Thursday, October 29, 2009

Michael Horton Reviews N.T. Wright on Justification

Thanks to Trevin Wax, below is a list of Michael Horton's series at the White Horse Inn on N.T. Wright's new and important book, Justification. I'd highly recommend the book to those not acquainted with Wright's work. While I'd want to qualify or challenge some of Horton's criticisms, overall I think he's evenhanded in his review. At the very least, what Horton's review shows is that Wright is not a left-wing nutball who we can just dismiss. While he might sometimes be overly enthusiastic in his interpretations of Paul, Wright offers many important insights that we would do well to benefit from.

Horton's conclusion admits this much:
In spite of exaggerations and false dilemmas, Wright reminds us that justification is inextricably tied to God’s covenantal, historical, cosmic, and eschatological purposes for “summing up all things in Christ.” Even if it is in some ways an over-correction, he does remind us that justification does not emerge simply out of need for personal or pastoral needs, but out of an unfolding plan that revolves around God’s faithfulness to his own righteousness and results not only in saved individuals but in a church and a kingdom. Even if he tends sometimes to confuse this kingdom with his own political agenda, Wright properly reminds us that even in its seminal and liminal existence in this time between Christ’s advents, it is already true that Jesus is Lord.
As a funny anecdote, Horton recalls that N.T. Wright's early book, The Grace of God in the Gospel was instrumental in Horton "inviting Calvin into his heart" as a young student. When Horton told Wright this, Wright replied with the equally tongue-in-cheek comment, "Now let me help you invite Paul into your heart." :) Enjoy!

1. Introduction
2. Justification and God’s single plan: The Covenant and History
3. Justification and God’s people
4. Justification and God’s Righteousness: Imputation and Future Hope
5. Justification and God’s Righteousness: Covenant and Eschatology
6. Justification, Faith, and Faithfulness: The Works of the Law
7. Justification and the Testimony of Paul
8. Justification and Romans
9. “Works of the Law” – Soteriology and Ecclesiology
10. Conclusion

Monday, October 12, 2009

1000 Years of Peace That Christians Like To Fight About

The Millennial Reign of Christ is one of the most debated and divisive topics among Christians. But it's also a central point of eschatology and one's view on the Millennium often contributes to their hermeneutic. Desiring God just hosted a very good discussion of the Millennium. The contributors were:

John Piper - moderator
Doug Wilson - postmillennial
Sam Storms - amillennial
Jim Hamilton - premillennial

I found the premillennial position to be the most compelling (which isn't surprising given my theological bent!). But the other positions were very interesting and thought provoking. What do you think?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Romans 7: Not a Christian Struggle (Part 2)

Below are a couple of recent blogs I read on the subject of Romans 7. Since I started a series on this topic and have not yet had time to follow up, I thought I'd post these blogs to continue the series. This first blog is by David Kirk:

In Romans 5 Paul expands the basis for justification by faith (which he introduced in chapter 3) – the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. For Paul, we are 'justified in/by His blood' (5:9). Can't get clearer than that! Chapter 6 then emphasises that believers have been made new (we have died and risen to new life – spiritually). Christians must consider themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11). That means a commitment to righteous living – hence Paul's imperatives (5:12,13,19).

In Chapter 7, Paul writes specifically to Jews (7:1). If you don't pick that up, then interpreting this next section is (more) problematic. Paul's great concern is to explain that the Law has served it's purpose (the argument here ties in very well with that in Galatians 3:15-29, esp 24-25). Obviously, as becomes clearer later in the letter (and is evidenced in other parts of the NT), Jewish Christians' attitude to the Law was a major stumbling block to church unity. So, Paul tackles this in the Roman church. If he can address it there, then he has addressed in in the congregations at the centre of the known world. The Law is holy and good (but Paul would still maintain that Christ has superseded the Law). It provided a framework for covenantal obedience, and highlighted sin, revealing to the attentive Jew the need for forgiveness and the importance of faith.

In this context, the problematic section in 7:14-25 then is not about the Christian life, but about the experience of a Jew. Paul could possibly be speaking autobiographically, but I prefer the view that he assumes the persona of a faithful Jew. He is obviously not describing a legalistic, or careless, Jew since the 'I' is joyfully concurring with the law of God in the inner man. That he is describing a Christian is unlikely, simply because he describes the general experience of not doing the good that he wishes, and doing the evil that he does not wish. I don't believe that's a description of the Christian life. It is likely that this is a description of life under the Law. Paul then makes the transitional argument at the beginning of Chapter 8 that there is 'therefore now' no condemnation. That's an eschatological 'now': now, in the New Age, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you/me free from the law of sin and death (the situation he described in 7:14-25). If this is true then Chapter 7 helps us to answer the theological question about the different experience of God's people under the Old and New Covenants, leading into the practical effect of the adoption as sons (8:15, cf8:23), which is an eschatological benefit of the New Covenant.

Interestingly, I think Lloyd-Jones recognised the problem of interpreting this as a description of a Christian and took the view that Paul here was describing the experience of someone becoming a Christian. I wouldn’t agree, but this view has more merit than others.

This second blog is by Michael Bird:

I've been preparing further notes on Romans 7 for one of my courses today. Here's my solid gold, top four arguments why the Wretched Man is not a Christian:

(1) Paul asks two questions in Rom 7.7 (What then should we say? That the law is sin?) and Rom. 7.13 (Did what is good, then, bring death to me?) which relates to the thoughts about pre-conversion stated in Rom 7.5 about how the law aroused sin and lead to death. Paul argues that while the law activated sin leading to death, the law is not the author of sin and death.

(2) The references to being in the ‘flesh’ (vv. 14, 18, 25) show that 7.14-25 are a commentary on what the life in flesh first mentioned in 7.5 looks like.

(3) When Paul describes the ‘I’ as ‘sold under sin’ (Rom. 7.14) this conflicts with what he says about Christians in Romans 6 where he declares that they have been freed from sin (Rom. 6.6-7, 17-18, 22).

(4) The subject struggles to obey the law (Rom. 7.22, 25), while Christians are free from the law (Rom. 6.14-15; 7.6).

Paul Meyer wrote: ‘There is not a syllable in Romans 7:7-25 about life in Christ, and … Paul himself has signaled to his readings in both 7:6 and 8:1-2 that the rest of chapter 7 is to be understood as the antithesis to chapter 8 and not in simple continuity with it’.[1].Ultimately what is described here is not the Christian’s struggle with sin, but the absolute defeat of the self by sin’s power in the unregenerate state.[2]

[1] Paul W. Meyer, ‘The Worm at the Core of the Apple: Exegetical Reflections on Romans 7,’ in The Conversation Continues: Studies in Paul and John, ed. R.T. Fortna and B.R. Gaventa (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 68.
[2] Charles H. Talbert, Romans (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 188-89.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Cult of Youth

The following is from Dr. John Mark Reynolds' blog a few years ago. I thought it was an excellent commentary on the culture of youth in which we live, and so I saved it. Reynolds is responding to an article which describes how a teenager advocated abortion and argued that the voice of teenagers ought to be heard. It is amazing how counter-cultural it is to say that the opinions children ought not to be heard!
"'Kids need to be concerned about more than themselves,' she said. 'They have valid viewpoints, and they need help from adults to implement their passions and concerns.' "

Here is a thought:

Kids do need to be concerned about more than themselves. Unlike Miss Abortion 2004, this altruism does not consist of making everyone else share your puerile concerns, but getting new ones. This remarkable process is called "growing up." Given their age, the young usually have foolish viewpoints. They need help from adults in gaining proper perspective, passions, and concerns.

The Cult of Youth marches on in our culture. We worship the mostly facile opinions of the ill prepared. I would say that almost everything I thought before I was twenty-two was not worth hearing. I needed to sit in tutorials and do hard work, not have people take me seriously. Of course, critics think this still true, but they can trust me that I was even worse as a young man than I am now.

There is a reason minors are not allowed to do many, many things. The reason: they cannot make informed decisions. Period. By the way, this applies equally to conservative groups who parade teens out mouthing conservative opinions they have hardly digested. Liberals since the sixties have been the worst at this. Even an aging hippie wants to be young, because they fantasize that there is some great purity and wisdom in the young. Well, no. Youth are to be protected and educated, not put in positions of power.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Valley of Vision

Below is a puritan prayer that I read recently. It's particularly profound. Enjoy!

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,

Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see Thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter Thy stars shine;

Let me find Thy light in my darkness,
Thy life in my death,
Thy joy in my sorrow,
Thy grace in my sin,
Thy riches in my poverty,
Thy glory in my valley.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Romans 7: Not a Christian Struggle (Part 1)

Here are 10 reasons why a Christian cannot have a Romans 7 struggle. These are taken verbatim from my mentor and friend, Walt Russell. I plan on following this up with a post or two on Romans 7 and the Christian's struggle with sin.

1) This chapter is a message addressed to a very specific group of people in Romans 7:1 and they are clearly specified as "those who know the Law," not all Christians.

2) The principle of Romans 7:2-4 is not drawn from general Christian experience, but it is drawn only from the experience of those within Israel who had believed in Jesus Christ and the principle is applied ONLY to them.

3) The issue of this chapter that is introduced and summarized in Romans 7:5-6 is not a general Christian issue, but it is one that is only relevant to a specific group of people: those who had been in the flesh, i.e. under the Mosaic Law.

4) In Romans 7:7-25, Paul represents a certain group with his "I" language and the most likely representation drawn from his previous categories in Romans 1-6 and from his framing of the issue in Romans 7:1-6 is NOT Christians, but Jews/Israelites who had lived under the Mosaic Law.

5) The focus on the dividedness of the person in Romans 7:7-25 is not ultimately on the internal struggle, but on the external constraints or boundaries of the age that caused this struggle.

6) The purpose of the struggle in Romans 7:7-25 is very specific: to show the Mosaic Law's limited ability to restrain sin during the Mosaic Law era, NOT to reveal the struggle of Christians with God's general demands.

7) The rhetorical reason why Paul recounts the struggle in Romans 7:7-25 is to persuade the Jewish Christians that the Mosaic Law is not an appropriate restraint for Christian behavior in light of its designed limitations.

8) The pervasive sense of condemnation and wretchedness in Romans 7:14-24 cannot apply to Christians because those IN CHRIST have no condemnation, as Romans 8:1-4 makes clear.

9) The person described in Romans 7:7-25 is "of flesh, sold into bondage to sin" and not "spiritual" like the Mosaic Law (7:14), but this cannot possibly be true of Christians who ahve been set free from the law of sin and of death and who are not in the flesh (Romans 8:5-9).

10) The summary of the believer's dividedness between their mind and their flesh in Romans 7:25b cannot possibly refer to a Christian because Christians have been removed from the moral realm of flesh and placed in the realm of the Spirit (Romans 8:9-11).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

He Is Risen!

My favorite Easter Sunday song:

I'll be rockin' this song all day long... He is risen; He is risen indeed!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Debate Review

On Saturday night, I attended a debate at Biola University between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchins on the question, "Does God Exist?" Craig began the debate with the same opening argument he uses in all debates on God's existence. He began by making two broad claims (1) there are no good arguments for atheism, and (2) there are several good arguments for God's existence that provide a powerful cumulative case. He mentioned this because he wanted to make the point that in order for atheism to be a rational position in this debate, Hitchens would have to tear down each of his arguments for God's existence, and then erect his own arguments against God's existence. In other words, in the absence of good arguments for atheism, all we are left with is agnosticism at the most; we are not justified in being atheists simply because of a lack of evidence for God's existence.

Craig then went on to adduce 5 arguments for God's existence as follows:
(1) Kalam cosmological argument - God is the cause of the beginning of the universe.
(2) Teleological argument - God is the designer of the universe because it is specifically designed to be life-permitting.
(3) Axiological argument - God is the only ground for objective moral values.
(4) Argument from Jesus' resurrection - God's existence is the best explanation of the historical facts regarding Jesus' resurrection.
(5) Experiential argument - Ultimately, belief in God is properly basic; we do not need arguments in order to believe in God--rather our direct experience of God is grounds enough for belief.

Hitchens opening statement was much less orderly than Craig's. He accused Craig of being an inconsistent evidentialist because he, like all Christians, appeals to evidence that was not available to Christians several centuries ago. He pointed to the biological evolution and asserted that now that this view has become mainstream, theists have attempted to use this as evidence for God's existence, or at least to see it as being compatible with God's existence. He further asserted that Craig need to prove with certainty that God existed. He also claimed that physicists acknowledge that "we hardly know what we don't know" about the origin of the universe, and so to arrive at the conclusion that God exists is extremely premature. Finally, he concluded with three reasons to reject the design of the universe: (a) Prior to the beginning of the universe was there pre-existing matter?, (b) Who designed the designer?, and (c) the designer seems to have designed poorly because the universe will eventually die in a heat death. In sum, Hitchens opening statement was not very well thought out, did not have arguments that were understandable, and included a lot of unsupported assertions.

The following are what I considered to be the highlights of the debate:

1. Hitchins tried to claim that an atheist was actually just an a-theist, that is, a non-theist. Craig pushed him on this and asked him what kind of a-theist he was: (a) what we usually mean by atheist (someone who positively asserts "God does not exist"), (b) an agnostic (someone who withholds belief in God but does not assert that "God does not exist"), or (c) a verificationist (someone who believes that the statements "God exists" and "God does not exist" are meaningless). When pushed, Hitchins backpedalled to affirm that he is an atheist in the traditional sense, which made his long spiel about being an a-theist irrelevant. The point of all this was that Hitchins did not want to have the burden of proof for God's non-existence. Craig could easily have pushed Hitchens further, but he was running out of time. Had Craig pushed further, he would have discussed whether the absence of evidence for God's existence is actually evidence of the absence of God. He would further have argued that absence of evidence is only evidence of absence when we would expect more evidence than we have. This puts the atheist in the position of having to argue that if God exists, he would have provided more evidence of His existence--which is an extremely doubtful point and probably impossible to prove.

2. Hitchens briefly mentioned the theory of evolution in passing. Craig struck back on this point powerfully by showing that the probability of evolution is so infinitesimally small that if evolution did occur, it is literally a miracle which would be powerful evidence for God's existence.

3. Hitchens attempted to portray the atheist position as a tolerant position of intellectual humility, and the theist position as being the height of arrogance and hubris. Craig countered this forcefully and graciously by showing that the atheist position is a claim to exclusive truth. In the same way that evangelical Christians believe that Christianity is true and all other religions are false, the atheist claims that atheism is true, and all claims to the contrary are false. Craig pointed out that Hitchens made his own truth claims on behalf of atheism, but did so without supporting arguments. In his own words, "you've got to come to a debate prepared with arguments." Any arguments that Hitchens did produce were irrelevant, disjointed, and unclear.

4. At one point, Hitchens asserted that he believed in freewill as though Craig had attacked him on this point. He wasted a good amount of time discussing this when he could have been responding to some of Craig's actual arguments. This was kind of humorous to me, because it is obviously a weak point for the naturalist who believes that humans are nothing more than complex materialistic machines. On a naturalist worldview, the only type of freewill that makes any sense is compatibilistic freedom--which I doubt is genuine freedom at all.

5. Hitchens completely missed the point of Craig's moral argument for God's existence. Craig argued that (1) If objective moral values exist, then God exists, (2) objective moral values exist, (3) therefore, God exists. Hitchens continually tried to respond to this by stating that he could still do good actions without believing in God. This completely missed the point and force of Craig's argument that if moral values are not grounded in God, then there is nothing about them that is objective. There's nothing about rape or genocide or torture that is actually wrong; rather they might be distasteful to my personal preferences, but there is nothing objectively wrong with these actions if God does not exist. I began to wonder if Hitchens really did understand Craig's argument, did not have a response, and so was just rambling on about how he could do a good action wholly apart from belief in God.

6. At the close of the debate, Hitchens yielded the time he could have used to wrap up, and allowed that time to go towards the question and answer time. I'm not sure why he did this.

Doug Geivett
was sitting right behind me with his daughter. He summarized the debate well in a recent blog:
...this debate exposed a difference in preparation on the part of these two debaters. This is far more significant than it might seem at first. William Lane Craig has debated this topic dozens of times, without wavering from the same basic pattern of argument. He presents the same arguments in the same form, and presses his opponents in the same way for arguments in defense of their own worldviews. He’s consistent. He’s predictable. One might think that this is a liability, that it’s too risky to face a new opponent who has so much opportunity to review Craig’s specific strategy. But tonight’s debate proves otherwise. Hitchens can have no excuse for dropping arguments when he knows—or should know—exactly what to expect. Suppose one replies that William Craig is a more experienced debater and a trained philosopher, while Christopher Hitchens is a journalist working outside the Academy. That simply won’t do as a defense of Hitchens. First, Hitchens is no stranger to debate. Second, he is clearly a skillful polemicist. Third—and most important—Hitchens published a book, god Is Not Great, in which he makes bold claims against religion in general and Christianity in particular. With his book, he threw down the challenge. To his credit, he rose to meet a skillful challenger. But did he rise to the occasion? Did he acquit himself well? At one point he acknowledged that some of his objections to the designer argument were “layman’s” objections. His book, I believe, is also the work of a layman. It appears to have been written for popular consumption and without concern for accountability to Christians whose lives are dedicated to the defense of the Gospel.
I think Doug is right. Hitchens should have prepared more, but even if he had, there's no way he would have had a chance debating Craig. Craig is a debating machine, and his skills and knowledge are unrivaled by any atheist opponent. I would have liked a better debate, because it would have shown the strength of the theistic position more clearly. But it was a fun night, and my little brother was able to meet Bill Craig and get his book signed by him. And most importantly, God was honored as the weakness of the atheistic position was exposed in a gracious, loving, and sincere manner.

For more on this debate, check out William Lane Craig's website. You'll be able to purchase a DVD of this debate in the future, and audio of the debate will probably made available for a free download sometime in the near future. You can find many of Craig's debates on his website right now for free. If you've never read anything by Craig before, I highly recommend his books, Reasonable Faith and Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. I believe that every American pastor ought to interact with the material in these books.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Book Preview: Arminian Theology

I've recently been reading the book, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities by Roger E. Olsen. I'd highly recommend this book to Calvinists and Arminians alike. The author rightly distinguishes popular Arminianism (which is actually Pelagianism) from classical Arminianism, and then proceeds to dispel common myths about Arminianism. The table of contents will give you a taste of the substance of the book:

Myth #1: Arminian Theology is the Opposite of Calvinist/Reformed Theology
Jacob Arminius and most of his faithful followers fall into the broad understanding of the Reformed tradition; the common ground between Arminianism and Calvinism is significant.
Myth #2: A Hybrid of Calvinism and Arminianism is Possible
In spite of common ground, Calvinism and Arminianism are incommensurable systems of Christian theology; on issues crucial to both there is no stable middle ground between them.
Myth #3: Arminianism is Not an Orthodox Evangelical Option
Classical Arminian theology heartily affirms the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy and promotes the hallmarks of evangelical faith; it is neither Arian nor liberal.
Myth #4: The Heart of Arminianism Is Belief in Free Will
The true heart of Arminian theology is God's loving and just character; the formal principle of Arminianism is the universal will of God for salvation.
Myth #5: Arminian Theology Denies the Sovereignty of God
Classical Arminianism interprets God's sovereignty and providence differently from Calvinism without in any way denying them; God is in charge of everything without controlling everything.

Myth #6: Arminianism Is a Human-Centered Theology

An optimistic anthropology is alien to true Arminianism which is thoroughly God-centered. Arminian theology confesses human depravity, including the bondage of the will.

Myth #7: Arminian Theology is Not a Theology of Grace
The material principle of classical Arminian thought is prevenient grace. All of salvation is wholly and entirely of God's grace.

Myth #8: Arminians Do Not Believe in Predestination

Predestination is a biblical concept; classical Arminians interpret it differently than Calvinists without denying it. It is God's sovereign decree to elect believers in Jesus Christ and includes God's foreknowledge of those believers' faith.
Myth #9: Arminian Theology Denies Justification by Grace Alone Through Faith Alone

Classical Arminian theology is a Reformation theology. It embraces divine imputation of righteousness by God's grace through faith alone and preserves the distinction between justification and sanctification.
Myth #10: All Arminians Believe in the Governmental Theory of the Atonement
There is no one Arminian doctrine of Christ's atonement. Many Arminians accept the penal substitution theory enthusiastically while others prefer the governmental theory.

The book is a historical explanation of Arminian thought in which the author moves easily from Arminius himself, to Wesley, and finally to modern Arminian thinkers. He explains Arminian thought and judiciously shows how it compares and contrasts to Calvinist thought. This book is needed because Arminianism is often demonized by neo-reformed thinkers who equate Arminian thought with the heresy of Pelagianism. It can be embraced by Calvinists for at least three reasons: (1) Calvinists will be educated as to not misrepresent Arminianism so that genuine dialoge and critique can take place, (2) Calvinists can earnestly hope that the large number of people who Olsen rightly recognizes to be Pelagians will be converted to classical evangelical Arminians, and (3) Calvinists may realize that they are closer to Arminian thought than they once realized. Arminians will appreciate this book as an excellent historical statement of their views which will dispel the Pelagianism that has infiltrated our culture. And finally, those who read this post without an understanding (or perhaps only a vague understanding) of the terms "Arminian," "Calvinist," and "Pelagian" will appreciate this book because it will help them grow in their understanding of theology, salvation, and God Himself.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Gospel Tract: A Wonderful Life?

Apparently, Campus Crusade rejected this one. ;)

Actually, after thinking about it, the statement "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" remains true even in circumstances as dire as above. The key difference is a difference of perspective. How do we define "wonderful?" The problem is that for many, "wonderful" is synonymous with "pleasant." But it's false that God has a pleasant plan for my life. A non-Christian might define a "wonderful plan for my life" in many ways: finding a spouse, having a nice family, being financially sound, having friends, no hell, etc. But as a Christian, my definition of a "wonderful life" must be reoriented to a paradigm in which God is the center of the universe and the Person for Whom everything exists. When we become Christians, we must undergo a Copernican revolution in which we realize that the Son is the center of the universe, not my life here on earth. Let me say this again. We are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around him. This will immediately change our definition of a "wonderful life." A wonderful life is a life that glorifies God and fulfills His purposes in this world. A wonderful life is a life "worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory" (1 Thes 2:12). It is one in which the Lamb that was slain receives the reward of His suffering. If God's purpose for my life is for me to stand for Him, empowered by His Spirit, as a ferocious lion devours my flesh, and for thousands of onlookers to watch as I glorify God in my death, then that would be a wonderful life.

Consider the examples of the wonderful lives we are given in Hebrews 11:32-38:
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (ESV, emphasis mine).
These were truly wonderful lives.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Justification Debate: Wright versus Piper


Yesterday I received a new book by N.T. Wright entitled Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. This book is the most recent addition in an ongoing debate between John Piper and N.T. Wright on the issue of justification. In 2007, John Piper wrote a book entitled The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. Since Wright had never written a full treatise on justification, Piper was responding to a number of things Wright has written including his books, What Saint Paul Really Said, Paul: In Fresh Perspective, Wright's commentary on Romans, as well as a number of articles Wright has written. Wright's most recent installment in the debate is a focused treatment of the doctrine of justification, including a section which details his exegesis on important selected passages of Scripture.

N.T. Wright is probably the most important theologian and biblical scholar of our times. He's written a number of massive tomes, the most important being his projected 6-volume series, Christian Origins and the Question of God. In addition to being a prominent biblical scholar, he is also pastoral in his approach as he is the presiding Bishop of Durham. Piper, on the other hand, is the influential pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is probably the best model of a pastor that I know, and has written some scholarly works, but for the the most part has focused on popular level works. The scholarly works he has written tend to be idiosyncratic and so are not widely regarded in academic circles. In terms of their scholarly influence Piper is clearly the underdog. I don't say this to be demeaning to Piper. On the contrary, I believe that Piper has some good points that need to be taken seriously. One reason I respect him so much is that he is an excellent pastor who thinks it is important to interact with the highest levels of biblical scholarship.

Wright initially responded to Piper's book in an interview saying, "Piper’s criticism is very interesting. I warmed to him. He sent me a copy of it with a charming hand-written dedication, so on. He has clearly bent over backwards to try to understand where I and others are coming from. Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t. He nearly gets to the point where he sees what I’m trying to say, and then the old worldview reasserts itself and he just can’t see through those lenses. I don’t want to say this patronizingly, but it is very frustrating." Wright has a tendency to write-off people who disagree with him as simply misunderstanding him. However, having said that, when I read Piper's book I was continually struck by the thought, "I don't think that's an accurate assessment of Wright's view." Wright was recently interviewed regarding his newest book which can be accessed here for those interested. I have been unable to find a response by Piper to Wright's newest book. If anyone finds a response please leave a comment.

In any case, it's clear from the reviews that Wright's newest book is an important contribution that should help clarify the issues, and could possibly push all of us towards a closer reading of Scripture. Scot McKnight said of Wright's book, "Tom Wright has out-Reformed America's newest religious zealots--the neo-Reformed--by taking them back to Scripture and to its meaning in its historical context. Wright reveals that the neo-Reformed are more committed to tradition than to the sacred text. This irony is palpable on every page of this judicious, hard-hitting, respectful study."

I'm excited to read the new Wright book and watch as these two great pastor/theologians spar. One thing that makes these books a joy to read is the irenic spirit that both Piper and Wright continually exhibit. This is how an issue ought to be debated among Christians. Everyone who wants to understand the doctrine of justification by faith ought to read these two books.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The All-Importance of Motive

Below is an excerpt from A.W. Tozer's book, The Root of the Righteous. Enjoy!

The test by which all conduct must be judged is motive.

As water cannot rise higher than its source, so the moral quality in an act can never be higher than the motive that inspires it. For this reason no act that arises from an evil motive can be good, even though some good may appear to come out of it. Every deed done out of anger or spite, for instance, will be found at last to have been done for the enemy and against the Kingdom of God.

Unfortunately the nature of religious activity is such that much of it can be carried on for reasons that are not good, such as anger, jealousy, ambition, vanity and avarice. All such activity is essentially evil and will be counted as such at the judgment.

In this matter of motive, as in so many other things, the Pharisees afford us clear examples. They remain the world’s most dismal religious failures, not because of doctrinal error nor because they were careless or lukewarm, nor because they were outwardly persons of dissolute life. Their whole trouble lay in the quality of their religious motives. They prayed, but they prayed ot be heard of men, and thus their motive ruined their prayers and rendered them not only useless but actually evil. They gave generously to the service of the temple, but they sometimes did it to escape their duty toward their parents, and this was evil. They judged sin and stood against it when they found it in others, but this they did from self-righteousness and hardness of heart. So with almost everything they did. Their activities had about them an outward appearance of holiness, and those same activities if carried on out of pure motives would have been good and praiseworthy. The whole weakness of the Pharisees lay in the quality of their motives.

That this is not a small matter may be gathered from the fact that those orthodox and proper religionists went on in their blindness till they at last crucified the Lord of glory with no inkling of the gravity of their crime.

Religious acts done out of low motives are twice evil, evil in themselves and evil because they are done in the name of God. This is equivalent to sinning in the name of the sinless One, lying in the name of the One who cannot lie and hating in the name of the One whose nature is love.

Christians, and especially very active ones, should take time out frequently to search their souls to be sure of their motives. Many a solo is sung to show off; many a sermon I preached as an exhibition of talent; many a church is founded as a slap at some other church. Even missionary activity may become competitive, and soul winning may degenerate into a sort of brush-salesman project to satisfy the flesh. Do not forget, the Pharisees were great missionaries and would compass the sea and land to make a convert.

A good way to avoid the snare of empty religious activity is to appear before God every once in a while with our Bibles open to the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. This passage, though rated one of the most beautiful in the Bible, is also one of the severest to be found in Sacred Writ. The apostle takes the highest religious service and consigns it to futility unless it is motivated by love. Lacking love, prophets, teachers, orators, philanthropists and martyrs are sent away without reward.

To sum it up, we may say simply that in the sight of God we are judged not so much by what we do as by our reasons for doing it. Not what but why will be the important question when we Christians appear at the judgment seat to give account of the deeds done in the body.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Two Tasks

The following is an excerpt from an address given by the late Charles Malik entitled "The Two Tasks" given at the dedication of the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Illinois in the fall of 1980. Charles Malik was the Lebanese ambassador to the United States and president of the United Nations. He had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard, and over 50 honorary doctorates. This speech is available in it's entirety as part of the book, The Two Tasks of the Christian Scholar by William Lane Craig.

I speak to you as a Christian. Jesus Christ is my Lord and God and Savior and Song day and night. I can live without food, without drink, without sleep, without air—but I cannot live without Jesus. Without him I would have perished long ago. Without him and his Church reconciling man to God the world would have perished long ago. I live in and on the Bible for long hours every day. The Bible is the source of every good thought and impulse I have. In the Bible God himself, the Creator of everything from nothing, speaks to me and to the world directly—about himself, about ourselves and about his will for the course of events and for the consummation of history. And believe me: Not a day passes without my crying from the bottom of my heart, “Come, Lord Jesus!” I know he is coming with glory to judge the living and the dead, but in my impatience I sometimes cannot wait and I find myself in my infirmity crying with David, “How long, Lord?” And I know his kingdom shall have no end....

In the nature of the case evangelization is always the most important task to be undertaken by mortal man. For proud and rebellious and self-sufficient man—and pride and rebellion and self-sufficiency are the same thing—to be brought to his knees and to his tears before the actual majesty and grace and power of Jesus Christ is the greatest event that can happen to any man....

But just as we are not alone with God and the Bible but also with others, so we are not only endowed with a soul and a will to be saved but also with a reason to be sharpened and satisfied. This reason wonders about everything, including God, and we are to seek and love and worship the Lord our God with all our strength and all our mind. And because we are with others we are arguing and reasoning with one another all the time. Indeed every sentence and every discourse is a product of reason. And so it is neither a shame nor a sin to discipline and cultivate our reason to the utmost. It is a necessity, it is a duty, it is an honor to do so.

Therefore if evangelization is the most important task, the task that comes immediately after it—not in the tenth place, or even the third place, but in the second place—is not politics, or economics, or the quest of comfort and security and ease, but to find out exactly what is happening to the mind and the spirit in the schools and universities. And once a Christian discovers that there is a total divorce between mind and spirit in the schools and universities, between the perfection of thought and the perfection of soul and character, between intellectual sophistication and the spiritual worth of the individual human person, between reason and faith, between the pride of knowledge and the contrition of heart consequent upon being a mere creature, and once he realizes that Jesus Christ will find himself less at home on the campuses of the great universities in Europe and America than almost anywhere else, he will be profoundly disturbed, and he will inquire what can be done to recapture the great universities for Jesus Christ—the universities which would not have come into being in the first place without him.

What can the poor Church even at its best do, what can evangelization even at its most inspired do, what can the poor family even at its purest and noblest do, if the children spend between fifteen and twenty years of their life—and indeed the most formative period of their life—in school and college in an atmosphere of formal denial of any relevance of God and spirit and soul and faith to the formation of their mind? The enormity of what is happening is beyond words.

The Church and the family, each already encumbered with its own strains and ordeals, are fighting a losing battle so far as the bearing of the university on the spiritual health and wholeness of youth is concerned. All the preaching in the world, and all the loving care of even the best parents between whom there are no problems whatever, will amount to little, if not to nothing, so long as what the children are exposed to day in and day out for fifteen to twenty years in the school and university virtually cancels out morally and spiritually what they hear and see and learn at home and in the church. Therefore the problem of the school and university is the most critical problem afflicting western civilization.

At the heart of all the problems facing western civilization—the general nervousness and restlessness, the dearth of grace and beauty and quiet and peace of soul, the manifold blemishes and perversions of personal character; problems of the family and of social relations in general, problems of economics and politics, problems of the media, problems affecting the school itself and the Church itself, problems in the international order—at the heart of the crisis in western civilization lies the state of the mind and the spirit in the universities.

The problem is not only to win souls but also to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover that you have not won the world. Indeed it may turn out that you have actually lost the world.

This is a solemn occasion. I must be frank with you: The greatest danger besetting American evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind as to its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. This cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and the spirit. People are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the Church or preaching the gospel. They have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure in conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past and thereby ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is abdicated and vacated to the enemy. Who among evangelicals can stand up to the great secular or naturalistic or atheistic scholars on their own terms of scholarship and research? Who among evangelical scholars is quoted as a normative source by the greatest secular authorities on history or philosophy or psychology or sociology or politics? Does your mode of thinking have the slightest chance of becoming the dominant mode of thinking in the great universities of Europe and America, which stamp your entire civilization with their own spirit and ideas?

For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ himself, as well as for their own sakes, evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.

Responsible Christians face two tasks—that of saving the soul, and that of saving the mind.... If it is the will of the Holy Spirit that we attend to the soul, certainly it is not his will that we neglect the mind. No civilization can endure with its mind being as confused and disordered as ours is today. All our ills stem proximately from the false philosophies that have been let loose in the world and that are now being taught in the universities, and ultimately of course...from the devil, whether or not the human agents know it. Save the university and you save western civilization and therewith the world.

Wake up, my friends, wake up: The great universities control the mind of the world! Therefore how can evangelism consider its task accomplished if it leaves the university un-evangelized? And how can evangelism evangelize the university if it cannot speak to the university? And how can it speak to the university if it is not itself already intellectualized? Therefore evangelism must first intellectualize itself to be able to speak to the university and therefore to be able to evangelize the university and therefore to save the world. This is the great task, the historic task, the most needed task, the task required loud and clear by the Holy Ghost Himself.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Review of "There Is a God" by Antony Flew

I recently finished reading the book, There is A God by Antony Flew. The subtitle for the book is "How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind," which is especially apropos considering Flew's contributions to modern philosophical atheology. Flew has been an important force in academic philosophy for the past half-century. He wrote a number of important articles and books that have shaped the subsequent discussion in philosophy of religion. Among his more important works are "Theology and Falsification," God and Philosophy, and The Presumption of Atheism. He was even involved in the debates with C.S. Lewis in the Socratic Club at Oxford. The atheists today who have gained much attention in the media have really not contributed much to the philosophical debate of God's existence. Those like Dawkins, Dennet, Wolpert, Harris, and Stenger tend to just rehash old arguments, many of which were originally put forth by Flew. (Some of the arguments they put forth are simply bad arguments, which they have made up themselves.)

The book begins by telling Flew's story. It describes how he arrived at an atheistic position, the reasoning the led him there, and some brief autobiographical details. The second half of the book consists of the reasons that led to Flew's conversion from atheism to deism. Flew lays his cards on the table stating, "I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe's intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source" (88). The titles of the chapters in this section are telling about what led to Flew's conversion: "A Pilgrimage of Reason," "Who Wrote the Laws of Nature?," "Did the Universe Know We Were Coming?," "How Did Life Go Live?," "Did Something Come From Nothing?," "Finding Space For God," and "Open to Omnipotence." As one might guess, some of the issues that led to Flew's conversion include the origin of the laws of nature, the fine-tuning of the universe, the intelligent design of life, how to make sense of life and freewill in a purely materialistic universe, and the cosmological argument. Flew's catalog of his intellectual journey is an interesting read, and it's also informative on the history of philosophy of religion. The book concludes with two appendixes. The first appendix was written by Roy Abraham Varghese and it critiques the so-called "new atheists." The second appendix is a dialog between Flew and N.T. Wright, the prominent British theologian and historian, in which Flew asks Wright a number of questions about the self-revelation of God in the person of Jesus.

This book is important on at least two levels. First, it is important because it signals that a renaissance is taking place among modern Christian theistic philosophy. The preface of the book cites a Time Magazine article from April, 1980, which says, "In a quiet revolution in thought and argument that hardly anyone would have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly this is happening ... in the crisp intellectual circles of academic philosophers." Unquestionably, there has been a resurgence of theism, and especially Christian theism, among academic philosophers. Thirty years ago, there was almost no such thing as a Christian philosophy professor at a major university. Today, Christian philosophy professors are common at major universities, and theistic positions are seen as highly respectable. God is not even close to being dead in the academy. On the contrary, He is alive and doing a mighty work.

Secondly, this book is important because one man is a step closer to trusting the Lord Jesus. I remember a debate I attended in 1998 in which William Lane Craig debated Antony Flew on the question of God's existence. (This debate is available in written form as the book, Does God Exist? The Craig-Flew Debate edited by Stan W. Wallace). After the debate I remember praying for Flew. It seems that perhaps God is taking steps towards answering my prayers. Flew does not consider himself a Christian at this point. Rather he believes in God, but the God he believes in is a deistic God who does not interact with people. However, in regards to Christianity Flew states, "I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true. There is nothing like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul" (185-186). Flew concludes his book stating, "Some claim to have made contact with this Mind. I have not--yet. But who knows what could happen next? Someday I might hear a Voice that says, 'Can you hear me now?'" (158). Please join me in praying that God would graciously call Antony Flew to Himself.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Horton Hears a Gospel

Last night I attended an outstanding lecture by Dr. Michael Horton, Westminster Seminary California professor of systematic theology and apologetics. His topic was "The Gospel: Good News or Good Advice?" He discussed the trend in our culture to relativise the gospel message to our felt needs, and in particular, how this relativistic gospel is vastly different from the true gospel message that was recaptured by the reformers. This is a much-needed message a culture that glorifies the gospel of self-help, life-improvement, and happy feelings. Our culture is drifting closer and closer towards the empty-self, infantile, sensate narcissism depicted so marvelously in Aldous Huxley's vision of A Brave New World. Sadly, this drifting culture has resulted in a drifting church that is creeping towards a false Christianity that is more concerned with having your best life now than it is with being restored to right relationship with God through the cross. Our drifting church desperately needs the anchor of the true Gospel, which was basic thesis of Horton's message.

Horton began by discussing various false relativised gospels, such as the gospel of "personal relationship with Jesus," and the gospel of "make Jesus the Lord of your life." Horton then proceeded from discussing these relativistic gospels to a discussion of what the true gospel is. He moved throughout the book of Romans, explaining the gospel from a reformed perspective, with a particular emphasis on our need to understand and recognize our personal sinful state before God. He argued we must comprehend our sinfulness so that we can rightly see our need, and therefore understand the good news of the atoning victory that Jesus accomplished on our behalf. He did an excellent job of explaining the doctrine of justification by faith from a reformed perspective, as well as challenging the audience to stand (or maybe "fall" is a better word) in Christ's grace alone.

I did have few minor qualms with Horton's presentation. Most of these problems do not have to do with what he said, but rather with what he did not say:
(1) Horton equated the gospel with justification by faith. For Horton, it seems that the gospel is the message that by grace through faith alone in the atoning work of Christ on the cross sinners can be made right before God. I would never want to detract from the centrality and importance of this message, but if I am trying to be faithful to the Bible, I cannot be satisfied that this is the whole of the gospel. An examination of Paul's usage of the word gospel (euangelion) reveals that "gospel" is used much more broadly than just referring to Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection. Rather, it seems that when Paul uses the word "gospel," he is referring to God's entire plan/program of salvation thoughout history, the core and center of which is Jesus' substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection (see Gal 3:8, Rom 1:9, 1 Cor 15:3-8; see also Mark 1:14-15). For example, in Galatians 3:8 we are told that the gospel was preached to Abraham as "In you shall all the nations be blessed." The gospel is not simply the message of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection. Rather it is the movement of God throughout history that reaches it's climax in Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection. This is why Paul can say in Romans 1:9 that he serves God "in the gospel of his Son." Paul recognized that he was now part of the movement of God that has been occuring throughout history to bless all nations. The goal of this "gospel" is the creation of a single people for God from both Jews and Gentiles (see Gal 3:8 and Eph 2:14-18). It seemed strange that Horton did not mention this broad definition of the gospel after he asked the question, "Is God a supporting actor in the movie of your life, or have you taken a supporting role in God's drama of redemption?" (This was my favorite quote of the night by the way). The gospel is God's drama of redemption, which we are called to be part of, and of which the core and center is Jesus' death and resurrection.
(2) Horton did not address the political dimension of the gospel. This is something that I've been particularly interested in partly because I'm currently reading Seyoon Kim's new book, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke. Many scholars argue that Paul's proclamation that "Jesus is Lord" necessarily implied that "Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not." Paul lived during a time when the Caesar was elevated to the status of a god, and pax romana (peace of Rome) was hailed as Caesar's gift to the world. It is undisputed that certain portions of Paul's letters (and indeed the reason he was imprisoned on occassion) were influenced by this context. I am currently undecided on the way(s) and extent that this should influence our understanding of the gospel. (I certainly disagree with those who would say that this means we should be against American military actions and American multi-national corporations). But whether or not Paul was using the gospel as a polemic against the Roman imperial cult, we should certainly understand Jesus' resurrection as a victory over sin, death, AND the evil powers/rulers of this age--and this should be understood as part of the gospel.
(3) Horton did not address the new creational aspect of the gospel. Something I've noticed is that people who tend to emphasize the substitutionary death of Jesus tend to recognize their forgiveness before God, but sometimes neglect the new life they have in Christ. In the same way, people who tend to emphasize the resurrection of Christ tend to focus on the new life they have in Christ, but sometimes neglect the fact that they are forgiven. (Someday I'm going to blog on this topic). Both Jesus' death and Jesus' resurrection are certainly part of Paul's definition of the gospel, but Horton emphasized Jesus' substitutionary death. As such, it seems that he neglected Jesus' resurrection and therefore the new life that we have in Christ that certainly should be understood as part of the gospel. Part of the good news is that we are given new lives in Christ and God's Spirit is placed within us to help us live a radically different kind of life (see Gal 5:22). When Jesus was preaching the gospel of the kingdom, He was inviting people to a radically different kind of life--the kind of life that one can only have by being forgiven and made a new creation. This is why in Romans 8 Paul can say that "...the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us..." (8:4). This is not talking about justification, but sanctification--the context mandates this. We are given God's Spirit, and we are thereby given the ability to live as God intends us to live. And this is part of what makes the good news good! We are not just forgiven--we're forgiven, made new, and born to a radically different kind of life in which we are not condemned to fail in our sins (as the person does in Romans 7). Do not misunderstand me to be saying that we can attain some sort of perfection. Rather I'm saying that part of the gospel is that we are given a new Source of life, and are able to make substantial progress in personal holiness. Righteousness is not only imputed to us--it is also imparted to us in our daily experience. And this is part of Paul's gospel and indeed, Jesus' gospel.

These criticisms should not be understood as indicating that I substantially disagreed with Horton. On the contrary, I found myself "Amening" to 99.9% of what he said. I just would have liked the explanation of the gospel to be a bit more well-rounded. But let's be honest... He had limited time, and maybe I'm asking too much! So let me sum up by saying that Horton did an outstanding job. He's a sharp guy and very engaging to listen to. In any case, Horton's message is much-needed at the present time, and I would commend it to anyone who is interested (and to those not interested). If anyone is aware of a recording of the event that is available for download, I'd appreciate it if you commented below on where it could be found. Thanks!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Thank You, President Bush

Yesterday, the torch passed from President George W. Bush to President Barack H. Obama. It seems that many Americans believe that Bush is the worst president this nation has ever had, and that Obama will be the best president that this nation has ever had (or at least that's what you'd believe from listening to the media). However, I am thankful for George W. Bush's presidency, and believe him to be a great man.

George W. Bush embodies what the Bible tells us is important for those in positions of leadership. The Bible states that the qualifications for those in positions of leadership in the church are primarily character attributes--not functional skills. Shepherding a church is, in some very important ways, a much greater responsibility than governing a nation, but nevertheless it remains that when the Bible gives qualifications for leaders, these qualifications primarily deal with a person's character (1 Tim. 3:2-7, Tit. 1:6-9, 1 Pet. 5:1-3).

I believe that in his presidency, George W. Bush demonstrated a tremendous amount of character. Even his critics often admit that he is sincere, honest, and a man of integrity. It's apparent from watching him that he is genuine and does not take himself too seriously. At the same time, he took his responsibility as the President with the utmost seriousness. This is a difficult balance for anyone to maintain. The only way to maintain this balance is to have the humility that comes from trusting God on a daily basis. George Bush made it known that he depended on His Savior for strength. The story of his addiction to alcohol, and the dramatic transformation that occurred when he trusted in Christ is no secret. And it was his relationship with Jesus Christ that gave him the strength to lead our nation through some of the most trying times in our nation's history.

George W. Bush made difficult decisions in hard times and did what he believed was right--not what was popular. He led us through 9/11 with courage and leadership. He established the department of Homeland Security, and prevented any further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. He passed the Patriot Act, and vastly improved our nations intelligence gathering capabilities. He led us through Katrina. He removed an evil tyrant (who was guilty of genocide) from power. He transformed Iraq from a dictatorship led by fear to a democracy with real hope. He gave the courts conservative judges who take the constitution seriously. He did more for AIDS in Africa than any other president or nation in recent history (though this is not well known). For the vast majority of his presidency, the economy flourished due to his tax reductions. And he even saw through the beginnings of a recovery to the economic woes caused by the mortgage crisis (which I attribute mostly to the irresponsibility of people/banks who took/gave bad loans). Sure, there were bumps and hiccups along the way. Sure, there were mistakes; all presidents make mistakes, especially wartime presidents. But I despise the arrogant cynical attitude that focuses only on the bumps and hiccups rather than the big picture. It's easy to criticize someone in a position of tremendous responsibility.

George Bush's presidency was far more successful than not. And there's a key element to his presidency that deserves to be recognized: his courage. Time and again, Bush did what others would not have done, and for that very thing he was vilified: he defiantly did the right thing. He did the right thing though it was unpopular and difficult. And in the end, this is what will distinguish his presidency. He is a man of courage and integrity.

I will pray for President Obama: that God give him wisdom, courage, and integrity throughout his presidency. And that he too will have the humility that stems from a deep dependence upon the Only True God. But for now, I'd like to say thank you, President Bush, for your service to our country over the past several years. Thank you for leading our nation through some of the most difficult crises that any president in recent history has seen. Thank you for doing the right thing when it wasn't popular, and for being a man of courage and integrity. I will miss your leadership.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Profound Effect of Caring

Check out this video. This is a clip of the the magician and outspoken atheist Penn from the act, "Penn and Teller." He has a TV show on Showtime called "B.S." (only spelled-out) where he criticizes various things including Christianity and theism. It's amazing how one act of humble, sincere, loving obedience can have a profound effect on even the most vehement atheists.

1 Peter 2:12 "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation."
1 Peter 3:15-16 "But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. "

Thanks to Dan for telling me about this.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Christians and Video Games

I have a confession to make: I am a gamer. I've been a gamer ever since I got my first Nintendo Entertainment System, pushed the "A" button, and was amazed to see Mario jump across the TV screen. Since then I've progressed across various systems including the original Nintendo, Atari, Super Nintendo, Gameboy, Nintendo 64, Playstation, Playstation 2, Wii, and my two current favorites: the PC and the Playstation 3.

So now it's out in the open: I am a gamer. But I am also a Christian, and as a Christian, I need to evaluate whether it is okay for me to play video games, and if so, what types of video games are acceptable. Let's start with the question of whether or not it is okay to play video games.

What is the justification for playing video games? The easy answer: "It's fun." Fun is a good reason to do a thing, but not good enough. Christianity teaches that joy is a great good, so fun is a good sign that there is something worthwhile about a thing. But many things mix worthwhile parts with enough worthless harms to ruin them. Some good does not justify even more bad. I loathe the attitude of some that being fun is a good reason to worry about the goodness of a thing, but I equally worry that in our consumerist culture, we might justify too much in the name of fun. So what further justification is there beyond fun? I can think of four:

(1) Video games can promote high-order thinking skills. These skills include components such as reading, strategic thinking, creative problem solving, dependency-based logic, interpretive analysis, plan formulation and execution, and adaptation to rapid change. Nearly every video game teaches one or more of these skills.
(2) Video games can promote creativity and art. Many games invite players to design their own levels, customize characters, create their own add-on content, and even modify the game in drastic ways.
(3) Video games can promote community and interpersonal skills. This community promotion includes both online community and local community. Community can be created by sharing online experiences with people from around the world (especially with the advent of Bluetooth headsets and video chats becoming available in games). Video games can also be a venue for personal fellowship locally. It's a ton of fun to sit next to a friend challenging them at your favorite game. I've personally known people who established relationships with others over a video game, and then invited that person to church and seen a dramatic transformation occur. Because video games can promote community, they necessarily can teach interpersonal skills, especially teamwork.
(4) Video games can teach moral lessons. This is a somewhat controversial point because video games can teach either positive or negative moral lessons, depending on the game. However, I would submit that there are many positive lessons to be had from video games.

Of course, these positive factors need to be tempered by the fact that all video games can be harmful in excess. The same is true with nearly everything God created to be enjoyed by us. Sex is a good thing (within marriage), but if someone becomes preoccupied with sex, this desire can become destructive. In the same way, we must be careful that we do not become preoccupied with video games so that they consume our souls and our time. We are given a limited amount of time on this earth, and we need to make sure we use this time wisely. We must pray with the Psalmist, "Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Ps. 90:12). Often our time can be better spent than playing video games. But it would be wrong to say that all time spent on video games (or personal entertainment in general) is wrong. God knows we need times of rest and relaxation, and these are not sinful. So is it okay for Christians to play video games? I conclude that it is okay for Christians to play video games in moderation. This brings us to our second question.

What types of games are acceptable for Christians to play? It doesn't cut it just to say "a game that is well made" since such a statement is as irrelevant to the morality of the game as the efficiency of a murder plan is to its moral status.

The essential question players ought to ask is whether playing a game hurts us... and by hurting us hurts those who love us. Does playing a game make us less loving, more apt to spew hateful crudities, decrease intimacy, make us more likely to objectify men and women, more prone to detach our emotions from our experiences? Does playing this game harm my soul? This is the central question we must be ask. There are a number of ways that games can do this. I will briefly discuss six such ways:

(1) The depiction of evil. Many games depict unspeakable evils. However, this does not necessarily make them wrong. Not all presentations of evil are evil themselves. We can all agree that showing the raw side of life does not make a thing bad. The Bible itself quite often depicts the raw side of life. It seems that the relevant question is how that evil is presented. A film that presented genocide in a favorable manner would not be good for the culture. A film that showed the ugliness of genocide would be very, very hard to watch, but might be good for me. The book of Judges in the Bible has horrific things in it, but they are presented as the hard truth about evil. Some games present evil things as evil. For example, the Call of Duty series presents the atrocities of the Nazis in World War II as evil acts that warranted a war. However, other games present evil as the norm or even cool. In Grand Theft Auto, the goal of the game is to work your way up in an organized crime network by stealing cars, visiting prostitutes, going to strip clubs, avoiding the police, and robbing people. This game depicts evil as cool, and thus cannot be considered morally right. Therefore in evaluating whether we ought to play a game or not, we must consider how evil is presented in the game. Is it evil depicted as evil, or is it depicted as exciting, normal, cool, or good?

(2) Participation in virtual violence. Psychologists have said that participation in virtual violence can have harmful effects on one's disposition (see this article). Gamers like to respond that the Old Testament contains violent themes and images. This is a valid point that ought to be considered. Not all violence is evil or harmful to one's soul. Some violence is heroic and good for one's soul. For example, consider watching the violence that occurs in the film The Passion of the Christ. Although the violence in this film is perhaps the most horrific violence ever depicted in film, it is nonetheless arguably good for one's soul. Therefore we must ask ourselves in what sort of virtual violence are we participating? Is the violence heroic or senseless? Pretending for hours at a time to be an allied fighter pilot in World War II (as in Blazing Angels) is not morally the same as pretending to be a street thug who beats up an elderly woman for fun (as in Grand Theft Auto). Killing in combat seems morally different from killing in a robbery. Thus in assessing whether we ought to play a game, we should assess the type of virtual violence within the game.

(3) Encouragement of false beliefs about reality. Many games encourage false and anti-biblical beliefs about reality. This occurs mainly through stereotypes and the depiction of false worldviews. In playing a video game, we must be aware of the stereotypes and worldviews found within, and be able to separate these from reality. If we cannot do so, then a game may be harmful to our souls. However, if we are able to distinguish the truth from the lie, then this can become an exercise in critical thinking and help one to develop a more holistic Christian worldview. Of course, a game that encourages false beliefs would still be harmful to the general culture even if Christians were able to rightly discern the truth.

(4) Exposure to pornography and crudity.
The pornography and crudity in a video game is real and not virtual. As someone who wants (however difficult it is) to have a great love and share intimacy with just one person, I cannot expose myself to a video game that includes pornography. (And for those of you who are unaware, there are plenty of games that feature pornographic material of some sort). By crudity I mean the foul language and ugliness involved in many video games. Does this impact me? Of course, it does. If innocence and gentleness of spirit are good, then we ought to consider that games with crudity make such attitudes hard. To avoid becoming jaded, we ought to avoid games with pornography and crudity. As Paul said, "I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil" (Rom 16:19).

(5) Detachment from reality. One of the greatest dangers of video games is that they encourage distancing oneself from one's own experience. Gamers frequently say that highly realistic games do not make them killers or thieves. This is true. It does, however, encourage (like the consumption of all media) distancing oneself from what one sees and hears. Do we really want to make ourselves distant from our experiences? Do we want to become detached from our own emotions? What if we cannot "turn off" this distancing mechanism? If we cannot do so, then we may end up treating people as "means to an end" rather than "ends" themselves. It may even become difficult for us to experience appropriate emotional responses to people and events in our everyday lives. We must be careful that we do not become detached from reality by playing video games. It's for this reason that I recommend that people who do play video games fast from the games they play every once in a while to keep themselves in check.

(6) Addiction to adrenaline. It's easy to get in the habit of constantly seeking another thrill--seeking the next adrenaline rush. Often video games are like action scenes in a movie that never let up. This constant excitement can become addictive. In a world of elevator music where we almost never have time to hear ourselves think, it's important to be able to quiet and compose our souls before the Lord so that we are able to hear from Him and walk with Him (see Ps. 131). Sometimes playing video games can foster an adrenaline addiction that makes this almost impossible. Video games are not the only thing that do this. The sensate, consumerist, media-driven nature of our culture makes this a real danger for anyone who experiences the normal media that someone sees in a day. It's for this reason that we must be careful to play video games in moderation and to make silence and solitude regular spiritual disciplines.

So while all video games are not bad, some video games certainly are. In evaluating whether a video game is acceptable for a Christian to play, the above six criteria are helpful in evaluating a game. To conclude this post, my hope is that this has served as a model of how to thoughtfully integrate the Christian worldview with a normal, everyday issue. As Christians, we ought to be in the habit of thinking about how our behavior effects our souls. In order to have a holistic Christian worldview, this should extend to every area of life, including the video games we play. If anyone has a PS3 and wants to play with me online, my PSN ID is "eRaCer001" (without the quotation marks). Happy gaming!

Note: My thoughts on this subject are based partially and in some cases verbatim on a couple of blog posts by John Mark Reynolds, which can be found here and here.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Praise God for the Furnace

Below is an excerpt from A.W. Tozer's book, The Root of the Righteous. The "Rutherford" Tozer refers to is the great Scottish Presbyterian theologian and author, Samuel Rutherford. Of his Letters, Spurgeon once said, "let the world know that Spurgeon held Rutherfurd's Letters to be the nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in all the writings of men... none penetrated further into the innermost heart of holy fellowship with Jesus." Enjoy!

It was the enraptured Rutherford who could shout in the midst of serious and painful trials, “Praise God for the hammer, the file and the furnace.”

The hammer is a useful tool, but the nail, if it had feeling and intelligence, could present another side of the story. For the nail knows the hammer only as an opponent, a brutal, merciless enemy who lives to pound it into submission, to beat it down out of sight and clinch it into place. That is the nail’s view of the hammer, and it is accurate except for one thing: The nail forgets that both it and the hammer are servants of the same workman. Let the nail but remember that the hammer is held by the workman and all resentment toward it will disappear. The carpenter decides whose head shall be beaten next and what hammer shall be used in the beating. That is his sovereign right. When the nail has surrendered to the will of the workman and has gotten a little glimpse of his benign plans for its future it will yield to the hammer without complaint.

The file is more painful still, for its business is to bite into the soft metal, scraping and eating away the edges till it has shaped the metal to its will. Yet the file has, in truth, no real will in the matter but serves another master as the metal does also. It is the master and not the file that decides how much shall be eaten away, what shape the metal shall take, and how long the painful filing shall continue. Let the metal accept the will of the master and it will not try to dictate when or how it shall be filed.

As for the furnace, it is the worst of all. Ruthless and savage, it leaps at every combustible thing that enters it and never relaxes its fury till it has reduced it all to shapeless ashes. All that refuses to burn is melted to a mass of helpless matter, without will or purpose of its own. When everything is melted that will melt and all is burned that will burn, then and not till then the furnace calms down and rests from its destructive fury.

With all this known to him, how could Rutherford find it in his heart to praise God for the hammer, the file and the furnace? The answer is simply that he loved the Master of the hammer, he adored the Workman who wielded the file, he worshiped the Lord who heated the furnace for the everlasting blessing of His children. He had felt the hammer till its rough beatings no longer hurt; he had endured the file till he had come actually to enjoy its bitings; he had walked with God in the furnace so long that it had become as his natural habitat. That does not overstate the facts. His letters reveal as much.

Such doctrine as this does not find much sympathy among Christians in these soft and carnal days. We tend to think of Christianity as a painless system by which we can escape the penalty of past sins and attain to heaven at last. The flaming desire to be rid of every unholy thing and to put on the likeness of Christ at any cost is not to be found among us. We expect to enter the everlasting kingdom of our Father and to sit down around the table with sages, saints and martyrs; and through the grace of God, maybe we shall; yes, maybe we shall. But for most of us it could prove at first an embarrassing experience. Ours might be the silence of the untried soldier in the presence of the battle-hardened heroes who have fought the fight and won the victory and who have scars to prove that they were present when the battle was joined.

The devil, things and people being what they are, it is necessary for God to use the hammer, the file and the furnace in His holy work of preparing a saint for true sainthood. It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.

Without doubt we of this generation have become too soft to scale great spiritual heights. Salvation has come to mean deliverance from unpleasant things. Our hymns and sermons create for us a religion of consolation and pleasantness. We overlook the place of the thorns, the cross and the blood. We ignore the function of the hammer and the file.

Strange as it may sound, it is yet true that much of the suffering we are called upon to endure on the highway of holiness is an inward suffering for which scarcely an external cause can be found. For our journey is an inward journey, and our real foes are invisible to the eyes of men. Attacks of darkness, of despondency, of acute self-depreciation may be endured without any change in our outward circumstances. Only the enemy and God and the hard-pressed Christian know what has taken place. The inward suffering has been great and a mighty work of purification has been accomplished, but the heart knoweth its own sorrow and no one else can share it. God has cleansed His child in the only way He can, circumstances being what they are. Thank God for the furnace.