Is the New Apologetic Pelagian in Approach?

13 03 2013

Dr. James K.A. Smith thinks the new apologetics is at least broadly Arminian, if not downright Pelagian.  Here is an excerpt to whet your appetite:

The new apologetic, in other words, is fundamentally Arminian, perhaps even Pelagian (and yes, I know the difference*).  The drive to eliminate intellectual and “moral” hurdles to belief is a fundamentally Arminian project insofar as it seems to assume that “believability” is a condition for the skeptic or nonbeliever to then be able to “make that step” toward belief.

While this might confirm a lot of prejudices, it should be said that this is an odd strategy if one is an Augustinian or a Calvinist–since in an Augustinian account, any belief is a gift, a grace that is given by God himself.  So if God is going to grant the gift of belief, it seems that God would able to grant and empower a faith that can also believe the scandalous.  In other words, God doesn’t need our help.

You really ought to click here to read the rest.





The Limits of Religion and Other Things

11 03 2013

This past weekend Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, visited Charleston, S.C. as a guest of the Secular Humanist Society.  This was an exciting opportunity for several reasons.  First, the event was free.  The organizers are to be applauded for this.  Second, it is not everyday that a world famous scientist visits your hometown.  Third, and finally, Dawkins is also a world famous atheist.  As a personal rule, if I can sit at the feet of someone who purports to submit Christianity to critique then I want to avail myself of this.  In terms of the new atheists’ objections to Christianity, I’ve found they have a legitimate moral critique of Christianity on several fronts that is good for the church to hear.  However, I’ve found their rational critiques of Christianity to come up short and actually end up strengthening my faith rather than weakening it.  So all in all, I regularly read the new atheists and was quite happy to have one come to town.  Unfortunately, the auditorium was too small and the fire marshal turned me away at the door.

I was fortunate enough to have dinner with some attendees who shared with me the content of the discussion as they heard it.  One predictable component of the discussion was the incompatibility of science and religion.  I can’t respond to what was said at the event, but I can respond to this supposed incompatibility.  The aim is nothing exhaustive, just a few thoughts to get your mental gears spinning.

The Limits of Religion:

While I do not wish to limit myself to Christianity, but rather to religion in general, I am after all a Christian and must begin somewhere.  Article VI, of the 39 ARticles of Religion states that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.”  This is an exceptionally simple statement regarding the purpose of Holy Scripture.  The purpose of the Holy Scriptures, according to the Anglican 39 Articles, is to set forth those things necessary for salvation.  That is its purview.  We can maintain that Scripture does speak into life beyond salvation, such as matters of history or practical wisdom from ancient times, but there are many things that are simply beyond the scope of scripture.

To pick an obvious example, Holy Scripture has very little to say regarding germline mutations in PTEN and their relationship to PTEN hamartoma tumor syndrome.  This is not to say that Scripture has nothing to say, but that it says very little.  Scripture (whether you believe it or not) does say that God created a world, that the world was good, but something has gone horribly wrong.  These principles can be applied generally to the above perhaps to lend meaning to disease.  But these principals cannot be applied specifically to determine treatment for a disease.  Here religion is limited and must depend upon scientific disciplines if it wants to make progress.  Religion, on its own, does not have the ability to comment specifically about germline mutations, the Planck constant, Bernoulli’s principle, or anything else of that nature.

The Limits of Science

Science on the other hand does have the ability to comment on the above with great specificity and for this we should be grateful.  But an oft overlooked fact is that science does not have the ability to comment on the above absolutely, but rather only in terms of probability.  What I mean by this is that phenomena can be observed, repeatability noted, and a hypothesis generated.  To offer a very simple illustration, I can see that the sun comes up today.  I observe the same tomorrow.  Therefore I can hypothesize that it will do so the next day.  But what am I really saying?  What I cannot say is that the sun will come up tomorrow.  I can only say that the sun will probably come up tomorrow.

The above is what the late Peter Lipton (former department head of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge) described as a “matter of weighing evidence and judging probability, not proof” (Lipton, Inference to the Best Explanation pg 5).  Science, when based upon induction (which the natural sciences are)  is limited in that it can only tell us what is probablebut it cannot tell us definitively what is.  Here we see the limitations of definitive pronouncements upon not just a range of natural phenomena, but a limitation to make any definitive pronouncements upon any natural phenomena.

The last sentence is a bit of a doozy and may require a little unpacking.  Surely we can make some definitive pronouncements upon some natural phenomena can’t we?  Well let’s give it a shot.  If I take my coffee mug and slide it off my desk it will fall.  I can do the same to the mason jar (full of water! not moonshine!) and slide it off.  The same happens.  Surely the same will happen again?  Most likely if not surely, the same will happen again.  There are a range of questions to ask from here, but let’s just cut to the chase.  I’m less interested in how you know that the coffee mug will fall, than how you  know that there was a coffee mug at all.  In other words, if I were to conduct such an experiment, how could I prove to you or to myself that I was not dreaming or worse in a coma?  How can I prove that the natural phenomena I’m observing is not an illusion or wicked delusion worked by a powerful Cartesian evil demon?  The unfortunate answer to the above questions is that there is no way you can prove that the natural phenomena you observe everyday are real.

Crossing Boundaries

When you and I engage the world as if it were real, we are doing so based upon the presupposition that it is real.  But this presupposition is groundless, that is, it is an act of faith.  Faith then is the first move required to observe, measure, and predict the behavior of natural phenomena because in order to do so, one must believe that such phenomena exist and will behave in an ordered way that can determine probability.  But there is no rational reason to believe that such phenomena exist outside of our own imagination.  To believe that they do is an act of faith.  Thus both the religionist, and the atheist, make their first moves based upon faith.

The difference between the religionist and the atheist is that the religionist is honest about this move whereas the atheist simply assumes it.  At the point of assumption, the atheist has crossed the boundary from science into religion, or science into philosophy.  Most of the time, he doesn’t even realize it’s happened.

This is not the only point where the atheist is likely to crossover into other territory unwittingly.  Take the moral zeal for truth of the new atheists.  If you are familiar with them, you will know that these people are admirably passionate for the truth.  Now my question is this: why are some passionate for the truth, others ambivalent, and yet still others enemies of the truth?  Consider the following from Richard Dawkins:

Genes swarm in hugh colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control.  They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene pg 21)

According to the above, I am a “gigantic lumbering robot” that is manipulated by “remote control” by my genes.  This may be true, but if it is, upon what basis can we attribute moral worth to being passionate for the truth?  After all, if I am passionate for the truth am I not merely having a chemical reaction caused by my genes?  If I’m ambivalent, or an enemy of the truth, am I not simply having a chemical reaction?  I suppose one might say, “ah, but some reactions are better for the species that others.”  Granted, but as Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, our ability or passion to discern what is true is not absolutely necessary for our progress as a species.  He writes:

from a theistic point of view, we’d expect that our cognitive faculties would be (for the most part, and given certain qualifications and caveats) reliable.  God has created us in his image, and an important part of our image bearing is our resembling him in being able to form true beliefs and achieve knowledge.  But from a naturalist point of view the thought that our cognitive faculties are reliable (produce a preponderance of true beliefs) would be at best a naïve hope.  The naturalist can be reasonably sure that the neurophysiology underlying belief formation is adaptive, but nothing follows about the truth of the beliefs depending on that neurophysiology.  In fact  he’d have to hold that it is is unlikely, given unguided evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable.  It’s as likely, given unguided evolution, that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.  If this is so, the naturalist has a defeater for the natural assumption that his cognitive faculties are reliable (Plantinga, Books and Culture March 2007).

That’s a fairly heavy paragraph, that may be best served by an illustration (served up by Plantinga).  If I were to bump into a tiger and discern that this was an animal dangerous to my existence, I would run and therefore (hopefully!) survive.  But perhaps I bump into a tiger, and his stripes communicate to me that a race is about to begin between me and the tiger so I begin to run.  The outcome is the same, though one is based upon the truth (as far as we know) and one is based upon a lie (as far as we know).  Either way, the need to survive is served by the outcome of running.  So, “truth” is not necessary for the survival of the species.

If one follows the logic of the above, then being passionate for the truth is an illogical emotional response.  But the new atheists do get quite passionate, particularly in regards to religion.  When they do, they’re crossing boundaries from reason into faith.  In other words, they have no rational basis according to their worldview to get upset.

The Need for Something More

If you want to be passionate about the truth, you need to be able to say that (a) there is such a thing as objective truth to be passionate about and (b) that our response to truth is something more than a chemical reaction.  On both counts, we need to go beyond the realm of what can be proven scientifically and have therefore crossed into the religious/philosophical.  There will be many who are unwilling to make this leap, but in order to be consistent these same people need to very carefully re-evaluate their language, emotions, and behaviors to make sure that they are consistent with the strict materialistic worldview they’ve adopted.  But this is very hard to do, as Dawkins demonstrated this past weekend when he made reference to his “soul.”  You can take the boy out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the boy…but according to his worldview you should.

Our  inability to jettison language and behaviors that can only be justified through a religious world view I take to be an indicator that religion is natural to humans, because humans were made to be religious creatures.  As Augustine pointed out long ago, God made us for himself and we are restless until we find our rest in him.  This is by no means a winning argument (or even a good one!)  just an observation.  Christianity makes sense of human longing in such a way that the longing has significance and is not reduced to mere chemical reactions.  The problem with atheism is that it cannot intellectually give significance to human longing but neither can it emotionally discard the need to have that longing validated.  In this dilemma is a testimony in microcosm that something more is needed to make sense of the human condition than meets the eye.

All religions suppose that there is more to life than meets the eye.  Christianity’s unique advantage is that this “more” wants to be known.  The “more than meets the eye” took on human flesh, lived amongst us, died amongst us, and rose again amongst us.  The last point about the resurrection is particularly important.  Christianity teaches that this event did not happen in secret, but in public and can therefore be investigated.  Whether this investigation turns up a resurrected Son of God can be debated.  But it turns out that at the end of the day, while Christianity is certainly about faith, it is about more than faith.  After all, a man come back from the dead is a rare, but nevertheless an observable phenomena.





Douglas Moo: Confessing Christ in our day

20 12 2011

There is much of interest in this tiny excerpt from Douglas Moo’s masterful commentary of Romans (prob the finest out there at the moment).  However, I would draw your attention to Moo’s point about theology and confessing Christ.  To put it briefly, correct theology is essential to confessing Christ in our day (as it is in any age).  If a young Christian were to ask me what he could do for Christ then I would give him a very surprising answer.  Go  read a book.  Go read a book about Christ for Christ.  Equip yourself to proclaim the Gospel with depth rather than a catch phrase.  Equip yourself to see through the unacknowledged presuppositions of culture.  Equip yourself with 2000 years of faithful reflection on the riches of God.  Go read a book for Christ. 

Confessing the gospel in our own day requires that we subscribe to Paul’s exalted view of Jesus; it is failure to do so that spawns many heresies.  But Paul’s attention, as we have also seen, is especially on the activity of this Jesus:  his coming to earth as the Messiah; his exaltation through resurrection to Lord of all; his dispensing power as the Son of God.  It is what Jesus has done, not just who he is, that makes the gospel the “good news” that it is.  But make no mistake: what Jesus has done cannot be severed from who he is.  Ours is an age not too much interested in theology; but correct theology- in this case, the person of Jesus- is vital to salvation and to Christian living.

Douglas Moo The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids 1996 pg 55)





Tim Keller at the Veritas Forum at UC Berkley

20 12 2011

One of the big battles facing the future of Christianity in the West is presenting a Gospel message that meets the harsh and legitimate critiques of a culture that has grown up in a shallow evangelicalism.  Tim Keller, particularly in the video below, is a helpful model for how Christians can compassionately and intelligently bear witness to the Gospel in our current context.  The whole video (at 94 min!) is worth your time. 





Blaise Pascal: how would you go about proving the existence of God?

20 12 2011

Perhaps slightly more wearying than the philosophically weak attacks on religion mounted by the “New Atheists” are the equally weak attempts by many Christians to reconcile religious texts to current views on science (click here for an example).  As Pascal points out below, the canonical writers (Biblical authors) never use nature to prove God.  Time and time again the authors of the New Testament focus their attention on one thing to prove the existence of God.  So here’s the question…what was it that they appealed to?

“I wonder at the hardihood with which such persons undertake to talk about God.  In a treatise addressed to infidels (unbelievers) they begin with a chapter proving the existence of God from the works of Nature…this only gives their readers grounds for thinking that the proofs of our religion are very weak…It is a remarkable fact that no canonical (Biblical)  writer has ever used Nature to prove God.”

-Pascal.  Pensees, IV, 242, 243





“Exmas”: a satirical essay by C.S. Lewis

20 12 2011

I found myself chuckling out loud a few times during this great piece of satirical writing. Lewis’ fictional country of Niatrib represents Great Britain but it could just as easily be present day America. I’m sure you can figure the rest out on your own. Enjoy!

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas , and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card . But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival, guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the market-place is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest and the most miserable of citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk in the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchasers become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think that some great calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush .

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush , lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.
Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas , which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O Stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.”

And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket, using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis ).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For the first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in theRush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

Read it yourself in C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock “Xmas and Christmas: A lost chapter from Herodotus”





J. C. Ryle: Christianity without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing

20 12 2011

The mainline denominations in North America are in systemic decline.  Why?  J.C. Ryle, long dead Bishop of Liverpool has some thoughts on the matter that might be worth investigating.  ”Christianity” he says, “without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing.”  I think it is powerless for two reasons.  First and foremost, I do not believe the Holy Spirit will be present in power to assist the proclamation of the Gospel when it is not the Gospel that is presented to us in Scripture and handed down for centuries  in the church.  Second, from a purely practical perspective, when the borders of an organization are not clearly drawn people have a very difficult time discerning what the organization is, why they should join it, or even if they have already joined it!  The mushier doctrine becomes in a denomination the more rapidly it will decline.  God will not bless it, nor will people take the time to investigate it.

“Mark what I say. If you want to do good in these times, you must throw aside indecision, and take up a distinct, sharply cut, doctrinal religion. If you believe little, those to whom you try to do good will believe nothing. The victories of Christianity, wherever they have been won, have been won by distinct doctrinal theology, by telling men roundly of Christ’s vicarious death and sacrifice, by showing them Christ’s substitution on the cross and His precious blood, by teaching them justification by faith and bidding them believe on a crucified Saviour, by preaching ruin by sin, redemption by Christ, regeneration by the Spirit, by lifting up the brazen serpent, by telling men to look and live, to believe, repent and be converted. This, this is the only teaching which for eighteen centuries God has honoured with success, and is honouring at the present day both at home and abroad. Let the clever advocates of a broad and undogmatic theology — the preachers of the gospel of earnestness and sincerity and cold morality — let them, I say, show us at this day any English village or parish or city or town or district, which has been evangelized without ‘dogma’, by their principles. They cannot do it, and they never will. Christianity without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing. It may be beautiful to some minds, but it is childless and barren. There is no getting over facts. The good that is done in the earth may be comparatively small. Evil may abound and ignorant impatience may murmur, and cry out that Christianity has failed. But, depend on it, if we want to ‘do good’ and shake the world, we must fight it with the old apostolic weapons, and stick to ‘dogma’. No dogma, no fruits! No positive evangelical doctrine, no evangelization!”

J.C. Ryle Wants of the Times, from a sermon preached at St Margaret’s church, Ipswich, 11 June 1879