Thursday, February 28, 2008

Believing Doubt

Scoffers aren’t really open to hearing any answers, because they aren’t really asking serious questions. And as much as they like to be seen as “only being after the hard truth”, they usually are far from what the Proverbs call “searching for wisdom as for hidden treasure” – they read a lot less than people think they do, and they often uncritically parrot the objections of others rather than working through these things themselves. I think they mistake doubt for a kind of knowledge – as though being educated meant learning to deny everything. It might be what the author of 1 Tim. 6:20 meant when he talked about opposing arguments of what is falsely called knowledge”. Such is our age.

But among evangelical Christians, scoffers are a minority group. The majority group might be what the book of Proverbs dubs “the simple”. The simple confuse strong faith with the absence of doubt, resulting in a lobotomized, night-of-the-living-dead kind of brainless submission to self-proclaimed authorities. Promoting a life of faith, in other words, is tantamount to encouraging you to ignore your own experiences, swallow your questions, keep your objections to yourself and continue pretending that life really works the way your theology says it does even when it’s obvious to you that it doesn’t. This is a kind of faith which is very much like the flu – it swells the eyes shut and plugs the ears so that the only clear voice to be heard is our own: and it’s singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” While our lives are burning down, the simple cue the violins. For the simple, faith is an alternative to reality.

But this sort of faith betrays a superficial acquaintance with the Biblical story. The most cursory glance at Genesis or Kings will yield not a few tantrums, a lot of panicking and a metric ton of confusion – but very rarely do we see the kind of bland spirituality some call strong faith, the kind of faith which meets every challenge with an effortless: “As you wish, Lord. Your will be done!” Does that sound like Moses to you? Or David (or Jeremiah, or Habakkuk)? If so, it’s time to revisit some of those stories. In fact, Genesis 32 foreshadows the strange distinguishing mark of God’s people; struggle. It is because Jacob wrestled with God that the text says he is renamed “Israel”. The point here is that Christians don’t believe in a God who wants submission above all else. We believe in a God who invites us to engage Him, to bring Him our hearts, not just offer our compliance. He wants us to trust Him, a proposition that entails going to Him with our questions, not ignoring them. In short, He desires a relationship in which we can say: “I don’t see how this makes any sense at all” before we begin to search for the answers which hide like treasure. He wants us to be honest about that which is unbelievable, unreasonable, confusing, and even those things that make us angry.

Jesus was not Ned Flanders, though He’s been read that way through our contemporary evangelical lenses. There’s no doubt that He always did the will of the Father – but as God directed Him to the cross, Jesus emphatically did NOT say: “Okely-dokely”! The Gospel writers depict the Garden of Gethsemane as a place of writhing anguish. Luke displays Jesus, drenched in agony, racked with uncertainty. He knew what He had to do, but was, at that moment, faced with the indecipherable absurdity of it all. He didn’t refuse the cup He was given to drink, but He didn’t want to drink it, either. This scene isn’t what leaps to mind when we ask: “what would Jesus do”? But careful readers of Scripture have witnessed this before in the lives of men and women throughout Israel’s history. There is such a thing as believing doubt, a kind of doubt that is actually the mark of mature faith, a faith that fights for understanding. And the ironic thing is that it’s much more like the faith of Jesus than the “Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” crowd. It’s the kind of faith that hung on the trembling lips of a grieving father in Mark 9:24. Jesus proclaimed, “All things are possible to him who believes!” and he replied, “I do believe; help my unbelief!”

There’s a whole section in our Bible that’s dedicated to grappling with the hard questions about what we believe. It’s called “The Wisdom literature” – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. It questions what other parts of Scripture take for granted. Genesis 3 says that sin is the cause of all human misery. But in Psalm 73 and most of the book of Ecclesiastes the authors ask, “Why then do evil people seem to prosper and enjoy life so much?” Deuteronomy, the theological center of the Old Testament, says that living for God will generally bring blessing and disobedience will generally bring cursing – but Job isn’t so sure. In presenting these challenging questions to the theology presented in other books of the Bible wisdom literature isn’t invalidating these other traditions as wrong or contradictory. They’re inviting us to honestly struggle with a God who can’t be contained by theology or neatly harmonized with experience. The Scriptures are inviting us to take our faith seriously enough to actually care whether the things we read make sense in real life. By accepting that invitation, you will enter the world of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Wesley, Edwards, and all those who’ve learned that any belief worth having (certainly any relationship worth living and dying for) must survive the titanic struggle of life: the struggle with God Himself.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Priority of Doctrine in Christian Living?

Certainly, doctrine (defined as the work of godly teachers of the Bible) contributes much to the Christian life. But in some ways, according to Scripture, the Christian life is prior to doctrine in this sense. As Jesus told Nicodemus (“the teacher of Israel,” John 3:10), you can’t even see the kingdom of God unless you are born again (John 3:3), that is, unless you have new life from God (cf. 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). You cannot be a teacher unless God has given you new life. Through that new life, God gives you a “willingness to do his will” that enables you to know the truth of Jesus’ teaching (John 7:17). Note that here a change of life is prior to a change in intellectual orientation, a change in doctrine.

Note also how the Apostle Paul tells us to find, test, and approve the will of God in
Romans 12:1–2: by making our bodies living sacrifices, renouncing conformity to the world, being transformed by the renewal of our minds. Again, a change of life is what brings insight, doctrinal understanding. Compare in this respect 1 Corinthians 8:1–3 (where love and humility are indispensible prerequisites to knowledge); Ephesians 5:8–10 (where living as children of light leads us to find what God’s will is); Philippians 1:9–10 (where love gives insight); and Hebrews 5:11–13 (where ethical maturity prepares us to benefit from doctrinal teaching about Melchizedek).

So theology is not self-sufficient. It depends on the maturity of your Christian life, as the maturity of your Christian life depends on theology. Growth in grace will make you a better theologian, and becoming a better theologian will help you grow in grace. There is a “spiral” relationship between the two. When you become a Christian, you usually get some elementary theological teaching, a great help in getting started in your walk with the Lord. But then new questions arise, and you go back to Scripture and theology, and you get more advanced answers—sometimes to the same questions you had as a spiritual babe. But your greater maturity enables you to understand and appreciate teaching of greater depth. And that teaching, in turn, helps you to grow more, and so on.

This is why, in the New Testament, the qualifications of teachers (
1 Timothy 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9) are more spiritual than intellectual. Paul mentions “aptness to teach” and “sound doctrine,” but his qualifications for elder-teachers are mostly ethical: “above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate,self-controlled,” etc. The application is obvious: If you want to become a theologian, you must be a godly person. That principle applies to the most academic and theoretical of theologians, as well as to the practical theologians (like most of you) who preach sermons, lead Bible studies, nurture other believers, and witness to the lost.

John Frame in Reformation and Revival, 11.1.47-11.1.49.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Gospel Sex

1 Corinthians 7:1-5 says:
7:1 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
This is a passage that has often been used by husbands to shift the burden of responsibility for their immorality onto their supposedly under-sexed wives. Pastors are not immune. Countless counseling situations are seen through the lenses of sexually frustrated men, quick to quote these verses, and leave it at that. But Paul won’t have it. If your husband does that, simply take him back to 1 Co. 6:16-17 where Paul compares being “one flesh” with a woman with being “one spirit” with Jesus. What that assumes is that the sex he’s talking about in this chapter isn’t the same thing as the immorality he condemned in chapter 6 – the self-serving, get-your-needs-met-and-roll-over kind of sex; “food is for the body and the body for food”. This is Hebrew sex; not just the uniting of two bodies but the uniting of two souls, the mingling of two lives. It’s an act of physical oneness that mirrors, pictures, illustrates, embodies, incarnates a spiritual oneness. It’s Gospel sex, a reflection of the oneness we have with Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

And that intimates the shocking suggestion that the reason your wife isn’t as willing as you are “to be intimate” is because you don’t want intimacy. You want to share your body, but not so much your soul. You want to receive pleasure, but you don’t want to receive your wife – her problems, her pains, her joys, her hopes, her sorrows. You have all the expectations of a sexual Gnostic, as though your wife’s body could be separated from her soul. You don’t really want to be “one flesh” – you just want to have sex. And the problem with that is that this is not the sort of marriage that will protect you from sexual immorality, because if that’s all you want, what’s the difference between sex with your wife and sex with anyone else? You’re trying to fight your selfish lust in the world with your selfish lust at home. How can you break your addiction to selfish sexual pleasure unless you begin to see your sexual acts as about a person instead of an orgasm? It won't work. Anyone can give you pleasure. You don’t need your wife for that. You can do that on your own. If you want to experience the kind of sex that will deliver you from your sinful lusts, you’re going to have to start acting like you’re married someplace other than the bedroom. You’re going to have to stop chasing the cheap imitation of sex-without-relationship (what the Bible calls "immorality) and start drinking deeply from your wife.

Beware arming yourself with the Bible in order to batter your spouse and feed your own flesh: it’s like a sword without a hilt or a handle – it cuts even the ones who wield it. Take it from one whose hands have been bloodied.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Are Debates with Atheists Good for the World?

Christianity Today recently began a series on the topic, “Is Christianity Good for the World?” – a subject which turns out to relate to my previous post more than tangentially. Pearcey’s main contention, after all, is that the atheistic materialist really has no warrant for lauding lofty humanistic values given their mechanistic and deterministic view of the universe; and this observation has been the focal sticking point of the entire exchange.

The champions called to do battle are an odd pair of obviously mismatched pedigree, an observation humbly noted by the affirmative position (fellow Idahoan, Doug Wilson). Maybe that’s what makes the ensuing discussion such an embarrassment for the negative thus far. Beyond the usual frustration in such “conversations”, where mis-characterizations abound, one gets the distinct impression that Christopher Hitchens is so confident that he’s interacting with an idiot that he doesn’t bother to formulate a single argument. Instead, not unlike our favorite-fork-flinging hero, he unleashes a torrent of verbal cutlery aimed to humiliate the religiously inclined. His attacks are debonair, but rarely of any serious substance – which is where my frustration lies with this larger “down with God” publishing trend we’re seeing lately.

At the point we need philosophers and theologians we are served with self-inflating pundits (or, as in the case of Dennett, philosophers who refuse to engage religion philosophically). Were it not for their impressive vocabularies, it might be more obvious that the “debates” presented in these forums are more like a re-run of Sally Jesse Raphael than they are serious philosophical symposiums. The academic forbearers upon which the edifice of Western society rests (people like Augustine, Aquinas and Pascal) are gaily waved away without protest by people like Hitchens, choosing instead to best Bill O’Reily and Sean Hannity on promotional book tours. The call for a “new enlightenment” conveniently forgets the Christian resources by which we got the first one. He wishes to rise from the ashes of institutions and ideas which, though singed, still stand strong both academically and popularly. Even Nero waited for the city to burn before playing his violin.

Leon Wieseltier’s evaluation of Dennet’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena in The New York Times could just as aptly describe what I’ve seen of Hitchens in this interchange:
And Dennett's book is also a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement. Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.
If you haven't read the exchange, follow the link and catch up - I'm curious to hear your reactions.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Do You Believe in Truth? Totally.

I recently read Nancy Pearcey's Total Truth and have decided to post a sort of review in a series of reflections on the book.

Adding to a recent treasury of books aiming to reinvigorate the evangelical mind[1] is Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Whereas other treatments of evangelical mental laxity and compromise have focused on particular issues, most recently politics[2], Pearcey stakes out a task both more admirable and difficult; the critique and construction of an entire worldview. A bevy of books have been published in this area to be sure, but what distinguishes Total Truth is its concern for broad application of a Christian worldview. In just under 400 pages the lay reader is initiated into topics ranging from analytic philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science), political philosophy, cosmology, cosmogony, biology, early American religious nationalism and the intellectual history of the Western world (replete with sociological implications for the church and the world). Were it not for the pedagogical dexterity of the author, this could have been a much larger book! But in the spirit of her mentor, Francis Schaeffer (from whom the title of the book hails), Nancy Pearcey accomplishes something just as difficult as any specialized treatment of these subjects – a conceptual analysis that is actually recognizable in real life. Indeed, the only thing more breathtaking than the breakneck pace with which these topics are covered is just how easily her assessments can be seen in American culture.

The dominating critique saturating the book is the devastating impact of naturalism (specifically metaphysical materialism/physicalism) on ethics – Aquinas’ moral argument on the offense. The consequences are both philosophical and practical. The philosophical consequence of physicalism is a sharp divide between fact and value that relegates ethics to the ghetto of private opinion[3]. The ambivalence created by dividing the world into two stories is said to create a schizophrenic polarity in the uneasy minds secularists. On the one hand they acknowledge the verifiable and certain results of science as the only public truth (public facts, or “the bottom story” of modernity), but on the other hand they retain deeply held beliefs in the significance and value of humanity which don’t fit into this category (private values, or the “top story” of postmodernity).

The cleavage introduced by the strict “scientific” standards for public truth places the top story in the relativistic flux of private opinion and personal perspective. Since public truth says that humans are essentially bags of meat deterministically driven by natural law, beliefs about the “human spirit” turn out to be a universally held necessary fiction requiring voluntary self-deception. As chief Wiggum of the Simpsons has eloquently put it, “[the secularist’s] mouth is writing checks his butt can’t cash”.

There's much to like about this approach, which we'll take up in the next few posts. As with any attempt at integration (and that's really the key word for understanding the agenda behind this book) it also involves some reductionistic homogenization. But at the outset I must say that I really enjoyed Total Truth, if for no other reason than Pearcey's deep understanding of evangelicalism's inner contradictions, instinctive dualism and populist anti-intellectualism.

[1] See Mark Noll, George Marsden, Ronald J. Sider, etc.

[2] Two recent examples are David Kuo's Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction and Gregory Boyd's The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church.

[3] See Alasdair McIntyre's comments about emotivism in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory

Saturday, February 24, 2007

This One Deserves It's Own Label . . .

Just caught this over at the BHT and was so impressed that I decided to make up an entirely unique label just for this quote:

Conservapedia is an online resource and meeting place where we favor Christianity and America. Conservapedia has easy-to-use indexes to facilitate review of topics. You will much prefer using Conservapedia compared to Wikipedia if you want concise answers free of "political correctness".

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sola Plerusque?

Some people wear the "5 Sola's" as a badge of honor. Affiliating oneself with the Reformers, after all, is very much like asking to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus. It struck me (on the toilet, actually - how's that for affiliating myself with the Reformation) how absurd it is to pluralize the word "alone". Was there such a thing as math in 16th C. Western Europe? It seems like for the five affirmations to make any sense they would have to be punctuated by the word "or". Is it Scripture alone? Or is it Christ alone? Or is it grace alone? Or is it faith alone? Or is it only to God that the glory belongs?

Now, obviously these "alone's" aren't functioning the same way in each of these mottoes - Scripture alone is the rule of the Church's life while Jesus alone is the source of our salvation and grace alone is the ground of said salvation; faith alone is the only means by which it can be received and the credit for all of this can only be attributed to God. What those clarifications demonstrate, though, is just how insufficient the word "alone"really is to describe something as rich and complex as God's plan of salvation.

Each "sola" is so porous that they could never serve as firm doctrinal boundaries; a fact which is easily seen in the constant haggling in Reformed circles over whether one of the sola's has truly been transgressed or not. What does it even mean for God to receive all the glory? Don't believers share in that glory by virtue of our union with Christ? And what about "faith alone" and "grace alone"? The complex relationship between faith and works is almost universally described as involving some kind of necessary dependence (even if that dependence is the construal of works as the necessary outgrowth of faith) - so Lordship salvation somehow can be held without denying this sola while those who entirely stand on it can be soundly rejected. The role of the Scriptures as an authority has been the center of just as much controversy, since it's not clear exactly HOW Scripture should function as an authority (the regulative principle being one example of this question). Obviously countless examples could be given (does Wayne Grudem deny sola Scriptura in his view of prophecy?) - but I'm left wondering exactly what the practical value of these slogans are.