My Dear Friends,
Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, the nineteenth century Danish philosopher theologian, described life as paddling in an ocean ten thousand fathoms deep. How right he was. This thought is no less and even more appropriate to the study of theology, the coherent teaching about himself that God has revealed to us in the Bible. Some of us know the answer to Q4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, ‘God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal....’ We know the answer, we can parse the sentence, but are we remotely conscious of the depths lying beneath the surface?
We live in an age of pragmatism. We want to know first if something ‘works’, and if it works, what benefits it will bring to us. This is a trap, a well laid trap that the Christian church has sadly fallen into, with honourable exceptions. Much church life revolves around doing, rather than thinking. I know I am making a false contrast; thinking and doing are not, of course, mutually exclusive. However, activity seems to have become the great business of the modern evangelical church. Our primary thought seems often to be, ‘What will attract the people?’ Or, ‘How can we make our services more user-friendly?’ Or, ‘How can we make the gospel less objectionable and more appealing?’ None of these questions are inherently wrong. But when they become un-moored from the rich depths, ‘the ten thousand fathoms’ of the gospel, they become idols that need smashing.
When Paul came to the conclusion of his exposition of ‘the gospel of God’ (Rom. 1:1) in Romans 11:33, he exclaimed, ‘Oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!’ Paul felt utterly out of his depth. He was like a drowning man who discovered that beneath his feet lay ten thousand fathoms of rich, mind expanding, heart throbbing, overwhelming truth. As I write this I am asking myself, ‘Ian, can you remotely feel what the apostle felt? In your life and in your ministry are you conscious, and are others conscious, that beneath you lie ten thousand fathoms of divine truth?’ I wonder.
Too often evangelicals content themselves with gospel sound bites, pithy slogans that catch the mood of our sound bite culture. My concern is not that we imitate the great doctors of the church (like Augustine, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Murray) and mimic them. Rather my concern, first for myself, then for CPC, and then for all who read these jottings, is that we stop and re-evaluate how we think about God’s word and the saving gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Do we think at all? Do we make time to think? Are we reading ‘beyond our understanding’? Does that seem a strange thing to say? What I mean is, are we stretching ourselves intellectually in order that we might sink a little bit more deeply into the ten thousand fathoms?
Please allow me to give you a short list of books that will begin to give you a sense of the ten thousand fathoms beneath you:
1. ‘Knowing God’, J.I. Packer. A fine, readable and engaging primer on Christian theology.
2. ‘Redemption, Accomplished and Applied’, John Murray. This is my all-time favourite paperback; a wonderful exposition of the work of Christ under the rubric of his obedience to his Father.
3. ‘Jonathan Edwards’, a biography by Iain H Murray. Edwards was an astonishing Christian thinker, preacher, pastor and man. He was one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the church. Murray gives you a sense of the ten thousand fathoms that Edwards delighted to explore and rejoice in.
4. ‘The Institutes of the Christian Religion’, by John Calvin. This is the greatest exposition of Holy Scripture anywhere at any time (at least I think so). Don’t be put off; Calvin is easy to ready, if at times too profound to grasp.
5. Last, but not least, ‘Communion with God’, Volume 2 in the Collected Works of John Owen (the Banner of Truth also has a modern version of this remarkable classic). When I first read this I felt completely out of my depth.
These are enough to be going on with. Ten thousand fathoms. Actually, the ten thousand fathoms are really 10x10x10x10x10 (n) fathoms! Good plunging.
With my love as ever,