Category Archives: A Personal Catechism

Incapable of love and prone to hate? (A Personal Catechism #5)

Link to previous part

Q: Canst thou keep all these things perfectly?

A: In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour.

Response

This is stated with specific reference to the previous question in the catechism, so if you’re joining this series just here, then please do take a moment to step back and look at the context.

The point being made in this question lies at the heart of the one of the 5 points of Calvinism, that of “total depravity”. Although it’s very simply stated and here, the answer is also quite short, there is much behind it to consider from a number of viewpoints, though I only have space here to consider the direct biblical basis.

The catechism does provide references to back up the claim. To determine if it’s accurate we must ask whether it is a true and fair understanding of the passages cited. i.e. is this a case of texts being taken out of context or is it a fair exegesis? Then we ask whether it’s a complete picture. i.e. are these the only texts which speak on the subject or are there others which throw a different light on the matter?

The phrase “in no wise” the verses given as backup are Romans 3:10,20,23 and 1 John 1:8,10. If we look at these passages, one fails to see a straight line between what Paul wrote and the catechism’s conclusion. What these verses seem to point at is the fact that humans a) are not righteous (Romans) and b) are in a state of sin and that all sinned (1 John). Here, the link is easier to see between these two, though care must be taken not to equate a) and b). To my understanding, b) comes before a). In other words, we are first of all in a state of sin (how? That may be dealt with later) and as a result of that nature we are those who sin. That was the point I tried to make in the previous part. Because of this we are considered, in the judicial sense, unrighteous.

But does this indicate that we are incapable of fulfilling the two great commandments? I’m not convinced. To leap ahead slightly, if this is a statement about human nature, then if humans were incapable of keeping the commandments, then to state that Jesus was fully human would logically lead to the idea that Jesus could not have kept them. So one would be forced to conclude either than Jesus wasn’t fully human or that he failed to love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength and failed to love his neighbours as himself.

If, however, we consider that the catechism is incorrect and that these passages are not indicative of an impossibility, then we may allow ourselves more scope when look at the nature of Jesus later on. One might think that I am trying to ‘cheat’ here by anticipating a later answer and rigging this now. However, I am not trying to build this catechism in terms of axioms and intermediary theories. This is simply looking at one aspect at a time, when really the whole thing ought to be kept in mind.

Looking at the second part of the answer, we are given the following scriptures:

Romans 8:7
Ephesians 2:3
Titus 3:3
Genesis 6:5
Genesis 8:21
Jeremiah 17:9
Romans 7:23

If we read through these, is it a true and fair view to say that they can be encapsulated by the statement “I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour”?

The first Romans passage doesn’t seem to endorse this. Of course, picking verses out of their context is a risky business, as one can easily misconstrue their meaning, failing to see the overall gist and the particular part the passage in question plays in achieving the author’s goal. The phrase (in the NRSV translation) is “the mind that is set on the flesh”. This does not imply to me “all minds”. The Ephesians passage back this up, referring to a past time, “All of us once lived among…” and “…we were by nature…” These imply a past tense. Titus says, “…were once foolish…”. The Genesis 6 passage is, I believe, a bad citation and not relevant for the discussion. The Genesis 8 passage is, though, more revealing. The key phrase being, “…for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth…”

The use of the Hebrew neurim is interesting in itself, as it seems to be correct to interpret is as “from youth”. One might wonder why not “from birth.” That may be worth exploring another time. If we pick verses out of their context then one might be able to sympathise with the expression in the catechism. But if we regard, as I do, Genesis as being the background, the opening salvo in the grand narrative of creation, Israel, exile, law, etc. then we come to see that what is described here is the ‘past sense’ that Paul talks about in the passages already mentioned.

The Jeremiah verse seems to be part of a poem, so while it reflects a kind of truthful insight, one should be cautioned against reading it too literally.

Returning to Romans,  I read it as part of a very tricky passage to understand (the whole argument of Romans 7:14-25). I cannot do justice to it here, for which I must apologise, but if we look at the catechism assertion to which it is used as backup, the question that must be asked is ‘Does the passage lend weight to this interpretation?’ – to which I would cautiously say ‘no’. Rather, Romans, though highly pertinent to the idea of the sinful nature, I think that the sinful nature is housed within the human nature.

Here, then the idea of human sinfulness being equated with what it means to be human is a mistake. Rather, the question is the one of the spirit which dwells within the human being. Looked at from this perspective, then Romans 7 comes into better focus as we can see that Paul speaks of a spirit of sin “dwell[ing] in my members”. As opposed to this we have the spirit of holiness (the Holy Spirit) which may dwell within us and which acts as an alternative  motivating force.

So then, with that having taken far too long to write, we have a tentative alternative of the way of looking at what we might refer to as “human nature”, “the human condition” or such similar terms. Not least because of the later questions that come up over the nature of Jesus, one needs to think carefully about we define “human” if (and this is an if, not an assertion) Jesus is fully God and fully human.

What then, might we give by an alternative answer in distillation of the above?

Alternative Answer

The “these things” reference denotes the great two commandments to love God with everything that we have and to love one another. In any person, a person can do both, so the crux really lies in the use of the term ‘perfectly’. If this love is to be perfect then it must be born of a spirit of love. To do this, one must be emptied of the sinful nature (a matter of ontology) which is within us, and which exhibits itself in the form of sin (a matter of action), and instead be filled with the Holy Spirit completely. This is the work of sanctification (i.e. making holy) which is begun in us, but which is not yet complete. So I do not think that we can, as yet, love perfectly, but that does make us wholly devoid of love. It is a work which will be completed, but hasn’t been yet.

The requirement of the law (A Personal Catechism #4)

Link to Introduction
Link to most recent post

Q: What does the law of God require of us?

A: Christ teaches us that briefly, Matt 22:37-40, “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy mind and with all thy strength. This is the first and the great commandment; and the second is like unto it, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Response

There’s really very little that I can say about this, other than “I agree” in a variety of different ways. Having done quite a bit of reading on the ‘new perspective’, I have changed my view somewhat on the nature of the law, which I sketched in part 3. But the law as it stands is best summarised as stated above.

Love is a tricky word in the English language, as it doesn’t always convey quite the senses that can be carried by the words in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. In the quote above, the Greek word is Agapeo. The concordance I have describes it as “in the N[ew] T[estament] usually the active love of God for his Son and his people, and the active love his people are to have for God, each other and even enemies.” The idea seems to be that it is a very practical action; love is not merely some sort of fuzzy feeling. It’s not affection or fondness. Though that doesn’t mean it is devoid of emotion (see below).

What are we to love God with? The list nature as it appears strikes me as a piece of rhetoric which seems to say “everything”, only in a more poetic way. If we can provide love, hands-on, with all that we have, then we are getting somewhere close to what was intended. Yet the list of ways does prompt another thought: that people who have different personalities love in different ways.

For example, I am not a particularly emotional sort of person. Even though I tend to go to fairly charismatic churches, which are generally known for a higher than average level of emotional engagement, I remain much more of a thinker than anything else. So one might well say I love with my mind more than anything else. Tendencies to love in one way or another may attract people to certain kinds of churches. So those who have a more emotional reaction may lean towards the charismatic churches. In my experience, Anglicans tend to be better than most at loving with all their strength. i.e. very practically, as are the Salvation Army. In a similar vein, of the Quakers I have come across, they are always very thoughtful and are amongst the deepest thinkers I know; they embody very well the idea of loving God with all your mind. I try to learn from each of these not only to embody such love in myself but to encourage those in the church around me (both a local community and the digital community) to do likewise.

The other thing I might point out is the phrase “hang on”. The Greek word which appears in Matthew is kremannymi, a word which doesn’t come up very often in the new testament. When it does, it appears to have the same connotations as we have in our modern English. For example, in Acts 28:4, it describes a snake hanging off Paul’s hand after it bit him in Malta. What it does not seem to say is that “These two commandments encapsulate the law and the prophets.” So these are the foundation of a Judeo-christian ethic. How we live in this world is a complicated matter, living in different climates, cultures, political and economic systems, but if you peel back any individual or any community behaviour within that, we can ask, does it meet these two criteria?

Yet in this personal catechism, recall that I haven’t really defined God. I’m not convinced that trying to fit God into a neat little pigeonhole so it can be examined really works. So for now the commandment stands as an instruction to love something we don’t quite know or understand. Yet if we love our neighbours as ourselves, is that really so very different? If our neighbours ultimately encapsulate all those who live around us, then I have several million neighbours within a 10 mile radius. Can I possibly understand each of them individually or even as a collective? Of course, the two cases aren’t identical. I hope you get the general gist of the point.

I must admit that I am troubled at times by the phrase “as thyself”. What if someone has lost any and all self-respect, having replaced it with self-loathing? There is an implicit assumption that people will want to live to act in their own self-interests, therefore it is good and proper to act in the interests of others. If the first part is true, then there may be a case for arguing capitalism; it would certainly be indicative of an insight into an element of human nature that spans cultures and time. Or maybe it was an assumption that is commonly true but not universally. If so, what if a person hates themself tries to love others as they love themselves? Does it not then become a command to hate others? I know this is thinking at the extreme edge of some circumstances, but I think christianity should stretch far enough to be able to encapsulate such extremes. To say it another way, if we are to reflect God to the world, then if our love does not extend to its most extreme ends, does that mean that those who inhabit those spaces are beyond God’s love? To this, I would answer ‘no’, though that is a kind of love which is easier said than done. To fully grasp what this kind of love is, is to look up a great mountain. You might climb for several hours, seemingly nearing the top, only to come over a ridge and see before you an even greater peak in an even more inhospitable climate.

But who ever said love was easy?

Alternative answer

It seems hard to present, an alternative answer, especially, as the original is a quote. But if you will forgive me for paraphrasing to something that is not found in scripture:

“Love God with everything that you have and everything that you are. If you have any self-respect, then love others as you would want to be loved. To be self-emptying in love is hard, but if a community is made of those who are so loving, then you will continually fill one another up to overflowing. This is the cornerstone of our communal ethic and a significant part of our identity.”

Law as the light on sin (A Personal Catechism #3)

Link to #2

Q: Whence knowest thou thy misery?

A: Out of the law of God

Response

As this is a short question and answer, this should bring a short response. As stated in the previous part, I was not especially happy with the term ‘misery’ appearing in the catechism. It is such a common word with a very specific meaning (as pointed out in the comments to part 2) that the risk of it being misunderstood in a modern context is too great to warrant its continued usage. See, for example, my recent take on semantics and the changing nature of words.

As such, and particularly given the answer in the catechism, I would rather answer a slightly different question, which makes the answer more coherent. This may be a methodological flaw, but so be it. I do not pretend to be perfect and I’m not presenting a systematic theology in this project. Here, the pragmatist supersedes the purist. So I would rephrase the question as “How are you aware of sin?”

Most of the answers have footnotes on them with references to passages in scripture to back them up. Some have multiple attestation, though how closely the answers fit the scriptures is quite variable. In this instance, the whole answer is built on a single scripture, Romans 3:20. I would possibly cite quite a bit of the early chapters of Romans in support of this idea, though some of this will be expanded upon in the follow up questions in the coming weeks.

The thrust of questions 3-9 in the Heidelberg Catechism are really looking at the idea of “total depravity” as famously espoused by John Calvin. In this particular question, I don’t disagree with the answer.

However, I might change the emphasis so as to focus on what functions the law fulfilled. The traditional reformed view has, to be very brief (and admittedly, crude), been one of a dichotomy between law and grace. One of the insights that I learned from looking at the new perspective on Paul was the notion that the law was one of the ways in which the Jews identified themselves. They were the ones who were partakers of the Abrahamic covenant but also those who adhered to the Torah. With the advent of christianity, the view of the law was reformulated. The idea of the law being an identifier has been replaced (but please don’t take my use of the word as indicating that I am a wholesale supersessionist – I am not) by the notion of our identity being found in the Christ, the Messiah. The law, however, is not superseded. I am trying to be careful so as not give the false impression that I am a supersessionist. It is tricky to give a nuanced view which inevitably uses some of the same vocabulary but which has a different focus. So while the law remains, its function is now rethought.

Now, the idea of “sinning” (as a verb, meaning to transgress) is an act which highlights the state of sin which we are in (see previous part in this series). Though there may be legal repercussions with local authorities, the focus here is not on a framework for government or jurisprudence. This is about the state of relationship between humans and God; a relationship that has been broken by one party and fixed by the other.

However, as the next question asks more about the law, I shall not elaborate further here. So my summarised response thus looks like this:

Alternative answer

By ‘misery’ I understand this to be better described in the modern vernacular as ‘sin’. My sin is highlighted to me by my own transgressions of the law of God, which illuminates that which is dark in me.

Minimal christianity (A Personal Catechism #2)

Link to #1

Q: How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?

A: Three; the first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.

Response

My first reaction to this was one of “that’s a great question to ask” followed up with “I really don’t know how to answer it”. What it drives at is the idea that christianity need not be complicated.

There may be much that we don’t know and don’t really understand about the faith that we hold, but not understanding something is a basis for exploration, not abandonment. I’ve received challenges in the past (one just a few weeks ago) from a friend who asked me to explain the nature of the Trinity. I can’t. I can come up with expressions of how I think it might work, but I can’t claim that I have a firm grasp of it. Upon my failure to come up with a neat, 30 second answer which would satisfy the curiosity of my friend, the idea was dismissed on the grounds that if I didn’t understand fully what I believed, then my whole faith was groundless.

We agree to disagree, and here I won’t further attempt to look at the Trinity. The point I’d like to make is that it is not necessary to understand everything in order to be a christian. It isn’t a case that we have all the answers, I know I certainly don’t. Anyone coming either to this blog or just to this series hoping to have an authoritative sermon delivered to them will be sorely disappointed. I’m just poking around, looking into things for myself and you might be peering over my shoulder as I do so. If I inspire/provoke/prompt you into doing a bit of poking around, then that may be all for the good.

I do think there is some importance to be placed on ‘being right’ and to that end I do try my reasonable best to battle ignorance and come to some detailed and nuanced views. But that is not primarily what christianity is about, I don’t think. That does not mean, however, that christianity is a total free for all; this is something I looked at some time ago, asking how you define a christian. But trying to come to some kind of ‘essence’ of christianity is hard.

One might be tempted to answer the question from the catechism by giving the two great commandments: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” Yet this would then prompt the inevitable question, “what do you mean by ‘God’?” and then lead to the sort of infinite regress that I hoped to avoid.

From the point of view of this project, there is a slight methodological problem which this brings up. Question 2 contains within in it a reference to question 1. So in my response, ought I really to take the catechism’s answer to question 1 or my alternative take? If I choose the former, then my answers may not seem to hang together, as I answer a later question on the basis of a premise I have already differed from. If I choose the latter, then I will likely diverge and my answers would bear no resemblance to the question, or else I might have to say “not applicable” – which would not be terribly informative. If I tried to do both, it would be like putting one foot on one skateboard and the other foot on a different skateboard; if they’re not parallel then any attempt at going forwards will quickly lead to be falling on my arse! Though it may not be satisfactory to all, I will choose to answer the question as it is asked, to the best of my ability.

It is interesting how the question ends: “mayest live and die happily” – I’m not convinced that that is the aim of the christian life. But then, what is? It would be a better person that I who can  concisely give an “aim”. Though I’ve alluded to the 2 great commandments above, are they really an aim or are they guidelines to meet an aim? In other words, though I would fully affirm that we need to love God and love other people, is that the end in and of itself? I would posit that it isn’t.

That, however, should not diminish the response given in the catechism. The 3 points raised are very good. Perhaps, though, instead of saying “how great my sins and miseries are”, I would drop the ‘miseries’ and the ‘great’. It seems odd that a question phrased as it is, to be happy, entails an answer which references self-awareness of misery. Instead, I think it would be better simply to have an awareness of sin. But then, what is sin?

It’s too big a topic to deal with adequately here, but I hope the following attempt at a synopsis of my understanding is not so brief as to be misleading.

As I view it, sin is a state of being. It is the state of being separated from God. It is a state which describes, as a whole, the human race. Therefore to be described as a “sinner” is not a pejorative statement, though I generally refrain from using it as it is often perceived as such. It certainly should not be used (though it frequently is) as an antithesis to the term saint.

However, the word ‘sin’ may also be used as verb, as in ‘to commit a sin’. Again, the cultural accumulation of connotations makes this an awkward phrase to use without being pejorative. Other, words with common similar meanings may include “transgress” or “trespass” though these carry with them connotations of legalism. I view the matter not in terms of legalism, but in terms of identity. Therefore if I use the term sin as a verb the primary meaning I have in mind is an action which embodies that state of separation.

In terms of causality, I sin because I am sinner (i.e. I act in such a way that I exemplify a state of separation which I am already in) not that I am a sinner because I sin (i.e. that my actions result in a state of separation).

Moving onto the second clause of the answer, this is a very brief summary of the doctrine of salvation. It is feature of christianity since the reformation that salvation has been considered vitally important to christianity. To some, the notion of ‘gospel’ is synonymous with the story of salvation. I would not want to downplay the idea of personal salvation though I would stop short of saying that that is the whole gospel. Or maybe ‘stop short’ is the wrong phrase. It would be better to go further. The gospel (the good news of the kingdom of God) is about restoration or recreation. Salvation for an individual is an important part of that, but the whole gospel is far grander and more wide-ranging than that. Though personal responsibility is a part, the whole of creation is involved.

To know this, though, I think would need, as an intrinsic part of it, to know the means by which it came about. That is, the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. More will come of this later in the project.

The final part is an interesting one, and I must admit I’m not sure if I’d keep in it my own personal catechism. It is essentially a summary of worship. While I would certainly say that worship is part of a healthy christian life, I wonder if it is so foundational as to warrant mention in this “minimal christianity”. I’ve thought about this for about the last day or so and I don’t think it is necessary. To my way of thinking, I draw a parallel with life. We must eat, drink and breathe in order to live. These are essential. If you give up one, you will die before long. What about sleep, though? Sleep is certainly healthy and I don’t think a person can live, but is something that will naturally come. i.e. you cannot choose to give it up as you might with food or drink. I know this is not a perfect analogy, but I hope the point is not wilfully misunderstood. Worship is something will naturally come from a christian life. It may take many different forms and we can delight in the variety of worship that people of different cultures and personalities, but it should not be prescribed as a particular format.  To do so is stifling and ultimately regressive. So while worship is, I would say, a healthy part of christian living, it is a natural outflowing and need not be part of a “minimal christianity”.

With the answer given by the catechism largely dealt with, then, is there anything missing? I think there is. It is not necessarily part of the picture, but the frame in which it is held, which I think needs to be mentioned early on lest it get ignored or downplayed. Grace. In some ways it might be considered to be part of the second clause of the original answer, but I would rather make it a little more explicit.

So then, how might we draw all this together in summary? What follows as my ‘alternative answer’ is what I would say are the ingredients to make a basic understanding of christianity. Of course, there are some words there that I haven’t defined precisely and which open up further questions. But that’s OK. It’s just a sketch outline at this stage, so it should be recognisable and the details can be filled in later.

Alternative answer

The aim of the christian life is not to be free from misery; it is a more complex tapestry than that. But even a tapestry has elements to it which are essential. The starting point is the centre of christianity, the foundation of the church is Jesus of Nazareth. As Jesus said to Peter, the rock on which the church is built is the declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. That is the centre. But to get to the middle we must then look back to the past. What was this Messiah? The Messiah is one through whom creation is restored and renewed from a state of sin (that is, separation from God) which has come about through humans. The restoration, though, was not achieved merely through the being of a single person, but through the twin actions he was subjected to: his death by crucifixion and his resurrection 2 days later. The substitutionary sacrifice of death and the subsequent victory over that death are the two sides of a coin that pay the ultimate debt. This supreme act of love is not only unmerited but flies in the face of normal reasoning. This gift of grace to all of humanity is freely given and may be freely accepted.

Our comfort in life (A Personal Catechism #1)

Q: What is thy only comfort in life and death?

A: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ;  who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Response

One might straight away ask, at the start of a confession, to ask for some definitions. Here, we have a number of words used which may be open to (mis)interpretation. These would include ‘soul’, ‘sins’, ‘devil’, ‘heavenly’, ‘salvation’ and ‘Holy Spirit’.  Yet there might be a risk of infinite regress and this whole confession might ground to a halt before it gets started. Instead, I would rather hold onto these lightly and read this as a sort of ‘executive summary’. This should be unpacked in the weeks and months to come. If they are not, then I may need to revisit this; please hold me to it.

I would use the phrase ‘body and soul’ to mean everything that I am, my whole being, my thoughts, feelings and memories. I would not dispute the idea that I am not my own, though it is an idea that prompts one to stop and think what this means. We often hear the possession is 9/10ths of the law, though since the abolition of slavery the idea of the ownership of a person has become increasingly alien to us. That should not be interpreted as a lament at abolitionism, but merely a pointing out that the analogy might be somewhat outdated.

In the modern western-world, this might be seen as more counter-cultural than ever. The ideology of ‘I’ often places the needs of individual front and foremost. When it comes round to election time, listen out for how politicians try to appeal to the desires of individuals; likewise listen to the canvassing of opinion on the streets and hear how many times people ask the question “[what will their policies do for me?]”

Yet this level of individualism is present within the Heidelberg Catechism. It is very centred on the individual beliefs and personal salvation. I am somewhat cautious about this. I would not reject it outright, by any means. Though it might have been better phrased in the corporate sense, to give the church as a body of people a greater emphasis than the person who is part of that body.

When it talks of precious blood, I must confess that I cannot help but think of the film, Dr Strangelove, and the unhinged American General’s obsession with precious bodily fluids. I don’t think this is at all what it means. Rather, it is an unambiguous reference to the implications of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In using the term ‘satisfy’, I would not read it necessarily as a pleasant thing. We might think of satisfaction in terms of being pleased, of getting what we want; yet I don’t think that’s the point that was being made. Working, as I do, in finance, I am inclined to think in terms of debt. The sacrifice that Jesus made was the payment of debt, in a sense “filling the hole” that one might think of being satisfied by a good meal. It has filled you up so that you need no more. The general idea is usually known in theological jargon as “atonement” – though this will be expanded upon later in the project.

I will not expand here on what I understand by the term ‘sin’; that will come up again soon enough. I will also make no statement here about the devil; that might be for much later. If anything, I would have been tempted to cut it out of the catechism at this stage as it might be an unnecessary distraction.

The idea of God preserving us is an odd one. I’m not sure either the composition or the translation is particularly good. The references provided are both to John’s gospel: chapter 6, verse 39 and chapter 10, verse 28. In both of these, Jesus speaks about keeping hold of what he has been given, of not losing it. It is my current understanding that these references were those used by Calvin as a basis for his idea that salvation was a once-and-for-all transaction. In other words, there could be no such thing as an ex-christian; leading to the logical conclusion that those who renounce their faith were never truly saved in the first place. I have qualms about such a view, but they may be kept for another time. I think the idea that the gospels were getting at was about the idea that no external influence could take someone away, rather than putting up a barrier against a wilful exit.

That not a hair will fall from one’s head without God’s will is an interesting one. It’s beautifully poetic, though I would caution about too literal with it. In one sense, I would say that God has laid down the foundation of the universe. That is not say I believe in ‘God the magician’ or ‘God the tinkerer’ but rather than the physical and mathematical laws which we have gotten to know, love and even understand to some extent, are ultimately authored by God. How this might be, I honestly don’t know. But the notion of how a hair falls from one’s head entails not only gravity acting between the hair and the earth, but also the complicated biology of how that hair grew and then became loose enough to fall. It is not that God goes around plucking people, but rather that God established the rules that would allow it to happen and therefore the act of falling is not a surprising act outside of nature, but just is.

I would disagree with the idea that “all things are subservient to my salvation”.  Indeed, the reference given in support of this clause is Romans 8:28 which states (NRSV), “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” I cannot see how the latter quote is equivalent to, or even, implies, the first. I might just be being a little slow on the uptake. I consider the gospel to be multi-faceted, so to emphasise one aspect over another may lead to a skewed vision. I would not rush to join the anti-evangelicals though in downplaying the message of salvation within christianity.

At this juncture, the Holy Spirit seems somewhat bootstrapped on, though this is not wholly a bad thing. If one regards this as an executive summary then it is good that it contains some evidence of Trinitarian thinking. The phrase “eternal life” may be problematic for some, not least because of over-simplifications and consequent misunderstandings, not least about “where” that life will take place. The more modern trend is to use the phrase “life in the age to come” which, though more clunky, maybe conveys the message better.

The final clause “makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him” is a good touch to end on, as it brings us back to the present life, reminding of us of our obligations here. I have heard some preachers take reformed theology too far, in my view, encouraging people to have their eyes fixed on eternal life, that it may be easy to take our eyes off the world around us. At this stage, the instruction is fairly vague, but that might be left as it is for now, I think.

So having said all that, how might I respond to the question with my own personal catechism?

Alternative Answer

I cannot say that have an ‘only comfort’. Rather, I might respond with what my ‘greatest assurance’ instead. That greatest assurance, then, is that with everything I am and have, I must recognise that I am not king of my own world; I am a part of someone else’s world, along with billions of others. I regard myself as a sinner; though I am not a sinner because I sin; I sin because I am a sinner. But ‘sinner’ should not be seen as a pejorative term. It could just as well be a synonym for human. Yet there is one exception. The one human, Jesus, to whom the royal title of Christ is conferred, was crucified and later resurrected, to pay the debt created by the sin of all humankind. Though we constantly strive to understand how the cosmos works and how it arose, I believe that it is because of the work of the one who created it – or rather, who created the means by which it was created. This was done wilfully and with a plan, so that acts of nature accord with that plan. It is this God, who is one and the same as the man, Jesus, whose Holy Spirit gives us assurance that we are to take part in the resurrection, where Jesus led the way, in new and incorruptible bodies.  Until then, though, we are to live for God – and all that entails.

A personal catechism

Those of you who know me well or who otherwise read this blog regularly will probably be aware that I am advocate of each person questioning their beliefs and having regular re-evaluations of where they stand on various issues. I do this myself so frequently that I have started to wonder if I have ever actually finished any piece of thinking. In other words, I start down one route but before I reach the end of it, I turn around and go back to the start.

Because of this, I aim to undertake a fairly large task. Using one of the earliest reformed statements of faith as my template, I plan to lay out a statement of my beliefs. The document I shall use will be the Heidelberg Catechism, which I understand dates back to 1563. There were others I could have chosen, such as the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Catechism, but I opted for Heidelberg for a few reasons. Firstly, I think the questions that are asked are more amenable to a series of blog posts. Some will be rather long, possibly broken into several parts, though others will be rather short.

My intention is to ask the question as originally asked (in the English translation) and the answer from the Catechism, followed by own response. Each response will be in two parts. Firstly, I shall aim to critique the answer given by the catechism; secondly, by providing my own answer. By forcing myself to answer someone else’s set of questions, I hope to be forced to think. This may result in me changing my ideas on some matters, or at least clarification of things which I don’t think about too much. So this is as much an exploration as an exposition.

So what’s in it for you? Well, I hope, as ever, to prompt you into thinking. You are, of course, free to disagree and state why in the comments. You may even be prompted to undertake your own version, possibly using a different reformed confession as your basis. I strongly doubt that any one person will agree with my on all points, though I would hope to find solidarity with many christians, whether liberal, conservative, baptist, anglican, methodist, etc.

Though I often describe myself as non-denominational, there are some ideas or traditions which I adhere to more closely than others, some which I outright reject. When asked to sum up my denomination by someone recently, I described myself as ‘a liberal, reformed, pentecostal baptist’. Aspects of each of these will come out, but to help you understand where I come from I’ll briefly expand each term.

Liberal. This is the most easily misunderstood when it comes to theology. This more describes my outlook on socio-economic matters as well as my view of church. I would affirm an ‘orthodox’ view of the bible, rather than “liberal” in the sense of playing fast and loose with theology. This is in opposition to conservative views (small ‘c’) which are more .

Reformed. Though I would not wholly accept the teachings of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox and their ilk, I do think that the reformation was the most important theological movement since the 1st century. This entails the rejection of Catholicism, which is best regarded as an heretical offshoot from christianity in the same vein as Mormonism or Unitarianism. I know this is a minority opinion and is deeply unpopular with some. Though there may be great similarities between Catholicism and christianity, as there between chimpanzees and humans, similarly due to having common ancestors, it is incorrect to mistake one for the other or to conflate the two.

Pentecostal. In my various travels across churches, I have noticed that very few seems to get a balance when it comes in Trinitarian thinking and practice. Where I perceive the lack of balance to be most prevalent is in the treatment of the Holy Spirit. Though cessationists are rare, the Holy Spirit is often given little more than lip service, with the praxis of the more traditionalist churches seeming to ignore the actions of this person of the Trinity. This does not mean that I embrace all the excesses that have sometimes stemmed from the charismatic churches.

Baptist. I believe that as christians we are supposed to be baptised. This is not something that should be done by anyone who does not profess a faith, but is an act of obedience. Therefore, churches which advocate and practice infant ‘baptism’ are, I believe, in error. This will be expanded more in questions 69-74.

So that’s the plan. I can’t promise that I’ll be able to stick to it, but I hope you’ll join me in my progress. Any prodding and poking that you can provide to get me through it will be much appreciated.