Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 2

Huston Smith. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York: Harper Collins.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Some people simply cannot look up. Sunshine and glimmering stars pose no attraction like plain old dirt. Now, I am not talking about farm folks whose relationship with the soil is almost mystical. No, soil is not the same thing as dirt. Dirt is an urban plague more like weeds in a flower garden or the stuff under fingernails. Dirt is a frame of mind—a cynicism that cuts to the core. 


In Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes:

“Materialism holds that only matter exists [like dirt].Naturalism grants that subjective experiences—thoughts and feelings—are different from matter and cannot be reduced to it, while insisting that they are totally dependent on it.”(83)

Smith likens this philosophical presupposition of modernism and postmodernism as like the man who pulls his window shades down so that he can only see the lawn.

In part one of this review I have outlined Smith arguments and the structure of the book. In part two, I will look at his arguments in more detail.

Modernity’s Tunnel

The tunnel is an analogy to Plato’s cave where prisoners are chained to a wall so that the light at the end of the tunnel casts shadows in front of them that they mistake for reality. After a prisoner escapes, learns that reality does not consist of the shadows as believed and returns to inform his fellow prisoners, they refuse to believe him and murder him, a reference to Socrates.

Smith writes:

“It is by now a Sunday-supplement [a newspaper analogy] commonplace that the… modernization of the world is accompanied by a spiritual malaise that has come to be called alienation…At its most fundamental level, the diagnosis of alienation is based on the view that modernization forces upon us a world that, although baptized as real by science, is denuded of all humanly recognizable qualities: beauty and ugliness, love and hate, passion and fulfillment, salvation and damnation.”(2)

Smith has no problem with science as a method of inquiry, but he rails against scientism that attempts to convert the method into a worldview. He sees scientism adding two corollaries to science:

“first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting at truth, then at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with—material entities—are the most fundamental things that exist.”(59-60)

I am reminded of the story of the drunk who loses his keys one night and only searches in the light around the lamppost supposing that the keys could only be there.

Traditional verses Modern and Postmodern Worldviews

Smith sees five fundamental points of contention between the traditional and modern/postmodern worlds views.

  1. “In the traditional, religious views spirit as fundamental and matter derivative…The scientific worldview turns this picture on its head…
  2. In the religious worldview human beings are the less who have derived from the more [created in the image of God]. Trailing clouds of glory, they carry within themselves traces of their noble origins…Science reverses this etiology, positioning humanity as the more that has derived from the less [grown up germs] …
  3. The traditional worldview points towards a happy ending: the scientific worldview does not…
  4. …the traditional world is meaningful throughout. In scientific worldview, meaning is only skin-deep, ‘skin’ here signifying biological organisms on a single speck in the sidereal universe…
  5. Finally, in the traditional world, people feel at home. They belong to their world, for they are made of the same spirituality sentient stuff that the world is made of…Nothing like this sense of belonging can be derived from the scientific worldview.”(34-38)

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

Since I first read Smith’s book in 2002, I have cited one reference repeatedly—to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem from mathematics. Smith writes:

“From Aristotle to Turing, mathematicians have tried to establish systems that are complete. Gödel smashed that dream. His famous Incompleteness Theorem states that in a formal system satisfying certain precise conditions, there will always be at least one undecidable proposition—that is, a proposition such that neither it nor its negation is provable within the system. Jacques Derrida’s denial of any single meaning in a text sounds like a direct extension of this.”(89)

In practical terms, the human mind is a nearly complete system such that depression is a turning inward on itself and losing the necessary external reference point necessary for stability. This is why the therapy for depression is to break out of the usual routine, which offers such an external reference point.  Other applications of this theorem can be cited in economics, computer science, and other logical fields.


Huston Smith’s Why Religions Matteris a captivating book. Smith is a master story teller with an encyclopedic grasp of world religions, philosophy, and potpourri. My first reading influenced my thinking profoundly; my second reading after seminary proved equally interesting.

Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 2

Also see:

Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“Then he poured water into a basin and 

began to wash the disciples’ feet and 

to wipe them with the towel 

that was wrapped around him.” 

(John 13:5)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Leadership creates what previously did not exist and in leading we most nearly reflect the image of a sovereign God in which we were created. In its purest form, Christian leadership displays the kingly, priestly, and prophetic characteristics of the Messiah, revealing its its origin in the godhead and formation in the community of faith. It is sovereign in the sense of being free to create; spiritual in the sense of embodying unseen power; and Christlike in living into a sacrificial character.  As such, Christian leadership never strays far from the cross; even demonic leadership never strays far from advancing the will of God.

What is Leadership?

In scripture, we see many images of leadership, but no clear definition. One definition of Christian leadership is:

“Good leaders are fervent disciples of Jesus Christ, gifted by the Holy Spirit, with a passion to bring glory to God. They use their gifts of leadership by taking initiative to focus, harmonize, and enhance the gifts of others for the sake of developing people and cultivating the kingdom of God.” (Plueddemann 2009, 15) 

Stepping back from the tendency to spiritualize leadership or to use the word, leader, as synonym for pastor, it is helpful to identify the unique role of leaders in decisions. 

Role of Leaders

The scientific method is a familiar decision tool often employed in science and management. The method consists of these steps:

1.Felt need

2.Problem definition





7.Responsibility learning.⁠1

In the problem definition step, an hypothesis is formed out of a felt need. Observations about this hypothesis are collected in the second step. In the third step, these observations are analyzed in view of other discoveries. In the final steps, a decides is made whether to accept or reject the hypothesis, take action, and bear responsibility for that action. Here the inactive voice is used intensionally in this description to avoid presuming who undertakes each step.

Three points in the scientific method require executive action: defining the problem, making a decision, and bearing responsibility for the decision. If the problem being addressed is inconsequential, then these three steps and all the others can be delegated to professional managers. But, if the problem being addressed threatens the existence of the organization or requires the firm to re-imagine itself,⁠2 then only executive leadership can undertake these three steps because big risks and substantial resources are required for implementation. 

Spiritual Leadership

Spiritual leadership is particularly important in taking felt needs and turning them into problem definitions because this is where organizational cultures are defined and defended. Even in the daily tasks of individual staff members, this need for spiritual leadership is a key to organizational success because organizations that promote active learning at all levels of the organization adapt more rapidly to a changing environment. 

Beyond the usual role of leaders in organizations, the spiritual component of leadership arises because leadership embodies the multiplicative effect of joint action. An organization is more than the sum of its parts. When leaders humble themselves before the Triune God, even just privately, a tone of humility is set for the entire organization and they make room for God’s sovereign will to act within the organization.

Timing is Crucial

A popular business communication book recently broke conversation about a problem into four stages: presenting facts, telling a story, feeling, and acting.  These authors observe that once emotions take over a discussion, actions get locked in. The key point in influencing an organizational decision process therefore arise as people begin to tell stories about presumed facts.

The authors describe these discussion as “crucial conversations” because stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.  Responses to these white-knock conversations include: avoidance, handled badly, and handled well.  High-performance professionals earn their pay by telling supervisors discretely what they do not care to hear when silence is the more typical response. Organizations where employees are able and willing to engage in constructive conversations about sensitive matters respond quicker to crises, have fewer on-the-job injuries, save money, and reduce workplace bullying (Patterson and others 2012, 3-13).  

Leadership Challenges

In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen writes laconically about Christian leadership focusing on the three temptations of Christ in the desert before he starts his ministry (Matthew 4:1-11) . These temptations were: be relevant (turn stones into bread), be popular (throw yourself off the temple), and be powerful (lead rather than to be led). 

Be Relevant

Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant—turn stones into bread (Nouwen 2002, 30). Writing about his experience at L’Arche—a live-in community for special needs patients, Nouwen notes his new friends had no interest in his accomplishments or his network of distinguished colleagues. He writes:

“This experience was and, in many ways, is still the most important experience of my new life, because it forced me to rediscover my true identity. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.” (Nouwen 2002, 28)

If you strip away the degrees, titles, and robes, who are you really? 

Be Popular

Jesus’ second temptation was to do something spectacular to draw attention to himself (Nouwen 2002, 53). The Gospel of Matthew records it this way:

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” (Matt 4:6)

Jesus responds, saying: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matt 4:7). For Nouwen, the temptation to engage in heroic leadership is blunted by ministering in teams and, as a member of the L’Arche community, the need to bring along a companion from the community when he was asked to speak (Nouwen 2002, 58-59). 

Be Powerful

The third temptation of Jesus was to be powerful (Nouwen 2002, 75). He observes: “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” (Nouwen 2002, 78) After re-commissioning Peter, Jesus prophesies his death: 

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18)

Whether we like it or not as Christian leaders, we frequently find ourselves led. Nouwen (2002, 88) sees theological reflection as the primary antidote to the temptation to be powerful.


1 In class, unlike his book,  Johnson (1986, 15) add a felt need as the first step following Dewey (1997).

2 A key insight in Heifetz and Linsky’s (2002, 14 and 18) work is to distinguish technical from adaptive challenges.  In a technical change, authorities apply current know-how to solve a problem while in an adaptive change people with the problem must learn new ways to solve the problem. A technical change typically requires nothing more than additional budget while an adaptive change requires an entirely new approach.


Dewey, John. 1997. How We Think (Orig Pub 1910). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Heifetz, Ronald A. and Marty Linsky. 2002. Leadership on the Line:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2002. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.  2012.  Crucial Conversations:  Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.  New York:  McGraw-Hill.

Plueddemann, James E. 2009. Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.


Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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The Scientific Method and Objective Truth

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The scientific method is a learning method that led to many discoveries about the physical world that have defined the modern period. Discoveries in agricultural production, medicine, and manufacturing have alleviated hunger and poverty, and have extended the life expectancy of the vast majority of people since the early nineteenth century. These discoveries has so dramatically improved the lives of modern and postmodern people that claims about the method have pervaded virtually all aspects of our lives. While almost no one discounts the usefulness of the method, the spillover of rational thinking into other aspects of life helped accelerate exploration of limits to its usefulness.


In its simplest exposition, the scientific method consists of series of steps in analytical thinking:

  1. Problem definition
  2. Observation
  3. Analysis
  4. Decision

In the problem definition step, the researcher forms an hypothesis. The researcher then proceeds to collect observations about this hypothesis in the second step. In the third step, the researcher analyzes these observations in view of other discoveries. In the final step, the researcher decides whether to accept or reject the hypothesis.

Usefulness of the Scientific Method

The flexibility of the scientific method to be applied to many aspects of the physical world accounts for its enormous usefulness. As researchers make new discoveries, they publish their finding so that other researchers can replicate their results. Thus, over time the knowledge of the physical world grows and is decimated throughout the scientific community and applied to practical applications in agriculture, industry, and medicine.

Critique of the Scientific Method

For many years, people believed that using the scientific method did not involve philosophical prejudices, but simply revealed facts about our world. This belief, however, came increasingly under scrutiny as researchers began to apply the scientific method especially in the social sciences. Scrutiny gave way to outcry during the Second World War as people learned of German scientists performing inhuman experiments on prisoners in concentration camps, such as learning the minimum nutritional requirements to prevent starvation, cold water survival rates, and so on. It soon became more widely understood that which problems came into focus in research involved serious philosophical and theological presumptions that had previously not gotten much attention.

Philosophical Presupposition

One particularly important presupposition in the modern period and in the scientific method had to do with the nature of truth. Arising out of the Christian worldview came the assumption that one objective truth exists which, if we take the time to research, we can discover. This assumption is reasonable in the physical sciences; it is less tenable in the realm of social science, where cultural assumptions often dictate how particular activities are judged. For example, we can all agree on the weight of a particular bucket of sand, but we may not agree on whether to eat pork or whether it is acceptable to charge interest on a loan.

Objective Truth

The existence of objective truth may sound like a trivial issue, but it becomes important in determining the status of professionals, such as scientists, doctors, lawyer, economists, and even pastors. If one objective truth exists, then it makes sense to consult the professional responsible for that subject matter. If truth is socially defined as is often argued in the postmodern period, then it is less clear which professional is most appropriate or whether a professional is even needed. In the church, for example, who is most suitable to preach and teach the Bible in which translation and with how much training? The answer to these questions are hotly debated within the church, in part, because we have come to doubt the nature and importance of objective truth.

Why Do We Care?

Crisis of Authorities

In the postmodern world that we live in, rational learning and decision making is still important, but the cynicism surrounding rationality is everywhere to be seen and it affects our attitude about anyone in authority. Prior to the modern period, authority stemmed primarily from wealth and political power in secular society and the church’s authority stemmed from reverence for God. In the modern period in America, authority still stemmed from wealth and political power, but this authority was increasingly tempered by the knowledge-based power of professionals and respect for God waned as rational thinking led many to question God’s existence. For postmoderns, respect for both God and professionals has waned leading to the rise of authority based primarily on wealth and political power. In effect, if objective truth and God do not exist in people’s minds, then my truth and my group’s truth take center stage.

Importance of Objective Truth

A second important result of this lack of belief in objective truth is that it undermines, not only professionals, but also respect for democratic and judicial process. On a theoretical level, if objective truth exists, then through debate and argumentation we come closer to understanding this truth, which is embodied in both our democratic and legal systems. If no objective truth is believed to exist, then debate and argumentation are simply a power play that does not enhance the credibility of the decision reached.

Sour Grapes

Therefore, the losing parties in debate or legal process have no inherent reason to accept the outcome of the process. This is why we observe so many sore losers on the evening news today that previously did not seem even to exist in popular culture. The postmodern rhetoric about the lack of debate in the modern period attributing the peace to an overwhelming majority of Americans being simply white is a half-truth, not the whole truth. Everyone believed in the American system, even when not everyone benefited equally. This why people still prefer to jump over the fence to come to America from other places. One seldom hears of people escaping to join most other, non-western destinations—it is not entirely about the differences in wealth.


While the modern period is clearly over, the challenges and risks that we face remain poorly understood without understanding the role played by the scientific method and objective truth in the world that we continue to live in.

The Scientific Method and Objective Truth

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Challenges to Faith

One of the most seductive arguments against faith in God is the idea that faith is optional. This argument is usually offered by people who refuse to accept any ethical obligations. This argument is insidious because it is normally preceded by excuses for why God does not exist or the church is unattractive or just plain obstinance. What matters is not the excuse given but rather the motivation—laziness, self-centeredness, and the like. The Apostle Paul had little time for such people and simply advised the Thessalonian church: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thess 3:10) However, since few people accept Paul’s admonition today without qualms, let us examine the arguments.

The first inference, that faith is optional, ignores the problem of idolatry and is simply counter-factual, from a scientific perspective. Let me turn issue to each issue in turn. Then, let me address the usual excuses.

If we treat faith as optional, we frequently fall into idolatry. The problem of idolatry today has less to do with worshiping statues of pagan gods than with misplaced priorities. We commit idolatry whenever we place anything other than God as the number one priority in our lives and it is a sin because it breaks the First Commandment given to Moses: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3). The sin of idolatry is often taken lightly, but this a mistake because idolatry is life threatening.

To see the threat posed by idolatry, consider what happens when alternatives to God become our number one priority. Common today, for example, is to place work as the number one priority in our life. What happens then when we lose our job or our ability to work? Americans, particularly men, are prone to depression and suicide when a job is lost and cannot be replaced for whatever reason.[1] People who cannot work, like the mentally disabled, the young, the old, the uneducated, are treated badly. When we neglect our faith in God, we end up committing idolatry, which threatens our self-esteem and our relationship with people we should care for.

If we treat faith as optional, we also fail to understand how faith undergirds modern science. Knowledge based on the scientific method follows a distinct method for testing knowledge’s veracity. These steps are usually employed: a problem is defined, observations are taken, analysis is done, a decision rule is imposed, an action is taken, and responsibility is born (Johnson 1986, 15). The very first step in the scientific methods (problem definition) requires beginning with assumptions and a hypothesis. These assumptions are faith statements—no testing can be done without them. Faith is simply not optional.

The two most famous excuses for why many people believe that God does not exist were given by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud (1927). Marx (1843) commented that: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” By contrast, Freud (1961, 30) characterized religion as an illusion, a kind of wish fulfillment. While both Marx and Freud can be considered authority figures, the thrust of their argument is not due to a lengthy scientific analysis, but is presented more as simple slander, acceptable primarily as an excuse for decisions reached for other reasons. If we take faith as necessary part of a rational decision process, then simple slander does not warrant further investigation because burden of proof lies with those advancing a particular argument to make their case, which in this case was not done.

As Christians in a postmodern context, we have inherited a worldview which is quite capable of interpreting the world as we know it. In fact, Western civilization is built on premises advanced from the Christian worldview. The question for those who advance criticism of that worldview, normally by picking on some of its assumptions (or disputing its ethical requirements), is not how can we accept those assumptions. Rather, because those assumptions form a coherence and ethically defensible system, the question is whether alternative assumption can be used to construct a better system.

For the most part, proposed postmodern alternatives to the Christian worldview, such as deconstructionism, refuse to accept the responsibility for benefiting everyone, preferring to focus on criticism without advancing alternative, morally-defensible systems. Others talk about rights, but not responsibilities, for their client groups. Either position is morally reprehensible leaving many people hopeless and abandoned. Yet, powerful groups have advanced such changes primarily to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

These challenges to faith are repeated daily in the media, in our schools, and in society, yet they lack merit as an alternative to faith and cause significant harm to many people through their promotion of idolatry and other sins that isolate people from God, from themselves, and even from the science that has brought humanity numerous benefits.


Freud, Sigmund. 1961. The Future of an Illusion (Orig Pub 1927. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Marx, Karl. 1843. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie). Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher. (Online:

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online:, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

[1] This observation is not hyperbole. The New York Times recently reported that suicide is now at a 30-year high point and the increase in suicide is greatest for men ages 45-64 (Tavernise 2016).

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Romans: Faith Seeking Understanding

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

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope (Romans 15:13 ESV).

How can one be blessed by something that is not fully understood?

As a teenager, I was passionate about my youth group.  When the youth director left the church, the group collapsed my senior year into a three-person study group—the pastor, my best friend, and I.  That entire year we got together on Wednesday for pizza, Bonhoeffer, and Romans. In college, when I became bitter at life, it was my understanding of God through Romans that brought me back.  Now, looking back at the experience from the other side of seminary, I wonder: how I could have been so blessed by a book that still defies my understanding?

This is not a new question.  Faith is not irrational; it is the beginning of rational discourse. Faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum)—is a motto attributed to Anselm (1033–1109; Archbishop of Canterbury) taken from his book, Proslogion, where he explored the existence and attributes of God [1].  The idea of faith preceding understanding is enshrined in scientific method, for example, because the method necessarily begins with a hypothesis (problem definition) [2].  Even the words in this sentence are unintelligible without assumptions as to their meaning.

My excursion into epistemology (the study of knowledge) is not out of place in a study of Romans.  Theologian James D.G. Dunn sees apologetics as one of Paul’s three objectives in Romans.  For example, Paul writes: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16 ESV). The other two objectives are a missionary objective [3] and a pastoral objective.  Dunn’s pastoral concern [4] is for unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians who made up the churches in Rome.  Paul is a disciplined writer who typically lays out objectives in his introduction and summarizes them at the end—in this case, Romans 15:7-13 [5].

Paul’s emphasis in Romans on the relationship among Jews and Gentiles sets up a kind of brother’s theme, as is often noted in the book of Genesis [6]. However, in Romans Paul uses tension between Jews and Gentiles as a stand in for a kind of false nurture/nature dichotomy [7].  The argument goes that with law we are nurtured from our natural state of sin—the traditional source of Jewish pride.  However, what might seem like an either—or argument is used by Paul as a neither—nor argument.  But for Paul, neither our natural abilities (Romans 1:18-32) nor the tutorage of law (Romans 7:5) are sufficient to earn us the grace of God.  Neither brother (Jew or Gentile) can claim the righteousness of God.

Here is where the example of Abraham becomes instrumental.  Abraham was not righteous in himself or by his actions.  Paul writes:  Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3 ESV).  Just like the prodigal son did not deserve his father’s forgiveness, neither do we deserve God’s forgiveness (Luke 15:11-23).  So just like Abraham:  since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; (Romans 5:1 ESV).

How can we be blessed by something that we do not understand?  We are sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ.


[2] The steps often employed in the method are:  felt need, problem definition, observation, analysis, decision, and responsibility bearing.  Stephen W. Hiemstra. June 2009. “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pages 51-54 of Risk Management.  Society of Actuaries.  Accessed:  18 February 2014. Online:

[3] Apostle—Romans 1:1; support for a missionary journey to Spain; Romans 15:24.

[4] Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (Romans 15:7 ESV). James D.G. Dunn.  1993.  “Letter to the Romans” pages 838-50 of Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.  Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid.  Downers Grove:  InverVarsity Press.  Pages 839-40.

[6] Richard B. Hays.  1989.  Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 70-71.

[7] Genesis has lots of brothers, including—Cain/Abel, Isaac/Ishmael, Jacob/Esau, and Joseph/brothers—which drive the theme of.

[8] My thanks to Professor Rollin Grams of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary,Charlotte, NC for suggesting this argument in  ET/NT 543 New Testament and Christian Ethics, May 20-24, 2013.

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