Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Songs to Die for--Post II

William Cowper (pronounced "Cooper") was a late 18th century Christian poet who suffered from madness at recurrent intervals. He tried to commit suicide, imagined that people were trying to poison him, and decided that he was doomed to hell. He was a Calvinist, and it's interesting to me to see that Calvinism was a very upsetting doctrine at the time. The Baptist Calvinism with which I was raised (and I'm not even that much of a Calvinist anymore) was a modified version: The idea there was that if you had, on a certain nameable date, accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, you could know that you were one of the elect. But if you were a Calvinist in Cowper's time, you were always worrying that maybe you'd been predestined to damnation and just weren't going to find that out for sure until you died.

John Newton, of "Amazing Grace" fame, was a great friend of Cowper's and one of the most unfortunate friends poor, mad Cowper could have had. Newton would write Cowper letters saying that he doubted that Cowper was one of the elect after Newton heard that Cowper had been hob-nobbing with neighbors of whom Newton disapproved. I seem to recall that they were Catholics. Newton seems to have considered them "worldly." This is not the sort of thing you should be saying to a person who goes mad periodically thinking he's damned. Cowper's letters, which I've read with great profit, make sometimes lovely reading and sometimes terribly sad reading, because at the end of his life he was on the seashore and thought that the ships he saw coming were coming to take him away to hell.

Anyway, one of the most famous hymns with lyrics by Cowper is "There is a Fountain Filled With Blood," and two verses of it fit well into my series on songs about heaven. They are joyful verses to sing if you know Cowper's story, because you can think to yourself that now he knows the assurance he felt only temporarily when he wrote these verses. Now he doesn't have to be afraid anymore.

Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved to sin no more.
Be saved to sin no more, be saved to sin no more.
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved to sin no more.

When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave
Then in a nobler, sweeter song, I'll sing thy power to save.
I'll sing thy power to save, I'll sing thy power to save.
Then in a nobler, sweeter song I'll sing thy power to save.

7 comments:

The Dapper Divine said...

Cowper presents a much more intense case of what I experienced early on in my newfound adult walk: the idea that I couldn't truly be sure that I was saved, as compared to the notion that I had deluded myself into thinking that I was saved (when in reality I was truly unregenerate). Such thoughts _really_ troubled me, and I can relate to Cowper (and to Luther as well) in terms of not being sure of one's salvation.

Likewise, I had my own Newtons in those early days, who often said the wrong things. They were among the more charismatic crowd.

Thid intellectual/existential "demon" of mine was finally vanquished thanks to realizing that the NT discusses what God has done for us, as compared to what we do for God. It isn't, as emphasized in my charismatic youth, about how I feel and react to God, but it is about God's actions towards me (and all men).

This doesn't excuse "works" one bit --- works are the outward sign and confirmation of our freely received faith, but it strikes me that much of what I went through (and Luther and Cowper) could've been averted if they viewed the NT revelation correctly. Of course, the spectre of damnation is so daunting that their worries have some merit (given the dire consequences if in fact their worries were based on truth).

Only Lydia would understand the following line of mine: this is a purely penitential comment. :-)

William Luse said...

That's kind of a sad story about old Cowper. I feel for him, but rather than seeking an assurance I know I can't have, I've pretty much accepted I'm worthy of nothing but damnation. My ace in the hole is that I know some really nice people. I'm counting on their prayers to put me over the top.

Lydia McGrew said...

DD, ego te absolvo. :-)

I think it has to be remembered that Cowper apparently held double predestination. This would mean that, _if_ he was predestined to hell, no other theological truth was positively relevant to him and nothing else--neither Christ's work on the cross nor anyone's prayers nor anything--could be helpful or comforting. On a double predestination view, Christ only died for the elect.

As far as I know, I've never held double predestination, nor do Catholics or Lutherans. Cowper's experience shows how truly terrifying a doctrine it is. Fortunately it's false.

the dapper divine said...

Lydia --- I don't think that holding to double predestination necessarily forces one to view all other theological truths as irrelevant to the matter of one's salvation. I'm not sure if this is what you meant, or if you meant something else and I'm misunderstanding you.

It would seem to me that one could hold to double predestination and still allow other truths to play into one's level of assurance and sanity as well. For example, if double predestination is true (and while I'm not sure it is, there seems to be at least a good argument from scripture for it), then I'll still look at my works, my thoughts, my (purported) fruits and such for evidence that I'm regenerated, justified, &c. So I'm using theological truths apart from the predestination-related passages to try to understand my situation.

But again, perhaps I'm misunderstanding you. This is a tricky matter, and a few paragraphs in a comment thread won't do it justice.

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, and that's what Cowper (and Newton) did. That was Newton's excuse for giving him a hard time for hanging out with supposedly worldly neighbors.

_But_, what can't consistently be of psychological help to the 5-point Calvinist is what you were talking about, or what I understood you to be describing--Christ's work on the cross for us, what God hs done for us in terms of sending His Son to die, offering us forgiveness of sins, God's mercy, etc. Because _if_ you are already predestined to hell, then (on the strong Calvinist view) Christ _didn't die for you_. So God didn't do all that stuff for you, you are a vessel of wrath, not of mercy, etc. So merely reflecting on God's mercy, Christ's death, the forgiveness of sin, really isn't helpful to the person who believes that, because it doesn't tell him whether he's one of the people who gets the benefits of all of that or one of the other guys to whom that stuff is unavailable.

ivan said...

These are some beautiful posts. You should include videos/recordings with the actual music however, as these are meant to be heard, not read. Most hymns can be found on youtube somewhere.

Lydia McGrew said...

Ivan, thank you! I'll have to try to get over lingering technophobia and do that.