The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

The corrective power of an old exposition

with 2 comments

Though it was not his idea, many readers will be well aware of the problem that C. S. Lewis famously identified as “chronological snobbery.” This is, in essence, the thoughtless assumption that our own conclusions are inherently superior to those of a previous age. It shows itself in various ways, perhaps in the simple failure to reckon with the conclusions of a previous intellectual or cultural climate, or even in the implicit or explicit rejection of them as necessarily discredited.

Such snobbery is as much a problem in theology as in anything else. We might exercise it simply by selecting or reading only modern texts, as if the modern age and our place in it have a monopoly on insight. We might excuse it by looking at everything through the lens of the moment and calling it contextualisation. We might embrace it by working on the assumption that our age and its big names has, by definition, a clearer view that the outmoded thinkers of yesteryear. Such attitudes, even in their more careless rather than arrogantly crass variety, can cripple our explanation and application of God’s word. This is as much an issue in the pulpit of the local church as it is in the classroom of the local seminary. It is primarily the former with which I am concerned, but the problem may begin, in many cases, in the latter. The solution applies to both.

There is great value, in all our thinking and preparing, in reading materials which might reveal a substantially or even radically different agenda. I do not necessarily mean opinions against ours (though there is value in those, too), simply opinions that are properly apart from ours. The resources we need might not be readily available to us, but they are worth tracking down and using. We need to duck out of our own age and dip into others as we are preparing our sermons and processing our theological convictions.

Let me offer a couple of practical examples. The first puts me in mind of an interesting experience at university. It concerns a colleague who cultivated an appearance and attitude that corresponded to his vampire-festooned leather jacket and appetite in death metal. He came in one day complaining about the fact that a mate had crashed at this place for a few days and had then disappeared just as quickly, leaving a puppy behind. Not knowing what to do with the unexpected canine, he called his grandma, who I think had a significant role in his upbringing. She was apparently as sweet and cute as he was brash and ugly. She recommended drowning the dog. My colleague was horrified. The disconnect was over only a couple of generations. She was, by nature and nurture, an early twentieth century country lass. To her, animals were animals. He was, by nature and nurture, a late twentieth century city boy. To him, despite the facade, animals were Bambified.

The same sort of disconnect comes when reading, for example, J. L. Dagg on the essential goodness of God. Consider, for example, this little gem:

Brute animals have, on the whole, a happy existence. Free from anxiety, remorse, and the fear of death, they enjoy, with high relish, the pleasures which their Creator has given them; and it is not the less a gift of his infinite goodness, because it is limited in quantity, or abated by some mixture of pain.1

Does that not raise a whole heap of problems? I mean, how could someone – even someone from as benighted a period as the nineteenth century – dismiss animals as part of brute creation? And how could anyone suggest that God’s goodness could be anything other than his intent to maximise happiness? Dagg goes on:

It is a favorite theory with some, that God aims at the greatest possible amount of happiness in the universe; and that he admits evil, only because the admission of evil produces in the end a greater amount of happiness than its exclusion would have done.2

It sounds rather familiar, does it not? But, says, Dagg,

It may be, that God’s goodness is not mere love of happiness. In his view, happiness may not be the only good, or even the chief good. He is himself perfectly happy; yet this perfection of his nature is not presented to us, in his word, as the only ground, or even the chief ground, on which his claim to divine honor and worship rests. The hosts of heaven ascribe holiness to him, and worship him because of it; but not because of his happiness. If we could contemplate him as supremely happy, but deriving his happiness from cruelty, falsehood, and injustice, we should need a different nature from that with which he has endowed us, and a different Bible to direct us from that which he has given, before we could render him sincere and heart-felt adoration. In the regulation of our conduct, when pleasure and duty conflict with each other, we are required to choose the latter; and this is often made the test of our obedience. On the same principle, if a whole life of duty and a whole life of enjoyment were set before us, that we might choose between them, we should be required to prefer holiness to happiness. It therefore accords with the judgment of God not to regard happiness as the chief good; and the production of the greatest possible amount of happiness could not have been his prime object in the creation of the world. We may conclude that his goodness is not a weak fondness which indulges his creatures, and administers to their enjoyment, regardless of their conduct and moral character. It aims at their happiness, but in subordination to a higher and nobler purpose. According to the order of things which he has established, it is rendered impossible for an unholy being to be happy, and this order accords with the goodness of God, which aims, not at the mere happiness of his universe, but at its well-being, in the best possible sense.3

It doesn’t really fit with our nice, early twenty first century idea that happiness really lies at the core of healthy theology. Not only are we jolted out of the idea that animals can expect happiness of the same order that humans enjoy, measured on the same scale that we might use for ourselves, but we are even denied the happy modern assumption that happiness should be considered the be-all-and-end-all of our existence.

Or, for a more psychological, more immediately internal concern (and don’t those very words remind us of just how modern we really are?), how about John 21? There we find Peter, affirming his love for Christ and informed that his future holds service and suffering, even to death, after the pattern of his Lord. Peter immediately asks concerning John, “But Lord, what about this man?”

Most sermons on the text explore the spirit of competition or curiosity that might seem to possess Peter’s soul at this point. Almost every modern commentary, and all the more the closer you get to the present day, make this an occasion for delving into the psyche of Peter. Why does he ask this question? Is it an inexcusable attitude of rivalry? Is it an inappropriate spirit of inquiry? I think those are fair questions. In our self-obsessed and social-media-drenched age, it is an appropriate application to ask whether or not we are more caught up in the lives of others than we ought to be.

However, go back a little further, and Augustine barely touches on that matter. As far as he is concerned, the really pressing question of the passage is this:

Which of the two disciples is the better, he that loveth Christ less than his fellow-disciple, and is loved more than his fellow-disciple by Christ? or he who is loved less than his fellow-disciple by Christ, while he, more than his fellow-disciple, loveth Christ? Here it is that the answer plainly halts, and the question grows in magnitude. As far, however, as my own wisdom goes, I might easily reply, that he is the better who loveth Christ the more, but he the happier who is loved the more by Christ; if only I could thoroughly see how to defend the justice of our Deliverer in loving him the less by whom He is loved the more, and him the more by whom He is loved the less.4

I would suggest that, without Augustine to prompt us, this question might not even enter our modern consciousness. I am not necessarily saying it is the only question, still less the only right question, but it is clearly a question that could and should be asked. And yet how many of us would have thought to ask it? We are so wrapped up in our obsessive internalisation of issues, that we may not even step far enough outside to ask the question about Christ and his love. We are tempted to make the passage all about us. Augustine is ready to make it much more about Christ.

My point is not that these are spectacular examples, or even spectacularly insightful examples. If anything, it is their ordinariness which appeals. A fairly constant and fairly careful checking against the standard of another time and possibly another place, in the regular course of pastoral ministry, prevents us from assuming what we assume is the obvious answer. It stretches our exegetical approach and challenges our applicatory instinct. We might still reach the same conclusions and make the same applications, but we do so having tested those conclusions and applications against the wisdom of the ages. We are consulting with those who made very different assumptions to us, even if they are working the same channels as us. We are confessing that we have no monopoly on wisdom, no iron grip on insight. Even if we might not have got it all wrong, it forces us to ask if we can get it more right.

  1. J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology, First Part: A Treatise on Christian Doctrine (Charleston, SC; Richmond, VA; Macon, GA; Selma, AL; New Orleans: Southern Baptist Publication Society; S. S. & Publication Board; B. B. & Colporteur Society; B. B. & Book Depository; B. B. Depository, 1859), 80.
  2. J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology, First Part: A Treatise on Christian Doctrine (Charleston, SC; Richmond, VA; Macon, GA; Selma, AL; New Orleans: Southern Baptist Publication Society; S. S. & Publication Board; B. B. & Colporteur Society; B. B. & Book Depository; B. B. Depository, 1859), 80.
  3. J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology, First Part: A Treatise on Christian Doctrine (Charleston, SC; Richmond, VA; Macon, GA; Selma, AL; New Orleans: Southern Baptist Publication Society; S. S. & Publication Board; B. B. & Colporteur Society; B. B. & Book Depository; B. B. Depository, 1859), 80–81.
  4. Augustine of Hippo, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John,” in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. John Gibb and James Innes, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 449.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 22 January 2018 at 23:06

2 Responses

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  1. Very helpful. Might we respond to Augstine by saying that all Christians are loved perfectly by God and therefore equally loved, no matter the difference in their love for Him? Or am I missing something?

    B-P J Scotton

    Tuesday 23 January 2018 at 12:32

    • The quote by Augustine DOES make little or no sense to me. John refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” and I think we may all feel ourselves named in that description. Are any loved more or less than another? It makes no sense to me. God is love, and His love is perfect. It is unchangeable because it is His love, and He is immutable. His love is His perfect love, is all His love. In John 17, Jesus prayed, “… that the world may know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me.” If He loves us as He loves His Son, does He not love us with Himself, and there is no change in Him, and how can there be any question or more or less at all?

      Just my thoughts.

      Raina Nightingale

      Sunday 8 April 2018 at 02:33


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