Hart Argues History to Inform the Present

Review of Davide Bentley Hart's Atheist DelusionsDavid Bentley Hart. 2009. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The old saw goes: you cannot argue someone out of a position that they were not argued into. Apologetics is accordingly most useful in convincing oneself of the reasonableness of views that you already loosely hold. For critics who engage primarily in slander, correcting the veracity of arguments propping up such slander does not normally lead to retraction of the slander so much as the advancement of new arguments of similar veracity, particularly when political or financial incentives motivate the slander. Even weakly argued slander can imperil loosely held faith so the apologist is bound to remain fully employed.

Introduction

David Bentley Hart opens his book, Atheist Delusions, with these words:

“What I have written is at most a ‘historical essay,’ at no point free of bias, and intended principally as an apologia for a particular understanding of the effect of Christianity upon the development of Western civilization.”(ix)

Hart’s concern about bias is interesting because quickly proceeds to outline his decision criteria for establishing historical truth:

“It may be impossible to provide perfectly irrefutable evidence for one’s conclusions, but it is certainly possible to amass evidence sufficient to confirm them beyond plausible doubt.”(ix)

Again, this is interesting because Hart begins playing by postmodern rules of argumentation—a modern writer might appeal to objective truth (or rationality) at this point, which would invite derision from postmodern critics.

Central Argument

As an historian, Hart focuses on using the past as a vehicle for understanding the present, writing:

“This book chiefly—or at least centrally—concerns the history of the early church, of roughly the first four or five centuries, and the story of how Christendom was born out of the culture of last antiquity. My chief ambition in writing it is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in that setting: how enormous a transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality, and spiritual imagination Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome.; the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred up on the human person…”(x-xi)

What struck me in the middle of this lengthy essay was how much paganism of these first centuries of the church resembled the anxiety that we see every day in postmodern culture.

The Mythology of Modernism

Through the lens of historical observation, Hart furthermore chips away at the mythology surrounding the modern period. He writes:

“…what many of us are still in the habit of calling the ‘Age of Reason’ was in many significant ways the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value; that the modern age is notable in large measure for the triumph of inflexible dogmatism in every sphere of human endeavor (including the sciences) and for a flight from rationality to any number of soothing fundamentalisms, religious and secular; that the Enlightenment ideology of modernity as such does not even deserve any particular credit for the advance of modern science; that the modern secular state’s capacity for barbarism exceeds any of the evils for which Christendom might justly be indicted, not solely by virtue of the superior technology, but by its very nature…”(xi-xii)

Hart’s comment about barbarism is particularly interesting because today’s culture is quick to forget about the millions killed by the National Socialists and by various Marxian governments in our time yet obsesses about the thousands killed during the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition hundreds of years ago, where the historical veracity of various claims requires close scrutiny that is almost never offered.

Faith in Choice

An important critique that Hart examines at length is the postmodern obsession with personal freedom. He writes:

“…there is no substantive criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology. In the most unadorned terms possible, the ethos of modernity is—to be perfectly precise—nihilism.”(21)

This observation is damning in its implications for the banality of our time. Freedom defined in terms of market choice for goods and ideas leaves no philosophical room for God, the development of personal character, or even the organization of communal activities, present or future. Inherent in this focus is an assumption that individual making choices has the resources required to make them and society is eager to provide them. Focusing on choice accordingly leaves decisions about everything else up to whoever is powerful enough to enforce them. Even the choices offered today may disappear quickly as a lack of interest in the future may lead one to eat one’s own seed-corn or to trade away one’s own freedom in the rush to consume.

Outline

Hart writes his book in 17 chapters divided into four parts:

  1. Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View from the Present
  2. The Mythology of the Secular Age: Modernity’s Rewriting of the Christian Past
  3. Revolution: The Christian Invention of the Human
  4. Reaction and Retreat: Modernity and the Eclipse of the Human(vii-viii).

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

Assessment

David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions is an interesting read for the historically sensitive and philosophically astute. Hart offers commentary on current cultural controversies that both enlightens and challenges one to probe deeper, if for no other reason than to understand his voluminous vocabulary.

Hart Argues History to Inform the Present

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Books, Films, and Ministry

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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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1 Corinthians 3: Infants in Christ

Stephen W. Hiemstra (1955)
Stephen W. Hiemstra (1955)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Jesus answered him, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3 ESV).

We really want to be in control.  From a very young age, we do not want to depend on other people, to be told what to do, or to answer to anyone.  We take seriously the Declaration of Independence when it reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (July 4, 1776).

Not only do we want the freedom to deny the control of other people and other nations, we want to deny the restrictions placed on us by God himself.  Rather than a sign of maturity, this control fetish is a sign of childishness—children always imitate their parents wanting to do adult things before they are ready.

For the Corinthians, childishness had two prominent features.  They considered themselves to be very spiritual people (v 1) and they divided themselves into political parties (v 4).  The Apostle Paul responded by offering them a lesson in Christian leadership.

Christian leadership, according to Paul, consists in building on the foundation laid by Jesus Christ (v 11), serving God as we are assigned (v 5), and compensated according to quality of the work done (VV 8,13-14). Paul writes:  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (V 6). In this agricultural motif, the farmer does not know how the seeds grow; farming consists only in fostering the growth of healthy seeds. Paul’s point is that God is responsible for growth—follow Jesus, not his servants.

Paul’s lesson clearly applies to us today.

Don’t we consider ourselves spiritual?  Paul talks about the wisdom of this age (v 18).  Hays (49-50) notes that spiritual elitism can take the form of spiritual gifts, scholarly knowledge, doctrinal correctness, moral uprightness, or political correctness[1].  When we do not consider ourselves spiritual elites, we can, of course, simply support our favorite pastor, denomination, or author who expresses our elitist preferences. Is it any wonder that schisms in the church appeal over and over through the ages and frequently find root in a selective reading of scripture itself?

Paul sees this tendency towards spiritual elitism in the Corinthians (vv 18-20) and cites the Prophet Job:

He [God] frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success.  He catches the wise in their own craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end (Job 5:12-13 ESV).

Paul ends this section with another admonishment about boasting saying:  For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future– all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (vv 21-23)

As the church, we collectively are God’s temple [2] and under his watchful eye (vv 16-17).

[1]Hays, Richard B.  2011.  Interpretation:  A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching—First Corinthians (Orig pub 1997).  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

[2]ὁ γὰρ ναὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἅγιός ἐστιν, οἵτινές ἐστε ὑμεῖς (1Corinthians 3:17 BNT).  Translated is:  for God’s temple is holy, and you all are [that temple].

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Galatians 5: Healthy Boundaries

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

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,

goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control;

against such things there is no law (Gal 5:22-23 ESV).

An interesting conversation going on in missionary circles concerns the definition of a Christian.  Is a Christian someone who has been baptized and confirmed?  Or, is a Christian someone has consistently grown closer to Christ as a disciple?  While only God knows truly who is saved, the definition of a Christian is important in understanding the role and articulation of the institutional church.  This is particularly a problem in non-western countries where persecution threatens both life and livelihood.

In Paul’s ministry among the Galatians, the question of who is a Christian was upfront and personal.  Is a Christian a sect within Judaism or an independent faith?  Being circumcised identified one with the Jewish faith, but in the first century it more importantly marked one politically as a Jewish nationalist.  And it was also not just something that your wife would notice.  Entry into the temple in Jerusalem required a ritual bath (purified, e.g. Acts 24:18) and sports in the gentile world were also frequently practiced “in your birthday suit”!  Both activities made circumcision a public event in a way that we might overlook today.

How does Paul answer the question of who is a Christian?  Ironically, Paul stands with Moses when he said:  Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart (Deuteronomy 10:16).  In Paul’s words:  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (v 6).  Neither Moses nor Paul accepted the idea that by itself circumcision placed any claim on God.  Faith working through love, as Paul says, speaks to changes in the heart.

Paul’s comments have immediate application in our cultural environment.  In our context, Paul would say:  neither baptized nor unbaptized; neither communicant nor non-communicant; counts for anything.  Going through the motions to join a church does not count.  The question remains: is your heart moving closer to Christ or not?

Movements of the heart might seem rather private but this does not imply that one can be a Christian incognito (secret Christian).  Our freedom in Christ is freedom to love our neighbors as ourselves (v 14).  Do you think that your neighbor will notice?  If money and time are involved, do you think your spouse would notice?  How about your kids?

In drawing healthy boundaries, Paul offers both a list of vices (vv 19-21) and a list of virtues (vv 22-23).  Interestingly, while the list of virtues will not guarantee admission to heaven, practicing the vices will keep you out (v 21).  In Paul’s mind, grace includes law, but is not limited by it.

Questions

  1. How did the snow affect your week?
  2. How was your week? Did anything special happen?
  3. Do you have questions from chapter 4?
  4. What is freedom; what is slavery in Paul’s eye? (v 1)
  5. What is Paul’s point about circumcision and the law? (vv 2-6)
  6. What does Moses say about circumcision? (Deuteronomy 10:16-17) Why does he talk about bribing God?
  7. Why does circumcision require the whole law be obeyed? (v 3; Deuteronomy 27:1-3)
  8. One interpretation of Paul’s, advocated for example by Charles Finney (The Spirit-Filled Life (Orig pub 1861). New Kensington:  Whitaker House. 1982), was to compare grace to pledging guilty before a judge while law was like pledging innocent. Why is this legal analogy helpful?
  9. What is Paul’s argument in verse 7? (Hint: vv 7-11)
  10. What is the offense of the cross that Paul refers to? (v 11; 1 Corinthians 1:17-18)
  11. What is the freedom in Christ that Paul talks about? (vv 13-14) Can you be free in Christ and have no one notice?
  12. What does it mean to walk by the spirit or, alternatively, walk by the flesh? (v 16)
  13. How does the law and gospel relate? (v 18)
  14. What are the works of the flesh? (vv 19-21)
  15. How do the works of the flesh relate to salvation? (v 21)
  16. What are the fruits of the spirit? (vv 22-23)
  17. How does the cross of Christ relate to the works of the flesh? (v 24)

Galatians 5: Healthy Boundaries

Also see:

Galatians 6: Parting Comments 

Galatians 4: Slave and Free 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2zRkNMJ

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May: Addictions Need not Enslave

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

Gerald G. May. 1988.  Addiction & Grace:  Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions.  New York:  HarperOne.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The goodbyes this week to beloved actor and director, Philip Seymour Hoffman (July 23, 1967 – February 2, 2014) place the specter of addiction and death in the public eye. This week it is heroin addiction but the drug of choice changes over time.  In a society that has trouble placing limits on personal freedom (boundaries) of any sort, the pain of addiction bites particularly hard because we all share a bit in the blame.

What is addiction anyway?

In his book, Addiction and Grace, Gerald May (June 12, 1940- April 12, 2005), a Christian psychiatrist specializing in addictions, defined addiction as:

Any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire.  It is caused by the attachment, or nailing, of desire to specific objects (24-25).

May notes that true addiction has 5 characteristics:

  1. Tolerance,
  2. Withdrawal symptoms,
  3. Self-deception,
  4. Loss of willpower, and
  5. Distortion of attention (26).

On reading May’s description in 2011, I became aware of my own addiction—stress.  I loved my work too much—it had become an obsession—evidence of tolerance.  Taking time off away from the office was harder on me than the pounding stress—evidence of withdrawal symptoms.  I told myself that I was advancing my career—this was a self-deception.  I could not help myself; I had to work hard—evidence of loss of willpower.  Was I aware of it?  No—I was convinced that other people were the problem in my career advancement.

When I became aware of this addiction, I took it to the Lord in prayer and committed myself to practicing Sabbath rest.  May advises—the only cure for an addiction is to stop the cycle (177).  Not working on Sunday (not even for God) has freed up time for family; other interests; and self-respect.  I continue to feel the urge to work, but with God’s help my stress addiction is over.

What are you addicted to?

Notice that May’s definition of addiction talks about freedom.  May writes:

Free will is given to us for a purpose: so that we may choose freely, without coercion or manipulation, to love God in return, and to love one another in a similarly perfect way…addiction uses up desire…sucking our life energy into specific obsessions and compulsions, leaving less and less energy available for other people and other pursuits.  Spiritually, addiction is a deep-seated form of idolatry [idolatry is anything that substitutes for God] (13).

Psychologists talk about addiction as an attachment disorder.  In order to be free in any sense of the word, we need to be detached from our desires enough to regulate them (14).  This is why the first of the Ten Commandments reads:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3 ESV).

The other gods here are things that we become addicted to.  What the Bible is saying is that addiction is a form of slavery from which God can free us.  In my experience, freedom is harder than slavery for many people because they are enslaved to their passions—work, bad relationships, substances, expensive toys, compulsive sex, money, and so on.  My stress addiction is a typical case because our minds are rigged to facilitate habit formation—we all have addictions, albeit not all addictions are life-threatening (57).

Addiction and Grace is written in 8 chapters:

  1. Desire:  Addiction and Human Freedom.
  2. Experience: The Qualities of Addiction.
  3. Mind:  The Psychological Nature of Addiction.
  4. Body: The Neurological Nature of Addiction.
  5. Spirit: The Theological Nature of Addiction.
  6. Grace:  The Qualities of Mercy.
  7. Empowerment:  Grace and Will in Overcoming Addiction.

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by various notes.

Clearly, I have left out many of the details that May generously supplies.  Anyone struggling with addiction (or who cares about someone who does) will find this book a godsend.  I clearly did.

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Introduction to Galatians

GalatiansBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6 ESV).

What exactly is the grace of Christ and what is the Gospel?  What is this different gospel that Paul writes about?  Over the coming six weeks, I hope to explore what Paul has to say about these and related topics in his letter to the Galatians.  My purpose today is to provide some background for this study.

Authorship, Location, and Date

No one disputes that the Apostle Paul wrote this letter (epistle) to the churches in Galatians.  However, since the nineteenth century, there has been a controversy among scholars as the location of these churches because the region of Galatia changed over time and included different ethnic communities.  In general, if Galatia refers to the southern part of Galatia, then the letter corresponds to Paul’s first missionary visit to the region (AD 49); if it corresponds to the northern part, then it corresponds to the second missionary visit (AD 53-57).

Other controversies revolve around lining up Paul’s trips to Jerusalem mentioned in Galatians 1:18 and 2:1 with corresponding verses in the Book of Acts.  Further disagreements arise in lining up the different passages where the region of Galatia is mentioned in the New Testament (NT).  These passages are:  Acts 16:6, 18:23, 1 Corinthians 16:1, Galatians 1:2, 3:1, 2 Timothy 4:10, and 1 Peter 1:1.  The details of these arguments are beyond the scope of this review [1].

Themes

The scholarly debate over Galatians is spirited because the letter compactly states the core themes in Paul’s theology.  Topics addressed include the relationship between law and gospel and between Jew and gentile.  Answers to these questions help define the nature of God’s grace, the role of our faith, and, in effect, the scope of Christian freedom.  The brevity of Paul’s letter forces scholars to interpret statements made in Galatians in terms of Paul’s other letters and the scope of other authors in the NT.

Hermaneutics

Hermes was the messenger god; hermeneutics is according the study of interpretation.  While there are many important schools of interpretation, three dominant interpretive views stand out: author, scriptural, and reader.  The author view asks:  what did the author mean to say?  The scriptural view asks:  when something is unclear, is there a clear statement elsewhere in scripture?  The reader view asks:  what does it mean to me?  John Calvin asked each of these questions and required also that interpretations consult the original languages of scripture—for example, Galatians was written in Greek.

Commentaries

It is helpful to use a wide variety of resources in Bible study even if time and energy are limited.  I plan to use these commentaries:

Bruce, FF. 1982.  The Epistle to the Galatians:  A Commentary on the Greek Text.  NIGTC.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Hansen, G.W.. 1993. “Letter to the Galatians” pages 323-334 of Dictionary of Paul and His Letter. Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship.  Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorn, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press.

Keller, Timothy.  2013.  Galatians for You.  USA:  TheGoodBook.

McKnight, Scot. 1995.  The NIV Application Commentary:  Galatians.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Of these, the Keller commentary is the most accessible to a lay reader.

I also make frequent reference to the Nestle-Aland Greek NT (Novum Testamentum Graece, 2012, Munich:  Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft) which includes an excellent concordance.

Footnotes


[1]If you are interested, check out:  (Hansen 1993, 327-328).

Introduction to Galatians

Also see:

Galatians 1: Christ Alone 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2zRkNMJ

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