synthesis. Underlying the theological project of Aquinas' two Summas is the assumption that what is true is true whatever its immediate source, given that all truth ultimately comes from God who is true. Aquinas' project is not an attempt to synthesize incompatibles.

The basis for this particular misinterpretation appears in Oliphint's definition of duplex veritatis modus, incorrectly rendered as "truth in two ways" and "double ways of truth."3 "Modus" is nominative singular--with the result that the term indicates one "twofold way" or "twofold mode" of truth and not two ways of truth. The mistranslation is probably what leads Oliphint to confuse duplex veritatis modus with duplex veritas or "double truth." Oliphint goes on to comment "that it is possible for something to be true in philosophy but false in theology, or false in theology but true in philosophy," namely, double truth (p. 129). Aquinas affirms a twofold way of knowing truth about God--but he denied double truth. From Aquinas' perspective, reason teaches that God exists (which is true) and revelation teaches that God exists (which is true): there is no incompatibility between the rational and the revealed truth, because it is the same truth, but in the case of revelation in a different "mode" because from a higher, clearer source.

It is also does not follow from the absence of a discussion of the noetic effect of sin in Aquinas' praeambula that the issue was not broached and understood in his theology. One need look no further than Aquinas' Summa theologiae to find that he views "weakness, ignorance, malice, and concupiscence... as wounds of nature consequent on sin" and that he explicitly indicates that these wounds were "inflicted on the whole of human nature as a result of the first parent's sin": reason is "deprived of order" and wounded with "ignorance" and "obscured, especially in practical matters."4 Moreover, in the very argument that Oliphint cites from Aquinas' Commentary on the Gospel of John as a basic statement of Aquinas' view of the powers of natural reason,5 Aquinas also comments on the phrase "the world did not know him" (John 1:10) to the effect that "this lack is attributed to man's guilt."6 Aquinas' exposition of Romans 1:19-20, moreover, is much like that of Calvin, Vermigli, and various of the Reformed orthodox: there is knowledge of some truth concerning God among the Gentiles, to the end that they are left "without excuse" in their ungodliness.7 This limited knowledge of God cannot indicate "what God is [quid est Deus]" inasmuch as it arises only from the light of reason and sense knowledge--although such aspects of God as his goodness, wisdom, and power can be known.8 In their guilt, human beings fail to use the knowledge of God that they have and with "perverse reasoning" change true knowledge of God into false teachings.9 Contra Oliphint, Aquinas has not "wholly misread and misunderstood what Scripture is arguing" (p. 44).

The problem is most apparent in Oliphint's highly selective use of Aquinas' commentary on John 1:9, which leaves out the portions that undermine his argument. Aquinas indicates that human beings are enlightened by "the light of natural knowledge," which insofar as it is light is such by participation in the "true light," which is the Word. He adds, "If any one is not enlightened, it is due to himself, because he turns from the light that enlightens."10 Aquinas also distinguishes this true light, given to all by God, from which human beings turn away, from the "false light" which "the philosophers prided themselves on having," citing Romans 1:21.11 Despite what Aquinas says quite clearly, Oliphint concludes, "We should make it clear here that Thomas does not think that the 'enlightening' of which John speaks necessarily includes divine truth or content" (p. 15).

For Aquinas, reason, "the light of nature," is itself a gift of God to human beings in the original creation of humanity that is capable of knowing not only that God exists, but that God is good, wise, and powerful. Where reason falls short, because of its finitude, its rootedness in sense perception, and the errors brought about by sin, is that, without the aid of revelation, it cannot know the truths of salvation. This "Thomistic" assumption should have a familiar ring in Reformed circles. It is paralleled by the very first sentence of the Westminster Confession--as also by the second article of the Belgic Confession, and Calvin's commentary on the passage. Oliphint's claim that Aquinas' reading has "no basis" in the text of Scripture becomes an indictment of Calvin and the Reformed tradition as well.

To be continued...

1. Ralph McInerny, Praeambula fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2006), pp. 30-31.

2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia, q.1, a. 6, corpus; cf. M. F. Sparrow, "Natural Knowledge of God and the Principles of 'Sacra Doctrina,'" in Angelicum, 69/4 (1992), pp. 471-491, here p. 489; cf. Jean-Pierre Torrell, Aquinas's Summa: Background, Structure, & Reception, trans. Benedict M. Guevin (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2005), p. 19.

3. Oliphint, Aquinas, pp. 9, 129, The phrase duplex veritatis modus is from Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, I.3.

4. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IaIIae, q.85, a.3, corpus. Note here that "practical matters" is a reference to the praxis dimension of theology which relates both to the moral life of Christians and to promise of salvation, as distinct from the contemplative dimension of theology which relates to the knowledge of "divine things."

5. Oliphint, Aquinas, p. 14, citing Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 3 vols., trans. Fabian Larcher and James Weisheipl, with intro. and notes by Daniel Keating and Matthew Levering (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), I, pp. 54-55.

6. Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, I, p. 59.

7. Thomas Aquinas, In omnes D. Pauli Apostoli Epistolas, 3 vols. (Li├Ęge: Dessain, 1857), vol. I, Ad Romanos, lectura 6 (pp. 30-31).

8. Aquinas, Ad Romanos, lectura 6 (p. 31).

9. Aquinas, Ad Romanos, lectura 7 (pp. 34-35).

10. Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, I. pp. 54-55.

11. Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, I. p. 53.