Results tagged “Apologetics” from Reformation21 Blog

The Christ-Haunted Song

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The Scriptures declare that the Lord fills the heavens and the earth (Jer. 23:24); and, that He who made the vast expanses of the starry sky gives to all men "life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:25). Since "all that borrows life from Him are ever in His care," all that we have and possess (including our ability to think and reason in the realm of metaphysical truth) is nothing other than "borrowed capital." John Frame so helpfully sets out the implication of this truth when he writes, "The truth is known and acknowledged by the unbeliever. He has no right to believe or assert truth in terms of his own presuppositions, but only on Christian ones. So his assertions of truth are based on borrowed capital." The truth is inescapable for the unbeliever, though he or she constantly seeks to suppress it in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). No matter how much men and women seek to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, however, the knowledge of God made known to all image bearers (Rom. 1:19) continually resurfaces in their consciences.

This principle is heightened in a culture in which biblical revelation has taken root. One can watch a nature show on television in which a naturalistic (i.e. anti-theistic) worldview undergirds the premises of the show; yet, the show's host refers to the animals on the program as "creatures." Another example is seen in the way in which revisionist attempts to do away with a calendar that centers on the Savior's coming into the world (i.e. B.C. and A.D.) fall as soon as they rise. This has been evident in the art and literature of the Western world, which has been so greatly impacted by Christendom; and, it is true in a special way in places where there has been a high concentration of Christian churches and biblical preaching, such as in Flannery O'Connor's Christ-Haunted South.

I have noticed this to be so to a high degree in much of the secular music that I have listened to throughout my life. For instance, John Lennon's song, "Imagine," encourages the unregenerate to try to imagine that there's no heaven or hell. The irony, of course, is that imaging that such places do not exist is the best attempt men have at suppressing the truth of their reality.

In the months leading up to my conversion in 2001, two songs in particular left me deeply "Christ-haunted." One was the song "Pickin' Up the Pieces" by the Athens, GA band Widespread Panic. It was especially their refrain, "Not wanting to meet my Savior, no not this way," that haunted me. The other song that haunted me at that time was "Faker" by the band Moe. The lyrics that plagued me the most while I was in dark rebellion were these: "I am a faker, pretending along; lost site of my Maker; I will die before I finish this song." Coming from the Christian home in which I had grown up, these words cut to the core of my conscience.

As I now listen to music as a believer, I continue to have the greatest of appreciation for the beauty, creativity and giftedness of so many secular artists; yet, always with an awareness of the "Christ-haunted" nature of most of it. There are times that I wish I could sit down with the numerous musicians whose music I love so much (e.g. John Moreland, J. Tillman, etc.) and talk with them about the Christ they have rejected and the truths of Scripture that they are singing about in overt and suppressive ways in their songs. I often wonder if they are "Christ-haunted" as I was, when they continue to sing their "Christ-haunted" songs. 

 

Walker Percy on the Bankruptcy of Naturalistic Materialism

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About a year ago I took a solo road trip from Jackson, MS to St. Joseph's Abbey in Covington, LA, which is the final resting place of the Roman Catholic novelist, Walker Percy. It was an opportunity to pay my respects to one of my favorite authors.

Though Percy found fame (and a Pulitzer Prize) as a novelist, he also wrote several collections of essays. His book Lost in the Cosmos is among the great works of popular apologetics that most Protestants have never even heard of. It is a fictional handbook that bills itself as "The Last Self-Help Book."

I know many theologically Reformed friends who have a strong appreciation of the writings of Walker Percy, but I know even more who seem to have never heard of him, which is a problem that (in my opinion) needs remedying. What I hope to do is explain one aspect of Percy's thinking that will hopefully cause some to take notice of his writings. Specifically I want to focus on his criticism of naturalistic materialism.

Bankrupt on Two Accounts
For Percy, modern science, with its uncompromising naturalistic materialism is bankrupt on at least two accounts:

First, naturalism cannot provide humanity with meaning or direction. Percy points out that there is something deeply and unavoidably sick about humanity, and we can see it all around us. Yet the current scientific age is more lost than any age ever has been. Naturalism has taken the wheel, and yet all that naturalism can do is point out indicatives about what is observable. It can speak nothing to man's deepest needs beyond survival and physical comfort. In materialistic terms there is no such thing as a consistent "ought" statement regarding humanity's ultimate direction, essence, destiny, or purpose. "You live in a deranged age - more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing" (Lost in the Cosmos). If Percy were alive today, he would probably point to the increasing normality of transgenderism as one symptom of this lostness and confusion.

A purely naturalistic approach cannot with any consistency help man in his lostness--and yet for so many (especially in popular culture and academia) this has become the only option of seeking help.

Percy's second reason why naturalistic materialism is bankrupt is that it regards human beings as an exclusively material organism while expecting it to somehow, and in some sense, transcend said nature. He must be both animal and angel, simultaneously amoral and moral. The naturalistic materialistic age we live in expects homosapiens to see themselves as animals, while transcending that very nature. This transcendence is an unavoidably human need. Unfortunately, naturalism breaks man into constituent parts (angel and beast) but cannot account for a whole man nor harmoniously bring the parts together.

Unhappy People in Comfortable Places
Much of Percy's fiction depicts a confrontation between the comforts science has provided and mankind's inescapable unease in spite of it all. Percy helpfully exposes this unease near the beginning of Lost in the Cosmos:

Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments? Why did Mother Teresa think that affluent Westerners often seemed poorer than the Calcutta poor, the poorest of the poor? The paradox comes to pass because the impoverishments and enrichments of a self in a world are not necessarily the same as the impoverishments and enrichments of an organism in an environment.

Percy's answer to this very real dilemma, informed by his Christian worldview, is that man is a self, not an organism. He is a person, not a mere thing. Just because you input the right information or fulfill desires does not mean that a human being will respond appropriately. As Percy says, science has got man all wrong but due to self-imposed limitations it also cannot do any better. "The organism is needy or not needy accordingly as needs are satisfied or not satisfied by its environment" (Lost in the Cosmos). Now that man's needs are being met by science and commerce, why isn't he at rest and contented? Why are suicide rates so high in the most affluent areas of the world?

Percy's complaint against naturalism is expressive of C.S. Lewis' own insight (though in a slightly different context) when Lewis noted: "In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful" (The Abolition of Man). Naturalism has robbed humanity of the very thing God has given to ground human fulfillment and meaning. We want meaning, but now must find it without transcendence (a tall order indeed)!

It's as much a mistake for man to think of himself in distant, abstract, purely transcendent terms (Percy calls this tendency "angelism") as it is to think of man in animal terms. In his book Love in the Ruins, Percy's protagonist creates a device that heals mankind of his split problem of angelism and animalism. Speaking of his ability to heal this problem the main character says the following:

For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man...Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher.

There must be a balance between transcendence and immanence. "...the self can be as desperately stranded in the transcendence of theory as in the immanence of consumption" (Lost in the Cosmos). To overcorrect is still to miss the solution. Percy speaks in another way of this balance and need for God as the solution to this dilemma of transcendence and immanence elsewhere in Love in the Ruins: "Dear God, I can see it now, why can't I see it the other times, that is you I love in the beauty of the world and in all the lovely girls and dear good friends, and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs, nor angels."

The naturalistic approach to man cannot strike anything resembling the needed balance. There is nothing resembling transcendence in the naturalistic approach to humanity beyond an unaccountable yearning for it. The Christian understanding of man is that he was formed of the dust of the earth but that he himself was created by God as a "living soul" (Gen. 2:7). The cosmos is filled animals and angels, but Humanity is neither; rather, he is unique among all the creatures of the universe--the fleshly bearer of God's image.

Percy's suggestion, of course, is that the Christian understanding of humanity is the answer to this particular dilemma. Humanity's true state, as revealed in Scripture, strikes the balance of transcendence and immanence. The materialistic solution is incapable of meeting mankind's need for transcendence. The mystical approach, similarly, is all transcendence and no immanence. Only in the Christian approach, given to us by revelation from God, do we find the answer to balance in mankind's understanding of himself.


Adam Parker is the Assistant Editor of Reformation 21. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Mdiv.) in Jackson, MS, where he lives with his wife and four children. He is currently looking for a call in the Presbyterian Church in America.
Love is the end (telos) of the apostles' teaching and the first apology for the faith (1 Tim. 1:5). Without love even the most celebrated preacher or apologist is just a noisy gong or clanging cymbal; by love even the least gifted believer can adorn the gospel, shame Christ's opponents, and silence the church's slanderers (1 Cor. 13:1; Tit. 2). There are other ways to shame opponents and silence slanderers than by love, of course, but no other way adorns the gospel and demonstrates the present reality of saving grace while doing so--or demands much self-denial from the would-be apologist.

It's this last bit I'm most interested in here: a peculiar sort of self-denial that love demands of apologists of the faith, which we are all called to be (1 Pet. 3:15). What does love demand of us, for example, when our brother or sister does or says something socially embarrassing or politically impolite or completely uncool in the company we keep or aspire to keep?

Harsh and scathing reactions occasionally encountered on the Christian blogosphere show just how ready we are to throw brothers and sisters who happen to embarrass or disagree with us under the first bus we meet. Love never throws anyone under a bus, last of all a brother or sister in Christ. Seems like that should go without saying and yet it seems like that sometimes needs to be said.

The weird temptation is to think that stiff-arming the embarrassing brother or sister is apologetically expedient. It never is. It may temporarily spare us, in a selfish way, some part of the unpleasantness of being too closely associated with a sister's awkward act or a brother's distasteful statement. Whatever apologetic gain we think we derive from deriding our fellow believer is destroyed through our failure to embrace and love that brother or sister as Christ does. In the end, when we behave this way, we come off more like asinine teens too cool to bear their parents' presence than people who believe the gospel or know God's grace.

But what if those parents are not just insufficiently sophisticated but say and do certain despicable things? What if, for example, they're obliviously racist or what if they are not so obliviously so? Is it then permissible or apologetically expedient to throw them under the nearest bus? (I'm only asking about fellow believers, not those outside the church.)

No doubt, the children must stop eating their parents' sour grapes if they don't want their teeth set on edge (Ezek. 18; cf. Ex 20:5-6). To that end, we must recognize and name the sinful, harmful, and offensive ways of our spiritual parents and break with whatever witness-destroying pattern of life and thought we find coursing through "our history." This is clearly one of several things the overture on civil rights remembrance at the 2015 PCA General Assembly was calling the church to do.

Even as we break with the sinful ways of our spiritual predecessors, however, we must honor them and own them as our parents in the faith along with everything that association entails--the wonderful and the dreadful--accepting the responsibility of rightly disposing of every inherited effect. It's precisely because we are their heirs that we must break with them on this matter and it's precisely as their children that in doing so--doing the right thing, that is--we honor them. The very possibility of doing the right thing, in other words, begins with owning our solidarity with these brothers and sisters in Christ who, like all the redeemed who have ever lived, left us a mixed and conflicted legacy.

Christian solidarity is something love demands of every apologist who attempts to deal with the sins of those who preceded us and is why those who follow us will have to deal with ours too one day. Love never asks of a brother or sister or father or mother in the faith, "What do I have to do with them?" or "What business of mine is their sin?" Jesus made our sin his business, freely associating with and embracing his sinful people, and he is not ashamed to call the despicable likes of me his brother (Heb. 2:11, cf. 11:16). That's what love does: despising the shame, love denies itself and bears and endures all things; and we adorn the gospel and begin to acquire apologetic credibility only insofar as we do the same.

The question of religious or spiritual unity between Christians and Muslims has come up in recent days, largely in response to political debate over the danger of admitting Muslims into our country.  On one extreme was the purported statement by Liberty University President Jerry Fallwell, Jr. that Christians should carry guns so as to kill Muslims.  In response, Wheaton College students wrote of Christians' obligation to pursue unity and solidarity with Muslims based on our shared human dignity.  Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor at Wheaton, , has gone further by donning a Muslim headscarf and declaring not only her human solidarity but her theological solidarity with Muslims.  She validated the proposition that "Muslims and Christians worship the same God."  Reacting to this statement, Wheaton College has suspended Hawkins pending an inquiry into her violation of the college's doctrinal statement.  Wheaton should be commended for acting clearly but also deliberately and fairly in this matter.

There are various issues in this debate that Christians should carefully consider and on which we may legitimately differ.  But whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God is not one of them.  Let me offer three reasons why Christians must steadfastly declare that we do not worship the same God that Muslims do:

1.       The Christian Doctrine of the Trinity.  The Bible proclaims that there is one God in three distinct persons.  Jesus therefore instituted baptism "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt. 28:19).  Muslims vehemently deny and condemn this teaching, seeing it as a fatal compromise of its central tenet of monotheism.  This means that Islam denies the deity of Jesus Christ, saying, "the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God" (Qur'an, sura 4).  This means that Muslims profess belief in a God who is fundamentally different from the God of the Bible in his very nature. 

2.       God Revealed in Christ vs. Mohammed.  In her statement of solidarity with Muslims, Dr. Hawkins stated that Christians and Muslims are both "People of the Book."  The question is, of course, which book?  While Islam shows a certain measure of respect to the Old Testament, it holds that God's chief revelation came through Mohammed, a man of considerable violence.  Christians believe in a God whose chief revelation is through Jesus Christ, God's Son and the world's only Savior, as he is presented by the prophets and apostles in the Bible.  To put it mildly, there is a fundamental difference between those who look to Mohammed versus to Jesus for their belief in God. 

3.       The God of Grace.  The God of Islam shows grace only to those who merit his approval by faith and good works.  The Christian God distinguishes his grace by bestowing it upon the unworthy and defiled.  Paul's teaching that "God justifies the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5) and through Christ's death showed "his love for us while we were still sinners" (Rom. 5:8), is fundamentally at odds with the Muslim belief concerning God.  So while Muslims and Christians both use the terminology of grace, Islam denies the grace of God on which Christians rely for their salvation.

However laudible it may be for Christians to express kindness and human solidarity with members of other religions, the one thing we must never do is deny our faith in the Triune God who is revealed through Jesus Christ, God's Son, who alone died to free us from our sins.  In denying the exclusivity of our faith, apart from all other religions, Christians are not exhibiting the love of Jesus.  At the very heart of our message to the world we must always affirm - all the more so during the Christmas season - that Jesus alone is Savior and Lord.  As John declared, "In him was life, and that life was the light of men" (Jn. 1:4).

Several years ago, while on vacation, I bought a quirky little book by the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville entitled The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Though I knew no work quite like it, the idea the author developed, that atheists can and somehow must be spiritual too, was not new. Another French philosopher and atheologian named Comte--Auguste Comte (1798-1857), father of positivism and sociology--had long ago founded the Religion of Humanity. This alternative faith, or perhaps faith alternative, was intended to supply the social benefits of traditional religion in the positivist utopian societies of tomorrow.

Tomorrow has apparently arrived, minus the utopian bit.

I dropped by my local big-box bookstore here in the heart of America's Bible belt to find a book on how to help cats get along with each other. While there, I stumbled across the end cap of recommended titles from the science and mathematics section. Among the offerings were Sam Harris's Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion and Edward O. Wilson's The Meaning of Human Existence. Both develop a similar idea, that atheists like them who believe God, free will, and the soul are illusions can be just as spiritual as those much-despised religious nuts they seldom tire of dismissing but apparently can't help imitating.

Speaking of religious nuts--specifically the ones who argue America was founded as a Christian nation--well, oddly enough, the "science and mathematics" end cap offered a counterpoint to that perspective too: Matthew Stewart's Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. Stewart argues America was founded by people trying to liberate us from the tyranny of George III and God above. That he's at least partly right is more than some evangelicals are prepared to admit, but the curious thing to me is how important some people on both sides of the debate think it is to make their case.

But perhaps the most telling title of the lot was The Mathematics Devotional assembled by Clifford A. Pickover. It offers a devotion a day for a year, each one spread over a single glossy page. The top half of the page is a psychedelic picture of some sort (usually a fractal), equally suitable for mathematical meditating or dropping acid. Beneath the picture, birthdays of celebrated mathematicians are listed like feast days and followed by a center-justified quote of mathematical interest, served up for the inspiration and enlightenment of the religiously devoted.

Whatever spirituality these theorists conjure to satisfy their cultic fetish, the strange spirit of Comte is lurking in the shadows, complete with there own dogmas, grounding myths, and alternative canon of saints and devotional calendar to enhance spiritual formation.

Wisdom surely mocks these attempts at a godless, sinless, graceless, and soulless spirituality. The very need of their advocates to do something to satisfy their impulse to worship and find some sort of transcendent meaning to life, while refusing to direct their awe Godward with gratitude, betrays them. They sense the universe is more than matter and we are more than biology and the whole cosmos points beyond itself. They have a profound and justly stirred sense of awe, but fall short of referring it to the most awesome of all, settling instead for meditating on artificially-colored photos of fractals and praising the puny genius of creatures who, for all their brilliance, get it wrong more often than right.

That idolatry, and what it does to us, is the testimony of that end cap to our stubborn, divine-image-bearing humanity. Ironically, it vindicates the gospel as Paul unpacked it in Romans and Calvin in the Institutes. Following their lead, Reformed theologians have long predicted that naturalism and secular thought in general would fail us, leading to desperately spun spiritualities and a re-mystification of nature, while most atheologians predicted just the opposite.

2014 may mark the dawn of Comte's tomorrow, but the day we are waking to is just what Reformed thinkers expected it to be. Don't be troubled: keep on believing; and keep on preaching Christ till that far better day breaks.
The primary apologetic value of the efficacy of God's word is obvious: the gospel is the power of God to save everyone who believes and the instrument the Spirit ordinarily uses to bring people to faith and keep and grow them in it. The implication for apologetic method is just as obvious: preach Christ, clearing out whatever bramble obscures a fuller and richer view of of him as you can.

I suppose if it is possible to "preach Christ from envy and rivalry" (Phil 1:15), it is also possible to do so without empathy. But, we are called to preach Christ "out of love," and love takes the questions people raise seriously, even when offered in the form of objections. And, as we have no doubt learned through wrestling with many of these same issues ourselves, the gospel constantly proves itself to be the best answer we have to each question we face. So, every question of this kind, properly considered in a spiritually realistic, empathetic, and intellectually serious way, is an occasion--invitation, really--to further preach Christ.

I say the gospel is the "best answer" because we do not always have the answer we or our neighbors may at first demand. Sometimes we even ask questions impossible for anyone to answer. But, in the gospel, we always have an answer sufficient for faith and life--an answer able to humble, silent, quiet, convert, correct, comfort, encourage, edify, and keep us. All of this belongs to the power of the gospel and is the primary apologetic value of the efficacy of God's word.

The power of God's word to accomplish these things, especially to bring people to faith and keep them in it, is also apologetically valuable in at least two secondary ways. This is an ancient point and here's how Origen, arguing "that the Scriptures are divinely inspired," makes it in De Principiis (written sometime prior to 225):
We may see . . . how that religion itself grew up in a short time, making progress by the punishment and death of its worshippers, by the plundering of their goods, and by the tortures of every kind which they endured; and this result is the more surprising, that even the teachers of it themselves neither were men of skill, nor very numerous; and yet these words are preached throughout the whole world, so that Greeks and Barbarians, wise and foolish, adopt the doctrines of the Christian religion (4.1.2).

The power of the gospel demonstrated in its fruitful advance among all kinds of people throughout the world, not just in the face of but through the means of the sometimes intense suffering of those who believe and the unskilled labors of a relatively few teachers, is astonishing. To Origen's mind, this is a very compelling apology for the faith.
It is no doubtful inference, that it is not by human power or might that the words of Jesus Christ come to prevail with all faith and power over the understandings and souls of all men. For, that these results were both predicted by Him, and established by divine answers proceeding from Him, is clear from His own words (4.1.2).

He then visits several places where Jesus taught that the gospel would go out and bear fruit throughout the world and that his disciples would suffer for their faith, before concluding that,
If these sayings, indeed, had been so uttered by Him, and yet if these predictions had not been fulfilled, they might perhaps appear to be untrue, and not to possess any authority. But now, when His declarations do pass into fulfillment, seeing they were predicted with such power and authority, it is most clearly shown to be true that He, when He was made man, delivered to men the precepts of salvation (4.1.2).

Origen's argument from the observed efficacy of the word of God, evident in the astonishing results of its preaching, argues to two entangled but distinct conclusions: (1) that the gospel is true and (2) that it possesses divine authority.

First, he argues that those results strongly support the truth of what Jesus taught since he predicted precisely what has come to pass. This can be understood somewhat narrowly, along the lines of prophet verification laid out in Deut 17:15-22, where a supposed spokesman for God would be tested by whether predictive words came to pass. Jesus passes this test; now we must pay close attention to everything he says.

It can also be understood in a broader sense, however. Those predictions speak more generally to the power of God's word to produce various kinds of effects. Predictions can be understood as singling out specific results to fix our attention not just on those specific outcomes but on the general efficacy of God's word which is evident all around us in the astonishing results it consistently produces. This is what Luther had in view when he spoke of drinking beer while God's word accomplished the Reformation.

I think if I could ask Origen whether he meant us to take his argument in the narrow or broad sense he would simply answer "Yes," meaning in both senses while implying the distinction was not an issue for him. Fair enough. But those who want to avoid the appearance of playing the dispensational parlor game of matching every cable news alert with some supposed predictive prophecy can still make good apologetic use out of the broader expectations Scripture clearly establishes. Besides, we have an even longer history of the global spread and saving power of the gospel to observe with perhaps even more astonishing results than Origen did. Here, the history of evangelical missions becomes a potent apology by way of the clear biblical expectation that the gospel is powerful to save and will ordinarily bear fruit everywhere it is preached.

According to Origen, however, if Jesus' message is not true then it could not possibly possess any authority, much less divine authority. And just because a word is true does not mean it has divine authority. So, the second conclusion he draws from the evident power of the word is that these astonishing results also demonstrate the divine authority of that word. Thus we have a second apology from the evident efficacy of God's word: not only is it true, but it has the ability to bring to pass or establish whatever it declares and foretells, up to everything God has appointed it to achieve in the world. Only a word spoken with divine authority has that kind of power over reality.

William Evans and the Days of Creation

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Prof. William Evans of Erskine College has taken on Al Mohler on the days of creation, among other things. Steve Hays at Triablogue has offered a thorough response here

HT: The Aquila Report

Trueman Debate Video

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Since Trueman's assent to stardom as Augustine redivivus, the requests for copies of the debate have almost crashed our server. Ok, so maybe that's a bit of an embellishment, but either way you can watch the debate here:

Last Call for Questions

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First, thanks to all of our readers for the excellent questions submitted so far! There's still time to email more questions to r21@alliancenet.org

Beginning next month, Dr. Oliphint will post article-length replies to your questions. Thank you again!

Call For Questions

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We here at reformation21 pride ourselves on customer service (for examples, look no further than our (failed?) attempts at toning down Levy and posting doctored pics of Trueman). Pursuant to that end, we are calling for your questions for our resident apologetics expert Dr. Oliphint about perplexing questions of the Christian faith.

During the month of April, email your questions to r21@alliancenet.org. We will select the top questions and Dr. Oliphint will begin answering them next month. The rules are simple: questions must be asked respectfully and you may only submit one. Other than that, ask away!

Going Down? Dawkins, Doubters and Debauchery

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Editors' note: A summary of the incident referred to by Dr. Oliphint can be found here.

Richard Dawkins, who is arguably the (non-existent) god of all things atheist, recently found himself on the wrong end of a verbal baseball bat. The story itself drips with so much irony that it's impossible not to get soaked while reading it. To summarize: at a conference of skeptics, one of the lead "dubietants" found herself being propositioned on an elevator at 4 a.m. As is our (post)modern custom, the first thing one does when such traumas occur is blog about it.

The blog, however, didn't meet with universal sympatico. Particularly, it failed to garner the emotional empathy of Dawkins. In a comment on the "skepti-sleeze" incident, Dawkins used the Supreme Skeptic's blog complaint to attempt a taxonomic tirade of world-wide tragedies. Given the mutilation of Muslim women, commented Dawkins, a mere proposition on an elevator at 4 a.m. seems a relatively meaningless and petty complaint.

But Dawkins bit off more skepticism with such comments than his atheist stomach could digest. Even after an apology followed by an apology to the skeptics, he was ill-prepared for the wrath that the rationalist regime rained down on Dawkins. The vitriol was relentless, and Dawkins found his own god-like status in serious question. He simply could not understand how his prioritizing of evil deeds could have caused so much caustic consternation. Of particular interest to me was the article's concluding comment on the Skeptics vs. Dawkins discussion: "That's skeptics." said one writer, "Rational about everything except themselves, self-preservation, and manners."

These skeptics pride themselves on their commitment to rationality and evidence-based reasoning. However, what ought to be perfectly clear in this kerfuffle is that "being rational" is insufficient to deal with things like personal offenses, human preservation, and any statement or belief with an "ought" implied in it. More specifically, "being rational" provides no help or information to someone who is inappropriately propositioned in an elevator. The woman who was propositioned, and who, on her blog, names herself the "Skepchick," assumed that the mere mention of her plight on her blog would rally the rationalist troops with appropriate, rationalist responses. But Dawkins dared to compare the Skepchick's scare with Muslim mutilation and then to imply an (arbitrary) equation of moral equivalence. What Dawkins discovered is that such equations don't compute for the Skepchick and her supporters. How can it be, we could ask, that so many committed to nothing more than being rational and evidential find themselves in such turmoil?

This might be a good place to introduce a sometimes useful apologetic tactic. The use of so-called ad hominem (literally, "to the man") arguments are generally considered to be fallacious. There is no question that such arguments can be fallacious, but there is also no question that logical fallacies are not fallacious in every case. An ad hominem argument, when used in a fallacious way, is an attack on a person's personal character rather than a response to that person's argument. It is, in sum, character assassination. In a charged political atmosphere like the one we in the USA are currently enduring, such arguments are in abundance.

An ad hominem argument that is not fallacious is one in which a person's position is challenged based on what that person himself claims. It is an ad hominem argument because it goes to the challenger's own beliefs; it seeks to question the consistency of what someone believes, argues or maintains in light of other beliefs or arguments that one claims to hold.

So, we could ask, what is it about Dawkins' response that violated the rational or the evidential foundation of the skeptics? Dawkins tried to make the point that the Muslim mutilation of women is a level of evil with which a 4 a.m. request to have coffee on an elevator can hardly compare. Is that an irrational argument? If it is, then the Skepchick might have provided the specific law(s) of reasoning that Dawkins violated. Does it violate a commitment to evidentialism? If so, then it would have been useful to spell out just how evidential principles were transgressed in Dawkins' argument.

Of course, the fact of the matter is that the fact of the matter transcends the rational and the evidential. There is something at work in Dawkins' argument and in the Skepchick's response that goes beyond their basic commitments. The Skepchick (likely unconsciously) realized this point and so, predictably, attributed Dawkins' insensitivity to those things which are beyond his control, and which, at least according to her, motivate everything he says and does; she located the obtuse character of the argument in Dawkins' gender, race and age. The ad hominem question to ask here is just what it is about gender, race and age that violate rationality or evidential reasoning.

No legitimate response will be forthcoming from such a question because none could be. One will search the plethora of logic textbooks in vain if what is hoped for is the discovery of a rational law that would vindicate the Skepchick and her supporters. She had to move beyond her own worldview in order to lodge her lament against Dawkins. She was, consciously or not, depending on principles that did not comport with her supposed basic notions of the rational and the evidential.

There are, then, deep and inviolable forces at work in this debate, forces that go way beyond rationality and evidence. For Dawkins, there is the obvious scale of evil -- what is done to Muslim women is more evil that what was done to the Skepchick. For the Skepchick, there is a code of morality that must be taken with all seriousness when it is she who is violated. So, as the article says, there really does seem to be no common rational or evidential commitment between Dawkins and the Skepchick when it comes to their own personal lives, the way in which they ought to act, and what constitutes acceptable behavior between people.

This is inevitable. As we have said in previous articles, anyone who determines to base his life on something other than the Lordship of Christ, and all that His Lordship entails, will discover that whatever foundation he thinks is holding him up is actually, even if sometimes slowly or imperceptibly, crumbling to dust underneath him. Thus, the ad hominem argument. The supposed basic foundation they have chosen cannot bear the weight of real life in God's world, as God's creatures. It is utterly impotent and so cannot begin to accomplish the task it has been assigned.

The article is useful in that it points out, in a real-life, tangible way, just what it means when we say that atheists (skeptics included) cannot, on the basis of their own worldview, make a credible judgment on moral issues. Dawkins' argument may make some sense; it certainly seems to be true that the mutilation of women is more serious than a man asking a woman to have coffee, even if the request came at 4 a.m. in an elevator. But in order to make that evaluation, there must also be a cogent understanding of just what and who people are (i.e., image of God), and just why and how it is that such things constitute real, and not just subjective, evil (i.e., because God, as the only and ultimate good, determines what things are evil and what are not). The Skepchick was formally correct in pointing to the unalterable and involuntary aspects of Dawkins' character. But it was not his gender, race or age that motivated his assessment. Rather, contrary to his own announced commitments, Dawkins could only set out the priority of evils he attempted because he knows, deep down, that people are more than rational laws and material composites. They have characteristics that transcend their thinking and their constitution; they are image of God.

Dawkins wouldn't put it that way, of course. He could not do so without a healthy commitment to repent of all that he has stood for. But it is just that repentance, and that alone, that can resolve the tension between Dawkins and the Skepchick. It is, to put it rather bluntly, only repentance that will give to both Dawkins and the Skepchick what they so desperately want -- a cogent and consistent way to understand "themselves, self-preservation, and manners." The solution to the Skepti-Sleeze incident, then, as in all other problems, is to turn to Christ, to set Him apart as Lord. As a matter of fact, nothing could be more rational than that.

A Culpable Case of Amnesia

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Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15).

We have been thinking together, in previous posts, about the implications of Peter's command in 1 Peter 3:15. We have seen, first of all, that there is a command. The command is to believe, acknowledge, affirm in our hearts what is actually the case - that is, that Jesus Christ is Lord. In other words, the command is to see the world, all of reality, for what it actually is.

This is no small command, and it requires a lifetime of day to day concentration, meditation, and application. All of the various experiences, tragedies, joys, routines, and challenges that come our way are to be filtered, sooner rather than later, through the golden grid of Christ's Lordship. Part of our sanctification includes seeing what takes place in, to, for and against us as included in the sovereign reign of our faithful Savior, who is the Lord. We may stumble and fall as we progress in holiness, but as in medicine, so also in Christianity -- this is a practice. For the Christian, practice makes perfect, but that perfection awaits the consummation.

Once we have in place the practice of setting Christ apart in our hearts as Lord, we are then in a position where we might do apologetics, or as Peter puts it, "make a defense to everyone who asks." It is the Lordship of Christ, in other words, that explains Christianity. It is that Lordship that provides for us an "account," a "reason,"  the "logic" (the Greek word is logos) for the hope that we have. And it is that Lordship that alone is able to give us true hope.

This means that Christianity has a rationale, it has a reason. It means that there are explanations that we can and should provide as to why we believe what we do. If that is true, then Christianity is, by definition, not a blind faith. It is not something that is opposed to, or without, reason and knowledge, or something that can only be communicated by way of "experience." It requires faith to understand it, but that in no way means that the faith required is in any way a blind faith.
     
It is also worth considering that any other position, any attempt to live in God's world, as God's image, while rejecting the true God will inevitably lead one to seek and supply a false rationale, an illegitimate reason, an irrational "logic," for one's life. To pick up on our discussion in the last post, if it is the case that anyone opposing Christianity, by necessity, lives in an illusory "world" of their own making, that world will include an illusory rationale for such. It is a part of being God's image that people seek and supply some kind of explanation, some reason, for their lives. In Adam, however, we always get it wrong.

In the movie, Memento (2001), Leonard Shelby wants to avenge the murder of his wife. The problem, however, is that Shelby has contracted a severe form of amnesia; he can only recollect events immediately present to him. He has no memory of the past. Masterfully, the movie begins at the end. The audience, without warning, is placed within the context of Shelby's amnesia, as he works backwards, using notes and other devices, to try to find out just exactly what happened to him and to his wife, and why.

As each mini-segment of Shelby's own experience concludes, it fades from memory just as quickly as another segment begins. In order to make sense of the end, which is where the audience, and Shelby, begin, we have to string together, working backwards, each of the mini-segments of Shelby's life, until we reach the end of the movie, which is really the beginning of Shelby's problems.

If this sounds confusing, it is supposed to. Perhaps no other movie has so successfully placed the audience into the mind of its main character. And because the movie depicts the experiences of anxiety coupled with amnesia, the audience is brought into the handicaps of the main character. The chaos and confusion of his life is experienced by the audience as well. So successful is the movie in creating this experience, it is one of a very few movies that likely needs to be seen more than once.

Shelby's problem was that he was unable to connect his immediate experiences to anything else in his life. Each experience remained an isolated event, without context, cause or connection, and so, without interpretation or explanation. Shelby was passionately searching for a reason for what had happened to him. He needed a way to bring all of his disparate experiences together.

In the movie, there is a beginning point of Shelby's tragedy, and an end. What is most striking about the movie, however, is that both the beginning and the end play a minimal role in Shelby's experience. Rather, what is highlighted in the movie is the fact that Shelby's disjointed and seemingly disconnected experiences are all in desperate need of one primary thing - a rationale. The reason things were happening the way they were was the goal of Shelby's pursuit. He, like the audience, was desperately trying to make sense of each of his individual experiences.

In that way, Memento is a counter-cultural movie. It goes against the naïve notion that our experiences are meaningful just by virtue of what they are. It points to the necessity of a reason for our experiences - a "why" and "wherefore" - if anything that happens "in the middle" is to be of any significance. Experiences cannot provide their own fulfillment, or their own explanation. Experiences are not themselves a rationale.

In his book, God is not Great, the late Christopher Hitchens writes of the uselessness, even the poison, of religion (it should be noted that Hitchens is an equal opportunity despiser; all religions are poison, not just Christianity). In that book, he notes:
Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a world-view, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard - or try to turn back - the measurable advances that we have made.
There is much here, and in the book, however eloquent, with which we disagree. (The title itself is offensive in excelsis.) What we seem to have in this quotation, though, is a confusion with respect to the meaning of the word "explanation." Hitchens thinks that, due to scientific advances, we are now able to explain such things as the origin of our species or the meaning of our lives, by way of the microscope and telescope. He thinks, because of these (and presumably other) inventions, religion has nothing really important left to say. Thus, religion has been neutered; it is no longer needed now that science and reason have progressed to their current evolutionary levels.

But what could Hitchens mean here by "explain"? Whatever he means, he seems to think the telescope and microscope have sufficiently replaced religion in their power of "explanation." He must think, therefore, that by looking at matters in more detail (microscope) or from a wider perspective (telescope), those matters will be adequately accounted for.

But this seems to be confused, even wrong-headed. Haven't our advances in science raised more questions than they have answered? Hasn't our exploration of the universe presented us with quandaries that seem to be irresolvable? Hitchens seems to think, to use an analogy, that one can "explain" the meaning of a word by more and more analysis of each of its letters. Or, he seems to imply that one can "explain" the meaning of life by learning more and more of the physical size and place of planet Earth in the cosmic expanse we call the universe. But this is, at best, misguided.

The question could be asked, to return to our amnesiac in Memento, just how helpful the "telescope and microscope" might have been for Shelby as he sought to fit the pieces of his life together in order to find his wife's murderer. Why didn't Shelby, instead of attempting to "connect the dots" of his various life experiences, just go down to the local rental store and rent a telescope and microscope?

The answer is obvious in the asking. All that a telescope and microscope could have done for Shelby would be to describe, in more detail perhaps, his disparate and disconnected individual experiences. They could never have given Shelby the explanation that he needed in order to make sense of those experiences. Telescopes and microscopes provide no rationale.

So it is with us. Even without amnesia, it is impossible to "connect the dots" of our life experiences without access to something that transcends them. If all we have are the experiences themselves, no amount of telescopic or microscopic analysis will give us anything more than "more of the same." Is there anything that can tell us, not simply what our experiences are, but rather what they mean, or why they are what they are?

Peter's point is that only Christ and His Lordship will do that. Sadly, apart from that, all that's left are telescopes, microscopes and a culpable case of severe amnesia.


Choosing to Walk in a Fog

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There are a multitude of ways that one can defend the Christian faith. My last post was meant to highlight one way, a way that has enormous cultural, political, and social implications. It has those implications because it is fundamentally gospel-centered and gospel driven; its focus is not on the cultural, political or social. Its focus is on the redemption that is ours in Christ alone. If that focus is maintained, then the effects downstream will be seen and felt, in a variety of ways and contexts.

As we saw last time, however, it is the clear and steadfast conviction that Christ, and Christ alone, is Lord that motivates such a defense. I well remember in my nascent years as a Christian the debates that were raging over whether we receive Christ as Savior only when we are converted, or whether we receive him as Lord as well. With all due respect to those who endured such debates, they seem silly to me now and are not really worthy of the time and energy they consumed back then.

Peter's point, though (in 1 Peter 3:15), is a bit different from that. In commanding us to set Christ apart as Lord, his point is not whether one has received Christ as Savior, or as Savior and Lord, not at all. Peter's point is that, if one is to be adequately prepared to give an answer for one's Christian faith, the Lordship of Christ must be a solid and unwavering commitment of one's heart.

But why? Again, the answer is as simple as it is profound - because that is what He is. The specific command that Peter gives can be stated more generally. We are to think about, and live in, the world according to what it really is, and not according to how it might at times appear to us. More on this in a minute. As Peter writes to these persecuted and scattered Christians, he recognizes that it must surely be one of their paramount temptations to begin to interpret their circumstances in such a way that Christ is not Lord. It may begin, in the midst of their suffering, to look like someone else is in charge. After all, if Christ were Lord, how could these things be happening?

As a matter of fact, the Lordship of Christ explains why "these things are happening." The Lordship of Christ is the conclusion to His own suffering and humiliation. It is because He was obedient, even to death on a cross, that He has been given the name that is above every name. It is because He suffered that every knee will bow and tongue confess that He is Lord. The road to His exaltation was paved with blood, sweat and tears. If we are to be exalted with Him on that last day, ours will be so paved as well. With all of the attendant mysteries surrounding the suffering of Job, two words from God himself -- "My servant" (Job 1:8, 2:3) -- initiate our understanding of what Job was called to endure. As Job was called to be a suffering servant, Christ was the quintessential Suffering Servant (Is. 53). Those who know their Redeemer lives (Job 19:25), who are called to be united to Him, will be suffering servants with Him.

The Lordship of Christ is basic to our defense of Christianity. Christ now reigns. He is Lord. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. That authority is the prerequisite to the command to make disciples. Without that authority, baptism and disciple-making in and for the church are meaningless. All things have been placed under His feet and Christ has been given as head over all things to the church (Eph. 1:22). The process of history is the process of making Christ's enemies a footstool for His feet. That footstool is being built because He is Lord. Just like Jesus' earthly father, His heavenly Father is a carpenter. He's building a footstool for His Son (see, for example, Acts 2:35, Heb. 1:13, 10:13).

So, wherever you go, to whomever you speak, Christ is Lord there, and He is Lord over that person. Since He is Lord, His truth is truth in every place, and for every person. The same Christ who rules over you, rules over those who oppose Him. The fact that someone has not set Christ apart as Lord in his heart in no way detracts from or undermines the central point that He is Lord. At least two implications of this truth are important to remember.

The first implication is that truth is not relative. Most Christians agree with that point, even if they don't quite understand it. I remember years ago reading Alan Bloom's bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom began that book by noting what was patently obvious then and what is even more pronounced today. He said that there was one cardinal affirmation that every college student believed - "Truth is relative." He went on to say that it was such a part of the fabric of our culture and our way of thinking that it was thought to need no argument; to demand an argument would be to misunderstand the status of that truth. The bedrock conviction that truth is relative, Bloom asserted, was as ingrained in the American psyche as baseball and apple pie; it was the air that we breathed."Truth is relative" -- ironically, that proposition alone seemed to be universally affirmed (thus was, itself, not relative).

The sinful power of self-deception cannot be underestimated in this regard. The power of sin in us makes us adept anosognosiacs (look it up). In our sins, we have an uncanny ability to fashion a world that has all the substance of an ethereal fog. If anything is patently obvious on the face of it, it is that truth cannot be relative. The notion itself betrays a decided lack of self-awareness and a stubborn blindness to the "big picture." At the micro and the macro levels, we live and move and have our being in the God who alone is truth. Anyone who wants to argue that truth is relative betrays, by that argument, that it cannot be. Anyone who wants to hold that truth is relative, but pretends apathy about the matter, and thus eschews argument, is like David Hume who plays backgammon even though he knows that such an act annihilates his own philosophy. So the relativistic air that we think we breathe turns out to be a sleight of hand; it's a magician's illusion.

The point for the Christian, however, and the point to stand on in our apologetic, is that the truth of Christ's Lordship - which not only includes the fact that He now reigns, but also that He has spoken and that all owe allegiance to Him - is true for anyone and everyone. Christ is Lord even over His enemies, and over ours. And part of what this means is that the authority of Scripture, which is the verbal expression of Christ's Lordship, is authoritative even over those who reject it. The Bible is authoritative, not because we accept it as such, but because it is the Word of the risen Lord. It has a claim on all people. Its truth is the truth for every person in every place. Why, then, would we be reluctant to communicate that truth in our apologetics? Perhaps because we have not reckoned with the actual Lordship of Christ. Perhaps we haven't really set Him apart as Lord in our hearts.

The second implication, which we have already broached, is that we must base our defense of Christianity on reality, and reality is what God says it is. What we dare not do in our apologetic is let the enemy choose the weapon. Any enemy worth his salt will choose a weapon that fires in only one direction. But we are called to use the weapons that the Lord himself has given us. "For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds" (2 Cor. 10:4). The weapons of our warfare are divine weapons, and they have their focus in the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17).

Why choose these weapons? Because they are God's weapons, given to us by God so that we can "destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). In other words, they are the real and true weapons that God has given to us to fight the good fight. They are the weapons through which God is building His Son's footstool. They are the weapons that alone have the power to subdue the enemy. They are the weapons that alone are used for footstool construction.

There is more to be said on this point, and more will be said later. But the basic principle is this: our apologetic must proceed on the basis of reality and not on the basis of illusion. We must proceed according to what Christ the Lord has told us, not according to what our enemies have decided is "appropriate." We view our apologetic, and we proceed in it, as in the rest of life, through the 20/20 lenses of Holy Scripture. Anything less would be like choosing to walk in a fog in order to see more clearly.

T4T?

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A non-Christian friend of mine recently returned from a trip overseas. When I asked him how his trip was, he looked me in the eye and, with finger pointing and shaking in my face, steadfastly declared to me, "There is no God."  That was the first thing he wanted me to know. He knew I was a Christian, and he was anxious to give me one more reason why he was not. His reasoning was that, if there were a God, the places that he had seen on his trip would not be in the reechy and augean conditions that characterized so much of what he saw. For him, the suffering that he saw was so overwhelming that it was a sure and certain indication that God could not exist. My response to him was very simple, and it stopped the conversation (at least for a while). I simply said to him, "What makes you think that God is responsible for such things?"


The first epistle of Peter is written to a group of suffering Christians. These are Christians who have been "grieved by various trials" (1:6), they are in exile (1:17) and thus living in places that are foreign to them; they are encouraged not to be surprised when fiery trials come upon them (4:12) - note: not if fiery trials come, but when they do. The Christian perspective on suffering is in diametrical opposition to my friend's. This is not surprising; there is an antithesis between Christian and non-Christian. That antithesis is not theoretical. It applies to the way we think, the way we act and the way we view the world. In the midst of their suffering, Peter gives this command:

...sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (NASB; 1 Peter 3:15).


The command is to "sanctify Christ as Lord." In the previous verse, Peter refers to Isaiah 8:12ff., which includes a command to regard Yahweh as holy. Peter attributes the prerogatives of Yahweh to Jesus Christ. The New Testament application of Isaiah 8:12f. is that Christians, in the midst of their suffering, are to remember and recognize, in their hearts, that Jesus Christ is Lord. Instead of looking at the overwhelming suffering around them and declaring that there is no God, they are rather to declare, "Jesus is Lord." They are to "sanctify" or "set apart" the Lordship of Christ in their hearts by showing his Lordship when suffering comes. Peter then goes on to tell them (and us) that the way to sanctify Christ as Lord - the command to set Christ apart as Lord - is met as we ready ourselves for a defense of that which we believe.


If we are honest with ourselves, it may be that our mindset is more in sync with my friend's oftentimes than with Scripture. It may be that, when suffering comes, or when it threatens to overwhelm us in some way, we may think that belief in God seems foolish. How could God allow such a thing to happen? Why wouldn't he prevent this?


Last month, I had the privilege of teaching in Jakarta, Indonesia for two weeks. Indonesia has the highest Muslim population, by ratio, than any other country in the world; 86% of its population is Muslim. I have no idea what it must be like to live there from day to day, but I had a glimpse of it when I was there. It is impossible to put into words the intensity of the pressures and problems that persist in a country like this, especially if one is a Christian.


A few decades ago, Dr. Stephen Tong determined that the best response to the overwhelming suffering and pressure that is replete in Indonesia was to build a Christian church as a testimony to the truth of the gospel. So, in keeping with the law of the land, he applied for a permit to build. He waited and pleaded and waited and pleaded. As expected, his petition was either ignored or delayed - for fifteen years!


When the authorities finally agreed to let him build his church, they insisted that he could not put a cross on it. The cross is a sign of offense to Muslims; it is an affront to their religion, he was told. Dr. Tong told the authorities that he had to put a cross on the church. There was no other way, he argued, to show that this was a Christian church. Whether the authorities relented or not is unclear. What is clear is that a cross sits atop this Indonesian "megachurch," now housing a few thousand Christians on Sunday morning. After preaching to the initial hordes at 7:30 each Sunday morning, Tong moves into the Mandarin service, on a separate floor of the church, and preaches there. Meanwhile, someone is preaching on another floor at the English service.


The church building itself (see picture below), designed by Tong, is cylindrical. As one drives along near the church, visible from any side of the cylinder are carved, in bold relief and written in Latin,  one of the "Solas" of the Reformation - Sola Fide, Solus Christus - or the command to Love God and our neighbors. Tong has made sure that anyone who drives by that building will know what it is. The building itself clearly indicates that Christ alone is Lord.


On Monday thru Friday, over 400 children attend the Christian school that is housed at the church. They are preparing for the future of Christianity in Indonesia. In a Muslim culture, young people of all ages are daily learning about Christ. Not only so, but conductors from around the world reserve the Concert Hall (also designed by Tong) in the church and bring their orchestras to perform in the largest Hall in Indonesia. The Jakarta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Tong, performed on one of the weekends that I was there. The orchestra is composed of some from the church, but others from outside, and many who are Muslims. Dr. Tong conducted the orchestra through Haydn's "Summer" and "Spring," and made sure that the near-capacity audience understood that the music itself was testimony to the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord.


Dr. Tong, and a goodly number of his parishioners, have been prepared to defend their Christian faith; they are ready to give an answer. They have to be ready in a culture that is so hostile to them. They've defended their right to build a Christian church, to have a Christian school, to have a Concert Hall, a museum, a seminary... These things wouldn't happen without a defense of Christianity. They wouldn't happen unless one was convinced that Christ, not Allah, is Lord.


It is impossible for most of us in the West adequately to recognize the tremendous, almost miraculous, developments that have allowed this church to exist. In the midst of an overpowering Muslim presence and control, there stands this enormous church building. To drive by this building and read the words, "Solus Christus" which tower high above the bustle of the city is incredible beyond words.


I wondered, as I tried to take in something so foreign to me, how many Christians in the West would have the same tenacity as Tong, were they in his shoes. Would the hegemony of Islam cause confusion and fear among us? Would Western apologists, in these circumstances, try to form a syzygy with Islam and call it "Together for Theism" - T4T? Would we Westerners, like my friend, in the face of so much suffering, pressure, and persecution conclude that there is no God?


It is difficult to translate my Indonesian experience into a Western context. Whatever the context, however, Peter's admonition is the same. Our responsibility as Christians is to be prepared to give an answer to those who would ask us the reason(s) for our hope.


Perhaps the most significant point of Peter's command is the reason that he gives for it. It is as simple as it is profound: "For Christ also died for sins, once for all..." (3:18). The ironic twist that just is the transposition of the gospel is not that when we see suffering we should conclude that there is no God. Rather, it is that when we see suffering, we should remember that God himself, in the Person of his Son, did exactly that, so that suffering and sin would one day cease. Suffering is clear evidence that Christ is Lord; it is not a testimony against that truth. Dr. Tong recognized that, and defends the faith, giving testimony to Christ in the midst of enormous opposition.


The suffering that is the cross of Christ - the very thing that, on the face of it, might lead us to believe that there is no God - is, as a matter of fact, the deepest expression of his sovereign character as Lord.


Sanctify Christ as Lord, and be ready to give a reason for the great and only hope of the Christian gospel.

megachurch-outside.jpg


The End of Infidelity

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Last fall, Steve Hays of Triablogue, did an excellent article for ref21 refuting the collection of new atheist essays published under the title of The End of Christianity (ed. John Loftus).

The book-length refutation of Loftus and company is now available in PDF here. Not only is it a wealth of solid, biblical argumentation, it is also (as any reader of Triablogue can attest) full of wit. Enjoy and share!

Fast and Furious Fulmination

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Apologetics is a defense of the Christian faith; the word "apologetics" comes from a Greek word that means defense. In my last article, I mentioned that apologetics has been concerned, perhaps overly or exclusively so, to answer philosophical challenges with philosophical jargon. This emphasis has had two unwelcome consequences. It has led to a marginalizing of apologetics, such that its subject matter is reserved only for the specially-trained; apologetics is the domain of the egghead. It has also led to an over-intellectualizing such that the focus has been almost exclusively on the mind; it has little to do with matters of the heart, with the whole person. Its goal is simply to get us to believe propositions that we do not currently believe. Given these two consequences, it is not difficult to see why apologetics has had little relevance for the church. Like Mt. Ranier, it may be admired from afar, but is rarely taken on (and then only by the 'experts'), and is always cold, windy and barren at the top.

The challenges to the Christian faith, however, are much more diverse, more varied and often more subtle than those often lodged by philosophers. Current challenges to Christianity certainly include philosophical challenges, as well as things like the "new atheism," and those need to be addressed. But, perhaps more difficult, for example, because more subtle and less precise, are the challenges that come from (what a recent article called) the "apatheists," who seem currently to dominate the cultural climate. These are folks who claim they simply don't care about religion at all; their basic attitude to life is, "so what?" Their hero is Alfred E. Newman - "What? Me worry?" Why be concerned about such things as meaning, or the afterlife, or spirituality? Isn't life difficult enough without adding the difficulty of belief in something that is unseen and unprovable? Why in the world should I care about such things?

We would be kidding ourselves if we thought that attitudes like this (and this is just one example) do not challenge Christian belief -- perhaps even our own Christian belief. And wherever there is a challenge to Christianity, apologetics is meant to help address it. So, clearly, setting up base camp in the rarified air of philosophy will not do for apologetics; it must be able to address challenges from all comers and every quarter, and to respond in a way that both truthfully addresses the challenge and also offers the truth of the gospel. And this requires biblical revelation. So, why would anyone think that referencing the truth of biblical revelation in apologetics is out of bounds?

The primary reason, it seems, is that it is assumed that one can only debate or argue with someone on the basis of mutually accepted ideas. This makes some sense, of course. If I decide I want to argue that the moon is made of green cheese and my reason for believing that is that I saw it on the Oprah Winfrey Network, you would have good reason to doubt both the substance and source of my belief. You may cry foul because you refuse to accept as fact anything that is broadcast on OWN.

In discussions and debates about Christianity and its truth, however, the situation is in some significant ways quite unique. We will be discussing that uniqueness as we go along but at least one illustration of it may be helpful here. Whenever we determine to communicate the gospel to our unbelieving friends, the truth that we are communicating is decidedly not shared by those to whom we speak. Not only so, but the source of that truth (Scripture) is, by definition, rejected by them as well. 

On a practical note, this doesn't mean that we strive to communicate that truth in such a way that it is as foreign as possible to our unbelieving friends. Nor does it mean that our goal is to be as offensive and confrontational as we can possibly be. The gospel carries its own offense; it is already a fragrance of death to those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:15), no need to add our own three acres of onions to it. Part of gospel wisdom (Col. 4:5-6) is that we should desire, not simply to tell the truth, but to communicate that truth in a way that might resonate with the listener. We want them to see, not simply that the gospel is true, which it is, but that it is the only truth that will meet them where they are. So, we should try to be persuasive in our communication.

But the fact remains that our communication of the truth of the gospel recognizes that there is no admitted mutual common ground of authority, nor is the content we communicate necessarily shared by the ones to whom we speak. So on what basis do we presume to communicate this truth?

This is the all-important question, for evangelism as well as for apologetics (and for preaching as well). When I ask, "on what basis," I am not asking simply "by what authority." We communicate the gospel because God has commanded it. But when I ask "on what basis" I am asking if there is some common foundation on which we and our unbelieving friends stand in order, really and truly, to effect communication between us. If in our gospel communication we do not share the same authority, the same foundation and the same content, how do we "connect" with our interlocutor? The answer is as profound as it is simple. It is so profound, in fact, that, with respect to apologetics, it has often been almost completely overlooked and ignored. The answer is that we -- all men and every person, always and everywhere, no matter the place or position -- live, move and exist in the God of Scripture, and we know that we do. This is our foundation, it is the real authority behind our apologetics and evangelism.

When we communicate to someone that they have sinned against a holy God and thus owe him repentance, because what we say resonates with what they already know to be the case, the truth of the matter pierces their soul like a laser; it causes their "innards" to register 9 on the Richter scale. We may not be able to detect this response; it may remain on the inside. But like a deadly undercurrent, while the surface may look calm and peaceful, underneath there is fast and furious fulmination. God's truth resonates with every person because God is already, always and everywhere known, and so are his requirements (see Rom 1:18-20, 32; 2:14-15). So, the common ground between the Christian and non-Christian is not, foundationally, what we agree together to affirm, nor is it some assumed common source like the "deliverances of reason" or "laws of thinking" (though on the surface these may look the same). The common ground that we all have is that all that we have, are and know comes from the same Triune God, and we know that it does.

One of the primary things to keep in mind, therefore, in apologetics (as in evangelism) is that God has made himself known in such a way that we, all of us together, know we are his creatures, that we owe him worship, that we have offended him, that our rebellion against him is a capital offense, and that our behavior flies in the face of his holy character.
 
If this is true, would it change the way we think about a Christian defense? More importantly, would it change how we prepare ourselves to give an answer (cf.1 Peter 3:15)?

Always Ready

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Editor's Note: We are excited to welcome Dr. K. Scott Oliphint to the reformation21 blog. Dr. Oliphint is the professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is the author of numerous books, including his most recent title, God With Us (Crossway, 2011). 


One of the things I hope to do in these brief installments is to provide fodder for the mind and heart. Specifically, I hope to offer some food for thought in the area and discipline of biblical apologetics.

There are a number of ways to proffer advice in a short column like this. I could pick out an issue that bothers me and give you the benefit of my ever-increasing years of "wisdom" on how to be "against" that issue. Three interrelated problems come to mind, however, with that kind of approach. First, I'm fairly confident that the "wisdom" I think I have to offer is really nothing more than a short piece of autobiography. Even if you agree with it, it may simply be that we have mutual pet peeves and that you're glad that someone else sees it the way you do. Second, I'm even more confident that most who read this are not really all that interested in my life and problems, at least not in a way that would motivate them to read this. Third, I doubt that your understanding my own take on a particular issue is something that would help in the long run; it's not something that has any lasting value. So, in agreeing to write something here from time to time, I hope to stick to areas and issues that have a firmer grounding that my own idiosyncrasies and issues. In other words, if you come to this page to read about what I think about "x," you should probably click your "back" button, delete this page from your RSS feed and make sure this page is not bookmarked (I've now exhausted my web page vocabulary in one fell swoop).

My goal and method, then, will be to attempt to provide biblical and theological principles that are a part of, and can be applied to, a defense of Christianity. I recognize that such an approach may sound strange to some. A number of years ago a student reported to me that he had just returned from a conference entitled "Defending the Faith."  I asked him what the most significant thing about the conference was and I was surprised at his answer.  He said the thing that most caught his attention was one of the speaker's comments, which went something like this: "This year our topic is apologetics, so you really won't need to have your Bibles with you."  The comment itself, according to this student, was not meant to be humorous or flippant; it was simply a statement of fact.

Such a comment is understandable, though lamentable.  It is understandable given the way in which much, if not most, of apologetics is discussed.  For many, the context and content of apologetics has been first of all philosophical.  Much of apologetic discussions have taken place within philosophical walls, using philosophical arguments, attempting philosophical conclusions.  The language that has been used, the methods of argumentation, the topics chosen for debate, have all been molded and shaped primarily by a philosophical agenda and vocabulary.

In some ways, this makes sense.  There can be a kind of obvious overlap between apologetics and philosophy.  Because philosophy seeks to ask and answer the 'big' questions -- what is the universe like?, who am I?  how can I know anything? what is the nature of right and wrong? -- its concerns are similar to some of the main concerns of the Christian faith.  

Part of the problem, however, has been that philosophy's answers to these concerns have been, for the most part, antagonistic to Christian truth. So, in response, Christian apologists have attempted to give Christian answers to philosophical questions - answers that are often couched in terms that philosophers would use and understand.

Not only so, but some of the attacks that have been lodged against Christianity have come from philosophers. Because philosophy attempts to proceed and argue with sophisticated jargon and erudite elocution, the attacks lodged from philosophy against Christianity will take on that sophistication and erudition. In such cases, it is perfectly acceptable, perhaps even advisable, to respond on the same level. The problem has been that apologetics has become, generally speaking, an exclusively philosophical discipline.  So, it is not surprising that  this student would attend a conference on apologetics and never open his Bible.  What is needed in philosophy are strong reasoning skills, not biblical revelation (or so we're told).

But it is one thing to recognize that Christian apologetics must deal with philosophical attacks, and quite another thing to think that Christian apologetics only or primarily or supremely deals with philosophical attacks. I suspect that most Christians experience attacks on their faith that are much more mundane and banal -- the co-worker who thinks you're out of touch with all things modern, the acquaintance who thinks you odd for opposing gay marriage, the relative who quit calling your for lunch after you turned down his invitation to play golf one Sunday morning. Such things can apply sometimes enormous pressure on our faith; they can take the form of an attack. They can embarrass us, cause us to remain quiet about what we believe, make us avoid such situations altogether. At their worst, such responses to us can cause us to question our faith. What we need are biblical strongholds; we need to think about how to respond to these pressures. We need, as Scripture enjoins us, to be ready to give an answer.

But if apologetics is not meant to access the truth of biblical revelation, if it is merely a philosophical response to philosophical challenges, what use is it when other kinds of attacks come? Or, to put it another way, how can it be that we are meant to defend the truth of Christianity without that truth itself being an integral, central and controlling part of that defense? I hope we can think about that together over the next weeks and months.


Chrysostom, Christians and Critiques

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One of the things Christians are increasingly hearing from secular critics is that Christianity is not only wrong, but evil; it's false but also immoral. One of the best responses to this phenomena is a recent book by the guys over at Triablogue, entitled The Infidel Delusion. One thing the author(s) do in this book (which is a response to The Christian Delusion) is point out that Christians have been critiquing the failings of their own far longer - and far better - than unbelievers.

It is interesting that one of the things being saved by grace alone does is alert one to the fact that he is probably the triumphant failure that the Scriptures tell him he is. Yes, we can all admit Christians do some pretty terrible things. But this fact, far from showing Christianity false or immoral, only shows that the Bible's diagnosis of our condition is, in fact, correct.

Chrysostom offers characteristic insight to this condition when he writes, "`Christians damage Christ's cause more than his enemies and foes" (Thanks, Dr. Trueman, for that quote). We don't need a group of atheists to tell us what gigantic failures we are. The Bible does that for us, as all the great Christians of church history have been so keen to demonstrate.

We should therefore be the harshest critics of our own - and ourselves. But there is hope in all this: if we accept the Bible's teaching on our total depravity - acknowledging it, accepting it and not watering it down - well, then the door is open  (so to speak) for radical grace.  Which is exactly what we need - and what God provides in Christ.

I've been reading the late Robert Webber's last book, Who Gets To Narrate the World? Contending for the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals  (IVP, 2008), and came across these lines:

"When we argue [in an evidentialist] way, we overlook the inner authority of the Scripture and seek to support it with an external authority.  Truth is made dependent on something outside the authority of the Bible.  We judge the Bible by bringing it under a discipline:  reason, science, experience or some other field of study.  We must do the opposite--bring all the disciplines under the Word of God, under God's narrative from beginning to end" (87).

With this presuppositionalist foundation, he next employs a presuppositionalist methodology.  As some background, Webber's concern in the book is the external challenge to the Christian narrative, which he identifies as Radical Islam.  (He also takes on the internal challenge of a privatized faith of a Christianity overly accommodated to culture).  Now comes the presuppositional method, which occurs throughout the book and also in a nutshell on page 87.  Webber takes us over to the ground of Radical Islam, considers it, then takes it to its conclusion.  He finds it as a rather lacking narrative of the world; it breaks down.  Then Webber invites us over to the Christian narrative, to consider it, and then to take it to its conclusion. 

In the end, he offers a "wake-up call," as he writes in the introduction, concerning the external and internal challenges in our day.  He also presents a winsome portrayal of the Christian narrative, the only narrative that makes sense of the world:  His (almost last) words in the book:  "There is no narrative that begins to compare with the Christian narrative--in which God enters our suffering to deliver us from sin and death, and to deliver the world from the domain of darkness" (137).  Webber knew he was dying, he had pancreatic cancer, when he wrote this.

REF21 readers might have a bone or two to pick with the work of the late Robert Webber.  Let's just not overlook some significant comments here in his last work.