On this episode of Open Book, Stephen Nichols and R.C. Sproul discuss Puritan theology, “feathery” Christians, and what it means to worship the true, living God.
STEVEN NICHOLS: Dr. Sproul, it’s good to see you again. We’re once again in your library, and I’m holding one of your books in my hand. First of all, we just need to say that this is a beautiful book with great content. This is Thomas Watson’s A Body of Divinity. Let’s first think about this book in its context. What is this book? Who is Thomas Watson?
R.C. SPROUL: Watson was a Puritan, of course, and so he reflects the spirit of the Puritan movement. Puritans had an approach to theology that was always mixed with doxology, where you wouldn’t just read flat expositions of doctrine. It’s like reading the Apostle Paul. When they were expositing doctrine, they couldn’t keep their souls in check. They had to express their love and delight, writing in the same style as Jonathan Edwards.
NICHOLS: Edwards aimed to express the sweetness of God.
SPROUL: There were two words that were most used in his works: sweetness and excellence. Edwards had a genuine religious affection, and you can see that same affection modeled here in Watson. Watson had a strong belief that people should be catechized in the Christian faith. He didn’t just pontificate and look back on the first-century church, which followed a pattern of proclamation followed up by catechesis through the Didache. Here, in A Body of Divinity, he works through the Westminster Shorter Catechism and gives an exposition of it starting with the first question: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”
NICHOLS: And that’s just the introduction.
SPROUL: His work is filled with nuggets of gold. Each heading, each subdivision of his work, is worth reading just for its literary quality, the lyrical way in which it not only speaks to the mind—which it does so eloquently and clearly—but the way it directly moves from the mind to the heart.
NICHOLS: It does. I’m looking here at the first question. When we say “body of divinity,” we’re referring to a system of theology, and this system of theology came to him from the Westminster Standards. These were his sermons. We’ve got to remember that.
NICHOLS: This wasn’t for some academic classroom. This was for the people of God. When he gets to this first question on man’s chief end, he asks, “What is it to glorify God?” The very first thing he says is “Appreciation.” He says, “To glorify God is to set God highest in our thoughts, and to have a venerable esteem of Him.” He goes on to talk about our wonder and delight of God. He says that, in God, “There is a constellation of all beauties.”
SPROUL: That’s it. What Watson is doing is explaining what it means to esteem something: to place a supreme value on it. This is what he does with his whole understanding of the character of God. Again, this is not just an intellectual exercise of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, but his soul is being moved to sheer delight in God.
NICHOLS: You’ve got a lot of underlining in this book, Dr. Sproul.
SPROUL: I know.
NICHOLS: Right after he says that we should appreciate God —and you wrote in the margin at this point, “To honor him and to esteem him most excellent”—but right after that, he says this: “Glorifying God consists in adoration, or worship,” to worship the Lord and the beauty of holiness (Ps. 29:9).
SPROUL: Well, I can remember what I was thinking when I wrote that marginal note, when I wrote, “To honor him.” The Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, describes the universal sin—the primordial sin—of all human beings is that, while we know God, we refuse to honor Him as God, and neither are we grateful to Him. I’ve thought a lot about that in recent years. It’s not simply that we don’t honor God. That’s not the problem. It’s that the world, in its rejection and suppression of God, does not turn to atheism; it turns to paganism.
SPROUL: Idolatry. So, there’s this substitution and distortion, this exchange of the truth for the lie and serving and worshiping the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. The problem is that religion is all around us and there is worship, but it is not worshiping God as God. What I love about this book is that it expounds upon the God that we worship: who God is and what it means to adore, venerate, and esteem the God who is the true, living God.
NICHOLS: You know, this is a great place to start for theology—not only with the doctrine of God, but with the worship of God.
SPROUL: Exactly. You know, my professor at Amsterdam, G.C. Berkouwer, said, “All true theology must begin and end with doxology.” That struck me.
NICHOLS: That phrase struck you?
SPROUL: That struck me because when I was in seminary, reading guys like Paul Tillich, you never caught this sense of doxology. It was analytical and interesting, but it wasn’t the stuff that stirs the soul.
NICHOLS: That’s right. I know that somewhere in this book Watson says that he’s writing so that we don’t become “feathery Christians.” I think what he means by that is that when the winds blow, if you’re a feathery Christian, you’re going to get blown away.
SPROUL: You’re going to get blown away by the slightest wind of doctrine. Even a little zephyr will take you off the mark.
NICHOLS: We want a little stability and solidity. We have that in Thomas Watson and the Puritans. Do you think that people should read this book today?
SPROUL: Oh, absolutely, yes.
NICHOLS: Well, it’s a beautiful book. It’s Thomas Watson’s A Body of Divinity, and we’ve been visiting in your library, Dr. Sproul. So, thank you for letting us come and spend some time with you.