The Death of Beauty (9)

quote-gentle-jesus-meek-and-mild-look-upon-a-little-child-pity-my-simplicity-suffer-me-to-charles-wesley-110-22-04

Yes, indeed…and so much more.

Celebrating Past Beauty (7)

Arthur John Gossip’s Interpreter’s Bible Exposition on John 2:13-17 (2)

If you seek to draw your readers into a new discovery about the nature of Jesus Christ, one that many of them would prefer to avoid, how to begin?

But there are other aspects of him no less deniable; and it is fatal to ignore them, or to pretend that they are not there.

The chosen path is to directly identify the issue, face it and then state its moral import.

“And he looked around at them with anger.” (Mark 3:5), so we read. Those who knew him best remembered that his eyes could be as a flame of fire, and spoke with bated breath of something awesome in him which they tried to describe in the strange phrase “the wrath of the Lamb.” There was nothing gentle in that fierce message that he sent to Herod, “Go and tell that fox.” (Luke 13:32). Nor was there any trace of mildness in him at that tremendous moment when he turned upon his best friend, who had meant only kindness, with the terrific rebuke, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matt. 16:23).

This accounting of the instances where our Lord and Savior demonstrated anger and condemnation is meant to startle the comfortable Christian into a state of recognition that things may not be as simple as they had previously seemed.

If it is true, as it is true, that nothing does he underline more heavily than the duty of forgiveness–and this not once but over and over, declaring bluntly that salvation offered in the gospel is not unconditional, but that, as he says, if you forgive men not their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you (Matt. 16:15)–nonetheless, he himself did not always forgive. The Pharisees did not find him gentle or meek or mild when he pursued them, ruthlessly and remorselessly, with those blistering denunciations as scorching as anything in literature. “You whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27); “you serpents” (Matt. 23:33); “You make him [your proselyte] twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15). Rather than make peace with such men acting so, he chose to go to his death. And when the traders would not cease from polluting the temple of God with their unseemliness and noise and chaffering, there came a time when he said that if they would not go then he would drive them out. And he rose up and did it.

Here the Rev. Gossip addresses the core of the Christian pacifist creed.  For though forgiveness is an unalterable foundation of Christianity, it is demonstrated by Christ’s own words and deeds that forgiveness is not an excuse to accommodate evil.

Desperate attempts have been made by some who feel uncomfortable over it to tone down and edge out this incident. … And this was a wild scene, with cowering figures clutching desperately at their tables, as these were flung here and there; or running after their spilled coins, as these rolled hither and thither; or shrinking at the lash that had no mercy till the holy place was cleansed. For though it is possible to read this account as if only the cattle were actually struck, that seems very unlikely; and in the reports as given in the other Gospels, quite impossible. If this incident had been recorded of anyone else in history, it would universally have been accepted as the scene of violence it was. And those who try to explain it away do so because they feel unhappily that it will not fit into their preconceived idea of what Christ should do or be; that here somehow he acted for once out of character, and fell inexplicably below himself, forgot his own law of life, lost his head and his temper. All of which is painful and regrettable. And the best thing to do is to say as little about it as one can, and look the other way, and rub this unfortunate episode out of our minds, and think of him only at the great moments when he was his real self.

This is the crux of the issue.  Too many of we Christians want to “control the narrative” on the character and purpose of Jesus Christ.  We want all the benefits of comfort and forgiveness without any of the responsibilities or complexities.  Jesus Christ must be who we wish Him to be rather than who the Bible actually says that He is.   The good Reverend places his arm around our trembling shoulders and gently walks with us towards the precipice of our failure.

But that is foolishness. Surely our understanding of what Christlikeness is must be gathered, not from such incidents that we choose to select and to regard as typically Christlike, but from the whole of his life and character and conduct. For not only now and then, but always and in every situation, Christ did the perfect thing to do. He was as Christlike here in the temple as when dying for us on the Cross. Here to he was revealing God as truly as on Calvary. For, declares Paul with assurance, in God there is kindness–and severity (Rom. 11:22). And the one is as divine and glorious as the other.

Now that we have been shown the error of our ways, the process of recovery can begin.  And that recovery can only be effective if we begin to understand that God’s Word is not something from which we can pick and choose.  Rather, it is something before which we must bow and offer up our preconceptions and corrupted desires.

For what if he were not: were only flabbily good-natured, ready to make no fuss about our sins and to pretend that they do not matter greatly, and so push us through! “Ah, God,” cried Luther, “punish us we pray Thee … but be not silent … toward us.” A fearsome prayer! For what if he hears and answers it? But what if he does not, and lets us sin on undisturbed! For nothing do we owe Christ more than for the magnificence of his hopes for us, and his refusal to compromise with us, and the severity that pulls us up with sharpness.

The presented alternative is a world in which Christ has become a false idol to whom we sacrifice our children, fellows and selves to obtain license to sin.

And as for ourselves, if Christ is always to be followed, it is clear that while our usual rule of conduct is a frank, free, patient forgiveness, there are times when we must not forgive; when, as Hugh Mackintosh says bluntly, “Lack of indignation at wickedness is a sign, not of a poor nature only, but of positive unlikeness to Jesus Christ.” We must not so misread Christ that he becomes an ugly idol, blinding our understanding, and hiding the true God from us. The wrath of God is never thought of in scripture as opposed to his holiness. It is a necessary part of it. Christ would have lost my soul if he had not refused to compromise with me.

When Christ in His fullness is apprehended the soil is made ready to nurture a mature Christian conscience.

I look at this beautiful passage as a bookend to that of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon on Christ’s gentleness of heart towards us poor lost sinners.  Edwards stresses Christ’s gentleness while acknowledging His wrath.  Gossip stresses Christ’s wrath while acknowledging His gentleness.  Between these two beautiful meditations on our Lord and Savior we begin to discern His full glory!

The Death of Beauty (8)

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Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple Valentin de Boulogne

Celebrating Past Beauty (6)

Arthur John Gossip’s Interpreter’s Bible Exposition on John 2:13-17 (1)

The beauty found in this extensive passage  has to do with the courage to stand against a powerful prevailing falsehood with compassion, conviction and power.  The Reverend Gossip is likely unknown to the vast majority of  my readers, so here is a short biography.

Arthur John Gossip

Arthur John Gossip

Arthur John Gossip (1873-1954) was Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University from 1939 until 1945.

Born in Glasgow, Gossip graduated MA from the University of Edinburgh and was licensed as a Free Church of Scotland minister in 1898. He was minister of a number of churches before coming to St Matthew’s United Free Church in Glasgow in 1910; he served as a chaplain in Belgium and France during the First World War, and he returned to Scotland as minister of Beechgrove Church in Aberdeen.

In 1928, Gossip was appointed Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Training in the United Free Church’s Divinity school in Glasgow (known as Trinity College after the reunion of the United Free and Church of Scotland in 1929, and the amalgamation of the Divinity schools at the College and the University). The University’s Chair of Ethics and Practical Theology was suppressed after Gossip’s retirement in 1945.

The expository passage is long, but must be discussed in its entirety for the full impact to be felt.  Therefore, this is part one of a two part discussion.

The First Epistle of John ends thus: “We know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true; and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:20-21). As if to say: Here has been revealed to you God as he really is. Hold it firmly in your mind and do not let yourself be wiled away from it. Keep your eyes on Jesus Christ, and you will think rightly about God.

The Rev. Gossip opens with a Scripture passage that sets the context for and the parameters of what follows.  The theme is that Christians must hold firm to seeking in Scripture “God as he really is” by keeping their “eyes on Jesus Christ.”

But the mind of men is ingenious in fashioning difficulties for himself and finding ways of thwarting God’s gracious purposes towards him. And what if we so misread Christ that the portrait of him in our minds is not authentic, but a caricature? What if our misconception of him makes Christ himself an idol that hides the true God from us; because we accept only such facts about him that happen to appeal to us, and blandly overlook, or stubbornly refuse to see, others no less evidently there, but which we choose to think less worthy of him, and which will not fit into the conception to which we have come, less by diligent and humble study of the Scriptures than by excogitating for ourselves an idea and an ideal of what the Christ should be?

We are now drawn into the core of the dispute.  The reader is not browbeat as dull or dishonest.  Rather, by a series of pointed questions we are led to the idea that well meaning, good faith Christians can yet fail to perceive Jesus Christ in His fullness.  This failure is tied directly to our fallen state, thus asking us to look more deeply into our own motivations and preconceptions.  In effect the Rev. Gossip is gently asking us to consider a possibility that we would rather avoid, but that is of the greatest importance to our Christian lives.  Surely some will turn away at this point.  But, due to the gentleness of the approach and the demonstrated weightiness of the issue, many will travel further down this path.

That is precisely what too many have done, with disastrous consequences, not for themselves alone, but for the world. The “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” idea has been so overworked that many preach and follow a Christ who has small resemblance to the Christ of the N.T.; a Christ who is not loving, but unkindly indulgent; weakly good-natured, immorally so; whose great aim seems to be to get us off. Undoubtedly he himself claimed to be “meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). And that he was and is so, incredibly so, stares at us from a dozen passages in the Gospels; and is proved daily in our experiences of his unbelievable patience and lack of exasperation with impossible people, imprudent and inexcusable.

Note that the Rev. Gossip doesn’t deny the gentle, forgiving aspects of our Savior’s character.  No, he affirms them as first things to both accept and be eternally thankful for.  So the purpose is not to deny that which the reader may already believe true (because it is gladly embraced as true).  The issue is that it is at this truth that so many Christians have stopped.  This truth is so appealing, so comforting that we are tempted to wish that it encompasses the whole truth about Jesus Christ.  But this is simply not the case, which necessitates what follows.

Remembering My Father

fathers-love

Our father taught us many wonderful things. He did so by what he said, but even more by how he lived. Some of the lessons for which we give thanks are:

  • Love is an inexhaustible resource that is equal in magnitude for each child, but that is given in unique ways to each child.

  • Commitments are real and permanent, not transient feelings or good intentions.

  • The Christian faith is not just a set of theological doctrines, but also a practical and blessed way of life.

  • We are not limited by our beginnings or our faults, but can pursue our hopes and dreams, trusting in God’s providential purposes.

  • We should appreciate and cultivate beauty.

  • Hard work is both an expectation and a joy.

  • Never stop asking questions and seeking new knowledge.

  • Test your ideas through substantive, respectful discussion, always remaining open to the possibility that new information can change past opinions.

  • Do what is right simply because it is right.

  • Take constructive action to make the world a better place.

These and many more lessons live within us, and will keep our beloved father close to us always.

To My Mother

mothers-love2

A mother’s gift is sweet and strong,
it guides and comforts all life long.

There’s wisdom molded to each child’s life,
that guides each through both joy and strife.

A mother’s love a true foundation lays,
upon which life’s edifice is raised.

She loves us from before we’re born,
and holds us precious on each new morn.

Our mothers hold us close and safe,
then release us to find our place.

God’s Grace is taught by a mother’s love,
pointing towards our Savior who reigns above.

The Death of Beauty (7)

Celebrating Past Beauty (5)

ww2-146-lPaul Ramsey Article (2)

Make no mistake, Mr. Ramsey had a partisan position with regard to participation in World War II — he was for it.  However, the means by which he pressed his point of view could hardly be more different than those used by today’s Progressive Christians.  For, nowhere in Mr. Ramsey’s article will you find accusations of mental illness in his opponents manifested as a “phobia.”  Nor will you find dark intimations of evil motives due to some sort of “ism.”  Finally, you will not find all of the talking points for his secular political position cobbled together with a throwaway reference to Jesus in order to claim that the piece is Christian.

What you will find is a profound meditation on the nature of the human condition in general and sin in particular.  Along the way he will acknowledge truth and error on both sides of the debate.  But the essential fact here is that Mr. Ramsey seeks to convince those in disagreement or on the fence by the quality of his arguments.  That is, he treats those not or not yet on his side as moral and intellectual equals.

By his own words Mr. Ramsey is in disagreement with “Liberal Protestantism”  on the issue at hand.  His opponents apparently were scandalized by the fact that prosecution of the war required people to engage in unrighteous acts.  Of this there can be no dispute, and Mr. Ramsey does not attempt to do so.  Rather, he points out that by so completely focusing on sin as “unrepentant unrighteousness” they fall prey to the less obvious but far more dangerous and destructive sin of “unrepentant righteousness.”

34+Then+Jesus+said,+Father,+forgive+them,+for+they+do+not+know+what+they+do.+Luke+23-34+(NKJV)The departure point for this argument is Christ’s words from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23: 34).  For, this greatest sin (perhaps excepting the “unforgivable sin”) was done entirely by people who believed that their motives were righteous.  For the Jewish leaders they were stopping a false Messiah.  For the Romans they were maintaining peace.  Mr. Ramsey’s point is that Christ’s words were not only applicable to that specific case, but are true in general.  Here is the key excerpt.

Do we not here recog­nize that sin and responsibility may vary inversely, rather than directly, with consciousness, so that greater sincerity actually means greater sin? Our own responsible and sinful implication in social institu­tions must already extend far out beyond the range of our conscious participation, else on what grounds do we make ourselves more consciously sinful by making ourselves more sensitive to the grinding, impersonal results of our common life? And when we are stabbed sharply awake to evil results that have followed from one of our actions, which we certainly did not “intend that way,” should this not give us pause, and bring the reflection that it is not just in this case that we sin not knowing what we do.

Mr. Ramsey’s point is not that, because sin consists of “unrepentant righteousness” then there is no need to be concerned about “unrepentant unrighteousness.”  Rather, it is to argue that by making an idol of our righteousness we can end up participating in greater sinfulness.

Before God, unrepentant unrighteousness and unrepentant righteousness come to the same thing; and an indication that they are judged alike by God is the fact that in history they come in time to the same thing, namely, cruelty. This is the Cross in History from which also, in the light of the Cross of Christ, we learn that man’s deepest sin lies in an unrepentant righteousness that knows not the sin for which it is responsible.

How then, if we must admit that we sin both in our unrighteousness and righteousness, can we avoid becoming incapable of any act or thought lest we thereby sin?  Mr. Ramsey’s answers are:

More fundamental than sorrow for our past sins is a repentant faith which in acting nevertheless waits for the Lord to complete by His Divine Provi­dence the goodness of our finite actions, and which still trusts Him when in His Divine Judgment our action is thwarted and rejected. If we are to be truly forgiven, truly the Father must forgive us.

and:

By the action of God in history, the sinfulness of human actions is judged and corrected, and the goodness of human action saved and incorporated in the Divine Will. Since our judgment about what is good is always infected by our sinful righteous­ness, the act of God in history always has, in rela­tion even to the best of us, an aspect of “otherness,” of being beyond the good and evil of our own mixed, self-defensive human judgments. When we do think we know the will of God for our time, our wills are strengthened, either to do or not to do, by a course of events utterly beyond our control. After each event we must always confess that we have been acted upon more than we have acted, that we have been changed more than we have changed anything, and that the ideals with which we began have not been realized in reality so much as they have been transformed to accord more with reality. By grace are we saved!

Nazi-Capture-Jews-WW2Although Mr. Ramsey’s prose does not achieve the heights of beauty discovered by Mr. Lincoln and Rev. Edwards, it yet is beautiful.  Its beauty lives in the lovely, humble and trusting manner in which he connects our fallen lives on this earth with the judgement and grace found only in God.  And, he meets a great human need by helping those brave but conflicted souls who found themselves called to oppose great evil to bear that terrible responsibility within the context of their Christian faith.


 

The Death of Beauty (6)

Celebrating Past Beauty (4)

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Robert Paul Ramsey (1913 – 1988) was a Methodist Christian ethicist.

Paul Ramsey Article (1)

I will spend more time on The Manger, The Cross and The Resurrection: A Christian Interpretation of Our Time by Paul Ramsey not because it is the most beautiful but because it was the means by which my vague sense of contemporary ugliness and past beauty was crystalized. To my mind the article has a somewhat rough start.  Nor does the prose itself ascend to the level of inherent beauty achieved by Lincoln’s or Edwards’.  In spite of this Ramsey’s article achieves beauty due to its blazing insight into human sin, God’s providential engagement in history and our responsibilities in this fallen world.

In the preface provided by the editors of Providence we are told that this article originally appeared in Christianity and Crisis on April 19, 1943.  Thus it would have likely been composed in early 1943, a time in which the outcome of World War II hung in the balance.  The United States, having entered the war on December 8, 1941, had by then engaged in mortal combat with Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.  There had been both crushing defeats and marvelous victories by then, with the war’s ultimate outcome still shrouded in mystery.  It was at this moment of civilizational crisis that Mr. Ramsey addressed some of the most profound issues of Christian theology as related to the human condition.

My assessment of the article’s subtext is that the scale, scope and depth of warfare to which the United States had committed caused great turmoil in many Christian souls.  How, they might have wondered, could their nation participate in the level of destruction and death that appeared to be necessary to defeat our foes?  And, given the extremities of violence necessary, how could we presume to own a moral superiority necessary to justify such cruel acts?

Yes, the Japanese attack on Perl Harbor had unified the nation and galvanized it into action.  Yet that very action led to questions of Christian ethics that simply could not be ignored by the faithful saints.  It was this boiling cauldron of fear, uncertainty and doubt that motivated Mr. Ramsey to meditate on some of the deepest issues of Christian theology as related to human action.

What emerged is a witness that transcends time and place.  It, by honestly and courageously addressing the issues of a particular situation, provides insight that is as relevant today as it was then.  In fact, given the deplorable consequences of human ideology having captivated so much of Mainline Protestantism, its message may be more needed today than it was in 1943.

The Death of Beauty (5)

Celebrating Past Beauty (3)

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Engraving of Edwards by R Babson & J Andrews

Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758) Sermon

Jonathan Edwards (a strong supporter of Calvinist theology) is best known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  But he nonetheless has written words about our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ that beautifully capture the simultaneous majesty and humility of His Person.

I have attempted to address this aspect of our Savior’s character in Chapter 4 of my recently published eBook Christ and Cornelius: The Biblical Case Against Christian Pacifism (also available in PDF on this blog’s Documents Repository page).  Compared to this sermon excerpt my work looks clumsy and unconvincing.

And here is not only infinite strength and infinite worthiness, but infinite condescension, and love and mercy, as great as power and dignity. If you are a poor, distressed sinner, whose heart is ready to sink for fear that God never will have mercy on you, you need not be afraid to go to Christ, for fear that he is either unable or unwilling to help you. Here is a strong foundation, and an inexhaustible treasure, to answer the necessities of your poor soul, and here is infinite grace and gentleness to invite and embolden a poor, unworthy, fearful soul to come to it. If Christ accepts of you, you need not fear but that you will be safe, for he is a strong Lion for your defense. And if you come, you need not fear but that you shall be accepted; for he is like a Lamb to all that come to him, and receives then with infinite grace and tenderness. It is true he has awful majesty, he is the great God, and infinitely high above you; but there is this to encourage and embolden the poor sinner, that Christ is man as well as God; he is a creature, as well as the Creator, and he is the most humble and lowly in heart of any creature in heaven or earth. This may well make the poor unworthy creature bold in coming to him. You need not hesitate one moment; but may run to him, and cast yourself upon him. You will certainly be graciously and meekly received by him. Though he is a lion, he will only be a lion to your enemies, but he will be a lamb to you. It could not have been conceived, had it not been so in the person of Christ, that there could have been so much in any Savior, that is inviting and tending to encourage sinners to trust in him. Whatever your circumstances are, you need not be afraid to come to such a Savior as this. Be you never so wicked a creature, here is worthiness enough; be you never so poor, and mean, and ignorant a creature, there is no danger of being despised, for though he be so much greater than you, he is also immensely more humble than you. Any one of you that is a father or mother, will not despise one of your own children that comes to you in distress: much less danger is there of Christ’s despising you, if you in your heart come to him.

Can anyone point to theological prose that more beautifully calls us poor sinners to repentance?  Here is the work of a soul utterly captivated by Christ’s love.  The Reverend Edwards here intermingles two apparently opposite and irreconcilable aspects of our Savior’s character in a passage that unifies them with grace and power.  What non-Biblical words could more beautifully invite repentance and convince us that Christ has the power to save and protect?


It is a shameful fact that the name of Jesus Christ, let alone truthful meditation on His Person and purposes are so rarely found in contemporary PCUSA theological prose.  I certainly don’t demand beauty (otherwise I’d need to stop writing myself).  However, just to see that, regardless of the execution, hearts burn with thankfulness for and love of Christ Himself would be a wonderful relief.

The Death of Beauty (4)

Celebrating Past Beauty (2)

lincoln-2nd-inaug

Abraham Lincoln delivering the Second Inaugural Address

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865)

It is astounding that what I consider to be the most beautiful non-Scriptural theological prose ever written was composed by a politician rather than a theologian.  This Second Inaugural Address may have been delivered on a political occasion, but it utterly transcends the dross of politics.  Rather, at its core, this is a profound theological meditation on the causes and meaning of a truly cataclysmic event in the life of our Nation — the Civil War in which well over 600,000 lives were sacrificed to settle the question of slavery once and for all.

The speech itself is exceedingly short, consisting of only 698 words.  The first 359 words serve as a preamble for the theological meditation of only 339 words.  For the sake of brevity I excerpt only the theological meditation.

… Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Thinking back to the components of beauty for theological prose, what could be a deeper point of human need than that of the millions of lives that had been (and that were still being while the speech was given) scared by this most terrible war in U.S. history?  And, from whom were words of explanation and purpose more needed than that man whose election as President had set into motion that very war?  By bowing humbly to that terrible need Abraham Lincoln was able to compose a theological meditation of terrible beauty.

Although the Civil War still raged at the time of this speech the outcome was no longer in doubt.  In fact, only 36 days later General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House.  So, Lincoln’s primary purpose was to begin the process of healing for a nation that had suffered a grievous, perhaps even mortal wound.  But how could such a goal be pursued given the disunity and hatred of total war?

While living in Washington D.C. Lincoln and his family attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.  It is certain that there he would have experienced teaching aligned with the Westminster Confessions.  Thus, as the reelected President pondered his impossible task the theological framework upon which he would draw stressed God’s sovereignty and providential purposes in history.

How though could Lincoln invoke the Christian God Whom both citizens of the Union and Confederacy worshiped?  Lincoln courageously raised this conundrum as the starting point of his meditation.  But, although he included a powerful argument in support of the Union, he yet refused to claim that God was on the Union’s side.  For here the Reformed doctrine of sin’s universality allowed him to see that the sources of this terrible conflict encompassed the entire nation.  Thus, although the specific position on slavery had been decided in the Union’s favor, citizens of both sides were reminded that they shared a common responsibility for the existence of the sinful institution of chattel slavery.  Upon this ground the rightness of the Union’s cause might be maintained but without inciting an attitude of destructive moral superiority.

But it is when Lincoln addresses God’s place in the tragedy that beauty reaches its zenith.  How could there but be the most powerful temptation to blame God for this monstrous war?  That is, how could a kind and loving God have allowed so much terror and death to occur?  Here the humility of the created creature finds voice in Lincoln’s use of Psalm 19:9, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Rather than demanding that God answer at the dock of human pride, Lincoln humbly submits to the reality that God’s purposes are just even if the consequences are dreadful.  That is, “shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”  The answer is a resounding no.  Thus, Lincoln rejects the spiritually destructive temptation to blame God for sin while calling all humanity to repentance for their sin.

It is upon these theological foundations that Lincoln calls to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and to pursue “a just and lasting peace.”  It is therefore on our universal need for a Savior that Abraham Lincoln sought to rebuild the United States.  The miraculous fact is that the nation was indeed rebuilt in spite of Lincoln’s assassination by a Confederate sympathizer on April 15, 1865.

Can there be any doubt that Lincoln’s speech, particularly after his sudden death, encouraged the “better angels” of their natures in both the North and South?  These words, so humbly, so humanely, so worshiply composed and delivered set in motion the events by which a nation riven by hatred could yet be reconciled.  Had God not taught Lincoln utter humility in the crucible of war and the school of Reformed theology this speech would have been very different, and a great nation may have been destroyed rather than reborn.


We once again find ourselves riven by seemingly irreconcilable political differences.  It is a sad commentary on the Christian Church that it no longer seems capable of providing the theological resources necessary for healing and renewal.  Were the Church just another human institution there would be no hope.  But it actually is the Body of Jesus Christ, so we wait with expectant hope for resurrection.

The Death of Beauty (3)

BeautyCelebrating Past Beauty (1)

So, what specifically constitutes beauty in theological prose?  Throughout this blog I have identified and discussed works that have profoundly affected me.  Although I didn’t then use the term “beauty,” I realize now that its presence explains much of my reaction.

Some examples in which theological prose achieved beauty include President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, John Calvin’s exposition on Christ’s suffering and death, Arthur John Gossip’s Interpreter’s Bible exposition on John 2:13-17, Jonathan Edwards’ sermon on Christ’s simultaneous power and meekness, and R.C. Sproul’s The Pelagian Captivity of the Church.  Also, to show that beauty is not entirely dead, Wilfred M. McClay’s The Strange Persistence of Guilt is a wonderful contemporary example (although it isn’t primarily theological, it delves deeply enough into this domain to allow inclusion).

However the piece that initiated these thoughts about theological beauty was recently republished at the Providence web site.  The article, The Manger, The Cross and The Resurrection: A Christian Interpretation of Our Time written by Paul Ramsey was originally published in Christianity and Crisis on April 19, 1943.

Going forward I plan to comment on some of these examples of beauty in theological prose and then discuss the Paul Ramsey article in greater detail.