Doctrine of the Church, Doubt, Ecclesiology, Faith, Hume, James Denney, Loyalty to the Saints, Psalm 78, The Way Everlasting
This sermon (“Loyalty to the Saints”) by James Denney is based upon Psalm 78:15, ” If I had said, I will speak thus; Behold, I had dealt treacherously with the generation of thy children.”
This sermon concerns the “generation of God’s children”, the people of God and the individuals need of relationship to God’s children. Having established that God has a generation in every age, Denney explains the importance:
At this moment, there is such a thing in the world as the generation of God’s children, the spiritual successors of those to whom the Psalmist refers; they inherit the same hopes, and represent the same ideals and beliefs.
 It is a great matter to recognize this. For one thing, it is an important part of our moral security to have our place among God’s children.
[2 For another, it is a great test of the soundness of our judgment in spiritual things when we find ourselves in agreement with them.
James Denney, The Way Everlasting: Sermons (London; New York; Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), 128. Here is an important aspect of the stability in the Christian life: both as to how we live (“moral security”) and right thinking (“soundness of our judgment”). Therefore, it is critical that we rightly understand the Church.
Denny singles out trust or faith in God as a distinguishing mark of the Church:
The one mark of the children of God which never varies is that they believe in Him. From generation to generation they perpetuate the sublime tradition of faith. In various modes, through all sorts of discouragement, they look unceasingly to Him, believing that He is, and that He is the rewarder of those who seek Him. (129)
While not a comprehensive theory of the “true Church”, Denney does focus on the distinguishing attribute of “faith”. He does not attempt to distinguish true and false objects at faith. Rather he looks to three practical objections to faith. The rationale for such an examination is that faith must be challenged to be faith, “No doubt it belongs to the nature of faith that it should be tried; if there were not appearances against it, it would not be faith; it would be sight.” (129)
First, the political evil of the world may cause us to question God: “Faith in God implies faith in His government of the world.” (129) But when we look at the world — from the time of the psalmist until now — there is constantly more than enough to cause us to question God, “It is manifest that the Psalmist had had more than enough to try his faith in the Divine government. When he looked abroad upon the earth, it was as though God had abandoned it, or rather as though there were no God at all.” (129-130).
When we see the evil of this world, we wonder at the evil of the world and wonder why we should try. But in this skepticism, we should be checked, because the children of God have persevered through generations. To doubt would be to betray the perseverance of the Church:
What, it was suggested to him, does the indulgence of this sceptical temper mean? It means that I am betraying the cause for which the children of God have fought the good fight from generation to generation, that I am deserting the forlorn hope of the good to side with the enemies of God and man. God forbid! Be my soul with the saints, and shall my mind cherish thoughts, shall my lips speak words, that are disloyal to their faith, their hopes, their sacrifices? To choose your creed is to choose your company, and the feeling that such scepticism would range him in base opposition to the Israel of God is the first thing which rallies the Psalmist again to assert his faith. (131).
Rather than back down, the witness must become more certain (Thomas Watson, “The profaneness of the times should not slacken but heighten our zeal. The looser other are, the stricter we should be.”),
No: they are trumpet calls for witnesses for God; for soldiers, for martyrs, for men and women who will fight God’s battle against all odds, and though they die fighting die assured of victory at last. All the hope of the world lies in them, not in the cynical or sceptical who say, How doth God know?
The same principle applies to our private trials of faith, “by your own faith and patience set a new seal to its truth”. (132).
Second, we must not question God’s moral agency even when world proves to us that we should change our position: we must not be relativists. Our Faith in the authority of God’s law must remain unchanging. While the first tests our patience and hope, this second tests our relationship to society, ”
While the first point shows itself in private defections, this second point has recently shown itself in claiming Christian Churches rejecting the law of God, particularly on matters of sexuality:
And how many novelists there are, exhibiting their criticism of life in all languages, who seem to have it as their one motive to show that there is nothing absolute in the seventh commandment. A man is to be true to his wife, naturally; but it is a poor kind of truth to sacrifice to his legal obligations to one woman the genuine love for another in which his true being would attain its full realization. (134)
What then should we do?
What should we say when we encounter ideas of this kind, in philosophy or in literature, in cruder or in subtler forms? Let them be met on their own ground, by all means; let bad philosophy be confuted by good; let the inadequacy of such theories to explain the actual moral contents of life be made clear; but before everything, let the soul purge itself from every shadow of complicity in them in the indignant words of the Psalm, “If I spoke thus, I should be false to the generation of God’s children.” I should desert those who have done more than all others to lift the life of man from the natural to the spiritual level.
It is also reject that which God has “set His seal” upon.
Finally, this faith is in the promises of God, particularly the promise of eternal life. (136) Eternal life is at the crux of the Christian hope, “As the Scottish father whom I quoted at the beginning has said, ‘Eternity is wrapt up and implied in every truth of religion’.” (136).
How then do we respond to such necessary doubts? First, “that true as the disconcerting phenomena referred to may be, they are not the whole truth.” (138)
Second, why should I reject the the faith of the Church, why should “I separate myself from the generation of God’s children”? (139) He drives this argument further,
No one, I fancy, has ever argued more subtly against immortality than Hume: but what has Hume contributed to the spiritual life of the world that he should be counted an authority at all? Who would weigh his negative inferences, whatever the weight of logic behind them, against the insight and conviction of this Psalm, against the assurance of Jesus, against the struggling yet ever triumphant faith of the generation of God’s children? None who would be loyal to the best that man has been. (139)
Denny ends with an exhortation as to the life of the Church:
I will add one word of application to this interpretation of the text: Associate with God’s children, and let their convictions inspire yours; frequent the church, and let the immemorial faith of all saints beget itself in you anew. It is one great service of the Church that it perpetuates the tradition of faith—that sublime voices like those of this Psalm are for ever sounding in it, waking echoes and Amens in our hearts—that characters and convictions of the highest type are generated in it, not by logic but by loyalty, not by argument but by sympathy with the good—deep calling unto deep. We need the common faith to sustain our individual faith; we need the consciousness of the children of God in all ages to fortify our wavering belief in His government, His law and His promises. To be at home in the Church is to absorb this strength unconsciously. It is to be delivered from the shallows and miseries of a too narrow experience, and set afloat on the broad stream of Christian conviction which gathers impetus and volume with every generation the saints survive. (139-140).