Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Puritan Spirituality and the Quest for a Deepened Walk in Faith in Our Time

One of the challenges of attempting to write regular posts is that my reading and what I might want to say about a given text are difficult to keep in tandem; in fact, it's practically impossible. Therefore, I can only dive in in the midst of the ever flowing stream.

My reading of J.I. Packer has brought me to the writings of the English Puritans, especially John Owens, Jeremiah Burroughs, John Bunyan and Richard Baxter. It's Owens and Burroughs who have especially evoked my quest for a deep Christian spirituality--deeper than I live out my life even in the vision of making every thought captive in Christ which at sometimes in life seem easier to do than others, though that perception itself may be an illusion in which at some profound level God knows us better than we can possibly come to know ourselves.

What I appreciate in Burroughs and Owen in particular, clearly reflected in Packer, is the radical embrace of justification by faith only while in simultaneous in search for greater sanctification and holiness in God. While some theologians and devotional writers tend to emphasize one of these divergent emphases (I won't call them polarities) more than the other, when taking the entirety of the New Testament into account, it's difficult for me to fathom that they are anything but ultimately linked.

Consider 1 John alone for a moment, 1:5-10, 3:19-22. Clearly, faith is the baseline without which we cannot even begin to come to God, for without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6) in which believing in God in Christ reconciling ourselves and the world to God is characterized by Paul and other NT writers as our foremost work. Thus, what we place our focal point orientation on, what the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich refers to as "ultimate concern," is the basis for setting everything else in place. For the NT writers the only point of legitimacy in which all else, however pen ultimately important, is God in Christ reconciling the worlds, in which by comparison, all else is only dung.

Thus in our desire to convey something of the depth and mysterious power, love, and all sufficiency in Christ, with our secular friends, in which everything else by comparison is of ultimately no account, the communication gap often lies at the level of coming to terms with core assumptions, in which gaping communication chasms often lies on both sides of the faith/non faith divide. Of course, as Tillich so well argues, all people believe something in which whatever they believe most, often without seeing, that becomes by definition their ultimate concern. Where your treasure is so will your heart be.

What we argue on conviction in the faith of things unseen, through the evidence of a mighty cloud of witnesses, through the efficacy of the Holy Spirit to illuminate our own spirit, however dimly, and through the canonical Word of God itself as expressed throughout Scripture (2 Tim 3:16) is that this ultimate concern is in the Holy God who both transcends creation and yet is totally invested and immersed within it in a way that remains intimate yet separate from the world. Our secular friends, on the other hand, will typically have invested their ultimate concern in some aspect of the creation, which, in the most radical sense, even as charity and good common sense precludes us from bandying the term in a loose and insensitive way, would, to use the biblical language, be one type or another of idolatry.

One of the communication challenges as I see it is to draw fully on thick biblical literacy in our own communiqu├ęs and in each of our individual desire to remain as close as possible to God in Christ, and yet to seek out ways to effectively covey something of the inexpressible riches in which God has blessed us in the heavenly realms in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). This is challenging work in which the Puritans probably were not that much more successful in leading those who were not of faith into its inner mystery that requires faith as the basis for believing in the first place, which becomes the framework through which we gain increased knowledge.

Where the Puritans may have had more of an influence is in persuading a broader public that accepted the Christian revelation as a foundational truth claim at some level, however much practically speaking they may have been walking toward an increasingly secular mindset with the ever pressing pressure of placing this revelation of God in Christ reconciling the world to increasing back burner concerns. For our generation and throughout much of the 20th century, the secular challenge has been more in the nature of the existential force of other realities in themselves—science, nature adoration, business, the seemingly self-evident given of pluralism, articulated forms of agnosticism and atheism, etc. challenging any assumption that the ultimate revelation of God to humankind is in and through Christ as a result of the confluence of the Incarnation and the Atonement in the biblical and theological fullness of what this revelatory gift means (John 1:14, 3:16). Still, too, the Puritans were stymied as what they perceived as the rampant secularism of their time, the 17th century! And that at least may give us some comfort in coming to an appreciation of what they were contending with within their own lives and within the culture which at least in some ways is not that dissimilar to our own

While they were perhaps no more successful than we are in our persuasive efforts to illuminate something of the faith once for all delivered to the Saints (Jude 3), what they have left for us is a treasury of awesome devotional reflections at both intense pietistic and profoundly theological levels. For those who have not dipped into the vast Puritan literature on faith I encourage you to do so in which the homely and ever edifying short book of Jeremiah Burroughs, A Treasury of Earthly Mindedness is as good a start as any. Read slowly, read thoughtfully, a little each day and if possible, look up and meditate on each biblical verse Burroughs sites in amplifying his own little text. And then as inspiration moves, go to Packer for a contemporary reflection, first his book A Passion for Holiness and then to A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.

No doubt we are led to what we are inspired to read by the Spirit of God and what illuminates one reader may not have a similar impact on another. Notwithstanding that important caveat, I do recommend the English Puritan devotionally-based preachers and theologians. In this era of dummying down, one could do a great deal worse.

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