Monday, 12 December 2011

Thinking Theologically (2)

In TT(1) I began with man made in the image of God and wrote, drawing on James Sire (who was drawing on John Henry Newman): 'three truths provide most of what is needed to undergird the possibility of human knowledge (and therefore, human thought): first, the primacy of God’s existence; second the nature of this God as intelligent, living, personal and almighty; thirdly, that he is the intentional creator of a rational, orderly universe that is not himself (that is, creation is not just an extension of God as pantheism teaches). Only if there is an objective, orderly universe to which our reason correlates, can there be any real basis for human thinking'.

What is the relation between man's being and God's? First, we are dependent on God. In him we live and move and have our being. Second, there is analogy. unlike any other creature our being is like God's. Third, also uniquely among creatures, there is capacity for response - we know God and should adore him and obey him. The medium of such response is God's Word. The first task of the mind is to receive the Word of God, believe it and obey it. The mind should therefore be in the service of a nature that is responsive to God - as God made it.

In Eden Adam received God's Word and for a time obeyed it. His mind was not only dependent on God's and analogous to it but perfectly responsive to God. He heard God's Word and obeyed. He was also called to be creative. He named the animals 'And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name' (Gen 2:19). So by analogy Adam was creative as God was creative. His mind was able to come to accurate assessments and make decisions that pleased God. It is one of the great 'what ifs' of history, to imagine what man's mind might have achieved without the Fall. Even fallen man, even the line of Cain, accomplished wonderful things (Gen 4:17-22). How much more, had there been no sin. Significantly, the first created thing in the line of Seth was the ark. The line of Cain was constructive but on its own initiative; the line of Seth listened to God's Word and provided for salvation. We take a fuller look at:

The mind in revolt

Sin entered human experience (Genesis 3) because Adam and Eve listened to the snake, through whom Satan spoke, rather than God. They trusted Satan and the evidence of their own senses (Genesis 3:6) and distrusted and disobeyed God. True thinking is dependent on faith in God’s Word. Thinking which is captive to the senses is the characteristic of the sinner. Paul describes the world in sin and the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin in Romans 1:18-28. Suppressing the truth they knew about God, human beings, although knowing God, did not honour him or give thanks to him but became futile in their thinking (v 21). Claiming to be wise (how contemporary that is) they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles (v 23). God therefore ‘gave them up’ as an act of just punishment to their lusts and impurity, their dishonourable passions and debased mind (vv 24,26,28).

This is man today. What is the effect of sin on the mind?

First, there is no understanding at all of spiritual truth; the heart is darkened (Roman 1:21; Ephesians 4:18). He does not know God except as barely discerned Creator whom he rejects (Romans 1:18-20). He has a residual knowledge of God but it is a knowledge that only condemns him. He has no understanding of spiritual things for which the heart must be enlightened and opened up by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Secondly, there is defective understanding of all things. The Puritan Richard Baxter put it like this:2 ‘nothing can be rightly known if God be not known; nor is any study well managed, or to any great purpose, if God is not studied. We know little of the creature [that is, anything in creation], till we know it as it stands related to the Creator: single letters, and syllables uncomposed, are no better than nonsense…all creatures, as such, are broken syllables; they signify nothing as separated from God’.

In other words, separated from God we have imperfect knowledge of the parts but no understanding of the whole. We are like non-mechanics confronted with the jumbled components of a car engine: we may understand bits and pieces of what the parts do but have no way of putting them together.

Baxter continues: ‘Were they [creatures] separated actually they would cease to be, and the separation would be an annihilation; and when we separate them in our fancies, we make nothing of them unto ourselves.’

The point he is perceptively making is that in reality, creatures ‘cease to be’ if separated totally from God; when, in our fallen minds, we separate them from God in our perception and understanding, they ‘cease to be’ to us what they really are in that we fail to make any sense of them.

He goes on:

[W] hen man was made perfect, and placed in a perfect world…the whole creation was then man’s book, in which he was to read the nature and will of his Creator. Every creature had the name of God so legibly graven on it that man might run and read it…it was, therefore, his work to study the whole volume of nature, but first and foremost himself. And if any had held this course, he would have continued and increased in the knowledge of God and himself; but when he would know and love the creature and himself in a way of separation from God, he lost the knowledge both of the creature and the Creator…

The point that Baxter makes is profound. Separated from God, our knowledge of creation will never make true sense. We will always be ‘fools’ pretending we are wise. Brilliant though many men and women will be and capable of huge and real achievements in science, arts, technology and every branch of learning, they will never really understand the true use or purpose of anything because they will not honour God and will not know that the purpose of their greatest accomplishments is to glorify him, not themselves. In short, they will not be thinking straight; their thoughts will be futile.

Baxter points us to another important conclusion. I shall suggest later that one of the problems today is the fragmentation of knowledge. This, however, should not surprise the Christian even if the extent to which we see it today is accentuated. Apart from God, knowledge and understanding will be fragmented. It is a feature of man as sinner, not just of the twenty first century.

James Sire quotes John Henry Newman to good effect in this context:

'All knowledge forms one whole, because its subject-matter is one, for the universe in its length and breadth is so intimately knit together … then again, as to its Creator (though He of course in His own Being is infinitely separate from it, and Theology has its departments towards which human knowledge has no relations) yet He has so implicated Himself with it, and taken it into His very bosom, by His presence in it, His providence over it, His impressions upon it, and His influences through it, that we cannot truly or fully contemplate it without contemplating Him'.

In simpler language, all truth is a unity because it is from one God. Moreover, even though God is separate from the universe, his relationship to all he has made means we cannot understand creation without at the same time considering God. Although no longer worshipping and obeying God, creation is still dependent on him and its life can only be understood in relation to him. Supremely is this true of Man whose very being is analogous to God's.

In turn, this means that because of the Fall, we are not thinking properly nor can we, until we know God. It is the work of Christ to bring us back to God and as part of the experience of redemption, to ‘see and admire, to reverence and adore, to love and delight in God, as exhibited in his works – this is the only true philosophy’. The Christian is to be restored to something of a true ability to think, and to the true purpose of thinking. What is that? In John Owen’s words, the mind’s place is first ‘recognising, reacting to and conforming to revealed truth…theology is nothing but the pure Word of God and our part is the apprehension of it with our rational faculties as they are illuminated by God’.

So then we need to look briefly at some of the relevant attributes of the Christian mind.

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