Positivistic and Normative Information

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my training as an economist, my philosophy of science professor taught us to distinguish several types of information. Most important among these types were positivistic and normative information. Positivistic information observed information about what is (facts) while normative information focused on what should be (values). One might observe, for example, that a farmer owned one hundred pigs (a statement of fact) while the value of those pigs might depend on whether your religion accepts pork as a reasonable food that people might eat (a value statement). Christians usually eat pork while Jews, Muslims, and vegetarians typically do not.

Facts and Values

The usefulness of this distinction between facts and values arises when people disagree primarily on details, not the broad sweep of things. An old saw goes that we are each entitled to our own opinions (statements of values), but not our own set of facts (statements about what is). In the postmodern era as the consensus on basic values has broken down, the line between facts and values has also become blurred.

Breakdown in the Modern Consensus

A deconstructionist, someone who questions all authorities and focuses on power relationships, might argue that facts depend on whose value system is being imposed. The statement that a farmer owns one hundred pigs might, for example, be a provocative statement in a country where pork consumption is not accepted.

When the Gospel of Matthew writes—“Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them” (Matt 8:30), the implication certainly is that this region is outside Israel (where pork consumption was not accepted) and may also imply that the people in this region are morally corrupt or simply Roman. An Muslim commentator on American grocery marketing today might likewise conclude that the United States is obviously a Christian country because no Muslim or Jew would accept open sale of pork in a grocery store.

The point is not that we cannot observe whether or not pork is being sold. The point is that the interpretative gloss on such an observation quickly leads to a change in the conversation serious enough to make the distinction between value and fact less helpful.

Breakdown in Consensus Influences Professionals

The breakdown in consensus about basic values not only makes conversation about disputable matters more difficult, it also leads to challenges to authority figures, like professional economists. One forgets that professionals are specialists whose experience focuses on making fine distinctions that an ordinary person might not be sensitive to. When large values are in flux, small values get less attention and making such distinction adds less value. Thus, we see that professionals continue to earn high incomes, but the focus of their work has changed and it carries less status in a social context.

The New Testament makes frequent reference to the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles. Jews distinguished themselves from Gentiles not only by their religious beliefs, but by their dress, food laws, and other customs. As Christians in the first century began to evangelize outside the Jewish community to Gentiles, these distinctions made it harder to focus Gentiles on God’s character and Jesus’ teaching. The separation of the Christians from the Jews ironically came not over these customs but over the absence of Christian political support for a Jewish rebellion against Rome.

Starting Point for Science

Returning to the observation that now in the postmodern era the consensus on basic beliefs has broken down. What exactly were the beliefs that brought us the modern era and science? Going into the nineteenth century, nearly everyone in Western countries subscribed to belief in one God who created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1). This fundamental belief proved important to the growth of science because one creator implies one set of scientific principles that were assumed to apply to all of creation.

If more than one god were believed to exist, then this unity of principles would seem quite arbitrary and one would not spend a lot of time and effort to impose such an idea. Why wouldn’t another set of principles exist in the realm of another god? Consequently, the idea of objective truth is reasonable in the context of the first verse in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deut 6:4) It is not surprising that in the early years of the modern era the best scientists were often religious individuals, Jews and Christians, influenced not only by their intellect, but by their faith in one benevolent God who created and loves all of us.

Positivistic and Normative Information

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

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

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Lester: Threats to Self and Values Evoke Anger

Andrew Lester, Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Andrew D. Lester. 2007. Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

During my chaplaincy training in a psych ward, I had an elderly patient who had an anger management problem. He frequently got into altercations with other patients and would get violently angry when staff members served him the wrong foods. In talking with him, he claims to have murdered a man and have served 7 years in jail for this crime. He also ruminated about assaulting annoying patients but, being partially paralyzed with a stroke, was physically incapable of acting on his ruminations. Efforts to work with him on his anger problem proved ineffective.


Being curious on how to work more effectively with such patients led me to Andrew Lester’s book, Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally.  This book is a popular version of a more detailed and technical book: The Angry Christian: A Theology of Care and Counseling also by Westminster John Knox Press (2003).

Defining Anger

Lester observes that we get angry when we feel threatened.  While we could be angry because of a physical threat, most often we get angry because of psychological threats:  threats to our values, our beliefs about right and wrong, our expectations about the way good people should act… (14). When threatened: The intensity of our response depends on the amount of personal investment we have in the values, beliefs, and means that are being threatened (28).  Following this “threat model” of anger, our first responsibility when we get angry is to recognize that we feel threatened and to identify the nature of the threat (29).  Anger always has an object.

Anger Model

In copying with anger, Lester presents a 6 step model:

  1. Recognize anger;
  2. Acknowledge anger;
  3. Calming our bodies;
  4. Understanding why we are threatened;
  5. Evaluating the validity of the threat; and
  6. Communicating anger appropriately (62).

This list sounds suspiciously like how other authors suggest speakers cope with hostile questions—anger is often suppressed and expressed in a devious manner [1].  Lester notes that anger is often camouflaged as procrastination; actions that frustrate, embarrass or causes others pain; nasty humor; nagging; silence; sexual deviance; and passive-aggressive behavior (88-89).  My chronically angry patient, for example, was probably abused at some point—probably in prison—and this abuse returned as uncontrolled anger (84).

Does God Express Anger?

Does God get angry?  Did Jesus get angry? [2]  Lester notes that Jesus was fully human and is portrayed in the New Testament as a person with the full range of human emotion, including anger (46)  For example, Jesus asks:

Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill? But they were silent.  And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, Stretch out your hand. He stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mark 3:4-5 ESV).

Lester observes that God is not normally thought to be vulnerable, but following the threat model of anger God’s values—justice and love [3]—are sometimes threatened in ways that could evoke anger.  Lester believes that God’s wrath is particularly associated with defense of his compassion and love—neither arbitrary nor capricious like other gods of antiquity (56).

A biblical scholar would note that God wrath (in the form of curses) is required by the Mosaic covenant:   But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you (Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV).  If covenantal obligations require God’s response to transgressions by the Nation of Israel [4] in the form of curses, then how much more would God’s wrath be poured out on those Gentiles, such as the Canaanites, that ignore him and trample on his law and gospel?  Lester’s threat model is helpful in biblical interpretation, for example, in the conquest of Canaan and, later, the Jewish exile to Babylon—even if postmodern sentiments are offended.  In effect, values (laws and treaties) undefended are not really values.

Outline of Book

Lester’s Anger is a short book written in 7 chapters, including:

  1. Reconsidering Anger;
  2. Why Do We Get Angry;
  3. What Does the Bible Say?
  4. Did Jesus Get Angry?  (And What about God?);
  5. Dealing with Anger Creatively;
  6. Anger Can Be Destructive; and
  7. Anger as a Spiritual Friend.

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by conclusions.


A lot more could be said about Lester’s work.  I was impressed by Lester’s comment about the role of anger.  Anger always has an object.  Some objects of anger are righteous; many are not [5].  Like Jesus himself, a good Christian should express appropriate anger at injustice, idolatry, and innocent suffering (58,109).  Looking around today at the blatant immorality and abuses of human dignity, where is the indignation?  Where is the outrage?  Anger is sometimes appropriate.


[1] See, for example, review (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-8o).

[2] Also see post (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-75).

[3] Lester (55) cites:  O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 ESV)

[4] Consider the commissioning of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 3:18-21 ESV).  Even God’s prophet must honor the boundaries that God lays out for him or his salvation will be at risk.

[5] The Apostle Paul reminds us:  Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil (Ephesians 4:26-27 ESV).

Lester: Threats to Self and Values Evoke Anger

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/2zRkNMJ

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