Friday, 4 September 2009

Discussion With Tony Payne about theology and ministry

I wrote a medium-sized blog entry for the Sola Panel here. If somehow you've come to this and not via Sola Panel you may want to go and read that first to get the context. The blog prompted a (characteristically) very thoughtful collection of thoughts from Tony Payne. Unfortunately, his comment has now created something of a 'Perfect Storm' in terms of my response. I get the impression he's thinking about it a fair bit (which means I'm inclined to talk longer rather than more briefly) and it touches upon some issues I've been wrestling with for years now (which means I'm inclined to talk longer rather than more briefly....) and Sola Panel is going for a much shorter format than I tend to naturally go for. My comment to Tony is going to be about three times as long as the word limit Sola Panel likes us to aim to go under for our posts. As I didn't want Paul Grimmond virtually thumping me on the back of the head along NCIS lines, I thought I might put the comment here, along with any further disucssion it raises.

Even more than normal, this isn't a carefully worked essay. It's a 'comment' and so I suspect that, even more than normal, it more points to connections and conclusions rather than spells them out. Anyway, here it is:


Thanks for your great reflections and further thinking. Here's a bit more that is very much a work in progress of where I am up to on some of the issues.
When we talk about the knowledge of ‘ourselves’, and the way it both proceeds from and feeds into our knowledge of God, how broad is the category of ‘ourselves’? Does it run to understanding human society and the way our world ‘works’? Does it extend to the way we understand and organize our churches and ministries?

I think I would answer 'yes' on all these questions. Certainly Calvin seems to be happy to speak of the way churches (and hence minstries) and societies should and should not be organized in book 4 and these imperatives are based upon his understanding of the nature of church, ministry, and society.

For where your thinking seems to be going, I’d want to bring in that Calvin is very strong on humanity's innate knowledge of understanding human society, distinguishing this "earthly" class of knowledge from the "heavenly" class of knowledge of God and true righteousness. The quote is from the Institutes Book 2 Chapter 2 and Section 13. I've paragraped it a bit more than the translation I got from the net, to make it easier to read. :)

It may therefore be proper, in order to make it more manifest how far our ability extends in regard to these two classes of objects, to draw a distinction between them.

The distinction is, that we have one kind of intelligence of earthly things, and another of heavenly things.

By earthly things, I mean those which relate not to God and his kingdom, to true righteousness and future blessedness, but have some connection with the present life, and are in a manner confined within its boundaries. By heavenly things, I mean the pure knowledge of God, the method of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the heavenly kingdom.

To the former belong matters of policy and economy, all mechanical arts and liberal studies. To the latter (as to which, see the eighteenth and following sections) belong the knowledge of God and of his will, and the means of framing the life in accordance with them.

As to the former, the view to be taken is this: Since man is by nature a social animal, he is disposed, from natural instinct, to cherish and preserve society; and accordingly we see that the minds of all men have impressions of civil order and honesty. Hence it is that every individual understands how human societies must he regulated by laws, and also is able to comprehend the principles of those laws. Hence the universal agreement in regard to such subjects, both among nations and individuals, the seeds of them being implanted in the breasts of all without a teacher or lawgiver.

For where your thinking seems to be going in the latter part of your comment, I think Calvin's statement at the start of the last of the "paragraphs" that I quoted is going to be important. The statement is:

Since man is by nature a social animal

And it is a paraphrase of a statement by Aristotle in his Politics that man is by nature a political animal. It is difficult to imagine that Calvin, being classically trained, didn’t know that he was nodding his head to the great pagan philosopher at this point.

So at this point, Calvin’s anthropology involves insights from Scripture integrated with those from pagan philosophy. I’d argue that Calvin does something similar in Book 1 Chapter 15 section 6 where he discusses the faculties of the soul:

But I leave it to philosophers to discourse more subtilely of these faculties. For the edification of the pious, a simple definition will be sufficient. I admit, indeed, that what they ingeniously teach on the subject is true, and not only pleasant, but also useful to be known; nor do I forbid any who are inclined to prosecute the study. First, I admit that there are five senses, which Plato (in TheƦteto) prefers calling organs, by which all objects are brought into a common sensorium, as into a kind of receptacle: Next comes the imagination (phantasia), which distinguishes between the objects brought into the sensorium: Next, reason, to which the general power of Judgment belongs: And, lastly, intellect, which contemplates with fixed and quiet look whatever reason discursively revolves. In like manner, to intellect, fancy, and reason, the three cognitive faculties of the soul, correspond three appetite faculties—viz. will—whose office is to choose whatever reason and intellect propound; irascibility, which seizes on what is set before it by reason and fancy; and concupiscence, which lays hold of the objects presented by sense and fancy.
Though these things are true, or at least plausible, still, as I fear they are more fitted to entangle, by their obscurity, than to assist us, I think it best to omit them. If any one chooses to distribute the powers of the mind in a different manner, calling one appetive, which, though devoid of reason, yet obeys reason, if directed from a different quarter, and another intellectual, as being by itself participant of reason, I have no great objection.

Here Calvin seems to be broadly endorsing the understanding of human rational faculties that was present in the Greek philosophers, but opting to run with a simplified system for his own exposition.

I think this is pretty significant. Calvin at this point is setting up a discussion of the faculties of the soul, which the broader context indicates is actually a discussion of what it means for us to be in the Image of God. And Calvin’s conviction that knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves is related is in large part grounded, I would suggest, on his view that we are in the Image of God. And we find that as Calvin is doing some of the key work of explaining what it means to be human, he brings in insights that are at least partially derived from philosophy, and pagan philosophy at that.

And the impression I get is that Calvin saw himself as doing theology the whole way through the Institutes. These aren’t detours into areas that have little to say to ‘true wisdom’.

In other words, Calvin seems quite happy to read the Bible in light of insights gleaned by human reason independently from the Bible, even as he is more than happy to critique the insights of human reason in light of what the Bible says.

Calvin doesn’t seem to me to think that he has to choose between either reason or revelation, between natural theology and special revelation. And so he, if I had to capture his basic stance towards nonbiblical insights about human beings I’d say something like, “As a whole is a lie, in its parts is wrong the overwhelming majority of the time, but sometimes is both right and so useful that it needs to inform key component of one’s theology.”

Part of the reason I say this is because Calvin considers humans better able to reason about themselves than about God and stops only a little short of this in his view about human reason’s knowledge of God:

We must now explain what the power of human reason is, in regard to the kingdom of God, and spiritual discernments which consists chiefly of three things—the knowledge of God, the knowledge of his paternal favour towards us, which constitutes our salvation, and the method of regulating of our conduct in accordance with the Divine Law. With regard to the former two, but more properly the second, men otherwise the most ingenious are blinder than moles. I deny not, indeed, that in the writings of philosophers we meet occasionally with shrewd and apposite remarks on the nature of God, though they invariably savour somewhat of giddy imagination. As observed above, the Lord has bestowed on them some slight perception of his Godhead that they might not plead ignorance as an excuse for their impiety, and has, at times, instigated them to deliver some truths, the confession of which should be their own condemnation. Still, though seeing, they saw not. Their discernment was not such as to direct them to the truth, far less to enable them to attain it, but resembled that of the bewildered traveller, who sees the flash of lightning glance far and wide for a moment, and then vanish into the darkness of the night, before he can advance a single step. So far is such assistance from enabling him to find the right path. Besides, how many monstrous falsehoods intermingle with those minute particles of truth scattered up and down in their writings as if by chance. In short, not one of them even made the least approach to that assurance of the divine favour, without which the mind of man must ever remain a mere chaos of confusion. To the great truths, What God is in himself, and what he is in relation to us, human reason makes not the least approach.

Here, unbiblical knowledge of God is no knowledge at all, because it leaves the person in darkness. Nonetheless there are occasional ‘shrewd’ and ‘apposite’ remarks on the knowledge of God (although even these have a certain flaw about them). So there are elements that are right, but most elements are wrong, and as whole it leaves the person in ignorance of God.

So I would want to say that the Reformed tradition that Calvin is an example of is neither Barth nor liberal. It neither says ‘nein’ to natural theology (as Barth did), nor does it see natural theology as an independent field of knowledge, still less as the basis for theology (as liberal theology does). Natural theology, or reason, is a subsidiary authority that functions under the rule of the enscripturated Word of God, just like tradition and experience. But it has a positive role to play, and should not just be the fall guy in constant anti-natural theology polemics. And I think, as much as I’ve grasped this point, I think I’d want to stand with Calvin at this point. This seems to be part of what “Sola Scriptura” meant for him, and I find him a reliable (albeit fallible) exponent of Scripture.

All this is prepatory to reflecting on the core of your concern:
In other words, is Calvin’s insight (and yours!) a way of thinking about the currently vexed question of pragmatism in Christian ministry?

To which I think I would say, “definitely.”
It seems to me that as I observe those pastors and/or churches that I really admire, they have this constant running interplay between theological principle and smart practice. On the one hand, they are always being driven by the Bible and the gospel and the ‘strategies’ that God himself lays down in Scripture (knowledge of God), and they recognize their utter dependency on these. But on the other hand they keep noticing things about themselves and people and the way church and ministry ‘works’, and adjusting their practice accordingly (knowledge of ourselves). And the two aren’t separate, non-overlapping magisteria. The knowledge of God feeds into and informs the the understanding of people and how they tick, and the understanding of people and how they tick seems only to reinforce and foster more growth in the knowledge of God.
This make any sense to you?

It makes great sense, and I think you are putting your finger on one of the key marks of an effective ministry—one that probably remains true in any culture or time, I suspect.
I have a big quibble with how you’ve taken my knowledge of God/knowledge of ourselves in your comment. Calvin’s point is about the object of our knowledge: who and what is known. You seem to have instinctively turned it into a question about the source of our knowledge: how we know.
The two are quite separate issues. Almost everything you mention as “knowledge of God” would be for Calvin “knowledge of ourselves”—and it is knowledge derived entirely from special revelation. And everything you mention as “knowledge of ourselves” would also be that for Calvin—but he would see it as knowledge of ourselves that is derived from reason and experience.
I may be jumping on a tiny misreading, but it seems to me symbolic of the kind of issue I’m concerned about in the original blog. For us “knowledge of ourselves” is automatically read as ‘nonbiblical’ and “knowledge of God” is read as ‘knowledge the Bible gives us.’ Calvin has two kinds of knowledge and he has two objects of knowledge, which gives his theological project as a whole a robustness and a flexibility to integrate the whole scope of Scripture and speak to the actual world in which sixteenth century Europeans lived—and did so in a way that his exposition has proven edifying for the following four centuries. His theology fitted in the ‘real world’ and it didn’t have to ask for permission to be there—it was ‘Lord.’
As far as the recursive aspect of your insight goes, I’m right with you. I think I would possibly look more to a quote from Luther though for that one:
'living, or rather dying and being damned make a theologian, not understanding, reading or speculating'

True wisdom (Calvin’s term) or being theologian (which I think might be Luther’s equivalent) is to do with living, and life. Both my life personally, and our life corporately. Where a church or a Christian does not engage with the great task of living (which will either include or be the same as ‘ministry’ depending on how one defines the terms) then there can be no growth in true wisdom, or being made into a theologian. So a church or a Christian that is idle will go nowhere in terms of the knowledge of God.
But a church or Christian who engages in life apart from the knowledge of God and ourselves that the Word gives us will also go nowhere. A pragmatism that abstracts ends from the gospel, and then sees the getting of those ends as a practical, and not theological, matter can’t be the process for growth in the knowledge of God either. On that view knowing God and serving God must become somewhat hermetically sealed categories it seems to me.

Luther points us to an integration of the what and the how. This is partly because he’s fundamentally concerned with the who’s—us and God. And partly because he doesn’t accept a divorce between knowing how to do things, and knowing what the Christian faith teaches.
So I see a push to integrate in Calvin and Luther, and to let things sit along side each other as partners: for Calvin it is the object of knowledge (God/us) and the source of knowledge (Scripture/reason). For Luther it is the concern to see the knower and the doer as the same person (a theologian, who is formed by living in the knowledge of God, not so much by study). What we constantly set up as opposites they bring together, in a variety of different relationships.

And this breads, especially in Luther, a healthy sense of realism about ministry that verges on pessimism. The Dread Pirate Roberts (actually Wesley, but let’s not quibble) said
Life is pain, princess, anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

Which I think Luther, with his strong view of seeing life under the shadow of the cross would sign off on. If you live life, personally and as a church, under the cross—and by that I mean really live it, live out one’s God given responsibilities (which will involve bringing one’s “A Game” to the question of doing ministry in changing circumstances) then one will be formed as a person who knows God. Either refuse the challenge or find a short cut and you won’t.
I think it’s so simple people often grasp it irrespective of IQ or even anyone teaching on it explicitly. And it so cuts against the grain (especially in our context that sees everything as skills that can be taught) that it seems radically counter intuitive.

That's a lot of words. I hope there's something in it that made it worth your time to read it. :)

1 comment:

Tony Payne said...

Hi Mark

Thanks so much for these insightful thoughts.

I don't have time right at the moment to analyse what you're saying, and to respond meaningfully. But the topic is VERY important, and in around 2 weeks (when I'm back from an O/S conference), I would love to take up the discussion. I'll post a proper comment at that time.

Warm regards, Tony.