Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Divine Impassibility

It is a serious mistake to impute any kind of thoughts to God that are cast in the same mold as human passions—as if God possessed a temper subject to involuntary oscillation.

In fact, a moment's reflection will reveal that if God is 'subject to like passions as we are' (cf. James 5:17), His immutability is seriously undermined at every point. If His creatures can literally make Him change His mood by the things they do, then God isn't even truly in control of His own state of mind. If outside influences can force an involuntary change in God's disposition, then what real assurance do we have that His love for us will remain constant? That is precisely why Jeremiah cited God's immutability and impassibility as the main guarantee of His steadfast love for His own: 'It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not' (Lamentations 3:22). God Himself made a similar point in Malachi 3:6: 'For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.'


God is unchanging and unchangeable, but He is not devoid of affection for His creation. His impassibility should never be set against His affections. His immutability does not rule out personal involvement with His creatures. Transcendence isn't incompatible with immanence.

God is not a metaphysical iceberg. While He is never at the mercy of His creatures, neither is He detached from them. His wrath against sin is real and powerful. His compassion for sinners is also sincere and indefatigable. His mercies are truly over all His works. And above all, His eternal love for His people is more real, more powerful, and more enduring than any earthly emotion that ever bore the label 'love.' Unlike human love, God's love is unfailing, unwavering, and eternally constant. That fact alone ought to convince us that God's affections are not like human passions.

--- Phillip R. Johnson, God Without Mood Swings

Christ in Majesty
Master of the Brussels Initials
c. 1400

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Vae Nobis Miseris, a Jesus Antiphon

In many religious foundations of the mid-sixteenth century it was required that there be 'an Anteme in prycksong immediately that complayn be fully done' so as to foster the devotion of the laity to the Virgin and also to the name and Passion of Jesus. Eventually the Jesus-antiphon increased in vogue as the cult of the Virgin declined during the reign of Henry VIII. One such antiphon is Vae Nobis Miseris.

Vae nobis miseris quia quum ad peccata commissa inspicimus et supplicia intelligimus quae pro his pati debemus non parvum timorem habemus. Quid ergo remanebimus quasi desperati? sine consilio sine adiutorio? Non. Sed ad te fontem pietatis et misericordiae Iesu Christe currimus et festinamus in quo iam tot et tantos peccatores absolutos vidimus et agnoscimus. Obsecramus te igitur Domine Deus noster da nobis gloriam tuam ut a vitiis et a morte animae resurgentes in virtutibus semper floreamus et in soliditate fidei ambulemur ut quae sursum sunt quaeramus et sapiamus non quae super terram. Tibi gratias agimus bone Iesu pro inceptis in nobis gratiae tuae donis quae deprecamur ut misericorditer perficias nosque in viam salutis dirigas per tuae claritatis virtutem purga animas nostras a tenebris peccatorum. Et per eandem virtutem in die universalis resurrectionis caro nostra resurgat ad gloriam. Ut in futura resurrectione delicatam tuam invocationem gaudenter in electis tuis audiamus te dicente: Venite benedicti patris mei percipite regnum quod vobis paratum est ab origine mundi. Amen.

Woe to us wretches, since we have no small fear when we consider the sins that we have committed, and understand the punishments that we must suffer for them. Why then, shall we remain almost in desperation, without advice, without help? No! But we run in haste to Thee, Jesus Christ, the fount of pity and mercy, in whom we have seen and acknowledge so many and such great sinners absolved. We therefore beseech Thee, our Lord and God, give us thy glory so that, rising from our vices and from the death of the soul, we may ever flourish in virtues and walk in the firmness of faith, that we may seek and savour the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. We render thanks to Thee, good Jesus, for the gifts of thy grace that Thou hast begun in us, and we beg that Thou shouldst mercifully perfect them in us, and guide us into the way of salvation. By virtue of thy brightness cleanse our souls from the darkness of sins, and by that same virtue may our flesh rise again to glory on the day of the universal resurrection, so that in the future resurrection we may joyfully hear thy tender summons amongst thine elect as Thou sayest 'Come, ye blessed ones of my Father, receive the Kingdom which has been prepared for you from the beginning of the world.' Amen.

The Throne of Mercy
Colijn de Coter
(c. 1440- c. 1530)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Hark, My Soul, John Austin (1613-69)

The Risen Christ
reredos of the
Lesley Lindsey Chapel
Emmanuel Church, Boston
Ninian Comper (1921-24)

Hark, my soul, how everything
strives to serve our bounteous King;
each a double tribute pays,
sings its parts, and then obeys.

Nature's chief and sweetest choir
him with cheerful notes admire;
chanting every day their lauds,
while the grove their song applauds.

Though their voices lower be,
streams have too their melody;
night and day they warbling run,
never pause, but still sing on.

All the flowers that gild the spring
hither their still music bring;
if heaven bless them, thankful, they
smell more sweet, and look more gay.

Only we can scarce afford
this short office to our Lord;
we, on whom his bounty flows,
all things gives, and nothing owes.

Wake! for shame, my sluggish heart,
wake! and gladly sing thy part;
learn of birds, and springs, and flowers,
how to use thy nobler powers.

Call whole nature to thy aid;
since 'twas he whole nature made;
join in one eternal song,
who to one God all belong.

Live forever, glorious Lord!
Live by all thy works adored,
One in Three, and Three in One,
thrice we bow to thee alone.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

East window, St Andrew, Whissendine, C.E. Kempe (1892)

The strong blue caste of this window is typical of Kempe's work from the 1890s. Arranged in its lower panels are scenes from Christ's early life- the Nativity, the Christ Child and his mother Mary, and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Above is the Crucifixion flanked by the Agony in the Garden and the Deposition. The uppermost lights contain variously angels, the Four Doctors of the Church, and the Four Evangelists.

Thought designed on a much smaller scale, in colour and in composition Kempe's design recalls glass of the kind made for King's College Chapel in the early sixteenth century.

detail, east window,
King's College, Cambridge
Gaylon Hone and others

The Ordinary Means of Growth, Ligon Duncan (Tabletalk Magazine, 1 October 2007)

We are living in a confused and confusing time for confessional Christians (Christians who are anchored by a public and corporate theological commitment to be faithful to the Bible’s teaching on faith and practice as expounded by the great confessions of the Protestant Reformation). We are witnessing the final demise of theological liberalism, the rise of Pentecostalism, the beginnings of the so-called emerging church movement, the breakdown of evangelicalism, and an utter discombobulation about how the church is to conduct its life and ministry in an increasing 'post-Christian' culture. All around us, in the name of reaching the culture with the Gospel, we see evangelical churches compromising (usually without intending to) in both message and methods.

It is not uncommon today to hear certain buzz-words and catch phrases that are meant to capture and articulate new (and presumably more culturally-attuned) approaches to ministry: 'Purpose-driven,' 'missional,' 'contextualization,' 'word and deed,' 'ancient-future,' 'emerging/emergent,' 'peace and justice.' Now, to be sure, there are points, diagnoses, and emphases entailed in each of these terms and concepts that are helpful, true, and timely. Sadly, however, the philosophies of ministry often associated with this glossary are also often self-contrasted with the historic Christian view of how the church lives and ministers. That view is often called 'the ordinary means of grace' view of ministry.

The fundamental assumption underlying these new approaches is that 'everything has changed,' and so our methods must change. I would want to dispute both parts of that equation. Whatever the entailments of our present cultural moment, constituent human nature has not changed (as R.C. Sproul often reminds us). And thus the fundamental human problem has not changed. Neither has the Gospel solution to it. Nor have the effectiveness of God’s Gospel means. Furthermore, one of the things that has always marked faithful and effective Christian ministry in every era and area of the world is a confidence in God’s Word, both in the Gospel message and in Gospel means. Faith still comes by hearing.

In sum, there are basically three views of Gospel ministry. There are those who think that effective cultural engagement requires an updating of the message. There are those who think that effective ministry requires an updating of our methods. And there are those who think that effective ministry begins with a pre-commitment to God’s message and methods, set forth in His Word.

Thus, liberalism said that the Gospel won’t work unless the message is changed. Modern evangelicalism (and not just in its 'seeker-sensitive' and postmodern permutations) has often said that the Gospel won’t work unless our methods are changed. But those committed to an 'ordinary means' approach to church life and ministry say the Gospel works, and God has given us both the method and the message. This is vitally important in a time where one of the dominant story-lines in the churches has been that of methods unwittingly, unhelpfully, and unbiblically altering both the message and the ministry.

Ordinary means of grace-based ministry is ministry that focuses on doing the things God, in the Bible, says are central to the spiritual health and growth of His people, and which aims to see the qualities and priorities of the church reflect biblical norms. Ordinary means ministry is thus radically committed to biblical direction of the priorities of ministry. Ordinary means ministry believes that God has told us the most important things, not only about the truth we are to tell, but about the way we are to live and minister- in any and every context. Hence, God has given us both the message of salvation and the means of gathering and building the church, in His Word. However, important understanding our context is, however important understanding the times may be (and these things are, in fact, very important), however important appreciating the cultural differences in the places and times we serve, the ordinary means approach to ministry is first and foremost concerned with biblical fidelity. Because faithfulness is relevance. The Gospel is the message and the local church is the plan. God has given to his church spiritual weapons for the bringing down of strongholds. These ordinary means of grace are the Word, sacraments, and prayer.

They may seem weak in the eyes of the worldly strong. They may seem foolish in the eyes of the worldly wise. But the Gospel message is the power of God unto salvation, and the Gospel means are effectual to salvation. These are the Spiritual instruments given by God with which Christian congregational Spiritual life is nurtured, the Spirit’s tools of grace and growth in grace appointed by God in the Bible.

So, when we say ordinary means of grace-based ministry, we mean a radical commitment to following the direction of God’s Word as to both the message and the means of gathering and perfecting the saints. Ordinary means ministry has a high view of the Bible, preaching, the church, the ordinances or sacraments, and prayer. Ordinary means ministry believes that the key things that the church can do in order to help people know God and grow in their knowledge of God are: First, emphasize the public reading and preaching of the Word; second, emphasize the confirming, sanctifying and assuring efficacy of the sacraments, publicly administered; and third, emphasize a life of prayer, especially expressed corporately in the church. These things are central and vital but sadly often under-emphasized, under-appreciated, and undermined.

Ordinary means of grace-based ministry believes that God means what He says in the Bible about the central importance of these public, outward instruments for spiritual life and growth. God explicitly instructs ministers and churches to do the following things: 'devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching' (1 Tim. 4:13); 'preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching' (2 Tim. 4:2); 'make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you' (Matt. 28:19); 'take, eat; this is my body... which is for you... drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins; ...do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes' (Matt. 26:26–28; 1 Cor. 11:25–26); 'I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made... I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands' (1 Tim. 2:1, 8).

These are the main ways God’s people grow. We are saved by grace (alone), through faith (alone), in Christ (alone). But the instruments, the tools of God’s grace to bring us to faith and grow us in grace are the Word, prayer, and sacraments. Nothing else we do in the church’s program of ministry should detract from these central instruments of grace, and indeed everything else we do should promote and coalesce with them.

This means, among other things, that ministry is not rocket science. Gospel faithfulness does not require the minister to be a sociologist. Because ministry is not determined (in the first place) by reading the culture but by reading the Word of God. The ordinary means minister wants to connect with the culture, but when it comes to determining method and priorities he moves from text to ministry, not from culture to ministry. He neither changes his message nor his methods based on the polling of the most recent focus group (though he strives to be fully cognizant of the obstacles and opportunities that his biblical message and methods face in his particular cultural context). He fully understands that there is no such thing as an unsituated biblical ministry, or an uncontextualized ministry (and so is careful not to universalize his particular cultural moment, nor to confuse it with universal, biblical norms). He also fully appreciates that some churches have unhelpfully baptized cultural norms and methods from the past, without realizing that baneful cultural influence. But he also knows that many churches, in the quest to contextualize the Gospel and the ministry, have in fact compromised them.

So he’s constantly going back and asking 'what are my marching orders?' And when he remembers, it doesn’t require a PhD in semiotics to interpret them: preach the Word, love the people, pray down heaven, disciple the elders, promote family religion, live a godly life. And what are the church’s marching orders: delight in the Lord’s Day, gathering with the saints to drink in the pure milk of the Word every Sunday morning and evening, as families; pray together as a congregation once every week; worship and catechize at home in families; love one another and all men.

What will a church look like that is committed to the ordinary means of grace? It will be characterized by love for expository Bible preaching, passion for worship, delight in truth, embrace of the Gospel, the Spirit’s work of conversion, a life of godliness; robust family religion; biblical evangelism, biblical discipleship, biblical church membership, mutual accountability in the church, biblical church leadership, and a desire to be a blessing to the nations. Along with this all, there will be an unapologetic, humble, and joyful celebration of the transcendent sovereignty of the one, true, triune God in salvation and all things.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

East window, St John the Baptist, Aldenham, Christopher Webb (mid-20th century)

Both Christopher and his brother Geoffrey were articled to Ninian Comper and the bright colours of their teacher, along with his late affinity for clear background glass, show through in this elegantly designed window representing Christ in Majesty flanked by (from left to right) St Alban, the Virgin Mary, St John the Baptist, and St Paulinus. Also by Webb is the gilded and coloured reredos below the window. In keeping is the Classical altar rail which may have been designed by him as well. The ensemble coordinates well with the sanctuary floor mosaic by Heaton, Butler & Bayne dating from 1890.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

How Shall I Sing That Majesty?, John Mason (1683)

Though sung more often today to Ken Naylor's tune 'Coe Fen', Ralph Vaughan Williams set this hymn to Tallis' 'Third Mode Melody' in the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal. Originally composed in 1567 for Archbishop Parker's Psalter, Tallis' composition better suits the rhythm of Mason's text. It deserves reviving.

How shall I sing that Majesty which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie; sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around thy throne, O God most high;
ten thousand times ten thousand sound thy praise; but who am I?

Thy brightness unto them appears, whilst I thy footsteps trace;
a sound of God comes to my ears, but they behold thy face.
They sing because thou art their Sun; Lord, send a beam on me;
for where heaven is but once begun there alleluias be.

Enlighten with faith's light my heart, inflame it with love's fire;
then shall I sing and bear a part with that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold, with all my fire and light;
yet when thou dost accept their gold, Lord, treasure up my mite.

How great a being, Lord, is thine, which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line to sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore, a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore, thy place is everywhere.