Jul 30, 2009

Phelps on New Birth

In A. H. Strong's "Systematic Theology," where he addresses the Bible doctrine of "regeneration," he mentions two differing opinions regarding the instrumentality of truth in it.

First, there is the essay - "Is Truth An Instrument In Regeneration?" by Nehemiah Pierce.

In this Pierce takes the Hardshell or Hyper Calvinistic view, the one that says regeneration takes place without the means of the gospel.

See here

Next, there is the essay - "The new birth, or, The work of the Holy Spirit" By Austin Phelps (1878)

See here

Particularly see chapter III, "Truth, the Instrument of Regeneration."

Phelps took the opposite view of Pierce, and the following are excerpts from his writing.

"The scriptural representations on this subject are not recondite; yet they cover all those points of inquiry on which we need instruction, that we may form a consistent theory of the working of Divine Grace. They may be cited, not so much for their force as proof-texts, as for their pertinence in giving us the inspired doctrine in inspired expression. Fortunately, the most salient of the passages declarative of this doctrine need no comment. To utter them is to explain them. It is difficult to mistake the import of the text: "Of his own will begat lie us with the word of truth." To the same effect is tlio Psalmist's declaration: "The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul." The entire burden of the one hundred and nineteenth Psalm is a tribute of adoration to Truth as an instrument of Divine purposes. Why was Paul "not ashamed of the gospel of Christ"? Because "it is the power of God unto salvation."

"By such versatility and boldness of imagery do the sacred writers pour out in profusion their conceptions of truth as an instrument in the execution of God's will. And it is by the aid of these picturesque Scriptures that we must vivify our interpretation of those declarative passages which express logically the instrumentality of truth in regeneration."


"It is scarcely possible to reverent inquiry to err on this point. This is an elemental fact in scriptural theology, which no necessities of philosophy should tempt us to fritter away. Specifications of it may be concisely stated in the following form:

First, that God employs in regeneration Truth as distinct from instruments of physical power. God is wisely studious of congruities. He adapts the instrument to the effect. He selects that which in its nature is fitted to act upon mind, not upon matter. He chooses that which is pro-adjusted to the regeneration of mind, not to its creation. He calls to his service that which intelligence can perceive, heart can feel, will can choose; that which, therefore, the whole man can accept, trust, love, obey.

Again, God employs in regeneration Truth as distinct from falsehood. Not a shadow of evidence appears in the Scriptures that a humam heart was ever changed from sin to holiness by the force of error. No man was ever moved aright by wrong. No soul ever thrived upon lies. Profound and honest belief of the false can never, in its own proper drift, save a man. If it seems to save, there is a way that seemeth right, but the end thereof are the ways of death. If the man is saved in his error, he is not saved by it, but by truth lodged somewhere in it. Pure error tends to destruction as inevitably as fire. An echo comes down the ages of inspiration, "that they all might be damncd who believe not the truth."

Furthermore, God employs in regeneration religious Truth as distinct from all other truth. Not the axioms of mathematics, which appeal only to man's sense of the true; not truths which address only man's sense of the beautiful; not truths which move only man's sense of grandeur; not truths which gratify only man's love of mystery; not truths which quicken only man's sense of honor; not truths which take possession only of man's social affections; not these are the causal instrument of the new birth."

"Moreover, in the regeneration of those to whom the Christian revelation is given, God employs as his chosen and final instrument, Truth as it radiates from the person and the work of Christ: "I am the Truth; I am the Life;" "The Gospel of Christ is the power of God unte salvation"; "Nothing, save Jesus Christ and Him crucified."

"The Instrumentality of Truth Invariable"

"Yet once more, so far as we can know, God never dispenses with the agency of Truth in renewing the hearts of men. If a question be raised here, it should concern, not the power of God, but the facts of his working. So far as any essential doctrine of theology is concerned, it may or may not be true that infinite power can regenerate a soul by other instrumentalities, or without the intervention of instrument. For the purposes of a practical faith, it may or may not be true that, in the nature of things, regeneration is an act which, apart from the instrumentality of truth, sustains no relation even to omnipotence. Be it so, or be it not, that to the Divine Mind truth and regeneration — the instrument and the effect — stand in relations of necessity immutable and eternal, like the laws of numbers or of diagrams, we need not affirm or deny. The theological question, if any exists, is a simple question of fact. Does God in the renewal of a human soul ever dispense with truth as the instrument of the change?

The answer to this question is not wholly unimportant to consistency of faith. It can be given in few words. It is comprised in two positions, which a moment's reflection will establish.

One is, that if God does in any instance dispense with truth as his moral instrument in the new birth, the evidence of this fact must be a subject of pure revelation. Experience, from the nature of the case, cannot prove it. No man can intelligently affirm himself to be conscious of a divine fiat thrilling his nature, making a new man of him, with no instrumental agency, or with other instrumentality than that of truth. The only evidence any man can have from experience that his heart is changed is the evidence of actual exereises of heart in view of truth. Divine power in the change is, to all consciousness, so blended with the force of truth, — in other words, the efficient cause so interpenetrates the instrumental cause, — that no mind can intelligently separate them. Indeed, consciousness gives us no hint of the Divine Cause, except through the success of the instrument. I cannot go back of my own conscious exercises in view of truth, and affirm that God has changed my heart by sheer will, independently of truth. It is plainly impossible; as absolutely so as that my eye should detect the undulations of sound, or my ear those of light. Regeneration, the divine act, is evidenced to consciousness only by conversion, the human change; and this, again, discloses itself only in responses of the soul to truth. Experience can go no further back than this; and if experience cannot, observation cannot. If, then, God has ever wrought the renewal of a soul in such anomalous manner as that implied in the inquiry before us, the evidence of the fact must be a subject of direct and supernatural revelation; we can know it only from the Scriptures.

The second position, then, in answer to this inquiry, is, that the Scriptures are silent as to the occurrence of any such instance in the history of redemption. They do not explicitly deny, but neither do they affirm. They inform us of many instances of regeneration by means of truth; and of not one without the truth. They proclaim indubitably the law of divine working in this phenomenon of human experience; and they neither by assertion nor hint point us to a solitary exception. They record none in the world's history; they predict none in its future. Here, therefore, argument on this topic may legitimately end. In all our positive reasonings upon it we must assume that no such exception exists. In our practical uses of the doctrine we must assume that none will exist to the end of time. "We cannot logically found any article of our faith on the hypothetical possibility that the fact is otherwise.


"But if conjecture, wiser than truth, must still press inquiry and ask: "How are infants regenerated who die before moral responsibility commences?" we respond by inquiries which are at least as wise; though for ourselves we do not revere them, nor are our dreams troubled if we cannot answer them. We respond by asking: How do you know that they are regenerated? How do you know that irresponsible beings are proper subjects of "regeneration" in the sense in which the Scriptures apply the word to adult sinners? Who has told you that the new birth has any relation to irresponsible infancy more than to irresponsible idiocy? Is a change of heart conceivable in a being who has no heart? What is regeneration in an irresponsible soul? What authority have we for believing anything of such a nondescript? Shall the whole drift of the Scriptures bo held in check by conjectural philosophy?

But, again, how do you know that there are any such infants? Where is it revealed that a soul has ever left this world, or ever will, with moral nature absolutely undeveloped? Who can assure you that moral birth and physical birth are not simultaneous? Who can prove that because a being cannot discern between its right hand and its left, therefore it cannot in any respect or in any degree distinguish right thought from wrong? How much do we know of the possibilities of infantile intuitions? Besides, who knows what the process of dying is, as a means of moral development? Have we never seen an aged infant in its coffin? Moreover, is not the death of an infant, itself an abnormal event? May it not then be one of a group of anomalies which involve an anomalous probation and an anomalous qualification for heaven?

Yet once more: if infants are proper subjects of the same change which adults undergo in regeneration, then are they not sinners? If sinners, have they not sinned? If they have sinned, can they not repent? If they can either sin or repent, can they not know right and wrong; therefore may not they too, in a future world, declare gratefully: "Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth"? Have ye not read: "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?" Who shall dare to limit God's power of converse with the tiniest image of his own being? Are not the whole heavens mirrored in the retina of a single eyeball? How much greater is the distance — and what matters it to his resources — between God and a speechless babe than between God and you or me? How do we know that in the world of infantile seclusion, before speech has broken the eternal silence from which that world has sprung, God has not ordained a system of moral correspondences with heaven, on which he administers a government of freedom, of law, and of grace, as perfect in its kind as that of Eden; a system which he guards as lovingly as ours; and a system before the mysteries of which angelic wisdom bends reverently, as wo stand in awe around the marvels of the microscope? Is such a system any more incomprehensible or incredible than the laws of communication by instinct in humming-birds? Is it any more marvellous than the autocracy of a beehive?

We confess to an aesthetic sympathy with Wordsworth's fancy in the lines, —

"Thou who didst wrap the cloud
Of infancy around us, that Thyself
Therein with our simplicity awhile
Mightcst hold on earth communion undisturbed."

Theologically, we see no absurdity in the hope that this may be more than poetry. Yet we cannot fortify the hope by revelation or by reason. The proof-texts — where are they? The logic of the facts — to whom has infantile experience disclosed it? Our memory is very reticent; our observation is very ignorant. To our reason, "the cloud of infancy" is very dense. To our faith, the Bible is very still. "What moral mysteries are latent in infantile inind wo therefore do not affirm or deny. We do not know. If revelation had been addressed to infants it might have made us more knowing than we are; but, alas, we cannot be wise above that which is written for our admonition. Yet, if the Scriptures had answered the "obstinate questionings" of wise men on this theme, could the world have contained the books which should be written?"

This view should specially commend itself as a corrective of certain prejudices which may be fatal to religious life. Is there not a class of solidly built minds which are constitutionally incredulous of a supernatural regeneration, because they have 110 conception of it as anything else than the effect of a shock inflicted upon tho spiritual nature? They imagine it as involving a suspense of conscious personality. They have heard believers affirm that it may be imparted to a man in sleep. The creation of Eve seems to them not an inapt symbol of it. Hence, they rank faith in it with other eccentricities of dreams. Their good sense revolts from the whole thing. Have we not known certain timid minds which have believed, indeed, but only to shrink from their faith as a practical experience, because their faith also is steeped in materialism? Regenerating grace as they conceive of it is spiritualized electricity. They recoil from a religious life, for a reason analogous to that which leads them to draw back from a voltaic battery. Contortions, spiritual or muscular, are alike repulsive. Some, too, believe only to despair of salvation; others, only to live ill sullen impenitence, because they are not conscious of the infusion of new vitality into their moral being. Do not pastors often encounter sad inquirers, whoso minds are saturated with conceptions of the new birth scarcely more spiritual than those of Nicodemus? Are not these conceptions in part the result of accepting literally the symbolic language of the pulpit in the enforeement of this doctrine? I have known a man to watch and pray for palpable concussion with the regenerating Power, as he would spread his sails to catch the winds if he were becalmed at sea. Such unfortunate experiences are tho legitimate fruit of any theory of regeneration which reduces a change of heart to an infraction of nature.

A third principle inferable from the doctrine before us, is that of the importance of truthfulness in theological opinion. The new birth as represented in the Scriptures gives no support to the theory, so natural to superficial thought, that belief, as such, is of little moment in religion; that God will judge characters, and not creeds; that we shall not be held responsible for obeying another man's faith in preference to our own. On the contrary, in regeneration charactor and creed are indissolubly united. God's instrument in effecting the change is truth. Falsehood finds no place there. Truth in caricature finds none. The less a man believes of truth, the more distant is he from the probable range of regenerating grace. The more distorted a man's opinions are, the more fearful are his perils. The more negative his convictions become, the more faint becomes all reasonable hope that he will be saved. In terrific consistency with this principle is the scriptural representation of the most hopeless depth of sin, as that of those to whom God sends delusion, that they may believe a lie. God acts in regeneration where truth can act; not elsewhere. The mind that withholds itself from truth is withholding itself from God."

"There is reason to believe respecting many constant listeners to the preaching of the gospel, that here is the exact point at which lies the chief obstacle in their way to heaven. They will not assent to certain truths, the force of which is essential to draw them within the range of God's regenerating decree. They are repelled by one truth; they are heedlessly confused by another; they are uninterested in a third; perhaps in part persuaded of many, they are advancing in consolidation of character with hearty opinions upon none. The Holy Spirit passes them by, because they will not credit his truth. They thrust the instrument of his grace from them, and he leaves them in their sins. He does not there his mighty works, because of their unbelief."

See here

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