Christian Creeds and Omelettes

The inimitable Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker (1941; Harper One 1979 printing), pp. 15-16:

“Volumes of angry controversy have been poured out about the Christian creeds, under the impression that they represent, not statements of fact, but arbitrary edicts. The conditions of salvation, for instance, are discussed as though they were conditions for membership in some fantastic club like the Red-Headed League. They do not purport to be anything of the kind. Rightly or wrongly, they purport to be necessary conditions based on the facts of human nature. We are accustomed to find conditions attached to human undertakings, some of which are arbitrary and some not. A regulation that allowed a book to make omelettes only on condition of first putting on a top hat might conceivably be given the force of law, and penalties might be inflicted for disobedience, but the condition would remain arbitrary and irrational. The law that omelettes can be made only on condition that there shall be a preliminary breaking of eggs is one with which we are sadly familiar. The efforts of idealists to make omelettes without observing that condition are foredoomed to failure by the nature of things. The Christian creeds are too frequently assumed to be int he top-hat category; this is an error; they belong to the category of egg-breaking. Even that most notorious of damnatory clauses which provokes sensitive ecclesiastics to defy the rubric and banish the Athanasian Creed from public recitation does not say that God will refuse to save unbelievers; it is at once less arbitrary and more alarming: ‘which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.’ It purports to be a statement of fact. The proper question to be asked about any creed is not, ‘Is it pleasant?’ but, ‘Is it true?’ Christianity has compelled the mind of man not because it is the most cheering view of man’s existence but because it is the truest to the facts.”

Boneheaded Attempts to Separate the Trinity

“The Father is the forgotten member of the Trinity. Jesus we know – He lived among us, and we have read the accounts of His life. The Spirit dwells with us, and although we don’t know Him as well as we do Jesus, we do have a sense that He is present. Among conservative believers, among Christians who believe the Bible, there are movements that emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus – the evangelicals, for example. There are movements that emphasize the Holy Spirit – the charismatic movement. But among conservative believers, what movement emphasizes the Father? Right. There isn’t one. We have a vague notion that liberals used to talk a lot about the Fatherhood of God, and look what happened to them. 

“Evangelicals emphasize ‘knowing Jesus Christ,’ or having a ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ.’ In evangelism, it would not be at all uncommon to hear evangelicals asking if someone would like to know Jesus Christ. Nobody asks if anybody would like to know the Father. But one of the distinctive features of the three persons of the Trinity is that they won’t let you get to know them alone. They don’t allow themselves to be isolated that way. They are constantly introducing us to the other two. The Spirit glorifies Jesus, and Jesus is the way to the Father. It is not possible to meet the Spirit, and cut Jesus and the Father out. It is not possible to meet Jesus, and not be brought to the Father. There have always been boneheaded attempts to separate them, but God will have none of it…

“Christians who understand what God is like, and what He is up to, will behave in a similar way. They are constantly moving from one to the other and back again…Think of it this way. The Son is the road. The Father is the city we are driving to, and the Spirit is the car. We are going to the Father, the Son is the way we are to go, and the Spirit enables us to go. Who needs a road that goes nowhere? Who needs a city that no one can get to? Who needs a car when there is no road, and no destination at the end of it? When we are being biblical, we never exclude any member of the Godhead from our thoughts.”

-Doug Wilson in Father Hunger: Why God Calls Men to Love and Lead Their Families (Thomas Nelson, 2012), pp. 189-191

Book review: A Shot of Faith (To the Head)

Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and many other celebrity atheists have made it their life’s joy and work to treat Christians as intellectual and social punching bags. Christianity isn’t rational, they say; it’s actually worse than child abuse. Science has disproved the existence of God. The existence of evil and suffering are proofs for the falsity of Christian faith.

In A Shot of Faith (To the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists (Thomas Nelson, 2012)Mitch Stokes turns these claims on their head, showing that they are self-defeating arguments that do not hold water. Stokes engages in a robust interaction with the New Atheists’ thought and work, addressing three main objections to Christianity. These are: that it is not rational, that it crumbles under the scrutiny of science, and that evil and suffering show that there is no God. Though he acknowledges that most Christians do not come to faith through argumentation (C.S. Lewis is a famous exception), his goal in this book is to bolster believers’ intellectual arsenal and their confidence. You can watch a trailer for the book here.

In an accessible, witty, and pull-no-punches style, Stokes shows that Christianity is utterly reasonable and faith is not a blind act. Science does not disprove God, but in fact points to the supernatural. Evil and suffering can stunningly be evidence for God’s existence. Stokes leans heavily on Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who has devoted his life to writing about the rationality of Christianity. I had not heard of Plantinga before, so much of his perspective was new and refreshing.

Part one is the most heady of the book, as Stokes tackles epistemology and the main argument atheists employ: evidentialism. Evidentialism is the belief (note the irony) that for something to be rational, it must be supported by sufficient observable evidence. But Stokes shows that evidentialists are using ladders supported in air. That is, evidentialism is self-defeating because it needs foundational beliefs to support its claims, foundational beliefs that do not rest on observable evidence. Stokes then posits a different definition of rationality: “a rational belief is one formed by a properly functioning cognitive faculty operating in the appropriate environment.” For example, the belief that it is snowing is based on the sensory experience of our eyes, brain, and experience and is thus a foundational, basic belief. We use these basic beliefs all the time (e.g. testimony, memory, personal experience). Likewise, the sensus divinitatis is a legitimate function that shows God’s existence. I didn’t find this last argument to be Stokes’ strongest, but it is interesting.

I thought part two – on science – is the strongest. Here Stokes shows that science and religion are not at odds, and neither are science and philosophy. Stokes covers a lot of ground in these chapters that is difficult to summarize. For example, he reclaims Galileo from the New Atheists’ grasp, shows that the “God of the gaps” argument is a faulty straw man, and demonstrates how naturalism is actually an enemy of true science. Most importantly, Stokes shows that there is a crucial difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, but that it is impossible to keep them separate without crossing into the theological realm. Thus, “Naturalism leads to supernaturalism. That is, the physical world of space and time simply doesn’t have the resources to support itself. Describing the universe with physics requires the existence of numbers and other mathematical objects. And these objects are far ‘beyond matter'” (p. 184). This quotation is found within a fascinating discussion of mathematics pointing to divine design.

Part three – on suffering and evil – is solid. Stokes’ approach (based on Plantinga) is a familiar one employed by Van Til, Lewis, and Doug Wilson in his debates with Christopher Hitchens. There are no moral absolutes without a foundation, there is no evil without good, and there is no good without God. I also like that it goes one step further than Keller’s Reason for God, in that he works to show the plausibility of a God and then actually makes the case for the one Triune, redemption-working God. Unfortunately, he waits until page 200 to get there, but his placement of this argument within the context of evil and suffering is appropriate.

Stokes wraps up his three-fold presentation of philosophy, science, and evil with a ribbon by his closing discussion of proper functionality. By doing so, he shows that these three main objections to Christianity can be turned into a great strength of Christianity:

“If there is no designer, then there is no proper function, and therefore there is no such thing as rationality either. There’s only a sterile, impersonal ‘desert landscape.’ Beliefs are neither rational nor irrational. They just are…So, either there’s no proper (or improper) function, or else the atheist has cognitively malfunctioned. To put it a bit differently, either there’s no such thing as rationality (or irrationality) or else atheism is irrational. But atheists will heartily agree that there is such a thing as irrationality; they point to us as examples of it. In any case, that leaves only one option: atheists are damaged goods. Of course, all of us are damaged goods. Sin has caused some degree of irrationality in us all. And given the extent of the damage, it’s no wonder atheists don’t believe. The real wonder is why anyone believes. The explanation, of course, is that God has begun to repair humanity, at an unimaginable cost to himself.” (p. 221)

To wrap up this long-winded review, it’s a compelling book that is as accessible as a chemical engineer-turned Ph.D. in philosophy can be. Stokes walks the line between academic and popular apologetics with skill. Thus, it is not necessarily for new apologists or those who have never heard of philosophy, but excellent for those who have already had their feet damp. I would recommend it to anyone looking to, well, get a shot of faith to the head. Or to anyone seeking an intelligent, readable interaction with cranky atheists. It serves its stated purpose well in building up the believer’s faith and confidence.

Note: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an objective review.

Mathematics no longer evidence for hell

“No wonder scientific provincialists think science has shown there’s no God: by definition, there is nothing outside nature. It’s similar to a blind person denying the existence of light…

“Science itself – if we limit it by methodological naturalism [as opposed to philosophical naturalism], turning it into what we might call naturalistic science – has never shown that there’s no supernatural realm. How could it possibly do that? It has explicitly said that only the natural is within its ken, and so, by its own admission, science could never show there’s no God. Furthermore, even the more meager claim that science has never found evidence for God (whether or not he exists) isn’t newsworthy. By definition, science could never do that; scientists didn’t even need to bother looking…

“The very thing that initiated the Scientific Revolution – mathematics – was the very thing that seemed to show that there were objects outside the natural realm…Naturalism leads to supernaturalism. That is, the physical world of space and time simply doesn’t have the resources to support itself. Describing the universe with physics requires the existence of numbers and other mathematical objects. And these objects are far ‘beyond matter…’

“We need no longer take the existence of math as evidence for hell. Just the opposite. Mathematics gives ample evidence that there must be something beyond nature, something supernatural. Furthermore, mathematics seems to suggest more than the mere existence of a supernatural realm; its uncanny applicability in science makes the universe look remarkably like it was made for us – and us for it.”

-Mitch Stokes in A Shot of Faith (To the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists (Thomas Nelson, 2012), pp. 129, 184, 185

Book review: Carson’s Intolerance of Tolerance

“Tolerance” has taken on an idolatrous golden calf status in our culture as of late, being the predominant ideology in nearly all areas of life. In his recent (January, 2012) book The Intolerance of Tolerance, D.A. Carson tackles the elephant in the room, arguing against the current form of tolerance, which ironically is no tolerance at all.

Birthed out of a series of lectures Carson has given across the Western world, the main argument of the book is that tolerance has come to be the prevailing mantra of our time. However, tolerance no longer means what it used to, and the new form of tolerance is not very tolerant at all; at its best it is veiled intolerance and at its worst it borders on the absurd. Carson describes the old tolerance as a stance that acknowledges the existence of both right and wrong, and discoverable, defensible truth. This tolerance accepts “that a different or opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist” (p. 3). This tolerance respectfully engages in debates and criticisms. However, as Carson deftly argues, a new tolerance has taken over that is intolerant of the old tolerance.

The new tolerance, Carson argues, is tolerant of all things on the surface, so long as no dogmatic, absolute, judgmental, critical, or disparaging remarks are made. This new tolerance has become part of the unquestioned plausibility structure; it accepts all opinions and renders them all equally valid. But under this new tolerance, right and wrong cease to have any meaning. It does not acknowledge any specific truth, and labels any religion or system of thought that claims to be true as intolerant. Thus, any disagreement – let alone claims to exclusive truth – is demonized as intolerant, leaving no room for anything but a spineless, tyrannical tolerance. The irony, not lost in the title of the book, is that the new tolerance is actually quite vehemently intolerant of anything that isn’t tolerant of the new tolerance: “no absolutism is permitted, except for the absolute prohibition of absolutism” (p. 13).

Of course, tolerance is not really an abstract, personified ideal, but is the dominant thinking of the Western world, and that’s not to our credit:

“Cultures in other parts of the world often see in Western (new) tolerance, not a mature and civilized culture worth emulating, but a childish and manipulative culture that refuses to engage with serious moral issues…Far from bringing peace, the new tolerance is progressively becoming more intolerant, fostering moral myopia, proving unable to engage in serious and competent discussions about truth, letting personal and social evils fester, and remaining blind to the political and international perceptions of our tolerant cultural profile.” (p. 139)

Well researched, engagingly written, and utterly reasonable, Carson provides myriad examples of how this new tolerance has influenced all areas of life. Copious examples of the absurd and maddening new tolerance are given in the religious, educational, political, academic, and news media spheres. But Carson isn’t a paranoid alarmist decrying the loss of the modern age or the takeover of secular humanism. Instead, he firmly engages with popular and academic sources, building his case throughout the book that the old tolerance is necessary for a truly free society, while the new tolerance spirals into inconsistency and even tyranny.

The final chapter offers some practical reflections on what to do about the new tolerance, which was helpful. On a personal note, I especially enjoyed his section on the demise of postmodernity, as well as his discussion of the rampant narcissism in our world and in the church. On a more minor note, it was also refreshing to read an “outsider” lamenting the “moralistic therapeutic deism” that Michael Horton, Christian Smith, and others have been drawing attention to.

Though it is a shorter book, Carson’s argument is so tight and his argument so cogently intertwined throughout the book, I find it difficult to review. The only blemish in it is his minor digression on democracy and his reflections on the separation of church and state. He lost me a little bit with his church/state discussion.

I really enjoyed it, as it is intellectually stimulating without being stuffy or overly academic. It is also written from a Christian perspective without being overtly so. It reads like how his lectures would be: given to a mixed audience of academics and the public, Christians and skeptics. Carson is a gifted writer with deep insight. I’d heartily recommend it to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Note: I received an advance copy of this book from Eerdmans in exchange for an objective, but not necessarily positive, review.

The emperor’s lack of clothes

Fortunately, postmodernism is on its way out. But much like the devil being bound in Revelation and destroying half the stars with his tail on his way down, postmodernism is still exerting influence even as it draws its final breaths. It knows its defeat is imminent, and it is raging to wreak as much havoc as possible before its demise. What will arise in the vacuum it leaves might be equally as vacuous, absurd, or annoying; but one victory at a time. As we are still picking spoiled remnants of the Enlightenment out of our beards, we will be straining out postmodern influence for many years to come. This is especially true in the church at large, as the church always lags a few years behind academic and cultural thought.

In his recent book The Intolerance of Tolerance, D.A. Carson explains that though postmodernism as a movement is dead, its influence is still widespread. The premise of his book is that “tolerance” has come to be the dominant idiom of our time, even as its definition has changed over the centuries. The old meaning of tolerance is defined as holding to the truth while acknowledging the reality of other people holding to other truth claims, with room for respectful disagreement and criticism. The newer definition of tolerance is that of  claiming that all truths are equally valid except for those that are intolerant. In more extreme cases, the new tolerance does not acknowledge any truth, and labels any religion or system of thought claiming truth as intolerant. Thus, voicing any disagreement, criticism, or claims to exclusivity is ironically demonized as intolerant, leaving no room for anything but “tolerance,” which is no truth at all. Full speed ahead to the absurd. The following quotation is worth reading, and Carson uses “tolerance” here in the newer way.

“Regardless of the widespread inability to agree on what it is, postmodernism has exerted incalculable influence in much of the world. Disagreement over the essence of postmodernism cannot blind us to its effect. Almost all sides agree that as a movement postmodernism is dead. Except in some American undergraduate programs, its luminaries are no longer read – certainly not in Europe, whence most of them sprang. Yet the effluents of postmodernism, however defined, are still very much with us, shaping our thoughts and cultural values. What cannot be denied is that, in its wake, countless millions of people find it difficult, at least on some subjects, to think in terms of truth and error, much preferring to think in terms of differences of opinion, of varying perspectives. The dawning of postmodernism coincided, at least in part, with the increasing diversification of the populations of many of the world’s metropolises. The impact of this increasing empirical pluralism is multiplied many times over by the digital revolution: with minimal effort we find ourselves exposed to an incredibly broad diversity of cultures, opinions, interpretations of history, languages, and so forth. Moreover, in the virtual world we can create our own realities. All of this conspires to push questions of truth to the margins while magnifying the importance of tolerance…Regardless of the terminology pragmatism now commonly eclipses both nature and religion as cultural authority. But if in its most aggressive forms postmodernism has declined, it has left a residue of subjective eclecticism that fosters the elevation of tolerance to the enthroned status of supreme virtue.” (pp. 73-74)

Further, to borrow a C.S. Lewis-ism, postmodernism is built on ladders in the air. The postmodern emperor has no clothes, to mix metaphors. The absurdity of postmodernism has been staring us right in the face, and it is finally starting to show. As leftist scholar Terry Eagleton writes:

“For all its vaunted openness to the Other, postmodernism can be quite as exclusive and censorious as the orthodoxies it opposes. One may, by and large, speak of human culture but not human nature, gender but not class, the body but not biology, jouissance but not justice, post-colonialism but not the petty bourgeoisie. It is a thoroughly orthodox heterodoxy, which like any imaginary form of identity needs its bogeyman and straw targets to stay in business.” (qtd. in Carson, pp. 82-83)

We must keep fighting to expose the bogeymen and straw targets of postmodernism for what they are. The best ammunition against such absurdities is the gospel, and especially the “foolishness” of the forgiveness of sins and the incredible triumph of the resurrection.

The gospel and the mind: book review

In an age of anti-intellectualism, scientism, and mind-numbing electronic media, how are Christians to live, learn, and glorify God? In The Gospel and the mind: recovering and shaping the intellectual life (Crossway, 2010), Bradley G. Green explores the connections between the Christian gospel and the pursuit of knowledge. In his work, Green leans heavily on such Christian intellectual heavyweights as Calvin, Aquinas, Athanasius, and especially Augustine to respond to other philosophers like Derrida, Nietzsche, and Saussure. Spurred on by the perception that “wherever the gospel goes, it seems to generate intellectual deliberation and inquiry,” Green has written a fully-orbed and persuasive apologia of the Christian intellectual life as the primary and best context from which to study the world.

Since Christ died to redeem all of who we are, this includes our minds. Thus, “any sort of meaningful intellectual life will be rooted in Christ and the gospel” (p. 178). To flesh this out, Green examines five interrelated theological themes and their relevance to the intellectual life: the realities and necessities of creation and history; the concept of a telos or goal to all of history; the cross of Christ; the nature of language; and knowledge, morality, and action. He presents a twofold thesis: “the Christian vision of God, man, and the world provides the necessary precondition of the recovery of any meaningful intellectual life; and the Christian vision of God, man, and the world offers a particular, unique understanding of what the intellectual life might look like” (p. 13-14).

It is obvious from the start that Green is well-read and painstakingly researched this book.  He writes clearly and professionally, bordering on the scholarly. Green offers persuasive arguments for the Christian intellectual life, and I was very encouraged and challenged by this book. The sections on the five above themes dovetail with each other nicely, and Green effectively weaves together these themes to serve his thesis. While doing this, he interacts with beloved philosophers of the anti-Christian world, discusses the importance of history and creation, shows how modern and postmodern thinkers have taken away any type of hope for life by rejecting the telos of history, points out the destructive influence of sin on the mind, and more. He quotes extensively from myriad thinkers and philosophers to make his point, and the book is filled with excellent quotations. At times it reads like a string of quotations with Green’s voice just filling in the gaps and giving structure to the arguments.

Perhaps the most persuasive, challenging, and insightful section is the closing chapter on the moral nature of knowledge. Knowledge is not neutral, as many contemporary thinkers would have us swallow. Green expounds here on Calvin’s conviction that to know God is to honor God, and “the honoring is included within the knowledge itself” (p. 150). Thus, as Calvin writes, “our mind cannot apprehend God without rendering some honor to him.” From Calvin, Green launches into a biblically saturated discussion of the moral nature of knowledge, supported by the Psalms, Proverbs, prophets, and Paul. The conclusion, drawn also from Calvin, C.S. Lewis, and Cornelius Van Til, is that all knowledge is more than just knowing facts, but is actually personal and moral. Thus, “to live in this world is to face a moral responsibility and duty” (p. 161). This responsibility is to know things truly, as they are known and understood by God. Though we are finite beings and cannot know omnisciently as God knows, we can know in light of who God is and what he has spoken to us in his word. This is how, as Kepler wrote, we are able to think God’s thoughts after him. And if this is the case, then

“as we have seen, God has revealed himself to all persons in the created order, then all persons know God and are engaged in the moral, willful, ethical submission to or rejection of the God of Holy Scripture at virtually all moments of their existence…Thus, nothing can be truly understood unless it is understood in relation to the God who created and currently sustains the world.” (p. 161-162, emphasis his)

The gospel comes into this discussion of the moral nature of knowledge in that when our hearts have been changed by the Holy Spirit and our minds are renewed by Christ, our moral wills and our natural loves will also be different. Following the Apostle Paul’s and Augustine’s discussions of this, Green argues that we cannot really know what we do not love: “Augustine seems to be saying that the reason we can know only what we love is that only in love are we able to understand what something is really like in terms of what it is ultimately capable of becoming…God is to be loved, while all other things are to be viewed in relation to that ultimate love” (p. 166-167).

Thus, we serve a “personal, relational, triune, and rational” God, who is

“not primarily sensed or felt – although that is part of our experience – but known. This, the fundamental goodness of knowledge is at the heart of a Christian understanding of the intellectual life. This God has made a world, and this world reflects the one who made it. We humans as image bearers reflect God in a unique way, but the world as a whole ultimately reflects the God who made it. And hence, the Christian faith encourages attention to the world, its structures, and its mysteries.” (p. 178-179)

While one of its strengths, Green’s precise scholarship and philosophical interactions might also be one of the book’s downfalls. If one of the purposes of this book is so that Christians will be spurred on by the gospel to recover intellectual pursuits, I’m not sure this book is the starting point. It does not score very high on the accessibility meter. The chapters on the nature of language are especially technical and dense (as admitted by Green). I am afraid that Green’s valuable work will mostly be read by the “choir” – Christian intellectuals and Christian lovers of knowledge – and not by those who might need this book. Green’s scholarly, philosophical, and sometimes technical discussions is not the best introduction to those Christians seeking to recover intellectual pursuits. I wish it were, though. It is sadly ironic, but if “non-intellectuals” are the audience, this would not be the first book to give them. But I do hope this important book receives a wider audience than it probably will.

Note: Crossway provided me with a copy of this book for review purposes.