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.”

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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?”

Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225 AD) on Christian worship

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This is genuinely profound. Before reading this, however, it is perhaps necessary to be reminded about the context in which Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225 AD) wrote his Apologeticus:

This book, his magnum opus, is a defense of Christianity against the unreasoning and unreasonable criticism of the unbelievers, and was addressed to the provincial governors of the Roman Empire. It opens with a request that the truth, being forbidden to defend itself publicly, may reach the ears of the rulers by the hidden path of silent literature. It falls into two parts, dealing with the two types of accusations against the Christians: 1) To be a Christian means taking part in vile and contemptible crimes like ritual incest, and baby-eating, and is a superstition of the ignorant; 2) Christianity involves high treason and contempt for the state religion. Tertullian refutes these as nonsense, and concludes by asserting the absolute superiority of the Christian religion overall, as a revealed religion. He realized that no war is won by remaining on the defensive, and so goes over to attack the indefensible attitudes of the unbelievers, who presumed to judge people who were infinitely their superiors, even by their own standards. With this, the victory of Christianity became possible. With this in mind, here is how Tertullian described the true character of the church over against the misrepresentations of unbelievers:

“I will now set forth the real facts concerning the Christian society in such a way as, having already refuted the evil, to shew the good. We are a body united in the knowledge of religion, the divine character of our doctrine, and in the bond of hope. We meet together in an assembly and congregation that we may besiege God like a marshalled corps with our prayers. This violence is pleasing to Him. We pray for emperors, for their ministers, and those in authority, for the state of the world, for general quietude, and for the delay of the end. We assemble together to call to remembrance the divine writings, if the aspect of affairs requires us to be forewarned or reminded of anything. In any case we feed our faith on these holy words, we encourage our hope, we confirm our confidence, and we enforce the teaching of their precepts none the less during attacks of persecution: at the same time we pronounce exhortations, chastisements, and the divine censures of excommunication. For our judgement is delivered with great weight, as by men who are assured that they are acting in the sight of God; and it is the gravest anticipation of future judgement, if any one has so sinned as to be banished from the communion of prayer, and assembly, and all holy intercourse.

Certain approved elders preside, who have obtained this honour not by purchase but by testimony; for no divine privilege is obtainable by money. Even the kind of treasury which we have is not filled up with sums paid under a sense of obligation, as if they were the price of religion; but each one places there a small contribution on a certain day of the month, or when he wishes, provided only he is both willing and able,—for the offerings are not compulsory but voluntary. These are as it were the deposits of piety. For afterwards they are not spent in feasting or drinking or in repulsive eating-houses, but in supporting and burying the needy, and in relieving destitute orphan boys and girls, and infirm old men, or shipwrecked sufferers, and any who may be in the mines, or islands, or prisons, provided it is for the cause of God’s religion, who thus become pensioners of their own confession.

But even the putting into practice of so great a love as this brands us with a mark of censure in the opinion of some. ‘See,’ say they, ‘how they love each other!’—for they themselves hate each other; and, ‘how ready they are to die for each other!’—for they are more ready to kill each other. And they defame us also, because we call each other by the title of ‘brethren;’—for no other reason, I imagine, than that amongst themselves every title of kinship is counterfeited from affectation. Yet brethren we are, even of yourselves, in right of our one common mother, Nature; although you are scarcely men, because such bad brethren. Yet how much more worthily are those called and regarded as brethren, who acknowledge one Father, God; who have drunk of the One Spirit of holiness; who from the one womb of common ignorance have awakened with awe at the one light of truth. But perhaps it is on this account that we are the less thought to be legitimate brethren, because no tragedy noisily proclaims our brotherhood, or because we are brethren in family possessions, which with you generally dissolve brotherhood. In this way we, who are united heart and soul, never hesitate to communicate our substance to one another. All things are common amongst us, except our wives: in that particular alone we dissolve partnership, in which other men practise it; who not only take the wives of their friends, but even most patiently let their own wives subserve their friends, according to the teaching, I believe, of those ancient sages, Socrates the Greek and Cato the Roman: who shared with their friends the wives whom they had married for the sake of begetting children, even if by another;—I know not indeed whether the wives were unwilling or not; yet why should they care for a chastity, which their husbands so readily gave away? A fine example of Attic wisdom and Roman gravity! —the philosopher and censor acting the part of pimps!

What marvel, then, if love so great as ours should lead us to feast together? For besides branding our modest suppers as criminal, you also denounce them as extravagant…  The feast of the Christians alone is made a subject of comment. Our feast shews its principle in its name [agape]: it is called that which in the Greek signifies ‘love.’ However much it may cost, expense incurred in the name of piety is a gain; since we help by this consolation those in need : not in the same way as parasites amongst you eagerly strive for the glory of enslaving their liberty for their belly’s wage, amidst insults begotten of gluttony; but amongst us, as with God Himself, greater consideration is shewn for the poor. If the reason for our feast is an honourable one, you can estimate what the rest of our disciplinary regulations are with respect to religious duties: nothing disgraceful, nothing immodest is admissible; no one reclines at the feast without first tasting beforehand of prayer to God: sufficient is eaten to satisfy hunger; so much only is drunk as becomes the chaste. Satisfaction of appetite is so far indulged in, as is consistent with the remembrance of the duty of worshipping God during the night: conversation is regulated by the knowledge that the Lord is listening. After hand-washing, the lights are brought in, and a general invitation is given to sing to God as each one is able, either from the Holy Scriptures or from his own natural capability; it may be gathered from this how little one has drunk. Prayer in like manner closes the feast. The meeting then breaks up, not into bands for the perpetration of acts of violence, nor into groups for running hither and thither, nor into outbursts of wantonness, but with the same regard for propriety and modesty as becomes those who have feasted not so much off a supper as off a godly instruction.

This assembly of the Christians would, indeed, have been deservedly made illegal, if it resembled illegal meetings; and it ought deservedly to be condemned, if it were not unlike assemblies that merit condemnation,—if any complaint could be brought against it on the same ground as against factions. Who has ever been the loser by our meeting? We are the same when gathered together as when separated; the same unitedly as individually, causing neither injury nor sorrow to any one. When the honest and good assemble, when the pious and pure are gathered together, it ought not to be called a ‘faction,’ but a solemn court.”

– Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225 AD), Apologeticus, XXXIX