Theologian of the Cross

About Me

My photo
Cookeville, TN, United States
I teach humanities at Highland Rim Academy in Cookeville, Tennessee. I am also licensed to preach in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.


Audio Resources

Blogs I Read

League of Reformed Bloggers

Homespun Bloggers

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Matthew 27:45-52, part 2

Since I recently discovered that this blog from college was still on the internet, I thought I would write a new post in which I discuss the text of my upcoming sermon at Strasburg Union Church in Strasburg, Missouri, where I am co-pastor.  Here is the text:

45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. 51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

This Sunday will be my second sermon on this text.  I originally picked the text because I was looking for something to preach on Easter Sunday, so I thought I would preach on that weird resurrection of the saints that happens at the crucifixion (v. 52).  As I was beginning to prepare the sermon, however, I realized that I wanted to do a proper treatment of the text.  A multi-part series was thus begun, and my first sermon was basically a Good Friday sermon (though still preached on Easter Sunday) in which I showed from the earthquake and the darkness that what is going on here is a scene of cosmic judgment that was a continuation of the final, eschatological judgment that was begun (though not completed) in the Garden after Adam sinned.

Today, I want to focus on the tearing of the temple veil.  

Before we begin, though, I want to say a word about my overall approach to this text.  In looking at this text, I want us to do a kind of thought experiment.  The interpretive question we will begin with in each of these sermons is this: What can we learn about the meaning of the death of Jesus if all we had in the Bible were this passage (Matthew 27:45-54) and the Old Testament?  If we focus on this question, we have two advantages: First, we will put ourselves in the same situation as the first readers/hearers of Matthew's gospel were in.  Second, this interpretive rule will help us to see the crucifixion of Jesus with fresh eyes and a fresh understanding.  If I asked most Christians to explain the death of Jesus to me, I suspect that almost all of them would say that he died as a substitute for our sins (penal substitutionary atonement).  And while that is true and vital, there are also many other aspects to the meaning of Jesus' death that we can miss if we just sort of assume we know what it means.  So forget Paul, forget Peter, forget Luke, and forget (for the moment) Hebrews.  What clues does Matthew give us in THIS text that help us understand the meaning of Jesus' death?

Back to the temple veil then.  Along with darkness, earthquake, and resurrection of the saints, this is an important clue that Matthew provides us about the meaning of Jesus' death.  It opens up a huge biblical theme that, like the darkness and earthquake, goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden and provides us a cosmic perspective on the death of Jesus.  So here's my main point: The tearing of the Temple veil shows that Jesus in his death has united heaven and earth and opened the way for his followers to enter the new creation.  Now, that's a lot, I know.  To start to get a handle on the meaning of the tearing of the temple veil, let's start with our interpretive exercise: What can we learn about the meaning of the tearing of the temple veil from the OT?  And in order to answer that question, we need to ask the question What is the meaning of the temple in the OT?  And in order to answer THAT question, we have to go all the way back to the Garden of Eden.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Logic of Faith and the Sovereignty of God

I love the kind of logic that flows from great faith in the Omnipotent, Sovereign God. It’s a kind of logic that seems irrational and foolish by human standards; but, to those who know and trust in the power of God, it’s the only kind of rational thinking. It’s an amazing thing to behold, and we ought to marvel at it, meditate on it, and pray that our faith might become as great. And there is no better or more powerful example of this “logic of faith” in the Bible than the case of Abraham and his response to God’s promises to him. In particular, what I want to focus on here is Abraham’s trusting God’s promise to provide him an offspring through Sarah.

In Genesis (15:1–6; 17:16–19; and 18:10–15), God promises Abraham, who is then about 100 years old (and whose wife Sarah is 90) but is without a natural son, that he will give Abraham a natural son to be his heir—a son that “will come out of your own loins,” as the Hebrew literally says. And, despite the fact that this was naturally impossible, since “Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years,” and “the way of women had ceased to be with Sarah” (18:11), Abraham believes and trusts God, that He will indeed provide a Son for him through Sarah. And so, one year later, “the Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised” (21:1), and Sarah thus gave birth to a son, whom they named Isaac.

But, although the event is recorded in Genesis, what I want to focus on here is what Paul says about Abraham and his great faith, in Romans 4:18–21. Paul says:

18 In hope he [Abraham] believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (ESV)

We see the logic of faith beginning in verse 19. Abraham “considered” his situation. But what was there to evaluate? Ninety-year-old women can’t have babies! They’re barren—infertile! Yet Abraham, although fully cognizant of this impossibility, remained “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” In fact, his faith actually grew stronger as the situation became more obviously impossible. In the reasoning of the natural (i.e., non-Christian) man, who does not know the character of God, conception for Sarah is an absolute impossibility. The logic of faith, however, always holds as an unshakeable and overriding premise the omnipotence and faithfulness of God, so that no amount of apparent evidence to the contrary matters. If God has promised something, he will never fail.

The object of Abraham’s faith, moreover, was God himself. Abraham believed the promise because he recognized the ability and the trustworthiness of the promisor. And, by trusting in God, Abraham was glorifying God (v. 20). This is not because Abraham was making God glorious or adding to God’s glory (blasphemy!), but because Abraham was showing God to be what he really is. He was acknowledging the reality of God’s character and the reality of the situation. Abraham acknowledged the truth that he himself was totally unable to produce a son and heir and that only God—“who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (v. 17)—was able to do it and would do it.

Oh, that we might live according to the logic of faith as Abraham did! May God grant us such a faith.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Being at Cambridge

So, here I am, in Cambridge, England, at Corpus Christi College, sitting in the room of the Corpus junior organ scholar (who usually conducts the choir here [of which I am a member]). There's a choir rehearsal scheduled for 5:10 today. I unintentionally got here early, however, thinking (as I have done once before) that the rehearsal was at 4:30 (which is, in fact, the time of the choir's Wednesday and Sunday evening rehearsals).

The Cambridge academic year is now nearly over, it now being almost halfway through the third and final term (Easter Term). I will leave England to return to America on June 18.

I've learned a lot during my time studying at Cambridge—about myself, about history (my major), about theology and biblical studies, about philosophy.

Friday, April 20, 2007

On Being Punched in the Face

Last Monday, I was randomly punched in the face by a passing stranger. Having gone to a nearby convenience store to buy some cheap soda, a friend and I were walking back to Homerton College when one of two young men who were walking toward us sucker punched me in the chin/jaw as he passed by me. It was totally unexpected and seemed completely random. I was talking to my friend when it happened, and so all I saw was a blur before the punch connected. I continued walking, looking over my shoulder every few seconds to see whether the guy had turned around. He had; and there was tension for several seconds as my friend also turned around and briefly exchanged words with the man. I did not turn but kept walking, hoping to avoid any further confrontation with the man. Although the blow was delivered with enough force that I would call it a punch, it did no visible damage to me save producing two small cuts on the inside of my lower lip and a mild ache in my jaw. The whole ordeal, including events leading up to it and my and my friend's reactions to it, was uncanny and thought-provoking. It presented me with an interesting ethical dilemma that I think will be valuable and useful to draw on in the future. It was the most literal case of "turning the other cheek" I have ever faced.

In retrospect, I think that my response to the man's punching me was, although not a positively bad response, not the best response. I did not attempt to respond to the man's hitting me. Rather, acting out of prudence, hoping to avoid any further confrontation, I continued walking. There was nothing at stake, I thought; and so, as long as the man did not attack or threaten me further, for me to respond by attacking him would have been senseless and dangerous. Basically, then, I responded with inaction.

Christ did not command us, however, simply to not hate our enemies. His command, of course, was to love our enemies (Matt 5:44ff). Consider Jesus' words concerning how we should treat our enemies (i.e., those who hate us and persecute us):

38 You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. . . . 43 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:38–39, 43–48)
Jesus is clear that we should actively love our enemies. But this raises a question in my mind regarding the situation in question: How should the particular motive(s) of the "persecutor" affect the Christian's response to persecution? In my situation, the man who punched me gave no indication as to his motive. A random stranger, he certainly didn't know my religious beliefs and so couldn't have been persecuting me for being a Christian. As far as I could tell, I was attacked neither "for righteousness' sake" nor "on account of [Jesus'] name" (Matt 5:10; John 15:21). How, then, (if at all) does this affect the situation?

The situation seems even clearer in light of Paul's words in Romans 12:

17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." 20 To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:17–21)
Paul, too, would say that I did not go far enough in responding to the young man's actions. I acted, as I've said, out of prudence to avoid further confrontation. Does this satisfy Paul's command to believers, "If possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all"? It seems to—on the surface, at least. I certainly did not avenge myself (v. 19). In fact, I did not even experience a significant temptation to retaliate violently. Although I was not overcome by evil, I did not take positive action to "overcome evil with good" (v. 21). Perhaps there was little (effective) I could have done. Nevertheless, I can't help but think that I should have tried to talk to the man, and tell him that Jesus (and I) loves him.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Travel Journal: Edinburgh, Scotland

After about five days in Ireland (Dublin, Kilkenny, and Limerick), I departed there earlier today for Edinburgh, Scotland, where I arrived at about 6:00 p.m. (GMT). Having been to Edinburgh once before, I feel like I've already become somewhat familiar with it (or made its acquaintance, at least), and I feel like this stay (which will probably last for tomorrow and part of the next day) will be very fun and profitable.

The highlight of my stay in Ireland was undoubtedly my visit to the Cliffs of Mohr, a magnificent stretch of coastline in Southeastern Scotland. Such indescribable natural beauty powerfully impressed upon me the glory of God, and such marvels are powerful testaments to Paul's arguement in Romans 1.

After Edinburgh, I plan to go to Glasgow. Then, I intend to go to Inverness, which will serve as a base from which to explore the magnificent Scottish Highlands.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Power of Christ's Death

Second term (Lent term) has now ended and a month-long break has begun before third term (Easter term) begins. Later today, I will be flying to Dublin, Ireland, to travel for a couple weeks with a friend. I leave you with words from J. I. Packer.

In Knowing God, J. I. Packer, reflecting on Romans 8:32, elucidates the verse's implications for the immediate, direct efficacy and sufficiency of Christ's death to produce salvation. That is, Christ's death (and resurrection, presumably) was and is directly and inherently salvific for the believer (i.e., everyone for whom Christ died).

Note . . . what Paul implies about the effectiveness of our redemption. 'God,' he says, 'gave him up for us all'—and this fact is itself the guarantee that 'all things' will be given us, because they all come to us as the direct fruit of Christ's death. We have . . . said that the greatness of God's giving on the cross makes his further giving (if the words may be allowed) natural and likely, but what we must note now is that the unity of God's saving purpose makes such further giving necessary, and therefore certain.
At this point the New Testament view of the cross involves more than is sometimes realized. That the apostolic writers present the death of Christ as the ground and warrant of God's offer of forgiveness, and that we enter into forgiveness through repentance and faith in Christ, will not be disputed. But does this mean that, as a loaded gun is only potentially explosive, and an act of pulling the trigger is needed to make it go off, so Christ's death achieved only a possibility of salvation, needing an exercise of faith on our part to trigger it off and make it actual?
If so, then it is not strictly Christ's death that saves us at all, any more than it is loading the gun that makes it fire: strictly speaking, we save ourselves by our faith, and for all we know, Christ's death might not have saved anyone, since it might have been the case that nobody believed the gospel. But that is not how the New Testament sees it. The New Testament view is that the death of Christ has actually saved 'us all'—all, that is to say, whom God foreknew, and has called and justified, and will in due course glorify. For our faith, which from the human point of view is the means of salvation, is from God's point of view part of salvation, and is as directly and completely God's gift to us as is the pardon and peace of which faith lays hold.
Psychologically, faith is our own act, but the theological truth about it is that it is God's work in us: our faith, and our new relationship with God as believers, and all the divine gifts that are enjoyed within this relationship, were all alike secured for us by Jesus' death on the cross. For the cross was not an isolated event; it was, rather, the focal point in God's eternal plan to save his elect, and it ensured and guaranteed first the calling (the bringing to faith, through the gospel in the mind and the Holy Spirit in the heart), and then the justification, and finally the glorification, of all for whom, specifically and personally, Christ died. (264–65)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How New Is the "New Perspective on Paul"?

The advent of the "new perspective" on Paul (NPP) marked a major shift in the study of the apostle Paul and his theology. In general theologians and biblical scholars associated with the NPP hold that, contra Luther and the entire Reformation tradition, first-century Judaism was not a religion of legalistic works-righteousness, but one that called for obedient action—to borrow a phrase from Paul—"in view of God's mercies" (that is, in response to God's grace in making the Jews his chosen people and establishing a covenant with them). Consequently, the NPP contends (again, contra the Lutheran and Reformed views) that justification by faith is not the center of Paul's theology but only a pragmatic tactic to facilitate the Gentile mission. For, if Judaism is not a religion of works-righteousness, then Jews hardly need to hear the message of justification by faith, whereas that message makes perfect sense if it was directed solely to the Gentiles.

One of the most important corollary contentions of NPP advocates is their understanding of the general concept of the law and specifically Paul's crucial phrase "works of the law" (Gal 2:16; Rom 3:20, 28; etc.). "We know," Paul says in Galatians 2:16, "that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified" (ESV). Here, and in other places, NPP advocates have limited Paul’s usage of “works of the law” to only “ceremonial observance” or “works done in a legalistic spirit” or “Jewish identity markers.” Such limits would mean that Paul is not denying that justification comes through works done in obedience to the law, but only certain kinds of works or works done in the wrong spirit. But almost five centuries before the NPP, sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther wrote against the same sort of view of the meaning of "works of the law" as the one held by modern NPP advocates. And, against those who hold such a view, Luther has strong and stinging words:

But they are in the habit of trying to get round Paul here, by making out that what he calls works of the law are the ceremonial works, which since the death of Christ are deadly. I reply that this is the ignorant error of Jerome, which in spite of Augustine’s strenuous resistance—God having withdrawn and let Satan prevail—has spread out into the world and persisted to the present day. It has consequently become impossible to understand Paul, and the knowledge of Christ has been inevitably obscured. Even if there had never been any other error in the Church, this one alone was pestilent and potent enough to make havoc of the gospel, and unless a special sort of grace has intervened, Jerome has merited hell rather than heaven for it—so little would I dare to canonize him or call him a saint. It is, then, not true that Paul is speaking only about ceremonial laws; otherwise, how can the argument be sustained by which he concludes that all men are wicked and in need of grace? For someone could say: Granted we are not justified by ceremonial works, yet a person might be justified by the moral works of the Decalogue, so you have not proved by your syllogism that grace is necessary for these. Besides, what is the use of a grace that liberates us only from ceremonial works, which are the easiest of all, and which can at the lowest be extorted from us by fear or self-love? It is, of course, also untrue that ceremonial works are deadly and unlawful since the death of Christ; Paul never said that, but he says they do not justify and are of no advantage to a man in the sight of God as regards setting him free from ungodliness. Once this is accepted, anyone may do them without doing anything unlawful—just as eating and drinking are works that do not justify or commend us to God [I Cor. 8:8], yet a man does nothing unlawful when he eats and drinks.
They are also wrong in that the ceremonial works were as much commanded and required in the old law as was the Decalogue, so that the latter was neither more nor less important than the former. And as Paul is speaking primarily to Jews, as he says in Romans 1[:16], no one need doubt that by works of the law he means all the works of the entire law. For it would be meaningless to call them works of the law if the law were abrogated and deadly, since an abrogated law is no longer a law, as Paul very well knew. He is therefore not speaking of an abrogated law when he speaks of the works of the law, but of the law that is valid and authoritative. Otherwise, how easy it would have been for him to say: 'The law itself is now abrogated!'—then we should have had a clear and unambiguous declaration.
But let us appeal to Paul himself as his own best interpreter, where he says in Galatians 3[:10]: 'All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them."' You see here, where Paul is making the same point in the same words as in the epistle to the Romans, that every time he mentions the works of the law he is speaking of all the laws written in the Book of the Law. And what is more remarkable, he actually quotes Moses, who curses those who do not abide by the law [Deut. 27:26], although he himself preaches that those are accursed who rely on the works of the law. He thus makes two contrary statements, the one being negative, the other affirmative. He can do this, however, because the fact is that in the sight of God those who are most devoted to the works of the law are farthest from fulfilling the law, because they lack the Spirit that is the true fulfiller of the law, and while they may attempt it by their own powers, they achieve nothing. So both statements are true and both types are accursed—those who do not abide by the law, as Moses puts it, and those who rely on works of the law, as Paul puts it; for they each lack the Spirit, without whom the works of the law, no matter how much they are done, do not justify, as Paul says [Rom. 3:20], and therefore they do not abide in all the things that are written, as Moses says [Deut. 27:26].
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It can be taken as settled, then, that by works of the law Paul means not simply ceremonial works, but all the works of the law in its entirety. With this it will also be settled that everything connected with the works of the law is condemned if it is without the Spirit.

This passage is striking in its addressing almost the same views now generally held by NPP advocates. Indeed, if I didn't already know that Martin Luther wrote it, I might think that it was written by some modern writer familiar with the work of E. P. Sanders or James Dunn. It's as if Luther had read Sanders and Dunn themselves.

Although Sanders may have gone further than anyone before him in analyzing and characterizing first-century Judaism, his—and, subsequently, James Dunn's and N. T. Wright's—subsequent conclusions about Paul's theology are neither unprecedented nor world-shaking. Indeed, it seems that the "new perspective" on Paul is not a fundamentally new platform but an elaboration on and adaptation of an old one.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Catholic Church: What's Going on, Here?

Does the following text taken from the website of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York city seem disturbing to anyone? Strange, but it reminds me of a certain other practice of the Catholic church, say, about 500 years ago . . .

Mass Enrollments

Mass Requests, Mass Enrollment Societies, Novenas and other Mass Intentions

The Mass has been celebrated in the Cathedral for over 125 years. Today at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral the Mass is celebrated at least seven times daily and eleven times on Holy Days. Because of the Mass’ infinite value – a memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord, it is a time honored Catholic tradition to have Masses said in honor of a particular person and to provide a Mass Cards to comfort relatives, friends and loved ones. The Cathedral offers three options to have Masses offered for loved ones, or friends either living or deceased.

Mass Requests

Announced Masses:

You can request an announced Mass to be said for a living or deceased family member, friend or loved one by coming in person to the Parish House located at 14 East 51st Street and completing a request form. Suggested offering for these Masses is a minimum of $20 for each Mass.

Unannounced Masses:

You can also request an unannounced Mass to be said for a living or deceased family member, friend or loved one by coming in person to the Parish House located at 14 West 51st Street and completing a request form. Suggested offering for these Masses is a minimum of $10 for each Mass.

Mass Enrollment Societies

  - Unannounced Masses Only

Cathedral Mass Enrollment Society:

The Cathedral offers Mass Cards to those who wish to pray for loved ones, living or deceased, by enrolling them in the Cathedral Mass Enrollment Society. You do not have to personally visit the Cathedral but rather these Mass Cards can be sent by mail to you in advance, for future use. Minimum offering per Mass enrollment is $10 per Mass or $30 for a set of three Mass Cards. Members of the Cathedral Mass Enrollment Society, both living and deceased, are remembered collectively in a monthly Mass celebrated the first Sunday of each month for one year. Names are not announced individually. You can request enrollment in the Cathedral Mass Enrollment Society by calling 212-355-2749 x 407. The Cathedral will send the set of three beautiful Mass Cards to you in advance, which you can mail directly to loved ones when you wish to have someone remembered through enrollment in the Mass Enrollment Society. You should forward the name of the person you are enrolling, using the instruction card included with the three Mass Cards mailed to you whenever you wish to enroll someone. Please indicate if the person enrolled is living or deceased.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Spiritual Enrollment:

Similar to the Cathedral Mass Enrollment Society, Our Lady of Guadalupe Spiritual Enrollment Society remembers your intentions by placing each intention received in a box before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Sacred Heart Altar. All such intentions will be entrusted to Our Lady of Guadalupe honoring her as Mary, the Patroness of the Americas. Suggested offering for these intentions is $10 per enrollment You can request enrollment in Our Lady of Guadalupe Spiritual Enrollment by calling 212-355-2749 x 407.

Lady Chapel Memorial Rosary Confraternity Enrollment:

His Holiness Pope John Paul II chose the recitation of the Rosary for his prayer service in the Cathedral of Saint Patrick on the Feast of the Rosary in October 1995. To carry forward this over a century old tradition of praying the Rosary, the Cathedral has established The Memorial Rosary Confraternity of the Lady Chapel. By enrolling our beloved deceased members, colleagues and friends in The Memorial Rosary Confraternity of the Lady Chapel, we entrust them to the mercy of God through the intersession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. All members are prayed for in every Rosary service held in the Lady Chapel. Everyone enrolled is also remembered in a special way at Masses on the liturgical feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that all may attain the peace and joy of eternal life in heaven. Suggested offering for these intentions is $25 per enrollment You can request enrollment in the Lady Chapel Memorial Rosary Confraternity Enrollment by calling 212-355-2749 x 407.


Novenas at Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day:

The Cathedral offers enrollment for novenas to remember loved ones and friends at the above holidays. For more information regarding enrollment in these seasonal novenas, please visit or call the Parish House: 212-753-2261. Suggested offering for the nine day novenas is $10 per enrollment.

Monday, March 05, 2007

"You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores": Plantinga Dismantles Dawkins' "Delusion"

Alvin Plantinga, one of the most important and influential (Christian) philosophers living today, has written a review of Richard Dawkins' most recent book, The God Delusion. In it, Plantinga easily and persuasively stingingly Dawkins' arguments in the book, but he also does something larger and more important: he argues against naturalism, the philosophical presupposition on which the very foundations of Dawkins' many atheists' rest.

Now despite the fact that this book is mainly philosophy, Dawkins is not a philosopher (he's a biologist). Even taking this into account, however, much of the philosophy he purveys is at best jejune. You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class. This, combined with the arrogant, smarter-than-thou tone of the book, can be annoying. I shall put irritation aside, however and do my best to take Dawkins' main argument seriously.

After running circles around Dawkins' primary arguments indeed, as Plantinga asserted earlier, the word jejune characterizes aptly exposes the deeper and more fundamental flaw in Dawkins' worldview: his biased and question-begging naturalistic presuppositions. "The real problem here, obviously," says Plantinga, "is Dawkins' naturalism, his belief that there is no such person as God or anyone like God. That is because naturalism implies that evolution is unguided." The problem, here, is that this leads to a hopeless skepticism and a plunge into epistemological Sheol. More specifically, the naturalist/evolutionist has no good reason to think that his senses and cognitive faculties are capable of perceiving true reality or are able to provide him with true beliefs. For, because evolution is effected by means of (unguided) natural selection, a process which only fosters and perpetuates traits affecting survivability, but which has no reason to produce traits or faculties that produce true belief about reality. As Plantinga explains:

Toward the end of the book, Dawkins endorses a certain limited skepticism. Since we have been cobbled together by (unguided) evolution, it is unlikely, he thinks, that our view of the world is overall accurate; natural selection is interested in adaptive behavior, not in true belief. But Dawkins fails to plumb the real depths of the skeptical implications of the view that we have come to be by way of unguided evolution. We can see this as follows. Like most naturalists, Dawkins is a materialist about human beings: human persons are material objects; they are not immaterial selves or souls or substances joined to a body, and they don't contain any immaterial substance as a part. From this point of view, our beliefs would be dependent on neurophysiology, and (no doubt) a belief would just be a neurological structure of some complex kind. Now the neurophysiology on which our beliefs depend will doubtless be adaptive; but why think for a moment that the beliefs dependent on or caused by that neurophysiology will be mostly true? Why think our cognitive faculties are reliable?

From a theistic point of view, we'd expect that our cognitive faculties would be (for the most part, and given certain qualifications and caveats) reliable. God has created us in his image, and an important part of our image bearing is our resembling him in being able to form true beliefs and achieve knowledge. But from a naturalist point of view the thought that our cognitive faculties are reliable (produce a preponderance of true beliefs) would be at best a naïve hope. The naturalist can be reasonably sure that the neurophysiology underlying belief formation is adaptive, but nothing follows about the truth of the beliefs depending on that neurophysiology. In fact he'd have to hold that it is unlikely, given unguided evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. It's as likely, given unguided evolution, that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.

"If this is so," says Plantinga,

the naturalist has a defeater for the natural assumption that his cognitive faculties are reliable—a reason for rejecting that belief, for no longer holding it. (Example of a defeater: suppose someone once told me that you were born in Michigan and I believed her; but now I ask you, and you tell me you were born in Brazil. That gives me a defeater for my belief that you were born in Michigan.) And if he has a defeater for that belief, he also has a defeater for any belief that is a product of his cognitive faculties. But of course that would be all of his beliefs—including naturalism itself. So the naturalist has a defeater for naturalism; natural- ism, therefore, is self-defeating and cannot be rationally believed.
So a broader conclusion is that one can't rationally accept both naturalism and evolution; naturalism, therefore, is in conflict with a premier doctrine of contemporary science. People like Dawkins hold that there is a conflict between science and religion because they think there is a conflict between evolution and theism; the truth of the matter, however, is that the conflict is between science and naturalism, not between science and belief in God.

Finally, Plantinga concludes: "The God Delusion is full of bluster and bombast, but it really doesn't give even the slightest reason for thinking belief in God mistaken, let alone a 'delusion.' " Ouch.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Supremacy of God in the Life of the Mind

In this address given at Northwestern College (here excerpted; full text here), John Piper exhorts the students and faculty of the college to make God and His glory the active and chief end of academics and the center and focus of all the pursuits of their minds.

I come to you today with a burden for the supremacy of God in the life of the mind. I speak to you as people who are called for a season of your life to engage in the work of the mind. I speak to students and faculty and administration concerning this tremendously crucial matter, because I believe it's your calling in this community to cultivate in each other the ability and the habit and the desire to read with understanding, and think with accuracy, and observe with discernment, and research with thoroughness, and evaluate with fairness, and memorize with discipline, and write with clarity, and speak with cogency, and perform with excellence, and hate what is evil, and love what is good, and feel with fitting passions all the beauty and goodness and truth of our great God and his amazing world.

I sense that in the humanities and the natural sciences and social sciences and the arts God and his Word are often taken for granted. If someone queries why concrete Biblical truth is not more explicitly wrestled with in relation to the tenets of literature or sociology or history or economics or psychology or speech or math or chemistry or physics or theater or physical education or political science—if someone queries why the Biblical vision of reality has such a low profile, the answer is too often, “We take that for granted. That’s our working assumption while we deal with the world of contemporary thought and practice. That’s the foundation on which we build.”

What I want to say this morning is that God does not like to be taken for granted. God does not want to be a silent assumption. Speaking of God as the foundation for the life of the mind is a wholly inadequate metaphor. That he is! O, yes, and a great and deep and unshakable foundation he is. But foundations are invisible, and are seldom thought about in the daily life of the house. They are taken for granted. They are silently assumed.

But God wills not only to be the massive, silent, unseen foundation beneath the walls of our academic lives; he also wills to be the visible cap stone adorning the top and the brightness of the glory that fills the house for all to see.

I want to plead with you this morning--students and faculty and administration—that you not imprison God in the silent basement of your busy academic houses by taking him for granted and calling him merely the Foundation for your labor.

There is a more radical, more pervasive way that God wills to be honored in your academic work. I call it the supremacy of God in the life of the mind.

[Piper considers the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh in Exodus 8–10]

So we can see that God wills for his power to be known and marveled at not just in Israel and not just among the Egyptians, but in all the earth. God is jealous for his reputation in all the universe—that he be known and celebrated as central and supreme everywhere.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

God wants the to world know not only his power, but also his Creator rights over all the earth—over every discipline in the academy and over every sphere of culture: he owns everything. This is not a doctrine he wants tucked away in a book, not a silent assumption, but a daily conscious sense that controls the way we handle all things and all truth.

God does not like to be taken for granted. God wills to be central and supreme and celebrated in all of life, including the life of the mind.

I think what I am pleading for here is very hard for people to grasp because our age is so utterly and thoroughly God-ignoring, which is probably worse than God-despising. We get all worked up when Hugh Downs puts people like James Dobson in the same category with Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan because they all claimed Christian sanction for their “family values” crusades. But we swallow hook line and sinker the utter absence of God as normal. Aggression against God offends us: but omission of God escapes us.

We get anesthetized to the unspeakable and appalling insult rendered to God day in and day out by his being ignored. It starts to feel normal—the way its normal not to think about air or a solid earth under our feet.

But I fear that we preachers are a great part of the problem. The absence of God’s supremacy is not unique to academia or the media. Albert Einstein gave a devastating indictment of preaching fifty years ago that may be more true today. Charles Misner, a scientific specialist in general relativity theory, was quoted like this:
[The design of the universe] is very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined, and they were just not talking about the real thing.
When God is taken for granted, and functions as a silent assumption, while we talk about other good things, his majesty is abased and his glory is obscured and his supremacy in the life of the mind vanishes. And people may well say, “I wonder if they have seen the real thing.”

May it not be said of any course at Northwestern College, that the students and the faculty in state universities have seen more mystery, or more wonder, or more majesty than we have seen—we who know the One from whom and through whom and for whom all things exist and hold together.

I am not pleading for anything superficial—just another prayer at the beginning of class, just another Bible verse quoted. I am pleading for the deep, earnest, thorough engagement with God and his Word and his Ways at every level of research and analysis and interpretation and reflection and creation. All things—every academic discipline—were made by God and for God. His fingerprints are everywhere. The main meaning of all things derives from their relation to God. Not to seek that meaning with all our heart and mind and soul is to be superficial, no matter what grades we make, no matter what articles we publish.

My closing prayer: may the supremacy of God in the life of the mind be the title over this academic chapter of your life.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Affirmative Action in the Church? Kind of.

I have been surprised to learn from an online article today that Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota—John Piper's church—practices a kind of affirmative action when hiring ministerial staff. I was taken aback at first; however, reasoning behind this policy is interesting.

* Probing: We search for candidates for pastors and elders who are from various ethnicities. We pursue the web of relationships that we have. We make the positions known on the web and in other ways. We write articles like this one. Etc.

* Preferring: We intentionally take ethnicity into account when making choices about who we will call to the pastoral staff and eldership. This is the most controversial. It has been labeled “affirmative action” or “racial preferences.” Here is how it works at Bethlehem and why we make decisions this way.

One guiding principle is this: To the degree that one of the aims of an organization is to experience and display racial diversity, to that degree the intentional consideration of race in hiring is warranted. If, for example, the sole aim of an organization is productive efficiency, it would be unwarranted for the hiring guidelines to contain racial preferences. Whether all the employees are Black or Asian or White or Latino or Native is irrelevant. All that matters is maximum efficiency. So you don’t consider race in hiring. The only thing you consider is competencies that maximize efficiency.

But if one of the stated aims of an organization is to experience and display the beauty of ethnic harmony in diversity, then it would be reasonable and warranted to consider race as part of the qualifications in hiring. An obvious example would be hiring actors for a dramatic production that has Black, Asian, Latino, and White roles. One would consider race essential in the actors one hires for each role. One would not say: Competency in acting is the only thing that matters, and then use makeup to create the impression of race. Of course, acting competency matters. But so does race. That’s part of what the play is about. Hence, it is reasonable and warranted to take ethnicity into account when hiring actors.

Over ten years ago, we at Bethlehem set ourselves on a trajectory of intentional ethnic diversity. It coheres with the emphasis on “the joy of all peoples” in our mission statement: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. But we did not make it easy for ourselves. It would be easy if we said, “Diversity is the top priority that outweighs all others.” Or: “Diversity at any cost.” But there are things more important than ethnic diversity. For example, in hiring pastoral staff or choosing elders, there are theological and philosophical and personal commitments that are more important that ethnicity.

What are the biblical and theological grounds for such a practice? Piper explains:

We realize that this kind of intentionality in seeking staff is controversial. Some would say, “Never consider ethnicity in hiring. Always be color blind and focus only on competencies, doctrine, and faith.” Here is the problem we see with that. Most people look at the ethnic diversity in the New Testament church and admire what they see. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

It is right to admire this diversity for many reasons:

1. It illustrates more clearly the truth that God created people of all races and ethnicities in his on image (Genesis 1:27).
2. It displays more visibly the truth that Jesus is not a tribal deity but is the Lord of all races, nations, and ethnicities.
3. It demonstrates more clearly the blood-bought destiny of the church to be “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
4. It exhibits more compellingly the aim and power of the cross of Christ to “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:16).
5. It expresses more forcefully the work of the Spirit to unite us in Christ. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Richard Dawkins, Religious Atheist

In a recent edition of The New York Review of Books, H. Allen Orr, an evolutionary biologist who is Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester, has written a review of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. In it, Orr reveals Dawkins to be a "religious" athiest who, being convinced that religion is dangerous, is (ironically) out to proselytize his views and "convert" people to athiesm. Ultimately, Dawkins fails to take religion seriously enough to confront any serious religious arguments and so mostly just beats up on caricatures of religion, straw men of his own construction.

As you may have noticed, Dawkins when discussing religion is, in effect, a blunt instrument, one that has a hard time distinguishing Unitarians from abortion clinic bombers. What may be less obvious is that, on questions of God, Dawkins cannot abide much dissent, especially from fellow scientists (and especially from fellow evolutionary biologists). Indeed Dawkins is fond of imputing ulterior motives to those "Neville Chamberlain School" scientists not willing to go as far as he in his war on religion: he suggests that they're guilty of disingenuousness, playing politics, and lusting after the large prizes awarded by the Templeton Foundation to scientists sympathetic to religion.[2] The only motive Dawkins doesn't seem to take seriously is that some scientists genuinely disagree with him.

Despite my admiration for much of Dawkins's work, I'm afraid that I'm among those scientists who must part company with him here. Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I'm forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he's actually more an amateur. I don't pretend to know whether there's more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins's general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case. The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins's cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they're terminally ill?).

Instead, Dawkins has written a book that's distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow. Dawkins's intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science popularizer,[3] both of whom he cites repeatedly. This is a different group from thinkers like William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein—both of whom lived after Darwin, both of whom struggled with the question of belief, and both of whom had more to say about religion than Adams and Sagan. Dawkins spends much time on what can only be described as intellectual banalities: "Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question."

. . . . . . . . . .

One reason for the lack of extended argument in The God Delusion is clear: Dawkins doesn't seem very good at it. Indeed he suffers from several problems when attempting to reason philosophically. The most obvious is that he has a preordained set of conclusions at which he's determined to arrive. Consequently, Dawkins uses any argument, however feeble, that seems to get him there and the merit of various arguments appears judged largely by where they lead.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Authority of Scripture

In this excerpt (taken from here) from a sermon of his on Ephesians 6:14 ("Stand therefore having your loins girt about with truth"), Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899–1981), a great English, Reformed preacher, indicts the church for having gotten away from the doctrine of the authority of the Bible. He challenges the church and individual Christians to return to this fundamentally-important doctrine.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that all the troubles in the Church to-day, and most of the troubles in the world, are due to a departure from the authority of the Bible. And, alas, it was the Church herself that led in the so-called Higher Criticism that came from Germany just over a hundred years ago. Human philosophy took the place of revelation, man's opinions were exalted and Church leaders talked about 'the advance of knowledge and science', and 'the assured results' of such knowledge. The Bible then became a book just like any other book, out-of-date in certain respects, wrong in other respects, and so on. It was no longer a book on which you could rely implicitly.

There is no question at all that the falling away, even in Church attendance, in this country is the direct consequence of the Higher Criticism. The man in the street says, 'What do these Christians know? It is only their opinion, they are just perpetrating something that the real thinkers and scientists have long since seen through and have stopped considering'. Such is the attitude of the man in the street! He does not listen any longer, he has lost all interest. The whole situation is one of drift; and very largely, I say, it is the direct and immediate outcome of the doubt that has been cast by the Church herself upon her only real authority. Men's opinions have taken the place of God's truth, and the people in their need are turning to the cults, and are listening to any false authority that offers itself to them.

We all therefore have to face this ultimate and final question: Do we accept the Bible as the Word of God, as the sole authority in all matters of faith and practice, or do we not? Is the whole of my thinking governed by Scripture, or do I come with my reason and pick and choose out of Scripture and sit in judgment upon it, putting myself and modern knowledge forward as the ultimate standard and authority? The issue is crystal clear. Do I accept Scripture as a revelation from God, or do I trust to speculation, human knowledge, human learning, human understanding and human reasons Or, putting it still more simply, Do I pin my faith to, and subject all my thinking to, what I read in the Bible? Or do I defer to modern knowledge, to modern learning, to what people think today, to what we know at this present time which was not known in the past? It is inevitable that we occupy one or the other of those two positions.

The Protestant position, as was the position of the early Church in the first centuries, is that the Bible is the Word of God. Not that it 'contains' it, but that it is the Word of God, uniquely inspired and inerrant. The Protestant Reformers believed not only that the Bible contained the revelation of God's truth to men, but that God safeguarded the truth by controlling the men who wrote it by the Holy Spirit, and that He kept them from error and from blemishes and from anything that was wrong. That is the traditional Protestant position, and the moment we abandon it we have already started on the road that leads back to one of the false authorities, and probably ultimately to Rome itself. In the last analysis it is the only alternative.

People will have authority; and they are right in so thinking. They need authority because they are bewildered; and if they do not find it in the right way they will take it in the wrong way. They can be persuaded even though they do not know the source of the authority; in their utter bewilderment they are ready to be persuaded by any authoritative statement. So that it comes to this, that we are back exactly where Christians were 400 years ago. The world talks about its advance in knowledge, its science, and so on, but actually we are going round in cycles, and we are back exactly where Christians were 400 years ago. We are having to fight once more the whole battle of the Protestant Reformation. It is either this Book, or else it is ultimately the authority of the Church of Rome and her 'tradition'! That was the great issue at the Protestant Reformation. It was because of what they found in the Bible that those men stood up against, and queried and questioned and finally condemned the Church of Rome. It was that alone that enabled Luther to stand, just one man, defying all those twelve centuries of tradition. 'I can do no other' he says, because of what he had found in the Bible. He could see that Rome was wrong. It did not matter that he was alone, and that all the big battalions were against him. He had the authority of the Word of God, and he judged the Church and her tradition and all else by this external authority.

We are back again in that exact position, and I am concerned about the matter, not only from the standpoint of the Church in general, but also from the standpoint of our own individual experiences. How can we fight the devil? How can we know how we are to live? How can we answer the things we hear, the things we read, and all the subtle suggestions of the devil? Where can I find this truth that I must gird on, as I put on all this armour of God? Where can I find it if I cannot find it in the Bible? Either my foundation is one of sand that gives way beneath my feet, and I do not know where I am, or else I stand on what W. E. Gladstone called 'The Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture'.

J. I. Packer, in his essay Hermeneutics and Biblical Authority, emphasizes the (divine) authority of the Bible over the beliefs and practices of the individual believer.

Evangelicals hold that the obedience of both the Christian individually, and the Church corporately, consists precisely in conscious submission, both intellectual and ethical, to the teaching of Holy Scripture, as interpreted by itself and applied by the Spirit . . . . Subjection to the rule of Christ involves - indeed, from one standpoint, consists in subjection to the rule of Scripture. His authority is its, and its is His.

Similarly, he says,

It is hardly possible to deny that what God says is true, any more than it is possible to deny that what He commands is binding. Scripture is thus authoritative as a standard of belief no less than of behaviour, and its authority in both realms, that of fact as well as that of obligation, is divine. By virtue of its inspiration the authority of Scripture resolves into, not the historical, ethical, or religious expertise of its human authors, however great this may be thought to have been, but the truthfulness and the moral claim of the speaking, preaching, teaching God Himself.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Believer’s Delight in the Beauty of Divine Things

The joy, and spiritual delight and pleasure of the saints has its first foundation not in any consideration or conception of their interest in divine things; but it primarily consists in the sweet entertainment their minds have in the view of contemplation of the divine and holy beauty of these things, as they are in themselves.

And this is indeed the very main difference between the joy of the hypocrite, and the joy of the true saint. The former rejoices in himself; self is the first foundation of his joy: the latter rejoices in God. The hypocrite has his mind pleased and delighted, in the first place, with his own privilege, and the happiness which he supposes he has attained to, or shall attain to.

True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures: it is the joy of their joy. This sweet and ravishing entertainment they have in the view of the beautiful and delightful nature of divine things, is the foundation of the joy that they have afterwards, in the consideration of their being theirs. But the dependence of the affections of hypocrites is in a contrary order: they first rejoice and are elevated with it, that they are made so much of by God; and then on that ground he seems, in a sort, lovely to them.

The first foundation of the delight a true saint has in God, is his own perfection; and the first foundation of the delight he has in Christ, is his own beauty; he appears in himself the chief among ten thousand, and altogether lovely. The way of salvation by Christ is a delightful way to him, for the sweet and admirable manifestations of the divine perfections in it: the holy doctrines of the gospel, by which God is exalted and man abased, holiness honored and promoted, and sin greatly disgraced and discouraged, and free and sovereign love manifested, are glorious doctrines in his eyes, and sweet to his taste, prior to any conception of his interest in these things.

Indeed the saints rejoice in their interest in God, and that Christ is theirs: and so they have great reason, but this is not the first spring of their joy. They first rejoice in God as glorious and excellent in himself, and then secondarily rejoice in it, that so glorious a God is theirs.—They first have their hearts filled with sweetness, from the view of Christ’s excellency, and the excellency of his grace and the beauty of the way of salvation by him, and then they have a secondary joy in that so excellent a Savior, and such excellent grace are theirs.

From Jonathan Edwards. Religious Affections. Edited by John E. Smith. Volume 2 Works (Yale, 1959), 249-50.

Back in Cambridge

After more than a month of travelling throughout Europe, I am now back in Cambridge, where I shall resume my studies. Second term (named Lent Term) begins Thursday, Jan. 18. Until then, I'm preparing for term, reading, reviewing Greek grammar and vocabulary, slowly unpacking, and hanging out with my friends.

I am particularly excited about one of my supervisions this term: Paul's Letters.