Tim Keller: 4 Doctrines You Need To Know When You’re Suffering

walking with GodI just began Tim Keller’s monumental new book on the problem of evil Walking with God through Pain and Suffering and it’s, well, it’s monumental. I’ve read a number of books on the subject, especially in my undergrad in philosophy, and I have to say, though I’m only a couple of chapters in, it’s going to be the new classic on the subject. Unlike other works on the subject, he’s not only pastoral, or only philosophical, or only theological, but he approaches the issue of suffering from all of these angles and more. Sociology, literature, theology, philosophy, and, of course, the Scriptures, are brought to bear on the seemingly intractable burden of suffering and evil.

While we can’t logic ourselves out of pain, making meaning of our suffering is inevitable, and the framework through which you view life reveals itself most clearly in our approach to pain. Without doing a full review, I wanted to simply highlight a key little section towards the beginning where he, in short order, lists four key doctrines of the Christian faith that give deep resources for dealing with pain, suffering and evil over and against the secular or deistic view (numbers are mine):

  1. “The first relevant Christian belief is in a personal, wise, infinite, and therefore inscrutable God who controls the affairs of the world–and that is far more comforting than the belief that our lives are in the hands of fickle fate or random chance.
  2. The second crucial tenet is that, in Jesus Christ, God came to earth and suffered with and for us sacrificially–and that is far more comforting than the idea that god is remote and uninvolved. The cross also proves that, despite all the inscrutability, God is for us.
  3. The third doctrine is that through faith in Christ’s work on the cross, we can have assurance of our salvation–that is far more comforting than karmic systems of thought. We are assured that the difficulties of lie are not payment for our past sins, since Jesus has paid them. As Luther taught, suffering is unbearable if you aren’t certain that God is for you and with you. Secularity cannot give you that, and religions that provide salvation through virtue and good works cannot give it, either.
  4. The fourth great doctrine is that of the bodily resurrection from the dead for all who believe. This completes the spectrum of our joys an consolations. One of the deepest desires of the human heart is for love without parting. Needless to say, the prospect of resurrection is far more comforting than the beliefs that death just takes into nothingness or into an impersonal spiritual substance. The resurrection goes beyond the promise of an ethereal, disembodied afterlife. We get our bodies back, in a state of beauty and power that we cannot today imagine. Jesus’ resurrection was corporeal–it could be touched and embraced, and he ate food. And yet he passed through closed doors and could disappear. This is a material existence, but one beyond the bounds of our imagination. The idea of heaven can be a consolation for suffering, a compensation for the life we have lost. But resurrection is not just consolation–it is restoration. We get it all back–the love, the loved ones, the goods, the beauties of this life–but to knew, unimaginable degrees of glory and joy and strength. It is a reversal of the seeming irreversibility of loss…”

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, pp. 58-59

Note clearly: this is no mere theism with general platitudes about everything working itself out, or karma, or what-have-you, but concrete consolation grounded in deep Gospel truth revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even the first doctrine of God’s inscrutable wisdom is one grounded in fact that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23), for our salvation.

Clearly we could expand on all of these (and Keller will), but these four thick truths of the Christian faith are the key doctrinal pillars upon which any properly Christian response to suffering will rest. This is how the Christian begins to deal with the problem of pain and suffering. Once more, this is why doctrine matters for real life.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Thanksgiving Prayer

thanksgivingFor the Christian, every day is a day to give thanks, and yet, today our nation sets apart a day to give thanks (to who, and for what, depends on the individual American.)  Christians know that the most proper language of thanksgiving is the language of prayer. While many of us prefer to offer spontaneous, specific prayers, the wisdom of the Christian tradition has shown the sometimes prayer crafted with thought and care by others can give shape and form to our own.

John Knox’s magnificent prayer of thanksgiving in the context of the Lord’s Supper is one such prayer. Though most of us won’t be celebrating communion today, meditating on these words, and praying them for yourself can help ground your own thanksgiving in the rich, foundational truths of Gospel:

O Father of Mercy, and God of all consolation! Seeing all creatures do acknowledge and confess thee as Governor and Lord: It becometh us, the workmanship of thine own hands, at all times to reverence and magnify they godly Majesty. First, for that thou hast created us in thine own image and similitude: But chiefly in that thou hast delivered us from that everlasting death and damnation, into which Satan drew mankind by the means of sin, from the bondage whereof neither man nor angel was able to make us free.

We praise thee, O Lord! that thou, rich in mercy, and infinite in goodness, hast provided our redemption to stand in thine only and well-beloved Son, whom of every love thou didst give to be made man like unto us in all things, sin excepted, in his body to receive the punishment of our transgression, by his death to make satisfaction to thy justice, and through his resurrection to destroy him that was the author of death; and so to bring again life to the world, from which the whole offspring of Adam most justly was exiled.

O Lord! we acknowledge that no creature is able to comprehend the length and breadth, the depth and height of that thy most excellent love, which moved thee to show mercy where none was deserved, to promise and give life where death had gotten the victory, to receive us in thy grace when we could do nothing by rebel against thy justice.

O Lord! the blind dullness of our corrupt nature will not suffer us sufficiently to weigh these they most ample benefits; yet, nevertheless, at the commandment of Jesus Christ our Lord, we present ourselves at this his table, which he hath left to be used in remembrance of his death, until his coming again: to declare and witness before the world, that by him alone we have received liberty and life; that by him alone thou dost acknowledge us thy children and heirs; that by him alone we have entrance to the throne of thy grace; that by him alone we are possessed in our spiritual kingdom to eat and drink at his table, with whom we have our conversation presently in heaven, and by whom our bodies shall be raised up again from the dust, and shall be placed with him in that endless joy, which thou, O Father of Mercy! hast prepared for thine elect before the foundation of the world was laid.

And these most inestimable benefits we acknowledge and confess to have received of they free mercy and grace, by thine only beloved Son Jesus Christ: for the which, therefore, we thy congregation, moved by thine Holy Spirit, render all thanks, praise, and glory, forever and ever. Amen.

–John Knox, quoted in Worship: Reformed According to Scripture, Hughes Oliphaunt Old, pp. 136-137

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. On a personal note of thanksgiving, aside from the many blessings God has given me, this will be my 300th post on the site.

Lewis Couldn’t Write About Aliens AND Centaurs — (Or, N.T. Wright on Pauline Authorship)

paul and the faithfulness of GodWhen I got to seminary, I found out a lot of people think Paul didn’t all the letters attributed to him in the New Testament. Actually, it’s not just that some people don’t, but rather it’s the dominant position in non-conservative academia, and even many conservative scholars adopt it. The idea is that letters like Ephesians, Colossians, the Timothys, Titus, and 2 Thessalonians are later compositions, pseudepigraphal, either by an imposter, or a devoted disciple that claim Paul’s name and authority. Depending on how conservative you are, you might say that the earliest recipients would have, of course, known this, and so there really wasn’t fraud being committed, but rather this would have been seen as an acceptable instance of a very common practice. Or, you might just call it lying.

While I can’t get into all of the details, one of the main arguments against their authenticity is the alleged difference in style and vocabulary. When you compare and contrast the undisputed letters to the others, you apparently find different vocabularies employed, special terminology missing or in use, sentence construction and so forth.

Now, I have to admit, when it comes to the Pauline epistles, I’ve never found this sort of argumentation all that convincing. Actually, I said as much in a footnote in one of my papers in seminary:

I’ve never been very impressed with arguments like that. “Paul couldn’t have said this, because he never says this kind of thing, as far as we know.” But what if he just said it in the passage? Then it would be the kind of thing he would say. I find this to be especially problematic given the contextual nature of these letters. It strikes me as kind of like saying, C.S. Lewis couldn’t have written The Space Trilogy because he never talked about aliens in The Chronicles of Narnia and the former is written for adults and clearly the latter is for children. Or it’s like saying “Oh, Bob could never have talked about that with his girlfriend Gina. I know that because I know what he talks about with his mother.” Barring a demonstration of contradiction or of unacceptably different conceptual backgrounds, these arguments often-times are simply an elevated exercise in question-begging that don’t take seriously issue of the way contextual concerns dominate the theology of Paul’s letters and the topics he chooses to address.

Now, you could easily chalk that up to a young, conservative student’s incredulity towards disturbing scholarship. Sometimes I’ve been tempted to. Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that N.T. Wright agrees with me!

Wright dives into the issue of authorship in his first volume of Paul and the Faithfulness of God (yes, I started it and a couple hundred pages in it’s great) in order defend his use of Ephesians and Colossians as source material instead of simply sticking to the undisputed seven letters. While he has a fascinating section dealing with the theological motives in play for doubting the letters I’d love to get into (in the early days, the problem was that the general epistles sounded too “Catholic” for modern liberal Protestants to stomach, nowadays it’s more from postmodern egalitarians who don’t like what Paul has to say in the household codes),  it’s his short (for Wright) little section on the style issue that I found worth highlighting:

Arguments from style are clearly important in principle. But they are hard to make in practice. We have such a tiny sample of Paul’s writing, hardly an adequate database for definite conclusions about authorship. Those who have done computer analyses of Paul’s style come up with more ‘conservative’ results than we might have expected. In fact, if it’s stylistic differences we want, the most striking are, in my opinion, the radical differences between 1 and 2 Corinthians. The second letter to Corinth is much jerkier; its sentences are dense and convoluted, bending back on themselves, twisting to and fro with language about God, Jesus Christ, and Paul’s ministry. The organization of the material is much less crisp. There is a far greater difference between those two Corinthian letters that there is between Galatians and Romans on the one hand and Ephesians and Colossians on the other; yet nobody for that reason cast doubt on 2 Corinthians. As John A.T. Robinson pointed out from personal experience a generation ago, a busy church leader may well write in very different styles for different occasions and audiences. The same person can be working simultaneously on a large academic project with careful, ponderous sentences and a short, snappy talk for Sunday school. It has not be unknown for senior biblical scholars to write children’s fiction [in fn.135 …Among NT scholars who have written children’s fiction we might mention C.H. Dodd and R.J. Bauckham]. More directly to the point, it has recently been argued strikingly that Ephesians and Colossians show evidence of a deliberate ‘Asiatic’ style which Paul could easily have adopted for readers in Western Turkey. I regard the possibility of significant variation in Paul’s own style as much higher than the possibility that someone else, a companion or co-worker could achieve such a measure of similarity. Other historical examples of that genre do not encourage us to suppose they would have been so successful.

–Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Vol. 1, pg. 60

So then, style matters, but it isn’t everything. If a NT scholar can write children’s lit, and someone as limited in range as me can write about epistemology and dating tips, then we ought to be wary about these sorts of judgments, when you’re dealing with a versatile thinker like Paul who’s doing ministry on multiple fronts across a series of decades.

And that’s just one of the dozens of nuggets worth sharing out of Wright’s PFG.

Soli Deo Gloria

‘Who has made man’s mouth?’ A Couple of Thoughts On Humility and Boldness in Theology

scyllaArrogant idolatry and cowardly silence are the Scylla and Charybdis of modern theology. While some prattle on, boastfully sure about the God who obviously fits their preconceived notions of deity and cultural expectations, others are too suspicious or scared to speak in more than a doubtful whisper about him.

John Webster speaks to the tension in this tight little passage (also, he gets more done in a hundred small pages than many modern theologians do in three-volumes of theologico-philosophic meandering):

‘You shall not profane my holy name, but I will be hallowed among the people of Israel; I am the Lord who sanctify you’ (Lev. 22.32). This requirement–that God be feared and his name hallowed–is in many respects the requirement of theological reason. Reason can only be holy if it resists its own capacity for idolatry, its natural drift towards the profaning of god’s name by making common currency of the things of God. A holy theology, therefore, will be properly mistrustful of its own command of its subject-matter; modest; aware that much of what it says and thinks is dust. God’s holiness means that theology stands under the prohibition: ‘Do not come near’ (Ex. 3.5). Accordingly, theology will be characterized less by fluency and authority, and much more by weakness, a sense of the inadequacy of its speeches to the high and holy matter to which it is called to bear testimony.

Nevertheless, this prohibition is not an absolute moment by which reason is entirely incapacitated. Alongside the prohibition stands with equal force an imperious command to speak: ‘Who has made man’s mouth?…Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be your mouth and teach you what you shall speak’ (Ex. 4:11-12). The command is also a promise–that God will make holy reason capable of that which sin makes it incapable; that because the speeches of reason are in the hands of God, they may also serve in the indication of the gospel’s truth. Idolatry is reproved, not by silence, but by speeches that set forth what God has taught. And in such speeches, holy reason gives voice to the fear of God.

–John Webster, Holiness, pp. 28-29

And, of course, my boy Vanhoozer says something along the same lines with a bit more style:

Those who would be honest to God must strive to avoid both pride and sloth in their God-talk. Theological pride overestimates the adequacy of human language and thought; theological sloth underestimates the importance of responding to the provocations of God’s self-revelation. The one goes before destruction; the other pre-empts instruction. Yet it is hard to miss the recurring biblical theme that God wills to communicate and make himself known: “The word of the Lord came to . . .”; “the Lord said . . .”. Theology is ultimately irresponsible if it fails either to attend to what God says or to think about the nature of the one who addresses us.

–Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology, pg. xvi

So how do we speak well of God? By proceeding with humble obedience, listening before we speak, and submitting every word to the Word for judgment and grace.

Soli Deo Gloria

Celebrating C.S. Lewis #CaPC-Style

C.S. LewisLast week Christ and Pop Culture ran a series of posts celebrating the life and works of C.S. Lewis. Here’s the Editor’s Note:

November 22, 2013, will mark the fiftieth anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death. On that day, he will be given a place in Westminster Abbey’s renowned Poet’s Corner. In commemoration of this event, all this week Christ and Pop Culture contributors will be writing about the works by C. S. Lewis that have been most personally significant to them.

I wrote a post on The Problem of Pain:

Of course, the most important thing about the work is that he’s trying to show the philosophical coherence of explicitly biblical thought. Yes there’s a bit of speculation, and no I wouldn’t agree with all of it now, but the reason the work has staying power is because, at core, it’s an attempt to set forth the Bible’s own “answers” to the problem of pain and suffering. This is what philosophy—essentially just thinking really hard—in service of the Gospel looks like: untangling the mess of half-truths, lies, and confusions of thought that get in the way of trusting in the goodness of God declared to us in Jesus Christ.

And the rest of the posts by my brilliant colleagues are all worth diving into as well (probably more so):

The Weight of Glory by Anita Kobayashi Sung:  “Our desires indicate the deep ways we long to be acknowledged and known by God.”

Letters to Malcom by Nick Rynerson: “Prayer can bring tension and yet intimacy. C. S. Lewis helped remind me of its beauty.”

The Four Loves by Jewel Evans: “It is grace in and of itself that enables any of us to be loved at all.”

A Grief Observed by Martyn Jones: “Sometimes all we know of God is his absence, and other times he appears as a scourge.

Perelandra by E. Stephen Burnett: The second “Ransom Trilogy” story captivated me with themes of a virginal paradise invaded by serious, haunting evil.

That Hideous Strength by S.L. Whitesell: “It is a story of permanent struggle between the sacred and profane, between the earth and stone of Britain and the magic and spirit of Logres.”

The Shoddy Lands by Seth T. Hahne: “The lesson is that we should be mindful of the things, people, and ideas in which we invest ourselves.”

Til We Have Face by Erin Straza: “It exposes how we see ourselves and project our notions upon God—often quite erroneously and to our own demise.”

The Screwtape Letters by Erin Wyble Newcomb: “The book opened my eyes to a spiritual plane that I had heretofore neglected—to my detriment.”

Surprised by Joy by S.L. Whitesell: “Surprised by Joy supplied the defect of my Christian upbringing and didactic theology”

The Silver Chair by Geoffrey Reiter (who edited the whole series): “It represents an approach to catechesis, teaching children precepts through memorization—not for the sake of rote knowledge, however, but so that the guidelines sink so deeply into children’s hearts that such commands become, in effect, a part of them.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Inerrant Text ≠ Inerrant Interpretation (TGC)

inerrancy-of-Scripture-570x427-300x224

I recently ran across a couple of different writers raising questions about the value of affirming inerrancy or infallibility for the Bible, both of which hinged on the link between the text and interpretation. One wondered aloud at the coherence of claiming an infallible text when you’re a finite sinner, whose faculties are limited, likely disordered by sin and self-will, and whose interpretations must therefore be flawed. The other, a little more boldly, claimed the doctrine unnecessary, only serving human arrogance by lending added weight to the claimant’s own fallible pronouncements.

While both objections are quite understandable, and the first quite reasonable, they share a common failure to distinguish between theological claims being made about the Bible itself, and those for our interpretation of the Bible. In other words, it’s the difference between inspiration and illumination, and their relationship to the text.

I clarify these relationships and give two reasons why an infallible text matters despite our errant interpretations here at the The Gospel Coalition.

Hodge and Warfield: Our View of Inspiration Reflects Our View of God

Great beard. Great theologian.

Great beard. Great theologian.

Based on Twitter it seems like everybody is talking about the doctrine of Scripture at this year’s gather of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). It seemed fitting then to highlight this little gem from the modern grand-daddies of the doctrine of Inspiration, Archibald Hodge and B.B. Warfield:

…it is also evident that our conception of revelation and its methods must be conditioned upon our general views of God’s relation to the world, and His methods of influencing the souls of men. The only really dangerous opposition to the Church doctrine of Inspiration comes either directly or indirectly, but always ultimately, from some false view of God’s relation to the world, of His methods of working, and of the possibility of a supernatural agency penetrating and altering the course of a natural process. But the whole genius of Christianity, all of its essential and most characteristic doctrines, presuppose the immanence of God in all His creatures, and His concurrence with them in all their spontaneous activities. In Him, as an active, intelligent Spirit, we all live and move and have our being. He governs all His creatures and all their actions, working in men even to will, and spontaneously to do His good pleasure. The currents, thus, of the divine activities do not only flow around us, conditioning or controlling our action from without, but they none the less flow within the inner current of our personal lives confluent with our spontaneous self-movements, and contributing to the effects whatever properties God may see fit that they shall have.

–INSPIRATION, by Archibald Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, The Presbyterian Review 6 (April 1881), pp. 225-60.

As Vanhoozer* never tires of pointing out, the God question and the Scripture question can’t be separated. What you think about one is bound to affect what you think about the other.

Soli Deo Gloria

*I’ve been busy so this will have to serve as a place-holder for my “Engaging KJV” series. Should be back to it next week.