Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Hilary was right

No no, not Hillary; Hilary. That is, Hilary of Poitiers, theological writer from the fourth century, called the "Athanasius of the West" and the "Hammer of the Arians" for his forceful, insightful, Biblical opposition to the Arian heresy.

Were I ever to write a theology (unlikely in the extreme), I think this would make a terrific epigraph:
Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of Himself, and bow with humble reverence to His words. For He Whom we can only know through His own utterances is the fitting witness concerning Himself. (On the Trinity, book I, section 18; from Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Vol. IX, 45 [Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997]).
This strikes at a central truth that led to my conversion. I realized that my idea of God was just that: my idea of God. It had no authority beyond me, my imagination, my reasoning. And what were my qualifications? Zero. In fact, I was disqualified many times over.

So, were I ever to know God (I was led to see) it could only be on His terms, by His taking the initiative to make Himself known.

This is the difference between approaching the knowledge of God in the fear of Yahweh, and doing it any other way. The older I get, the more I see to Solomon's dictum (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10), and the more literally true I realize it to be. Approach God clinging resolutely to personal preconceptions, and we do not approach Him at all, except (I speak as a fool) as His instructors. Only the attitude summed up in Eli's counsel to Samuel ("Speak, Yahweh, for your slave is listening") is a teachable attitude.

Here is Hilary's entire section, for context:
And you, whose warmth of faith and passion for a truth unknown to the world and its philosophers shall prompt to read me, must remember to eschew the feeble and baseless conjectures of earthly minds, and in devout willingness to learn must break down the barriers of prejudice and half-knowledge. The new faculties of the regenerate intellect are needed; each must have his understanding enlightened by the heavenly gift imparted to the soul. First he must take his stand upon the sure ground [substantia = ὐποστάσει] of God, as holy Jeremiah says [23:22, Septuagint (which has ἐν τῇ ὑποστάσει μου)], that since he is to hear about that nature [substantia] he may expand his thoughts till they are worthy of the theme, not fixing some arbitrary standard for himself, but judging as of infinity. And again, though he be aware that he is partaker of the Divine nature, as the holy apostle Peter says in his second Epistle [2 Peter 1:4], yet he must not measure the Divine nature by the limitations of his own, but gauge God’s assertions concerning Himself by the scale of His own glorious self-revelation. For he is the best student who does not read his thoughts into the book, but lets it reveal its own; who draws from it its sense, and does not import his own into it, nor force upon its words a meaning which he had determined was the right one before he opened its pages. Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of Himself, and bow with humble reverence to His words. For He Whom we can only know through His own utterances is the fitting witness concerning Himself.
Amen. Good counsel.

20 comments:

RT said...

Allow me to register astonishment to find you quoting, with approbation, a saint of the Roman Catholic church. I wonder if you also share his concept of the eucharist. (Also from De Trinitate): "We believe that the Word became flesh and that we receive his flesh in the Lord’s Supper. How then can we fail to believe that he really dwells within us? When he became man, he actually clothed himself in our flesh, uniting it to himself for ever. In the sacrament of his body he actually gives us his own flesh, which he has united to his divinity. This is why we are all one, because the Father is in Christ, and Christ is in us. He is in us through his flesh and we are in him. With him we form a unity which is in God."

Granted the shared starting point of knowing God only "through his own utterances", somehow we still manage to reach a multiplicity of conclusions. Still, as specific against cults, against social gospel, against osteenism, there is probably no more effective remedy than a large dose of God's own utterances.

David said...

Well. That gave me the shivers.

God has full knowledge of Himself. And He has chosen to reveal Himself.


Thanks, Dan.

David said...

RT:

So, wait. Nobody was right about anything before the Reformation?

And you end by saying, "There is probably no more effective remedy than God's own utterances"?

Try again.

RT said...

David - I am the one who thinks the church was right both before and after the reformation, which is why I am Anglican. And I remain torn between "God's own utterances" and a swift kick in the buttocks when it comes to heretics - sometimes I lean one way, sometimes the other depending upon the nature of the heresy and the size of the heretic.

Mike Riccardi said...

Roman Catholics don't get to have the corner on the early church. Just because RCs have so selectively read or misinterpreted a guy and claim him as their own doesn't mean that guy's a Romanist. In which case, Dan (or I) can quote Hilary with approbation the same way he quotes RC Sproul with approbation: agreed on the 5 solas and the 5 points, disagreed on paedobaptism.

For good measure, here's Hilary on sola fide, commenting on Matthew 20:

"Wages cannot be considered as a gift, because they are due to work, but God has given free grace to all men by the justification of faith." (Cited in George Finch, A Sketch of the Romish Controversy, 230.)

David said...

And so I wonder why you think that Dan would have a problem quoting what he did. The church at that time was not "Roman Catholic" as far as I know.

DJP said...

Thanks, David; RT and I were next-door-neighbors when I went to Talbot and he to Biola. He's rattling my cage. It's all in good fun.

But of course, you're right: the "Roman Catholic Church" at Hilary's time was shy a few heresies of today's RCC.

And RT, I'm not sure the words on the Eucharist are clear enough to say whether I agree or disagree. It is symbolic of His flesh and blood; He is present as we worship Him according to His word; and He does bless believing obedience.

If he's saying that, I agree. If he's going in the direction of Rome's hocus-pocus, of course not.

RT said...

With respect to the eucharist, I think he goes about as far as Article XXVIII, maybe a little farther, which provides in part: that "the Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves, one to another, but rather it is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ's death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith receive the same, the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ, and likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the blood of Christ."

I think he stops short of "hocus pocus" when In De Trinitate he refers to the partaking in terms of analogy rather than literal reality: "No one will be in Christ unless Christ himself has been in him; Christ will take to himself only the flesh of those who have received his flesh. He had already explained the mystery of this perfect unity when he said: As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so he who eats my flesh will draw life from me. We draw life from his flesh just as he draws life from the Father. Such comparisons aid our understanding, since we can grasp a point more easily when we have an analogy. And the point is that Christ is the wellspring of our life. Since we who are in the flesh have Christ dwelling in us through his flesh, we shall draw life from him in the same way as he draws life from the Father."

And, yes, of course I was rattling your cage - always a pleasant diversion in idle moments.

Rachael Starke said...

You with the tricksy titles. :)

That's a great quote. Interesting that even in the early days of the church there was the temptation to fall into the "what this verse means to me" trap...

"Approach God clinging resolutely to personal preconceptions, and we do not approach Him at all, except (I speak as a fool) as His instructors.

And, ultimately, as idolaters. Whenever we seek to define God as anything other than how He Himself defines Himself, we're crafting an intellectual graven image for ourselves. And that goes for all three members of the Trinity.

lee n. field said...

"Allow me to register astonishment to find you quoting, with approbation, a saint of the Roman Catholic church."

[Shrug.] Unless you're going to go the Landmark Baptist route, it's our history too.

What can I do so that I'll be remembered as "the Hammer of the ______"?

Rupert said...

DJP, having read this article and your linked 'conversion' piece (more than once), I find myself in a quandary.
From your words, it appears that you were looking for something, or lacking in something, and/or not happy with the person you were or where you were going.
So you chose Jesus. Did you do so because you already possessed an innate belief? Or because you liked what you saw in others who had faith?
With no intention of being derogatory, it sounds like the same circumstances under which other people choose alcohol or drugs. Most of those people eventually turn from their addictions and lead straight and useful lives. Those of us who don't become addicted to booze, drugs or faith manage to lead happy and useful lives anyway.
Is faith too addictive to quit? What conditions cause faith to prevail in the face of facts and reality?
Saying 'God is real', 'Jesus has spoken to me' or 'I have felt his love' really don't, under logical examination, contain any evidential factors. They are feelings, sensations and beliefs. So why do it?

Paula said...

For he is the best student who does not read his thoughts into the book, but lets it reveal its own; who draws from it its sense, and does not import his own into it, nor force upon its words a meaning which he had determined was the right one before he opened its pages.

Terrifying - should give us all pause.

The new faculties of the regenerate intellect are needed; each must have his understanding enlightened by the heavenly gift imparted to the soul. [emphasis mine]

To add a variation to RT's comment/challenge, what do we do with the concept of "All truth is God's truth." I have been wrestling with this for the past couple of years.

It has many iterations in the church, but it's usually bandied about by contextualizers who want to use movie clips in lieu of scripture or who think "conversation" is superior to preaching the word.

So, is it true, as Hillary says, that a "regenerate intellect is needed" not only for understanding, but for conveying truth?

Or does God now "speak" through The Family Guy?

If not, what is the proper (biblical) response to "All truth is God's truth"?

DJP said...

I usually hear that one, Paula, just before "...so we should let unbelievers tell us how to interpret Genesis 1," or something like that.

All truth certainly is God's truth, but truth is not self-interpreting. Evidence is not self-interpreting, it has to be interpreted, from within some grid. What grid? God's word.

RT said...

I favor the "interpretive grid" of "scripture, reason and tradition" (the "three-legged stool" of Anglicanism) set out by Richard Hooker in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Politie (1593):

"Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after this the Church succeedeth that which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever." (Book V, 8:2)

Canon Christopher Brown of the Diocese of Albany, NY gives the view a modern and orthodox expression:

"Though hardly unique to Anglicanism, there is a “common sense” relationship between Scripture, reason, and tradition that finds expression in the task of interpreting the Bible. To understand the Bible and appropriate its message requires all the resources that Christians can bring to bear. Reason is the God-given faculty by which we weigh the different elements involved in the interpretive task. And since we are not the first to strive to understand the Word of God, but stand within a theological tradition, we inevitably draw upon the reflections of those who have gone before us."

The reality is, no matter how hard we may try, there is no such animal as "sola scriptura." We inevitably apply tradition and we inevitably and necessarily apply reason. This seems safest carried out under the auspices of ecclesiastical authority rather than within the cranium of the individual believer.

DJP said...

Yes, we see how well that's worked out for the Anglican church.

Oh, wait....

RT said...

Yes, and I suppose we should point to Lutheranism and Presbyterianism in vindication of "sola scriptura"?

The fact is that many Anglican communions, both within and without the U.S. - notably in Africa, remain orthodox. The corruption of the church in Europe and America has more to do with the corroding influence of the pervading culture than it does the interpretive theory of any particular denomination.

DJP said...

Ah, so as long and insofar as they cling to Sola Scriptura, they do all right.

Good. We agree.

RT said...

LOL. I suppose we do, depending upon how you define the word "agree" - maybe something like "a shared belief in the fatuity of each other's opinion."

Mike Riccardi said...

If not, what is the proper (biblical) response to "All truth is God's truth"?

A friend of mine recently answered this this way: "Yes, but not all words are God's Word."

Even though the heavens are declaring the glory of God (Ps 19:1) such that men are without excuse (Rom 1:20), general revelation cannot free man from the corruption that even it is enslaved to (Rom 8:20-23). Only special revelation can do that; that is, the Word of God which is perfect, restoring the soul (Ps 19:7), able to make us wise unto salvation (2Tim 3:15).

Those who tout "All truth is God's truth" usually do not realize the inherent difference in glory and authority between general and special revelation.

So... all truth is God's truth, but not all words are God's Word.

REM said...

Thanks for mining that piece of silver.