Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Charismatic Puritans: Looking to Christ whose love they experienced

Charismatic Christianity takes many colours, and the word is used in many ways. It's used to describe styles of worship, and more so to speak of the continuation of Spiritual gifts. Charismatic also comes with a strong emphasis on experiential Christianity, those who expect direct experience of God today as was evident in the early church. Not as a pursuit of experience but looking out of ourselves to Christ having an effect upon us. Call it Mystic or Affectionate if you want...

Anyways, this is no new phenomenon. As Ron Frost observes, in these final excerpts from his Dissertation... Series link: The Divided House of Christianity.
For Sibbes' the main purpose of union with Christ "is to make us one with him, and thereupon to quicken us, to guide us, and to dwell in us continually, to stir up prayers and supplications in us, to make us cry familiarly to God as Father". Thus, just as the Bible regularly presented the Spirit as directing Christ in the gospels, and the apostles in the book of Acts, so believers can also expect the same work of direct guidance in their own lives. (p146-7)
The Spirit on Jesus, the Spirit on the Apostles, the Spirit on us.... perhaps the Gospels and Acts are not just descriptive but normative for us...
"Most other ministers in puritan circles were happy enough to leave any immediate or dramatic work of the Spirit to the primitive church. Sibbes was certainly aware of the dangers in opening a door to spiritual enthusiasm, but his position was a logical concomitant to his Spirit-Christicism... He warned against placing limits on the Spirit... "we must have especial heed of slighting any motion" of the Spirit."
This puritan calls for a high expectation of the Spirit's work today, not relegating his ministry to the early church, but taking high regard for him today. Frost is analysing the Puritan era, but could be speaking of the church today just as easily.
The Breath of the Spirit in us is suitable to the Spirit's breathing in the Scriptures, the same Spirit does not breathe contrary motions. Thus the Word of God and the words of God were of the same Spirit and can never be at odds with each other.
Sibbes' confidence that the Spirit's motions, working in accord with the scriptures, is an important part of normal spirituality was characteristic of his moderate mysticism.
This stood in contrast to Perkins' belief that most Christians will have little, if any, direct experience of the Spirit's motions. Perkins prefered to see the Bible as the source of God's will, epitomised in the decalogue, which is applied by the Spirit-enabled mind and will.
The Spirit acts in accord with Scripture. This is a moderated mysticism, anchored to the Scriptures, fixed upon Christ. And it argues that we can expect 'direct experience' of the Spirit today. Can we, or Perkins right to say we can't, or at least shouldn't really expect to? The division stands. The question is asked, do we come down with Sibbes or Perkins in this?  Heart or Will? Experienced Spirit or Distant?
The flavour and feel will be very different.
Calvin:"Will not biblical warnings of God's wrath only cause the soul to shun the God whom it dreads?" From this, Calvin concluded, "merely to know something of God's will is not to be counted as faith. But what if we were to substitute his benevolence or his mercy in place of his will... for it is after we have learned that our salvation rests with God that we are attracted to seek him." (Institutes 3 2 7)
Frost notes that Sibbes was largely disinterested in Predestination, though he believed in it. Many think the choice we face is to be Calvinist or Arminian. I think Frost's work suggests that there is at least one other position to take in light of the Reformation... or perhaps more that you can be Sibbesian or Perkinsian (with the Arminian/Calvinist debate being held within the House of Perkins).

Frost argues "Calvin's affirmation of sin as self-love set up his belief that a solution is provided by a new and greater affection." And, "the focus of all promises, the whole gospel, is on Christ". Sibbes believed with Luther and Calvin that God fulfills his promises of salvation through Christ alone. And that "faith is nothing but the act whereby we apprehend this effectual love of God to us in Christ" (Sibbes, Matchless Love). Frost:
"But while Sibbes held, with Calvin, that the salvation comes through the Spirit's work of drawing the elect through the mind, will and affections to encounter the melting quality of Christ's love, Sibbes realised that many of his listeners lacked this experience. Thus he affirmed Perkins' position, in part, by setting our a twofold ground for assurance." First the Spirit's illumination, and then in our progress in sanctification.... "However, unlike Perkins, Sibbes made the discernment of the Spirit's active presence the primary ground for assurance rather than a secondary and largely unexpected experience." Frost argues then that Sibbes' teaching on assurance is a little inconsistent. Yet: "In a final sermon before he died Sibbes continued to cling to his Christological emphasis for assurance, "look to him for all perfections and for your title to heaven, and not to faith"
Frost concludes:
"Sibbes and Perkins offered profoundly different portrayals of God. Both men believed in God's trinitarian nature, in his absolute authority, his wisdom, and his predestinarian work by which he shows mercy to some, and judges other in their sin.
Perkins' God... is primarily transcendent, characterised as pure will and motivated by the goal of self-glorification.
Sibbes' God, by contrast, is characterised by the inherent self-love of the Godhead, who as a community of Father, Son and Spirit, offers a spreading goodness to the creation.
In other words, God's eternal love overflows to his creation, a belief Sibbes drew from Jesus' prayer of John 17. Thus paradoxically, God's essential motivation is a selfless self-love which extends outward. These different views of God led to fundamentally different definitions of grace..."