Stone and Duke Encourage Theological Reflection

Stone and Duke, How to Think Theologically

Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke. 2006. How to Think Theologically. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Review By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Our anti-intellectual society has trouble seeing the God’s hand at work, in part, because such vision requires thinking about things outside ourselves. Since the romantic era of the nineteenth century, Americans have preferred to “experience” God emotionally rather than to “know” God intellectually. This is truly disturbing outcome for anyone familiar with the Great Awakening experience of eighteenth century. Post-mortems by theologians, such as Jonathan Edwards (1746), clearly showed that religious experiences not followed by theological reflection are soon forgotten. Consider the increase in church attendance immediately after 9-11. Theology helps us reflect on our experiences of God in scripture and daily life.

Introduction

Howard Stone and James Duke in their book, How to Think Theologically, respond to this question, writing:

“It is a simple fact of life for Christians; their faith makes them theologians.[1] Deliberately or not, think—and act—out of a theological understanding of existence, and their faith calls them to become the best theologians they can be.” (1)

This is not a throw away comment; when life loses its meaning, we die even if the body continues to process air and food. If we are to continue living we need to seek meaning in the many challenging experiences that life holds for us. The question is not whether we have a theological view of life—we all do—but rather whether the theology we live by is the one that we would chose if we took the time to think about it.

Faith Seeking Understanding

Like most good theologians, Stone and Duke cite the famous line from Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) who wrote: “I believe so that I may understand” (2008, 87) or as they cite it: “faith seeking understanding” (2). While this idea that faith precedes knowledge seems controversial until you realize that assumptions are faith statements and are required before any scientific inquiry can begin. Anselm’s apologetic laid the philosophical foundation for the modern era.

Theology Defined

Also like most good theologians, Stone and Duke define important terms. For example, they observe:

“Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted definition of the term theology. It comes to us as a compound word from ancient Greek: theo—logia are logia (sayings, accounts, teachings, theories) concerning theos (the divine, gods, and goddesses, God).” (7)

They also distinguish Christian orthodoxy “correct opinion or belief” from orthopraxy “correct practice” (7). It is often the case in some church circles that the accepted doctrine of the church is orthodox, but the church does not practice orthopraxy—a kind of hypocrisy that minimizes criticism and correction.

Embedded Theology

Stone and Duke make distinguish between embedded theology and deliberative theology. Embedded theology is defined as “Christians learn what is all about from countless daily encounters with their Christianity”. Deliberative theology is“the understanding of faith that emerges from a process of carefully reflecting upon embedded theological convictions” (13-16). Notice that neither embedded nor deliberative theology requires scholarly intervention. We engage in both types of theology on our own every day as we deepen our understanding of our own faith journey. But, as Stone and Duke observe, “theological reflection cannot flourish unless it is valued and practices by the church itself” (23).

Organization

Stone and Duke write in 9 chapters proceeded by 2 prefaces and an introduction and followed by a glossary, notes, and index. The 9 chapters are:

  1. Faith, Understanding, and Reflection,
  2. Fashioning Theology,
  3. Resources for Theological Reflection,
  4. Theological Method,
  5. The Gospel,
  6. The Human Condition,
  7. Vocation,
  8. Theological Reflection in Christian Community,
  9. Forming Spirit.

At the time of publication, Howard W. Stone was a professor emeritus of Department of Psychology and Pastoral Counseling at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and the author of numerous books. James O Duke was also a professor of history of Christianity and historical theology at Brite.

Assessment

Stone and Duke’s How to Think Theologically primes young seminarians for seminary. Assess to its wisdom goes much further and any dedicated reader will benefit from it.  If nothing else, consider the irony posed by the cover!

References

Anselm of Canterbury. 2008. The Major Works. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

[1] My best friend in high school, who is now a Lutheran pastor, used to moan that our faith forced us to become “little Kierkegaards” because our faith raises more questions than answers. Soren Kierkegard (1813-1855) was a well-known, nineteenth century theologian.

Stone and Duke Encourage Theological Reflection

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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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Noll Tells the History of Protestants in America Briefly

Noll_review_06272015Mark A. Noll.  2002.  The Work We Have to Do:  A History of Protestants in America.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

We live stories.

When I worked as a chaplain intern, I discovered that I had a special connection with the drunks that came in and were strapped in gurneys to dry out. From their gurneys they would rage—often in Spanish—and many of the interns were intimidated. I talked with them; cried with them; and defended them in group. My affinity with these men was a mystery—I had never been drunk and strapped in a gurney.  Much later, I realized that although the gurney treatment was not a personal experience, my emotions had long been bounded and gagged—too dangerous to be expressed the omnipresent, polite company—for most of my life.  My affinity with the plight of the gurney men was a metaphorical story, not a life experience story.

We live stories. Stories give life meaning. This is why history is so important.  We find meaning in the stories that we tell and those that we cannot express.

Mark Noll starts The Work We Have to Do with the story of David Brainard.  Brainard, a young man infected with tuberculosis, got into trouble:

“In 1742 he was expelled from Yale College when he claimed that one of his teachers did not have any more of God’s grace than a wooden chair” (ix).

Expelled from college for a private conversation, Brainard could not be ordained so he embarked on a career as a missionary to the Indians in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. A man of great passion, Brainard died at the age of 29.  In the end, he was a friend of Jonathan Edwards and was at the time of his death engaged to marry Edwards’ daughter, Jeusha (ix-x).  Edwards, of course, went on to inspire a revival known as the Great Awakening; it was Brainard who inspired Edwards.  Brainard also inspired the founding of Princeton University and, in the nineteenth century, a generation of missionaries.

Noll’s title, “the work we have to do”, is taken from Edwards’ eulogy over David Brainard (14). Noll focuses on providing a short overview of the role of protestants in American history. He writes:

“Even if Protestant beliefs and practices have often worked at odds with each other, there can be no mistaking the importance of Protestant religion for the national history. Although a short book on a big subject can hit only high points it is able to suggest some of the depth, drama, dynamism, and diversity in this story.” (xi)

Noll writes in 7 chapters, preceded by a preface and followed by an appendix, chronology, reading list, and index. These chapters are:

  1. Who are the Protestants?
  2. Where do Protestants Come From?
  3. Protestants in Colonial American, 1607-1789.
  4. Protestants in Charge, 1790-1865.
  5. Times of Trial and Renewal, 1866-1918.
  6. Protestants in Modern America.

Noll was (1979-2006)  professor of history at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, a school famous for its one-time student, Billy Graham.  He is now the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at Notre Dame University [1].

One of the histories which I was not familiar with was the story of Methodist Francis Asbury.  Noll writes:

“In 1771 Wesley asked for volunteers to go to America, and Asbury responded eagerly [at age 13].  Before he died, Asbury traveled nearly 3000,000 miles, mostly on horseback, into all the former thirteen colonies and the new states of Tennessee and Kentucky” .

Asbury himself wrote about his daily schedule as:

“My present mode of conduct is…to read about 100 pages a day; to preach in the open air every other day; and to lecture in prayer meeting every evening.”

Noll notes:

“When he arrived in America there were 4 Methodist ministers looking after about 300 laypeople.  By the time of his death in 1816, there were 2,000 ministers and more than 200,000 members of Methodist congregations.”

How many pastors today can make a claim like that? (52-53)

Noll is in a clear position to opine about what it means to be protestant today.  He writes:

“In some sense Protestantism in America began with Puritans battling with the English state church over questions of innovation, experimental spirituality, and adaptation of worship to the people.” (116)

Does that sound familiar?  Noll sees the strengths of Protestantism as:

“[There are] twin, but often competing strengths of Protestantism.  There strengths are a connection with the historic Christian faith and a drive to express that faith in an up-to-date, contemporary manner.” (116-117)

Do you feel the tension in this statement? Sounds like the theme for a new book![2]

Mark Noll’s The Work We Have to Do is a good summer read.  Clearly, he is writing for an introductory college course in church history, but his accessible style makes it a book that just about anyone can enjoy.

 

[1] http://history.nd.edu/faculty/directory/mark-a-noll/

[2] Bothersome Gaps:  Life in Tension (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-OT).

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Tension with God


Life_in_Tension_web“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The idea of tension with God comes as surprise to many Christians.  Three reasons stand out:

  1. A focus on the humanity of Christ and off of the divinity of Christ leaves many Christians ignorant of the urgings of the Holy Spirit;
  2. A focus on conversion and off of sanctification—the process of nurturing our faith—leaves many Christians living secular lifestyles; and
  3. Ignorance of sin blinds us to our true selves in Christ, to our neighbors, and to God.

Robbed of the power of God in their lives, Christians are lulled into believing in a kind of tension-free, ersatz Christianity that presumably insulates them from the problems of life.  When life’s problems arise, they are then angry with God and their ersatz Christianity provides no substantive guidance for dealing with it.  Many leave the church and return later—if at all—in a casket.  Got tension?

Humanity versus Divinity of Christ. Our secular society has no trouble with Jesus’ humanity, but his divinity is repeatedly questioned. If Christ is only human, then his authority shrinks to that of an interesting teacher or story teller.  Christian claims on society shrink to that simply of another interest group.  Conversion amounts to nothing more than being convinced to join a religious club and sanctification need not be taken seriously.  Clearly, if Christ is not divine, then there is no point in reading further.

Conversion versus Sanctification. Over the centuries, sincere Christian leaders have debated this question of conversion versus sanctification. For example, Jonathan Edwards, thought by many to have been the great American theologian of all time, was dismissed by his Northhampton church in 1750 for advocating that members have personal relationship with Jesus [1]. The question addressed here, however, is different. Once one has avoided the pitfalls of ersatz Christianity and seriously begins a disciple’s journey with Christ, how could there still be tension with God?

This is not a trivial question.  I remember at one point posing this question to a dear friend who is a Charismatic leader and who is experienced in deliverance ministry.  My question was—how could it be true that a Christian could experience spiritual oppression?

As it turns out, this is exactly the problem faced by the Prophet Job. Scripture describes Job as a man:  “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1 ESV) Still, God tells Satan: “Behold, all that he [Job] has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” (Job 1:12 ESV)  Do you think that Job felt spiritual oppression?  Do you think Satan’s afflictions created tension between Job and God?

The life of the Apostle Paul is also instructive.  When God told Ananias to go and baptize Saul, he questioned God’s intentions.  “But the Lord said to him, Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16 ESV)  Paul was essentially called as a Christian and an Apostle to the gentiles to suffer for the Name.  Do you think Paul’s calling created tension in his life, with others, and with God?  Paul himself described the life he gave up as a Rabbi and a Jew as rubbish (Phil 3:8) compared to what he gained as a believer. Still, he met every sort of affliction during his ministry [2].

Ignorance of Sin. Even a hardened atheist needs to worry about sin.  Sin can be: (1) doing evil, (2) breaking a law, or (3) failing to do good.  Sin cuts us off from ourselves, from our neighbors and from God leading to tensions in all three dimensions. Ignoring sin is like driving too fast on an icy road or throwing dirty sand in your gas tank—it can hurt others and messes everything up.

God’s forgiveness through Christ sets us right with God and may help relieve our guilt, but does not reverse the effects of sin on our person and on others. God can forgive the murderer, for example, but that does not bring the dead person back to life or relieve the perpetrator of punishment under law. A selfish person acting impulsively tenses up many people’s lives and it is ignorant of God.

Tension with God arises is no different that tension in any human relationship.  Avoiding sin, which cuts us off from God, has the effect of opening up communication channels and allows us to perceive the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  In this way, sanctification can proceed.  Still, transformation—pursuing godliness—involves sacrifice and pain [3].  The ebb and flow of our attention to God brings tension, in part, because we are not always anxious to step out in faith to embrace transformation.  In this sense, our tension with God is transformative [4].

Jesus offers blessings for disciples who faithfully pursue godliness:

  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
  • Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt 5:6-8 ESV)

Notice how these blessings follow from modeling our lives after attributes of God himself—righteousness, mercy, and holiness—to become pure in heart.  This is the heart of the new covenant in Christ.

 

[1] Noll (2002, 45) writes: “The dismissal occurred when Edwards abandoned his grandfather Stoddard’s practice of open communion and instead began to insist that candidates for church membership (and the privilege of communion) offer a convincing statement of saving faith”.

[2]  “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one– I am talking like a madman– with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Cor 11:23-28 ESV)

[3] For a detailed discussion of godliness, see Bridges (1996).

[4] Paraphrasing Kierkegaard, Benner (1998, 78-79) writes that ”self is the synthesis of elements that are, and will always be, in opposition to each other…true selfhood is only possible by being grounded in God”. In other words, we find ourselves only in the transformation process brought about by our relationship with God.

References

Benner, David G. 1998. Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

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

Noll, Mark A. 2002.  America’s God:  From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

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Dyrness: Beauty is Structure and Character, not Surface and Finish

Visual Faith
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

William A. Dyrness.  2001. Visual Faith:  Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What exactly is beauty?

Last fall my kids took me to a film.  In the film, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses portrayed a low-class, manipulative, rather loose woman.  The film’s plot seemed shallow and pornographic, designed more to offend than to enlighten.  I left the theater upset and annoyed, not entirely understanding why.

Introduction

In his book, Visual Faith, William Dyrness writes:

Our modern images feature surface and finish; Old Testament images present structure and character.  Modern images are narrow and restrictive; theirs were broad and inclusive…For us beauty is primarily visual; their idea of beauty included sensations of light, color, sound, smell, and even taste (81).

As the old adage goes, beauty is more than skin deep.

Beauty More than Skin Deep

In clinical pastoral education we were taught to look for dissidence between words and the body language of patients that we visited.  This disharmony between words and body language is, of course, a measure of truth.  In like manner, the Bible paradigm of beauty is that the truth of an object matches its appearance.

Dyrness writes:  the biblical language for beauty reveals that beauty is connected both to God’s presence and activity and to the order that God has given to creation (80).  The human spirit, although undefinable, is obvious by its absence:  a beautiful, living human body emptied of its spirit is no more than a repulsive corpse.  Morality works much the same way:  Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion (Proverbs 11:22 ESV).

Art as Cultural Window

While Dyrness does not dwell on social criticism, he sees a lack of artistic imagination as an impediment to renewal of faith—especially in a society that is constantly stimulated by visual images (155-156).  He cites the Prophet Joel:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions (Joel 2:28 ESV).

As barriers between high class and popular art are lowered, we see the democratization (all flesh) of art that Joel prophesied.

Background

William A. Dyrness (www.fuller.edu/faculty/wdyrness) is a Professor of Theology and Culture at the School of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.  Visual Faith is written in 7 chapters:

  1. Development of the Visual Arts from the Early Church to the Middle Ages;
  2. Development of the Visual Arts from the Reformation to the Twenty-First Century;
  3. Art and the Biblical Drama;
  4. Reflecting Theologically on the Visual Arts;
  5. Contemporary Challenges for Christians and the Arts;
  6. A New Opportunity for Christian Involvement in the Arts; and
  7. Making and Looking at Art.

These chapters are preceded by a list of illustrations, a preface, and an introduction.  They are followed by a conclusion, notes, bibliography, and indices.

Need to Explore Christian Art

Dyrness describes his objectives as to—extend and enrich a Christian conversation on the visual arts—and he immediately relates this conversation to the dialog on worship (9).  Following Simone Weil, Dyrness observes that people are drawn to God through affliction, religious practices, and the experience of beauty.  He then goes on to argue that because modern life has banished these first two draws, the church is limited to the third draw—beauty—in attracting people to God (22).  Dyrness concludes arguing for renewal in three areas: a new vision for the arts, renewal in worship, and a restoration of the Christian art tradition (155).

Christian Art More than a Hobby

Dyrness speaks against the perception that interest in the arts is a Christian hobby practiced particularly by Catholics and mostly avoided by serious protestants.  He argues persuasively that both Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin saw God’s artwork in creation as infinitely more interesting than human artifacts (59).  In fact, Calvin’s outward focus in ministry—the whole of creation belongs to God, not just the sacred images of Jesus and the communion table in the church (the inward focus in the Middle Ages)—profoundly influenced art from the reformation period forward.

Assessment

Visual Faith is a fascinating book.  This review does not and cannot capture the subtly and freshness of Dyrness’ writing.  My own interest in the visual arts and Dyrness’ work arises out of my need to understand how to appreciate and incorporate visual art in online ministry.  In a visually sophisticated world, we need to understand images and how they shape our own thoughts.

What exactly is beauty?  Dyrness’ Visual Faith is a good place to start the conversation in searching for an answer.

Dyrness: Beauty is Structure and Character, not Surface and Finish

Also see:

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/Holy_Week_2018

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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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