Tuesday, May 31, 2011

They Did Not See The Same God?


One of the things that is said to put people off Christianity is the way we disagree with one another. It's part of having the freedom to engage our texts,  partly because Christianity is so different and good that men and women struggle to accept it as it is and so easily let a little yeast corrupt the batch, whether from Greek Philosophy, Consumerism, or whatever. There are challenges but finding Christ is by no means impossible, since he comes to us.

Some disputes are famous - such as that at Nicea and subsequently over Arianism (an early version of Jehovah's Witness theology that prefers god to be lonely rather than a community). Or, the East-West divide over aspects of the Trinity. Or that of Luther vs. The Scholastics (aka The Reformation) and so on.

Another is,  The Antinomian Controversy in New England. Don't switch off. Janice Knight's book Orthodoxies in Massachussets is a study into this falling out among New England puritans in the 17th Century. The debate isn't new and in many ways is a rerun of the Reformation... it is also not an obsolete debate. Knight's study is a comparison between two camps which (she openly acknowledges) inevitably highlights differences and polarises categories rather than stressing similarities. There was much common ground, and yet real difference.

What's at stake: God and the gospel.

The first party were The Preparationists or The Intellectual Fathers, Hooker and Shepherd, leaning on the English ministry of William Ames and William Perkins. The other, The Spiritual Brethren, led by John Cotton and others, following the lead of Richard Sibbes and others back in England. In England the Spiritual Brethen 'triumphed' but in New England it was the reverse...

In the opening chapter Knight lays out the ground.
[Intellectual Father] Thomas Shepherd would say to his listeners "wonder then at God's patience that thou livest one day longer, who hast all thy lifetime, like a filthy toad spit thy venom in the face of God"... Knight comments: "for the preparationists sin was an active presence, a blot on the human heart that had to be removed before Christ could consent to enter. Conviction of sin under Law was an essential prerequisite to reception of the 'good news' of grace under the Gospel." (Knight, p20)

By contrast, [Spiritual Brother] John Cotton said to his listeners to "wait like an eager bride for the moment when Christ would 'be-sprinkle you with the blessing of his grace' to attend to the moment when this gentle Bridegroom would come to 'the bed of loves' and shed ' the seeds of his grace.. abroad in your hearts'. Cotton's listener 'resembled no lowly washerwoman scrubbing a filthy rag of a heart. Instead, like the Shulamite, Cotton's saint was the comely bride waiting for the pleasures of union.' More mundanely stated, Cotton believed there are no 'steps to the altar', that the soul was passive until the moment that grace was infused... insisting that the ignorance and scornfulness of carnal hearts does not and cannot hinder the Lord, from piercing or pricking them." (Knight, p21)
It's a dispute about how people become Christians, and then what that Christianity is like... a dispute in the church that inevitably effected society and polictics. Knight highlights (p33) the consequences:
"Though men like Cotton and Hooker read the same Bible, they did not see the same God; when they looked inward they did not see the same creature. Covenant, grace, telos, communitas, had a different taste on the tongue, a different claim on the heart of these first preparationists and pietists."
What's that going to feel like? Two churches in the same area, both 'Christian', both 'Bible-based' and yet something feels very different.
If Shepherd is your pastor what will the preaching feel like? What songs will you sing? What will be the atmosphere in the room?
How about if Cotton is your pastor - what will his preaching be like? What songs would he inspire you to sing? What will it feel like to be a part of Cotton's church? How do we get there? Could my home group have that feel? My team? My church?