My dear friends,
Yesterday (as I write this letter), I heard that one of my theological tutors at New College, Edinburgh University had died. Elizabeth Templeton was a stimulating lecturer and tutor, and a fine woman. In her early teens she had a ‘conversion experience’ while at a Scripture Union camp. Soon after Elizabeth abandoned her ‘evangelical phase’, as she described it, and became a questioning, searching, exploring woman in search of a faith that allowed doubts and questions.
I always found Elizabeth deeply respectful, if at times somewhat incredulous, of my orthodox Christian convictions. She never tried to belittle my faith. When I gave her John Owen’s exposition of the extent of the atonement in Vol.10 of his works to read (the one with the J.I.Packer introduction), she returned it with the comment, ‘I didn’t like Packer’s introduction but I enjoyed Owen’. I was deeply saddened to hear of her death.
Why am I telling you this? One of the reasons Elizabeth gave for abandoning evangelical Christianity was, in her judgement, its refusal to see faith as a journey of exploration. For Elizabeth, evangelicalism appeared a certitude that brooked no questioning. I always found this a puzzle. While it is true, sadly true, that evangelical Christians can give the impression, and more than the impression, of being ‘know it alls’, having easy answers for all of life’s deep perplexities, this is not what evangelical Christianity is at its best - and you should always judge a person and a movement by their best expressions, not their worst.
The Christianity we find in the Bible is redolent with wonder and breath-taking mystery. No passage more captures the essence of biblical religion than Rom.11:33-36. Paul has been explaining to the church in Rome what he calls ‘the gospel of God’ (1:1). For Paul the gospel of God was glorious, but its glory was not ultimately definable, far less containable. Rather the gospel’s glory was unfathomable. Reflect for a moment on these magnificent words: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen".
Here we come face to face with the unfathomable depths of God and the gospel of his grace in Christ. Here is wonder, heart stopping, mind expanding wonder. Here is the apostle Paul confessing that God and the gospel have taken him out of his depth. He knows but he doesn’t know. He has grasped but he hasn’t fully grasped. As he surveys the panorama of God’s grace in Christ, he is constrained to confess, ‘Oh, the depths.’
Why was Paul and why is any man or woman a Christian? Because we know all the answers? Because we have no doubts or fears? No. We are Christians because the God of unimaginable grace broke into our sin darkened minds and hearts, gave us a new heart and enabled us to see in Jesus Christ the Saviour of the world, the sin bearing, sin atoning Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us. The Christian life is an unending exploration, a journey if you like, into God and his amazing grace. This exploration will not cease at death but will be our engaging joy throughout the ages of eternity. We will always be saying, to God and to one another, ‘Oh, the depths’!
The ultimate issue we all have to face is this: Is the God we encounter in the Bible the God we will acknowledge, confess and serve, even though he is ‘past finding out’? Or will we pursue a journey that will not allow God to be God...unless he conforms himself to the canons of our personal intellectual journey? In other words, will your religion be founded on and shaped by God’s revelation of himself in his word, or will you devise a religion that you find ‘acceptable’?
I liked Elizabeth Templeton very much. She was honest and honourable. I believe, however, she was profoundly wrong. God has spoken, plainly and clearly, and in his own Son finally and decisively. It behoves us to listen, to learn, to love and to obey. We don’t remotely have all the answers. We live by faith and not by sight. And because our faith is in the God who has all the answers and who is himself ‘the answer to our every quest’, we can live in the happy tension of knowing him, but always being out of our depth. Press on in your journey of faith. Ask all the questions you feel constrained to ask. Above all, live by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you. Here we ‘see through a glass darkly’, but one day ‘face to face’. Till that day, rest the weight of all that you are on the grace and love of God in Christ, the Saviour who died the just for the unjust to bring us to God.
With my love as always