“The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God who he calls his Father. There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in the contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can compass and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go our way with the thought, ‘Behold I am wise.’ But when we come to this master science, finding that our plumb-line cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought that vain man would be wise, but he is like a wild ass’s colt; and with solemn exclamation, ‘I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.’ No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, then thoughts of God…. “But while the subject humbles the mind, it also expands it. He who often thinks of God, will have a larger mind than the man who simply plods around this narrow globe…. The most excellent study for expanding the soul, is the science of Christ, and of Him crucified, and the knowledge of the Godhead in the glorious Trinity. Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity. “And, whilst humbling and expanding, this subject is eminently consolatory. Oh, there is, in contemplating Christ, a balm for every wound; in musing on the Father, there is a quietus for every grief; and in the influence of the Holy Ghost, there is a balsam for every sore. Would you lose your sorrow? Would you drown your cares? Then go, plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea; be lost in his immensity; and you shall come forth as from a couch of rest, refreshed and invigorated. I know nothing which can so comfort the soul; so calm the swelling billows of sorrow and grief; so speak peace to the winds of trial, as a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead.” -Charles Spurgeon
The preface to J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, 19th-century English preacher Charles Spurgeon’s quote on the study of God has humbled and comforted me many times in a variety of circumstances. It has drawn me into studying scripture and refocused my wandering mind back to God. I thought it was worth including because of the significance it’s specifically had in my life, encouraging me to think more deeply about my Savior and to embrace the humility and comfort that it brings. Even though this deep thinking is indeed beneficial, I usually flee from such thoughts and philosophical topics; preferring to escape to something less weighty, like TV or sports. . Why is this? I’d say it’s because I’m afraid of doubt. I would rather live without the burden, even though I’ve read that it’s indeed a good thing to grapple and question. It just seems avoidable if I revert to escapism and think little of philosophy. This year as a Fellow has challenged me to not shy away from actually asking hard questions and going to scripture for answers. In this blog I’ll get into how I’ve read the Scripture for hard evidence alone, and not for transformation through God’s redemptive love.
One of the books I’ve read as a Fellow stated that epistemologies are morally directive (In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Church Unity). That statement and the surrounding paragraph struck a nerve in me. It reminded me that philosophy does actually matter, and I’ve just been writing off philosophy as a territory only for caught-in-the-weeds, ineffective, impractical academics who waste their time arguing about ethics while their families and communities fall apart around them. But In One Body’s statement that epistemologies are morally directive was a powerful reminder that even though I like to say “don’t care, don’t care, still don’t care” to deep thinking, maybe I should stop and engage. And, I really do love engaging with some (emphasis on the some) philosophy texts. My issue isn’t that I fall down the rabbit hole and end up with my brain in knots thanks to a motley of ethics epistemologies. My issue is that as soon as I feel like I’ve lost my footing, the uncertainty and weighty questions without answers become too much to bear. Instead of using my brain I decide it’s time for ESPN or Netflix. I’ve been struggling with this in Nashville; when I’ve entered periods of doubt I rarely turn on a sermon in the car, instead opting for sports podcasts. When it comes to doubt, I just want to google-it. When I need to tie a bowtie or convert cups to ounces, I google-it. Even better, the search engine puts an instant result at the top so I don’t even have to click on a link to get my answer. Ask Google “who was the first president” and George Washington will pop up in big letters with portrait attached. Unfortunately, questions like “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “What about people who don’t hear the gospel before they die?” don’t produce similar instant results. Rather than exercising a long faithful obedience in the same direction, I keep wanting quick, easy, palatable answers. Moving to Nashville and going to Fellow’s classes has made me think about this desire for (1) certainty and (2) instant results in not just this area of my life, but others as well.
My desire for certainty motivated me to pick up a copy of J. Budziszewski’s What We Can’t Not Know. The book discusses the topic of natural law, a subject which comforts me for a little while, but does indeed comfort me a good deal. Budziszewski most often cites scholar, theologian, and natural law philosopher Thomas Aquinas, whose view was that a good deal of natural law is well summarized by the Ten Commandments. The 10 Commandments alone do not have the power to free us from sin, but Jesus clearly wants us to keep them as seen in Matthew 19:17. They are special revelation from God and therefore, teach truth about the holy God; revealing that we as sinners need salvation, which comes through Jesus (John 14:6). As for man, I’m greedy, rude, prideful, self-deprecating, the list goes on and on. The more I think about myself outside of the context of an adoptive Father, the more I am faced with the endless cavern of sin with me. G.K. Chesterton writes “Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.”
While my sinfulness is incalculable, my breaking of the Ten Commandments does not mean that I am separated from God forever. Not being bound to the law but freed by Jesus is Good News! If the Israelites couldn’t keep the Commandments for even five minutes it’s a good thing we all have salvation through the cross! But the failure of man to keep the decalogue doesn’t mean it’s time to dispose of it! My favorite commentary on the Ten Commandments comes from J.I. Packer, who writes that the Commandments crystallize the basic behavior pattern that brings satisfaction and contentment, and it is precisely for this way of living that God’s grace rescues and refits us. Thomas Aquinas not only views the Commandments in the same way, bringing satisfaction and contentment, but says they are evident to every mind, and that those who say otherwise are rejecting it, which is a really interesting discussion to get into another time.
Personally, I struggle when I read the Ten Commandments: I typically notice three or four that are pretty convicting and remind me that I fall short of this God-given law, but also wonder who on earth could follow these perfectly their entire life without becoming an enormous prude. The Commandments instruct me to live as my sovereign, just, and merciful God intended; they dually teach me that I indeed am sinful and fall short (because sometimes I’m so blind that I need a reminder) and point to Jesus as the Savior atoning for my sin, whose giving of pardon and power is the only way to God. How can I better love the world based on this truth? The powerful answer is that I can better love the world by reflecting Jesus onto it.
Over the past couple of months, the convicting reality that I identify as a Christian, yet think so much more of myself than of Christ, has peeped in and out of my thoughts, convicting me but not making me do much about it. Is this year for storing treasures on Earth or for storing treasures in heaven? Why not store up treasures on Earth and think about storing up treasures in heaven once I get enough down here to be comfortable? The Bible rejects that last question. Following 2 Corinthians 2:17, the Good News of the Gospel is transformative, and once I have a new identity as an adopted child of God. But 2 Corinthians 2 doesn’t end there. Paul states that “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” The truths found in scripture, the ones my heart always hungers for, aren’t just little logic-nuggets that assure me that my thinking is correct. These truths are much more of an active-ingredient than that. They implore the Christian to, remembering his adopted status, live for the Kingdom of God here in the kingdom of man.
And so, as I look for certainty in theological literature and scripture, which Thomas am I? Am I like St. Thomas Aquinas, who began with faith in Christ and the Divine resurrection for sins, and then “afterward being led on to master the evidence for ourselves”? Aquinas, despite being a legendary academic and natural law philosopher, was not bound to natural law and things absolutely certain for his faith, stating that “Human salvation demands the divine disclosure of truths surpassing reason.” For the remainder of my time in the Fellows Program, I pray that I will remember this, and therefore not look for certainty in scripture and exegesis in order to justify my faith. Instead, I want to read the scripture like the Bereans in Acts 17, humbly receiving the message of His transformational Love with great eagerness, and thus examining the scriptures for truth.
But more often I am like St. Thomas the doubting disciple, looking for hard evidence to be my Salvation, just as his belief came from literally thrusting his fingers into Jesus’ wounds. It is not a bad thing to doubt, but many times I believe my faith would be stronger if I had just one more concrete reality to know for sure. What then is even faith’s purpose if I would know all these things? Nothing but continual faith in Jesus can stop me from plunging my fingers into the wounds of dusty theology books, looking for a paragraph that would give me physical evidence of a grace beyond human reason.