Greek’s Bearing Gifts (A Couple Quick Responses To The “Greek” Charge in Theology)

platoaristoFor some time now, one of the main charges made against the early Church Fathers and the Medievals has been that in translating the gospel to their Greek contemporaries, they ended up altering (or disfiguring) it. Or at least in part. This kind of thing usually comes up most with respect to the doctrine of God. The idea is that in order to make the gospel intellectually respectable, or simply because they couldn’t recognize their own presuppositions, the Fathers constructed their doctrine of God in ways that were dependent more on principles of Greek philosophy, rather than based on the picture of God given to us in the Israel’s Scriptures. On this view, speech about an “impassible” and “immutable” God has less to do with the God of Jesus, than with Aristotelian or Platonic ideas about apatheia and so forth. Typically this has been dubbed the “Hellenization thesis.”

Now, this was an extremely popular charge over the last century or so, especially among those looking to ditch some old doctrines, and reconceive God along other lines. It’s still quite popular today, at least among the bloggerati as well. When you want to retool something, or reframe it differently than it’s been taught for a few hundred years, or longer, it’s usually good to have a story for why people used to teach something, and why we need to move on from it. A story of unfortunate corruption and decay fits the bill quite nicely.

I bring all this up because Michael Allen had a great post over at the Zondervan Academic blog, “Common Places” on the way the Hellenization Thesis needs to be put to bed. I quite agree. Allen goes about showing the way it’s been dispatched by more careful historical and theological work of late. To summarize the situation in though, he quotes Robert Loius Wilken:

“The notion that the development of early Christian thought represented a Hellenization of Christianity has outlived its usefulness … a more apt expression would be the Christianization of Hellenism, though that phrase does not capture the originality of Christian thought nor the debt owed to Jewish ways of thinking and to the Jewish Bible.”

From what I’ve read of the literature, which admittedly is limited, that sounds about right. Allen then goes on to make a number of helpful suggestions about the way theologians ought to adjust to life after the death of the Hellenization thesis, all of which are worth your time. It’s dying in academia, but in the popular theological mind it still stalks about like a ghost clinging to life among the living.

Most people often don’t have the time to do the specialized studies of the Fathers and the Medievals to demonstrate this, however. So, I thought it might be helpful to note briefly a few ways of responding, or thinking about the “Greek” charge when coming across it popularly.

“Prove it”, or The Genetic Fallacy.  The first is to note simply that many forms of the “Greek” charge are a form of the genetic fallacy. In other words, the assumption is that because an idea came from a Greek source, it is therefore unbiblical and false. But just because Aristotle came up with an idea, it by no means follows that the idea isn’t true. It still has to be demonstrated according to Scripture that some Greek idea is incompatible with the gospel. In other words, “Prove it.”

Two Biblical doctrines ought to give us pause in connection with this. First, is the doctrine of the Image of God. Without getting into the issue of natural revelation or the possibility of natural theology, despite the fall, humans can still get some reasoning done. It’s not salvific, or anything, but it’s still there. Second, is the doctrine of common grace. God gives out good gifts to both Jew and Greek, Christian and non-Christian, by his mercy and the common work of the Spirit in creation. The fall has corrupted our knowledge of God, and every philosophical principle needs to be held up to the light of Scripture, but we shouldn’t be too surprised when some of them lineup.

Jesus Has Layers  – Closely related to this is an idea forwarded by some that the intellectual interaction between Biblical revelation and Greek philosophy was a good part of God’s providential ordering. Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has written about the critical role the attempts of the early Greek apologists played in the project of making the gospel intelligible and plausible to non-Jews. Gentile like us shouldn’t so quickly turn on the very principles that played such a significant role in their own conversion (ST: Vol 1, pg. 72).

C.S. Lewis wrote positively in Miracles about the way certain Greek philosophizing could “cleanup” biblical imagery without substantially changing, or weakening it. Indeed, it seems not improbable that God had a design in mind for the clash and encounter of Hellenistic and Biblical thought. Biblical truth is thick, with many layers.

Some theologians have made the point that it’s quite possible that with each new culture and thought form Christian theology encounters, more dimensions to the unchanging revelation of God will unfold. It’s not that the truth changes, mind you. It is that with each new culture and life situation, the same earth-shattering gospel of Christ crucified, risen, and reigning speaks to the particular problems and paradigms of those people in a new way. The meaning is the same, but it’s significance and implications expand.

It could be that the interaction of the Jewish-shaped gospel with the Greek intellectual culture brought out some of the implications inherent in the message itself. Jesus has always had surprising layers and depths to him. Is it really so hard to believe that Greek Christians managed to discover some enduring ones?

Soli Deo Gloria

Abraham, Cultural Distance, and Offering Up Our Moral Conscience

abraham and isaacMy friend Rachel got me thinking about the story of Abraham and Isaac again the other day. I think the first time I really gave it any deep thought was in reading Kierkegaard’s famous meditation on the nature of faith in Fear and Trembling. The entire thing is an examination of Abraham’s terrible choice, his decision whether or not to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering to God. (Actually, on a biographical note, that book’s partially responsible for me being married to my wife. But that’s a story for another time.) I took up the text again in seminary, ended up looking at some of the rabbinic treatments of the issue, and wrote a short paper on it.

In any case, upon reading the story the question comes up for many of us, “Would we? Could we ‘pass’ that terrible test of faith that Abraham did that dreadful day?” I don’t have a child yet, so I can’t say I know the full reality of what it is to love a son–let alone an only son. I love my nephew and to even briefly consider his loss fills me with terror. To think that my God could command that I perpetrate the deed is terror upon terror. In good conscience, I don’t think I could do it.

But here’s the thing, if I were Abraham I’m not so sure what I’d do.

What do I mean by that?

All too often in these discussions of troubling texts, we collapse the cultural distance between us and the biblical characters. Human nature is, in many ways, constant. Conscience is one of those basic human features. Across cultures, everybody has a clear sense of right and wrong, norms against which we must not cross, and an internal compass about these sorts of things. That said, any student of culture knows there are some significant variations across cultures as well. “Self-evident truths” held by post-Enlightenment Americans are not all that apparent to equally intelligent Middle Easterners or citizens of the Majority world. The conscience of a 1st Century citizen might be very sensitive about an issue you and I wouldn’t blink twice about, and vice versa. Our cultural presuppositions and plausibility structures do a significant amount of work here.

Where does this come in with Abraham? Well, I think it becomes a factor in two ways: cultural distance and revelational distance. These two are bound up with each other.

I Went to Sunday School

First, it’s been said by biblical scholars before, but it bears saying again: child sacrifice was fairly common for a number of Ancient Near Eastern cults of Abraham’s day.* We have archeological digs filled with tiny human skulls and skeletons that were burned in the fire. At least two of early Israel’s neighbor competition deities, Molech and Chemosh both demanded child sacrifice. Abraham was a recovering idolater in this context. He didn’t grow up in church, Sunday school, or youth group. He grew up around idols, sacrifice, and the pagan gods most of his life. He didn’t live in the 21st Century West. I’m not a cultural relativist, but we neglect this reality much to our harm when it comes to these texts.

For Abraham to receive a command from the God he’d been following for some years now was not unintelligible. It wouldn’t be easy, or simple, but it wouldn’t be unthinkable to him. In Abraham’s mind, the firstborn does belong to God. In fact, that’s actually a deep truth that runs all through the Bible. The firstborn does belong to God as you can see very clearly in the principle of the Passover (Exodus 12) and the redemption of the firstborn and their replacement with the Levites (Numbers 3). Without this, you can’t understand Jesus’ role as the firstborn who redeems all of creation (Colossians 1).  God was testing him according to his own standards of ultimate devotion even though he had no intention of accepting it.

Still, what differed with God was the mode of the offering of the firstborn. Abraham didn’t know God’s character. A few encounters over the years isn’t a full bio of God. Remember, in Genesis 18, with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham still thought he had to talk God into being merciful. He didn’t know God’s commitment to life and that he’d only come to judge a once it had become so wicked as to have less than ten righteous people in the whole thing. And so, God “tested” him, and taught him through that haggling experience. In a very similar way, God was testing him according to his own standards of ultimate devotion even though he had no intention of accepting it. Did he have as much devotion to YHWH as the idolaters did? As much devotion as he would be willing to offer them?

God tested him, and then revealed himself to Abraham as the gracious Lord, who provides the sacrifice.

I’m a Christian

This is where the second form of distance from this situation comes in: All throughout Israel’s history, the Lord has to reiterate over and over that he does not want child sacrifice to happen. Multiple times in Jeremiah he says something like,

And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. (Jeremiah 7:31)

Israel’s kings even made their children pass through the fire in the valley of Hinnom outside the gates of Jerusalem. The people built high places. Apparently this was the kind of thing that it was very tempting for Israelites, even after Abraham’s day to do–to offer up sacrifices, the fruit of their love, to their gods in the fire.

We live in a culture that has been shaped by the text and presuppositions of Scripture on this, when Abraham did not. Western culture did not place the high value upon human life that we (allegedly) do, except through the influence of the Scriptures on our cultural conscience. In the ancient Greco-Roman Empire, Christians distinguished themselves by forbidding the dangerous and deadly (for both mother and child) abortions at the time. What’s more, they made a practice of rescuing infants who were regularly abandoned to die outside the gates of the city. It is this conscience that we inherit.**

Abraham didn’t have that either. So when I say, couldn’t, I mean it. I’m not an Ancient Near Easterner. I’m also not a recovering idolater (well, not in that sense.) I’m a Christian who has a Bible and knows the revealed character of God. God has strongly commanded that these things are evil and contrary to his purposes. So if God came to me today with these commands, I’d probably think it was a demon because he has clearly forbidden it in Scripture and, contrary to some popular readings, God doesn’t simply contradict himself.

I’m Not a Knight of Faith

There’s one more difference, though, between Abraham and myself: I’m not always sure I have his faith. See, if the New Testament is any help in understanding the story, apparently Abraham didn’t expect to walk back down the mountain alone that day.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17-19)

I suppose this is what Kierkegaard was talking about when he spoke of the difference between the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith. Infinite resignation sacrifices the child believing that’s the end of it. Faith believes God’s good and he’ll give the child back. Abraham believed the knife wasn’t the end of the story. He thought, in some mysterious way, he was coming back down the mountain with Isaac.

Binding and Offering Up Our Conscience

There’s always more to say, but I suppose I’ll end with a word about conscience since that’s what provoked some of these meditations. We give ourselves a lot of credit on this one. We think the same thing about Germany and WWII. “I would never participate in that.” But most normal Germans did. At the right time and place, with the right cultural history behind us, many of us would do a lot of things we never would imagine doing now.

I mean, in our own ways, we do. Today there are a great number of men and women who honestly, legitimately think according to their conscience they are doing good by defending a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Of course, if a certain line of moral reasoning is true, then Abraham’s choice begins to look a bit closer to us in the 21st Century West. And we’re vocal about it. That’s how disoriented a strong conscience can be.

This is why, though Scripture tells us that conscience is important, and we ought not sin against it (Romans 14), we probably shouldn’t make it the final judge of things (1 Corinthians 4:3-5). We need to listen to our conscience, to be sure, but we also ought to submit them to the Word in order that we might be transformed according to the renewing of our minds so that we can know what God’s good and perfect will is (Romans 12:1-2).

That doesn’t mean we should stop questioning, thinking, reading, studying, and just settle for the first, obvious reading of any text we come to. No, all too often that will lead us astray and may even lead us to affirm things out of “deference” to God that he himself would never affirm. Some more Kierkegaardian wrestling on this point would probably do the church some good. All the same, as Christians we confess that God is God and God is good. And so we will trust his word and wrestle with it until we can his goodness in it. We will struggle until we can offer our consciences up to God and ask him to teach us, trusting that we will receive them back whole and healed.

And thank God, I think he is patient with us in those times.

Soli Deo Gloria

*See Jon D. Levenson’s excellent The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. 
**For more on this, see The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark and Atheist Delusions by D.B. Hart.

Triune Justification

trinityFrom time to time I hear the charge that Protestant and Evangelical approaches to salvation are sub-trinitarian. By focusing so narrowly on the question of justification as a legal or forensic action, or Jesus’ cross-work as its grounding, Protestants have ignored the Father and crowded out the Spirit. While I must admit that may be true in some popular presentations, it’s certainly not the case of classic Reformed theology. Not only was God’s justification set within the context of a broader trinitarian theology of union with Christ, the completion of justification considered in itself can only be conceived of as the gracious work of the Triune One.

Herman Bavinck lays out the trinitarian shape of our justification in laying out the nature of God’s grace as the forgiving mercy of God as opposed to the more metaphysical conception of the medieval Roman church:

The establishment of the covenant of grace proceeds from God and from him alone. It is he and he alone who for his own sake blots out our transgressions and no longer remembers our sins (Isa. 43:25). We are justified by his grace as a gift (Rom. 3:24; Gal. 3:18; Eph. 2:8; Titus 3:5–7). More specifically, it is the Father from whom this benefit proceeds, for he is the lawgiver and judge (James 4:12), but also the merciful God, who abounds in steadfast love, and blots out transgressions for his name’s sake (Num. 14:18; Pss. 32:2; 103:3; 130:4; Isa. 43:25; Rom. 3:24; 4:6; 8:33; 2 Cor. 5:19). He himself paved a way in Christ to distribute this benefit, so that Christ, too, possessed the power to forgive sins (Matt. 9:2–6; John 5:22, 27), and himself sent the Holy Spirit to apply this benefit to the hearts of his children (John 14:26; Rom. 8:15–16; 1 Cor. 6:11). In the past, Reformed theologians put it as follows: The Father justifies effectively; the Son, meritoriously; the Holy Spirit, applicationally. And to complete the picture at once, let us add: faith apprehends, the sacraments seal, and works declare.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, pg. 205

Here we see Augustine’s formula “Opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt”, which translates “the works of the Trinity on the outside are indivisible.” In every act of creation and redemption, it is the Father working through, as Ireneaus classically put it, his “two hands” the Son and the Spirit.

So then, must a Protestant view of salvation be sub-trinitarian? While we must always keep in view the broad shape of salvation from election all the way through to glorification, even a laser-like focus on the article of justification cannot eradicate the Triune shape of our faith. It is God who justifies us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For those looking to go deeper into the trinitarian shape of our faith, I would again commend Fred Sanders’ excellent little book The Deep Things of God

Soli Deo Gloria

The Progressive Evangelical Package (Mere Orthodoxy)

It’s no secret that Reformed Christians have built their own wing of the internet where they spend their time chatting among themselves. They police certain key boundaries and dissent from some of these can (rightly or wrongly) bring about serious criticism. While there is more diversity among the Reformed than critics usually want to recognize, there can also be a heavy pressure to conform to the ‘standard’. Given the more consciously confessional (and I do use the term somewhat broadly) ethos among the Reformed, it’s rather unsurprising that this should be the case.

The progressive Evangelicals now have their own wing, though, ostensibly with an emphasis on diversity and a marked aversion to foreclosing conversations or policing boundaries. The idea that there is a strict standard, a party line you have to tow in order to be a part of the club, is supposed to be foreign to the Progressive internet’s ethos. That’s for the heresy-hunting, conservative builders of Evangelical empire, after all, rather than the “radically inclusive” prophets of a more Christ-like faith. Unlike their conservative counterparts, Progressives follow a Jesus who came to tear down the walls that divide, not put new doctrinal ones back up.

Those are the stereotypes, at least. But it’s increasingly difficult to maintain this picture if we take a look at the actual situation on the ground.

There may not be a Progressive Gospel(s) Federation with explicit standards we can look to, but there are certain tenets that are increasingly defining what I’ve dubbed the “Progressive Evangelical Package.” The theological scene is beginning to mirror the political two-party system such that if you hold one or two of these positions, or want to have a voice in the Progressive conversation, it’s likely there is heavy pressure on you to begin affirming all or most of them.

These tenets do not mark out a monolith. There are undoubtedly figures who don’t fit the description, just like there are figures who spend lots of time in the Reformed world who don’t fit the characterization above, either. I maintain that they signal a trend, though.

You can read the rest of the article at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Because I said so”: Epistemic Access, Our Current Moral Debates, and a Trustworthy God

My college philosophy program was a deeply formative time for me theologically. Many of the conclusions I came to in those classes are still with me and exercise a deep influence on the way I process certain divisive theological issues today. What’s more, looking back on things, I probably couldn’t have predicted at the time which insights would stick with me and which wouldn’t.

a fawnOne concept that’s been particularly important I picked up in my undergrad class on the problem of evil: CORNEA. Coined by Stephen J. Wykstra in, as you might have guessed, a piece of analytic philosophy, it’s an acronym for a very lengthy, nerdy term “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access”. Wykstra was arguing against a very famous reformulation by William Rowe of the problem of evil, specifically the evidential one.

The gist of Rowe’s argument is this: think about a baby fawn dying in a forest fire somewhere all alone suffering miserably in the process. This seems to be an instance of suffering and evil where there is no possible point this could serve–at least not one that we can see. Countless situations like this mar our world daily. History is replete with apparently pointless evil. Therefore, on the evidence, it seems highly unlikely that God exists.

Now, there are numerous problems with this, but Wykstra put his finger on what is to my mind the key one: the issue of epistemic access. It is here that he proposes CORNEA (forgive the philosopher speak):

We are, I propose, here in the vicinity of a general condition – necessary rather than sufficient – for one’s being entitled, on the basis of some cognized situation s, to claim “it appears that p.” Since what is at issue is whether it is reasonable to think one has “epistemic access” to the truth of p through s, let us call this “the Condition Of Reasonable Epistemic Access,” or – for short – CORNEA: On the basis of cognized situation s, human H is entitled to claim “It appears that p” only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her.

– “The Humean Obstacle To Evidential Arguments From Suffering: On Avoiding The Evils of Appearance

Think of it this way: say you walk into a room in a seminary and find a man speaking an indecipherable tongue. Now, also consider the fact that in this scenario you know nothing of other languages having spoken only English your whole life. Is it reasonable for you to walk out and claim “It appears to me that they’re teaching nothing but a load of gibberish in there”? It could be a course in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, and yet, given your cognitive abilities–your total ignorance of other languages and such–you’re not really in a position to make that judgment. You have not, in Wykstra’s language, satisfied the “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access.” So, the idea behind CORNEA is that you’re only allowed to say, “it appears that such and such” if you’re in an intellectual position to reasonably make that sort of call.

With respect to the problem of evil, Wykstra says we’re in a similar situation:

We must note here, first, that the outweighing good at issue is of a special sort: one purposed by the Creator of all that is, whose vision and wisdom are therefore somewhat greater than ours. How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.) If such goods as this exist, it might not be unlikely that we should discern some of them: even a one-month old infant can perhaps discern, in its inarticulate way, some of the purposes of his mother in her dealings with him. But if outweighing goods of the sort at issue exist in connection with instances of suffering, that we should discern most of them seems about as likely as that a one-month old should discern most of his parents’ purposes for those pains they allow him to suffer – which is to say, it is not likely at all. So for any selected instance of intense suffering, there is good reason to think that if there is an outweighing good of the sort at issue connected to it, we would not have epistemic access to this: our cognized situation would be just as Rowe says it is with respect to (say) the fawn’s suffering.

In other words, given the sort of suffering that fawn is going through, if God had a good enough reason for allowing it to suffer in the fashion, do you really think its the kind of thing you and I could possibly understand? Is it reasonable for a finite creature of limited wisdom to be able to rule out the possibility that the infinite God has a reason you in your present state couldn’t possibly wrap your mind around? Not really. You can barely wrap your mind around high school physics. In which case, mounting the sort of evidential case Rowe wants to is very problematic. In order to claim that omniscience couldn’t possibly have a good reason for something, you would have an awfully high opinion of your own ability to plumb the infinite depths of knowledge and truth. One that, honestly, it’s quite unreasonable to have. (Incidentally, this is an excellent example of someone using philosophical refinement to make an eminently biblical point. Compare Job 38-41.)

What does any of this have to do with today’s moral debates as I implied in the title? Well, the key comes in with this phrase asking about the difference between God’s knowledge as Creator and ours as creatures:

How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.)

In many of today’s moral debates, many of us think we’re a lot closer than that. The assumption many make is that unless God’s reasoning on a subject is absolutely transparent or immediately intuitive to postmoderns, it simply doesn’t exist or, or it is completely arbitrary. The most obvious example comes in the sexuality debates. Given our culture’s new presuppositions when it comes to sexuality and human identity construction, much of the biblical logic just seems opaque and incoherent. To attempt to appeal to a natural order  that doesn’t seem “natural” to us is arbitrary and obscurantist no matter that it’s revealed in Scripture.

infantvaccineWhile in the past there was probably greater comfort in appealing to God’s unfathomable wisdom, today we balk at the idea that there might be some things we just have to trust him on. Even now, I can hear critics objecting to the example Van Wykstra used above of a the difference between an infant and a parent. That’s an infantilizing cop-out! You have do better than a parent’s “Because I said so.”

But here’s the thing, is there an appropriate time for a parent to simply say “Because I said so”? When a  3-year-old child is too small to understand mom and dad’s logic for allowing them to get stuck in the arm with a needle, it makes sense for them to say “Because I said so” doesn’t it? They know that the child doesn’t have the cognitive capabilities of understanding germs, vaccinations, and so forth. This is not an act of arbitrary enforcement of an irrational will, but the reasonable response to the limits of their child’s reason. It is an appeal to something that the child ought to know and can trust: that loving character of the parent. It is “because said so and you know enough to know me.”

For Christians, there is an added dimension to this appeal. In those situations where the biblical logic seems unclear or arbitrary, when it appears to you that God is simply saying “Because I said so”, it pays to remember that the “I” who commands is the same God of whom Paul testifies:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

And again, of God’s wisdom he says:

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the heart of man imagined,

what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:7-9)

This is the God whose deepest wisdom for the salvation of the world–the mystery of God’s good purposes for those who love him–was one that the wisest of the day couldn’t recognize. This is the God who at times says “Because said so”, or “Trust and one day you’ll understand my very good reasons.” He has proven himself ultimately trustworthy through subjecting in Jesus to the apparently pointless tragedy of the cross. This is the good God with good commands even if we can’t always understand them.

Soli Deo Gloria

Guilt Isn’t Just a ‘Religious’ Problem.

I’m pretty sure everyone’s had one of those conversations where days or months afterwards you think to yourself, “Man, that’s what I should have said to So-n-so!” After analyzing the problem with the heat turned down, you end up spotting the fatal flaw, or key unquestioned assumption that was driving it in the direction it was going. Unfortunately, I have those all the time, both because I overthink things, and because I’m not always as quick on my feet as I’d like to be.

One such conversation arose in one of my philosophy classes in my undergrad. We were talking about the ethics of belief, the sub-section of philosophy that deals with when it’s okay to believe something. Questions such as: Can you believe something just because you want to? Is evidence always necessary for every belief you hold? Is it ever okay to believe something you can’t prove? That kind of thing.

Well, we were discussing Pascal’s famous (and widely misunderstood) argument The Wager. Pascal was writing in Catholic France at a time when philosophical skepticism had made a comeback and the classic arguments for the existence of God were in doubt. As part of a broader apologetic, he proposed a little thought-experiment to show that even without evidence skepticism still wasn’t your best option.  

guiltyThe gist of it is this: you’ve got two things at stake when it comes to belief in God, the truth of the matter and your happiness in this life. What’s more, you’ve got two faculties you use to come to your belief, your reason and your will. He says, “Well, say the odds for and against the existence of God are 50/50–there are good arguments both ways, and so your reason can’t settle the issue and the truth is unverifiable. Then what? Well, you shouldn’t consider the issue settled. You still have your will and your happiness to think about.” In Pascal’s view, it makes sense that you should still go for belief in God because that’s the only way to achieve the joy of meaning, purpose, and so forth that comes with belief in God. For the purposes of the story we don’t need to go further. For a better explanation, consult Peter Kreeft’s excellent summary and retooling of the Wager.

Here’s the payout for the story. Pascal argued that believing in God had benefits and joys for this life like meaning, purpose, virtue, and so forth. As we discussed this, my professor–let’s call him Professor Jones–said something I’ll never forget. He asked, gently, but with a hint of sarcasm, “Oh, you mean the joy of going around feeling guilty all the time for your sins?”  In Professor Jones’ mind, the corollary of belief in God is an overwhelming and unrelievable sense of guilt for violating his rules. This clearly didn’t seem like a step up to him.

Now, at the time, I didn’t have conversational space, or wherewithal to respond adequately, but if I had, I would have said, “Oh, but Professor Jones, you already walk around struggling with guilt over failing your god.”

Now, what do I mean by that? Well, let me break it down in a few steps.

Everybody Has a God. The first step is understanding that everybody has a ‘god’ of some sort. The world we live in tends to split people up between “believers” and “non-believers.” The Bible has a different dividing line: worshipers of the true God, or worshipers of something else. See, everybody has something in their life that they treat as a functional god. Whatever you look to in order to give you a sense of self, meaning, worth, and value is a ‘god.’ Martin Luther put it this way:

A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. –Large Catechism

So whether you “believe” intellectually, in a deity or not, you still worship something. This is because we were created by God for worship, so if we won’t worship him something else rushes in to plays that role in your life, be it money,  career, status, relationships, and so forth. It’s either God, or an idol. There is no other option.

Everybody Follows and Fails that God’s Commands. Following off of this, every god has commands and demands worship. If make money your god, then you are under command (compulsion) in order to do whatever it takes to acquire it. You will work as hard as you need to (become a workaholic) and sacrifice whatever you have to (relationships, kids, ethics) in order to get it. When you have it, you feel secure. You’ve achieved and obeyed and so the god has blessed you. The flipside is, if you fail it, make a bad investment, lose your cash in a housing crash, then you feel the loss of security, but also the crushing sense of guilt that comes with failing your god. Wrath descends.

A few moment’s reflection You can see this everywhere: from the careerist who can’t forgive herself for blowing that promotion, to that bitter young scholar struggling to live up to his father’s expectations, to the mother who crushes herself because her child-god didn’t turn out picture perfect the way she needed her to. All of them struggle under the weight of the guilt brought on by their failure to please their functional gods. All of them suffer guilt and shame, even if we don’t call it that.

David Foster Wallace has a justly famous quote on the subject:

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Only the Biblical God Offers Forgiveness and Grace.

Here’s where it all clicked for me, though. I was reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God and I ran across this brilliant passage at the end of his chapter breaking down this idolatry dynamic:

Remember this— if you don’t live for Jesus you will live for something else. If you live for career and you don’t do well it may punish you all of your life, and you will feel like a failure. If you live for your children and they don’t turn out all right you could be absolutely in torment because you feel worthless as a person. If Jesus is your center and Lord and you fail him, he will forgive you. Your career can’t die for your sins. You might say, “If I were a Christian I’d be going around pursued by guilt all the time!” But we all are being pursued by guilt because we must have an identity and there must be some standard to live up to by which we get that identity. Whatever you base your life on— you have to live up to that. Jesus is the one Lord you can live for who died for you— who breathed his last breath for you. Does that sound oppressive?

..Everybody has to live for something. Whatever that something is becomes “Lord of your life,” whether you think of it that way or not. Jesus is the only Lord who, if you receive him, will fulfill you completely, and, if you fail him, will forgive you eternally.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (pp. 170-171)

So to sum up: Everybody has a god. Every god has rules and everybody fails their god. Everybody walks around with guilt and shame. But only the God we find in Jesus Christ will forgive those sins so that we don’t have to walk around feeling guilty all the time. Ironically enough, believing in God isn’t the road to more guilt, but the road out from underneath the guilt you already struggle with.

This is really the answer I’d wish I’d given Professor Jones.

Soli Deo Gloria

Brief Notes Towards a Reformed Theology of Religions (With a Bit of Bavinck on the Unevangelized)

theology of religionI’ve been reading Gerald McDermott and Harold Nestland’s new theology of religion A Trinitarian Theology of Religion: An Evangelical Proposal and it’s been quite stimulating. While I used to give the problem of other religions and the Christian faith more thought, I haven’t as of late. Still, McDermott and Nestland’s stimulating work have gotten the juices flowing again. With that in mind, I thought I’d offer 7 brief, tentative notes towards my current “theology” of other religions. What, in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, can we say is the truth about what we typically think of as other faith-systems?

1. Jesus Christ alone is the crucified and resurrected Lord over all creation. The confession of Christ’s preeminent, sole, unique, saving Lordship is baseline for any Christian theology of other religions.

2. Consistent with this, as the uniquely Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ alone is and reveals the ultimate fullness of truth about God, the world, and everything else. Jesus’ revelation is not one among many, or merely a slightly clearer revelation of a broader religious truth.

3. Jesus reveals the Triune God to to be ultimate spiritual reality. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not merely the names we’ve given to our Christian experience of some deeper Real that every other faith is describing by some other name. Hard Pluralism about religious reality is inconsistent–well, just in general–and with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

4. There is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved than that of the Lord Jesus. This means at the very least that salvation comes by, in, and through the work and person of Jesus Christ alone. It is only by union with his obedient life, atoning death, and life-giving sacrifice that any can be redeemed from their sin and brought into a saving relationship with God. For that reason, other religions cannot be the mechanism or method for the salvation of any person. Salvation is solely by the grace of Jesus Christ, not the result of human works or merit.

5. Other religions, just as all other philosophical thought systems that do not flow from the truth of gospel, participate in idolatry. While they testify to the basic human need to worship, they do so in a disordered fashion, according some part of creation with the honor, dignity, and function that only God may rightfully occupy. Note though, this is true as much with Hinduism as it is with Marxism or Aristotelian philosophy.

6. The complementary reality is that within other religions there can be elements of truth found within them through God’s work of common grace. Note, this is not saving truth, or special grace. That said, some religions’ teachings may be the result of the Holy Spirit’s restraining work of mercy, though not likely his illumining work of salvation. That a Muslim knows there is one God and does not fall into the obvious idolatry of animism or ancestor worship, I take to be the restraining work of common grace. Also, it seems possible to see those aspects in Buddhism that teach compassion, or at least militate against socially-destructive forms of obvious selfishness, to be truths of common grace as well. Many of us would have no trouble affirming something like this about the truth of systems of thought we call “philosophy” such as Aristotelianism and Platonism. I take this to be as true for the systems of thought we typically designate “religious” in the West.

7. Finally, as to the very sensitive question of the salvation of members of other religions who have never had the opportunity to explicitly respond to the gospel, unsurprisingly, I suppose I hold decently conservative views on the subject. When I was younger I used to straight-forwardly affirm a C.S. Lewis-style inclusivism–God saves some on the basis of their response to the truth they could respond to, yet only on the basis of Christ’s merits. Lately though, in light of the types of concerns summarized by this excellent little article by Kevin DeYoung clarifying the case for exclusivism, I have become me much more cautious about affirming something speculative on this issue and wary about going that route.

My thought in this area has been rather unreconstructed since my shift Reformed, though, so I decided to do a little digging in Bavinck and I find this interesting section on the fate of unevangelized pagans and children who die in infancy. After discussing some historical positions–for instance, Augustine and others believed some pagans like Socrates were in a position similar to OT saints–he goes on to write this fascinating passage:

In light of Scripture, both with regard to the salvation of pagans and that of children who die in infancy, we cannot get beyond abstaining from a firm judgment, in either a positive or a negative sense. Deserving of note, however, is that in the face of these serious questions Reformed theology is in a much more favorable position than any other. For in this connection, all other churches can entertain a more temperate judgment only if they reconsider their doctrine of the absolute necessity of the means of grace or infringe upon that of the accursedness of sin. But the Reformed refused to establish the measure of grace needed for a human being still to be united with God, though subject to many errors and sins, or to determine the extent of the knowledge indispensably necessary to salvation. Furthermore, they maintained that the means of grace are not absolutely necessary for salvation and that also apart from the Word and sacraments God can regenerate persons for eternal life.
Thus, in the Second Helvetic Confession, article 1, we read: “At the same time we recognize that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power”…And the Westminster Confession states (in ch. X, §3) that “elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how he pleases”, and that this applies also to “all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” Reuter, accordingly, after explaining Augustine’s teaching on this point, correctly states: “One could in fact defend the paradox that it is precisely the particularistic doctrine of predestination that makes possible those universalistic-sounding phrases.”
In fact, even the universalistic passages of Scripture cited above come most nearly and most beautifully into their own in Reformed theology. For these texts are certainly not intended universalistically in the sense that all humans or even all creatures are saved, nor are they so understood by any Christian church. All churches without exception confess that there is not only a heaven but also a hell. At most, therefore, there is a difference of opinion about the number of those who are saved and of those who are lost. But that is not something one can argue about inasmuch as that number is known only to God. When Jesus was asked: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” he only replied: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many … will try to enter but will not be able” (Luke 13:24). Directly important to us is only that we have no need to know the number of the elect.
In any case, it is a fact that in Reformed theology the number of the elect need not, for any reason or in any respect, be deemed smaller than in any other theology. In fact, at bottom the Reformed confessions are more magnanimous and broader in outlook than any other Christian confession. It locates the ultimate and most profound source of salvation solely in God’s good pleasure, in his eternal compassion, in his unfathomable mercy, in the unsearchable riches of his grace, grace that is both omnipotent and free. Aside from it, where could we find a firmer and broader foundation for the salvation of a sinful and lost human race? However troubling it may be that many fall away, still in Christ the believing community, the human race, the world, is saved. The organism of creation is restored. The wicked perish from the earth (Ps. 104:35); they are cast out (John 12:31; 15:6; Rev. 22:15). Still, all things in heaven and earth are gathered up in Christ (Eph. 1:10). All things are created through him and for him (Col. 1:16)

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, pp. 726-727

Bavinck is about as orthodox Reformed as you get–rejecting pluralism, universalism, affirming predestination–and yet still he finds some space for the possibility of the regeneracy unevangelized. I find that interesting, even if I’d need to give it more thought. In any case, I’m quite sure whatever God does do is consistent with the astounding mercy, love, and justice demonstrated on the cross.

None of this is particularly astonishing, new, or controversial (I hope). Still, it seems profitable to be laid out for reflection and discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria