Tuesday, May 24, 2011

An Opportunity to Explore the Meaning of Life

The Alpha Course has spread like wildfire, giving men and women all over the world the opportunity to 'explore the meaning of life'. Alpha is great for exploring life and for getting the foundations of Christianity. Alpha isn't the first place to raise the topic.
When the Puritans ran Alpha they had the same tagline in different language: what is the chief end of man? Ron Frost (Chapter 2, Dissertation) outlines how the answer unfolds...
"The chief end of man, Richard Sibbes believed, is "to look to Christ". This goal has two elements. "The one, that [God] might be glorified, the other that we might be happy. And both these are attained by honouring and serving him." Was Sibbes anticipating the first premise of the Westminster Catechisms here? Only if the divines of Westminster meant to affirm Augustine's affective theology rather than Perkins' and Aquinas', moralistic approach. Sibbes in fact, clarified his own position later in a paragraph: the goal of the Christian is to be swallowed up in the love of Christ"
What is eternal life for Sibbes? It's what happens when Jesus comes into the world, tells us about his Father, lays his life down to show us mercy, and then freely enfolds little children into his relationship with his Father as we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and so come inside his joyful relationship with his Father in Heaven who is then our Daddy too.... to derive a working definition from Luke 10:20-11:13. Thinking so relationally has implications for everything...

Augustine showed that our sin is self-love. So that only "through the illumination of the soul by God's love that the soul moves, by response, out of its imprisonment of self-love... we would not love God unless He first loved us.... Now the love of God is said to be shed abroad in our hearts, not because He loves us, but because He makes us lovers of himself. Thus the presence of the Spirit in believers represents the sanctifying force in faith."

Sin as self-love can't be treated from the outside-in with behaviour contrains, instead we need an inside-out change. Change coming not from self but from Christ and the Spirit in the heart...
"The inside-out movement of the heart-behaviour continuum. By adopting an intentional and relational definition of sin, rather than the more extrinsic definition of law-breaking, Luther, like Augustine, radicalised sin. Even the best beahviours as measured by extrinsic values were thus rejected.... Luther.. "we do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds", and "virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace".
We need change that we cannot achieve. Swallowing Aristotle's Ethics boils down to DIY Christianity, Augustine takes the approach that Thomas Chalmers would later follow as he wrote of the explusive power of a new affection. Frost writes:
"The key principle, that "affection is overcome by affection", captured Augustine's solution to the conundrum of God's initiative and human free will... the solution of the affective tradition..."the gift of God is the Holy Spirit himself, whom God has poured out into their hearts... He breathed on them, and said to then, receive the Holy Spirit". This assumption when defining grace as God's benevolence, affirmed a dependency of the recipient of the gift on the presence of the giver rather than on the gift itself."(p55-6)
Sibbes shows disinterest in debates over predestination, focussed instead on the love and beauty of Christ. Contrary to Sibbes, in William Perkins arguments "love is striking in its absence as a motivation in God, this despite the primacy of love in biblical descriptions of God".
"Sibbes offered reasons for his resistance (to Perkins). They were shaped by his belief in an affectionate God. God as loving. The goal of Sibbes' theology was relational. The conclusion of creation is defined by the reality of God's love. God created the universe on the basis of his inherent social nature as three-in-one. "If God had not a communicative, spreading goodness, he would never have created the world The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were happy in themselves, and enjoyed one another before the world was But that God delights to communicate and spread his goodness, there had never been a creation nor a redemption... it is the nature of the believers to look principally to that which is his last and best and main end, which is God, and union and communion with God in Christ." Sibbes' broader theology, in comparison to Perkins', reveals differences in tone and substance. Sibbes emphasised God's mercy and insisted that communion with God is an immediate prospect rather than a distant possibility. Mark Dever summarises... "For Sibbes, Christianity was a love story"" (p65)
What does this mean for our thinking about salvation?
"Given the reality of the fall, God, within his Triune communion, determined to send the Son to "woo" listeners to himself... Sibbes believed that the obstacle to salvation is a sinful distortion of God... he is unattractive apart from the illuminating work of the Spirit. For the elect, however, the 'veil was lifted' and God is seen as lovely. ... Sibbes ought to convince his listeners that the love of the Father had been guaranteed to them by the unity of love found within the Godhead - presented in John 17 - so that the elect, once united with Christ, can be assured of God's eternal love.... and the Spirit represents God to believers in the most immediate and effective manner possible" (p67-68)
Explore the meaning of life? Come to Christ, come into Christ, find yourself freely loved by his Father in the Spirit... At the heart of the Universe is relationship... figures that one of the great strengths of the Alpha Course has been that it invites you into a community, a place where you can freely talk and ask and listen, and be welcomed, be shown hospitality, and be loved.

Next: Chapter 4 on Mystical Marriage. 


  1. 'By adopting an intentional and relational definition of sin, rather than the more extrinsic definition of law-breaking, Luther, like Augustine, radicalised sin. Even the best beahviours as measured by extrinsic values were thus rejected'

    Does this mean that though we all enjoy God's grace and can 'do good' to one another that even our best deeds go before God as enmity towards him if our hearts are not fundamentally changed?

  2. Yes, because the point is not to do good but one of love... so good deeds done in self-love is still self-love.