28 July 2006

How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place

I haven’t done this for awhile, so I figure it’s about time. I heard this hymn for the first time on a recent Sunday, so I thought I would look it up and share.

How sweet and awesome is the place
with Christ within the doors,

While everlasting love displays
the choicest of her stores.

Here all the mercy of our God
with vast compassion rolls;

And peace and pardon through His blood,
is food for ransomed souls.

While all our hearts and all our songs
join to admire the feast,

Each of us cries with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?”

“Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
and enter while there’s room;

When thousands make a wretched choice,
and rather starve than come?”

’Twas the same love that spread the feast,
that sweetly forced us in;

Else we had still refused to taste,
and perished in our sin.

Pity the nations, O our God!
Constrain the earth to come;

Send Thy victorious Word abroad,
and bring lost sinners home.

We long to see Thy churches full,
that all thy chosen race

May with one voice and heart and soul
sing Thy redeeming grace.

Isaac Watts, 1674-1748. Psalms and Hymns of Reformed Worship (London: Wakeman Trust, 1991): 662.

26 July 2006

Westminster Wednesday—Amesian Hermeneutics

Professor Ames Clutches the Cash.I'll celebrate my 100th post by continuing in the same vein from Monday: hermeneutics. Literature on the topic of hermeneutics swelled in the late eighties and early nineties. We may be in somewhat of a reprieve, but it is still a very important topic to discuss and understand. One aspect of the topic which can sometimes be neglected is its theological history. For instance, what did our Puritan predecessors have to say about how one interprets the Bible? Sometimes the answer may be surprising; take, for example, Amesius.

William Haller, Puritan scholar, once said that Guilielmus Amesius (Eng., William Ames) was the “architect of Elizabethan Puritanism.” He conducted theological debates with many of the Remonstrants in Holland, and, apparently, thoroughly worked through his theology while doing so. Amesius’ Marrow of Theology was the standard text in Reformed schools for decades to come, especially in New England, where it had a profound influence on Edwards.

I found what Ames had to say on hermeneutics intriguing and helpful.

"There is only one meaning for every place in Scripture. Otherwise, the meaning of Scripture would not only be unclear and uncertain, but there would be no meaning at all -- for anything which does not mean one thing surely means nothing" (The Marrow of Theology. John Eusden, ed. Boston, p.188).

24 July 2006

Foundation for Hermeneutics

Foundations Hit the SpotI was reading David Instone-Brewer's book on the divorce-remarriage question, and I came across the following quote. He is calling attention to the similarities and dissimilarities between the way Jesus argued and the way his contemporary rabbis argued (as far as we can gather). However I think what he says here deserves attention for reasons outside the divorce-remarriage debate. It is something much more foundational he addresses.

First, he shows the axiomatic legitimacy of linguistic and historical research. Jesus could not have meant what he did not say, and he could not mean what he never meant.
Second, he reminds us that the Scriptures do not speak in code language. It speaks with all the diversity and intelligence of human language, but it is never some language other than human.

Ultimately, he gets at the heart of what inscripturated revelation really is--God speaking to humans through their own written languages so that he can be understood and obeyed.

Therefore, when Jesus used this same phrase in this same debate, it would be extraordinary to conclude that he meant something different. If we concluded this, we would have to declare that Jesus spoke a different language than that of his contemporaries, where words and phrases can mean different things when Jesus uses them. We would then have no basis for working out the meaning of lanything that he has said on any subject because he would be speaking a language that was totally unique, and any person's interpretation of his words would be as valid as anyone else's. However, if Jesus and the Gospel writers were trying to communicate eternal truths to their listeners and readers, they would presumably have used a language that was well known and understood, rather than a "sacred" langugage that had a secret interpretation. Therefore we must assume that when Jesus or the Gospel writers use the same phrase as their contemporaries, in the same context, they mean the same thing (p. 186-187).

21 July 2006

God, Maker and Savior of Humankind

Man: Made to Be King.The God-centeredness of God is the kind of concept that can enrapture a soul with its beauty. God doesn’t need his creation (Acts 17:25), and it is his over-flowing joy in his own character which produces his zeal to express his glory in creation. All of creation and providence centers on God’s zeal for his glory (Rom 11:36, Rev 4:11, Ps 115:3). It's a rock-hard cornerstone on which theology ought to be built.

But, as with all theological concepts, it must be defined according to the authoritative revelation we have from him. That's where some helpful nuancing comes in from Jollyblogger. God isn't God-centered in a way that makes humans insignificant. He makes the point that humans are made in God's image and that our Redeemer had to be human to effect redemption. Along the same lines, it is humans that God has given the job of ruling over creation (Ps 8); and it is a human, the first Adam, who ruined it. It will be a human, the second Adam, who will bring about its restoration.

Relatedly, this guy also reminds us that God's stated purpose in John 3:16 is to make salvation from hell available for humans. Now the latter fellow hints that he is not at all fond of the God-centeredness of God as a theological concept (though it springs irresistibly from the Scriptures), but his point about salvation from hell is well-taken. In significant ways, God's unfolding story of creation and providence, fall and restoration, has humans on center stage.

In the end, however, we must conclude that God's man-centeredness is a function of his God-centeredness. It is his image-bearers he loves in John 3:16, just as it is their worship he seeks in John 4. And that is why his wrath will burn forever against those who refuse to take joy in him (2 Thess 1:8-9).

Being human is great! Let us take joy in him who made us so.

19 July 2006

Westminster Wednesday: The Indomitable Puritans

Work, work, work.Because I am working my way through Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the ethos of hard work has been on my mind. In this paragraph, Packer summarizes the Puritans' compelling understanding on work and all of life. Both Rand and the Puritans condemned “laziness and passivity,” but Rand’s objectivism is vacuous at the very point that the Puritans shone with “inexhaustible inner strength.”

About the piety that was central to Puritanism we may generalize as follows. Four qualities stand out as showing its temper. The first is humility, the cultivated lowliness of a sinful creature who is always in the presence of a great and holy God, and can only live before him through being constantly pardoned. The second is receptivity, in the sense of openness to be taught, corrected, and directed by one’s discoveries in Scripture; plus willingness to be disciplined by the darkness of disappointment and inward desertion, as well as encouraged by happy providences; plus readiness to believe that the good hand of a faithful and gracious God, who is ripening his children for future glory, shapes it all, the rough no less than the smooth. The third is doxology, the passion to turn everything into worship and so to glorify God by all one’s words and deeds. The fourth is energy, the spiritual energy of the true Protestant work ethic whereby laziness and passivity are damned as irreligious, just because so much remains to be done before God’s name is hollowed in his world as it should be. That all four qualities are formed by the Puritan view of God, who he is and what he does, is obvious; that, together, they constitute a mind- and heart-set which, once formed, nothing can daunt or destroy is surely no less obvious. In the combination of these four qualities lay the secret of the Puritans’ indomitable and inexhaustible inner strength (A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, p. 331).

17 July 2006

Edwards on Beauty

Tisk, tisk President Edwards. There's a Spot on your stole.Well, here we are dealing with the deep philosophical question of the connection between ethics and aesthetics. We are trying in all we do to have a Christian view of things. That is that we acknowledge that Christian theism (fearing Yahweh) precedes all true philosophy and science (knowledge). Proverbs 1:7, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline."

On the one side, we emphasized that there is an ethical quality to aesthetics. That is, the commands in Scripture which entail cultivating creation assume not only a standard of efficiency, but also a standard of beauty. On the other hand, I think we can say that there is an aesthetic quailty to ethics.

To make the connection more clear, we could say that as beauty relates to our affections, so good or right relates to our volition. Beauty is what we ought to take pleasure in or love; good is what we ought to desire or choose. And those really don’t seem to be mutually exclusive categories, do they?

Edwards didn’t think so:

And as the exercises of the inclination and will of the soul are various in their kinds, so they are much more various in their degrees. There are some exercises of pleasedness or displeasedness, inclination or disinclination, wherein the soul is carried but a little beyond the state of indifference.--And there are other degrees above this, wherein the approbation or dislike, pleasedness or aversion, are stronger, wherein we may rise higher and higher, till the soul comes to act vigorously and sensibly, and the actings of the soul are with that strength, that (through the laws of the union which the Creator has fixed between the soul and the body) the motion of the blood and animal spirits begins to be sensibly altered; whence oftentimes arises some bodily sensation, especially about the heart and vitals, that are the fountain of the fluids of the body: from whence it comes to pass, that the mind, with regard to the exercises of this faculty, perhaps in all nations and ages, is called the heart. And it is to be noted, that they are these more vigorous and sensible exercises of this faculty that are called the affections.The will, and the affections of the soul, are not two faculties; the affections are not essentially distinct from the will, nor do they differ from the mere actings of the will, and inclination of the soul, but only in the liveliness and sensibleness of exercise.
Furthermore, as the affections are the summit of the volitions, he says, moral goodness is the summit of true beauty.
The true beauty and loveliness of all intelligent beings does primarily and most essentially consist in their moral excellency or holiness. Herein consists the loveliness of the angels, without which, with all their natural perfections, their strength, and their knowledge, they would have no more loveliness than devils. It is a moral excellency alone, that is in itself, and on its own account, the excellency of intelligent beings: it is this that gives beauty to, or rather is the beauty of their natural perfections and qualifications. Moral excellency is the excellency of natural excellencies.
Edwards connects aesthetics and ethics in Religious Affections much more ably than I can. So I’ll refer you to him for more specifics.The point is that aesthetics and ethics are tightly interwoven. Perhaps one could say that they are distinguishable but inseparable. As we saw Friday, God has commanded us to work hard for his glory, so there is an ethical quality to aesthetics. And "moral excellency is the excellency of natural excellencies," so there is an aesthetic quality to ethics.

14 July 2006

Classical Concerti, Computer Code, and the Kingdom

This was going to be just a comment, but I decided to promote it (more because it was long than because I liked it). I already have the next post written and it deals more thoroughly with the relationship between the categories of aesthetics and ethics.

As far as the Fine Arts are concerned, I think that the Biblical foundation for them is found in the fact that Adam and Eve were created to appreciate the beauty of God's creation. This may be implied by the fact that throughout the Scriptures, God's people actually do appreciate this beauty (Pss 8, 19 come immediately to mind). This appreciation first becomes explicit in the account of the fall where Eve sees that the forbidden fruit is "pleasing to the eyes" (Gen 3:6). God created humans with affections--the capacity to appreciate beauty.

God's creativity, as evidenced in that ideal world, provided the standard for man's creative expressions. Man's imagination was directed to think God's thoughts after him. Unfortunately both our ability to interpret God's world and the world itself suffer now from the effects of the fall. Without clear Scriptural guidelines, we are not able to be as precise and dogmatic about beauty as some may wish to be. However, that does not really concern me.

Here's why: I am very comfortable working on a laptop, the technology for which proceeds off of knowledge which is not gained immediately through the Scriptures. The Scriptures endow the Christian worldview with the only adequate explanation for science. Once that foundation has been laid, scientists, engineers, factory workers, and robots do their thing, and voila, I have a computer.

In a parallel way, the Scriptures endow the Christian worldview with the only adequate explanation for the fine arts. From there painters, playwrites, novelists, architects, musicians, actors, choreographers (maybe;), and film directors do their thing, and voila, I have art.

The Bible teaches us few of the particulars in computer chips or charcoals, html code or violin concerti. But it does give us the foundation for those things so that whatever our hands find to do we may do it Christianly as service to our Master.

How do these things relate to moral categories? They relate in that we are commanded to cultivate all of creation as God's vice-regents (Ps 8:5-7). They relate in that we ought to do everything for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). They relate in that we are commanded to do everything as in submission to Christ as our Master, as Paul said to the Colossian slaves, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men" (Col 3:23). I think these passages assume standards of efficiency and beauty. Specifically, they assume that believers are to strive to cultivate creation to reach the standard of beauty and efficiency seen in the pristine world and in the eschatological kingdom. If we have been given responsibility by God to cultivate creation, then that cultivation is a moral obligation.

Obviously, as a premillennialist, I see the goal as unattainable before Christ (himself responsible to cultivate creation as a human) sets up his earthly kingdom. At that time "the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21). However, as a premillennialist, I see Christ's future redemption of the created order as a vindication for the efforts of believers who now concern themselves with cultivating in creation the same efficiency and beauty Christ himself will bring when he comes.

12 July 2006

Westminster Wednesday—Authority and Idolatry

The discussion of aesthetics and ethics has, in large degree, come down to a question of authority. I make the claim that beauty comes with an attendant obligation for the observer to appreciate it. Beauty is there. Beauty is the standard for the affections of all people. It is what we ought to like because it is what God likes. Baylor has emphasized a counterpoint. Because the Scriptures are our only authority, he reasons, we cannot know what pleases God except as Scripture specifies. God has not chosen to reveal the standards for fine arts in the Scriptures, therefore those standards are irrelevant for the believer.

Though I disagree with his conclusion, I do not wish to downplay the starting point of his argument whatsoever. Sola Scriptura is the formal principle of the Reformation, and it is reflected throughout genuinely Reformed theology. The Westminster Larger Catechism is no exception (emphasis mine):

Question 109: What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment? A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretence whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.

Question 110: What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment, the more to enforce it? A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment. the more to enforce it, contained in these words, For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments; are, besides God's sovereignty over us, and propriety in us, his fervent zeal for his own worship, and his revengeful indignation against all false worship as being a spiritual whoredom; accounting the breakers of this commandment such as hate him, and threatening to punish them unto divers generations; and esteeming the observers of it such as love him and keep his commandments, and promising mercy to them unto many generations.

10 July 2006

Aesthetics and Ethics

Noah Webster: illicitly borrowing the Spot.The final point of discontinuity between myself and my commenters was the connection between aesthetics and ethics. I did assume the connection in my argument before, so I'll elaborate it a little more now.
Our goal here is to begin with God in all of our thinking, making him and his revelation the foundation for our thought so as to avoid foolishness. So we are not altogether methodologically sound when we start with a (standard but) secular dictionary's definition of aesthetics. We must simply remember that Merriam-Webster cannot be neutral in their discussion, and by ignoring God in the definition of beauty, they evidence not only a bankrupt definition of beauty but also a hatred for true beauty. However, despite their bankruptcy, I believe that M-W makes a(n illicitly borrowed but nonetheless) helpful predication about beauty. Namely, they associate aesthetics with pleasure. See for yourself.

1 plural but singular or plural in construction : a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty
2 : a particular theory or conception of beauty or art : a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight
3 plural : a pleasing appearance or effect :BEAUTY

The M-W definition of beauty is similarly associated with pleasure:

1 : the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit : LOVELINESS

But there is still something missing from the discussion. If we stopped here I think we would only have a foolish understanding of beauty. I think T. Robert Baylor has added the all-important missing ingredient to this understanding of aesthetics (emphasis mine):

I don't think that the use of aesthetic language necessarily implies a philosophical connection between morality and aesthetics; it seems more likely to me that the authors are borrowing aesthetic language to describe God's pleasure in proper ethical living.

Baylor notes that the authors of the Scriptures use "aesthetic language" because of "God's pleasure in ethical living." So I ask, what else could beauty be? Beauty, objectively considered, is what God takes pleasure in. In other words, God's affections define beauty. And because God is highest in his own affections, God is what Beauty is. The immense overlap between aesthetics and ethics should be becoming clear. Righteous actions please God because they conform to his nature which is the standard of beauty and highest in his affections. Beauty and good are united in him because his affections and character provide definition to both.

07 July 2006

Piper on Beauty

True Beauty? Not so much.This is a repost from last September. I'm not sure when I'm allowed to begin reposting, but I think this one is worth the airtime. The thoughts expressed in these four paragraphs from Let the Nations Be Glad! by John Piper have been prominent in my thoughts for the past few days weeks. In showing the beauty of ethnic diversity, Piper also points out a diversity in beauty which seems to have been neglected in some constructions of the Christian view of beauty.

"1. First, there is a beauty and power of praise that comes from unity in diversity that is greater than that which comes from unity alone. Psalm 96:3-4 connects the evangelizing of the peoples with the quality of praise that God deserves. 'Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods.' Notice the word 'for.' The extraordinary greatness of the praise that the Lord should receive is the ground and impetus of our mission to the nations.

"I infer from this that the beauty and power of praise that will come to the Lord from the diversity of the nations are greater than the beauty and power that would come to him if the chorus of the redeemed were culturally uniform. The reason for this can be seen in the analogy of a choir. More depth and beauty is felt from a choir that sings in parts than from a choir that sings only in unison. Unity in diversity is more beautiful and more powerful than the unity of uniformity. This carries over to the untold differences that exist between the peoples of the world. When their diversity unites in worship to God, the beauty of their praise will echo the depth and greatness of God's beauty far more than if the redeemed were from only a few different groups.

"2. Second, the fame and greatness and worth of an object of beauty increases in proportion to the diversity of those who recognize its beauty. If a work of art is regarded as great among a small and likeminded group of people but not by anyone else, the art is probably not truly great. Its qualities are such that it does not appeal to the deep universals in our hearts but only to provincial biases. But if a work of art continues to win more and more admirers not only across cultures but also across decades and centuries, then its greatness is irresistibly manifested.

"Thus, when Paul says, 'Praise the Lord all you nations, and let all the peoples extol him' (Rom. 15:11, author's translation), he is saying that there is something about God that is so universally praiseworthy and so profoundly beautiful and so comprehensively worthy and so deeply satisfying that God will find passionate admireres in every diverse people group in the world. His true greatness will be manifest in the breadth of the diversity of those who perceive and cherish his beauty. His excellence will be shown to be higher and deeper than the parochial preferences that make us happy most of the time. His appeal will be to the deepest, highest, largest capacities of the human soul. Thus the diversity of the source of admiration will testify to his incomparable glory" (p. 198-199).

After reading through these paragraphs again, I am also delighted to see the balance Piper strikes here. He implies throughout a diversity in Christian beauty, but he does not allow that beauty is altogether a personal or cultural matter. The beauty of God is the objective standard; God appeals to the "deepest, highest, largest capacities of the human soul," while Mona Lisa, for example, may only appeal to the Western version of such capacities. God is what beauty is, and he has implanted "deep universals" in our constitution as image-bearers whereby we inevitably recognize this beauty at some level (though in our pervasive depravity we suppress and hate this beauty if left to ourselves).

06 July 2006

(True) Story Problem

Pittsley has a $2.00 overdue fine at the library because 8 books were overdue. The fine for one book is 3 times the fine for each of the other 7 books. How much is the fine for each book?

05 July 2006

Westminster Wednesday--The Covenant of Works

I am contemplating next semester's paper load, and I'm wondering about the covenant of works. My initial impression is that covenant theologians agree on the existence of a covenant with Adam, but they are not all on the same page as to its nature. There seems to be a continuum of opinions about just how much the covenant is works or merit-based versus grace-based. Some find in the covenant of works theological infrastructure for Christian ethics [btw, I will get back to ethics and aesthetics soon enough], and the imputation of Christ's righteousness is also related to this covenant.

As might be suspected the Larger Catechism is general enough on these points:

Q. 20. What was the providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created?

A. The providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created, was the placing him in paradise, appointing him to dress it, giving him liberty to eat of the fruit of the earth; putting the creatures under his dominion, and ordaining marriage for his help; affording him communion with himself; instituting the sabbath; entering into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience, of which the tree of life was a pledge; and forbidding to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.

Q. 21. Did man continue in that estate wherein God at first created him?

A. Our first parents being left to the freedom of their own will, through the temptation of Satan, transgressed the commandment of God in eating the forbidden fruit; and thereby fell from the estate of innocency wherein they were created.

Q. 22. Did all mankind fall in that first transgression?

A. The covenant being made with Adam as a public person, not for himself only, but for his posterity, all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in that first transgression.

Q. 23. Into what estate did the fall bring mankind?

A. The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.

Q. 24. What is sin?

A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature.

Q. 30. Doth God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?

A. God doth not leave all men to perish in the estate of sin and misery, into which they fell by the breach of the first covenant, commonly called the covenant of works; but of his mere love and mercy delivereth his elect out of it, and bringeth them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant, commonly called the covenant of grace.