Friday, March 25, 2022

Human Nature from Calvin to Edwards, by Paul Helm

Reformation Heritage Books, 2018, 282pp, 

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones would often say that the truth of God’s word should be presented to the mind in order to inflame the heart and move the will to action. In speaking like that the preacher was using the language of ‘faculty psychology’. The ‘faculties’ of the soul describe its intertwining functions and powers, such as the mind, the affections and the will. That does not mean the soul is composed of various bits and pieces. Most proponents of faculty psychology believed that the human soul is a simple entity that cannot be divided into discrete parts as can the body.

Early Christian thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo drew upon the views of Plato and Aristotle when formulating their doctrine of human nature. Reformers John Calvin and Peter Martyr Vermigli followed in their wake. The old Greek philosophers knew nothing of original sin or the resurrection of the body, however, so their ideas had to be modified in the light of biblical teaching.

The focus of Helm's study is on the ‘faculty psychology’ of Puritan writers. He cites the views of numerous Puritans on the relationship between body and soul, the faculties of the soul and moral agency. The teaching of familiar figures such as John Owen and John Flavel is discussed, as well as less well known writers like William Pemble. The book demands careful reading, as each author quoted had a slightly different perspective on the matters under consideration. Helm’s discussion of the conscience in Puritan writings is especially illuminating.

John Locke critiqued traditional faculty psychology, preferring to emphasise the actions of the undivided self over and against differentiated powers of mind, heart and will. Helm provides evidence of Locke’s influence on Jonathan Edwards’s work, The Religious Affections. But Locke’s objections did not spell the end of faculty psychology. The insights of our Puritan forebears continue to cast light on human nature as created by God, affected by sin and redeemed by grace. 

Paul Helm blogs at Helm's Deep

*Reviewed for the April 2022 edition of  The Banner of Truth Magazine

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

May we pray to the Holy Spirit?

I once heard a preacher say  that prayer should ordinarily be addressed to God the Father. Arguably, he said, we may pray to Jesus, but we should probably not pray to the Holy Spirit. The preacher conceded that John 14:13 may give us good grounds for praying to Jesus, plus Stephen's example in Acts 7:59-60. Paul makes calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ the hallmark of belonging to his people (1 Corinthians 1:2), so I think we may safely conclude that doing so is perfectly fine. Prayer to the Holy Spirit, though, where's that in the Bible? 

Rest assured I have a perfectly serviceable 'proof text' for you, but before we come to that, please allow me to introduce Dr John Owen and his great work On Communion with God. You'll find it in Volume 2 of his Works, published by the Banner of Truth Trust. Although various standalone versions are also available, if you prefer. In On Communion with God, Owen meditates on how the believer may have distinct communion with each person of the Trinity. One of his driving thoughts is that communion with any one divine person necessarily involves the other two. Inseparable operations and all that. 

Our preacher's text was Matthew 6:9, 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name'. It is true that prayer is ordinarily addressed to the Father in the name of the Son and by the presence of the Holy Spirit, Ephesians 2:18. But the Father we address is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father's only begotten Son. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and Christ, (Romans 8:9), who proceeds from the Father and the Son. When we 'hallow' the name of 'our Father', we are also 'hallowing' his Son and the Holy Spirit. 

Why? Because holiness is an attribute of God's being, which is possessed equally, fully and without division by all three persons of the Trinity. As Owen says, "The divine nature is the reason and cause of all worship; so that it is impossible to worship any one person and not worship the whole Trinity." (p. 268). Our Puritan divine gives attention to the text cited in the previous paragraph, Ephesians 2:18:
Our access in our worship is said to be "to the Father;" and this "through Christ," or his mediation; "by the Spirit," or his assistance. Here is a distinction of the persons, as to their operations, but not as their being or object of worship. For the Son and the Holy Ghost are no less worshipped in our access to God than the Father himself; only, the grace of the Father, which we obtain by the mediation of the Son and the assistance of the Spirit, is what we draw nigh to God for. So that when, by the distinct dispensation of the Trinity, and every person, we are led to worship (that is, to act faith on or invocate) any person, we do herein worship the whole Trinity and every person, by what name soever, of the Father, Son or Holy Ghost, we invocate him. (p. 269)

In worshipping or praying to the Father, we are also worshipping and praying to the Son and the Holy Spirit, for the Son and Spirit are one being with the Father. Reflect also on the great trinitarian benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14. 'Grace' is appropriated to the Lord Jesus Christ, 'love' to God [the Father] and 'fellowship' to the Holy Spirit. But grace is also the grace of God (Romans 5:15) and of the Spirit (Hebrews 10:29). God's love is commended to us in the death of his Son and poured into our hearts by the Spirit (Romans 5:8, 5). Fellowship with the Spirit is also fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3). With that in mind, it is no more problematic to offer worship to the Holy Spirit, or pray to him, than it is to worship and pray to the Father, or the Son. 

Indeed, Owen goes on to argue that we should offer distinct praise to the Holy Spirit for his work in our lives, as we rightly give glory to the Son for redeeming us by his blood, Revelation 1:5-6. We should also pray to the Holy Spirit "for the carrying on the work of our consolation, which he hath undertaken, lies our communion with him. John prays for grace and peace from the seven Spirits that are before the throne, or the Holy Ghost, whose operations are perfect and complete." (p. 271). Owen gives directions on how the believer may do just that in the following pages.

Theologically speaking then, prayer to the Holy Spirit is part and parcel of our communion with the triune God. But I promised you a proof text. Let me take you to Ezekiel's vison of the valley of dry bones. When Ezekiel prophesied to the bones they came together and were covered with flesh, but there was no life in them (Ezekiel 37:7-8). Then the Lord told Ezekiel to speak to the breath that the slain may live. The breath came and raised them to life, 'an exceedingly great army' Ezekiel 37:9-10. The 'breath' or roach in Hebrew is none other than the Spirt of the Lord, Ezekiel 37:14, compare Psalm 33:6. Israel's national  'resurrection' after the Babylonian Captivity is a picture of the resurrection of believers by the power of the Spirit, Romans 8:11. If Ezekiel could speak to the 'Spirit of life' (Romans 8:2, 10), so may we. Besides, as Owen points out, in Revelation 1:5-6, the Spirit is invoked as the source of grace and peace alongside 'him who is and who was and who is to come' [the Father] and Jesus Christ. 

While the usual order in prayer is to the Father, in the name of the Son and by the Spirit, this is not a stereotypical formula in Holy Scripture. We may also call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and seek the aid of the Holy Spirit in prayer. 

Come, Holy Spirit, like a dove descending,
Rest Thou upon us while we meet to pray;
Show us the Savior, all His love revealing,
Lead us to Him, the Life, the Truth, the Way.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

 William Collins, 2007, 200pp

Last autumn my wife and I enjoyed a week's holiday in the Cotswolds. Our base was the historic town of Tewkesbury. Little did we know when we booked to stay there some months earlier, that in late October 2021 Tewkesbury was to become the Covid hotspot of England. Infection rates had skyrocketed. Thankfully, we managed not to catch it. 

Plague aside, staying in Tewkesbury was convenient for visiting Cotswoldy hotspots such as Bourton on the Water and Stow on the Wold. The town, boasting an Abbey and battlefield site, was also handy for a quick drive to nearby Cheltenham, where we saw Dune in the cinema. It's not too far from Stratford on Avon, either, or 'Shakespeare country' as the Warwickshire Tourist Board likes to call it.

We've been to see I don't know how many Shakespeare plays over the years. In fact on our first date we went to see Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. Worked for us. A local amateur company, Shakespeare Live  stages an outdoor performance for a week in early July.  Well timed for a wedding anniversary night out. We've seen a few plays at Shakespeare's Globe in London. Who knew the Bard was woke before his time, with a penchant for gender fluidity so complex that he had women playing men's roles and even women playing men who were playing women? Box Tale Soup do an excellent Twelfth Night with puppets. And then there are the various films and TV versions, most recently The Tragedy of Macbeth with Denzel Washington in the title role.

But apart from a basic smattering of facts, I didn't know much about William Shakespeare himself. On our day trip to Stratford on Avon we booked a boat trip on the River Avon and a visit to Shakespeare's Birthplace. It was fascinating to look round the exhibits on display in the visitor centre and explore the playwright's childhood home. On our way out we passed through the gift shop and I was possessed by the sudden urge to buy a Shakespeare biography. As you might expect there were several on the shelves, but I opted for this one by Bill Bryson. Although I'd heard of the author this was the first book I had read by him.

Turns out that apart from a basic smattering of facts little is actually known about the world-renowned figure of English literature. Scholars don't have a clue what he was up to for huge chunks of his life. The only access we have to his inner thoughts and feelings is through his poems and plays. They don't necessarily represent his personal feelings or views on life. We can't be sure what he looked like, or even how his name should be spelled. By way of contrast we have a wealth of information from various reliable sources when it comes to the life and teachings of Jesus, who walked among men some 1500 years before Shakespeare, (see here).

Bryson carefully sifts the established facts of Shakespeare's life from the stuff of myth and legend. He sets the writer against the backdrop of his times and offers a brief analysis of his key poems plays. All is done with the lightness of touch and good humour for which the author is renowned. In a final chapter, Claimants Bryson briefly, but devastatingly critiques the claims of those who believe that an ordinary fellow like William Shakespeare could not possibly have written the great works associated with his name. 

Making Covid-stricken Tewkesbury our base probably wasn't such a bad idea for trying to understand Shakespeare's life and times, which were characterised by wave after wave of population decimating plague. 

Friday, March 04, 2022

Spring is Sprung

'Spring is sprung, the grass is riz
I wonder where the birdies is'

Well, it all depends on what you mean by Spring. Astronomers insist that Spring begins on 20 March. All to do with the Earth’s orbit in relation to the Sun. Meanwhile Meteorologists date the start of Spring from 1 March, when the weather gets a little warmer after the chill of winter. That still doesn’t solve the mystery of ‘where the birdies is’, but there we are.

It’s been a mild winter overall, although drew to an end in a stormy rage. Spring will certainly welcome. It’s a joy to see the daffodils in bloom and to know that lighter evenings are on the way. There are also hopeful signs that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is behind us, with brighter days ahead.

The annual round of the seasons is testimony to the faithfulness of God. As it says in the Book of Genesis, ‘While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

Spring is the season when Christians celebrate that Jesus is risen from the dead. The long dark winter of the world is over. By his death on the cross and resurrection from the tomb Jesus broke the power of sin that reigns in death. Spring is sprung. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Jesus offers this abundant life to all who hear his voice and come to him, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”*

* For March editions of various local parish magazines/newspapers