Dec 20, 2005

A Third Option in Church/State Relations

No doubt you have noticed that around Christmas time the perennial debate over the relationship between church and state tends to heat up. Christians want to put up their Nativity scenes at the courthouse and the secularists want to stop them. Then the discussion goes round and round over the intent of the Founding fathers in the constitution's statements about religion and whether allowing a place for religious expression in the public square is tantamount to a government endorsement of religion.

The debate, it seems to me, is always polarized between two extremes, both of which were clearly seen in the recent Fox News Special on "Religion in America." On the one hand are the Separationists who believe that religion has no place whatsoever in the public square and that the government should keep religious expressions out of public facilities and meetings completely. On the other hand are the Majoritarians who believe that "majority rules" and that whatever religion happens to be in the majority should have access to the public square and a priviledge position in the culture at large. Majoritarians rightly think that separationism violates their right to the free exercise of religion. However, a case can be made that the majoritarian view really is tantamount to a government establish of religion. And so there is always the inevitble stand-off.

However, this stand-off could be greatly alleviated if both sides relaized that there is a third alternative. its an alternative that has traditionally been defended by Baptists, by the way--but most Baptists today have forgotten it. It is called Accommodationism. This is the view that the government should, as far as is practically possible, accommodate (not endorse) the free exercise of religion. In other words, to use just one example, the government should not set up Nativity scenes at the courthouse nor pay to have it done, but it should make public space available to private citizens to do so if they like. They should also make such space available to the Jews, Muslims, and atheists. The government should say to everyone, regardless of their religious views, "Ya'll come!"

Accommodationism provides for a free market of ideas. No one's rights are violated, and the government isn't establishing or endorsing any faith. This, it seems to me, is much closer to what our founding fathers intended.

Nov 21, 2005

Preventing Dumbness: The Role of Philosophy in the Academy, the Pulpit, and the Pew - Part 3

In the Pew
By speaking of the role of philosophy "in the pew," I mean to refer to the role of philosophy in the life of the average Christian believer as he seeks to live his life before the face of God each day and provide salt and light to the culture in which he lives. Much of what I have said above is applicable to the average believer. Apologetics and logic, especially, are disciplines that each and every Christian ought to spend some time studying in order to fulfill the obligations enjoined on him by the Great Commission (Matt. 2:19-20) and First Peter 3:15.

Beyond these, however, let me add a couple of more roles that philosophy can play in the life of the Christian in the pew. First, insofar as philosophy deals with the history of ideas and with the most basic questions that people ask—"What is real?", "How do we know?", "What is right and what is wrong?", "What is beautiful?""—it can help the Christian be a well-rounded, culturally literate citizen who can make a meaningful contribution to the well-being of his society. Unless you think that evangelism is the only reason Christians have been left in the world, then you will agree that we have a contribution to make to culture as culture, to society as society; that we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens to participate in establishing sound public policy, to make and support good art and good music, etc. Philosophy, through the study of the history of ideas and through philosophical analysis of ideas, can enable Christians to be responsibly engaged in these and every other aspect of human society, avoiding the mistakes of the past as well as the present. In line with my earlier discussion of "faith seeking understanding," philosophical study can also help the Christian inject Christian principles and values into the various spheres of culture, drawing out, for example, the implications of the Christian worldview for politics, education, art, and science.

Second, and closely related to the first point, philosophy can strengthen the Christian’s ability to discern truth from error. The Word of God tells us to "test the spirits" (1 John 4:1) and to avoid being "carried about by every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14). The study of God’s Word is basic to this task, of course. But, I have pointed out that understanding and applying the Bible and formulating sound doctrine from the Scriptures is enhanced by theology’s handmaid, philosophy. Think, for example, of how many Christians have been snared by the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have charged the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity with absurdity. Certainly, a carefully study of the Scriptures are absolutely crucial to preventing thins kind of tragedy. Yet, also helpful if not necessary would be a careful philosophical defense of these doctrines which show their logical coherence. I believe that such apologetic material, designed to help Christians avoid falling victim to false religions and philosophies, ought not to be the purview of the ivory tower alone, but ought to be placed in the hands of the average Christian.

I know that I have barely scratched the surface of the issue of the role of philosophy in the Christian circles. I have left many questions unanswered. My primary goal here, however, was not to answer every question, but to simply pique enough interest among the Christians gathered here to at least take this issue seriously. If what I have said is anywhere near true, as general and undeveloped as it is, and if the anti-intellectualism that has gripped the church for decades is to be eradicated, then philosophy—good, Christian philosophy—must given a more significant role in the academy, the pulpit, and the pew. I think that we Christian philosophers already know this. Philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, J.P. Moreland, and William Lane Craig have been saying similar things for years. The task for us is to convince everybody else!

Oct 31, 2005

Preventing Dumbness: The Role of Philosophy in the Academy, the Pulpit, and the Pew - Part 2

In the Pulpit
Time does no permit me to say everything that might be said here, but I will focus on what I take to be the two most vital roles that philosophy can play in the life of the minister of God’s Word. First, philosophy is crucial if the minister is to fulfill the requirements of his apologetic calling. Of course, as First Peter 3:15 makes clear, all Christians are called to the apologetic task. Yet, the Gospel minister has a special responsibility here. People have tough questions. Many times these tough questions are an obstacle to faith. "Is it really rational to believe in the Christian God in our (post)modern society?" "How could a good and all-powerful God allow the attacks of September 11?" "Hasn’t critical biblical scholarship undermined the historical reliability of the Bible?"

In past generations, ministers seldom had to deal with theses kinds of questions because most people in our society would give mental assent to God’s existence and goodness, and to the authority of Scripture. But, no more. As Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said recently to a group of seminary students, "[T]he apologetic task has never been more pressing, more urgent or more important. Indeed, I believe that at this critical time of cultural and intellectual transition, the Christian ministry, taken as a whole, must be understood as an apologetic calling."

The teaching and preaching of today’s gospel ministers must be heavily seasoned with apologetics. And I need not tell you the vital role that philosophy must play in apologetics. Minister’s, then, must read and study philosophical and apologetical works so that they can meet the challenges of our day in their pulpits.

Another way in which philosophy may play a role in the pulpit is in the area of logic. If you take a look at homiletics textbooks from days gone by, you will notice something that is universally absent from modern homiletics texts. They almost always contained chapters on logic and argumentation. Why? Because it was assumed that most if not all sermons would contain at least one argument. And this being the case, it was incumbent upon preachers to know how to formulate valid and sound arguments.

Now I happen to think that it is still incumbent upon preachers to know how to formulate good arguments. And I think this because I think that any good sermon will contain at least one argument, even if only an argument for the superiority of a particular interpretation of a text over against other possible interpretations. I long for the day in which homiletics texts once again include chapters on logic and argumentation. I think that this would greatly improve the quality of preaching in our pulpits.

I can recall hearing one sermon in which the preacher argued that in heaven human beings will be sexless—neither male nor female. Why? Because in Matthew 22:30 Jesus said, "For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven." But, anyone with a little logic in his head can see that the preacher’s conclusion does not follow from this text. In fact, this text supports neither the sexlessness of humans nor angels. All that follows logically from this text is that in heaven there will be no marriage. These and other similar errors could be avoided with a little training in logic. Fortunately, some seminaries and Christian colleges have courses in logic, but these are seldom required for the average divinity student. However, they should be required, or at least logic should be incorporated into homiletics. In either case, logic is a branch of philosophy, and training in logic is thus one important way that philosophy can play a role in the pulpit.

Oct 24, 2005

Preventing Dumbness: The Role of Philosophy in the Academy, the Pulpit, and the Pew - Part 1

Some months ago, in my earliest blog posts, I discussed the the relationship between faith and reason and the importance of Christians to live by the motto "Faith Seeking Understanding." I would like to build on that discussion over the next few weeks by writing about the role of philosophy in the Chirstian life. A few years ago, I presented a paper at a regional meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society called "Preventing Dumbness: The Role of Philosophy in the Academy, the Pulpit, and the Pew." The overall goal of the paper was to offer some suggestions for how Christians in these three areas can avoid anti-intellectualism and the "dumbing down" of the faith. I post that paper here in three parts.

In the Academy
By the "academy" here I mean the Christian academy—the faculties of Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries, in particular those specializing in biblical and theological studies. What role may philosophy play in the academy regarding the alleviation of dumbness? The question, of course, presupposes that dumbness infects the Christian academy. Now it is not my intent to be pejorative or condescending in any way. There are many fine scholars in the Christian academy and I doubt that any Christian scholar wants or intends to be anti-intellectual or to uphold anything other than the highest intellectual and academic standards. Nevertheless, as William Lane Craig has written, "a measure of philosophical training can be a valuable asset to the systematic theologian." And we might add the biblical scholar, as well.

Theologians and biblical scholars make claims that have philosophical implications. Yet, often they do not realize those implications. At other times, theologians may try to articulate some Christian doctrine which, if they had some philosophical background, they might be able to articulate better and more clearly because philosophy is able to provide some concepts and technical vocabulary. In other words, as J.P. Moreland would put it, philosophy can help theology clarify internal conceptual problems. Wayne Grudem’s discussion of God’s omnipresence illustrates both of these problems simultaneously. Grudem defines God’s omnipresence as follows: "God does not have size or spatial dimensions and is present at every point of space with his whole being, yet God acts differently in different places." At first blush, this definition appears incoherent. Indeed, I think it is incoherent as it is stated. How can a being have no size or spatial dimension, and yet literally be present at every point of space? This seems equivalent to saying that God is not located in space, and yet he is present at every locale in space, a contradiction if ever there was one. Of course, Grudem is not totally unaware of the difficulty, and in his elaboration of this doctrine he appears to struggle to make sense of it. He asserts that God cannot be contained by any space, and that we should "guard against thinking that God extends infinitely far in all directions so that he himself exists in a sort of infinite, unending space." Well and good. But, then, he tries to illustrate God’s omnipresence on the analogy of a water-filled sponge. Water is present everywhere in the sponge, but is distinct from the sponge. But, this analogy clearly speaks of God in spatial terms in precisely the way that Grudem himself says that we ought not. Further, the analogy does not allow for God’s whole being to be present at every space. All of the water in the sponge is not present at any one place in the sponge.

I think that the philosopher can be of great help with this doctrine, and it would not take a great deal of time and trouble for the theologian to study and avail himself of the resources that the philosopher can provide in this regard. Philosophical theologians have resolved this paradox by explicating God’s omnipresence as a function of his omniscience and omnipotence. God, being a Spirit (cf. John 4:24), and thus immaterial, cannot literally be present at any location in space. That is, his being is not at any place. But, since he is omniscient, he knows about any and every place and what is going on there. And because he is omnipotent, he can extend his causal power to any and every place at will. So, to say that God is omnipresent is, strictly speaking, to speak figuratively. But, nothing of consequence is lost because, on this view, god is still "present" at every place in all the ways that matter. He knows every place and is able to act at every place.

Philosophy can also provide the discipline of theology, as it does other disciplines, with what J.P. Moreland calls "external conceptual problems." These would be problems arising in theology due to conflict with well-established propositions derived from sources outside theology. More technically,

An external conceptual problem arises for a theological doctrine or theory T when T conflicts with some doctrine of another theory T’, when T’ and its doctrines are rationally well-founded.

For example, certain astronomical observations regarding the distance of other galaxies from our own may be said to provide an external conceptual problem from science for Young-Earth Creationism. From the field of philosophy, an external conceptual problem for theology might be the philosophical arguments for an A-theory of time which (it could be argued) is inconsistent with the idea that God exists outside of time. In the face of such external conceptual problems (assuming for the sake of argument that these opposing theories are rationally well-founded), the theologian who held to Young-Earth Creation or Divine Timelessness would have to modify or jettison his views. In any case, the theologian’s appreciation and understanding of God’s revealed truth would be enhanced by engaging the challenges posed by these problems.

Another way in which philosophy may play an important role in the Christian academy is in the integration of academic disciplines. The term "university" has its etymology in the union of "unity" and "diversity", meaning that the university (which was created by Christians, by the way) is a place where the diversity of disciplines find their unity in a common frame of reference, a common worldview based in shared truths and values. Of course, most universities today, including Christian universities, are universities in name only. The various disciplines and departments do their work in relative isolation from each other, with little or no cognizance of how their research impacts other disciplines, and often reaching conclusions on the same subject matter that are mutually contradictory. In some Christian schools, the faculty of the Religion Department teaches special creation, while across the quad at the Biology Department the professors advocate theistic evolution. The English Department imbibes a deconstructionist view of language while the History Department "naively" plods along thinking that history is objectively knowable. Such problems usually go unnoticed because there is very little communication and interaction between the various disciplines.

But insofar as the academy sees value in having an integrated and consistent curriculum, where each department practices its discipline within the framework of a Christian world and life view—to that extent it should see the value of philosophy in providing the intellectual tools for achieving that goal. For reasons already cited above, philosophy as a discipline is uniquely qualified to guide the Christian university in the integration of the disciplines.

Oct 17, 2005

A Book on the Case for God

Some of the blog readers may be interested to know that a book on the case for God's existence has just come out in which yours truly has an article defending what is known as the moral argument for God's existence. The book is titled, The Big Argument: 24 scholars explore why science, archaeology, and philosophy have proven the existence of God, edited by Michael Westacott and John Ashton (Master Books). You can pre-order the book from Amazon.

Oct 5, 2005

Muslims and The Deity of Christ

Probably the most significant obstacle to a Muslim coming to faith in Christ is the Christian belief in the deity of Christ. Islam’s absolute monotheism has no room for the idea that God is triune and thus no room for thinking that Jesus is the Second Person of the triune Godhead. What’s more, Muslims view God as so transcendent that it would be beneath God, somehow defiling to God, for Him to become a man.

How is a Christian to remove these obstacles and lead his Muslim friends to faith in Christ? There isn’t space here to give a full-blown, detailed answer, but let me offer this suggestion: Ask your Muslim friend why it would be beneath God or defiling to God to become a man. Chances are, he will have a hard time explaining exactly why God’s becoming a man is such a bad thing. If so, you will then have an opportunity to explain why God becoming a man is a good thing.

First, it is a good thing for God to become a human being in Jesus because it is a good thing for us to know God. Our finitude and sinfulness hinder us from having a clear and firm understanding of God’s character. What better way, then, for God to make Himself and His will known than to take on human flesh and show us God’s character face-to-face in his daily actions?

Second, the incarnation of God demonstrates more clearly than anything the love and compassion He has for His creatures. Sure, God’s condescending to become a man is humiliating, but rather than defile God, this humiliation exalts Him as a God of love and mercy. Is it defiling for a grown man to get down on the floor and play games with his children and talk baby talk with them? Of course no. It’s compassionate and loving. Why then is it bad for God to come down to our level and talk our language and live our life in order to deliver us from sin?

If the Muslim argues that it is somehow impossible for God to become a man, again, ask him, why? Why is it impossible for the omnipotent Creator of the universe to take on human flesh? Although some clever philosophers have tried to argue that the idea of one person who is both God and man is contradictory, none of those arguments hold water.

Sep 1, 2005

God and Katrina

My heart goes out to all those who are suffering in the wake of hurricane Katrina, especially my extended family members living in and near Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In this time of trouble, I am reminded of the verse in the prophet Isaiah:

"I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things." (Isa. 45:7)

We should never think that God is uninvolved when calamities like Katrina occur. God is the one who causes these things to happen for his own good reasons. And for all who are suffering at this time, God's Word calls us to contemplate what God may be trying to tell us at this time. Some people, God is testing. Some people, God is purifying. Some people, God is warning. Some people God is judging.

Aug 22, 2005

Vanilla Sky, Cryogenics, and Materialism

I just watched the movie Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise--I know, I know, I'm very much behind the times. But, I couldn't help but bring it up on the blog given the clear implications of the movie's message regarding the nature of human beings.

The movie really does tout the possible virtues of cryogenic technology (for those who don't know, cryogenics refers to the "science" of freezing the bodies or brains of people who have died in the hope or expectation that the future will see a cure for what killed them, and then they can be "resurrected" to a virtual immortality). I just wanted to make a philosphical comment for those who may be "enamored" by the possibility of such technology.

Cryogenics presupposes a materialist view of the human mind. The idea that people can die, be frozen, and then thawed out to live again assumes that the mind is nothing more than the brain and its physical functions. There is an implicit denial that humans have an immaterial soul that is the true seat of one's personality and can survive the death of the body. For on this traditional view of humans beings the "cryogenic hope" is a fool's errand--when one dies, his soul leaves his body and then goes to either heaven or hell. There is no possibility of being brought back by human technology.

It is not my purpose here to defend the traditional view (though I am inclined to do so), but simply to help any readers who might think that cryogenics is "neat" and maybe "worth a try" to see the philosophical (and theological) implications of their views.

Aug 15, 2005

The Simpsons and Christian Pluralism

Did anybody see The Simpsons last night? A very interesting episode. Though thoroughly hilarious as usual, its message was a bit disturbing--though I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Homer and Bart were in the process of converting to Catholicism (with their priest played appealingly by Liam Neeson), while Marge, Ned Flanders, and Rev. Lovejoy are desperately trying to keep them from falling into the errors of "popery."

After the rip-roaring rescue of Bart by taking him to a Protestant theme park ("The Catholics don't have anything like this!"), the episode ends with Bart asking why the Protestants and Catholics can't just get along and accept each other. After all, they're all Christians and their differences are minor points of doctrinal minutia.

Though seeming to uphold the value (perhaps even truth) of the Christian faith, the episode not-so-subtly teaches that doctrinal truth doesn't matter, and that the 500 year-old dispute between Catholics and Protestants was/is trivial. Wrong on both counts.

Aug 10, 2005

New Apologetics Blog

The ministry that I work for--the Apologetics Resource Center--has just started a new blog dealing with issues in Christian apologetics. Myself, Jason Dollar, and otehr ARC staffers are participants. The blog will emphasize Christian response to current and on-going issues in our culture. The blog is called "From the Front Lines" and can be accessed at

Aug 1, 2005

What Is the Church and Why Should I Care? - Part 6

VI. So What?

We have seen that the church is: (1) A gathered community whose members have entered into a solemn covenant with each other; (2) comprised of baptized believers in Christ who have entered into a life of discipleship; (3) led by gifted pastors who have been called and ordained by the Holy Spirit; (4) shows its true allegiance to Jesus by three marks: preaching the gospel, administering the ordinances, and practicing church discipline; and (5) has the mission of worshipping God, edifying believers, and reaching the world with the gospel.

There are a lot of practical applications that we could pursue in light of these truths. Yet, the one basic application that comes out of this study is the obligation of every Christian to be a member of a local church. Notice again what we have seen in the course of this study. Christ has created the local church for the express purpose of helping Christians grow in Christ. Apart from the ministry of a local church you cannot grow into a healthy, mature Christian. Christ has given to each believer the church, which has gifted teachers to help you learn the doctrines you are supposed to believe and the lifestyle you are supposed to live. Christ has given you other believers to hold you accountable and to encourage you. It is Christ’s desire that Christians congregate publicly to worship him together, and he desires that his disciples work together to evangelize the world.

For Christ’s purposes for the church to be fulfilled, for his purposes for you to be fulfilled, you have to make a covenant commitment to a local church, to submit to its pastors, and to put your spiritual gifts to use for the sake of others. This is what the early Christians did. Notice what Luke tells us in Acts:

The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. (Acts 5:12-13)

After Ananias and Sapphira were struck down by the Holy Spirit for their terrible sin, we read that "none of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly." This text tells us that many unbelievers in Jerusalem had great respect for the new church, but kept their distance because they were afraid of the serious—even "deadly"—consequences of joining the church. What we need to note here is that the church was seen as something that could be joined, and this tells us that the church had a clearly defined membership. It was known who was in and who was out. But we can go further than this by looking more closely at the word "join" that Luke uses in this text. The Greek word used here is kollao and it means "to glue" or "cement together." Don Whitney comments that in the context of Acts 5:13, the word kollao

doesn't refer to an informal, merely assumed sort of relationship, but one where you choose to "glue" or "join" yourself firmly to the others. . .The same "glue word" is used in the New Testament to describe being joined together in a sexual relationship (1 Corinthians 6:16) and being joined to the Lord in one spirit in salvation (1 Corinthians 6:17 . . . Clearly this kind of language doesn’t refer to a casual, superficial, or informal relationship.

So when it says in Acts 5:13 that no insincere believer dared joined them for a while, the glue word used there speaks of such a cohesive, bonding relationship that it must be referring to a recognized church membership.(Spiritual Disciplines within the Church, p. 46)

The early Christians understood their duty to be committed members of a local church. It is important that Christians today understand this, too. To shun this duty is to shun Christ’s gift to you. To neglect church membership is to neglect your obedience to Christ. If you love Jesus, you love what he loves; and Jesus loves the church. If you are a Christian, but not a member of a local church, you should make this your first priority.

Jul 28, 2005

What Is the Church and Why Should I Care? - Part 5

V. The Church Has Three Ministries that the Lord Has Givenit to Perform

We conclude our study on the nature of the church by discussing her mission. The mission God has given the church is that she fulfill three vital ministries—a ministry to God, a ministry to believers, and a ministry to the world.

(1) Ministry to God: Worship. The first and foremost purpose of the church is to worship God. The Bible has a lot to say about worship. The place to start is with Jesus words to the Samaritan woman: "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). To worship in spirit means to worship God with a sincere heart, a heart that loves him and desires to please him. Only believers can worship God in spirit. To worship in truth means to worship in accordance with God’s Word; to worship only as God instructs us to worship.

(2) Ministry to Believers: Edification. The church has been given the responsibility to build up believers in their faith (See Matt. 28:19-20; Eph. 4:11-12; 1 Thes. 5:14-15). Helping others grow in Christ is not just the duty of pastors. All Christians are commanded to encourage each other, warn each other, comfort each other, and uphold each other. There is no such thing as a "Lone Ranger Christian." Without the help of other believers, a Christian will wither up and die! This is why the Book of Hebrews says, "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Heb. 10:24-25). Here we are reminded of the importance of helping each other grow in Christ. But notice that this duty is connected with the command to not neglect assembling together. The saints cannot be edified if the saints don’t meet!

(3) Ministry to the World: Benevolence and Missions. We are to reach out to the unbelieving world with benevolent concern; to work for justice in the world and to care for the sick and poor in his name (Matt. 25:31-40). Even more importantly, we are to minister to the world through missions, by taking the gospel message to our families, our neighbors, and to the ends of the earth. We seek to evangelize the world and bring into God’s kingdom people from every tribe and nation. As Jesus said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."

Jul 15, 2005

What Is the Church and Why Should I Care? - Part 4

IV. The Church Is Distinguished by Three Marks

There are three marks or indications by which we can tell a true church from a false church; three marks by which we can tell if a church is a church in God’s eyes.

(1) A true church preaches the gospel. In Acts 2:42, a text we saw earlier, we are told that the early church devoted itself to the apostles’ "doctrine." Primarily this refers to the message about the Person and Work of Christ; the gospel message which is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). This message includes as well any and all doctrines that flow out of the gospel message. A true church teaches the gospel and clings to the Word of God. A church which fails in this is not really a Christian church. Notice the seriousness with which Paul addresses this issue:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Gal. 1:6-9)

Paul pronounces a curse on those who preach a false gospel, such as the Judaizers who taught that one must follow the ceremonial law of Moses if one was truly to be saved. We may presume that any church which preaches a false gospel, or fails to teach the true gospel of justification by faith alone, would receive the same curse.

(2) A true church faithfully administers the ordinances in accordance with God's Word. The ordinances, of course, are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We have already addressed the meaning and importance of baptism, but the New Testament equally stresses the significance of the Lord’s Supper. Looking at Acts 2:42 once again, we note that another thing the early church devoted itself to was "the breaking of bread." This is most likely a reference to the Lord’s Supper. This ordinance symbolizes the sacrificial death of Christ, the bread representing his broken body, and the cup representing his shed blood. Paul speaks of our solemn obligation with regard to this rite:

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor. 11:27-29)

A true church observes both the ordinance of baptism and the ordinance of the Lord's Supper, and it does so with reverence, guided by the teaching of the New Testament.

(3) A true church practices church discipline. The Lord Jesus commands the church to hold members accountable to holy living. We find an allusion to this in his Great Commission:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matt. 28:19-20a)

Jesus tells the church to teach Christian disciples to obey all of his commands. He also gives us specific instruction on what to do if a church member fails in this regard:

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." (Matt. 18:15-17)

Jesus expects the church to confront sinful church members with their sin, and he lays out the procedures to follow in doing so. But, if a church fails to carry out biblical church discipline, allowing sin to flourish in the church unchallenged, then Jesus has very harsh words for that church:

"To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.’" (Rev. 2:18-23)

A church that fails to discipline wayward members is under God’s judgment, and ceases to be a true church. J.L. Dagg, the famous Baptist theologian, once said, "When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it."

Jul 7, 2005

What Is the Church and Why Should I Care? - Part 3

III. The Church Is Overseen by Elders Appointed by the Holy Spirit

The church, as we have seen, is not just an informal meeting. Nor is it disorganized and haphazard in the way it conducts its work. The Lord has established a way for the church to be organized and properly managed. This God-given organization is outlined in the Book of Acts at the end of Paul’s First Missionary Journey.

They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. (Acts 14:21-23)

Notice that before the apostles left these churches in God’s hands, they appointed elders in each church. We learn more about biblical elders from Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. In verse 28, Paul says to them, "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood." There are several things we learn about elders from this text and the earlier one in Acts 14. First of all, each church had a plurality of elders. That is, there was more than one elder appointed in each church.

Second, we have a job description of the elders. The elders are said to be both overseers and shepherds. An overseer is a leader, a supervisor. A shepherd is one who cares for the flock, feeding them, comforting them, and guiding them. As shepherd of God’s flock, a pastor is one who teaches, warns, corrects, and encourages the members of the church. The elders/pastors, then, are the spiritual leaders of the local church. It is their responsibility to provide direction to the ministry of the church, and to guide the spiritual growth of each church member.

Third, notice that Paul says that it is the Holy Spirit who put the elders in their leadership positions. Though the church is involved in appointing elders, ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who puts them in office. And this means that the elders are ultimately responsible to God, not the church. It also means that church members have solemn duties to their pastors. Paul outlines some of these duties in his first letter to the Thessalonians:

Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. (1 Thes. 5:12-13a)

There are two duties required of Christians in this text:
(1) Christians are to acknowledge their pastors' right to lead. The NIV translates the Greek as "respect." Other translations say "appreciate" or "know" your pastors. But, the Greek carries more the idea of "acknowledge" or "recognize." The idea here is that church members are to acknowledge that their pastors are indeed their pastors! They are to consciously submit to the elders’ leadership.

(2) Christians are to esteem their pastors. The NIV says it well when it tells Christians to hold their pastors in "the highest regard." Pastors deserve to be respected, not so much because they are anything special in themselves, but because of the noble work they have been called to do. The author of Hebrews echoes Paul’s instructions, writing,

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:17)

This verse commands Christians to obey their pastors. Why? Because the pastors have the difficult task of watching out for the souls of God’s flock, and Christians are called to make their job joyful and not burdensome. This requires obedience on the part of the congregation.

Jun 27, 2005

What Is the Church and Why Should I Care? - Part 2

II. The Church Is Comprised of Baptized Believers

After his glorious resurrection, the Lord Jesus issued his Great Commission to his disciples with these words:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt. 28:19-20)

This text tells us that the church is supposed to do four things: (1) Go, (2) make disciples, (3) baptize those disciples, (4) teach those disciples. For our purposes in this chapter, we will focus on item (3), baptism.

We are told by the Lord Jesus that the church is to make disciples and that the church is to baptize those disciples. As most Christians know, baptism symbolizes the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. It also serves as the believer’s "pledge of allegiance" to Jesus. It is the way in which a person makes his profession of faith public and formally commits himself to being a disciple of Jesus. As such, baptism is often called the Christian's "first (public) act of obedience."

Because of this, it should go without saying that membership in a local church requires baptism. Only Christians can be members of local churches. The church is a gathered community of those who have become disciples of Jesus. But, one cannot be a true disciple if one refuses to obey Christ’s commands, and one of his commands is baptism. And this is why we see in the New Testament that every time someone believes in Jesus, he is baptized before his entrance into the visible, local church.

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:40-41)

Notice the sequence here. First, the people received the word. That is, they believed the gospel and were saved. Second, they were baptized. Then, thirdly, they were added to the church. So, the church consists of baptized believers.

Jun 21, 2005

What Is the Church and Why Should I Care? - Part 1

In an age in which the church is often ignored or belittled, I will offer over the next few weeks a multi-part essay on the nature and importance of the church. Part one is posted below.

What is the Church and Why Should I Care?
by Steven B. Cowan


"I don’t need organized religion. I can worship God my own way in the privacy of my own home."
"I do not belong to a local church, but I belong to the universal church made up of all who believe in Jesus."
"Can’t I just think of my little home Bible study group as my church? Why do I have to join a formal organization to please God?"

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard these kinds of things from professing Christians. Many religious people today seem to have little regard for the "traditional" local church, for what is often called "organized religion." There are perhaps many reasons for this. For one thing, churches do not always care for their members as they should. Hurting, spiritually-needy people sometimes fall through the cracks and are neglected by the church leaders and other members. Little wonder then that people who have been "burned" by churches would want nothing to do with "organized religion." For another thing, people in our relativistic, self-centered culture simply do not want the accountability the comes from membership in a local church. Add to this the fact that churches have done a poor job in recent generations of educating their members on the nature and importance of the local church—even denying at times that the Bible teaches formal church membership—and people outside the church have all the excuse they need to stay away.

Yet the Bible speaks much about the church. It tells us that Christ established the church; that he died for the church, and that he loves the church. Moreover, the Bible does teach (as we will see) that Christians should join themselves to organized, local churches. For these reasons, it is crucial that those who name the name of Jesus understand what the church is and what our relationship to the church should be. In this essay, we will outline the nature of the church under five headings and explain why you should care about being a part of a local church.

I. The Church Is a Gathered Community

Though the Bible does speak of a universal church that is composed of all Christian believers everywhere, and which is invisible (see Matt. 16:18; Eph. 5:23-32; Heb. 12:22-23), the Bible is very clear that this universal church is to have concrete expression in particular places by Christians gathering together to form local churches, local communities of believers. This is proven, first of all, simply from the word "church" itself. This term comes from the Greek ekklesia, which means "assembly" or "congregation." So, a church is an assembly or gathering together of people.

But, we can say more. In Acts 2, after Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon, we are told that 3000 people converted to faith in Christ. In verse 42, we learn that these new converts "devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." Notice that one of the several activities that these early disciples is said to have devoted themselves was "fellowship." This term comes from the Greek koinonia, which has to do with people joining together for mutual benefit; having a shared life together as we see later in Acts chapters 4 and 5.

So a church is more than simply a meeting; more than a loose and casual gathering as when people get together for a party or at City Hall to vote on business. No, a church is a congregation of people who have a shared life together, a fellowship. The church is a community.

One of the most wonderful images of the church in the New Testament is the image of the "Body of Christ" This image makes it plain that the church is an intimate fellowship that exists for the mutual benefit of all church members. The Apostle Paul describes the church in 1 Corinthians 12:4-27 using the image of the Body of Christ.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. . . Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

Among other things, this passage clearly teaches at least three important truths about the members of the Body of Christ:

(1) Each Christian is given a spiritual gift for the mutual benefit of the whole church (v.7).
(2) The church needs each gifted member (vv.15-18).
(3) Each gifted member needs the whole church (v. 21).

What may we conclude from this? For one thing, we must say that the Body of Christ is healthy in so far as each member contributes his spiritual gifts for the good of all the other members. For another, since the church is a gathered community, there is the clear implication that each member of the church ought to have a commitment to the church. If a person exists in this kind of intimate fellowship in which he faithfully shares his gifts with the others, and they share with him, then that must involve a mutual commitment of each member to all the other members. We call this kind of commitment a covenant. For the church to be a gathered community, functioning as a healthy Body of Christ, requires that those who are gathered together enter into covenant with one another.
[to be continued...]

Jun 15, 2005

Reconciling Divine Sovereignty and Free Will? - Part 3

So far, I have argued (1) that the Bible does not teach libertarian freedom, and (2) that libertarian freedom is not necessary for moral responsibility.

I turn finally to the third reason to reject libertarianism: it can be shown that not only is libertarianism unnecessary for moral responsibility, it is positively inconsistent with moral responsibility. That is, if a person has free will such that his actions are indetermined, he cannot be morally responsible for his actions. Let me give you an argument to show you why.

Suppose there is a person named Smith, who is trying to decide between two job offers. Let us label the first job "JobA" and the second job "JobB." And let us suppose that there are reasons in favor of Smith choosing JobA, and other reasons in favor of Smith choosing JobB. The former we will call RA and the latter RB. Now RA may include such factors as that the salary is higher than that of JobB, the location is in a low-crime area, and so on. But, other equally significant factors support JobB, so that RB includes the fact that the location is closer to family, the work is easier, and so on. Now suppose that Smith finally decides to accept the offer for JobA. We need to ask the question, then, "Why did Smith choose JobA?" The libertarian, being an indeterminist, cannot say that the reasons Smith had for JobA—RA—compelled or determined that Smith choose that job. Smith, being free, could have done otherwise. But, I want to suggest that if Smith had free will when he choose JobA, then his actions were random and arbitrary in such a way that he could not possibly be morally responsible for choosing JobA.

The libertarian, of course, will cry foul at this point. "How can Smith’s choice be arbitrary since he had some reasons—RA—for choosing it?" Well, I can agree that RA can be meaningfully cited as reasons for why Smith chose JobA, but I submit that the libertarian has answered the wrong question. The salient question is not, "Why did Smith choose JobA?", but "Why did Smith choose JobA rather than JobB?" I do not think that the libertarian can answer this question satisfactorily.

In fact, I believe that the libertarian indeterminist is caught on the horns of a dilemma: The question is, "Why did Smith choose JobA rather than JobB?" Either there is an answer to this question or there is not. If there is an answer, then Smith's choice is determined (and indeterminism is false). If there is no answer, then Smith's choice is made arbitrarily. So, if indeterminism is true, then Smith's choice is a random choice, and his moral responsibility for that choice is vitiated. Let me present this dilemma a bit more formally:

(1) Either there is a causally sufficient reason why Smith chose JobA rather than JobB, or there is not.
(2) If there is a causally sufficient reason why, then Smith's choice is determined.
(3) If there is no causally sufficient reason why, then Smith's choice is arbitrary.

In defense of (3), let us imagine three different scenarios regarding the relative weight of the reasons Smith may have with respect to the two job offers. First, suppose that Smith's reasons for choosing either job are equally weighted. That is, let it be the case that RA provides no motivation to prefer JobA to JobB, and vice versa. If so, then it seems that there is no reason why Smith chose JobA rather than JobB, even though he did have the considerations of RA in favor of JobA. Would not his choice to accept one job rather than the other be just as arbitrary as if he had no reasons for choosing either job (i.e., if both RA and RB did not exist)? So it seems. So, how does adding equally weighted reasons for the respective jobs diminish the arbitrariness of the choice in such a way as to ground Smith's moral responsibility?

The difficulty does not go away if we assume that RA and RB are not equally weighted. Suppose that RA makes the choice of JobA more preferable, so preferable in fact that it would be clearly irrational to choose JobB. The indeterminist/libertarian would still maintain that there is no causally sufficient reason why Smith chooses JobA (if in fact he does choose JobA). Smith is perfectly capable of choosing JobB in this situation. But, the compatibilist can reply that moral responsibility would come down, on this view, to having the ability to make an irrational choice. And who would want such an ability?

But, what if RA is weightier than RB, but not by a great margin? That is, would our assessment of Smith's moral responsibility be any different if he had some reason to prefer JobA to JobB, yet that reason was not so overwhelmingly preferable that choosing JobB instead would seem obviously crazy? I don't think so. It would still turn out to be irrational to choose JobB if Smith could not say anything in explanation of his choice.

To see this, imagine two possible worlds, W1 and W2, that both contain our character Smith. And let us assume that in both worlds he has some small preference for JobA as opposed to JobB (but not a very strong preference). Now suppose also that in both worlds Smith opts for JobB (the less preferable job). Intuitively, is seems possible for such a choice to be made, and we would not, in ordinary situations, immediately charge someone who made such a choice with irrationality. Let us suppose, for example, that in W1 Smith, if asked why he chose JobB rather than JobA, would reply, "I just had a gut feeling about JobB." We would be prone, I think, to accept this answer and not consider Smith irrational because acting on a gut feeling is often the appropriate thing to do and does in fact constitute a reason for Smith to really prefer JobB after all. It's the presence of this reason that explains why we are willing to give Smith's rationality (in W1) the benefit of the doubt.

However, suppose that things are slightly different with respect to Smith in W2. Suppose that he had no gut feelings about JobB that influenced him to choose it in spite of JobA's apparent preferability. We ask, "So even though JobA seemed more preferable on purely rational grounds, you chose JobB because it appealed to you in some unspecifiable way?" Smith replies, "No, JobA appealed to me more. I just picked JobB. No reason." It would be safe to conclude that Smith is irrational. He quite arbitrarily chose JobB rather than JobA against clear reasons for the latter, and he did so for absolutely no reason. Hence, it would seem that the indeterminist wants us to ground responsibility in the ability to act irrationally. But, I submit that there is no reason that we should go along with this. When people act irrationally and arbitrarily, we tend to think that they are defective in some way—in a way that causes us to mitigate their moral responsibility. So, it would seem that libertarian free will is actually inconsistent with moral responsibility.

What do I conclude from all this? When confronted with the apparent problem of reconciling God’s sovereignty and free will, there is no reason to follow the Arminian in opting for free will and rejecting divine sovereignty, nor is there any need to paradoxically hold these concepts in tension. Because the only motivation for holding on to free will—the need to preserve moral responsibility—has no force. Moral responsibility does not require free will, and thus there is no reason, no motive, to diminish God’s sovereignty.

Jun 13, 2005

Reconciling Divine Sovereignty and Free Will? - Part 2

In the last post, I pointed out that the Bible nowhere teaches that human beings have libertarian freedom. All that Scripture clearly teaches in this area is moral responsibility. Nevertheless, I noted that a critic could argue that, Scripture's silence notwithstanding, moral responsibility requires libertarian freedom as a necessary condition.

So, the second reason to reject libertarianism is that there is no compelling reason to believe that libertarianism—the ability to do otherwise— is a necessary condition for moral responsibility. To see this, let me introduce what is known in philosophical literature as the Frankfurt Counterexample. The contemporary philosopher Harry Frankfurt formulated an ingenious scenario or example in order to refute the notion that we need alternative possibilities or the ability to do otherwise in order to be responsible for our actions. He tells the following story.

Suppose there is a mad-scientist named Black and another man named Jones. Jones has been deliberating on who to vote for in the next Presidential election, either Bush or Hillary Clinton. Black would very much like Jones to vote for Clinton (this is why he is a mad scientist!). And let us suppose that Black has secretly implanted in Jones’ head a device which constantly monitors Jones’ every thought and action, and is also able, if Black pushes the right buttons, to control Jones’ thoughts and actions (but it doesn’t do this all the time).

Now, if Jones chooses to vote for Clinton on his own, then Black will do nothing. He will just sit back and let it happen. But, if Jones begins to choose to vote for Bush, then Black will intervene, push the right buttons and force Jones to vote for Clinton.

Now, let us suppose that Jones does decide on his own, without any manipulation from Black, to vote for Clinton. Two questions: Could Jones have done anything other than vote for Clinton? It wouldn’t seem so. Was he morally responsible for his actions? Indeed he was.

So, here is a case in which it is apparent that a person can be morally responsible without having the ability to do otherwise. I do not mean to suggest that this gives us all we might want in reconciling divine sovereignty and moral responsibility, but I do think it accomplishes this much: it shows that it is not at all obvious anymore that having the ability to do otherwise is necessary for moral responsibility.
[to be continued. . .]

Jun 7, 2005

Reconciling Divine Sovereignty and Free Will? - Part 1

I will present in three parts a paper I read a couple of years ago at the Birmingham Southern Baptist Founders Fraternal dealing with the thorny issue of the relationship between God's sovereignty and human freedom. I hope the readers find it useful. Comments welcome.

By Steven B. Cowan

[Part 1]

God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass. . .

Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without his providence. . .

(The Second London Baptist Confession, 3.1, 5.2)

These statements from the Second London Confession reflect the biblical testimony that God is absolutely sovereign over his creation. Nothing happens apart from his will, his control. Since most of you here today would agree with this doctrine, I will not rehearse the biblical texts which support it. But, let me simply go on record as saying that I think that the Bible teaches this doctrine most clearly and unambiguously.

Of course, as our Arminian brothers will be quick to remind us, the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty and meticulous providence poses a threat to human freedom. If God ordains everything that comes to pass, including the future actions of human beings, then it seems that human beings cannot do other than what they in fact do. And, that being the case, how can they be free? How can they be morally responsible for their actions? The Arminian, as you know, thinks that if God is this sovereign, this much in control, then we cannot be free and responsible. And thus he chooses to preserve human freedom by mitigating God’s sovereignty in some way. Most often this is done by saying that God chooses to limit his sovereignty to allow room for human freedom.

Now those of a Reformed or Calvinist persuasion are not comfortable with this solution primarily because of our conviction regarding what the Scriptures teach about God’s sovereignty. Yet, I have heard many Calvinists, faced with this apparent conflict between God’s sovereignty and human freedom say something like this: "Well, I know that the Bible teaches that God is absolutely sovereign. And it sure seems that the Bible also teaches that humans have free will. The Bible teaches both, so I must affirm both. I can’t explain how they fit together. It’s a mystery. So, we must be content to hold sovereignty and free will in tension."

Before I go any further, I need to point out that both the Arminian and the Calvinist who takes this approach to the problem have something very significant in common. They both share the same view of free will—that is, they both affirm the libertarian definition of free will. On this view a person has free will when he has the ability to do otherwise. In other words, imagine a person who stands at a fork in the road, who is deliberating on whether to go right or left. Now suppose that he chooses to go left. According to the libertarian, the person’s choice was a free choice if, in the very same circumstances, he could have gone right instead. This is what we mean by the ability to do otherwise. And this view of freedom, obviously, entails that a free choice will not be determined in any way.

The Calvinist who wants to hold free will in tension with God’s sovereignty does so because he cannot see any clear way to reconcile God’s sovereignty with freedom understood in this libertarian sense. And I want to suggest that he cannot see any clear way to reconcile them for good reason: they cannot be reconciled! God’s sovereignty and libertarian freedom are undeniably and immutably contradictory! If God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, then it follows with irresistible logic that nothing other than what he ordains can come to pass. And this means that if God ordains that Steve Cowan give a lecture at the Birmingham Founders Fraternal on April 25, then Steve Cowan cannot do other than give that lecture. So, if God is sovereign, then neither Steve Cowan nor anyone else has the ability to do otherwise—that is, no one has freedom in the libertarian sense.

The upshot of this, of course, is that, since contradictions cannot be true, God’s sovereignty and human free will cannot be held in tension. On this score, the Arminian is right: we must choose between God’s absolute sovereignty and libertarian freedom. The Arminian, of course, will say that we ought to choose libertarian freedom and mitigate or diminish God’s sovereignty. However, I suggest that we go the other way; that we choose God’s sovereignty as clearly taught in the Bible, and say goodbye to libertarian freedom.

There are three reasons for this. First, I think it needs to be pointed out, despite what many people believe, that the Bible nowhere directly teaches libertarianism. Search the Scriptures to your heart’s content and you will never find that the Bible affirms that humans have the ability to do otherwise. Now what you will find is that the Bible clearly and strongly affirms human moral responsibility. God gives us commandments and he expects us to keep them. And when we don’t, he holds us morally accountable. So, there is no denying that the Bible teaches moral responsibility.

Now the reason that many people think that the Bible teaches free will (in the libertarian sense) is that they assume or presuppose that moral responsibility requires libertarian free will. In other words, people come to the biblical text with an a priori philosophical presupposition that libertarianism is a necessary condition for moral responsibility. But, the Bible nowhere affirms that presupposition. But, of course, someone might say that even though the Bible doesn’t directly affirm that libertarianism is a necessary condition of moral responsibility, it is certainly plausible to believe it is. The Bible doesn’t teach libertarianism, but there are lots of things we believe and ought to believe that the Bible doesn’t teach, e.g., that 2+2=4. So, perhaps we ought to accept libertarianism any way. This leads me to my next two reasons to say goodbye to libertarianism. . . [to be continued]

May 24, 2005

Religion without Absolutes?

Last weekend's Birmingham News ran a story about a young medical student at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Ford Vox, who has started his own religion. The religion is called "Universism." It's major tenet: There are no absolute truths.

I don't know about you, but it is difficult to say the least that anyone would find a religion appealing which has at its core a blatant contradiction. Imbibing the postmodern distaste for "intolerance," Vox and his followers (yes, he has gained quite a following!) have created a religion in which everyone can have his cake and eat it too. According to Vox, "We absolutely reject absolute truth." Of course, he's lying (or else very seriously confused). No one can absolutely reject absolute truth. For in trying to do so one must, by the very nature of the case, embrace at least one absolute truth, namely, the truth that there are no absolute truths. Which of course is absurd. But, folks like Vox cannot seem to think clearly enough to see the inconsistency in their own thinking.

In fact, on close examination, one finds that universists actually embrace many absolute truths--that is, things that they believe to be true. Here is a sampling of statements from their website (

"Universism is the world's first rational religion."

"Reaching to the heart of humanity's religious impulse, we have uncovered not faith, but mystery."

"The meaning of your existence is yours to determine."

Perhaps I'm missing something, but these sound a lot like absolute truth claims. Not only that, but they are absolute religious truth claims. Can anyone out there, perhaps some Universists, tell me where I may have misunderstood them?

May 10, 2005

Faith Seeking Understanding - Part 2

In my last post, I began to discuss what it means to be a Christian philosopher by analyzing the famous slogan "Faith Seeking Understanding." We looked first at the meaning of the word "faith" in that slogan and saw that faith is trust in the God who has revealed himself in the Holy Scriptures, and believing what he has said in those Scriptures. This week I outline what I mean by "understanding."

I suppose that the real question, more precisely, is what is seeking understading? I believe that to seek understanding means at least four things. First, it means to come to understand the meaning of the Scripural revelation. It means, for instance, that when the Bible says that we were "dead in tresspasses and sins," we seek to comprehend what it means to be dead in tresspasses and sins. When the Bible says that we are saved by grace, through faith, to seek understanding means that we attempt as best we can to know what God intends to communicate to us through that form of words. In other words, for the Christian philosopher to seek understanding means, in part, that the Christian philosopher must be, at least to some extent, a Christian theologian and a Christian biblical exegete. He must, as all Christians should, seek to come to grips with the meaning of the Bible.

Second, seeking understanding means drawing out the implications of what God has revealed. The Word of God makes many truth-claims, and these truth-claims entail other truths that are not explicitly contained in the Scriptures. The implications of the faith may impact what we believe about many other areas of life and many other academic disciplines. For example, our most basic Christian belief, that there is a God who created the universe out of nothing, it seems to me, has enormous implications for many different aspects of life. For example, the truth of Christian theism implies a rejection of methodological naturalism in science (the view that scientists must seek only natural explanations for any given phenomenon). Also, certain revealed truths imply that human life has meaning and purpose and value. This in turn implies that the Christian philosopher must be committed to the existence of objective moral principles.

Third, to seek understanding means that the Christian philosopher seeks to understand why what he beleives is in fact the truth. The Christian philosopher is an apologist who searches for ways to defend the faith not only to those who don't believe, but also for the sake of bolstering and enriching the faith of those who do.

As a quick side-note before I go on, these last two ways of understanding what it means to seek understanding suggest, as many earlier pholosphers said, that philosophy is the "handmaid of theology." Philosophy, or philosophy done by the Christian philosopher, seeks to provide a service to the Christian church by providing a service to the work of theology. It does so, as I have suggested, by drawing out the implications of the faith, and by providing the grounds of the faith.

Fourth and last, to seek understanding means that the Christian philosopher seeks to understand anything and everything in obedience to what we may call the creation mandate. In In Genesis 1:27-28, we are told to subdue the creation and rule over it. Man is to be God's regent on earth. We are to exercise, I believe, a benevolent dominion over the created order. But, what has all of this got to do with philosophy? Well, in order to rule over creation, we must have knowledge and understanding of creation. This fact by itself fuels the whole intellectual enterprise of man from a biblical perspective. It is because God commands us to subdue creation, that men like Isaac Newton believed that the universe was intelligible and that scientific knowledge is possible. The same may be said for philosophy. Because, God has created an orderly and intelligible cosmos and has commanded us to exercise benevolent dominion, the Christian philosopher has hope and confidence that his search for answers to questions in areas like metaphysics and epistemology will bear fruit. I make this point, also, to make it clear that a Christian philosopher need not limit himself in his work just to the handmaid of theology role or to the biblical exegesis role. He may also devote himself to being wht we may call, for lack of a better term, a generic philosopher who seeks to understand what reason alone, tempered by appropriate biblical control-beliefs, may discover about God's world.

In conclusion, let me say that as a Christian philosopher, I have a commitment to the truth of the Christian faith. I do not approach philosophy holding all my religious beliefs in suspension until I can answer all the tough philosophical questions that we deal with. Rather, like St. Augustine and St. Anselm, the Christian philosopher approaches his work with the principle "faith seeking understanding". We believe in the Christian God, we believe in Christ and his salvific work, we accept implicitly what we are convinced the Bible teaches about those subjects that it addresses. But we use our God-given intellects to understand as far as possible the content of that faith, it's implications for every area of life, and the nature of the world in which God has placed us.

Apr 27, 2005

Faith Seeking Understanding - Part 1

This week I want to give some thought to what it means to be a Christian Philosopher, perhaps in order to provoke those who read this to give some thought to the matter themselves. Many Christian philosophers of the past such as Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and many others up to the present day, have sought to live by the motto: "Faith Seeking Understanding." It is living by this motto that I take to be the essence of what it means to be a Christian philosopher. Of course, this slogan must be interpreted. What does it mean for faith to seek understanding? The answer to this question will depend to a large degree on what one means by the terms "faith" and "understanding." In part 1 of this blog I will define what I mean by "faith." Next week I will discuss "understanding."

By faith I mean "trust," as when I say, "I have faith in my wife," or "I believe that this person is telling me the truth." Specifically, for the Christian philosopher, as for the Christian, faith is trust in God. It is trusting God. It is having faith in him. To sound a bit more theological, I take faith to mean trusting the triune God who has revealed himself to me in Holy Scripture. Understanding faith this way has a few important implications. First, it implies that God has revealed himself to me. As Francis Schaeffer said, "He is there, and he is not silent." The Christian philosopher believes that God speaks to His people, and discloses true information about himself which provides a basis for their trust in him.

Second, this view of faith implies that God reveals himself in the Scriptures, that is, the Bible. As Paul says, "All Scripture is God-breathed..." More than that, this God-breathed Word is "living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword." When I read the Bible, I believe I experience what theologians call the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, which assures me that this word is God's Word, and not merely the words of men.

Third, this view of faith implies that I trust what God reveals in the Scriptures. If the Bible is God's Word, then trusting God, who is the proper object of faith, implies that we trust what he says. And what he says is contained, at least primarily, in the Scriptures. So, "faith" in the phrase "Faith Seeking Understanding," I take to mean a response of trust to what the triune God has revealed to men in his Word. And this further implies, I take it, that I have confidence in the truths of the faith---the doctrinal content of the Scriptures, what it reveals to me about God, about Christ, about mankind and myself, about heaven and hell, and salvation.

Given all of this, I would say that Scripture (more particularly, the faith) provides what Nicholas Woltestorff calls "control beliefs"---beliefs which act as a filter for what the Christian philosopher will take as true in the course of his philosophical investigations; beliefs which may imply the rejection of certain philosophical theories. For example, if the Christian philosopher is convinced that the Bible teaches that humans have an immaterial soul (and I for one believe it does teach this), then this control belief will prevent him from accepting any materialistic view of human persons.

Apr 21, 2005

Christians and Art

Last week I received an email from a young Christian who is a film-maker and writer. His favorite literary and film genre is science fiction. Yet, for whatever reason, he had been led to believe that his Christian commitment and his love for science fiction were somehow incompatible. He was worried that if he wrote and produced science fiction he would be endangering his soul. The fact that this young man even worried about these things testifies to the sad state of the evangelical church regarding its relationship to society and culture. Most conservative Christians today have adopted an unbiblical dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, forgetting that this world matters to God and that Christians can and should involve themselves in cultural endeavors like art, literature, politics, business--and do all these things as spiritual activities to the glory of God.

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, had the right attitude about these things, though today many Christians would think he was "worldly," perhaps even sacrilegious. When asked what he would do if he knew that the Lord was returning tomorrow, he said, "I would plant a tree." Luther knew that planting a tree, if done to the glory of God and out of appreciation for the beauty of His creation, was a spiritual and sacred act, no less so than preaching the gospel.

So, I told the young man that writing and producing science fiction books and movies was nothing to fret about, nothing that would endanger his soul, nothing that ought to call his Christian testimony into question. No doubt, of course, the Christian artist will do his art differently than a non-Christian. He will, for example, not promote philosophical and ethical ideas that are inconsistent with biblical truth. But, guided by Christian principles, he can produce science fiction to the glory of God. I also shared with him the following principles for creating and enjoying art that I have gleaned from sources like Michael Horton’s Where in the World Is the Church, Gene Veith's The State of the Arts, and Francis Shaeffer’s Art and the Bible. I hope these principles are helpful to other budding artists out there.

Christian Principles for Involvement in Art
1. Recognize that art is a sovereign sphere of culture under God in which all humans, through common grace, may meaningfully participate. This implies that that Christians may participate in art for arts sake. They may even see art as a vocation for glorifying God. And their art need not have overt Christian content or be designed for evangelism or to teach morality, though it can do these things if the artist wants it to. It can be designed purely for entertainment and pleasure (Exod. 25:9, 18, 31-33; 28:33; 2 Chr 3:6; 4:3-4; 1 Kings 10:18-20; 2 Sam 1:19-27 [a secular ode!]; Note also David’s music!).

2. Acknowledge that beauty is not relative. From a Christian perspective, there is such a thing as real, objective beauty and real ugliness. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. [Phil 4:8-9; Exod. 28:2]. This does not mean, of course, that we will always agree on what is beautiful.

3. Art does not have to agree with Christian truth and Christian morality in order to be good art. That is, good art does not have to be consistent with the Christian worldview. Its message can be contrary to the Christian worldview and still be good, valuable, and enriching. Sartre’s novel Nausea teaches nihilism, but as Horton says, it is a masterpiece! It’s message is not good in the sense of being morally good or philosophically true, but the work itself is aesthetically good. Michaelangelo’s statue David teaches a humanistic view of man, as Schaeffer points out, but who can reasonably say that it isn’t a great work of art?

4. The Christian artist should never abandon his Christian convictions in doing his art. Though a Christian artist does not have to do explicitly religious art, he will not teach through his art things that are inconsistent with the Christian worldview or portray that which is evil as though it were good. So, for example, if a Christian produces a movie, that movie may portray an act of adultery, but it won’t portray it in such a way as to glorify it or approve of it.

5. Recognize that good art does not always have to be beautiful to be good art. Good art can express truth, for example, by portraying ugliness, and thereby be good art because it expresses truth about that ugliness; or the ugliness in the art may genuinely express the artist’s view of reality [e.g. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon].

6. Recognize that there are no exact criteria for distinguishing good art from bad art, but there are criteria. Though beauty is objective, there are degrees of beauty, and a large gray area in which our finite minds may have trouble deciding whether a particular piece of art is good, true, or beautiful. This calls for humility, patience, and a willingness to be gracious toward those with whom we disagree. However, just because there are no exact criteria does not mean there are no criteria. Francis Schaeffer in his little booklet Art and the Bible, sets out four criteria for making aesthetic judgments:

a. Technical excellence—Is the artist a skilled craftsman?
b. Validity—Is the artist honest to himself and his worldview?
c. Intellectual content—What worldview is expressed in the art? Is that worldview true?
d. Integration of content and vehicle—Is there a fitting correlation between the content of the art and its style?

7. Good art can be representational, abstract, or symbolic—the Bible contains all three! (Exod. 26:1; 1 Kings 7:15-22, 25; 28:15-29)

8. We must distinguish between secular and sacred art. Though we cannot draw this distinction too rigidly, as we have said before, it is still the case that art created for art’s sake and to be enjoyed by all is not the same as art created to aid the church in worshipping God. We might draw the distinction by using the terms "holy" and "common." Most art is common, created for common use by everyone. But, some art is designed to be "holy" [i.e., set apart for use in worship; see Horton, pp.85, 83-84]

9. Enjoy good art without guilt as a gift from God---even when it is purely secular! Good art is a gift from God because God gifts artists with the ability to produce good art, even unbelievers. And why shouldn’t Christians enjoy it? So, herein lies the Christian basis for enjoying good movies, going to art galleries, and ballets, and concerts, reading War and Peace and Lord of the Rings, and doing all these things that Christians often feel they have to apologize for because they are not "spiritual."

Apr 19, 2005


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