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THREADBARE THEOLOGICAL THOUGHT

THREADBARE THEOLOGICAL THOUGHT

By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
www.virtueonline.org
March 7, 2019

The huge danger in Christian experience and discourse is over-familiarity with the sublime truths of our revealed faith. Beautiful concepts are reduced to banality, towering truth tumbles down to triviality, statements become stereotypical, and prayer becomes platitudinous. Our language becomes hasty, hackneyed and tedious. We communicate in almost casual commonplace style, not bothering to wield words of weight and genuine worth in our speech of God, our commendation of Christ, and what we say about him to the desperate souls of men.

We have a store of stock phrases evincing the fact that much of our thinking and speaking is instinctive, unexamined and superficial, amounting to automatic and programmed response (especially in personal encounters where we are so often reluctant to listen, launching instead a volley of texts that we have probably not fully digested ourselves, and which we expect to work by virtue of mere repetition - the Evangelical equivalent of "ex opere operato). Glorious Scriptural truth is conveyed cheaply, bandied about in thoughtless blather betraying shallow comprehension and the absence of sound apprehension incapable of any original grasp or possession of authentic conviction. The profundity of our faith is denied by slipshod grammar.

The gospel becomes a series of slogans that slip off the tongue so glibly and easily, and so-called extempore prayer is set in a dull, inferior and habitual "personally contrived liturgy", in the sense of an unvarying form that has none of the quality of a well-composed collect or written petition for our corporate and individual approach to God. Sound liturgy, by the way, lends itself to well-constructed personal prayer, otherwise God gets the scraps of our cerebral offering and cold-hearted attention that is not animated by fresh desire, warm devotion and consciousness of who he is. Much prayer life is meagre in its expression of awed reverence before the Lord and simplistic in its appeals to heaven: "O Lord, we just . . . and for your glory. Amen". Do we truly ponder that for which we ask in the interest of the kingdom? Are our prayers cursorily composed wish lists? Do we have a genuine glimmer of the divine glory and understand its implications in terms of the divine sovereignty and the appropriate response to be rendered to our requests?

We do not work at our witness, nor try to be appealing in our testimony (especially in humble demeanor) - both to head and to heart. It is enough, seemingly, to be tiresomely formulaic and not to strive for fresh perspectives that address different persons and diverse situations in a way that is winsome and respectful, and aptly specific to the recipient we are befriending at that moment. Our medium of contact, so often, both to God and man, is monotone, predictable, inflexible, devoid of imagination that should be stimulated by all of the God-given phenomena that we encounter in creation, providence, and revelation. Deep meditation and evaluation is the missing ingredient. We are too dependent on prescribed methods and "how to" texts by famous soul-winners (buzz words from the Bible), eager for success as witnesses and debaters, rather than invested in the worth and actual wellbeing of the victim of our evangelistic technique. May the Spirit of God adapt us to any moment of personal contact.

The poetry in each human soul should come to the fore when we address the living God, and the art of depicting him to others can be enriched by the picture language and dramatic vitality of the descriptive Word. Instead of warbling along in the same old way we ought to wrestle with God for access to his vivid presence and convey the liveliness in knowing him in our daily gait.

It is not easy always to avoid the "cult of vain repetition" in our religious expression, or the tendency to cloak Jesus Christ in cliche-ridden terms. We need to request grace from God to relate the thoughts of the Dear One of our souls from the depth of our holy evaluation of him, and in order to fulfill the solemn but joyful onus of the vocation to which he has appointed us.

Witness, worship, and "wording" to God, are costly. Some fund of deliberation stored in the mind should furnish all these holy activities even when we are called upon in an instant. Arrow prayers are always possible. But only the action of the sovereign Spirit of God is effectual. Without him all human effort is useless. The confession has to be made that he is rarely in our thoughts to the degree that he ought to be. We can be tense and off-putting in our self-reliance or dread-filled sense of duty to placate those who have, and perhaps enforce, a certain type of evangelism as necessary to divine approval.

Richard S. Storr in his mammoth study of Bernard of Clairvaux opines severally:

His whole theological system, as I have said, implied preaching as the great instrument of grace, the means, under God, of quickening and nurturing in human hearts the desires, affections, high contemplations, the knowledge of the Word, and the intimate powerful bent of the soul toward God, the result of which should be in holy fellowship with Divine Persons and heavenly things, and at last in the Beatific Vision [page 379]. We are all preachers in some fashion called to fashion worthy representation of our Lord.

Intensity of conviction was the force which molded and pushed into utterance every sermon; and if ten thousand should be against him their numbers would only make it more needful that they be answered and overborne. According to his assured conviction, he stood on rock in his belief, and not on any precarious scaffold which man had builded; and the preachers of a later time, perhaps of our own time, whose principal creed has sometimes seemed to be the uncertainty of all things, - whose controlling conviction the impropriety of conviction, - might learn true wisdom from his example [page 381]. Many statements from Christian voices may have a veneer of orthodoxy but lack the essence of strong conviction. Uncertainty is now touted as the ultimate Christian attitude toward the dying verities of the faith (Bishop Butler, formerly of the Diocese of Southwark and BBCs Thought For The Day). Conviction is cultivated in the pastures of the Word and in receiving the choicest feed from the hand of the Shepherd.

Bernard's aim was "to make Divine thoughts clearer to men, and more profoundly impressive upon them, that they may be readier for the coming Tribunal, and for the supreme and ineffable Presence" [page 389].

By reason of (this) intimate and incessant conviction on the part of Bernard, his sermons, however deliberate or discursive in their general movement, are always instinct with moral earnestness. We may not perhaps be impressed by this at first, reading them in the atmosphere of a different century, and in a tongue not wholly familiar. But more and more we come to perceive it; while to those to whom, as to himself, the mystical theology was the supreme truth, who shared his spirit, and over whom brooded, as over himself, the nearing shadows of the tremendous Hereafter, each sentence was freighted with spiritual meaning and was alive with emotional force [page392].

It is important to observe also the tender and loyal affectionateness of spirit by which his discourses are distinguished, and the free exhibition of personal experience which adds to their charm, and which gives them a strange modernist of tone. . . One always feels him to be a sympathetic brother-man, who has gone through the deeps in which others are struggling, and has climbed the hills on whose difficult steeps they are still stumbling, till he now has sight, from the delectable mountains, of the City of God; and who is ready to put all that he has gained at the service of his hearers. . . . But all is governed by a paramount purpose to reach and help others, setting them forward on their way, or guarding them against apprehended dangers; and to do this, if need be, by revealing his own spiritual feeling, the secrets and joys of his Christian life [page 408].

His early and brief studies in the schools, which had failed to deeply engage his heart and had soon been interrupted, could not in the nature of the case have contributed largely to the fascinating eloquence afterward shown in him. It was by incessant exercise and self-discipline, in the actual performance of public service, that he came to be what he finally was; and the comparison of his earlier sermons with his later makes this apparent. His instructor in preaching, as in the entire conduct of his life, was simply the Love, toward God and man, which urged him to speak of the Lord's redemption, in the way most moving and most impressive. Enthusiasm gave him both the impulse and training . . . . The concentrated purpose detected and defined the appropriate methods [pages 382-3].

(Bernard of Clairvaux: The Times, the Man and His Work, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1892).

The example of St. Bernard, and so many others, means that the Academy can provide valuable resources, but it cannot make the heart of a true theologian: 'It is living, dying, and even being condemned which makes a theologian - not reading, speculating and understanding, states Martin Luther.' "To be a real theologian is to wrestle with none other than the living God - not with ideas about God, but with God himself. And how can a sinner ever hope to deal adequately with this God. If you want to be a real theologian, Luther insists, you must have experienced a sense of condemnation. You must have had a moment of insight, in which your realize just how sinful you really are, and how much you merit the condemnation of God" (The Renewal of Anglicanism, Alister McGrath, SPCK, London, 1993, page 87).

The example of Bernard illustrates that sermon classes are not crucially essential to those called to preach. Their danger is artificiality, over-directive influences and formation in the image of the tutor, and, additionally, overmuch, even overweening, attention to performance and oneself. Attention to acceptable preaching and increasing pulpit experience will be the principal proof of the validity of the divine call. In so many things Christian in our era, priority is given to technique rather than the marvelous enduements of the Holy Spirit, and nauseating celebrity-ism is the dangerous fruit.

Our sole reliance as faithful believers is solely upon our gracious God who strengthens our conviction and courage through Scripture, Sacrament, and Spirit, impressing his reality and reliability upon us thereby as we consider his revelation reflectively. And so we pray,

Blessed Lord, you who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our instruction: Help us so to hear them, to read, note, learn, and inwardly digest them that, by patience and comfort of your holy Word, we may embrace and forever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent.

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church

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