Thoughtless Imitation

Have you ever read a passage in the Bible and wondered how it applied to your own life? I have. All the time! But sometimes (many times) this can actually be a very harmful ‘first-principle’. The Scriptures are not a collection of moral stories which we can mine for ethical principles. If they were, what could we do with stories like Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Jephthah’s daughter, etc.?  Calvin helpfully comments on what he calls “thoughtless imitation”:

… a false, and ill-regulated, or thoughtless imitation; that is, when we, though not endued with the same spirit, or authorized by the same command, plead as our example what any of the Fathers did; as for instance, if any private individual resolved to revenge the injuries done to brethren, because Moses did this, (Exodus 2:12;) or if any one were to put fornicators to death, because this was done by Phinehas, (Numbers 25:7.) That savage fury in slaying their own children originated, as many think, in the wish of the Jews to be like their father Abraham, as if the command, Offer up thy son Isaac, (Genesis 22:2,) were a general command, and not rather a remarkable trial of a single man. Such a false imitation is generally produced by pride and excessive confidence, when men claim more for themselves than they have a right to do; and when each person does not measure himself by his own standard. Yet none of these are true imitators of the Fathers, most of them are apes. That a considerable portion of ancient monachism flowed from the same source will be acknowledged by those who shall carefully examine the writings of the ancients. And, therefore, unless we choose to err of our own accord, we ought always to see what spirit each person has received, what his calling requires, what is suitable to his condition, and what he is commanded to do. (Commentary on John 4:20).

An Experiment in Criticism

If you have not read anything on literary criticism, this little book, An Experiment in Criticism, by C.S. Lewis will open your mind to a whole new world — the world of the text and it well-read.

Rather than judging the quality of a books by their composition or content, Lewis suggests one should judge them by the nature or way in which they are read. For example, some people read books only once to gratify some curiosity or lust, only to abandon them forever afterwards. Contrarily, those who truly love their books will read them countless times and cherish them as favored possessions. In other words, bad readers read books seeking only to find a world they already are comfortable with and understand; a world they already have categories for and can explain. A world that “makes sense” in their system of thought. By reading books in such a way, these readers are not challenged by what they read. And in the end, book after book, they meet only themselves. For Lewis, this explains the vast hoard of trashy novels which follow the same basic principle. In these case, the reader is never brought to a higher level of knowledge. There is no additive transfer. Such readers only get out what they already knew. This all takes very little effort on the part of the reader.

On the other hand, good readers begin by getting themselves “out of the way.” Good readers will first surrender their own preconceived notions and biases. They open themselves up to receive “instructions” (as it were) from the text itself. In effect, they surrender to the text. And now the text can actually begin to work on the reader. This is an entirely different kind of reading and leads to an additive gain in knowledge on the part of the reader. Rather than meeting only themselves in a text (and learning only what they already knew and had categories for), good readers open themselves up to a whole new world. By “receiving” the text a reader actually meets ‘someone else’ (as it were) and thus grow in the process.

All of this is written in Lewis’ classic and beloved, easy style. Taking things ordinarily complex, he makes them simple.  I could not recommend this little gem more highly!

Courage and Chivalry

What is courage?  I suppose that is a good question for modern-day Americans to ask. Indeed, I do not think we generally know the answer, or at least not very well.  G.K. Chesterton, however, drew a parallel between courage and the european idea of chivalry which I found fascinating. He wrote:

No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious

indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying. And it has held up ever since above the European lances the banner of the mystery of chivalry: the Christian courage, which is a disdain of death; not the Chinese courage, which is a disdain of life.

I always knew there was something right about King Arthur and wrong about the Last Samurai.

The Doctor’s Medicine

How does one know he or she is a Christian?

Many who believe that the gospel is true, and would say Jesus died and rose again for the sins of the world, often still have a most difficult time believing this gospel is true for them personally. So they labor under a painful conscience and eventually give up hope of every finding a remedy. What can one do? Is there any hope for one like this?

The answer is most certainly, Yes!

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes out the only prescription:

To make it quite practical let me say that there is a very simple way of testing yourself to know whether you believe that. We betray ourselves by what we say. The Lord Himself said we should be justified by our words, and how true it is. I have often had to deal with this point with people, and I have explained the way of justification by faith and told them how it is all in Christ, and that God puts His righteousness upon us. I have explained it all to them, and then I have said: ‘Well, now are you quite happy about it, do you believe that?’ And they say, ‘Yes’. Then I say: ‘Well, then, you are now ready to say that you are a Christian’. And they hesitate. And I know they have not understood. Then I say: ‘What is the matter, why are you hesitating?’ And they say: ‘I do not feel that I am good enough’…. They are still thinking in terms of themselves; their idea still is that they have to make themselves good enough to be a Christian, good enough to be accepted with Chirst. They have to do it! ‘I am not good enough.’ It sounds very modest, but it is the lie of the devil, it is a denial of the faith. You think that you are being humble. But you will never be good enough; nobody has ever been good eough. The essence of the Christian salvation is to say that He is good enough and that I am in Him! – Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and its Cure (1965), 33-4.

Gospels as Literature

How do we read the Gospels? If we expect to be bored by reading the gospels then it is likely we have never learned how to read them aright. The following is a short explanation as to why the Gospels should be approached with the expectation that they can, and will, excite our imaginations and move us in the deepest ways possible, no matter how many times we have read them before. Kind of like your favorite “classic” that you keep returning to. (How many times have you read it now?)

David Tracy defined a classic as a text which so discloses a compelling truth about our lives that we cannot deny it some kind of normative status. These texts produce a disclosure of reality which ‘surprises, provokes, challenges, shocks and eventually transforms us’ (1981: 108). Religious classics like the fourth gospel also produce these kinds of reactions. Such texts have a disclosive power. They shock us into recognizing our finitude, our mortality, our sinfulness, our rage for order. They awaken wonder, trust, loyalty justice, love or faith (1981: 164). However, such responses are only elicited in readers who approach such classics as literature. To use Martin Buber’s terminology, there must be an I-Thou relationship with the gospel, not an I-It divorce. – Mark W.G. Stibbe, John’s Gospel, (Routledge, 1994), 70.

Preaching from the Gospels

Don Carson, in the introduction to his commentary on the Gospel of John, offers this helpful assessment of preaching and gospel narratives:

The challenge of preaching from the Gospels is, in part, the challenge of preaching from narrative. The best of Western seminaries and theological colleges reinforce the cultural bent toward the abstract, and fill students’ heads with the importance of grammatical, lexicographical exegesis. Such exegesis is, of course, of enormous importance. But in students who do not have a feel for literature, it can have the unwitting effect of so focusing on the tree, indeed on the third knot of the fourth branch from the bottom of the sixth tree from the left, that the entire forest remains unseen, except perhaps as a vague and ominous challenge.
The Gospel According to John, (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1991), 100-101.

Priestly Prayer

Why are we to pray in the name of Jesus? Edward Fisher offers a helpful explanation well worth your time to read:

It is true indeed, Christ, as a public person, representing all believers, appears before God his Father; and willeth according to both his natures, and desires as he is a man, that God would, for his satisfaction’s sake, grant unto them whatsoever ‘they ask according to his will.’ But yet you must go immediately to God in prayer for all that.

You must not pitch your prayers upon Christ, and terminate them there, as if he were to take them, and present them to his Father; but the very presenting place of your prayers must be God himself in Christ. Neither must you conceive, as though Christ the Son were more willing to grant your request than God the Father, for whatsoever Christ willeth, the same also the Father, being well pleased with him, willeth. In Christ, therefore, I say, and no where else, must you expect to have your petitions granted; and as in Christ and no place else, so for Christ’s sake, and nothing else. And therefore I beseech you to beware you forget not Christ when you go unto the Father to beg anything you desire, either for yourself or others; especially when you desire to have any pardon for sin, you are not to think, that when you join with your prayers, fasting, weeping, and afflicting of yourself, that for so doing you shall prevail with God to hear you, and grant your petitions; no, no, you must meet God in Christ, and present him with his sufferings; your eye, your mind, and all your confidence, must be therein; and in that be as confident as possible you can; yea, expostulate the matter, as it were, with God the Father, and say, ‘Lo; here is the person that has well deserved it; here is the person that wills and desires it; in whom thou hast said thou art will pleased; yea, here is the person that has paid the debt, and discharged the bond for all my sins; and, therefore, O Lord! now it stands with thy justice to forgive me.’ And thus, if you do, why, then you may be assured that Christ executes his priestly office in you.
The Marrow of Modern Divinity, 249-50.