Marius d’Assigny (1643-1717): A meditation and prayer for hearing the preached Word in public worship

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Marius d’Assigny (1643-1717) was a Reformed divine of the Church of England. Of French Huguenot heritage, his career included spells as vicar of Cutcombe in Somerset, vicar of Tidmarsh in Berkshire, and rector of St Lawrence Newland in Essex. D’Assigny wrote several works, including The Divine Art of Prayer (1691), of which a sample is given below (p. 237-240):

O eternal Wisdom, what a mercy is this! To instruct and teach us at our doors, to enable, enlighten, inspire and send messengers so near our dwellings, to direct us in the right way of eternal happiness. What a condescension is this, to speak to us in our own language, according to our capacities; by men, whose presence express nothing but meekness and love! Was it not sufficient, O blessed God, that thou shouldest open to us the large book of nature, to inform us of thy will and sacred laws, by so many characters imprinted in every thing that is made? Was it not sufficient for our learning, to shew us thy pleasure in the several leaves of another book of providence, opened to us wide every day of our life! But must thy tender compassion of our natural ignorance, unmindfulness, and wilful corruption, teach us by such plain easie and excellent methods, so full of kindness and love! Must the repetition be so frequent? Must thou so often visit and call upon us to study and meditate upon the divine matters! Certainly our minds are too much wedded to the world, and too much enclined to irregular actions, seeing thou hast judged needful to repeat so often to us our duties, and we want every weeks instruction to withdraw our contemplation from evil and vanity. Should not our diligence answer in some respect thy continual care, O merciful Wisdom, and as frequently meet thee, as we are called upon by these publick summons!

Doubtless the business that we are to mind is of importance, seeing my Creator thinks necessary to interpose his divine authority, and to speak to us himself, though by the tongue of a mortal man. With what reverence and dread ought I to approach the gracious presence of my God, who vouchsafes to speak and instruct me in such a loving manner. His Word and laws should not in reason have the less power and impression upon me, because of his condescension to my weakness and capacity: Should I despise the mercies of my God, that are so great and wonderful, delivered to me in earthen vessels?

O blessed and heavenly Wisdom, I am called away from my temporal affairs to wait upon thee, and hearken to the divine matters that shall be proposed, which relate to my eternal interest. Their excellency requires my attention and diligent enquiry for this supernatural knowledge, which is able to save my soul. Here thou dost reveal unto me what I am, and what I should be, and what I shall be: Here are discovered the admirable mysteries of the holy Trinity and unity of the incarnation and redemption. Here thou dost unbosome thy self to mortal creatures, and shewest the tenderness of thine affection to us: Here I may have a prospect of the unspeakable riches of heaven, and see the glories that are laid up for me in thine eternal sanctuary. These are matters worthy of the angels prying into; these are meditations fit for the heavenly spirits; and shall I neglect or despise them, shall I idle away this precious moment designed for the benefit of mine immortal soul?

My gracious God, cause me to increase in grace, and in the divine knowledge of my redemption, enlighten mine understanding with a clear apprehension of the heavenly truths, sanctifie the outward preaching of thy word, that it may be effectual, and able to work upon my will. Give me an attentive ear, and an obedient heart, willing to submit to, and practise whatsoever thou shalt command. Deliver me from the ill consequences of errors, partiality and prejudice, and make me truly thankful to thee for this great blessing. Remove not thy Gospel from us, but save us from the pernicious plots of the Antichristian heresie. Unite all of us in our worship and Church, that we may study to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. And being all together united now in the church militant, we may be all the more ready and prepared to enter in due time into the church triumphant, into that glorious kingdom of love and peace, where our sanctification shall be compleated, our knowledge perfected, and our employment for ever shall be to celebrate and sing forth thy praises with the chorus of heavenly spirits. Amen.

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William Beveridge (1637-1708): Feeding on Christ in a heavenly and spiritual manner in the Lord’s Supper

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William Beveridge (1637-1708), the bishop of St Asaph and formerly archdeacon of Colchester, wrote about the nature of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in his posthumously-published Exposition of the XXXIX Articles of the Church of England (1710). After a lengthy refutation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, Beveridge arrives at the clause in the Church of England’s Article 28 (Of the Lord’s Supper) which states that:

The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the means whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith.

Beveridge’s comments on this clause, quoted below, reflect the clearly Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper which the compilers of the Articles intended and articulated. Beveridge was well-known in his day for his wealth of patristic learning, and his discussion is dotted with footnotes extensively citing patristic authorities, which due to their length will not be reproduced below, except where the church father in question is specifically quoted by name in the main text. The excerpt is taken from p. 308-310:

It being so clear a truth, that the bread and wine are not turned into the very body and blood of Christ in the Holy Sacrament, we need not heap up many arguments to prove, that it is only after a spiritual, not after a corporal manner, that the body and blood are received and eaten in the Sacrament. For if the bread be not really changed into the body of Christ, then the body of Christ is not really there present; and if it be not really there present, it is impossible it should be really eaten and received into our bodies as bread is. So that the truth there demonstrated [in the preceding pages, that the elements of bread and wine are not transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Christ], and the truth here delivered [that the eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper is only after a spiritual manner], have so much affinity to one another, that they cannot so well be called two [truths] as one and the same truth. And therefore to the arguments produced in the foregoing discourse, I shall add only these following, and that briefly, to shew that the body and blood of Christ are not eaten after a corporal but a spiritual manner, in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

First, therefore it is impossible that the body, which was but of the ordinary bulk with ours, should be sufficient, if eaten after a corporal manner, to feed and satisfy so many millions of millions of souls as have already, and may hereafter eat of it. And secondly, suppose it was not impossible, yet it would be unprofitable for us thus to eat of the body of Christ. For our Saviour himself having preached concerning the eating of his flesh, and drinking of his blood, the Jews and Capernaites taking him (as their followers the Papists do) in a carnal sense, cryed out, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? (John 6:52). And his disciples themselves said, This is an hard saying, who can hear it? (v. 60). Whereupon he explained himself, and told them, It is the Spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing: The words that I speak unto you they are Spirit, and they are life (v. 63). As if he should have said, tho’ I do speak of eating my flesh, I would not have you think that my very flesh profiteth anything, or quickeneth; no, It is the Spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing; and the words I speak unto you are not to be understood in a carnal, but spiritual sense, for they are Spirit and life: plainly shewing that the corporal eating of this body is unprofitable, and that whatsoever he said concerning eating his flesh, and drinking his blood, was still to be understood in an heavenly and spiritual sense. Thirdly, upon this supposition, that the body of Christ is corporally eaten in the Sacrament, it follows that it was corporally broken too, and so that Christ did really break his own body, before the Jews broke it for him; yea, and that Christ received his own body into his own body: For that he received the Sacrament himself, as well as administered it to his disciples is plain, not only from the testimony of the Fathers, but from the words of himself, With desire have I desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer (Luke 22:15) and I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom (Matt. 26:29). So that I cannot see how it can possibly be denyed, that Christ ate of the bread whereof he said, This is my body; and if he ate it, and ate it corporally, that is, ate his very body as we eat bread, then he ate himself, and made one body two, and then crowded them into one again, putting his body into his body, even his whole body into part of his body, his stomach; and so he must be thought not only to have two bodies, but two bodies so as to be one within another; yea, so as to be one eaten and devoured by another; the absurdity of which, and the like assertions, he that hath but half an eye may easily discover. So that it must needs be granted to be in a spiritual manner that this Sacrament was then instituted, and by consequence that it is in a spiritual manner that this Sacrament ought now to be received.

And this was the judgment of the Fathers. Macarius saith, (Macar. Aegypt. Hom. 27) “In the Church is offered bread and wine, the antitype of his flesh and blood; and they that partake of the visible bread, do spiritually eat the flesh of Christ.” And St. Augustine (Aug. in Psal. 98. V), “Understand spiritually what I say unto you; you must not eat that body which you see, nor drink that blood which they will shed who crucifie me. I have commended to you a certain Sacrament; being spiritually understood, it will quicken you; though it be necessary it should be celebrated visibly, yet it must be understood invisibly.” For as Elfrick Archbishop of Canterbury saith (Aelfric. epist. ad Wulfsein Episcop. Schyrburniensem), “That bread is Christ’s body, not bodily but spiritually”; and if so, it must needs be eaten spiritually only, not bodily. And it being thus only after a spiritual manner that we receive the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament, there can be no other means whereby we can receive him but faith. And therefore saith Origen (Origen in Mat. 15) “That food which is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer, as to the material part of it, it goes into the belly, and is cast out into the draught; but as to the prayer which is added to it, it is made profitable by the proportion of faith.” And St. Cyprian (Cyprian. de cena Domini) “Drinking and eating belong to the same reason, whereby as the bodily substance is nourished, and liveth, and remaineth safe, so is the life of the Spirit nourished by this proper food: And what eating is to the flesh, that is faith to the soul; what food is to the body, that is the Word to the spirit, working eternally by a more excellent virtue, what the carnal elements do temporally and finally.” And afterwards (Ibid.), “As oft as we do these things, we do not whet our teeth to bite, but by a sincere faith we break the holy bread and divide it, whilst we distinguish and separate what is divine, and what is human, and joining the things separated together again, we acknowledge one God and one man.”

In St. Augustine we meet with many expressions to this purpose. “How”, saith he, “shall I send up my hand to heaven to lay upon him sitting there? Send thy faith, and thou hast laid hold on him.” (Aug. in Evang. Johan. Tract. 50). And again, “For to believe in him, this is to eat the living Bread; he that believeth in him eateth; he is invisibly fatten’d who is invisibly regenerated.” (Ibid., Tract. 26). And again, “This therefore is to eat the food that doth not perish but endureth to eternal life. Why dost thou prepare thy teeth and belly? Believe and thou hast eaten.”  (Ibid., Tract. 25). So that it is faith whereby we feed upon the body and blood of Christ, and therefore it is not carnally but spiritually that we receive it.

Albert the Great (c. 1206-1280) on cleaving to God with naked understanding and will

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The Apostle Paul said to the Colossians (3:1-3):

“If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.”

Albert the Great (c. 1206-1280) picked up on this in his De adherendo Deo (On Cleaving to God), chapter 6:

“The more you strip yourself of the products of the imagination and involvement in external, worldly things and the objects of the senses, the more your soul will recover its strength and its inner senses so that it can appreciate the things which are above. So learn to withdraw from imaginations and the images of physical things, since what pleases God above everything is a mind bare of those sorts of forms and objects, for it is his delight to be with the sons of men, that is those who, at peace from such activities, distractions and passions, seek him with a pure and simple mind, empty themselves for him, and cleave to him. Otherwise, if your memory, imagination and thought is often involved with such things, you must needs be filled with the thought of new things or memories of old ones, or identified with other changing objects. As a result, the Holy Spirit withholds itself from thoughts bereft of understanding. So the true lover of Jesus Christ should be so united through good will in his understanding with the divine will and goodness, and be so bare of all imaginations and passions that he does not even notice whether he is being mocked or loved, or something is being done to him. For a good will turns everything to good and is above everything. So if the will is good and is obedient and united to God with pure understanding, he is not hurt even if the flesh and the senses and the outer man is moved to evil, and is slow to good, or even if the inner man is slow to feel devotion, but should simply cleave to God with faith and good will in naked understanding. He is doing this if he is conscious of all his own imperfection and nothingness, recognizes his good to consist in his Creator alone, abandons himself with all his faculties and powers, and all creatures, and immerses himself wholly and completely in the Creator, so that he directs all his actions purely and entirely in his Lord God, and seeks nothing apart from him, in whom he recognizes all good and all joy of perfection to be found. And he is so transformed in a certain sense into God that he cannot think, understand, love or remember anything but God himself and the things of God. Other creatures however and even himself he does not see, except in God, nor does he love anything except God alone, nor remember anything about them or himself except in God. This knowledge of the truth always makes the soul humble, ready to judge itself and not others, while on the contrary worldly wisdom makes the soul proud, futile, inflated and puffed up with wind. So let this be the fundamental spiritual doctrine leading to the knowledge of God, his service and familiarity with him, that if you want to truly possess God, you must strip your heart of all love of things of the senses, not just of certain creatures, so that you can turn to the Lord your God with a simple and whole heart and with all your power, freely and without any double-mindedness, care or anxiety, but with full confidence in his providence alone about everything.”

Justus Jonas (1493-1555): If God were not upon our side…

 

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Justus Jonas (1493-1555) was a professor of theology and a colleague of Martin Luther at Wittenberg. Jonas was influential in a number of disciplines, not least in Lutheran hymnody, where he helped Luther in preparing German metrical versions of the Psalms, choosing by preference, as one can well understand given the times in which he lived, those which speak of David’s sufferings from his enemies, and his trust in God’s deliverance. At the request of Luther, he wrote the following hymn in 1524, a paraphrase of Psalm 124 titled Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält, translated below into English by Catherine Winkworth:

 

If God were not upon our side

When foes around us rage,

Were not Himself our Help and Guide

When bitter war they wage,

Were He not Israel’s mighty Shield,

To whom their utmost crafts must yield,

We surely must have perished.

 

But now no human wit or might

Should make us quail for fear,

God sitteth in the highest height,

And makes their counsels clear;

When craftiest snares and nets they lay,

God goes to work another way,

And makes a path before us.

 

In wrathful pride they rage and mock

Against our souls in vain:

As billows meet with angry shock

Out on the stormy main,

So they our lives with fury seek;

But God hath pity on the weak,

And Him they have forgotten.

 

They call us heretics, and lie

In wait to spill our blood;

Yet flaunt their Christian name on high,

And boast they worship God.

Ah God! that precious name of Thine

O’er many a wicked deed must shine,

But Thou wilt once avenge it.

 

They open wide their ravenous jaws

To swallow us indeed,

But thanks to God, who rules our cause,

They shall not yet succeed:

Their snares He yet will bring to nought,

And overthrow what they have taught;

God is too mighty for them.

 

How richly He consoleth those

Who have no other friend!

The door of grace doth never close;

Sense cannot comprehend

How this may be, and deems all lost,

When through this very cross a host

Of champions God is raising.

 

Our foes, O God, are in Thy hand,

Thou knowest every plot;

But only give us strength to stand,

And let us waver not,

Though Reason strive with Faith, and still

She fear to wholly trust Thy will,

And sees not Thy salvation.

 

But heaven and earth, O Lord, are Thine,

By Thee alone were made,

Then let Thy light upon us shine,

O Thou our only aid!

Kindle our hearts to love and faith

That shall be steadfast e’en to death,

Howe’er the world may murmur!

The Liturgy of St. James: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

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One of my personal favourite hymns is Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. This hymn is derived from the ancient Liturgy of St. James, which is based on early Christian traditions of the Church of Jerusalem, with the specific excerpt below in turn being based on Habakkuk 2:20b, “Let all the earth keep silence before him”. Most scholars date this liturgy back to the 4th century. Here is the excerpt on which this well-known hymn is based:

“Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself:—

For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before Him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces, and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

– Liturgy of St. James, 2

The English hymn, which is still sung in many churches today, was translated in meter by Gerard Moultrie (1829-1885) in 4 stanzas:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706): Should God be objectified in thought as an “Old Man”?

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The logical extension of the Reformed polemic against idolatry is that not only should the physical attempt to embody Deity be eliminated but so should mental concepts which attribute a corporeal form to God. Thus the question asked by Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706) whether God should be conceived as an old man is not a silly or frivolous one. Notwithstanding the negative theology (vie negativa) implied by the Reformed anti-idolatry polemic, it does not leave one to resort to mystical silence in which we can say nothing about God. Instead God’s self-revelation in scripture reveals those positive statements about God that are permissible. This is what Mastricht had to say:

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“[Is it right] in divine worship when praying to objectify God to oneself as an ‘old man’?… Because the Lutherans have long since lost the use of images in public worship, which cannot but generate such stupid conceptions in onlookers, they cannot with any sort of επιεικεια [graciousness/forbearance] find fault. They declare that such conceptions of God in the guise of an elderly man do not import any sin, provided they do not insist that God’s essence has such a figure. In order to get at them with both nails the Reformed say that it is lawful to have a concept of God, in fact it is highly necessary, unless we would be atheist; yet they hold that a concept of God under the guise of a man or anything else corporeal is quite out of order. [The reasons are as follows:] (1) The Saviour Jn. 4:24 bids us hold such a conception of God, as agrees with God’s nature, describes God as Spirit and of course He wishes to be worshipped and adored in spirit, i.e., spiritually, without any sort of figures; and in truth, or with true thoughts agreeable to the concept. (2) Such conceptions of God are false, according as they do not agree with the God conceived; in fact they are illicit. (3) Such concepts are vain Rom. 1:21. (4) They obscure the glory of the incorruptible God and as it were change it εν ομοιωματι εικονος φθαρτον ειθρωπον [‘for images resembling a mortal human being’ (Rom. 1:23)]. (5) By these concepts the heart is clouded and the mind rendered foolish.”

– Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706), Theoretica-practica Theologia, II.iv.12.

Carl Trueman on the disappearance of the Psalms in corporate worship

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In Carl Trueman’s book The Wages of Spin, there is a chapter titled “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” in which he takes note of the disappearance of the Psalms in corporate worship. Here (p. 158-160) he gives a number of valuable insights:

“Having experienced — and generally appreciated — worship across the whole evangelical spectrum, from Charismatic to Reformed — I am myself less concerned here with the form of worship than I am with its content. Thus, I would like to make just one observation: the psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, have almost entirely dropped from view in the contemporary Western evangelical scene. I am not certain about why this should be, but I have an instinctive feel that it has more than a little to do with the fact that a high proportion of the psalter is taken up with lamentation, with feeling sad, unhappy, tormented, and broken. In modern Western culture, these are simply not emotions which have much credibility: sure, people still feel these things, but to admit that they are a normal part of one’s everyday life is tantamount to admitting that one has failed in today’s health, wealth, and happiness society. And, of course, if one does admit to them, one must neither accept them nor take any personal responsibility for them: one must blame one’s parents, sue one’s employer, pop a pill, or check into a clinic in order to have such dysfunctional emotions soothed and one’s self-image restored.

Now, one would not expect the world to have much time for the weakness of the psalmists’ cries. It is very disturbing, however, when these cries of lamentation disappear from the language and worship of the church. Perhaps the Western church feels no need to lament — but then it is sadly deluded about how healthy it really is in terms of numbers, influence and spiritual maturity. Perhaps — and this is more likely — it has drunk so deeply at the well of modern Western materialism that it simply does not know what to do with such cries and regards them as little short of embarrassing. Yet the human condition is a poor one — and Christians who are aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart and are looking for a better country should know this. A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably I creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is — or at least should be — all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades — China, Africa, Eastern Europe – would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience. Indeed, the biblical portraits of believers give no room to such a notion. Look at Abraham, Joseph, David, Jeremiah, and the detailed account of the psalmists’ experiences. Much agony, much lamentation, occasional despair — and joy, when it manifests itself — is very different from the frothy triumphalism that has infected so much of our modern Western Christianity. In the psalms, God has given the church a language which allows it to express even the deepest agonies of the human soul in the context of worship. Does our contemporary language of worship reflect the horizon of expectation regarding the believer’s experience which the psalter proposes as normative? If not, why not? Is it because the comfortable values of Western middle-class consumerism have silently infiltrated the church and made us consider such cries irrelevant, embarrassing, and signs of abject failure?

I did once suggest at a church meeting that the psalms should take a higher priority in evangelical worship than they generally do — and was told in no uncertain terms by one indignant person that such a view betrayed a heart that had no interest in evangelism. On the contrary, I believe it is the exclusion of the experiences and expectations of the psalmists from our worship — and thus from our horizons of expectation — which has in a large part crippled the evangelistic efforts of the church in the West and turned us all into spiritual pixies. By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession, and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate, both inside and outside the church. By so doing, it has implicitly endorsed the banal aspirations of consumerism, generated an insipid, trivial and unrealistically triumphalist Christianity, and confirmed its impeccable credentials as a club for the complacent. In the last year, I have asked three very different evangelical audiences what miserable Christians can sing in church. On each occasion my question has elicited uproarious laughter, as if the idea of a broken-hearted, lonely, or despairing Christian was so absurd as to be comical — and yet I posed the question in all seriousness. Is it any wonder that British evangelicalism, from the Reformed to the Charismatic, is almost entirely a comfortable, middle-class phenomenon?”