“I Don’t Drink from Puritan Theology Often, but When I Do, I Drink from the Theology of the Affections.”

“I Don’t Drink from Puritan Theology Often, but When I Do, I Drink from the Theology of the Affections.” December 9, 2016

Photo Credit: Liz West

“I don’t drink from Puritan theology often, but when I do, I drink from the theology of the affections.” It might sound like a Dos Equis beer commercial, but the theology tastes quite a bit different, I believe. Like the equivalent of a conversation with a good Christmas port in hand, I ruminated recently on my colleague Dr. Ron Frost’s musings on the theology of the “heavenly” Richard Sibbes. Viewed by some as a precursor to Jonathan Edwards with his treatise on the religious affections, Sibbes presented a heart-based theology.

I was going through an important article by Dr. Frost the other day in class for my treatment of Spirit-Christicism and its relation to Matthew 12 on Christ, the Spirit, and the bruised reed. Frost’s article focuses on Sibbes’ work The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax. There he comments on the work of the Spirit in Christ and believers’ lives:

This assertiveness by the Spirit was critical to Sibbes’ concept of Christ’s spiritual government, reflecting his Spirit-Christicism—a belief that Christ, in his humanity, relied on the Spirit for his own spiritual conduct.  The kenotic emptying of his divine power represented Christ’s purpose to demonstrate to all believers how life in the Spirit is accomplished.  The common reliance of both Christ and his body on the Spirit’s presence and guidance in their daily conduct served as their bond of union—making the language of “one body” more than a metaphor.

Yet for believers, unlike Christ, the need for the Spirit’s immediate work is based, prior to grace, on a fundamental disaffection: “God finds nothing in us but enmity” which then must be transformed. Thus Sibbes looked for the Spirit to function as an active presence in believers’ lives—“The same Spirit that enlightens the mind, inspires gracious inclinations into the will and affections, and infuses strength into the whole man.”

The biblical basis for Sibbes’ discussion on Christ’s life in the Spirit involves such texts as Matthew 12 (from which the title of his published volume emerges).

Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,

my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.

I will put my Spirit upon him,

and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

He will not quarrel or cry aloud,

nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;

a bruised reed he will not break,

and a smoldering wick he will not quench,

until he brings justice to victory;

and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:15-21; ESV)

The context for this statement on Jesus withdrawing, healing all those with ailments who followed him, exhorting them to remain silent on his true identity, and leading to Matthew’s quotation from Isaiah was the religious powerbrokers’ determination to destroy Jesus after he healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. They knew Jesus could heal the man, tested him to see if he would, could have cared less that he did heal the man, and desired only to kill him. Such hardness of heart!

These were leaders who weighed down the people with burdens. They broke bruised reeds and snuffed out smoldering wicks. According to Frost, Sibbes was making a subtle though comparative judgment (under the guise of a critique of popery) of what he took to be the moralistic teaching of many fellow Puritans in England at the time whose exhortations he maintained weighed down the people with a searing sense of condemnation.

I am no Puritan scholar, but as a scholar of contemporary theology, I am concerned that I may be guilty at times of breaking bruised reeds and snuffing out smoldering wicks among my students. In reflecting on this passage the other day in a theology class, I broke down in tears while reflecting upon Matthew 12 and Frost’s account of Sibbes’ message. This was a far cry from those who break down in tears for having to read my essays in class! I feared then and now that my words of challenge are not always wrapped in grace. Like Sibbes, no doubt, and certainly Karl Barth, I want my words of judgment (which are also addressed to me) to be wrapped in grace. How amazing it is that Jesus undergoes judgment for us all!

How striking that Jesus does not break bruised reeds or snuff out smoldering wicks, but he will bring justice to victory and Gentiles from all the nations will place their hope in him (Matthew 12:20-21). We often think that we must rage against the machine to effect change. Jesus effected ultimate change through his work as wounded healer. His harsh words were for those in authority who could and did break him, and who broke the people’s spirits and their backs. Jesus did not crush the people who suffered at the religious establishment’s hands, but he will reign justly forever on their behalf!

This Christmas season, as we drink from the mercy and grace of God, may we extend that mercy and grace to others who bear heavy loads. There’s nothing like a little Christmas cheer to enliven hearts and minds. There are all kinds of spirits of the immaterial and liquid kind, but only one divine Spirit who quickened Jesus, and who will quicken us in Jesus. Instead of getting drunk with port, let’s drink in that! (Ephesians 5:18).

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