The Hum of Angels (McKnight)

McKnight, Scot. The Hum of Angels. WaterBrook, 2017.

Key idea: “The Bible challenges the flat cosmology of moderns with a thick cosmology.”

When we go to the Bible for knowledge of angels, we often conclude from one passage (or maybe a tiny sampling) that that is all there can possibly be known about angels.  That idea is foreign to the entire history of the church before modernity.

Thesis of the book: If you believe in God, then you must also believe in angels.

Objection: “Oh yeah, how come nobody experiences angels today?

Reply: They do. Here are some examples.

Objector: They don’t count.

The Dilemma: We cannot abandon the notion of angels, since the Bible clearly teaches it.  On the other hand, we don’t want to embrace a traditional angelology because that feels too Catholicky.

I found the anecdotes generally uplifting and encouraging.  They won’t convince any deists, so take them as they are.  His take on angels follows standard systematic accounts.  I will repeat that, since I am often accused of promoting wild views on angels:  his account follows standard systematic accounts.  If you want a robust, no holds-barred account of angels, read the late 19th century Dutch theologians.  Bavinck, Kuyper, and Schilder make McKnight seem like a deist.

Every chapter focuses around Christ and is anchored in God’s love. I normally don’t say stuff like that because it is a cliche.  Everyone intends to “point to Christ” or “be biblical,” so by itself that doesn’t mean all that much.  McKnight’s arguments, though, always lead back to Jesus.  It’s hard to fault him on that point. The thrust of his argument is thus:

McKnight begins with an excellent treatment of heaven: Heaven is superior to earth because “God chose to indwell heaven, to make decisions about earth from heaven, and to send his angels to earth from heaven.”  As McKnight nicely puts it, it is “God’s throne room, God’s board room, and God’s courtroom.”

McKnight knows that you really can’t combine all good supernatural beings into the category of “angels.”  A cherub, for example, isn’t an errand boy.  On the other hand, the cultural river in which we float is so strong that we probably won’t get a good taxonomy across the popular level any time soon.

He has a good section on “guardian angels.”  We have to avoid two errors.  On one hand, we have no warrant to say with Rome that we each have a personal guardian angel (or even worse, an angel and a devil on each shoulder).  On the other hand, we can’t simply dismiss the category altogether.  Jesus said angels watch these children.

Granting that, do Jesus’s words mean that each human has a personal guardian angel, or do they mean that each Christian has a guardian angel?  The text isn’t clear.  I think the idea the text (and other texts where God sends an angel to his corporate people) promotes the general context of “guardian” without committing us to a personal guardian angel. 

God’s use of angels is one way he communicates his presence to us.  McKnight has a neat argument.  Angels attend to Christ.  Christians are in Christ.  Therefore, sometimes (at the very least), we participate in the angels’ presence with Jesus.  This makes sense of ancient (and some Protestant liturgies), “Therefore with angels and archangels….”

McKnight missed an interesting opportunity.  Meredith Kline (I think) suggested that God’s glory could is filled with angels and that’s why it looks like a cloud.  Could be.  It’s a neat idea.

He covers other facets of biblical data: angels judging, angels harvesting, angel’s revealing, etc.  This has been covered extensively in good (though not all) systematics.

Even Reformed people can experience angels:

He has a good appendix interacting with Ps. Dionysius’s celestial hierarchy. McKnight correctly notes that Paul gives no such hierarchy.  On the other hand, Paul also doesn’t collapse all celestial beings into “demon” or “angel.”

Criticisms

I’m not so sure about his use of Barth. True, in those passages quoted Barth asserted a belief in angels.  I always got the sneaky suspicion, though, that Barth was far more ambiguous on the topic than was presented here.  It’s the same with any use of Barth: does Barth mean that the angels are in “historie” or “geschichte?”  He never says (and I don’t think Barth really intended to say).

James Boswell: Life of Johnson

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This is a great book about a great man, albeit not written by a great man.  I started reading this in 2016, I think.  C. S. Lewis recommends approaching it as “lunch literature.”  This does not mean it is light reading, however.  It is conversational reading, but in these conversations Johnson reveals a remarkable dexterity of mind.

There are several key events in Johnson’s life. One key event is the publishing of his Dictionary.  Age 46: Published the Dictionary.  Received MA in 1755. Another turning point is the death of Johnson’s wife.

The model is the gentleman-scholar shaped by Tory ideals. The model is the “pious Tory.” “Tories are Whigs when out of place, and Whigs, Tories when in place: (Boswell 93).  Johnson was a devout Anglican who held to Tory principles, though the latter were not held irrationally. Johnson was not afraid of Deists and skeptics.  He knew he was their superior and this allowed him to approach the debate with calm and mastery.  He understood that Boswell had doubts but Johnson didn’t immediately crush them. He took Boswell by the hand and guided him.

Sometimes he is even funny.  Boswell tells of the amusing story of when Johnson discussed Toryism with the niece of a friend:

One day when dining at old Mr. Langton’s, where Miss Roberts, his niece, was one of the company, Johnson, with his usual complacent attention to the fair sex, took her by the hand and said, “My dear, I hope you are a Jacobite.” Old Mr. Langton, who, though a high and steady Tory, was attached to the present Royal Family, seemed offended, and asked Johnson, with great warmth, what he could mean by putting such a question to his niece! “Why, Sir, (said Johnson) I meant no offence to your niece, I meant her a great compliment. A Jacobite, Sir, believes in the divine right of Kings. He that believes in the divine right of Kings believes in a Divinity. A Jacobite believes in the divine right of Bishops. He that believes in the divine right of Bishops believes in the divine authority of the Christian religion. Therefore, Sir, a Jacobite is neither an Atheist nor a Deist. That cannot be said of a Whig; for Whiggism is a negation of all principle” (305).

Furthermore, Toriness is a manliness of spirit. Johnson writes concerning a late bishop who deserves Johnson’s support: “and [it will] increase that fervour of Loyalty, which in me, who boast of the name TORY, is not only a principle, but a passion” (804).

Johnson warns of the propensity towards lawsuits and debts.  “Of lawsuits there is no end …I am more afraid of the debts than the House of Lords. It is scarcely imagined what debts will swell, that are daily increasing by small additions, and how carelessly in a state of desperation debts are contracted” (817).

The three moments are “Johnson before marriage,” Johnson after his wife’s death, and Johnson’s companionship with Boswell.  

Johnson is one of those heroic individuals.  Johnson was firm yet gentle with Boswell.  He helped Boswell work through his doubts. The skeptics weren’t to be feared.  Johnson wasn’t impressed with Hume.  Any objection Hume had to the faith, Johnson had already worked through when he was young.  He writes, “Truth, sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull” (314).

Boswell wants us to note that Johnson was “manly.”  Not in a cheap bravado sense, but he was direct, firm, yet polite.  A telling scene was when His Majesty paid a surprise visit to Johnson: “During the whole of this interview, Johnson talked to his Majesty with profound respect, but still in his firm manly manner, with a sonorous voice and never in that subdued tone which …is commonly used in the drawing room” (384).

Around age 66 for Johnson the American colonies were beginning to rebel.  Interestingly, Boswell refers to the Bostonians as a “race” (575).

We should imitate Johnson both in word and deed. Johnson believed–correctly–in a natural hierarchy of mankind.  He opposed the “Leveller” doctrine (quasi-Anabaptists).

Johnson also (correctly) opposed Rousseau. 

Boswell: “Do you really think him [Rousseau] a bad man?” Johnson: “Sir, if you are talking jestingly of this, I don’t talk with you. If you mean to be serious, I think him one of the worst of men; a rascal, who ought to be hunted out of society, as he has been. Three or four nations have expelled him: and it is a shame that he is protected in this country.” Boswell: “I don’t deny, Sir, but that his novel may, perhaps, do harm; but I cannot think his intention was bad.” Johnson: “Sir, that will not do. We cannot prove any man’s intention to be bad. You may shoot a man through the head, and say you intended to miss him; but the Judge will order you to be hanged. An alleged want of intention, when evil is committed, will not be allowed in a court of justice. Rousseau, Sir, is a very bad man. I would sooner sign a sentence for his transportation, than that of any felon who has gone from the Old Bailey these many years. Yes, I should like to have him work in the plantations.”

 

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Signet classics.

In this volume is the “essence of America.” Franklin is thrifty and hence, successful. Religious but not dogmatic. Concerned with virtue, yet seeing no contradiction in consorting with women of low repute. Throughout this book is practical wisdom–and despite Franklin’s own contradictions, much is worth considering.

On writing

Try not to use the word “seem” in your didactic writing. Say what you mean. Franklin writes, “I wish well-meaning and sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us” (Franklin 31).

On Religion

He became a Deist by reading books against Deism (69ff). He was enthralled with “doing good” and “ethics,” yet this didn’t stop him from consorting with red-light girls. He writes, “In the meantime that hard-to-be-governed passion of youth (note: in the context of delaying marriage) had hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way, which were attended with some expense and great inconvenience, besides a continual risk to my health by a distemper, which of all things I dreaded, though’ by great good luck I escaped it” (80).

For all his Deism, Franklin wasn’t your modern-day ACLU skeptic. While he didn’t believe in a state church, he didn’t believe all religions are equal. Christianity should have pride of place. Further, he didn’t believe in attacking religion.

On Languages

He taught himself French and Italian. He had only one year of Latin as a child and neglected it. He was able to pick it back up later in life. He says it is more useful to begin with something like French than Latin (111).

His life ended with a whimper. He was away for long periods of time from his wife, and was in Europe at the time of her death. He died estranged from his son. While his letters are mute on whether he was indiscreet, he did carry on several (relatively) Platonic dalliances with women young enough to be his daughters.