Why Would the State Seek to Regulate Biblical Soul Care?


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This is the introduction to a lecture which I will be giving at the ACBC Conference this fall . Since this is an early draft, some or all of this may be rewritten, revised, or simply rejected. But I often think things through by writing them out. Since this is a draft, if you do happen to have an opinion, I would be happy to hear it so that I can make the necessary changes. 


The answer to this question will be a bit complex, for two reasons. First, the question concerns the interaction of law and religious practice. Second, the culture as a whole is the process of a fundamental shift; and, as the culture shifts so does the law. Therefore, to answer this question I will need to build an argument in sections, block-by-block.

The Quick Answer

There is an easy answer to this question; it is unpacking the elements which will take time. The State seeks to regulate Biblical Soul Care, because we look like Cognitive Behavioral Psychologists who use religious language for certain predetermined ends.  We are just scoff-laws who simply refuse to take the licensing examination and abide by the agreed-upon ethical standards.

The State is completely unconcerned with the fact that we use the Bible, call ourselves Christian, ask people to pray or any similar aspect of our counsel. As I was preparing for this lecture, I read a blog entry on Scientific American concerning the use of tarot cards and astrology as the basis for psychotherapy.

The author plainly favors what he labeled “evidence based” therapies of the more traditional form. And yet ended with the following observation:

Research into the brain and mind, I have argued on this blog and elsewhere, has yet to produce truly persuasive theories of and treatments for mental illness. As a recent essay in a British psychiatric journal argues, “it is still not possible to cite a single neuroscience or genetic finding that has been of use to the practicing psychiatrist in managing [mental]  illnesses despite attempts to suggest the contrary.”

This failure helps explains why people still turn to Freudian psychoanalysis, although it does not stand up to scientific scrutiny, and to an even older mind-therapy, Buddhism. And it explains why many people in distress turn to astrology, tarot cards and other pseudoscientific methods. May they find the solace they seek.[1]

But rather than dunk on our psychiatrist friends, I wish rather to make another point. A perfectly reputable psychiatric source is willing to accept – at least tolerate – the use of pseudoscience in the practice of psychotherapy. If you read the post yourself, you can find citations to other reputable practitioners who are willing to permit the use of admittedly unscientific methods because merely being convinced that it will help is usually enough to bring some relief.

Therefore, if you want to talk about Jesus and prescribe a course of prayer, you are free to do so. But, we only ask that you get a license first.

And in a world where hairdressers need official training and an occupational license, we should not be surprised that something as significant as dealing the human heart requires some standard.

Thus, we should not be surprised that the State would seek to regulate therapists no matter what they use as the basis for their therapy. And so, if a pastor wants to preach and pray and engage in rituals, he may. But -as the representative of the State will say -if that same man wants to start engaging in therapy, he should be regulated. He can engage in his religion without a license; but therapy, that is for the State to regulate.

[1] John Horgan, “Astrology, Tarot Cards and Psychotherapy,” Scientific American (blog), February 24, 2020, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/astrology-tarot-cards-and-psychotherapy/.

Our desire to subvert the text


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In his essay, “God and the Bible,” in the volume The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures Peter F. Jensen, responds to proposition that the Scripture is a word about God. Or, he quotes Brunner, “The spoken word is an indirect revelation when it bears witness to the real revelation: Jesus Christ, the personal self-manifestation of God, Emmanuel.” To respond to this challenge, states the issue as whether the “classical position” that the words of Scripture are the word of God; or, is there a way in which we can, by means of the Spirit, come to Christ effectively bypassing the words in the book?

There is a profound temptation here to want not some words but a person. Indeed, when phrased in that way, the “classical position” sounds foolish and misguided. I will not recount his argument here, which is well-structured and persuasive. He effectively demonstrates that there is no gospel without holding fast to the “classical position.” I cannot do that argument justice without simply repeating what he wrote.

What do wish to underscore here is the nature of the temptation to go-around the text. The desire to go around the text seems to have two roots as referenced by Jensen. First, there is the matter of idolatry; an argument which he traces to Tyndale. Second, he locates the movement in a desire for autonomy.

Jensen notes that our forebearers sought for “godliness” by means of obedience (see page 494), while we moderns speak of “spirituality”. But a desire for “spirituality” can easily become a guise for autonomy. We are dependent creatures who must have a clear rule to be obedient. “ A human life lived without the rule of God would be like a game of tennis without a net.” (495).

But I would like to venture an observation on idolatry and the textual nature of Christianity. Idolatry is a desire for a god whom we can control; an object of technology and desire. The god created is a god whom conforms to my desire.

I am in place one. My desire is place two; but reality is place three. I use the god of my idolatry to coerce reality to conform to my present desire.

When one claims a spirituality which supersedes the text and goes-around the text, and does not need the text; then my desires will become the “prompting of the Spirit.” Getting what I want will be the will of Christ. It is the strategy which underlies so much doctrinal change (as if a vote of some denominational leaders had the power to rewrite the Bible).

Words are a brake on hazy thinking and deceitful desires. I am well-aware of the strategies to subvert a text and to torture words into saying what I like. That is it’s own conversation.

And yes, there can be difficult questions. But so little of the trouble in life comes from the difficult questions about the Bible.  The “you can make it say whatever you want” dodge is written by people who have no idea what the text says. That is merely a dodge for one who wants to ignore the text.

The words of the text stand athwart our desire to create our own god.  We have to play deceitfully with the words to justify our own deceitful desires. A “modern” stance which simply seeks a make-believe Jesus on the basis of a “Spirit” which is remarkably consistently with my personal inclinations at the moment (sometimes this shows up when a Christian embarks on a path of disobedience and justifies it on the basis that he feels “peace about it.”)

The pattern laid out in Scripture, from Adam on, is God speaks and we obey. Our obedience is bound up with both our knowledge of God and our love of God. Paul, in Romans writes of the “obedience of faith.” But, “such a piety of obedience clashes deeply with our Western contemporaries to promote human autonomy as the highest aspiration.” (493). And hence, the desire to subvert the text.

As for the entire book, highly recommended. This is a remarkably comprehensive work on the authority of Scripture at over 1200 pages; Jensen providing one of the many essays. Please do not confuse any limitations in my writing with the very fine work done by Jensen in his essay.

Thankfulness as a Means of Obedience


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Thinking this through …

Eugene Peterson gave a wonderful explanation of Baalism:

Do we realize how almost exactly the Baal culture of Canaan is reproduced in American church culture? Baal religion is about what makes you feel good. Baal worship is a total immersion in what I can get out of it. And of course, it was incredibly successful. The Baal priests could gather crowds that outnumbered followers of Yahweh 20 to 1. There was sex, there was excitement, there was music, there was ecstasy, there was dance. “We got girls over here, friends. We got statues, girls, and festivals.” This was great stuff. And what did the Hebrews have to offer in response? The Word. What’s the Word? Well, Hebrews had festivals, at least!

He is quite right. But as I have been thinking of this, I see that I can easily fall into an equal and opposite trap.

In Book IX of Augustine’s On the Trinity, he makes this observation, “For no one willingly does anything which he has not first said in his heart.” (Nemo enim aliquid volens facit, quod non in corde suo prius dixerit.)

What then makes such a thing “willing”? He next says that the word which conceived “by love (amore), either of the creature or of the Creator.”

[Conceived] therefore, either by desire or by love: not that the creature ought not to be loved; but if that love [of the creature] is referred to the Creator, then it will not be desire (cupiditas), but love (caritas). For it is desire when the creature is loved for itself. And then it does not help a man through making use of it, but corrupts him in the enjoying it.

Augustine of Hippo, “On the Trinity,” in St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Arthur West Haddan, vol. 3, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 131. We either have a desire or longing for the creature as an end in itself; or we have love toward God. (The word here for love “caritas” is used to translate agape in 1 Corinthians 13.)

There is a laying hold of the creature as an end in itself; or there is a seeing through the creature to the Creator:

Romans 1:19–25 (ESV)

19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

One thing which struck me here was the implicit Gnosticism which so easily infects my understanding of the creation. John writes:

1 John 2:15–17 (ESV)

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

I find myself – and find in the ‘spiritual’ talk of others this tendency to think that fo the physical as the equivalent of “the world”. But Jesus himself expressly confirms that we “need” such things:

Matthew 6:31–32 (ESV)

31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.

The trouble does not lie in the physical things per se. The trouble lies in the relationship to such things. It lies in the creature as an end-in-itself.

But to get this wrong leads to a painful and inhuman problem: on one hand there physical things in this world for which I have inclination, they are embodied, tangible, they appeal to my senses. On the other hand, there is God who is then reduced to a bare concept. And thus, God becomes less real than a sight or a sound.

But Augustine, informed by the Scripture, notes that this thing is only rightly known and used if it is known and used in the context of God. As Paul writes:

1 Timothy 4:1–5 (ESV)

4 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

The creature is received with thankfulness – which is precisely what Paul condemns in the unbeliever of Romans 1. And thus, my implicit Gnosticism in thinking in reducing my relationship to God to an idea, makes me co-belligerent with the condemned man in Romans 1!

It also reduces relationship to the creation as one of sin in all cases, which then makes actual sinful relationship not that much different.

Jesus however looks at birds and flowers and sees teachers. He receives a meal and gives thanks.

This orientation of thankfulness actually permits easy interaction with the creation without sin: If I can receive this thing in holy thankfulness, then I will not sin in the use of it. But since that could easily be misunderstood as license, I will use this illustration from Bishop Ryle’s chapter on William Romaine:

He was one evening invited to a friend’s house, and, after tea, the lady of the house asked him to play cards, to which he made no objection. The cards were brought out, and when all were ready to begin playing, Romaine said, “Let us ask the blessing of God.” “Ask the blessing of God!” said the lady in great surprise; “I never heard of such a thing before a game of cards.” Romaine then inquired, “Ought we to engage in anything on which we cannot ask God’s blessing?” This reproof put an end to the card-playing.

On another occasion he was addressed by a lady, who expressed the great pleasure she had enjoyed under his preaching, and added that she could comply with his requirements, with the exception of one thing. “And what is that?” asked Romaine. “Cards, sir,” was the reply. “You think you could not be happy without them?” “No, sir, I know I could not.” “Then, madam,” said he, “cards are your God, and they must save you.” It is recorded that this pointed remark led to serious reflections, and finally to the abandonment of card playing.

Now what precisely about cards is the problem, I am not quite certain. But what I do know is that the orientation and test is correct. If I cannot ask God’s blessing upon the thing, then I cannot do the thing. God has specified what he will bless and what he will curse.

When I give heed to that instruction in thankfulness for the wisdom of God, I am freed from the sin of action and the sin of legalism (As Sinclair Ferguson helpfully explains, legalism is to take up God’s law in the absence of God’s person. It is the conduct without the relationship.)

And so, I see that I have this bent to cheat God of his glory (they did not honor him as God, nor were they thankful) – disguised as obedience! This is certainly not my only fault ….

William Carlos Williams, “The Farmer”


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(Photo by Ian Livesey)

The farmer deep in thought

is pacing through the rain

among his black fields, with

hands in pockets,

in his head

the harvest already planted.

A cold wind ruffles the water

among the browned weeds.

On all sides

the world rolls coldly away:

black orchards

darkened by the March clouds-

leaving room for thought.

Down past the brushwood

bristling by

the rainsluiced wagonroad

looms the artist figure of

the farmer – composing




There are so many things wonderful about this poem. In no systematic form are some observations:

The portrait: The portrait is remarkably well-drawn. Notice the farmer is shown in silhouette: we see his posture, but we have no description of his personal features. We don’t know the color of his clothes, his eyes, his hair, et cetera.

But the world has colors: browned weeds, black orchards, darkened.

We see the world around the farmer in fine details the wind ruffles the water, there are March clouds, the road is “rainsluiced”. But there are other aspects which are missing from the description.

The parties: The poem ends with the word “antagonist”. The farmer is plotting his attack upon this deranged world by putting it in order and planting his harvest. The farmer is also an artist, who has a vision of beauty which he is going to wrought in the world.

The world is cold, forbidding and filled with death: even the orchards are “black”. The world is one of chaos, and the farmer is going to overcome the chaos and make a thing of use and order.

There is an interesting aside, “the world rolls by … leaving room for thought”. To the farmer, the chaos is an opportunity for order. He sees his harvest and nothing has yet been planted.

The combination of artist and antagonist may be an echo of Genesis 1. The world having come into existence is still without order, “The world was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” But God overcome the disorder as both antagonist and artist. The farmer here does the same thing.

In fact, God plants a garden and places the first human beings in that garden. The farmer here is planning on planting a garden and obtaining a harvest himself.

I cannot say that Williams is explicitly thinking of Genesis here. There are no unambiguous allusions to the English text of Genesis. But the form is here.

So the question: is it proper to make a connection or consider the comparison where the author has not necessarily forced the connection between the two?  Yes.

Here are some reasons: First, a comparison between any two things has the potential for providing information about both. A comparison may lead one to realize a connection which was not previously apparent. Whenever come to some-thing or some-one, we are making comparisons with other similar things or ones we already know. We understand the thing we are looking at by comparing it to our previous knowledge.

Thus, making a purposeful comparison may help us to see something which was already there but not previously noticed.

Second, there are certain forms of thought which seem to be inherent in human beings. The Golden Bough is an mountain of cultural comparisons of forms from many cultures and times. There are certain ideas which just seem to make sense to us people.

That store of common forms is even greater within a culture. The ideas of Genesis would likely be familiar to Williams merely by living in his world at that time. Biblical references would be commonplace. For example, in Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain makes a memorable joke based upon Tom’s lack of Biblical knowledge, but Twain’s counting on the reader knowing the facts immediately and without explanation.

There are myriad of details about the poem which deserves consider, such as three prepositional phrases built around “in” at the beginning of the poem: the farmer is in thought, his hands are in his pocket, his harvest is in his head.

Compare that to his pacing in his black fields – where he is thinking and the black orchards leave room for thought.

The structure of the poem is a marvel.

A final observation: Williams is an artist who is composing a portrait of the farmer. The farmer is an artist who is composing a portrait of a harvest.  Williams takes all of the unorganized, but very present details of the scene (there is a man walking on a blustery March day) and turns this into ordered art.

Schopenhauer on Happiness.12


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The previous post on this subject may be found here:

Schopenhauer continues on with his theme of society and solitude

Loneliness and solitude have their evils, it is true; but if you cannot feel them all at once, you can at least see where they lie; on the other hand, society is insidious in this respect; as in offering you what appears to be the pastime of pleasing social intercourse, it works great and often irreparable mischief.

This is an interesting comment; but is it true? Is it only true for some and not others? There are problems in solitude and society. So much is true.

The point here is that society is deceptive in what it offers; while solitude is plain and obvious in its difficulties. But is that so? The trouble in both places seems to lie in with the individual; not within the circumstance.

When I am alone, I am confronted with myself in a rather striking manner. I forced to run over my own thoughts, regrets, hopes, et cetera. The trouble here will not merely be boredom, it will be an excess of introspection. I can see that as a possibility right off.

But the real trouble will come with what happens to me in that introspection. Do I really know what I will uncover when I trounce around through my soul? And I am not static in this: when I begin my introspection, it is not as if I am walking through an already built house. It is more that I am walking through a dream where everything about me changes as I change.

When it comes to social trouble: it seems he fears being deceived. And while deception involves one who does the tricking; it also entails a willing subject. I must be deceivable on that on point. There is a reason that a con man does not offer to sell you worthless land: no one wants that.

If the trouble in society is that you will be bore me; I can see that at the outset. If the trouble is I will pin my hopes upon you and you will disappointment me; then, there is something which I may not probably anticipate. Again, I am changing as the matter progresses.

What is the “irreparable mischief”?

He sees the trouble with society in that other people are less than a great man like him:

They become sick of themselves. It is this vacuity of soul which drives them to intercourse with others,–to travels in foreign countries.

And this is the seduction and the stupidity of his argument. Everyone has times where they would prefer to be alone and times where they would prefer others. The time here or there may vary, but there is always a variation.

Take Schopenhauer’s book: his writing this book is a social act. It is an extended, one-sided conversation. But it is a conversation. Would he call the act of writing his book “vacuity of soul”? Of course not.

The seduction is that to the extent you find yourself agreeing with him, it is because you are a great soul – like him!

“Some Reflections: Growing Out of the Recent Epidemic of Influenza that Afflicted Our City”

A friend sent this to me. Simply wise and wonderful

I have had also this question come into my mind, Why of those who took the disease some recovered and others did not? The reason may be found, in one sense, in purely natural causes—some were physically better prepared to resist the disease, were stronger in vital power, and so pulled through. Others, not having sufficient vitality, went down under the strain; but I believe there is also another reason, and is to be found in the will of God. For some, the time of their departure had come, the limit of their earthly existence had been reached, and this was God’s way of removing them out of this world into the next. Some day we have all got to go, but how, or when, or where, we do not know; that is with God alone. In Job 12:10, we read:

In whose hand is the soul of every living thing,
And the breath of all mankind.

And in the 104:29:

Thou takest their breath, they die.

And elsewhere we are told, “Not a sparrow falls to the ground without His notice,” i.e., without His consent or approval. We speak of accidental deaths, at times, but there are no accidents with God. All things are within the scope of His providence. Some did not recover because it was not the will of God that they should.

Read the whole thing. 


The Right Way to Shake off a Viper.7 How God uses the defamation of others.


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The previous post in this series may be found here.

But it shines with a most heavenly luster in that the preparation of heaven which is marvelously promoted in us by defamations on earth. The dirt of reproaches is as the martyr said of it (and there never was a martyr without a share of it!) only to scour you and make you bright, that a high shelf in heaven may be assigned to you. You must have a name reviled on earth; ’tis that so you may be the fitter to find a name written in heaven.  There will be a resurrection of names as well as bodies in the day when God shall raise the dead. All the Good that you have done; all your prayers, all your alms, and the steps of you watchful walk with God[1]; all the brave efforts of your self-denial; all the continual contrivances to serve Christ and his people, and your neighbors in which you have been swallowed up every day [not one Day without them!] for many, many years together; they being sprinkled with the blood of the Lamb shall be found in the Lord’s Book of Remembrance[2]: They shall be proclaimed in the golden streets of the City of God. That you may be prepar’d for what shall be done for the man whom the King of Heaven will honor[3] in the world to come, you must be abased in this world, be abased with quite another sort of things reported and believed of you and be patient under it. God will first have you lie in the dust, first thrown in the dungeon and willing that it should be so, before he sets upon with the princes of his people in the heavenly places.[4]


God knows what is done to their names; and will have them willing to go by other names; to be called by very mean and vile and ill names, before he takes them to shine among the stars. How sweet, how sweet will be your arrival among of the angles of God, going from a world which you found a place of dragons! A world where your complaint was, My soul is among lions and I lie among them that set on fire!


Yea, and who can tell, but you may yet shine more as lights in the world[5] for the snuffing which your defamations have bestow’d upon you? While the snuffing was a-doing, it threatened wholly to put out the lamp, or it was a lamped despised; presently it shines the more for it. How often have you seen it, that cruel defamations have been but forerunners of a greater and brighter serviceableness for God first chastens and instructs and humbles his dear servants. By and by, they see rest from the days of defamation; they prove more serviceable than ever they were in their lives before; and a pit is digged for the wicked[6], they are cut off in their own wickedness.[7]


A man is never fit for serviceableness until he be humbled and broken and grieved and made of nothing and willing to be so. Then, then he is fit for the Master’s use.[8] Defamations do contribute unto it admirably! A Joseph must be flouted as a dreamer[9]; the basest person in the world must go to fix a character of baseness upon him; and this only because Hell could not obtain its ends upon him. He outlives the rage of them that hated him and vexed him. He shone brighter, and he did more afterwards a thousand times than ever in his life before: The God of his Father helped him.


The intent of Satan and of your enemies, may be by defamations forever to spoil your serviceableness. God over-rules them; God disappoints them; your opportunities to be serviceable do not lie at their mercy. God is perhaps fitting you to some good, which at present you little think or know of. You know not now, but you shall know hereafter. In the meantime, Oh! Glorify the faithfulness of God.


[1] Acts 10:1–4 (AV)

1 There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, 2 A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway. 3 He saw in a vision evidently about the ninth hour of the day an angel of God coming in to him, and saying unto him, Cornelius. 4 And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.

[2] Malachi 3:16 (AV)

16 Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name.

[3] This is an allusion to the language, though not the circumstance of Esther 6:6 (AV)

6 So Haman came in. And the king said unto him, What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour? Now Haman thought in his heart, To whom would the king delight to do honour more than to myself?

[4] This theme of reversal is common through-out the Scripture:

Mark 10:31 (AV)

31 But many that are first shall be last; and the last first.

Luke 1:51–53 (AV)

51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. 52 He hath put down the mighty from theirseats, and exalted them of low degree. 53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

[5] Philippians 2:15 (AV)

15 That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world;

[6] Psalm 94:12–13 (AV)

12 Blessed is the man whom thou chastenest, O LORD, and teachest him out of thy law; 13 That thou mayest give him rest from the days of adversity, until the pit be digged for the wicked.

[7] Psalm 94:22–23 (AV)

22 But the LORD is my defence; and my God is the rock of my refuge. 23 And he shall bring upon them their own iniquity, and shall cut them off in their own wickedness; yea, the LORD our God shall cut them off.

[8] 2 Timothy 2:21 (AV)

21 If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.

[9] Genesis 37:18–20 (AV)

18 And when they saw him afar off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him. 19 And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. 20 Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams.

Kierkegaard on the Difference Between the Tragic Hero and Abraham


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In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard draws an interesting contrast between Abraham and Agamemnon: both men are called upon to sacrifice a child: but Agamemnon is a tragic hero and Abraham is an example of faith. What then is the true distinction between the two?

The tragic hero is compelled to his end by an ethical demand. To fulfill his oath, Agamemnon must lead the force into war. The demand to sacrifice is daughter is tragic and painful, but it is compelled by the demand of his oath. His act is meaningful and ethical to the community.

But it is not so with Abraham. There is no ethical duty which is recognizable to anyone who watched Abraham. The soldiers who saw Agamemnon move to give up his daughter, would have a basis to understand and even sympathize with Agamemnon. But if one were to watch Abraham: his actions would make no ethical sense. There is no apparent duty.

A second and related comparison comes with the matter of disclosing his conduct.

In this section Kierkegaard first makes an observation about concealment and revelation. In the older Greek tragedies, the concealment was brought about by fate. Oedipus kills his father, but it is concealed to him. It is revealed afterward.

In the modern age, the act of concealment is brought about the character’s decision. He compares two types here. There is the esthetic concealment, where two lovers conceal to bring about their desired end. And to have the happy ending we enjoy such action.

Esthetics permits these actions, even if unethical:

But esthetics is a civil and sentimental discipline that knows more ways out than any pawnshop manager. What it do then? It does everything possible for the lovers. (75)

But ethics requires revelation: The concealment is a deception, and even if pleasing aesthetically it is repugnant to ethics. Ethics requires an explanation, a justification for the conduct. There must be a public rationale.

Abraham differs, because he cannot explain. What is there to say? He is seeking something absurd. Abraham is not merely doing something which seems outside of all ethics; he is doing something he knows cannot be true. He will kill Isaac and Isaac is the child of promise and God will fulfill his promise. This is not merely improbable; it is paradoxical.

There is no public rationale, because the wisdom of God is greater than man.

We go wildly astray if we think Kierkegaard says that faith is believing things which are untrue or improbable. That is what is often miscredited to him. Faith is not believing stupid or false things. Faith is believing that God is above human categories:

1 Corinthians 1:20–29 (ESV)

 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.


Augustine on Desiring and Fearing God


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There is a sort of paradox which lies at the heart of the Christian’s apprehension of God. We are told to love God and trust God. But we are also told to fear God. Psalm 2 contains the strange command:

Psalm 2:11 (ESV)

Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.

How is that possible: fear and trembling are quite different than the command to rejoice. But this paradox of joy and fear, coming near and trembling is a basic theme of the Scripture:

Isaiah 66:1–2 (ESV)

The Humble and Contrite in Spirit
66 Thus says the LORD:
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is the place of my rest?
2  All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things came to be,
declares the LORD.
But this is the one to whom I will look:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit
and trembles at my word.

How then do we desire that we fear? Augustine helps provide some information here:

Because human desires must be transformed and reoriented in order to long for God rightly, desire for God, according to Augustine, does not provide an unambiguous sense of pleasure, at least not while we are still on our earthly pilgrimage. For Augustine, the cultivation of the desire for God and the commitment to a process of reorientation to God do not immediately produce unadulterated joy. God does not promptly ravish the soul with exquisite bliss and comfort. Imaging the beauty and truth of God as a light that attracts the soul, Augustine writes: “What is the light which shines right through me and strikes my heart without hurting? It fills me with terror and burning love: with terror in so far as I am utterly other than it, with burning love in that I am akin to it.”19 The terror is due to the perception of the dissimilarity of the soul and the holy God, coupled with the recognition that God is drawing the soul into a potentially painful process of transformation. The exhilaration of seeking the eternal is qualified by the bittersweet disclosure of God’s difference from the unworthy soul.20 A kind of fear arises as one becomes aware of one’s need for God and one’s own insufficiency. Although Augustine often describes God as the soul’s true source and destination, he also portrays divinity and humanity as being two sides of a chasm. God’s immeasurable magnitude can appear so vast that it intimidates the soul. At the same time that it intimidates, the phenomenon of desire for God contains within it the extravagant prospect that the soul, though unlike God, has the possibility to become (in some respects) like God. This transformation into godliness necessarily involves the daunting imperative to reorient one’s life away from lesser attachments and to become a new creature, defined by one central love. Consequently, the desire for God both promises absolute fulfillment but also requires the renunciation of cherished aspects of the old worldly self.

Barrett, Lee C.. Eros and Self-Emptying (Kierkegaard as a Christian Thinker) (pp. 74-75). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.  (Incidentally, this has been a fascinating book so far. If you have any interest in Augustine or Kierkegaard, it is well worth the time.) This fear reminds me of the line in Rilke, Beauty is beginning of terror.

Thomas Watson explains that there are two types of fear:

There is a twofold fear.
1. A filial fear; when a man fears to displease God; when he fears lest he should not hold out, this is a good fear; ‘Blessed is he that fears alway;’ if Peter had feared his own heart, and said, Lord Jesus, I fear I shall forsake thee, Lord strengthen me, doubtless Christ would have kept him from falling.
2. There is a cowardly fear; when a man fears danger more than sin; when he is afraid to be good, this fear is an enemy to suffering. God proclaimed that those who were fearful should not go to the wars, Deut. 20:8. The fearful are unfit to fight in Christ’s wars; a man possessed with fear, doth not consult what is best, but what is safest. If he may save his estate, he will snare his conscience, Prov. 29:25. ‘In the fear of man there is a snare.’ Fear made Peter deny Christ; Abraham equivocate, David feign himself mad; fear will put men upon indirect courses, making them study rather compliance than conscience. Fear makes sin appear little, and suffering great, the fearful man sees double, he looks upon the cross through his perspective twice as big as it is; fear argues sordidness of spirit, it will put one upon things most ignoble and unworthy; a fearful man will vote against his conscience; fear infeebles, it is like the cutting off Samson’s locks; fear melts away the courage, Josh. 5:1. ‘Their hearts melt because of you;’ and when a man’s strength is gone, he is very unfit to carry Christ’s cross; fear is the root of apostasy. Spira’s fear made him abjure and recant his religion; fear doth one more hurt than the adversary; it is not so much an enemy without the castle, as a traitor within indangers it; it is not so much sufferings without, as traitorous fear within which undoes a man; a fearful man is versed in no posture so much as in retreating; oh take heed of this, be afraid of this fear, Luke 12:4. ‘Fear not them that can kill the body.’ Persecutors can but kill that body which must shortly die; the fearful are set in the fore-front of them that shall go to hell, Rev. 21:8. Let us get the fear of God into our hearts; as one wedge drives out another, so the fear of God will drive out all other base fear.

Thomas Watson, “Discourses upon Christ’s Sermon on the Mount,” in Discourses on Important and Interesting Subjects, Being the Select Works of the Rev. Thomas Watson, vol. 2 (Edinburgh; Glasgow: Blackie, Fullarton, & Co.; A. Fullarton & Co., 1829), 368–370. I agree with Watson, but I think he misses something which the quotation on Augustine grasps: There is an ontological basis of fear. There is a fear sprung from the utter otherness of God.

When the disciples are in the boat and Jesus calms the storm, they wonder what sort of man this is. The otherness of Jesus causes them to fear. They were not afraid that Jesus was going to hurt them; he had just saved their lives. They were afraid of his mere presence.

This helps understand Paul’s line that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” We need an ontological transformation to be able to bear we are going.

The Great Divorce has a seen which captures some of this matter. When the insubstantial beings from hell come to heaven even the grass is too substantial, too real to bear:

As the solid people came nearer still I noticed that they were moving with order and determination as though each of them had marked his man in our shadowy company. ‘There are going to be affecting scenes,’ I said to myself. ‘Perhaps it would not be right to look on.’ With that, I sidled away on some vague pretext of doing a little exploring. A grove of huge cedars to my right seemed attractive and I entered it. Walking proved difficult. The grass, hard as diamonds to my unsubstantial feet, made me feel as if I were walking on wrinkled rock, and I suffered pains like those of the mermaid in Hans Andersen. A bird ran across in front of me and I envied

Lewis, C. S.. The Great Divorce (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 25). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. If the mere grass will overwhelm our feet, what would the sight of the King do to our sight? And how utterly dangerous and other is God to us now.


O Believer Art Thou…

O believer, art thou in poverty and straits? There is an incorruptible treasure in that house.

Is thine honour in the dust? A crown for thy head and a sceptre for thy hand await thee there.

Art thou shut up in solitude? There you shall enjoy eternal converse with God, the angels, and the saints.

Is your life full of bitterness? You will find rivers of pleasures there.

Are you weak and sickly? There grows the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

Are you groaning under the tyranny of sin? There you shall walk in the glorious liberty of the sons of God.

Are defiled garments making you hang down your heads? You shall there shine in spotless robes of holiness.

Is fighting hard work? In that house ye shall for ever triumph.

Are you weary and almost fainting under the labours of the Christian life? There you shall have perpetual rest.

Is your communion with God here frequently interrupted? There will be no interruptions there.

Are you in darkness? There is no night there. Are you in fear of death? There you shall enjoy eternal life.

Thomas Boston