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.