A Silly Little Dialogue on Morality, And Keller on the Public Square

kid arguingDigging through some old files, I found my first attempt at a moral dialogue from back in my college days. It’s a bit silly and incomplete, but I felt like sharing it:

“I want to be a dictator when I grow up”, said little Jimmy.

“What are you talking about?”, inquired Sara with a confused look.

“I want to be a dictator when I grow up,” repeated Jimmy. “That way I can do whatever I want and no-one can tell me what to do.”

“You can’t do anything you want. There are still rules you have to follow, stupid,” replied Sara, this time a little annoyed. “Nobody can do whatever they want.”

“Yes, you can. If you’re a dictator then you make up the rules and you can do whatever you want. Nobody can tell you what to do and you’re never wrong because all you have to do is say you’re right and you are.” Jimmy said this and then crossed his little arms with a smug expression of victory on his face.

“That’s not true!”, exclaimed Sara furiously. “You’re not right just because you say so. You might be able to push people around but you’re not always right.”

“Who says I’m not? Huh, if I have the power then whatever I say is right is right and whatever I say is wrong is wrong. So there.”

“No, well, well, what if God says you’re wrong? Huh? What would you do about that?”, questioned Sara. “You’re not bigger than God. You can’t tell Him what to do. He makes up the rules, not you.” This time Sara crossed her arms in satisfaction.

“God doesn’t exist. That’s what my teacher said at least.”

“Yes He does! How do you think we got here stupid?!”

“Evolution,” replied Jimmy evenly. “Evolution tells us how we got here without God.”

Sara, now a little flustered, stumbled on, “Ok, whatever, but that still doesn’t mean that you can make up the rules. Just because God doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. You have to listen to what other people think. You can’t just make up the rules by yourself.”

“Why? What’s the difference if I make them up or if a bunch of people make them up? They’re still made up by somebody. They still depend on what either a bunch of people feel or what one person feels. What makes what a bunch of people think more important than what just one person thinks? Because there’s more of them? Fine, let’s just switch it then. Would it be wrong for one person to have to do what a whole bunch of people say just because he’s one they are a bunch. Just because they’re stronger than him? That’s just as bad as one really strong person making everybody do what he wants.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Well, what do you mean? If there is no God to say what right and wrong is, then there’s nothing besides what’s in our heads, some instincts, or what we feel, to base our rules of right and wrong. If you disagree with me, my opinion is just as good as yours and if I’m strong enough then it’s better than yours.”

“….you suck.”

Actually the whole thing reminds me of a passage from Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. And since you’ve been kind enough to read thus far, you deserved the reward of encountering something intelligent, so I’ll quote it here. He’s talking about the possibility of having a religiously “neutral” conversation about morality in the public square:

Rorty insists that religion-based beliefs are conversation stoppers. But all of our most fundamental convictions about things are beliefs that are nearly impossible to justify to those who don’t share them. Secular concepts such as “self-realization” and “autonomy” are impossible to prove and are “conversation stoppers” just as much as appeals to the Bible.

Statements that seem to be common sense to the speakers are nonetheless often profoundly religious in nature. Imagine that Ms. A argues that all the safety nets for the poor should be removed, in the name of “survival of the fittest.” Ms. B might respond, “The poor have the right to a decent standard of living— they are human beings like the rest of us!” Ms. A could then come back with the fact that many bioethicists today think the concept of “human” is artificial and impossible to define. She might continue that there is no possibility of treating all living organisms as ends rather than means and that some always have to die that others may live. That is simply the way nature works. If Ms. B counters with a pragmatic argument, that we should help the poor simply because it makes society work better, Ms. A could come up with many similar pragmatic arguments about why letting some of the poor just die would be even more efficient. Now Ms. B would be getting angry. She would respond heatedly that starving the poor is simply unethical, but Ms. A could retort, “Who says ethics must be the same for everyone?” Ms. B would finally exclaim: “I wouldn’t want to live in a society like the one you are describing!”

In this interchange Ms. B has tried to follow John Rawls and find universally accessible, “neutral and objective” arguments that would convince everyone that we must not starve the poor. She has failed because there are none. In the end Ms. B affirms the equality and dignity of human individuals simply because she believes it is true and right. She takes as an article of faith that people are more valuable than rocks or trees— though she can’t prove such a belief scientifically. Her public policy proposals are ultimately based on a religious stance.

–The Reason for God, (pp. 14-15)

Of course, both of these dialogues are short and rough, but I think they’re enough to show that trying to craft a morality without God isn’t as straightforward as all that, nor is crafting an ideologically neutral public square.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Crisp, Theological Rule of Thumb

Sadly, Dr. Crisp no longer has this beard. And yet, the aura of its former magnificence still confers authority upon his pronouncements.

Sadly, Dr. Crisp no longer has this beard. And yet, the aura of its former magnificence still confers authority upon his pronouncements.

Christology can be a tricky business. What does it mean for the Godman to have both a divine and a human nature? Is there a change involved? If so, of what kind? What about Christ’s human nature? Does Christ need a soul and body, or does the Divine Word function as the soul of Christ’s human body? And if he does need one, is it a soul like others, including a human will alongside the divine will of the Word, or is that nonsensical? These are the sort of questions Oliver Crisp sets about examining early in his work Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered

As anyone who has spent more than a little time reading theology knows, there are a number of methodological decisions to be made that impact the results we come to or the arguments we find compelling in Christology, and really, any other doctrinal matter. For those looking for a little guidance in these matters, Crisp offers, to my mind, a very sensible rule of thumb:

I think that a good theological rule of thumb is this: if a doctrine contradicts the teaching of Scripture, it is automatically outside orthodox Christian belief. If a doctrine contradicts the implicit teaching of Scripture and the explicit declaration of an ecumenical council — such as the denial of the Trinity — this is also outside orthodox Christian belief. However, if a doctrine is not excluded by Scripture and can find support  in the tradition, but contradicts the teaching of an ecumenical council, things are a little trickier. It seems to me that even here, one would have to show that the council in question endorsed some teaching that was itself contrary to Scripture — for what else can trump the authority of an ecumenical council of the Church, except Scripture?

Divinity and Humanity, pg. 70

With respect to the case he’s speaking of, there might be a number of views of Christ’s human nature that can fit with the Chalcedonian definition, are represented in the tradition, and are not obviously contradictory with Scripture–specifically monothelite views (the view that Christ had a single, divine will.) And yet, if for no other reason than the fact that an ecumenical council endorsed dyotheletism (Christ having both a divine and a human will) as the view most consistent with Scripture, it ought to be preferred. As Crisp says earlier “It seems to me that it is difficult to make sense of the human nature of Christ whichever one opts for, and at least dyothelitism has the advantage of being the view endorsed by an ecumenical council.” (63)

So then, when choosing between two doctrines that can be considered consistent with Scripture, if one has the weight of a council behind it, go with the council. Of course this doesn’t settle all of our theological or methodological questions, but it’s certainly a good place to start. It encourages a theological approach both humble, historical, and churchly in orientation, while still ultimately submitted to the Scripture as God’s Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Talking About Humble Theology (Or, I Was On a Podcast)

everydayA couple of days ago I chatted with Ryan Pelton over at the Everyday Theology Podcast. After my article “Sneering Calvinists” over at TGC, he wanted to follow up and chat about what it looks like to show humility and grace to those who disagree with us theologically. How can we learn from other theological tribes and why does that matter?

In the process, I end up telling a little bit of my own story of swimming on over to the Reformedish theological camp after my initial hesitations. Fun stuff.

Also, it turns out that I sound like I have a retainer in when I’m on the phone with people.

You can check it out here at the EVERYDAY THEOLOGY site. 

Soli Deo Gloria

History, Christian Scholarship, and Learning to Re-embrace Our Missionary Past

Many young Christians probably have some mixed feelings about our missionary past. For those of us growing up in the Church, the big heroes are the brave families who head out to spread the Gospel, risking comfort and danger for the sake of the call. In some settings, the 19th-century mission movement is still held up as a halcyon high-mark of the Gospel’s progress in the world, shrouded in mythic glory. Of course, then you go to school, read modern critical accounts, and find accusations (some substantiated and quite damning) of the colonialism, cultural imperialism, and destruction associated with the movement, and the glow fades, leaving a hazy, uncomfortable shadow in its place. Awash in the realization that the history of Christian missions has included atrocities and wide-spread practices deeply at odds with the Gospel, it’s easy for younger, sensitive Christians to become ashamed at any mention of our missionary heritage.

Recently though, there’s been a bright ray of light slowly piercing its way through the gloom. According the latest research, 19th-century Protestant missionaries were not the source of everything wrong with the modern third world. Witness the story of John Mackenzie:

For some reason, no one has written a best-selling book about the real-life 19th-century missionary John Mackenzie. When white settlers in South Africa threatened to take over the natives’ land, Mackenzie helped his friend and political ally Khama III travel to Britain. There, Mackenzie and his colleagues held petition drives, translated for Khama and two other chiefs at political rallies, and even arranged a meeting with Queen Victoria. Ultimately their efforts convinced Britain to enact a land protection agreement. Without it, the nation of Botswana would likely not exist today.

Over at Christ and Pop Culture, I analyze some of the implications of MacKenzie’s research, both for what it tells about how to do Christian scholarship, and what it can teach us about approaching our own Christian past. You can read it HERE.

Soli Deo Gloria

Everyone’s Worth a Shekel (Or, the Ground Is Level At the Foot of the Cross)

shekelThere were a few different taxes in Ancient Israel, but one of the most fascinating was that of the Temple Tax:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to the Lord. All who cross over, those twenty years old or more,are to give an offering to the Lord. The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives. Receive the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the tent of meeting. It will be a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord, making atonement for your lives.” (Exodus 30:11-16)

At first, this might strike us as an unfair regressive tax.  A half-shekel might be a pittance to a wealthy man, while to the poor tenant farmer, this is a great financial sacrifice. All throughout the Old Testament, though, there seems to be an acknowledgment of the different responsibilities that greater or lesser wealth places on those who possess it. Yet here we are faced with a straight, flat tax. Is this a callous requirement neglecting the poor by placing a disproportionate burden on them? Did Yahweh forget the poor here?

In his commentary on Exodus, John Durham suggest something else is going on here:

The sum thus fixed was not by any standard a large amount, but the instruction that rich and poor alike were to give precisely this payment is an important indication of the equality with which all men were received in Yahweh’s Presence. They were all to give equally because they were all to be received and remembered equally; the money was to be used for the expense of the Tent where Yahweh by appointment came to meet them. (Comment on 30:16-17)

Similarly, Craig L. Blomberg says,

The flat rate ensured that even the poorest, who might not be required to give nearly so much via the various tithes, would have to give sacrificially at least here. —Neither Poverty, Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, pg. 47

The equality of tithe speaks to the equality of persons before God. All stand equally condemned before a holy God in need of atonement, and all are equally welcomed into his reconciling presence in the Temple. None can claim greater rights to God’s peace and covenantal blessing, through payment, or inherent extra worth. None ought feel unworthy to come to him in prayer simply because of a lower financial stature. The tenant-farmer’s life is to be redeemed at the same cost as the mighty land-owner’s.

In other words, everybody’s worth a shekel in God’s eyes, which, I suppose, is an Old Testament way of saying “The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Augustine–The Dead Guy Most Recommended by Other Dead Guys

StAugustineAugustine was the first true theologian I read in college. I took a class on early medieval philosophy entirely focused on it, and I must say, it was a deeply formative experience for me, spiritually and theologically. For a while now, I’ve wanted to offer an encouragement  to those who have never spent any time with Augustine to do so–an endorsement of sorts, about 1500 years late. Thankfully, Herman Bavinck has already done it for me:

Thus Augustine became a theologian of the greatest importance for later dogmatics, one who dominated the following centuries. Every reformation returns to him and to Paul. For every dogma he found a formula that was taken over and repeated by everyone else. His influence extends to all churches, schools of theology, and sects. Rome appeals to him for its doctrine of the church, sacraments, and authority, with the Reformation felt kinship with him in the doctrine of predestination and grace. Scholasticism, in constructing its conceptual framework, took advantage of his sharp observation, the acuteness of his intellect, the power of his speculation–Thomas, in fact, was called the best interpreter of St. Augustine. Mysticism, in turn, found inspiration in his neoplatonism and religious enthusiasm.  Both Catholic and Protestant piety buoy themselves up on his writings; asceticism and pietism find nourishment and support in his work. Augustine, therefore, does not belong to one church but to all churches together. He is the universal doctor (Doctor universalis). Even philosophy neglects him to its own detriment. And because of his elegant and fascinating style, his refined, precise, highly individual and nevertheless universally human way of expressing himself, he, more than any other church father, can still be appreciated today. He is the most Christian as well as the most modern of all the fathers; of all of them he is closest to us. He replaced the aesthetic worldview with an ethical one, the classical with the Christian. In dogmatics we owe our best, our deepest, our richest thought to him. Augustine has been and is the dogmatician of the Christian church.

–Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1: Prolegomena, pg. 139

If that doesn’t encourage you to pick up some Augustine, I don’t know what will.

For those of you interested, I’d recommend starting with The Confessions, and digging around from there. Also, this biography by Peter Brown is supposed to be top-notch, and Justin Taylor has recommended Matthew Levering’s new book on The Theology of Augustine as an excellent introduction.

Soli Deo Gloria

Four Reasons I Blog as a Pastor

blogging beardThe other day a blogging friend of mine asked a few of us other bloggers why we blog. He wanted to know our purposes and motivations for all the time and effort we put into the practice. What drives us? What do we hope to gain from it at the end of the day?

Although there are likely more, after a little thought, I came up with four basic reasons I blog and it turns out that in the long run, they all end up helping me do my job as a pastor better. I figured I’d share them here with you. Maybe it’ll re-invigorate your own blogging, or encourage some of you to pick up the practice for yourself.

1. I Like Thinking Things. I think and read a lot. Communicating what I read and think about tends to be  fruitful way for me to process it. That said, to be perfectly honest, I can’t preach half of what I think about. I mean, can you imagine me unleashing a talk on theological epistemology on my college kids? That’d be just abusive. Until I get into a Ph.D. program or something like that, blogging is an intellectual outlet for me to rip into some of the nerdier, or less immediately relevant theological and cultural analysis I might be tempted to engage in. In that way, it’s kind of a nice little intellectual pressure release for me.

2. Directly Serving the Church. The second reason I blog is that I think that it can directly serve the Church in general and my church in particular. I can think of at least three ways this happens:

  • For one, some of my students, especially my away-at-college students, tell me they read the blog occasionally, and so hopefully they’re learning from some of what I’m addressing. It’s one way for me to keep teaching them, even when I don’t have their butts in the seats right in front of me.
  • Next, some of the stuff I hammer out on the blog actually does make it’s way into my preaching eventually. Just this last week I was doing some research for an article I was writing that ended up dovetailing perfectly with my sermon. This happens regularly enough, that I can safely say my writing has helped improve and expand the wealth of material that I’ve actually processed and insights gained to be redeployed in direct ministry context. In other words, writing helps me be a more insightful preacher and pastor.
  • As for the broader Church, I know I’ve gained from other pastors and theologians who have tackled issues online that I have been grappling with, or didn’t even realize I should be. Without presuming too much, I hope my own writing contributes to blessing the church at large, both through the edification of their elders, or by directly addressing theological and practical questions in a popular form. My hope is that this blesses the life of the broader Church as it is built up in the knowledge of Christ.

3. Stewardship of God’s Gifts And Sanctification. Next, if God has given me an ability to communicate, it’s actually just responsible to continue to steward it and develop that gift. Blogging is a way to keep developing my skills as a writer and a communicator. What’s more, it’s pushed me character-wise as I’ve engaged in the broader community, and connected me with other like-minded (and not-so-like-minded) brothers and sisters who have helped develop and shape my thought, I think, for the better.

I can’t tell you how much of a blessing my Christ and Pop Culture team has been to me, or the growth I’ve had in working with the crews at The Gospel Coalition or Mere Orthodoxy. I think my church has, in some ways, a holier pastor because of the writing. (Which, based on my writing, might raise the question of just how bad was I before I started?)

4. Joy. Finally, I blog because I enjoy it. Honestly, I don’t know about everybody else, but once I started writing, it started getting addictive. Yes, the prideful stuff like page-views and twitter-followers is there too. I’ve been sanctified in Christ and yet, I am still being sanctified, right? Still, the pure joy of crafting an argument and turning a phrase is just enjoyable. Some articles can be a task and dull at times, but fundamentally, the practice of writing is something I have come to love doing for its own sake.

But how does this play into my pastoring? Well, overall joy and emotional health stemming from one practice in my life, spreads into other areas. The stress relieved, or joy derived from some time writing gives me energy to tackle some of the pastoral tasks that can threaten it, or just leave me tired.

As always, there’s more to say, but I’ll leave it there for now.

Soli Deo Gloria