Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Puritan Gnosticism 

Warning: This is a provocative post. The treatment of Westminster Shorter Catechism 4 in Thomas Watson's A Body of Divinity is well worth reading. James Jordan has subjected WSC4 (Q: What is God? A: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth) to a good critique. WSC4 has not given us the centre of gravity of the Christian doctrine of God (although its statements are true enough). What it has given us is the centre of gravity of the doctrine of natural theology. In Thomas Watson's book we witness some of the deeply erroneous thinking that was associated with statements like that of WSC4 in the Puritan era. Despite the statement of WSC3, WSC4 is more about supporting the observations of natural theology with proof-texts than with taking a scriptural doctrine of God seriously. Watson's introductory passage on WSC4 is, not surprisingly, on natural theology. He then goes on to pay more attention to Scripture. However, as the following quotes make plain, his doctrine is more akin to Gnosticism than Christianity at many key points. He writes:—
What do you mean when you say, God is a Spirit? By a spirit I mean, God is an immaterial substance, of a pure, subtile, unmixed essence, not compounded of body and soul, without all extension of parts. The body is a dreggish thing. The more spiritual God's essence, the more noble and excellent it is. The spirits are the more refined part of the wine.
The following section comes a little later on:—
Use three: If God be a Spirit, it shows us, that the more spiritual we grow, the more we grow like to God. How do earth and spirit agree? Phil 3:19. Earthly ones may give for their crest, the mole or tortoise that live in the earth. What resemblance is there between an earthly heart, and him who is a Spirit? The more spiritual any one is, the more like God. What is it to be spiritual? To be refined and sublimated, to have the heart still in heaven, to be thinking of God and glory, and to be carried up in a fiery chariot of love to God. Psa 73:25. 'Whom have I in heaven but thee?’ which Beza paraphrases thus, Apage terra, utinam tecum in coelo essem! 'Begone earth! Oh that I were in heaven with thee!’ A Christian, who is taken off from these earthly things, as the spirits are taken off from the lees, has a noble spiritual soul, and most resembles him who is a Spirit. Use four: It shows that the worship which God requires of us, and is most acceptable to him, is spiritual worship. John 4: 24. 'They which worship him, must worship him in spirit and in truth.' Spiritual worship is virgin worship. Though God will have the service of our bodies, our eyes and hands lifted up, to testify to others that reverence we have of his glory and majesty, yet he will have the worship of the soul chiefly. I Cor 6: 20. 'Glorify God in your body, and in your spirit.' Spirit-worship God prizes, because it comes near to his own nature, which is a Spirit. What is it to worship God in spirit? (I.) To worship him without ceremonies. The ceremonies of the law, which God himself ordained, are now abrogated, and out of date. Christ the substance being come, the shadows fly away; and therefore the apostle calls the legal ceremonies carnal rites. Heb 9: 10. If we may not use those Jewish ceremonies which God once appointed, then not those which he never appointed.
Such quotes should give Reformed people cause to begin questioning certain parts of the received tradition more. It is a very mixed bag in some places. Watson's work was widely used and highly recommended by many Reformed theologians. This sort of error (I am tempted to say 'gnostic heresy') is not some weird aberration on the edges of the Reformed churches; Watson's book is lauded by leading Reformed people to this day. The treatment of the catechism given by authors such as Watson reflects badly on the catechism itself. It seems that readings of WSC4 in the seventeenth century were deeply affected in many quarters by unbiblical philosophical assumptions. It is hard to deny that the original framers of the catechisms and Westminster confession shared in many of these errors. Even where the statements of the confession and catechisms are biblically accurate (as they generally are), they seem to consistently misplace the centre of gravity of the Christian religion. The focus is drawn to the individual and his salvation, rather than to God's creation of a people. The focus is on ordo salutis over historia salutis. There are errors of emphasis and balance that can be just as serious as errors in substance and content. Whilst thinkers who are associated with the strains of thought that have been termed Federal Visionism may say that they agree with the confession and catechisms I think that they should be far more prepared to criticize them. They are operating on a very different wavelength to that of the confession and catechisms in many respects. It is clear that, if they were to write such documents, they would look radically different. For all of their adherence to the content of the documents, the emphasis and balance of their faith works very differently to that of the Westminster documents. The centre of gravity of their Christian faith is found somewhere very different to the centre of gravity of the faith of Westminster. I would argue that the centre of gravity of the faith of most of the proponents of the FV lies far closer to the centre of gravity of the faith of such documents as the Nicene Creed. No bad thing. This means that the Westminster documents are adhered to in a very catholic way. However, the documents themselves tend to be sectarian.

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