Were the Westminster Theologians “Proof-texting”?

Eventually in any discussion of good exegesis and theological method, the issue of proof-texting will come up. Proof-texting is that time-honored method of biblical interpretation that consists in citing a verse to justify some theological conclusion without any respect for its context or intended use. If you’re nerdy to care enough about this sort of thing, please keep reading. If not, here’s a video of a cute cat.

Now, as I was saying, proof-texting is often brought up in discussions as a prime example of decontextualized readings–readings that irresponsibly ignore the literary and historical setting of the text. As the popular saying goes, “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” Daniel Treier notes in his article on the “Proof Text” (pp. 622-624) in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible that the charge of “proof-texting” is almost universally negative, and usually aimed at pop-preaching, or increasingly by exegetes at theologians’ handling of texts. Indeed, it’s fairly common to read biblical scholars prattling on in their commentaries about theologians abstractly “theologizing” and “propositionalizing” texts. (Of course, this happens and it shouldn’t and it ought to be called out. Literary and historical contexts must be respected. I’ll just confess I’m annoyed with biblical studies types acting as if attending a Methodist church instead of a Presbyterian one has no effect on their readings, as opposed to those theologians.)

The crew doing some “theologizing” at Westminster Abbey.

In any case, chief among the alleged offenders are the post-Reformation scholastics such as the Westminster Divines (pastors and theologian-types) who wrote the Westminster Confession. Indeed, at first glance the classic confession seems to be a prime example of it. In traditional printings, a quick review of the various chapters will show you very short statements with footnotes listing various single verses allegedly supporting the proposed doctrines. On their own, a number of the verses seem only tenuously connected to the doctrine at hand.

Carl Trueman has an excellent article on the way recent historical work has led to critical re-appraisal of the development of Reformed Orthodoxy and the Post-Reformation scholastics, which, in part, sheds light on their alleged proof-texting:

…the new approach has demonstrated that Reformed Orthodoxy was grounded in exegesis but engaged in constant dialogue with the history of theology. This is in part evident in its eclectic nature but also has direct application to some contemporary issues. For example, one common complaint about the Westminster standards is that they are based upon proof texts. The concern seems to be that Reformed theology has thus been built on simplistic, decontextualized reading of isolated texts. Many, of course, will be aware that the divines themselves did not want the proof texts included and that they were overruled in this by Parliament. That in itself should give pause for thought about how such texts function. Yet [Richard] Muller has explored this issue further and demonstrated that the divines were not only competent exegetes themselves and that Reformed Orthodoxy is exegetically grounded but also that proof texts in the seventeenth century were not intended as simple, blunt answers to complex questions. Proof texts operated rather as exegetical markers, directing the reader to the key verse but doing so in the expectation that the reader would check the classical expositions of that verse.

So, first off, the Westminster Divines didn’t even want the proof-texts included precisely because they were aware of the dangers of poor exegesis and context-less readings. Second, the texts were supposed to be used as pointers to further research, both of the text, and of the deeper history of interpretation. Basically, they wanted readers to do their homework.

Trueman then uses the example of the “covenant of works” to highlight the way this re-appraisal might shape our judgment about historical, Reformed orthodoxy.

One criticism is that the only reference to the pre-Fall arrangement with Adam in the garden as a covenant is Hosea 6:7. The Hebrew is ambiguous and could indeed be read as “like a man.” As such, it seems remarkably slender textual ground upon which to build such a crucial doctrine as the covenant of works. In fact, as Muller has shown through his study of the Westminster Annotations, the divines were well aware of this ambiguity. Their use of the language of covenant to refer to Adam in Eden was not built on this text, but upon Romans 5, which they saw as pointing to the conceptual presence of covenant in Eden, even as it was linguistically absent. Such a point would seem significant in assessing John Murray’s criticism of the covenant of works.*

Were the Westminster divines proof-texting then? In the sense that they are usually accused of, apparently not. Now, does that mean every reading of every text they cited was absolutely perfect? No, but the giants of Westminster probably deserve more credit than they’re typically given on this point.

If I might suggest two take-aways for contemporary biblical types:

1. When criticizing the hermeneutical approaches of different periods, we need to be careful of rushing to judgment. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time in biblical studies knows that the methods are constantly up for debate (form-criticism, redaction-criticism, literary, etc.). Who knows what readings we’ll find silly, mistakenly or not, in 20 years, let alone 200?

2. This also means we probably could take a cue from the Reformed scholastics at this point. They knew that one way of guarding against our interpretations being over-determined by the cultural and literary prejudices of the day, was by being in dialogue, both with the text, and with the history of interpretation. May we humble ourselves enough to do the same. Who knows? We might even want to throw some scholastics into the mix.

Soli Deo Gloria

*For more on the exegetical grounding of the covenant of works, G.K. Beale has some good stuff on the covenant in Gen. 1-3.

Quick-Blog #10: Don’t Get Analogy, Don’t Get God (Michael Horton on the Doctrine of Analogy)

If you’re going to study the doctrine of God, you need to understand the doctrine of analogy. It’s that simple.

Honestly, I’ve become convinced of this over the last few years as I moved from my early days as a Jurgen Moltmann fan to my current Reformedish semi-classicalism. (I have no good term for it. Whatever Kevin Vanhoozer is.) If you haven’t stopped reading already, you might be wondering what the doctrine of analogy is.

The doctrine of analogy is a very old one shared by the post-Reformation scholastics with their medieval forebears like St. Thomas Aquinas. In that sense it’s a very “catholic” teaching, shared across the tradition by Catholics and Protestants of various stripes. (I’m not too sure they’d put it this way, but I think the Eastern Orthodox would be fine with it as well.) Michael Horton laid out one of the cleanest summaries of the doctrine I’ve found in an article on the subject of the Reformed theological method. I’ve already quoted it here, but it’s worth high-lighting again:

“All of this leads us, finally, to the doctrine of analogy. When we assert certain predicates of God, based on God’s own self-revelation, we use them in one of three senses: univocally, analogically or equivocally. If we say that the predicate “gracious” means exactly the same thing, whether in God or in a creature, we are using “gracious” univocally. At the other end of the spectrum, if we say that by using that predicate we are ascribing something to God whose appropriateness is unknown to us, we are using it equivocally. If, however, God is said to be “gracious” in a way that is both similar and dissimilar to creatures, we say it is analogical. For instance, when we acknowledge that God is a “person,” do we really mean to say that he is a person in exactly the same sense as we are? When we follow Scripture in using male pronouns to refer to God, do we really believe that he is male? Unless we are willing to ascribe to God (in an univocal sense) all attributes of human personhood, predications must be analogical. Human language cannot transcend its finitude, so when God reveals himself in human language, he draws on human analogies to lead us by the hand to himself. It is correct description, but not univocal description.”

Basically, when you’re saying something about God or reading it in the Bible, whether about his being or his emotions, or something else, you have to insert a little qualifier because you’re comparing the transcendent, uncreated one to something created. Kinda like, “God is good (but not exactly the way you think of good)”, or “God is strong (and that is an understatement so serious you don’t have a category for it)”, or “God is angry (but you can’t think of it like sinful human anger)”, or “God repented (but not in the way that implies he didn’t know what he was doing)”. It’s like, but unlike.

Does this mean we can’t know anything about God? No. As Horton points out, God picks out these human analogies, especially in the Scriptures, to tell us something about himself. We just have to be careful when we pick up these analogies to use them and think of them in the way God intends us to, with the reading clues he gives us. For instance, when God is said to be our Father, we have to stop ourselves from immediately filling that word with everything we learned about fatherhood from our own fathers, but rather we must look to the way he is our Father in Christ, or better, the Father of the Son. That’s the kind of Fatherly love we look for, not the imperfect, possibly too lenient (ie. neglectful), or harsh, or whatever loves we find on earth. Again, it’s like, but unlike.

As always, there’s more to it than that, but this is supposed to be a quick-blog.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quit Limping–Choose Jesus

Speaking to the spiritual depthlessness with which his contemporaries lived, Thoreau wrote in Walden of the tragedy that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” They give in, they resign themselves to life as it is, no adventure, no true life–mere amusements only. Despair becomes a fixed underlying atmosphere of the heart.

The unfortunate reality is that Thoreau’s description could easily be applied to contemporary American Christians with little modification. You see, most of them will live the majority of their lives with a limp.

A limp? What do I mean by that?

Can I just say right now how much I love cheesy, bible drawings? Great times.

Theological Dance-off
One of my favorite passages in Scripture is the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel found in 1 Kings 18. In the ultimate theological showdown Elijah faces off against the false prophets in the Biblical equivalent of a dance-off, pitting YHWH against the false gods of the Canaanites, the Baals introduced by Queen Jezebel, in a literal trial by fire. Elijah would pray to YHWH and the false prophets would pray to the Baals, and whoever’s deity answered with fire to consume the sacrifice offered was the true God.

Aside from the sheer awesomeness of God administering a raw beat-down of a rival deity, what’s going on in the passage? Why did God feel it necessary to display himself in this way? Why set up a contest with non-existent gods? Why all the fireworks? What does he have to prove? Elijah’s question to the people reveals YHWH’s motive:

And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kings 18:21)

See, the Israelites had a limp. Israel, as it often would in its history, had fallen into the worship of false gods. They were turning away from YHWH, the true God, and had begun to give themselves to gods that weren’t really gods, who hadn’t done anything for them, certainly hadn’t saved them, redeemed them out of slavery from Egypt, and wouldn’t be of any use to them in the future. As Elijah put it, they were “limping between two different opinions.” Elijah’s challenge was a call to make up their minds, make a decision and whole-heartedly give themselves over.

Life with a Limp
When you live your life wavering between two different opinions, you live it with a limp. You can never take a solid step–you’re always teetering, unsteady in your choices. It’s like someone who can’t decide whether or not to commit to a relationship. For every little word or date or occasion there’s tons of analysis as to the implications and so firm action is rarely taken. What’s more, the fruits of a decision are not enjoyed either–you get none of the peace of solidly saying nor, and none of the joy of fully being with someone–this is, in fact, what struck me about the passage.

I remember listening to a Matt Chandler sermon where he pointed out that for a lot of Christians, life is lived between sin and God. They’re Christians but their hearts drawn towards sin and so they never fully chase after God and enjoy the fruit of a full relationship with him. At the same time, they’re too scared to chase after sin and at least enjoy it for a while before it destroys them. They enjoy neither and live basically fruitless lives.

No wonder so many of us wonder whether the Gospel is real. We live our lives half-chasing everything else, never fully giving ourselves over to Christ but never quite chasing what we really want either. Our home is in the muddled middle of spiritual mediocrity. Don’t misunderstand me here–I am not talking about being some super-Christian who out-preaches Billy Graham, out-serves Mother Theresa, and makes Ignatius of Loyola look like a spiritual slouch. I am talking about living each day having turned ourselves over to Christ; waking up with his glory and grace at the forefront of our minds, not that job promotion, or my own wants. I am talking about time in Scripture that’s about knowing and communing with Jesus, not a ritual to secure the blessings of all green lights on the way to work. I am talking about a prayer-life focused on the Kingdom, not simply achieving the American dream. I’m talking about a church-life that is more than just showing up for an hour to “get fed” and roll out, but an active involvement in the community of God because we know that’s where life-change happens–in the worshipping community. I’m talking about all of these things and more.

The Choice
The point is you’ll never chase these things if your heart is caught between God and money, God and sex, God and comfort, God and anything else. You will not run. You will not experience the true freedom God has for his children. You will simply limp through life wishing there was something more and bitterly resenting God because you’re too scared to chase it.

The call now is the same as it was then: Quit limping between the LORD or the Baals–choose Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Prayer for My Nephew, Jack Emmet Stewart

My sister Valerie and her husband Shawn just had a baby.  Jack Emmet Stewart was born on November 16th at 10:20 pm, weighing in at 8 lbs, 3 oz., 21 1/5 inches long. Jack is my first nephew and a handsome little guy.  Although he was peacefully asleep when I met him, I am convinced he could, if he so chose, destroy Chuck Norris. The awesome contained in this little bundle is hard to gauge at this point.

Now, I’ve been joking around for the last few months about how excited I am to be an uncle–all fun, no responsibilities. Well, not really joking, I meant most of it. Thing is, I’ve been praying for this little guy for a while now and, as the months have progressed, the reality of the responsibility I have towards Jack has started to dawn on me.

One of the first things I figured out I have to do is pray for him. That’s one of my main jobs now—I’m part of the Jack Emmet Stewart Prayer Team. (We are accepting all walk-ons at this point.) So, to kick it off, this is a prayer I’ve written for him:

Father, thank you for Jack Emmet Stewart. We’ve been waiting for him for a little while now. You’ve known about him for an eternity. We’re excited that he’s finally here, safe and sound. We know you have good things in store for him.

I thank you that from the first breath he took, he’s been a testimony to the Gospel. “Jack” means “God is gracious” and it fits—he is an unmerited gift of your kindness. “Emmet” in Hebrew is “truth, faithfulness”, and his arrival is a reminder of the fact that you are true and faithful. I pray that these twin truths would be the rails on which Jack’s life runs: your grace and faithfulness. Let him be ever aware of your loving-kindness, your ever-present help, your deep, deep grace—that you are faithful even when we are faithless.

There are so many things I would ask for him, things I will ask for him when the time comes, but for today I pray that you would bless him with:

Salvation- God, you are his maker, I pray that you would become his Father in Christ; adopt him by your grace. Let him come to repent and believe the Gospel early and deeply, be united by faith to Christ, and given the gift of your Spirit. I pray that someday quite soon he could answer Heidelberg’s first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” with the proper answer, from the heart:

“That I am not my own, but I belong– body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven:  in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

Father, as much as I love having him as a nephew, I want him as my little brother in Christ. Let this be the reality that forms the core of who he is.

Strength- Jack has strong parents. Shawn and Val are, in their own distinct ways, two of the strongest people I know. It is often over-looked because of their great gentleness, but it is a deep, deep strength that comes from being firmly planted by the streams of your grace. I pray that Jack would be planted by those same streams, drink deeply, and be rooted in such a way that the storms, the tempests, the breezes, the dryness, the spring—all the seasons of life—would leave him unshaken.

Empathy- Let that same strength be a source of strength for others. May it come with the ability to enter into the feelings, the concerns of others without being overwhelmed by them. Bless him that he might be a blessing.

Creativity- Help Jack to see beyond the normal possibilities and fears that constrain most of us from living truly God-soaked lives. Form him by your Spirit into a man whose imagination is governed only by the reaches of your power and goodness. Help him to live in ways that amaze people, glorify you, and give Jack great, great joy.

 Joy- Give Jack a deep, cavernous joy–joy that revels in the beauty of creation, that takes in all that you’ve made and wells up with gratitude for the redemption that you’ve wrought.

Depth- Jack comes from a line of thinkers, let it be so with him. But Father, I ask that he not only have head-knowledge, but heart-knowledge—wisdom that comes from knowing his Father and the character of his Father’s world through Christ.

Assurance- Give Jack a deep assurance about who he is in Christ, the man who you’re making him into, with all of the particular gifts, talents, and personality quirks you’ve written into his spiritual DNA. Let him know down to the marrow of his being that his Creator and Redeemer did not make mistakes with him.

Community- Finally, gather people around Jack—family, friends, neighbors, and most of all the covenant community of the church—who can pour into him, protect him, encourage him, love him, correct him, affirm him, and constantly point him to Jesus.

I ask these things with great faith and anticipation, grateful in advance for what you’re going to do, in the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Assurance in Ascension (Or, Why You Should Be Happy Jesus is in Heaven)

We talked about the ascension of Christ in church today. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I gave any real thought to the doctrine of Christ’s bodily ascension–the fact that after his resurrection Jesus took up a place of honor and power at the right hand of the Father in heaven. It’s not something that gets a lot of attention in contemporary preaching or in publishing, but it’s all over the NT (Luke 24; Acts 1:10-11; John 16:7; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:21-22; Col. 3:1-4; Heb. 9:24; 1 Pet 3:22, etc.) and is a central doctrine of the Christian faith–so much so that it gets a line in the creed: “He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”

This absence is a shame because, in fact, it’s something that we’re told to consider often. Paul instructs the believers in Colossae to “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). The command is not a one-time thing because the word “set” or “seek” is in the present, active imperative indicating continuous action–basically he’s saying we should be doing this all the time. Paul wants us constantly considering the reality of Christ’s life at the right hand of the Father. Why? Because through our union with Christ, what is true of him has become true of us. If Christ is risen and ascended, then we are risen and ascended with him. (Eph. 2:4-7)  If we don’t understand this, we’ll miss out on some of the deep assurance that comes from the truth of the Gospel.

While there is far too much to say about Christ’s ascension and current rulership of the universe, the Heidelberg Catechism helpfully gives us 3 benefits of Christ’s ascension to consider:

First, that he is our advocate in the presence of his Father in heaven; (1 John 2:1; Rom.8:34.)

Secondly, that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that he, as the head, will also take up to himself, us, his members; (John 14:2; John 17:24; John 20:17; Eph.2:6)

Thirdly, that he sends us his Spirit as an earnest, (John 14:16,7; Acts 2:1-4,33; 2 Cor.1:22; 2 Cor.5:5.) by whose power we “seek the things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God, and not things on earth.” (Col.3:1; Phil.3:14)

So, Christ is now in heaven as our advocate, interceding for us, lifting up prayers, presenting himself as evidence, as it were, of his accomplished work on our behalf.  There’s no need to doubt that our salvation is securely accomplished with Christ, seated after passing through heavens. (Heb 4:14; 8:1) Also, since he is there and we are connected to him, we can be assured that one day we too will be seated with him, experiencing the fullness of God’s presence, ruling and reigning as God always intended us to be. He’s there “preparing a place” with the Father for us. (John 14:3)  Finally, Christ has not left us alone, but has given us his Spirit as an “earnest”, a down-payment of the glory to come. And not only that, but as the catechism points out, he himself is the one who helps us to keep our eyes set on the reality of Christ’s ascended life.

Take some time this week to look up those verses; consider Christ, who is your life, risen and ascended. (Col. 3:1-4) When you start to do that, all the petty things, the little things, the “earthly things” that Paul talks about, will start to take on their proper dimensions as your security in him is strengthened and your love for him grows.

Praise the living and Ascended one, our life and our assurance.

Soli Deo Gloria

Are You a Dualist? Is that Bad? Just ask N.T. Wright

I was a sophomore in college when I found out that there was more than one kind of dualism. I was sitting in my class on St. Augustine (it was my medieval philosophy class) when a fellow classmate brought up the issue of dualism and how interesting it was given that nobody believed it. I piped up and said, “Oh, yeah, I’m a dualist.”

Looking at me with surprise, “Oh really? I’ve never met one. That’s odd.”

I didn’t think it odd at all: “Well, I am a Christian so it’s not that weird.”

“Really? I thought the two were kinda not compatible.”

At this point I was truly confused. Turns out we both were.  See, I had been talking about mind-body dualism and he was referring to theological dualism a la Zoroastrianism where you have a good god and a bad god facing off. At that point I started to realize that the subject of dualism was far more complicated than I thought. In fact, I didn’t realize how complicated it was until I read N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG)In that work he lists 9-10 different kinds of dualism that you could speak of when discussing the views of 1st Century Pagans and Jews.

I was reminded of this little discussion when reading this article by Wright on anthropology, or the theology of humanity, in the Apostle Paul’s thought. In it, he offers this helpful summary of his own discussion in NTPG.

So let’s run through these types of dualism or duality, beginning with four types that would be comfortably at home within ancient Jewish thought:

  1. a heavenly duality: not only God exists, but also angels and perhaps other heavenly beings;
  2. a theological or cosmological duality between God and the world, the creator and the creature;
  3. a moral duality between good and evil;
  4. an eschatological duality between the present age and the age to come.

All of these dualities a first-century Jew would take for granted. But none of them constitutes a dualism in any of the following three senses:

  1. a theological or moral dualism in which a good god or gods are ranged, equal and opposite, against a bad god or gods;
  2. a cosmological dualism, a la Plato, in which the world of space, time and matter is radically inferior to the noumenal world; this would include, perhaps, dualisms of form and matter, essence and appearance, spiritual and material, and (in a Platonic sense) heavenly/earthly (something like this would be characteristic of Philo);
  3. an anthropological dualism which postulates a radical twofoldness of soul and body or spirit and body (this, too, would be familiar in Philo).

Then there are three more which might be possible within ancient Judaism:

  1. epistemological duality as between reason and revelation – though this may be problematic, since it’s really the epistemological face of the cosmological dualism which I suggest ancient Jews would mostly reject;
  2. sectarian duality in which the sons of light are ranged against the sons of darkness, as in Qumran;
  3. psychological duality in which the good inclination and the evil inclination seem to be locked in perpetual struggle, as in Rabbinic thought.

It’s important to know about these different sorts dualisms in order to keep a clear theological head on your shoulders wading into these discussions–which I know you do everyday. But seriously, for Christians wanting to understand reality out of a properly Christian worldview, or theological framework, we have to keep in mind what Wright underlines here:

The radical rejection by most ancient Jews, in particular, of what we find in Plato and in much oriental religion, and the radical embrace of space, time and matter as the good gifts of a good creator God, the place where this God is known and the means by which he is to be worshipped – all this remains foundational, and is firmly restated and underlined in the New Testament. Creational, providential and covenantal monotheism simply leave no room for those four dualisms in the middle. In particular, I argued that such dualisms tend to ontologize evil itself, whereas in first-century Judaism evil is not an essential part of the creation, but is the result of a radical distortion within a basically good created order.

While we might not all agree with his judgments on Plato’s dualisms or body and soul, it’s important to keep distinct the things that ought to be distinct (God/creation, good/evil, present age/age to come, etc.) while avoiding tearing apart those things that should be kept together. That basic creational framework of a good God who creates a good world that gets distorted by sin is the backdrop of God’s redemption of all things in Christ. This is what the ancient gnostics missed when they created a Jesus who was simply a redeemer who saved people’s souls from their bodies–in which case, who cares what you do with your body? This is what is absent in pantheistic theologies that drag God into the world, who end up giving us a “compassionate” God that, in the end, is just as trapped in the world’s agony as we are, instead of being the distinct, but sovereign redeemer who can fix it. This is what modern Evangelicals sometimes miss with their tendency for evacuating from the world, despising creation, and simply waiting for Jesus to come back and rapture them out of their nicely air-conditioned churches they hide in most of the week.

God freely created the world distinct from himself, he loves it–he’s going to save it. He wants his people out in the world, in it, but not of it, proclaiming that good news, and working for it out in the world.

The bottom-line is: if you don’t keep your dualisms straight, you might lose the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #6 – Some Things to Do on Election Day

Aside from some silly, live, Facebook commentary on the debates, I haven’t spoken much about the election this year. I had a few reasons for this:

  1. My job makes it so that people automatically connect my personal judgments with an endorsement by my church and I don’t want to do that. I am sick to death of people conflating the Gospel with some particular political program. If I hear one more pastor, or church perverting the good news by making it about some lordship other than Christ’s, I’m going to snap.
  2. I am a recovering political junkie, so I decided to take this election off.  (I am still voting, though. More on that below.)
  3. Let’s be honest, I’m too busy otherwise.

Still, I figured it’d be appropriate to very quickly jot down some things you might try this Tuesday:

1. Calm down and remember that no matter who wins, Christ remains Lord.

Seriously, this is not some cheesy “Oh, God is still in control” shtick that doesn’t acknowledge the real, political implications of these elections. I get it, there are serious issues at stake. Still, at the heart of the Gospel is the acknowledgement that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.”(Rom 1:4) This is what you confess in order to be saved: that Christ is the risen Lord. (Rom 10:9) The good news is that he is risen and reigning over all things in heaven and on earth, even now, no matter who wins. Michael Horton reminds us that, “United to Christ, we should be the most responsible and the least fearful people at the polls on November 6, 2012, because our King already achieved his landslide victory in Jerusalem during Passover, AD 33.” So, no matter who wins on Tuesday, keep your head, Christ is Lord.

2. Pray for your leaders like the Bible tells you to.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”(1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Paul instructs Timothy to makes sure the congregation at Ephesus was praying for “kings and all who are in high positions.” If you’re going to claim to take the Bible seriously, then pray for your leaders no matter who they are. Paul was writing this about the Roman Emperors, not godly, Christian kings, but pagans who were persecuting Christians. Peter similarly tells Christians to “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.“(1 Peter 2:17)  In the context of great persecution, Peter tells them to “honor the emperor.”

Instead of freaking out and bemoaning the election, or re-election, of “that guy”, pray for him. If you’re really interested in being a witness in our culture, lay off of the conspiracy-theory emails about a take-over of the country by “them”, whatever that group consists of in your mind, and pray that God would give wisdom, grace, and salvation to whomever comes into, or remains, in office. Remember, we are to lead a “peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way”, not a panic-stricken and hysterical one.

3. Vote.

I’ve got a buddy who’s got some decent reasons for casting a blank ballot this Tuesday. I hear him and respect a position like his. Still, I do think that part of our responsibilities in being a good neighbor is voting for the common good, seeking the welfare of the city. (Jer. 29:7) We don’t do this to give our allegiance to the candidates because, in the end, our ultimate allegiance is to Christ alone, the living Lord of the universe. We do this in obedience to Christ, for the same reason we pay taxes, in order to live quiet, peaceable lives, giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. (1 Tim 2:2; Mark 12:17; Rom. 13:7)

4. Ask Forgiveness, Repent, and remember the Body of Christ.

Let’s be honest, too much of the American church has jacked up on this election. Far too many of us have been quick to tear apart the unity of the body of Christ for the sake of a political program. Christ made us one in himself. This was his prayer for us (John 17:21), and instead of living out that unity, we’ve been quick to vilify, reject, oppose, and refuse to recognize the Christian identity of those we disagree with politically. Echoing Paul, Brian Zahnd asks, “Is Christ divided? Was Obama crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Romney?” No. Christ is the only one who has done these things. He is the hope of the world. He is the light in the darkness. His kingdom is the one that will never fail and has no end. His reign is the reality on which our lives depend. His life is the one that draws us together, in himself, and made us citizens of a better country. (Heb. 11:16)

So, after you vote, or before, or maybe even today, take some time consider this truth. Stop, ask yourself if, in the heat of the election, you’ve forgotten that, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:4-6)

If so, you need to stop, repent, and ask forgiveness. Remember that in Christ you all are one, no matter how you vote–so ACT LIKE IT. Love each other. Treat each other with respect. You know–act like you believe the Gospel.

Bottom-line is this: don’t forget the Gospel this Tuesday.

Soli Deo Gloria

God Didn’t Just Create the World to Spin on its Own

Last night I talked to my college group about the issue of miracles and the laws of nature. One point that came up was that too often Christians have a limited view of God’s creative activity. They think of him in an essentially deistic fashion–that God created the world and then just left it spinning to itself. On that view, miracles become somewhat random interventions of an absent God. No, instead the Bible presents us with a God who not only creates, but sustains the universe in existence, governing it in wisdom and with fatherly compassion.  On this picture, a miracle is not an “intervention” from a distant God, but a sovereign action of a God already intimately involved with maintaining his creation. It was a good discussion–I love my job.

As I thought back on it this morning, it called to mind Calvin’s excellent comments on God’s creation and governance:

Moreover, to make God a momentary Creator, who once for all finished his work, would be cold and barren, and we must differ from profane men especially in that we see the presence of divine power shining as much in the continuing state of the universe as in its inception, For even though the minds of the impious too are compelled by merely looking upon earth and heaven to rise up to the Creator, yet faith has its own peculiar way of assigning the whole credit for Creation to God. To this pertains that saying of the apostle’s to which we have referred before, that only “by faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God” [Hebrews 11:3]. For unless we pass on to his providence — however we may seem both to comprehend with the mind and to confess with the tongue — we do not yet properly grasp what it means to say: “God is Creator.” Carnal sense, once confronted with the power of God in the very Creation, stops there, and at most weighs and contemplates only the wisdom, power, and goodness of the author in accomplishing such handiwork. (These matters are self-evident, and even force themselves upon the unwilling.) It contemplates, moreover, some general preserving and governing activity, from which the force of motion derives. In short, carnal sense thinks there is an energy divinely bestowed from the beginning, sufficient to sustain all things. But faith ought to penetrate more deeply, namely, having found him Creator of all, forthwith to conclude he is also everlasting Governor and Preserver — not only in that he drives the celestial frame  as well as its several parts by a universal motion, but also in that he sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the least sparrow [cf. Matthew 10:29]. Thus David, having briefly stated that the universe was created by God, immediately descends to the uninterrupted course of His providence, “By the word of Jehovah the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” [Psalm 33:6; cf. Psalm 32:6, Vg.]. Soon thereafter he adds, “Jehovah has looked down upon the sons of men” [Psalm 33:13; cf.Psalm 32:13-14, Vg.], and what follows is in the same vein. For although all men do not reason so clearly, yet, because it would not be believable that human affairs are cared for by God unless he were the Maker of the universe, and nobody seriously believes the universe was made by God without being persuaded that he takes care of his works, David not inappropriately leads us in the best order from the one to the other. In general, philosophers teach and human minds conceive that all parts of the universe are quickened by God’s secret inspiration. Yet they do not reach as far as David is carried, bearing with him all the godly, when he says: “These all look to thee, to give them their food in due season; when thou givest to them, they gather it up; when thou openest thy hand, they are filled with good things; when thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed; when thou takest away their breath, they die and return to the earth. If thou sendest forth thy spirit again, they are created, and thou re-newest the face of the earth” [Psalm 104:27- 30 p.]. Indeed, although they subscribe to Paul’s statement that we have our being and move and live in God [Acts 17:28], yet they are far from that earnest feeling of grace which he commends, because they do not at all taste God’s special care, by which alone his fatherly favor is known.

-John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.16.1

Calvin, and Scripture, remind us that we serve a God who didn’t just create the world and leave it spinning. No, instead we have a God who, with fatherly kindness and great concern, reigns over it with wisdom and power.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #5-How to Meet People in Coffee Shops

I meet new people in coffee shops. All. The. Time. (Seriously, 4 people in 2 days last week.) I mostly like this. I’m a decently friendly guy and I enjoy getting to know different, interesting people. On top of that, I’ve got a bit of an evangelistic streak in me. You probably won’t ever hear me roll through the 4 spiritual laws over an espresso, but it’s unsurprising to find me in a conversation with someone I’ve met 20 minutes prior, discussing their church history and views on Jesus. Still, every once in a while I feel like I have “Talk to me” written on my forehead. I’ve tried to think about how I happen to get into these conversations and I’ve come up with some reasons, both serious and silly. So, if you want to meet people in coffee shops you might try some of these methods, especially if you’re looking to be “missional” and relational in your approach to sharing the Gospel.

1. Read interesting books. Seriously, read interesting books, or at least ones with interesting covers. Then, leave them out on your table. Usually every couple of visits to a coffee shop somebody’ll ask me about the book I’m reading and we”ll start talking. Funniest conversation like that was when I was reading Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion I got to explain that it was social commentary and American religious history, not a biography of the band.

2.  Smile. This is simple, but I generally smile at people when I see them walk in, or we make eye contact. When I’m studying, I look up a lot and almost by reflex find myself smiling at somebody. I might have no intention of talking to them, but somehow, we end up in a conversation because I guess smiling is rare. We live in an increasingly suspicious and cynical culture. In a culture where the biggest cause of depression is loneliness, signs of life and warmth are attractive. Of course, this can easily be misread. Beware the creeper smile. Still, be friendly.

3. Notice People and Ask Questions. If you’re bold and want to be the one to start the conversation, notice people and ask them questions. People are so used to going through their days without anybody taking an active interest in them and their activities that an honest question about something you’ve noticed (again, something not creepy), will usually invite an answer that you can build into a conversation. Noticing books, unique shoes, inquiring about what they’re studying, etc. will usually draw people out of their I-don’t-know-you-keep-the-traditional-3-feet-away shell. Thing is though, you should actually be interested in those things. Don’t ask about something if all you want to do is cut to the chase and get at what you’re really interested in. Be interested in the person. In any case, you probably won’t have anything useful to say to them unless you’ve first paid attention to who they actually are.

4. Commit to Being Somewhere. Place is important. Investing time and committing to going regularly to particular places at particular times, or at least on a regular basis gives you a great opportunity to become familiar with and familiar to regulars as well as randoms. It gives you the opportunity to just start saying hi, and then building out relationships from there. So, pick a place and plant yourself.

5. Have a huge mustache (Men only). Okay, this is a joke, but I seriously get comments on my mustache from random strangers 3-4 times a week. On more than one occasion this has developed into a long conversation about Jesus and inviting them to church. Just sayin’, it’s something you pastor-types might want to try out.

6. Pray. Really, if you want to meet people, engage them about life, truth, and Jesus, then pray before you go anywhere. Pray God will give you opportunities, and wait for God to work. Sometimes you meet nobody, then there are days when you end up talking to a total stranger about their deepest convictions about life, God, and reality. You really don’t know what God will throw your way if you ask him.

Alright, that’s about it. I’m not an evangelism expert, but hopefully some of these tips can help you meet the people that God has placed around you “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” (Acts 17:27)

Soli Deo Gloria

Book Review- A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists by Mitch Stokes

Mitch Stokes. A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 252 pp. $16.99. ($11.35 on Amazon)

In the last few years, with the rise of the New Atheism, authors like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens have made popular Christian apologetics popular again. A veritable cottage industry of “responses” and rejoinders have been churned out by top-notch scholars (and some hacks too) either presenting arguments for Christianity or attempting to dismantle the claims of the New Atheists. While a number of these books are well-written and quite valuable, none of them quite accomplish what Mitch Stokes’ has in his recent work, A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be A Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists.  

He Knows What He’s Doing

What makes this book different? The key is that Stokes knows what he’s doing and, more importantly, what he isn’t. So often works of apologetics try to cover everything and don’t end up adequately covering anything.  Stokes knows better. He’s narrowed his focus, honed in on the key issues, and goes to work on them in a humorous, engaging, and readable fashion. What are those issues? The relationship between faith and reason, science, and the problem of evil.

Stokes is particularly qualified to tackle these. Before taking up his position as the Senior Fellow of Philosophy at New St. Andrews in Moscow, Idaho he got his MA in religion at Yale under Nicholas Wolterstorff, then went on to get his Ph.D. at Notre Dame under Alvin Plantinga and Peter Van Inwagen. No big deal–just three of the foremost philosophers of religion alive. And, if that weren’t enough,  prior to entering the philosophy game, he got an MS in mechanical engineering. The man knows what he’s talking about.

Introducing Reformed Epistemology–You’re Welcome

One way of describing Stokes’ project is translating Alvin Plantinga for everybody. Plantinga, while being, in my opinion, the most brilliant Christian philosopher working in the analytic tradition today, has not gone out of his way to make his philosophical genius widely accessible to the general reader. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s hilarious and pretty clear as far as analytic philosophers go. Let’s be honest though, the average layman or pastor won’t take the time to read all 500 pages of Warranted Christian Belief  even if it’s worth it (which it is). Stokes takes the best of the Reformed epistemological approach developed by Plantinga and Wolterstorff (don’t worry, you don’t have to be a Calvinist to buy into it) applied to various issues in philosophy over the last 40 years and condenses it into short, winsome, witty, and clearly laid-out chapters uncluttered with small print or symbolic logic.  He also includes helpful “For Your Arsenal” summary points at the back of each chapter for easy recall of the information.

This isn’t to say that he merely repeats Plantinga, or offers nothing new–he does, especially the way he frames the discussion historically, concretely grounding these ideas in conversation with Hume and Locke on down to W.V.O. Quine. Still, even if translating Plantinga were all he did, this would be crucial because in engaging with both believers and unbelievers with the Gospel over the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize that the issue of epistemology is one that is too often ignored, or simply botched in most popular works on apologetics even though it lies at the root of so many of these discussions. By focusing his sights on the epistemological questions, Stokes really is aiming to give readers a “shot of faith to the head.”

So how does he actually do it? Stokes starts out by explaining and debunking the evidentialist objection to belief in God, that there isn’t sufficient evidence to “prove” he exists. He shows that, in fact, evidentialism is self-defeating–some beliefs must be basic, taken without reasons or evidence, otherwise reasoning itself cannot get off the ground. In fact, he pushes on to show that a demand for arguments and “reasons” for all of our beliefs, actually leads us to the conclusion that atheism itself is self-defeating. In place of the rationalism and evidentialism so commonly assumed by skeptics, Stokes proposes an alternative definition for what it means for a belief to be rational, that it is the product of “properly-functioning cognitive faculty operating in the appropriate environment” (read as good thinking equipment), like sense-perception, memory, and reason; this is a Reidian, reliabilist approach to epistemology as recovered and retooled by Plantinga and others. Stokes goes on to show that belief by way of testimony, or faith, is actually another valid way of coming by our beliefs, and that it is perfectly rational to believe in God by way faith, testimony, or “taking God at his word.”  Pressing a bit further, Stokes makes the very Plantingan point that if the “Christian epistemic story” is true, then the Christian can believe in God in a way that is basic and rational. Basically, in order to show that faith is irrational, you have to prove Christianity false first.

Now, none of these considerations means that he discounts reason or even the arguments for the existence of God–he actually has a very helpful “intermission” section dealing with the nature of the arguments and the problem of the burden of proof. Instead, Stokes shows that these arguments are helpful in supplementing faith and in dealing with “defeater” beliefs.

Defeaters and Highlights

What’s a “defeater”? A defeater is basically a reason to ditch a belief we gained previously in light of new evidence to the contrary, or that casts suspicion on the way we arrived at our belief. This is why Stokes moves on from his general discussion on faith and reason to consider the two main defeater beliefs for God out there today: science and the problem of evil.

I won’t review these two sections extensively, but some highlights include:

  • Helpful corrections of the historical record when it comes to the “history of the warfare between science and religion.” (Stokes has written short biographies of both Galileo and Newton so he’s well-equipped to handle this.)
  • A good discussion of the difference between the unnecessary “god of the Gaps” who intervenes from time to time to fix things that science can’t figure out and the God of the Bible who supervenes over and upholds the created order.
  • A much-needed guide to distinguishing between methodological naturalism, philosophical naturalism, and the scientific provincialism that convinces so many that accepting the former is predicated by the latter.
  • A fascinating historical and philosophical analysis of the rise of science, the way science actually proceeds, and how theism gives us confidence to engage in scientific study given belief in the Image of God and the rationality of a universe created by God.
  • Numbers. Stokes has an absorbing discussion on the nature of numbers that made even a math-hater like me wonder at the beauty of a mathematically-ordered universe–and how bizarre the existence of such a one truly is unless the world was created by a rational God.
  • A clean introduction into the “problem of evil” discussion that’s been going on in academic philosophy since the 1960s.
  • Short, but clear, Plantingan responses to both the logical and the probabilistic versions of the problem of evil, using both the Free Will Defense with respect to the logical, and a sober reflection on the epistemological limitations of finite thinkers in relation to the probabilistic.
  • A theistic turning of the tables, using the insights of the moral argument to point out that, without God, there is no absolute, moral standard, in which case the objection from evil can’t even get off the ground.
  • A bold statement of the uncommon yet undeniably appealing O Felix Culpa (Happy Fault) theodicy. (I won’t blow the surprise for you.)

Conclusions 

To sum up: Mitch Stokes has done the church a great service with this book.  By making available some of the best insights of the Christian community’s academic philosophers, believers who read this can be humbly confident that their faith in the Gospel is not blind, irrational, or illegitimate. Rather, it is in fact capable of standing up to the fiercest intellectual objections. I highly recommend this book to doubting believers, inquisitive skeptics, and especially pastors who want to be able to lovingly and persuasively commend the Gospel to the both groups.

Soli Deo Gloria