What Does the Church’s “Teaching Authority” Mean for Protestants?

Trinity Reading and RevelationProtestants are popularly known as being skittish about talking about the Church’s “teaching authority.” Certainly Evangelicals are. There is a sense that acknowledging the Scriptures as the Word of God and affirming the doctrine of sola Scriptura–that Scripture, not the Magisterium of the Church is the final authority in establishing matters of doctrine–should cause us to turn our noses up, or at least be suspicious of claims for churchly authority. And there’s something to that.

We want to be clear of a few misconceptions of the Church’s teaching authority. For one thing, we want to make sure and remember that the Church is subject to the Word, not the other way around. The Word authorizes the Church, the Church doesn’t authorize the Word. The Church responds to the Word, even recognizes it as the Word, but it does not establish it.  The Church is brought into being by the Word–it is the “creature of the Word” as Luther puts it. Just as God speaks a word at creation and the world comes into being, so God speaks the word of the Gospel and the Church comes into being.

All that I affirm as a Protestant. But that’s not all that we can say about the Church’s teaching authority. It’s not a matter of Magisterium or ‘What this means to me’ in your local small-group. No, many Reformed have recognized that God has given the Church in its broadest and narrower institutional expressions the task of representatively serving Holy Scripture.

Scott Swain, in his smashing little book Trinity, Reading, and Revelation (pp. 102-103) summarizes William Whitaker’s answer to the question of the role of the Church with respect to the Scriptures given in his treatise A Disputation on Holy Scripture. Whitaker notes four roles for the Church:

  1. “First, the church is the witness and guardian of the sacred writings, and discharges, in this respect, as it were the function of a notary.” God has entrusted the Scriptures to the church for safekeeping, to guard and protect them from corruption or harm (cf. Deut 31:9; Rom. 3:2). Again, though, just because Israel was entrusted with the tablets of the covenant, that does not mean they established or authorized the covenant, but they themselves were governed and authorized as God’s people by them.
  2. “The second office of the church is, to distinguish and discern the true, sincere, and genuine scriptures from the spurious, false, and suppositious” (cf. 1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Thess. 2:1-2). The Church, again, doesn’t authorize or establish the canon, but it does recognize it. In other words, the Scriptural texts have their authority before the Church says so, but the Church is given the Spirit of God in order to recognize which texts possess that authority. As Swain says (possibly paraphrasing Whitaker), a goldsmith is trained to recognize gold, but his recognition doesn’t make the gold what it is.
  3. “The third office of the church is to publish, set forth, preach, and promulgate the scriptures; wherein it discharges the function of a herald, who ought to pronounce with a loud voice the decrees and edicts of the king, to omit nothing, and to add nothing of its own” (c. Isa. 40:9; Rom. 10:6; 2 Cor. 5:19). Whitaker’s quote is fairly clear, but the point is, the text of Scripture is supposed to be read, preached, and passed on. That does require a body of people committed to its dissemination and faithful transmission.
  4. “The fourth office of the church is to expound and interpret the scriptures; wherein its function is that of an interpreter. Here it should introduce not fictions of its own, but explain the scriptures by the scriptures” (cf. Mt. 13:52; Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 14:3, 29; Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 2:15). The Church is called to interpret the Scriptures and give their sense, not adding or subtracting, but attempting to humbly and simply explain the Word of God. This happens in all sorts of ways, but especially in the giving of preachers and teachers who take the apostolic message and explain it to the people of God, much as Ezra did the returned exiles.

So then, according to Protestants, what profit is there in the Church understanding the Scriptures? Much in every way!

As Swain says:

…the church is that community created and authorized by the Word of God in order that it might obediently guard, discern, proclaim, and interpret the Word of God. (103)

While Protestants are right to be careful of churchly overreach–claiming a magisterial authority over the Word, as if we ourselves were responsible for making the Word what it is–we rob ourselves if we fail to acknowledge the proper role God has granted his people in regard to the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Swain’s little book has to be one of the tightest, power-packed treatments of Scripture and hermeneutics I’ve read yet. It’s up there with John Webster’s little gem Holy Scripture. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Are You a Curious or a Studious Theology Student?

Domain of the wordIn the Christian tradition, curiosity has always been considered a vice. That’s surprising to most of us used to the more modern sense of the term. For many of us it tends to mean something like inquisitiveness or a thirst for knowledge. To call curiosity a vice would seem like another line of argument for seeing the Christian tradition as fundamentally anti-intellectual and hostile to questions. That would be a fundamental misunderstanding, however.

In his essay ‘Curiosity’, John Webster–the theologian’s theologian–claims that, “Christian theological intelligence is exercised in the conflict between studiousness and the vice of curiosity” (The Domain of the Word, pg. 193).

Curiosity, then, has a positive counterpart in the form of the virtue of “studiousness.” Indeed, Webster says we can only know what curiosity is as a deviation or perversion of studiousness since vices have no positive reality of their own. To condemn curiosity, then, is not to condemn reason or thought wholesale, but its perversion by sin and idolatry.

But how should we understand these twinned realities? What is it that relates the two and what separates them? As I begin my Ph.D. courses, I’ve been giving some thought to the point of my studies. Just why exactly am I doing what I’m doing and how should I be doing it? And also, how should I not be approaching them? Webster’s reflections in this essay have been stimulating and helpful to me, so I figured I’d summarize and highlight some quickish thoughts for the benefit of other theological students, whether in school or not, pastoral or lay.

Studiousness

According to Webster, studiousness and curiosity are related in that they are both movements of our intelligence to “come to know” that which we don’t know. But the motive and the means of these relationships to unknown knowledge are what distinguishes them.

So what is studiousness? Well, it “is a strenuous application of the power of the creaturely intellect” to figure something out for the first time, or understand something better than you did before. Studiousness is a virtue particular to created beings who can come to know as opposed to God who just knows because he knows. Our way of knowing requires effort, energy, and time–as do all the activities of finite, embodied beings. “God, in short, knows as the uncreated one, creatures know as creatures” (194).

Furthermore, studiousness is the way the “well-ordered creaturely intellect” comes to know things. According to Webster, that involves at least two things. First, it means “earnest, arduous application of the mind.” It is an activity in the fullest sense of the word. Studiousness recognizes that knowledge doesn’t simply happen to you. Second, “it is a reflective” activity that can be judged according to standards of excellence that are intellectual and moral. Intellectually it is an activity that must treat the object of study with respect and integrity, coming to its conclusions, its representations, without undue haste or carelessness (195).

Morally, we come to the fact that studiousness is related to the very natural desire to come to know. And this is where Webster says “an element of ambivalence” can enter in.

Curiosity

Using the language of Aristotle and Aquinas, Webster states: “Curiosity results from the corruption of intellectual appetite”(195). Indeed, he quotes Aquinas who says, “curiosity does not lie in the knowing precisely but in the appetite and hankering to find out.”

From here, Webster gives us four of the “elements” of curiosity, which I can only briefly touch on.

First, curiosity is a corruption in that it aims at improper objects of new knowledge. It strains to know what it is not appropriate for it to know. It refuses to acknowledge the creaturely limit and wants to know “as God knows”, or to focus on those things which God has given it to know. Curiosity sits in the garden devising ways always to snag the one fruit that’s off-limits (195-196).

Second, it’s a way of learning about the world, to created realities, without referring them to their Creator. It’s a sort of “lust of the flesh” (1 Jn. 2:16) applied to knowledge; it is a desire to know things without pushing on to see their relation to God and his glory (196). It is a Romans 1 reality, in that sense.

Third, curiosity “is a deformation of the manner or mode of intelligence, when the movement of coming-to-know takes place inordinately, indiscriminately, and pridefully” (196). In other words, wanting to know can become an addiction to the rush of learning new things so that you end up neglecting other goods, crossing lines, and so forth. Intellectual greed also leads you to get caught up less in the truth or goodness than the “novelty of the object of new knowledge.” Or, again, curiosity leads to self-satisfied pride in our exceptional intelligence the more we come to find out.

Fourth, related to the last, curiosity chases knowledge for wrong ends. Either to puff yourself up, to use it for your own gain or power, or other unrighteous ends. Even good study can fall under “curiosity” if aimed at your own pride.

What Does Curiosity Look Like in Theology?

Next Webster examines the ways and reasons that curiosity can enter into the spiritual work of theological study.

First, curiosity creeps into theology when we forget the “location and situation” of our work. “Theology takes place in a sphere in which God the teacher is lovingly present to reconciled creatures, summoning the intellect to attentiveness and learning” (198). Curiosity forgets this and leads us to study, not in response to God’s prior direction, but as an independent exercise of intellectual acquisition (198).

Second, curiosity in theology leads to a certain restlessness that gives pride of place to the novel, the “creative”, and cannot follow the particular course theology should take. In a word, faddishness (198).

Third, curiosity “stops short at surfaces.” There are a lot of disciplines to master in theology (text-based, historical, etc). Webster says that all of these phenomena, though, serve to point beyond themselves as signs towards God. Curiosity can get caught up in the signs for their own sake instead of pushing onwards towards the theological end, which is to know God. In other words, it’s the kind of study of the Bible that gets caught up in historical minutiae of the text, trying on novel interpretations and grammatical innovations, all the while forgetting that the point of studying Scripture is to hear the voice of God (198).

Fourth, curiosity corrupts the character of theological work by leading us into pride, or the drive towards individualistic advancement, or a separation of theological study from the “common life of the church”(199).

Fifth, curiosity forgets the chief goals of theology which are “contemplative and apostolic.” Theology aims at delight in God. As such, it is apostolic because this truth is lovingly spoken to others that they might be built up and not fall into error. Curiosity aims only at itself and so curves inwards.

How to Avoid Curiosity in Theology?

Well, Webster is very clear that avoiding curiosity requires the work of the Holy Spirit who gives the gift of temperance, restraint, only with the new birth as a person is remade in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). The Holy Spirit redeems, perfects, and redirects created minds, bringing them out of their prideful, lusting alienation from the life of God by the gift of a new, regenerated nature conformed to the image of the Son (Eph. 4:23; Col. 3:10; 199-200).

According to Webster:

Theological curiosity is checked and theological studiousness promoted when the intellects of saintly persons are directed to the proper object of theology and to the proper ends of contemplation and edification. (200)

Theology is the only discipline where the object study is your only, ultimate hope in doing it well. Webster notes three dimensions to this.

First, “immoderate desire” for novelty in coming to know can only be curbed if theological students come to recognize their place in the “pedagogy of divine grace.” In other words, “The grace of God has appeared…training us” (Tit. 2:11). We need to understand our study as a work taking place in the space of grace opened up by the grace of God in Christ and the work of the Spirit which sanctifies our reason. This is why:

The saints lack curiosity; but they are eagerly studious, devoted to acquiring the knowledge proffered by divine revelation. In theology, the affections, will and intellect are ‘fixed’ on the ‘ways’ of God (Ps. 119.15), ‘delighting in’ and ‘cleaving to’ the divine testimonies (Ps. 119.24), turned from ‘vanities’ (Ps. 119.37) in order to ‘meditate’ on the divine law (Ps. 119.48), eager to be taught knowledge (Ps. 119.66). Such is the studious theological intellect sanctified and schooled by divine grace. (201)

Second, curiosity fades when theologians devote themselves “to a singular matter with a definite interest.” It’s not so much that theology restricts itself to a few subjects, but that it learns to relate all subjects to the one subject it’s supposed to be directing everything towards: God and his works in the history of redemption. This maintains its focus as a “single science” instead of a disconnected study of whatever happens to interest us at the moment (201).

Third, directing theology towards its ultimate goal, the love of God, “mortifies” curiosity. Focusing on the self-communicating love of God cuts at the natural selfishness of curiosity, as it continually draws us out beyond ourselves into the love of God and our neighbor (202).

To cap it off, Webster closes with a prayer from Aquinas, “Ante Studium” (HT: David Bunce):

Ineffable Creator . . . You are proclaimed the true font of light and wisdom, and the primal origin raised high beyond all things. Pour forth a ray of your brightness into the darkened places of our minds; disperse from our souls the twofold darkness of sin and ignorance. You make eloquent the tongues of infants: refi ne our speech and pour forth upon our lips he goodness of your blessing. Grant to us keenness of mind, capacity to remember, skill in learning, subtlety to interpret, and eloquence in speech. May you guide the beginning of our work, direct its progress, and bring it to completion, for you are true God and true Man, who live and reign, world without end.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Intersex and Sexual Difference w/ Megan DeFranza

Mere FidelityThis week usual crew is joined by Megan K. DeFranza, author of Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God. Matthew Lee Anderson reviewed the book recently for Christianity Today, which you can read here. Also, after you listen to the show (or whenever, really), Alastair has already posted some follow-up thoughts on the conversation that I think are well worth considering. It was a good episode, but we barely scratched the surface on so many important issues. Alastair gets after them.

Soli Deo Gloria

Bavinck on the Christian Life by John Bolt

Bavinck on the Christian lifeCrossway’s “Theologians on the Christian Life” series has been excellent so far. And it’s about to get even better. John Bolt has just delivered the latest volume Bavinck on the Christian Life: Following Jesus in Faithful Service that’s the bees knees. I had the privilege of reading an early copy this spring and endorsing it.

Here’s what I wrote:

“Bolt’s portrait of Bavinck and his theology captures the man himself: clear, elegant, biblically saturated, theologically rich, philosophically nuanced, irenic, and aimed at the Christian life. Drawing on a diversity of sources, Bolt not only brings the riches of Bavinck’s mature theology into conversation with current theological concerns, but also applies it to the most practical elements of faith, marriage, family, work, and culture. He ably introduces readers to Bavinck’s vision of the Christian life as part of God’s movement of grace restoring nature and a cosmic redemption aimed at restoring and elevating creation to its intended goal. Most of all, it is a vision of following Jesus out into the world as the Father conforms his children into the image of the Son in the power of the Spirit for the sake of his glorious name.”

If that’s not enough, here’s what a bunch of other smarter people wrote about it:

“To use the word timely for a book about a nineteenth-century Dutch theologian may seem inappropriate. But in this case the adjective is exactly right. Many of us have wanted to spread the word that Herman Bavinck’s theological perspective can contribute much to a renewal of the church’s life and mission today. Now in this book John Bolt has made the case in a concise and convincing manner!”
Richard J. Mouw, President, Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary

“This obvious labor of love explores an important but insufficiently highlighted aspect of Bavinck’s thought. Leaving virtually no pertinent stone unturned throughout his life and published works, Bolt provides both a full presentation of Bavinck’s views and his own understanding of their continuing relevance for Christian discipleship today. Here is valuable instruction in Bavinck’s thought presented in a way that will also stimulate the reader’s own thinking on the issues raised.”
Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Emeritus, Westminster Theological Seminary

“Trinitarian, Christ-centered, and culturally engaged, Herman Bavinck immerses us into a vivid vision of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His rich theological imagination provides a compelling alternative to the many vapid, pragmatic approaches to faith today. John Bolt provides an accessible and illuminating guide to Bavinck’s theology of the Christian life in the most expansive sense: the Christian life of fellowship with God and others, in family, work, and politics. Bolt skillfully navigates these waters in order to open up the treasures of Bavinck for today’s church.”
J. Todd Billings, Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan

“Perhaps every generation in the church age could claim a need for Bavinck’s perspective on the Christian life. We can’t let our salt lose its saltiness and our light lose its brilliance—not now. Bavinck encourages us in this regard even as we are in the world, not of the world, and sent into the world. In one seamless volume, Bolt shows how Bavinck’s contributions help correct our nearsightedness as we become tethered to his conviction that the Word of God is ever living and ever active in every day.”
Gloria Furman, Pastor’s wife, Redeemer Church of Dubai; mother of four; author, Glimpses of Grace and Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full  

“Not one square inch of nature, work, culture, or history escaped the reach of Herman Bavinck’s expansive Christ-centered worldview. Of the great Reformed theologians, Bavinck is the generous giant, with a heart as wide as his axiom ‘grace restores nature.’ Bavinck’s vision of a sovereign Savior at work in the world, carefully grounded in the gospel, suits him to speak authoritatively on the Christian’s place in this world. This book is a masterpiece from John Bolt, a man who knows Bavinck’s mind as well as anyone.”
Tony Reinke, Staff Writer and Researcher, desiringGod.org; author, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books

“Never before have I read such a fine and stimulating overview of Herman Bavinck’s life and theology. John Bolt shows clearly why the study of Bavinck is growing worldwide and why this theology is a great help for today’s Christians. Bavinck and Bolt are a great team!”
Herman Selderhuis, Professor of Church History, Theological University of Apeldoorn; Director, Refo500, The Netherlands

If you’ve been wanting to get into the Dutch giant, but you’ve been too intimidated by the size and scope of his Reformed Dogmatics to know where to start, this is an excellent introduction to his thought. Bolt gives pride of place to Bavinck’s own words and so you get a bunch of Bavinck himself, not only commentary on him. Though, if you have read him, it is excellent commentary that will help bring out dimensions you might have missed, especially since Bolt draws on works other works beyond the Dogmatics that have yet to be translated. Beyond that, it’s just an edifying work.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mourning the Gentle Locusts of Egypt with mewithoutYou on the Way to the Promised Land

pale horsesThis last month has been one of great upheaval. For those of you unaware, my wife and I just uprooted our lives in Orange County, California to move to Deerfield, Illinois in order to pursue a Ph.D. in theology there. While this is a fantastic opportunity that I’m still pinching myself over, we had to leave our jobs, families, friends, and basically every regular feature of our life behind to do so.

Needless to say, this has not been without its challenges of various sorts. Wrapping up a ministry, leaving an office in the hands of another, charting routes, selling cars, packing up an apartment, driving across country, saying goodbye to friends and family, and the half-dozen other major steps I could list are all–taken simply by themselves–large undertakings. We praise God we’ve had wonderful friends and family who have helped us throughout the process, or we would never have survived.

As I sit here on the “other side” of the biggest steps in the ordeal in Trinity’s library, though, it’s all a bit surreal to think about. To be honest, I think it’s going to be a long time to process the meaning of this move for us just in practical terms, but the existential ones will likely take even longer.

One thought that’s struck me in the process, however, was triggered by the release of mewithoutYou’s newest album Pale Horses a month or so ago. It’s kind of been the soundtrack of the move for me. It was the album stuck on repeat in my car as I drove around Orange that last month, running errands, making final purchases for college group events, or the last drive to the coffee shop up the street, or over to our friend’s house for the final time before the trip out.

On it is one particularly powerful song called “Red Cow.” It’s one of the most mewithoutYou songs to ever mewithoutYou, full of lyrical gravity, gut-wrenching vocalization, rocking distortion, and passion. It’s why I love this band. Weiss’ lyrics on the song fall into a characteristically, stream-of-consciousness meditation that slips back and forth between scenes from, possibly a trip through the Midwest and a telling of the Biblical story of the Exodus. And in the middle of it, of course, he tackles issues of meaning, symbol and reality, the captivity of idolatry, and so much more.

Here, give it a whirl:

As I said, I listened to this album and this song a lot while I was driving around that month. There’s so much going on in there that I’d love to unpack. But listen after listen, the line I kept coming back to was this gem, sung in the mournful, longing voice of the Israelites:

O for the land we knew before the frogs withdrew,
And the fragrant pomegranate blooms where the tender locust flew.

In that one line, Weiss invokes the narratives of the wilderness wanderings of Israel after Moses led them out of the land of their slavery, Egypt. After the initial thrill of liberation wore off, the Israelites were quite prone to grumbling. A couple of days of thirst and hunger, a couple of hours too many of walking, and the newly-freed sons and daughters of Jacob were ready to throw in the towel and return “home.”

Exodus 16 gives the account of one such instance:

They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:1-3)

Here they are, just a couple of months after God stretched out his hand to work mighty wonders before them in order to make them his own. He brought frogs, flies, and locust, rained down hail and blackened the skies, bringing the mightiest Empire in the ancient world to its knees before their eyes. Not to mention bringing them out of grinding slavery of the worst sort.

And what’s their response? Grumbling and mourning ingratitude of the sort that actually caused them to misremember and distort their time in Egypt. It’s not just that things are tough out here, but back in Egypt they used to “sit by the meat pots” and eat until their guts were full. It was practically paradise in their telling.

Now, for years this story had frustrated me to no end. I just didn’t get it. I mean, I understood, theoretically, that all sin, all face God with that same gross ingratitude deeply lodged in their hearts. But there seemed to be something extraordinarily obtuse about the whole sorry affair.

And yet, here, as I drove along a number of those mornings, stressing out about all the things I had to get done–the hard conversations, phone calls, running around, managing stressful personal relations, my own rising sense of anxieties over the exposure of all my inadequacies that were sure to come–I found myself thinking a number of times, “This all would have been so much easier if I’d have just stayed home. I wouldn’t have to say goodbye, or worry about finding a car, or McKenna getting a job, or whether I’d measure up to the road ahead.”

Of course, nothing about my last gig was even remotely like slavery in Egypt. I loved my last job and church–that’s part of what’s been so hard about leaving. But here I was, preparing for a journey to the very good thing God was giving me–the “promised land” of challenging study and adventure–and I’m sitting there, longing for the lands that the “gentle locust flew.” A little difficulty, a few nights going to bed wired and waking up exhausted were managing to crowd God’s extraordinary mercy and provision out of my vision for the future.

Isn’t that the way of things? Our good, beautiful God promises a hope and a future just on the other end of hardship and yet, at the first taste of uncertainty and struggle, I clamor for the ease I used to know.

I’ve been slowly learning to thank God that his way of giving is not like ours, though. It is not tempered by our feeble and fickle gratitude. He doesn’t just sit there, waiting to see if you’re grateful enough, or trusting enough, or righteous enough before he continues to care and provide for you. He’s the good God who makes his sun shine on the righteous and the wicked and has patience with his children as the grow and make their way into the sun.

In the case of the Israelites, their complaint provides an opportunity for God to flex again, providing the manna, the bread of life that would feed them in their wilderness wanderings. For his children today, we have the promises of our Savior that he is the bread of life who sustains us day by day (John 6). Of his graces and mercy there are no end. He is the one who provides us our daily bread–both physical and spiritual.

And that is my hope in the middle of all the transitions and weirdness–wherever he takes us, Jesus will never stop giving us what we need most: himself. And if that’s true, it’s all gonna work out.

Soli Deo Gloria

Two Ways of Saying All Religions Are The Same

girardOne of the biggest modernist critiques of religion in general, and Christianity especially, is that despite the claims these religions make for themselves, there’s nothing particularly unique about them. They all have basically the same structure–indeed, most have borrowed them from each other–and all play the same role in basically the same way. And if they’re all the same, why pay attention to just one of them like Christianity? All the mythologies of divine sons, corn-kings, and so forth, are just superstitious attempts to understand the world. There’s nothing exclusively true about the gospel, so just pick something that works and quit going on about it. If we can find a different, “rational” system that plays the same function (eases guilt, explains the cosmos, etc.), then so much the better.

So, the move for the critics, the early modern anthropologists, and scholars of religion with an eye towards unseating Christianity’s intellectual or cultural dominance, was to find as many similarities between all the religions and myths as possible. The move was to pile up as many similarities so that they all blend into a hazy sea of myth. Even to the point of denying, explaining away, or misreading the actual differences that were there staring them in the face.

Nowadays, French anthropologist and literary theorist Rene Girard says that with the onset of the postmodern (so, like, the last 30 years), the tack is much different:

Unlike the old modern critics, postmodern opponents of Christianity don’t try to demonstrate that the Gospels and myths are similar, identical, or interchangeable. Differences don’t trouble them, and in fact they pile up differences with ease. It is rather the resemblances they suppress.

Instead of flattening stories in order to make them all sound the same, postmodern critics approach sameness precisely by playing up the differences between religious stories. How does that work?

If there are only differences between the religions, they make up just one big undifferentiated conglomerate. We can no more say that are true and false than we could say a story by Flaubert or by Maupassant is true or false. To regard one of these works of fiction as more true or false than the other would be absurd.

In other words, the fact that all of these religions are so different points up their falsity rather than their potential truth. Of course works of fiction would be different. They are united under the category of “false” or “equally true”, precisely by their differences. Girard continues to flesh out the appeal of this “doctrine of insignificant differences.”

This doctrine of insignificant differences has seduced the contemporary world. Differences are the object of a veneration more apparent than real. Those who discuss religions give the impression of taking them very seriously, but in reality they don’t attach the least importance to them. They view religions, all the religions, as completely mythical, but each in its own fashion. They praise them all in the same spirit we all praise kindergartners’ “paintings,” which are all masterpieces. The upshot of this attitude is that we are all free to buy what pleases us in the marketplace of religions, or better still to abstain from buying anything. —I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pg. 103

This actually reminds me in a section from the Tim Keller’s The Reason for God in which he deals with various objections to the unique truth of religion. He points out that 20 years ago, most objected that all the religions were equally true. Now, most will point out how uniquely, culturally-conditioned each of them is, in which case they must all be false. Of course, there are a number of problems with this sort of relativism that assumes a very Western, pluralist mindset that forgets its own particular, culturally-conditioned, social location. Still, these two kinds of criticisms point up an interesting theological truth about religion, human nature, and the apologetic task: there are moments when it is appropriate to appeal to both the uniqueness as well as the similarity between Christian doctrine and the truth claims of the philosophies, religions, and myths of the world.

Recently, Daniel Strange has argued in his work on the theology of religion Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock, that the relation of Christianity to other faiths is one of “subversive fulfillment.” In other words, the good news of Jesus both criticizes the claims of other systems as well as truly fulfilling their actual spiritual hopes. The reason it can do this is that most religions are rooted in our created-but-fallen nature as worshippers made in the Image of God. Without weighing in on whether these philosophies or religions are actually historical distortions and parodies of the truth of God, all them are rooted in universal concerns, problems, and cares across the whole race. So the religious stories humans have told, the salvations they offered, the moral paths they laid out, will unsurprisingly share some key, though more or less distorted and often inverted, similarities to the actual truth of our plight before God in the world.

There’s a danger in two directions in our apologetic encounters. One is the way of many progressives or liberalizing approaches to theology. Here you can so stress the similarity of Christian truth to every other myth or story, that the uniquely good news of Christ is lost in the (admittedly small) sea of COEXIST bumper stickers in the parking lot of the local Unitarian Universalist parking lot. The other way, though, is that of emphasizing the uniqueness of Christian truth that it is so radically different from any recognizable human concern across cultures that it’s rendered inaccessible to anyone not already singing in the choir. It’s reduced to the level of an inexplicably popular local, tribal faith. That’s the extreme way of putting it, of course, but hopefully that gives a spectrum to work with.

There are, then, (at least) two ways of trying to or accidentally rendering the gospel null and inaccessible: overemphasizing particularity or universality. The fact the matter is that the story of Jesus is both. On the one hand, it speaks to our universal concerns (peace, guilt, shame, social wholeness), and yet, its answer to these problems is unique in its scope, power, and the particular shape we find in the story of God’s gracious redemption accomplished in the Jesus life, death, and resurrection for us and our salvation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Calvinism and the Problem of Evil (Or, Dealing with the Sparsity Objection)

JobThere are many of overlaps between the problem of evil in philosophy and apologetics (how could a good, all-powerful God allow such evil as we see in the world?)  and issues concerning the tensions between divine sovereignty and human effort in our theology of salvation (if God is sovereign over history, then what role does our will play in things?). How you answer the one question inevitably affects the approach you take in the other. And that’s unsurprising when we think about it.

What is God’s salvation other than a practical solution to the problem of evil as it exists in history because of human sin? The Triune God of glory has dealt with and met the evil of the world in the person and work of the Son according to the decree of the Father in the power of the Spirit.

Stepping back from the existential dimension, though, and addressing some of the more traditional formulations, there are a couple of different approaches that people take to answering the problem of evil at a philosophical level. These usually end up having a corollary in your theology of salvation.

Libertarianisms, Theodicy, and Salvation

One of the most popular responses to the problem of evil is to appeal to God’s gift of human freedom. God can be all-powerful and all-good and yet still allow human evil because he has created us with the great good of free will of the libertarian sort–the ability in every situation to do otherwise than you have done, without ultimate determination from God, the natural order, or even your own character. According this argument, that’s the sort of freedom you need for love and for truly moral actions. But the freedom to choose God, love, and the good also includes the possibility to do the opposite, and that’s what we’ve done. And so, God is good, powerful, and loving, and yet still allows evil because of his own sovereign decision to give us free will.

Now, if you take this route, most of the time you’ll end up affirming some sort of Arminianism or Wesleyan synergism in salvation, where this sort of free will is necessary also for salvation. A classic Arminian will readily grant the reality of human depravity and sin, the need for God’s prevenient grace (a grace that precedes and prepares) that spiritually awakens you, so to speak, in order for you to even respond to God and trust in his mercy and Jesus’ work on the cross. Contrary to some slurs, they are not Pelagians. But the freedom God awakens you to is the freedom to do otherwise–freedom of the libertarian sort that can still reject God’s loving invitation through the Spirit. The free-will defense or theodicy usually goes against any kind of theological determinism inconsistent with Arminian or Wesleyan views.

Calvinism, Theodicy, and Salvation

Typically, Calvinists and Reformed types don’t affirm that sort of libertarian freedom. Some are trying to work it out, with some very interesting approaches, but by and large, they will view freedom in a different light that is compatibilist–positing no ultimate dichotomy between God’s foreordination or human freedom. This is usually taken to be necessary for a more “robust” view of God’s regeneration and calling of us out of the bondage of the will in sin.

On this view, when God awakens your heart from its sin-dead slumber, it is not only a prevenient act of grace but an efficacious act. It not only enables you to maybe choose life, but transforms and reforms your will–not by over-riding it, but by healing and restoring it–so that you gladly, lovingly, and willingly choose it. This view of freedom views God’s choice, not as a threat to our freedom, but the only possibility of exercising true freedom–the freedom to love what we were made for. It’s not coercive, imposed from the outside, but awakening and transforming from within.

Of course, all of this is very condensed. But the key thing to see is that this view is not likely going to push you to lean on the libertarian free-will theodicy or defense. No, in fact, it’s more likely going to appeal in a very different direction to considerations regarding our knowledge of God’s purposes–epistemological concerns.

In a nutshell, most philosophers have agreed that if he had a good enough reason to, it is possible for an all-powerful and all-wise God to allow the evil in the world to exist. This is the assumption the free-will defense draws on–freewill, love, and moral choice is a good enough reason for the risk of free will.  Well, on that same assumption, some Calvinist philosophers like Stephen Wykstra and Alvin Plantinga have pointed out that there is a massive gap between our knowledge and the knowledge of an infinite God. Their point is this: if the infinitely wise God who created all things had a good enough reason for allowing all this evil, how are you so certain you would understand it?

Or, to put it another way, in order to know there isn’t a good enough reason, you’d have to know all that an infinite God would know in order to rule out the possibility. But you couldn’t possibly do that given your limited, finite knowledge of, well, everything. The scale between your understanding and God’s isn’t even that of a child to an adult, but more on the scale of an ant and a human. In other words, saying, “If I can’t see a good enough reason for evil there must not be one” doesn’t answer the question. Just because you “can’t see” a good enough reason, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

If that’s the case, then, while we don’t necessarily have an “answer” to the problem of evil like libertarian free will, it’s not a defeater for our belief in God. Given our belief in the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have hope in God’s good purposes in the middle of evil even if we don’t know what those are. A God good enough to live, die, and rise for sinners is trustworthy enough.

Another Problem of Evil?

love freedom and evilBelieve it or not, all of that is just set up for what I really wanted to get to: dealing with an objection to a more Calvinistic view of God’s efficacious liberation of our will to respond to him. To do that, I’m going to quote from Thaddeus Williams’ fascinating work Love, Freedom, and Evil: Does Authentic Love Require Free Will? Now, the title of the work is a bit misleading. Williams believes love requires freedom of the will, but not of the libertarian sort. His book is an exploration of the cluster of philosophical, biblical, and theological questions surrounding love, freedom, and the problem of evil.

Towards the end of the book he takes up what he calls the “sparsity objection” to the compatibilistic view of God’s liberation of the human will I outlined above–the one Williams calls “the Heart Reforming view.” Williams quotes philosopher Jerry Walls putting the objection this way:

Arguably, the most damaging strike against compatibilism is its utter inability to explain why God has not predestined everyone to freely choose him if freedom is really compatible with determinism. In our estimation, this is the mortal blow to the compatibilist. If this question cannot be answered convincingly, then compatibilists can hardly expect their position to be taken seriously by those who firmly believe in a profoundly loving and richly relational God.

That’s a tough objection. If libertarianism isn’t necessary for love and God can liberate our wills without violating them, why doesn’t God liberate more people’s wills? Why not liberate everyone’s will and purge the evil from the world immediately? Why are God’s chosen so relatively sparse? Williams gives at least four responses, but the one that’s relevant is one that draws on the insights about the limits of human knowledge:

The insight of Plantinga…applies when approaching the Sparsity Objection. The difference is that it is no longer the atheologian arguing against God’s existence, but the libertarian theologian arguing against the existence of one particular view of God, namely, a God with the ability to bring about Heart Reformation. If we seek to justify disbelief in the existence of a Heart Reforming God on the basis of the Sparsity Objection, then we find ourselves, oddly enough, in the same plight as the atheologian. We commit ourselves to a problematic premise….:

P2: It is impossible, improbable, or less probable than some libertarian account that a God with Heart Reforming ability possesses morally sufficient reasons behind withholding a more widespread exercise of that ability.

The fatal flaw of P2 is the same as that of P1, namely, how difficult the premise is to establish given the cognitive gap between God and us. Alston argues that the atheologian’s induction from “I can see no” to “There is no” is unjustified. Alston’s point holds true for the libertarian theologian who attempts to reach the conclusion “There is no [morally sufficient reason for a God with Heart Reforming ability to exercise that ability as sparsely as it may seem]” from the premise “I can see no [morally sufficient reason for a God with Heart Reforming ability to exercise that ability as sparsely as it may seem].” The induction rests on a failure to appreciate the Creator-creature cognitive gap. –pp. 167-168

In other words, just because you can’t see a good enough reason for God to call and liberate those that he does and not others, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a good enough reason. It’s just one that you can’t see. But you’re not God. You’re not the counter-intuitive Lord of all Creation who chose to redeem the world through assuming human nature, frailty, and the weight of sin and dying on a cross in order to rise to new life. That’s not the sort of thing you would come up with on your own. So maybe, just maybe, God’s ways in salvation are going to be a bit beyond us. That doesn’t mean they’re not true, though.

I’ve only scratched the surface here, obviously. And, of course, all of this matters only if Scripture points us to the idea that God’s liberation of the human will works this way. And that is a question I simply don’t have the time to address in this already longish post, which is why I would commend Williams’ work to you, as he spends quite a bit of time addressing that question. Still, in my reading and study, time and again I have come back the fundamental importance of this insight: God is the perfect Creator and we are but fallen-though-being-redeemed-creatures.

I suppose all of this boils down to an invitation to hear the wisdom of Job:

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:3)

Soli Deo Gloria