Monday, May 23, 2011

Tell of the Beautiful Saviour, or bring people to the brim of despair?

Evangelicalism has different flavours depending on where you find yourself... today and historically. What's the difference? Does it matter? Why are some churches warmer and more generous? Why do some Christians seem more free than others?

 I'm reading Ron Frost's PhD "Richard Sibbes' Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology". He begins with an analysis of the divided house of English Reformed Theology... which show us that the differences we see today are not new. Push Ron Frost's arguments to their extreme and you might become uncharitable but see it as the appeal of an academic and a pastor to taste and see the beauty and love of God afresh and you'll be deeply encouraged.

Ron traces the roots of the New England Antinomian Controversy of 1637 back to England, and then later on to Luther and Calvin, and Augustine. John Cotton was the man of grace at the heart of the 17th Century debate, accused of being Antinomist by those who could be called Nomists (which labels the debate as relating to the law, which is an aspect of the issue).
"Cotton came to an assured faith under Sibbes preaching..." by contrast to that of William Perkins whose preaching had "laid siege to and beleagur'd [Cotton's] heart." (p14) for Perkins saw "it was the preacher's task to bring his listeners even to the brim of despair before sharing the gospel." (p28)
Many today would surely follow Perkins lead, must we? Is it the preacher's task to break and beleaguer the listener, to make them miserable so they may come to Christ? Must we give sermons that are 'challenging' and 'convicting' or could we perhaps instead portray Christ, so that people see him...
"Those who followed Sibbes were committed to a more emotional and even mystical theology which stressed divine benevolence over power. Emphasising the love of God, they converted biblical metaphors of kingship into ones of kinship"
The question isn't just do you start with sin or with Christ, but often also whether you start with God as creator or lover...
The Sibbesians saw that "it was insufficient to contemplate and adore God as the Creator, eternal but distant in the heavens. God must be found in direct personal experience... John Calvin made the believers personal experience of God the centrepiece of his theology"(p26-27)
When the focus is on the love of God then experiential Christianity is surely in view, and this must relate to the Holy Spirit by whom the love of God is poured into our hearts.
Sibbes pneumatology served as the centrepiece of his applied theology. God, by his Spirit, is seen to be locally present in the soul of every believer... in Sibbes' view by the 'wonder at the love of the Holy Ghost, that will take up his residence in such defiled souls' The Spirit, Sibbes held, is the agent of all grace through a real union with Christ."
Pursuit of experience isn't the point however, but rather of Christ with whom we have a real union as believers. This is about Christ, Christ who can be known.
"Sibbes also cited Augustine regularly and drew heavily from Bernard of Clairvaux's sermons on the Song of Songs.... Sibbes own sermons on the Song of Songs, as will be seen, offered the clearest expression of his affective theology. It provided the primary paradigm for the union and communion the believer is to have with Christ... Sibbes regularly affirmed the palpable immanence of the Spirit as something believers should expect in their experience of faith."
Sibbes then is seen to have an emphasis on portraying Christ, setting expectation of a felt communion with Christ, by union with Christ, through the gospel. His Christianity is warm and wooing, like his god. No hard-edges, no machismo, no shame at speaking of a lovely god or of the gospel in the language of The Song of Songs. Full of grace, full of love, full of the Holy Spirit, focussed upon Christ.

More to come over the next three days.

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