Sunday, January 16, 2011

Exploring the Integrity of God & His Revelation, with Browne (and Browne)

http://www.literarynorfolk.co.uk/sir_thomas_browne.htm
As you may have gathered from my last post, I've thoroughly enjoyed my time spent with Thomas Browne's Religio Medici. I wish I could adequately express what his little book had done for me. But I'll settle today for this:  I can thank Sir Thomas Browne for reminding me of the reason I ever loved theology in the first place, and why, too, in the same space and breath I adore science and never do find that it threatens my faith. Both are studies of the revelation of the Creator, both dedicated to beauty and complexity so rich that they require an eternity to comprehend. Both hold riches grand enough to inspire everlasting awe... And yet, sadly, until recently I've felt my own sense of delight in both God and His works fading.

The loveliness of God, in every revelation of Himself, is clouded into obscurity by the slightest hint of human pride and ambition, and, I might add, cynicism. Both theology and science, in their purest forms, are a labors of love and attract like moths to flame those with the eyes and imaginations of little children. But either, when used to destroy the other loses its very heart and soul. You see, God, though Three, is One. All that God does bears the same integrity as His own person. Nothing He does contradicts Himself. Thus God's revelation is not to be used to disprove God's revelation. Just as it is inherently destructive to pit Scripture against Scripture, so it is to pit theology against science, or vice versa. Each is God's revelation. They stand together, whole, whether our reason can grasp it or not.

In Thomas Browne's Religio Medici I was lured afresh to the light of the beauty of the witness of God in both.

Each of us who believes has our own set of eyes. Each is uniquely gifted with abilities, and also limited by the wiring of our own personalities. This means each of us will be attracted more particularly this or that aspect of the beauty of God.  Browne was no different. As a Christian, a gifted intellectual, and a man of science he found himself particularly intrigued by two of God's attributes in particular: His wisdom and His eternal nature.
"With the one I recreate, with the other I confound, my understanding: for who can speak of eternity without a solecism, or think thereof without an ecstasy?....God hath not made a creature that can comprehend him; 'tis a privilege of his own nature: 'I am that I am' was his own definition unto Moses; and 'twas a short one to confound mortality, that durst question God, or ask him what he was. Indeed he only is; all others have and shall be; but, in eternity, there is no distinction of tenses....What to us is to come, to his eternity is present; his whole duration being but one permanent point, without succession, parts, flux, or division....
"There is no attribute that adds more difficulty to the mystery of the Trinity, where, though in a relative way of Father and Son, we must deny a priority." Religio Medici
On reading this last statement I was driven by curiosity to my copy of An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, by one Edward Harold Browne to find out just what Anglican doctrine is in regard to the Trinity, and in so-doing I found my own smoldering delight in theology being unexpectedly fanned once again into flame. Mr. E. H. Browne explains that the only priority existing in the Godhead is one of order, not of nature or power. As the ancient meaning of the word "head" did not include any understanding of the function of the brain, it was never then used to refer to a control center or seat of authority, but rather it referred to a "source".  This helps us more clearly understand that statement that God is the Head of Christ.
"This eternal generation they [the orthodox church fathers] held to be a proof that He was of one substance and eternity with the Father; but the relation of Father to Son they held to constitute a priority of order, though not of nature or power. They held, that is, not that the Son was, in His nature as God, in any degree different from, or inferior to the Father; but that, as the Father alone was the source and fountain of Deity, the Son having been begotten, and the Spirit proceeding, so there was a subordination, without diversity, of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. It may be difficult to conceive of priority of order, without being led to believe in superiority of nature....
"God's eternal perfections He, from all eternity, communicated to His Son. 'So also the Divine Essence, being by reason of its simplicity not subject to division, and in respect of its infinity incapable of multiplication, is so communicated as not to be multiplied, insomuch that He, which proceedeth by that communication, hath not only the same nature, but is also the same God....'" (An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles. The final quote is from Pearson's, On the Creed)

Thus Christ is wholly and ever God, equipped in His very nature with all the attributes of God including His eternity and wisdom. And so, understanding his Anglican doctrine more clearly, I drift back to the lovely devotional meditations of the first Browne on the wisdom of this God. This God does not deliberate within Himself. He is of one mind. There is no part in Him which inherently thinks one way and then convinces or commands the rest to obey. He is One though three, complete in His integrity, and so is the wisdom revealed in each revelation of Himself distinct, yet a complementary whole.
"Wisdom is his most beauteous attribute: no man can attain unto it: yet Solomon pleased God when he desired it. He is wise, because he knows all things; and he knoweth all things, because he made them all: but his greatest knowledge is in comprehending that he made not, that is, himself. And this is also the greatest knowledge in man....I know God is wise in all; wonderful in what we conceive, but far more in what we comprehend not: for we behold him but asquint, upon reflex or shadow...therefore to pry into the maze of his counsels is not only folly in man, but presumption even in angels....he holds no counsel, but that mystical one of the Trinity, wherein, though there be three persons there is but one mind that decrees without contradiction. Nor needs he any; his actions are not begot with deliberation; his wisdom naturally knows what's best: his intellect stands ready fraught with the superlative and purest ideas of goodness, consultations, and election, which are two motions in us, make but one in him: his actions springing from his power at the first touch of his will. Religio Medici
I cannot help but wonder here if one of the follies T. Browne had in mind was debate over the "Order of Decrees" even now dickered over in Calvinist circles. But, then, I'm now the one speculating. And since it is even greater hubris to speculate into the mind of God, and since we cannot know of God what He has not chosen to reveal to us, Thomas Browne prefers to commit himself wholly to all the ways in which God has revealed Himself. These include both Scripture and His work of creation, and so Browne does not take the misstep so common in our day of divorcing science from faith. He does not fear study or education. On the contrary, for him it is that joyous duty we call worship:
"...my humble speculations have another method, and are content to trace and discover those expressions he hath left in his creatures, and the obvious effects of nature. There is no danger to profound these mysteries, no sanctum sanctorum in philosophy. The world was made to be inhabited by beasts, but studied and contemplated by man: 'tis the debt of our reason we owe unto God, and the homage we pay for not being beasts. Without this, the world is still as thought it had not been, or as it was before the sixth day, when as yet there was not a creature that could conceive or say there was a world. The wisdom of God receives small honour from those vulgar heads that rudely stare about and with a gross rusticity admire his works. Those highly magnify him, whose judicious enquiry into his acts, and deliberate research into his creatures return the duty of a devout and learned admiration." Religio Medici
The desire to understand whatever God reveals of Himself burns in the bellies of we who love Him. It becomes no less than a labor of love to study and chase after Him with all our might. God revealed first to mankind His power, wisdom, eternal nature, and providential care first in Creation. Upon the fall of man into sin He revealed Himself further as a righteous yet merciful judge and lover of mankind through His prophets, and ultimately and most personally in His incarnation in Christ. In Christ He surpasses all other revelation. In Him He not only reveals Himself to man, but eternally embraces him, taking once and for all time our very created nature upon Himself:
"Again, the end and purpose of the union, whereby the Son of God took the nature of man, being that He might join together God and men, Himself both God and man, and the necessity of such conjunction never ceasing, it follows that the union of the natures shall never cease. It is through the instrumentality of Christ's humanity that man is united to God. When the union has been effected, we cannot suppose that the bond will be destroyed, the link annihilated. It is by virtue of incorporation into Christ's Body, that the saints shall rise and reign because of It."  Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles

And so, as God is one in His person, and is glorified in every revelation of Himself, so we glorify Him as we seek to know the whole of who He is, through all of His works, using the whole of who we are - with all our feelings, our intellect, and every ounce of our energy.

3 comments:

WhiteStone said...

Thank you, Laurie. I am enjoying your comments on Browne's Religio Medici (and may have to download it to peruse myself).

Hydriotaphia said...

Laurie, I'm just so in awe of your understanding and appreciation of the finer points of Browne's theological stance. That it can be used as a counterpoint to define one's own is even better.

Perhaps it his balance between the claims of science and religion, his usage of scientific imagery to illustrate religious truth and his frank admission of the mystery of all yet justifying enquiry (See his next work, the enclopaedia), including that new psychological phenomena in the Renaissance, namely the individual which continues to appeal to readers. Certainly R.M. of far greater resonance among enquirers of religious truth in America than in England i fear.

Laurie M. said...

Kevin,

This early acceptance of scientific inquiry as complement to faith is one of the things that also appeals to me about many other wonderful thinkers from those days before the great divorce (between science and faith) eventually hardened the hearts of those on either side of the divide against one another: Jonathan Edwards, Pascal, Descartes, among others.

Unfortunately I can't speak to any difference from here to there as I know so few in the UK. I know your society is much more secular, but I would point out that our Christianity tends toward nominalism, moralism, and dominionism. And, to be fair, I'd never heard of Browne until Paul embarked on His Harvard Classics reading. Maybe, just maybe, we can drum up an interest in his way of thinking here, where moderation and clear thinking are in such short supply.