Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 1

Timothy Keller, Making Sense of GodTimothy Keller.[1]  2016. Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical.  New York: Viking Press. (Part 2, Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Why does anyone care about theology, the study of God? In our thoroughly secular society, God would seem to be irrelevant, yet these are not happy times. Suicide rates have recently reached record levels and life expectancy went down last year in America for the first time driven by increases in death rates from preventable causes. If your faith is in the basic goodness of human beings, why is nuclear war an increasing worry? If your faith is in rational decision-making and technology, why Is life expectancy declining here in America due to preventable causes? As the presumptions of secular society have proven to be at best false and at worse idolatrous, turning to God and the study of his ways might seem a sensible response.

Introduction

In his recent book, Making Sense of God, Timothy Keller sets forth these objectives:

“…I will compare and contrast how Christianity and secularism … seek to provide meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, a moral compass, and hope—all things so crucial that we cannot live life without them. I will be arguing that Christianity makes the most emotional and cultural sense…” (4-5)

A bit later he addresses his target audience: “If you think that Christianity doesn’t hold much promise of making sense to a thinking person, then this book is written for you.” (5) Keller writes in three parts: (1) Why does anyone need religion? (2) Religion is more than you think it is; and (3) Christianity makes sense. (vii-viii)

This review is written in three parts that correspond roughly to Keller’s own divisions. The first part will, in addition, provide an overview of the book.

Who is Timothy Keller?

Timothy Keller founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan, New York in 1989. While many pastors have founded churches in recent years, Keller stands out for having successfully witnessed to young, urban professionals with a faithful message, something thought inconceivable until he did it. He writes prolificly about Christian apologetics and his writing is passionately followed by young pastors and seminarians interested in urban ministry. He grew up in Pennsylvania, attended Bucknell University (BS), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (MDiv), and Westminster Theological Seminary (PhD).

Keller distinguishes three uses of the word secular. In the first, a secular society is one that separates religion from the state, as is true in most Western countries. In the second, a secular person focuses on the material world and is skeptical that anything exists outside it. Finally, a secular culture focuses on the present, material reality and “meaning in life, guidance, and happiness are understood and sought in present-time economic prosperity, material comfort, and emotional fulfillment.” In a secular culture, even people professing faith may not act on it in making significant life decisions. (2-3)

In this sense, secularism is an atheistic religion, one of many, because God no longer occupies first priority in the lives of secular people, regardless of their professed religion.

Why Does Anyone Need Religion?

While the number of cultural Christians continues to decline in the U.S., the number of devote Christians continues to grow here and abroad. Why? Keller offers two reasons:

“…many people find secular reason to have ‘things missing’ from it that are necessary to live life well. Another explanation is that great numbers of people intuitively sense a transcendent realm beyond the natural world.” (11).

What’s Missing?

Secular postmodernism asserts many rights, such as human rights, that are a legacy of Christian morality, but it has no justification for maintaining them outside the Christian tradition. For the Jew or the Christian, human rights make perfect sense because they believe that we are created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), but for the Marxist, who does not believe God exists and believes that all rights are conferred by the state, such logic seems meaningless. Citing Habermas, Keller writes:

“The ideals of freedom…of conscience, human rights and democracy [are] the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love…To this day, there is no alternative to it.” (13)

For the radical individualist, the absence of any moral obligation beyond the individual leaves no philosophical justification for human rights yet most assert human rights should be respected without a justification. Passing a law to assert disembodied values can certainly be done, but what happens when an evil coalition passes contrary laws? Many people have sensed that something important is missing and have come to see faith in God as essential to maintaining a just society.

A Sense of Transcendence

The sense of transcendence becomes obvious when contemplating the limits of the material world. Keller writes:

“Steve Jobs, when contemplating his own death, confessed that he felt that ‘it’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience…and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.” (16)

In my own experience, I came to understand that even nihilism, complete denial of the existence of God, points itself to God because the human heart refuses to live without hope.

Assessment

Timothy Keller’s book, Making Sense of God, is a jewel. It answers better than most books focused on apologetics some of the basic concerns of our age. In parts two and three of this review, I will turn to Keller’s other two concerns: why religion is more than you think it is and how Christianity makes sense.

References

Habermas, Jürgen. 2006. Time of Transitions. UK: Cambridge.

[1]@TimKellerNYC, http://www.TimothyKeller.com.

 

Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 1

Also see:

Keller Argues the Case for God 

Keller Engages Galatians; Speaks Gospel 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2fEPbBK

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Return to Leadership

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy
of double honor, especially those
who labor in preaching and teaching
(1 Tim 5:17)

Return to Leadership

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My term as elder began in January 2003 when Centreville Presbyterian Church (CPC) ordained me and I was elected as clerk of session, a leadership position. As clerk, I worked closely with the pastor to set agendas for the session and congregational meetings, and kept the official notes on all meetings.

Pastor Rob encouraged the elders to deepen their faith and to become more involved in the life of the church. He encouraged us involved dedicating the first half-hour of our meetings to study and prayer. The first book that we used in this effort was Oswald Sanders’ book, Spiritual Leadership, which served to make the point that elders were more than merely the board of directors of the church. Session soon became my first small group.

Pastor Rob also encouraged us was to become more involved in the life of the church through preaching and teaching. In the spring, our associate pastor resigned and Pastor Rob asked that elders to offer personal testimonies on Sunday morning to give him some time off.
At first, I avoided the question, but after thinking about it, I told him:

I am uncomfortable giving a personal testimonial, but if you want, I will preach for you. I am used to teaching college students so it should be no problem to preach.

He agreed and shared a book, Communicating for a Change, with me by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones to help me get started. Over the next year, I preached four times on the call to faith and ministry, the problem of pain, the Book of Esther, and the covenants of law and grace.
The following year, I taught my first adult Sunday school class, a video series crafted around R.C. Sproul’s book: Reason to Believe. We had more than twenty adults who attended the class and, because of the success of the class, I was encouraged to teach Bible studies, starting with the Book of Romans in 2005. After that I taught Luke, Genesis, Hebrews, Philippians, and Matthew.

After a point in teaching, I got frustrated by the poor attendance on Sunday mornings. I thought: “Where are the elders? Where are the deacons?” When I looked around the room, I realized that only one or two in a class of a dozen were even church members. My class consisted primarily of family members, colleagues from work, and active, non-members who wandered in. These were people who, like myself, struggled to understand their faith and chided at the usual pat answers.

References

Sanders, J. Oswald. 1994. Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer. Chicago: Moody Press.

Sproul, R.C. 1982. Reason to Believe: A Response to Common Objectives to Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Stanley, Andy and Lane Jones. 2006. Communicating for a Change. Colorado Springs: Multinomah Books.

 

Other ways to engage with me online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2sqj

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Placher Argues the Foundations for Postmodernism, Part 1

William C. Placher. 1989. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is hard not to notice the crisis of identity facing Christians and the church today. If we as Christians see ourselves as created in the image of an almighty God, then nothing is impossible for God and, by inference, for us as heirs to the kingdom. On the other hand, if we start to believe our critics that God does not exist and church is just another human institution, then our options are no different than anyone else’s—limited by the time and money immediately available. Because we act out of our identity, we need to care about what our identity is in our heart of hearts, not just on our business cards. For Christians, our truest identity is defined in our theory of God or, in other words, in our theology.

In his book, Unapologetic Theology, William Placher writes:

“This book represents some of the philosophy I have been reading, as one context for thinking about a new way—or maybe a very old way—of doing theology.” (7)

By “old” Placher means to argue apologetically from a Christian perspective with Christian assumptions. This “old” perspective, which he calls the “unapologetic” approach, is interesting because:

“Christian apologists can adopt the language and assumptions of their audiences so thoroughly that they no longer speak with a distinctively Christian voice.” (11)

Arguing from the “new” Enlightenment perspective means:

“questioning all inherited assumptions and then accepting only those beliefs which could be proven according to universally acceptable criteria.” (11)

If those universally acceptable criteria preclude faith in Christ Jesus by their nature, then the “new” perspective blunts effective witness (12). Worse, if no universally acceptable criteria exist, which essentially means that the Enlightenment (or modern) era is over, then the price of arguing is paid without gaining any credibility as a witness. Thus, adopting an unapologetic stance appears warranted in the postmodern era which we find ourselves in.

Placher’s argument raises two questions that we care about. First, is the modern era truly over and, if so, how do we know? Second, because Placher clearly believes that the modern era is over, how do we approach apologetics in the absence of universally acceptable criteria for discussion? We care about these questions because it is hard to witness for Christ in the postmodern era if, in effect, we do not speak the language of a postmodern person.

In part 1 of this review will focus on the first question while part 2 will consider the second.

Is the modern era over? Placher starts his discussion of the Enlightenment with the father of the Enlightenment, René Descartes, writing:

“Descartes had set the goal of seeking a foundation for knowledge, but modern philosophy soon divided between empiricists who looked for that foundation in bare, uninterrupted sensations [things you see, hear, feel, taste…] and rationalists who sought it in logically unchallengeable first truths.” (26)

For empiricists, a problem quickly emerged because:

“We cannot build knowledge on a foundation of uninterpreted sense-data, because we cannot know particular sense-data in isolation from the conceptual schemes we use to organize them.” (29)

If this is not obvious, think about how one knows that a light is red and different from yellow or green. In order to recognize the difference, one needs to understand the definition of red and how it differs from yellow or green. Without knowing that definition, red is not a distinct color. We teach colors to children at a young age so they seem obvious to us as adults, but to untaught kids colors have yet to be learned. The definition of red is what is meant here as a conceptual scheme.

For logicians, Placher observes:

“What we cannot do is find some point that is uniquely certain by definition, guarantee to hold regardless of any empirical discoveries, independent of any other elements in the our system.” (33)

Placher notes the definition of a mammal, “a warm-blooded animal with hair which bears live young”, had to change with the discovery of the platypus (32). While the problem posed by the platypus seems trivial, Placher notes after referencing Russell’s paradox that:

“If our definitions in mathematics or logic lead to problems, we may decide to change them, but we always have more than one choice.” (34)

In conclusion, Placher cites Wittgenstein observing:

“when we find the foundations, it turns out they are being held up by the rest of the house. If theologians try to defend their claims by starting with basic, foundational truths that any rational person would have to believe or observations independent of theory and assumptions, they are trying to do something that our best philosophers tell us is impossible.” (34)

In other words, the attempt by Enlightenment scholars to find a defensible basis for objective truth has failed and we are now in the postmodern era where it can be said: “how you stand on an issue depends on where you sit”.

William Placher’s book, Unapologetic Theology, is a fascinating review of modern and postmodern philosophical arguments that affect how we do theology and witness in the postmodern age. In part one of this review I have summarized Placher’s argument for why the modern age is truly over—objective truth has no foundation that we can all agree on. In part two of this review, I will summarize Placher’s arguments for how we should do theology and witness understanding that we are in the postmodern era.

 

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Incentive to Examine Faith

simplefaith_web_01172017Christians face an enormous challenge in living out their faith today because major tenets of Christian theology are being openly challenged in the media, in schools, and in the political arena. What are we to believe and, then, how are we to apply those beliefs in our daily choices?

The question of what are we to believe falls in epistemology, which is the study of knowledge (how do we know what we know). Epistemology is an intimidating subject normally reserved for those with a strong background in philosophy, but, like it or not, each of us has to answer these questions of faith without the benefit of a doctorate in philosophy. As such, our decisions always involve a high level of uncertainty.

Even though none of us are adequately prepared for this challenge, two reasons force us to pay attention to epistemology.

First, the rate of cultural change in this generation is a consequence of a fundamental shift in philosophy. Modernism is dead; postmodernism is unstable and transitioning to something else. Philosophical change directly affects our understanding of theology and how to apply it. The most obvious illustration of this problem has been the breakdown of the division between church and state which had existed since the time of the reformation.

Second, when philosophical disagreements arise, institutions leveraged on them no longer can be relied upon to provide guidance on how to handle the changes. Professional pastors, for example, receive specific training in biblical interpretation, pastoral care, and preaching; they receive no more training than the rest of us in journalism, politics, psychology, science, philosophy, and business management. Institutions actively engaged in self-preservation offer little shelter to those dependent on them.

Because of these changes, much like the average person following the mortgage crisis needs to know more about financial decision making, they also need to know more about epistemology. The alternative is to reject faith leaving one open to unreflective acceptance of the many pseudo religious alternatives (atheism), to accept pagan or other faith alternatives, or to merge Christian faith with either of the prior alternatives (syncretism). Everyone has a belief system; not everyone reflects systematically on what they believe.

Now, some of you may be thinking, why do I need to bother myself? Why can’t I just apply scripture and be done with it? Of course, you can. However, if you do this on Sunday morning and forget about it on Monday morning, then do you honestly believe your Sunday morning applications or are they simply an interesting mental exercise? Blind acceptance of faith invariably leads to beliefs only tentatively held and of little use when life’s challenges arise. In some sense, epistemology provides a lens for viewing the current age through the eyes of scripture so that it is more meaningful, hence, more applicable.

The purpose of this writing project, Simple Faith: Something Worth Living For, is examine the fundamentals of epistemology from the perspective of faith. In many cases, I will take the arguments no deeper than the fundamentals of apologetics—offering a defense of the faith—but to shy away from deeper debates would be a disservice. Each and every day we are asked to make decisions about epistemological topics with a minimum of information—decisions under high levels of uncertainty. Any additional information is accordingly most valuable.

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3 Reasons that Christian Apologetics and Spirituality Should not be Separated

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Interviewers love experts. Specialists dominate public discourse. Problems arise when one field depends heavily on another and experts have to depart from their expertise. The fields of Christian apologetics and spirituality suffer from this problem.

Christian apologetics focuses on defending the truth claims of Christianity[1] while spirituality focuses on living them out[2]. Balance between these two fields is clearly needed in a world of imperfect information because learning more about the truth claims of Christianity informs how they are lived out and vice versa. Thus, treating either field independently of the other renders the spirituality dead and the apologetics impractical.

At least three reasons can be cited for why apologetics and spirituality should be closely linked.

The first reason for unity of apologetics and spirituality arises in the context of the apologist’s favorite Bible verse fragment:

“…always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV)

The context of this fragment—in fact, the entire book of 1 Peter—is one of “lifestyle evangelism” in the midst of persecution. For example, we read:

“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy … [fragment] … having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” (1 Peter 3:13-16)

In other words, the Apostle Peter says to shame your tormentors with your godly lifestyle!  We to offer a verbal defense only in the context of an authentic Christian lifestyle (spirituality).

The second reason for unity of apologetics and spirituality arises because their separation affects a division between heart (spirituality) and mind (apologetics)—an example of Greek dualism. The Bible teaches that heart and mind cannot be separated, in part, because God created them both just like God created the earth and heaven (Genesis 1:1). Jesus’ bodily resurrection also speaks to the unity of the body (heart) and spirit (mind; e.g. Luke 24:36-43).

The need for unity of heart and mind has been debated throughout church history.  For example, Pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards (2009, 13)—when writing in 1746 about the effects of the Great Awakening—noted that both head and heart were necessary for effective discipling. More recently, Matthew Elliott has argued that God of the Bible is an emotionally stable deity and consistently expresses emotions in keeping with his character. This is unlike other deities in the ancient world who were typically characterized as selfish and capacious in dealing with humans[1]. In other words, God displays emotions consistent with his thinking more frequently than we do with ours!

The third reason for unity of apologetics and spirituality arises from the observation that separation leads to serious lifestyle problems. If our spirituality is not informed by our thinking, then we will be more likely to act solely on emotions—doing what feels good.

Working as a chaplain intern in a Washington hospital in 2011 and 2012, I noticed a disturbing trend among patients. More than half of all patients admitted to the emergency room had problems stemming from relational problems and poor life-style choices[2]. Overweight patients came in with diabetes, asthma, joint problems, and cardiac problems. Men passed out on the street from excessive drinking or other drug abuses. Young men and women fearful of contracting AIDS came in to be tested. These trends were even more pronounced among psyche patients.

We should expect these patient outcomes—doing what feels good comes naturally. The standard behavioral learning model teaches that even an amoeba will response to a positive stimulus by repeating the behavior that evoked the positive stimulus and doing less of the behavior associated with a negative stimulus. When the standard behavioral model breaks down, as it does in most moral dilemmas, then disaster directly follows. For example, this is the story of many addictions.[3] In this respect, the Apostle Paul lamented:  “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18).

Knowing that apologetics and spirituality inform each other, are treated as part of a unified whole in the Bible, and serve to strengthen our moral resolve in a world of temptations, Christians and theologians need to reflect on how this integration of heart and mind can be strengthened both in theory and in practice. Let’s start today.

References

Chan, Simon.1998. Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Cross, John G. and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press.

Edwards, Jonathan. 2009. The Religious Affections (orig pub 1746). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.

Sproul, R.C. 2003. Defending Your Faith: An Introduction to Apologetics. Wheaton: Crossway Books.

 

[1] “The term apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia, which literally means ‘a reasoned statement or a verbal defense.’” (Sproul 203,13).

[2] “Generally,spirituality refers to the kind of life that is formed by a particular type of spiritual theology. Spirituality is the lived reality, whereas spiritual theology is the systematic reflection and formalization of that reality.” (Chan 1998,16).

[3] Elliott distinguishes 2 theories of emotions:  the cognitive theory and the non-cognitive theory. The cognitive theory of emotions argues that “reason and emotion are interdependent” (47) while the non-cognitive theories promote the separation of reason and emotion (46). In other words, the cognitive theory states that we get emotional about the things that we believe strongly. Our emotions are neither random nor unexplained—they are not mere physiology. Elliott writes: “if the cognitive theory is correct, emotions become an integral part of our reason and our ethics” (53-54) informing and reinforcing moral behavior. Review at: (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1dc).

[4] Speaking later with the head surgeon, he corrected my observation.  He reported that not half the patients but three-quarters of them were admitted with relational problems and poor lifestyle choices.

[5] Behavioral psychologists are well aware of this moral dilemma.  See, for example, Cross and Guyer (1980).  Review at: (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Zp).

 

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Plantinga Defends Merits of Confessional Faith, Part 1

Plantinga_review_05092015Alvin Plantinga. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  (Goto Part 2; Goto Part 3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Part 3 of my Longfield review ended with a rather frustrating assessment:

“The weakness in the evangelical position is philosophical:  very few PCUSA pastors and theologians today subscribe to Scottish Common Sense Realism.  If to be postmodern means to believe that scripture can only be interpreted correctly within its context, then we are all liberals in a Machen sense.  A strong, confessional position requires philosophical warrant—a philosophical problem requires a philosophical solution—which we can all agree upon.  In the absence of philosophical warrant and credibility, the confessions appear arbitrary—an act of faith.” [1]

For most of the period since 1925, evangelicals have had a bit of a philosophical inferiority complex—having to take on faith that the confessional stance of the church since about the fourth century was not defensible in a rigorous philosophical sense.  It is at this point that Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief becomes both an important and interesting read.

The philosophical problem is more specifically found in epistemology—how do we know what we know?  Because Christianity is a religion based on truth claims, epistemology is not just nice to know—it is core tenant of the faith.  For example, Jesus said:

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32 ESV)

Being unable after 1925 to agree on the core confessions of the denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and evangelicals more generally were placed on the defensive. Faith increasingly became private matter as more and more the denomination withdrew from public life, from active evangelism and missions, and from teaching about morality.  Later, unable to meet the modern challenge, the denomination came to be coopted by postmodern philosophies—if faith is simply a strongly held value, then it will crumble when confronted with more deeply held beliefs.

Into this crisis of faith, Plantinga defines his work in these terms:

“This book is about the intellectual or rational acceptability of Christian belief.  When I speak here of Christian belief, I mean what is common to the great creeds of the main branches of the Christian church.” (vii)

Notice that Plantinga has to both specify that he is writing about epistemology (theory of knowledge)—“intellectual or rational acceptability of Christian belief”— and specify what Christianity is—“what is common to the great creeds”.  Plantinga expands on this problem saying:

“Is the very idea of Christian belief coherent?…To accept Christian belief, I say, is to believe that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good person (a person without a body) who has created us and our world, who loves us and was willing to send his son into the world to undergo suffering, humiliation, and death in order to redeem us.” (3)

In other words, in his mind the measure of the depth of this crisis of faith extends to the very definition of the faith.

Alvin Plantinga wrote Warranted Christian Belief while working as the John A O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame [2].  He writes in 14 chapters divided into 4 parts:

Part 1: Is There a Question? (pages 1-66)

  1. Kant
  2. Kaufman and Hicks

Part 2: What is the Question? (67-166)

  1. Justification and the Classical Picture
  2. Rationality
  3. Warrant and the Freud-and-Marx Compliant

Part 3: Warranted Christian Belief (167-356)

  1. Warranted Belief in God
  2. Sin and Its Cognitive Consequences
  3. The Extended Aquinas/Calvin Model: Revealed in Our Minds
  4. The Testimonial Model: Sealed in Our Hearts
  5. Objections

Part 4: Defeaters (356-499)

  1.  Defeaters and Defeat
  2.  Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship
  3.  Postmodernism and Pluralism
  4.  Suffering and Evil

Plantinga lays out his argument in a lengthy preface and follows his chapters with an index.

Plantinga’s book focuses on two main points which he describes as:

  1. “An exercise in apologetics and philosophy of religion” where he answers a “range of objections to the Christian belief”; and
  1. “An exercise in Christian philosophy…proposing an epistemological account of Christian belief from a Christian perspective.” (xiii)

In other words, Plantinga responds to objections the faith and lays out a model for understanding the philosophical acceptability of faith—an idea that he calls “warrant”.  Plantinga defines warrant as:

“warrant is intimately connected with proper function. More fully, a belief has warrant just it is produced by cognitive process or faculties that are functioning properly, in a cognitive environment that is propitious for the exercise of cognitive powers, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at the production of true belief.” (xi)

The core discussion of warrant lays out what he refers to as the Aquinas/Calvin model of faith. He writes:  “Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin concur on the claim that there is a kind of natural knowledge of God.” (170). This innate knowledge of God given at birth he refers to as a “sensus divinitatis” which is triggered by external conditions or stimuli, such as a presentation of the Gospel (173).

Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief is an important contribution to epistemology because he meets the objections to faith head on and offers a plausible explanation for why Christian faith is reasonable, believable, and true. Christians need to be aware of these arguments both to know that their faith is defensible and to share this defense when questions arise.

Part of this argument is that if the existence of God cannot be logically proven and cannot be logically disproven then it is pointless to talk about logical proofs—the modern challenge to faith is essentially vacuous—empty without philosophically based merit. Faith rests on what is more reasonable and more consistent with experience—what beliefs are warranted, not mathematical proofs[3]. From Plantinga’s perspective, we accordingly do need not be defensive about our faith.

In this review, I have outlined Plantinga’s basic presentation.  In part 2, I will review the arguments against faith and, in part 3, I will look at Plantinga’s model of faith in greater depth.

 

[1] Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 3 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-11i)

[2] http://philosophy.nd.edu/people/alvin-plantinga.

[3]In financial modeling of complex firms, the rule of thumb is that it takes a model to kill a model—managing the firm without a model threats firm profitability and ultimate survival.

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Jesus: Meek is the Pastoral Gene

Life_in_Tension_web“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:29 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Meekness is the pastoral gene. “Freedom lies in obedience to our calling.” [1]

We know this not only from the words of Jesus, but his disciples and those that followed. For example, Jesus says:

“And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matt. 10:42 ESV)

The Greek word used here for disciple, μαθητής, means: “one who engages in learning through instruction from another, pupil, apprentice” (BDAG, 4662). Here the expression, “little ones”, which is used six times in the New Testament (NT) [2], refers not to children but to young believers (or seekers). Consequently, disciples are not just Jesus’ students but are instructed to teach young believers with meekness—to have a servant attitude in teaching. Teaching is one activity that pastors do all the time—they teach by what they say and what they do.

The Apostle Paul paraphrases Jesus’ command and makes this meekness an explicit requirement for church leaders. For example, he writes:

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2 Tim. 2:24-26 ESV)

Elsewhere Paul includes meekness and gentleness in his lists of the fruit of the spirit. [3]

This same sentiment is echoed by James, Jesus’ brother, and leader of the church in Jerusalem when he says: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” (James. 3:13 ESV) The Apostle Peter admonishes us to practice apologetics also with meekness: “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” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV) But as Bridges (1996, 180) observes, citing George Bethune: “No grace is less prayed for, or less cultivated than gentleness.”

Interestingly, meekness is cloaked in one of the most famous images of Christ: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11 ESV) The image of the Good Shepherd is, in fact, a Messaic image prophesied by Isaiah in one of his Servant Song passages:

“He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” (Isa. 40:11 ESV)

The Apostle John pushes this metaphor even further in the Book of Revelations where the shepherd is also a lamb (Rev 7:17).

In the Gospel of John’s great pastoral passage, the risen Christ asks Peter three times if he loves him and to each of Peter’s responses he asks Peter to care for his sheep (John 21:15-18). Just like he does with Peter, Jesus bids us, as disciples, to care for his flock and to do it with gentleness clothing ourselves with meekness.

 

[1] Colson and Fickett (2005, 30)

[2] Matt. 10:42; 18:6, 10, 14, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2.

[3] e.g. Gal 5:19-23; Col. 3:12-14.

REFERENCES

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

Bethune, George. 1839. The Fruit of the Spirit. Reiner Publications.

Bridges, Jerry. 1996. The Practice of Godliness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Colson, Charles and Harold Pickett. 2005. The Good Life. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers.

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Keller Argues the Case for God

Tiimothy Keller, Reason for GodKeller Argues the Case for God

Timothy Keller. 2008.  The Reason for God:  Belief in an Age of Skepticism.  New York:  Dutton.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

An old saw goes:  “you can’t argue someone out of something that they weren’t argued into”.  Many people adopt illogical positions that suit their needs.  A common argument goes: I want to control my own life, therefore God must not exist.  The banality of such arguments helps explain my attraction to apologetics—the use of logic to the defense of the faith.

Introduction

In his book, The Reason for God, Keller notes an interesting statistic:

“10-25 percent of all the teachers and professors of philosophy in the country [U.S.] are orthodox Christians, up from less than 1 percent just thirty years ago.” (x)

Perhaps I am not the only one tired of incoherent arguments.  In his efforts to organize Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan New York, Keller observed that while many people are leaving the church today, many inner-city young professionals are attracted to orthodox believing churches that offer strong arguments for faith (xiv).  These are people who base their faith not on where their parents attended church but on carefully considering the alternatives.  Keller notes:  “You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B.” (xvii) Jesus himself respected those who honestly admit and struggle with their doubts to come to faith (Mark 9:24; xxiii)

Orthodox Believing Church Defined

What does an orthodox believing church look like?  Keller writes:

“The new, fast-spreading multiethnic orthodox Christianity in the cities is much more concerned about the poor and social justice than Republicans have been, and at the same time much more concerned about upholding classic Christian moral and sexual ethics than Democrats have been.” (xx)

Who is Timothy Keller?

The jacket on his book says that he was raised in Pennsylvania.  His seminary education took him to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA) and later to Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS; Philadelphia).  WTS is the flagship seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

Keller lays out his book in 14 chapters divided into 2 parts (Leap of Doubt/The Reasons for Faith).  The chapters are:

Part 1: Leap of Doubt

  1. There Can’t Be Just One True Religion
  2. How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?
  3. Christianity is a Straitjacket
  4. The Church is Responsible for So Much Injustice
  5. How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?
  6. Science has Disproved Christianity
  7. You Can’t Take the Bible Literally

Part 2: The Reasons for Faith

  1. The Clues of God
  2. The Knowledge of God
  3. The Problem of Sin
  4. Religion and the Gospel
  5. The (True) Story of the Cross
  6. The Reality of the Resurrection
  7. The Dance of God (vii-viii)

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue, acknowledgments, notes, and an index.

Apologetics

Keller’s approach in apologetics is to provide a detailed list of arguments and counterarguments consistent with traditional apologetics.  This approach makes sense because frequently people struggling with their faith get hung up on particular stumbling blocks which, once removed, allows them a more normal journey of faith to proceed.

An important stumbling block for many people is the question of human suffering.  The classic argument offered by atheists is:  how could an all-powerful, loving God allow suffering?  Either God is not all-powerful or God is not loving.  Keller notes the story of Joseph whose brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, but ends up prime minister of Egypt.  Keller asks:  what was the role of suffering in Joseph’s life? (24).  He also notes that atheists have a curious agenda in posing this question about God’s attributes because natural selection, taken in the process of evolution, depends directly on death, destruction, and suffering of weaker individuals.  Holding such a detestable theory so close to heart, how then can the atheist suddenly have standing to question God’s fairness and goodness? (26)

Perichoresis

For me, The Dance of God proved. most memorable.   Keller asks:  “What does it mean…that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit glorify each other?”  He goes on to write:  “The life of the Trinity is characterized not by self-centeredness but by mutually self-giving love. When we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other. That creates a dance…The early leaders of the Greek church had a word for this—perichoresis.” (214-215)[1] Perichoresis is the Trinity modeling life in community for the church.

Assessment

Keller’s book ends with an invitation to faith.  Citing Flannery O’Connor, he writes:  “To Know oneself, is above all, to know what one lacks.” (227)  The hope of our age is that we will individually and collectively wake up—like the drunk who wakes up in an alley—and recognize that we desperately need God.  Keller advises—take a spiritual inventory—identify your own stumbling blocks (231).  Then, repent, believe in Christ, and find a community of faith (232-235).

[1] See my earlier review:  Fairbairn:  The Trinity Models Relationship in Community, Part 1 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-RT) and Part 2 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-S0).

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Smith: Speak Postmodern to Postmodern People, Part 2

Smith_review_02032015James K. A. Smith.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Smith sees hope in the Derrida’s critique, “there is nothing outside the text.” (36), because the modern understanding of the Christian message is itself a distortion of traditional church teaching.  In attempting to frame the Christian message in ahistorical truth statements (God is love), the narrative tradition (God showed his love by sovereignly granting the exodus of the nation of Israel from Egypt) has been lost.  Because the Christian message is contextual in biblical accounts and is interpreted by the church, it meets Derrida’s primary concerns.  Consequently, according to Smith, the church must, however, abandon modern stance and language in order to thrive in the postmodern environment (54-58).

Smith also sees Lyotard’s idea of a metanarrative as misunderstood in its bumper-sticker characterization. Postmodern critics have trouble with the metanarrative or big story of scripture—creation, fall, redemption, and eschatology (62-64).  Smith disputes, however, that the scope of metanarratives is Lyotard’s main concern.  Rather, Smith sees Lyotard’s main concern being the truth claims of modern use of metanarratives—science is itself a metanarrative but falsely and deceptively claims to be universal, objective, and demonstrable through reason alone (64-65). Smith writes:  “For the postmodern, every scientist is a believer.” (68). Lyotard is perfectly okay with the idea of faith preceding reason, following Augustine  (65, 72).  Accordingly, Smith says that the postmodern church needs to abandon modernistic claims to truth (e.g., give up the “scientific” approach to apologetics) and, instead, to value story (narrative), aesthetic experiences, and symbols, such as the sacraments (77).  In this way, Smith takes Lyotard to church.

Foucault’s concern about institutional power structures is hard to reduce to a bumper-sticker characterization, in part, because he resists reductionism in his writing style and focuses on tediously pure description (96).  Smith sees Foucault preoccupied with disciplinary structures, but wonders what his real intentions are.  He talks about two readings of Foucault:  Foucault as Nietzschean and Foucault as a closet enlightenment liberal (96-99).  Smith writes:

What is wrong with all these disciplinary structures is not that they are bent on forming or molding human beings into something, but rather what they are aiming for in that process (102).

Smith sees Foucault offering 3 lessons to the church:

  1. To see “how pervasive disciplinary formation is within our culture”;
  2. To identify which of these disciplines are “fundamentally inconsistent with…the message of the church”; and
  3. To “enact countermeasures, counterdisciplines that will form us into the kinds of people that God calls us to be” (105-106).

It is worth asking in this context:  when exactly did the church relinquish its internal discipline and why?  Smith sees communion, confession, foot washing, and economic redistribution (107) as the kind of disciplines that need to be maintained.  A more normal reading of discipline might ask why the teaching of the church—church doctrine—is ignored and no dire consequences follow for those most engaged in the ignoring.

Smith gets it.  Smith is unique in seriously reflecting on how to apply the lessons he sees in Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault.  He asks:  “…is it possible to be faithful to tradition in the contemporary world?” (109)  He opines:

A more persistent postmodern [church]… will issue not in a thinned-out, sanctified version of religious skepticism (a “religion without religion”) offered in the name of humility and compassion but rather should be the ground for the proclamation and adoption of “thick” confessional identities. (116-117)

Smith sees radical orthodoxy as admitting that we do not know the truth, but confessing a mysterious and sometimes ambiguous faith (116-118).  He writes:

A more persistent postmodernism embraces the incarnational scandal of determinant confession and its institutions:  dogmatic theology and a confessionally governed church (122).

This radical orthodoxy involves “affirmation of liturgy and the arts and a commitment to place and local communities.” (127).

Having just published a devotional book which reviews the traditional teaching of the church [1], I find much to like in Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism! Perhaps the only real caveat that I would offer up is that the pluriform and variegated phenomena of postmodernism (26) will likely involve a range of responses, not just radical orthodoxy [2].   Some will work; many will fail.  Re-imaged, will the old wine poured into new wine-skins yield  a church able to experience both the immanent and transcendent attributes of God?  Likewise, will the exclusivity of Christ be lost in a church claiming only the right of private beliefs?  It seems likely that for now radical orthodoxy is likely to pose an interesting postmodern experiment, one of many.

 

[1] A Christian Guide to Spirituality (T2Pneuma.com).

[2] .  Elements of postmodern, modern, and traditional cultures appear to coexist in tension with one another even in small organizations and most certainly in society more generally.  See a serious of articles online:  Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?  For example: (http://bit.ly/1DeSLse)

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Ganssle Exposes Innuendo; Defends Faith

Reasonable_God_12042013

Gregory E. Ganssle. 2009. A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism. Waco: Baylor University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One God + One set of physical laws in the universe = One objective truth.  Apologetics.  It must be written on my forehead (Revelation 22:4).  At a conference last month, a representative of the publisher handed me A Reasonable God by Gregory Ganssle and said—you will love this book.  She was right.

Ganssle is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and a Senior Fellow of the Rivendell Institute at Yale University. Ganssle could be described as Christian philosopher (http://rivendellinstitute.org/gregganssle).

For anyone familiar with the story of David Brainerd (1718-1747), Ganssle’s location at Yale appears most ironic.  Brainerd was expelled from Yale for questioning the faith of a Yale faculty member in a private conversation.  His expulsion led later to the establishment of Princeton University.  Unable to be ordained without an ivory league degree, Brainerd became an early missionary to the American Indians and a major inspiration to American missionaries in the nineteenth century[1].  Ironic.

In this book, Ganssle reminds us that the term, New Atheist, applies primarily to books by four authors:  Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.  Their work shares three things in common:  passion, belief not only in atheism but the danger of believing in God, and their status as public intellectuals speaking outside their fields of experience (1-2).  Apparently, if one practices medicine without certification, then one ends up in jail; if one attempts to destroy the faith of a generation, then one ends up on the evening news.

Ganssle organizes his book into seven chapters introduced with an introduction and followed by a brief conclusion.  The titles of the seven chapters are informative: 1. Science, religion, and the claim that God exists; 2. Faith, reason, and evidence; 3. Three arguments for God; 4. The design argument; 5. Darwinian stories of religion; 6. Three arguments for atheism; and 7. The fittingness argument.

Surprisingly, the word, proof, appears nowhere in these chapter titles.  The arguments here are modest, more nuanced[2].  The book title, for example, is: A Reasonable God.  What is reasonable?  Ganssle uses the word in his last sentence in the book but never directly defines the term.  Alvin Pantinga articulated a similar concept, warrant, and wrote an entire book to define it[3].  When the idea of proof is abandoned and the debate centers on what is reasonable, the strength of the argument lies, in part, on the craft of the writer.  Is my story better than your story?

I learned a lot reading Ganssler.  For example, Darwin’s theory can be applied outside biology provided two conditions are met.  First, one needs to demonstrate a benefit.  Natural selection assists a species to survive better than competing species.  Second, one needs to show a transmission method.  Genes record favorable variations (116-117).

The New Atheists speculate that religion is the product of a Darwinian process.  The Darwinian benefit arises with improved survival through a natural group selection process and the transmission mechanism is a meme—a cultural analogue to a gene (122-124).  What is unique about this speculation is that the New Atheists do not bother to valid the hypothesis. This suggests a deliberate strategy of innuendo[4] which Ganssle describes as a Nietzschean genealogy—a genealogy given not to prove that one’s family includes royalty, but to discredit the family (136-137)[5].

Ganssle writes with surprising clarity.  While some apologetic texts read like a bad mathematics text, I found Ganssle’s book readable and engaging.  I would enjoy reading more of Ganssle’s work.


[1]See:  Jonathan Edwards [Editor].  2006.  The Life and Diary of David Brainerd (orig pub 1749).  Peabody:  Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

[2] Alister McGrath (Why God Won’t Go Away, 2010, Nashville:  Thomas Nelson,107) sees modest objectives as one of the strengths of scientific inquiry.

[3]Alvin Plantinga.  2000.  Warranted Christian Belief.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

[4]McGrath (2010, 138) sees the New Atheists as resorting to ridicule when their arguments are questioned.

[5]A familiar voice looms in this line of argumentation—Did God actually say… (Genesis 3:1 ESV).

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