Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Your God will be My God!


The Bible tells us that we become like what we worship, what I love shapes me and my relationships with others. So it will be that the church is shaped by her vision of God. Janice Knight highlights a divide in the 17th Century church which can help us see better today. In Orthodoxies in Massachussets she compares two kinds of puritans, two orthodoxies: The Intellectual Fathers (Ames) and The Spiritual Brethren (Sibbes). 

Their Community
The Intellectuals pursed a more radical reformation of the church in England and caused them more trouble with authorities. They took a stronger lead, their "emphasis on the pedagogy of preparationism distinguished them... marking that relationship as more paternal than fraternal" (p36), whereas the Spiritual Brethren were more moderate, and relational.
Their reputations were as the learned Ames contrasted with the sweet-dropper Sibbes.
What kind of leader am I?
Am I a brother, leading as I go with people... or a guru who gathers a crowd?
The difference less about personality, and more a god-question...

Their pulpits - occupied and vacated.
"The Cambridge preachers emphasised the efficacy of the word preached, the Amesians argued that the imperative of hearing the word could be as easily achieved through circulation of printed texts" which they were often left to do when exiled from their pulpits, as they often were. The Sibbesians would often retain pulpits through their emphasis more on changing affections than changing church structures. Knight's analysis here reminded me of the most apparently vibrant wings of the Church of England today. The New Wine Anglicans and the Conservative Anglicans. So similar and yet many ways quite different, and it's always the latter who seem to be in trouble with the authorities.



Their Preaching - beleaguering or renewing?
John Cotton was "a resistant auditor" of William Perkins who had "laid seige to and beleagured his heart" (p38). Cotton was left in doubt until "the word as preached by Sibbes turned Cotton's affections... made him a thoroughly renewed Christian.. filling him with joy..." How does my preaching make people feel? Do I hunt people down or do I lead them into joy?

Later Cotton's simple and affecting words would convert John Preston. "From Richard Sibbes to John Cotton to John Preston - the converting Word was passed from mouth to mouth, heart to heart... " The Cambridge Brethren included John Owen (converted through Cotton), Thomas Goodwin and Jeremiah Burroughs. "At the centre of this apostolic family stood Richard Sibbes" (p41) Seems unlikely that Knight means that in a Newfrontiers-sense, but there's certainly something of the apostolic about Sibbes for his influence and leadership!

Who is God? A God firstly of Power or of Love?
All preachers aim to preach the whole counsel of God but it makes a difference what you think comes first, what controls everything else. Emphasis is very important. Ames' fundamental understanding of God was as "sovereign, beyond understanding and with implacable power", where Sibbes first understood God as overflowing love. (p73).
"Whether God acts primarily by power - pure or as bound by contract - or whether he acts from unconditional love determined for these Puritans not just matters of doctrine but theories of civil society and individual subjectivity. Definitions of sainthood and citizenship, relations of anxiety to confidence, and discipline to piety, were imbricated in these structures of rhetoric. And in practice the balance preacher struck between divine love and power varied to a surprising degree" (p74)
For all the categories and ideals there's always variation! Nonetheless themes emerge:
When Ames read the Bible he found on nearly every page a testimony to the lordship of God. The most compelling representation of the divine is not as brother or as bride, but the Kyrios of Paul or the Old Testament 'Jehovah, or the Lord'.
While Cotton and Sibbes celebrated the new age of the gospel in which 'the poorest believers were taught to say, Our Father' (p74)
Ames prefered metaphors of relation to God "rooted in recognition of necessary human submission to godly omnipotence..." though of course "he and his disciples spoke warmly of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of Christ. Yet their primary interest was always in the application of power to the human subject, not a meditation on God's unconditional mercy." (p75)
Asks me, what do I see?
"This is not to suggest that Ames's God of power has no place in [Sibbesian] thought,. but rather that it is not the primary attribute" in their theology. "Sibbes argues that there is not one attribute set down more in Scripture than mercy" (p82) ...the sermons of the Cambridge Brethren refuse to enthrone an incomprehensible lord, but instead draw God down from heaven..... his love is a near love.
Metaphors of kingship are never the most persuasive for the circle of Sibbes. In calculating the relation between God and humanity they find a comforting equation 'there is a greater hight and depth and breadth; there are greater dimensions in love and mercy in Christ than there is in our sins and miseries' unlike the disturbing balance struck by Hooker or Shepherd, here benevolence answers human inadequacy.
Do I beleaguer hearts or comfort with love?
Come after people or welcome them warmly?
Do I think I have to show God to be more powerful than any other god - a playground preacher arguing 'my god is bigger than your god', or can I simply and persuasively show the overflowing love of God to people, to win their hearts?
"Moreover their doctrine of the trinity reflects this happy bias.... it is Father not Lord, that names Cotton's God... through Christ, the saint discovers a pledge of adoption to an indulgent father, who can no more deny his creature than he can deny himself. The soul that is too broken to pray can count on God to supply the want... desire to make known nothing but Christ... travail until Christ was formed in [them]..." (p83-4)
O to see Christ formed in me and others!
Not about controlling behaviour, but seeing the work of the Spirit in people.
See that and then we're going places...
Just as the Sibbesians have a more personal Christology than the Amesians, so too their doctrine of the Holy Spirit is more personal and immediate. Their application of redemption more closely resembles a true marriage of hearts than the contractual arrangements of the Amesian covenant.... the [Spirit] assures us of [our salvation] and knits us to Christ, and changeth and fits us to be members of so glorious a head, and so translates and transforms us more and more from glory to glory... rather than the cool logic of contract, the indwelling of the spirit is known here by the warmth of God's breath in the believer's heart..unlike the mysterious God of Ames, the 'I AM' to be tamed only by the covenant, Sibbes's deity 'comes to spread his treasures... to empty his goodness into our hearts... the transformation of thy God to my God is the central moment in the saints life." (p87)
As with Ruth, let your God become my God. Not just by cold contractual allegiance but intimate relationship bound in a marital covenant. And as your God becomes my God, then your people become my people. Who the 'God' is in that sentence is going to effect everything that follows.

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