beginning in the middle of things

looks like snowWell, it’s my final year at that fine institution — Moore Theological College.

And I hope to spend a bunch of time this year reflecting on theological method.

My reading list is already longer than my arm. And I’ve barely even started any assignments!

But I have a strong sense that you’ve just got to start. A wise one once said, ‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh’ (Ecclesiastes 12.12). Throat-clearing can only go on so long.

Ultimately, you can’t help but begin ‘in the middle of things’ (in medias res for you classicists).

We always come at any topic with our ideas, hunches, questions, blindspots and other assorted other baggage. What’s more, this isn’t crippling but enabling (although the threat always looms that we’ll cling so tightly to our baggage that we overlook, distort or suppress whatever’s inconvenient or difficult to reconcile in what we’re looking at).

This was, arguably, John Milton’s approach to theology. He often protested that he was forced into issuing ‘untimely’ responses — ‘out of season’, without adequate time to dig deep and go back to first principles.

In the poem from which this blog takes its title, ‘Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How My Light Is Spent’, Milton reflects on the prospect of becoming almost totally blind before he turned 50.

‘What a waste!’, he exclaims. Facing his own unrealised potential, and painfully aware of Jesus’ stern warning not to waste what God entrusts to you (Matt 25.14-30), Milton’s mind moves in ever widening circles.

First, he protests. He rages against the apparent unfairness of his treatment: ‘Does God exact day-labour, light denied?’

Then, ‘Patience’ (whether his own or its embodiment in the Lord Jesus) supplies him with a robust statement of what theologians call the aseity of God: ‘God doth not need / Either man’s work or his own gifts’.

This is the ‘big picture’ within which the poet must see his plight.

But Patience goes on, and fills out the picture:

                                                                   who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest…

In other words, God doesn’t need us. But he does want us. And what he wants from us is faithfulness. His ‘best servants’ are the ones ‘who best bear / his mild yoke’.

Which is all well and good, except for the fact that these servants seem to be characterised is by unceasing activity — they ‘post o’er land and ocean without rest’. Cold comfort for a blind scholar and statesman!

But there’s one final twist. It’s the final of test of whether or not Milton believes in the big picture he’s been developing. Can he — or rather can we, can you (gentle reader) — really trust that God prizes the faithfulness of his people above our effectiveness?

Can we really believe that even a blind poet can serve God?

‘Yes!’, Milton replies (in thunder). For…

They also serve, who only stand and wait.

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