Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken (Part 2)
In the first part of this two part series on Psalm 46, I suggested that there are three strata of imagery in the psalm. The ‘city of God’ is a lush garden, providing for those inside her walls sustenance and shelter, calm and quiet, against all the wilds of life outside her walls. The city of God is, furthermore, protected against the judgement of God. The purging of evil involves God’s de-creative acts; yet for those in the nave of this city, there is safety and salvation from this judgement. Finally, the city of God is stable and fortified against the raging and tottering of the city of man. Nations rise up, and to varying degrees and with various levels of intentionality they oppose the kingdom of God. And nations fall, despite their frenzied and violent attempts to firmly establish themselves, leaving but footprints to fade in the sands of time. In contrast to this city of man, God promises that his city shall not be shaken.
And all this, Psalm 46 declares time and again, is because ‘God is our refuge and strength’ and ‘God is in her midst’ and ‘the Lord of hosts is with us’. This is why “glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God” (Ps. 87:3), because the Glorious One founded her (Ps. 87:1) and dwells with her. Surely, the contemplation of this city leads the heart to proclaim: “Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God!” (Ps. 48:1).
But all this may also lead the mind to a question—and a serious one at that. The wearisome reality for us pilgrims in this life is that even in our highest moments of contemplation in faith and hope, we are tethered to this earth by doubt and fear. One of the things I so love about theology is that its practice involves contemplating those spellbinding ideals: truth, beauty, goodness; for theology contemplates God. One of the things that is so difficult about studying history is that its practice involves staring at the various contortions and imperfections of those ideals.
This glorious city of God is for the people of God. That is, it is for the church (Heb. 13:14; Rev. 21). And the glorious things spoken of this city are, then, spoken of the church. And yet, as I say, this raises a question. I’ll let the late early 17th century poet, John Donne, raise it in his typically poignant way:
Show me dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robb’d and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild Dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she is embrac’d and open to most men.
How is it, Donne asks, that Christ’s spouse—the church, of which glorious things are spoken— how is it that in fact she stumbles through history, falling to decadence and profligacy on the one side and destitution and harassment on the other? How is it that she has come to be so fluent in both the language of truth and of error? How is it that she languishes ineffective and incompetent for so long—or worse? How is it that at times she can rally uniformly around what is wrong, but when it comes what is right and true, she falls into division and discord. How are we to love this splendid bride if, when we look for her in history or in our own time, she seems almost nowhere to be found? Must we make like adventuring knights?
This, indeed, is a big question. And big questions deserve big answers. I will not be able to provide one (and I won’t pretend it is because ‘space will not allow’). Instead, allow me three observations.
First, reflections upon the imperfect past of the church ought to lead us to a reflection upon our own imperfect pasts. The apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter ten that the Israelite’s checkered past “took place as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did” (v. 6) and that they “were written down for our instruction” (v. 10). Might it not be that God continues to work in his church in this fashion? Let what is dark about the church’s past spur us on toward the light. As Paul concludes his instruction to the Corinthians in the above-mentioned passage: “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall” (v. 12). Many a child having recently learned to walk has tripped or ran into an obstacle because they were looking back while trying to walk forward. What irony it would be if while one were looking back at the church’s history merely to wag the tongue, they ended up stumbling into the same troubles.
Second, we mustn’t forget that the church’s checkered past is truly checkered; it is a mixed bag. It may be tempting to think—indeed, we are almost everywhere told—that the church has only played the profligate, the violent oppressor, the hypocritical despot up to now (and, in light of 2016, only continues to do so); but we must be careful here. Such a judgement about the past (and the present) would simply be false. Honesty and truth compels us to recognize that for every period of foul stench there has also been a period of sweet aroma. For all the wolves in sheep’s clothing there has been sheep, gentle and meek, giving even of their very lives in love after the way of their Master. For every tare in the field, there is life-sustaining wheat as well. What about the martyrs who bore and bear witness to the world that there is more to life than economic advance; personal, group, or national identity; prestige or power? What about those who stayed behind during times of plague to care for the sick, whom the rest had simply abandoned to their fate? What about those who gave up living in the world, living lives of simplicity and scarcity, in order to protect what the world needed, and, when the time was right, to give it back to the world? What about the hospitals for the ill, the schools for the uneducated. What about the architectural legacies (and not only in the West), and the cultural advances in the arts, and the intellectual milieu from which contemporary scientific advances could spring? Time would fail me to go on. The church—the people of God—have contributed much. But above all, they have carried along the message from God, that God’s hand is not too short to save and that he has indeed done so through his Son, in the power of his Spirit. This message has been passed along in vessels of clay, to be sure; but, blessed be God, it has been passed along.
It is this recognition, furthermore, that connects us to our first point. For when we look honestly at the church’s history, we see not only faults and failings, but we see also grace. For, as Watts has it, God’s grace in the work of the Son by the Spirit goes “far as the curse is found,” and—I might be so bold as to add—even deeper still. Thus, when we take up that more difficult task of introspection, will we not also see that our own dark history is but that into which the God of grace declares: “Let there be light!”
Finally, we must remember that history is the realm of becoming. The history of the world is the temporally successive enactment of God’s external works of creation and salvation and consummation. This is significant because it entails that there is both beginning and end, and thus a middle. And the middle is a movement from beginning to end. That is, Christians, as noted above, ought not look back at history merely to point the finger. Rather, they look back to pick out trajectories of God’s movement, which they trace up to themselves and their present moment, and then beyond themselves to the future fulfillment of God’s promise to complete his creation in perfection. To put it in a more theological language, Christians look back in faith, that God has indeed been at work, and they look forward in hope, that he will indeed continue to be at work.
“When, therefore, death shall be swallowed up in victory, these things will not be there; and there shall be peace—peace full and eternal. We shall be in a kind of city. Brethren, when I speak of that City, and especially when scandals grow great here, I just cannot bring myself to stop…”, said Augustine (Enarr. In Ps. 84.10). Scandals may indeed grow great in our times as well as they did in his. May our faith grow and our hope increase so that we too are unable to stop contemplating the city which has a foundation, whose architect and builder is God himself. And in the meantime, well, Christians are to live in love. Who is sufficient for this kind of life? It must be lived out in prayer and obedience.