November 12, 2014
I was walking this afternoon through the basement floor of our church, where all of the children and youth classrooms are located. I was taking a bag of candy to one of the rooms, where I will be helping later tonight during our Wednesday fellowship. I am doing sword drills with one of the classes, and candy is the reward! You can’t expect kids to learn the books of the Bible without candy. It worked for me, so I trust that it’s a solid method!
I passed by one of the rooms where we do confirmation classes, and I saw a large bulletin board with the history of redemption outlined for the kids to understand — creation, fall, rescue, covenant, Jesus, pentecost, and such. At the bottom of the chart was vocation in the church, with two options: matrimony and celibacy, with a few bullet points for each. I was happy. I can assure you that in the evangelicalism of my youth (1990’s), celibacy was not a recognized option, at least not more than a stalemate to marital victory! Things have changed and for the better.
I know that my church is not representative of the whole of evangelicalism, but I have had enough conversations to be hopeful that it is representative of the future, if I may be so bold. Soon after I joined this church a few years ago, I learned that some of the younger parents were interested in John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” a series of homilies delivered early in his pontificate. After discussion with the pastors, they purchased a Catholic curriculum based upon JP2’s theology of the body, and we have used this curriculum for a couple years now. From what I have heard, it has been wonderfully received, with appreciation from both parents and students alike.
It just so happens, I was also enormously influenced by John Paul II’s theology of the body, and his book, Love and Responsibility, was particularly influential during my undergraduate days. I didn’t know it at the time, at least not fully, but this helped me navigate the secular terrain that was mapped by Foucault and Rorty and every other beloved hero of my professors. Here was beauty and sacrifice and heroism. The bread of life. Instead, my professors were serving me McDonald’s.
Since then, I have never seriously doubted the Christian position on sexual morality. I have struggled, to be sure. I do not know any other celibate, single male (or female) who could claim the mantle of perfection, and most of us would hasten to say that we are no better than the narcissistic denizens of our fake liberative culture. Yes, I am mixing judgment with humility, which only further illustrates my depravity!
Given the topic of this post, I should say a few words about Pope Francis. I am not convinced — and the indomitable Fr. Robert Barron agrees — that Francis is going to change the position of the Catholic Church on sexual ethics. The media conveniently fails to report Francis’ rather harsh judgments about the selfishness of our sexually “free” (imprisoned) society. At the same time, Francis is undoubtedly influenced by liberation theology, which has significantly shaped his message and messaging, and this alone marks a shift from JP2 and B16. But this is a liberation theology with a particular context, within this particular individual. It includes all of the nuance and ambivalence that (the best of) orthodox Catholics are known to emulate. Those who think Francis is basically the counterpart of a Katharine Jefferts Schori are seriously delusional. I have had enough nauseous experiences with ignorant mainline Protestants who are counting the days until Francis’ coup d’etat.
Francis can demote Cardinal Burke for whatever reason. He can give much-needed pastoral correctives. Maybe he can even change the status of divorced Catholics in some way…which, as a Protestant, is not something that I care to concern myself with. But the measures which our culture demands — gender fluidity and the redefinition of marriage — will not happen. I repeat. It will not happen. Even if we were to believe that Francis is a full-blown liberal reformer, he can do very little. The majority of the Catholic Church is in the global South, not the affluent suburbs of Boston. I know that Western progressives are intractable in their conviction that they are the future of all societies (a very modern assumption), but they are not. They are parochial, sectarian, and even anti-intellectual. They are colonialists in the sense of every heteronomous expression of that word.
November 11, 2014
I’m in the middle of a pastoral internship, so I expect that blogging will continue to be slow. I just want to pass along a piece by Corey Widmer:
Like yours truly, Widmer is a part of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. He is the pastor of Third Church in Richmond and the co-founder/co-pastor of East End Fellowship, a multi-ethnic church in the East End of Richmond.
The article is reflective of the discussion in the evangelical community as of late, which is encouraging.
October 31, 2014
Let’s celebrate the power of grace for this Reformation Day. Austin Stone Community Church has collaborated with TGC to produce a number of videos illustrating how God is present in the lives of those who depend upon him. Below are two of my favorites.
The first is the story of a young mother diagnosed with a chronic heart problem that could kill her at any moment:
The project is called The Storyframes Collective. They are superbly produced. And here is the story of David and Marlena, overcoming adultery through the unconditional grace of God:
Of course, these are stories that all Christians can celebrate, not just Protestants.
Image: “Why We Love Nature” by Tenteri (now deactivated Deviant Art account)
October 28, 2014
Now it is time for some theological heavy-lifting, sort of. Trust me, this is fun stuff!
The “incarnational analogy” for Scripture is when the incarnation of the Son, in the hypostatic union of true man and true God, is used as a model for understanding the ontology of Scripture. Basically it goes like this: the humanity of Jesus is capable of union with the divine Word, therefore the humanity of the biblical texts is capable of union with the divine Word, and in neither case is the humanity’s constitutional integrity compromised. If the biblical texts were to be understood as something other than fully human, then you could be accused of being a “monophysite” in regard to the what-ness of the Bible.
This analogy sounds good at first, but I have my doubts. It is interesting to observe the contrary ways in which this analogy can be put to use. For example, we can look at Al Mohler and Peter Enns. In his contribution to Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Zondervan, 2013), Al Mohler uses this model:
The incarnational model of Scripture is, of course, genuinely helpful; it rightly recognizes the Bible to be both divine and a human book. But the truth of this model does not lead to the conclusion that Enns would have us draw. The incarnate Christ was fully God and fully human, but his humanity was without sin. Just as theologians have for centuries argued over whether Jesus could not sin or merely did not sin, theologians may argue whether the Bible cannot err or merely does not err. But the end result is the same in any event — Jesus did not sin and the Bible is without error. [p. 126]
You see how that works? Mohler slipped from “sin” to “error” without signaling a shift. For this to work, Mohler would have to argue that the humanity of Christ was without error, not just without sin. This is a scholastic-style debate, whether Christ could err during his earthly sojourn. Could Jesus get a math problem wrong? Mohler would seemingly have to say no. Otherwise, the analogical use of Christ’s humanity would fail when applied to Scripture, for those like Mohler who want to uphold that all error is precluded by the text’s divine nature.
By contrast, Peter Enns believes that the humanity of Christ was capable of error, which includes a wide range of matters, such as cosmology and cultural traditions and presumably math problems. Thus, following the analogy, the humanity of Scripture is likewise capable of error. For Mohler, we must uphold an exhaustively inerrant humanity for Christ, so that the analogy can support an inerrant Scripture. He believes that the perfection of Christ’s humanity as sinless is a basis for arguing for the perfection of the Bible’s humanity as without error. But, once again, this only works if “Jesus did not sin” is the same as “Jesus did not err.” That has to be proven first, in order for Mohler’s use of the analogy to work. Likewise for Enns, “Jesus did not sin” but “Jesus did err” has to be demonstrated first, before turning to its analogical use for Scripture.
In other words, the analogical use of the Incarnation for the nature(s) of Scripture is dependent upon and determined by one’s prior christology, as we would expect. For Mohler, a sinless Jesus needs to be an errorless Jesus in all respects, given Mohler’s commitment to an inerrancy that makes no allowances for “accidental” (non-essential) errors. For Enns, a sinless Jesus does not need to be an errorless Jesus in all respects.
As I see it, to err is not necessarily to sin. All sin is error, but not all error is sin. There may be another basis upon which we must claim that Jesus was errorless in all respects, so I will recuse myself from answering this question for now. But, prima facie, it should be evident that the incarnational analogy is not as helpful as may first appear, especially when figures as diverse as Mohler and Enns can use it for their purposes. But we should question fundamentally the legitimacy itself of using this analogy in respect to the Incarnation of the Son. Michael Bird, following John Webster, says it well:
…I categorically reject Enns’ proposal of an “incarnational model” for explaining Scripture as a divine-human book. I am aware that such a model is merely a starting point for explaining how the Bible is both a divine and human work. However, this incarnational model is, as John Webster calls it, “Christologically disastrous.” It’s disastrous because it threatens the uniqueness of the Christ event, since it assumes that hypostatic union is a general characteristic of divine self-disclosure in, through, or by a creaturely agent. Furthermore, it results in a divinizing of the Bible by claiming that divine ontological equality exists between God’s being and his communicative action. [Ibid., 131-132, quoting Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 22]
Thus, the doctrinal implications of the analogy are suspect, if you accept Webster’s argument. It is worth pondering.
Image: “Adoration of the Child,” by Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst (1590-1656)
October 7, 2014
Roman Catholics have a curious word for evangelism — “evangelization,” as in the “new evangelization” advocated by Papa Benny and now by Francis. You see, Catholics have started to realize that the old state-supported, culturally-driven option for a viable Catholicism is no longer a viable option. The “new evangelization” is the Vatican’s attempt to get Catholics off their arses and tell people about Jesus, though it is purportedly more subtle and sophisticated than that. Francis is not very fond of proselytism, for example, which is one reason (among many) why conservative Catholics are less-than enamored by the current pontiff. Of course, Francis doesn’t define what he means by proselytism, since his goal is to be the most ambiguous pope in papal history.
For most of us, the only noun form of “to evangelize” is “evangelism.” A cursory glance at a Google search would indicate that evangelization is a Catholic term. The first search result for “evangelization” is the USCCB, and nearly all of the subsequent results are Catholic websites. However, the OED tells us that “evangelization” occurs as early as Hobbe’s Leviathan in 1651. But for all intents and purposes, it appears to be a new usage, if not coinage, by Roman Catholics in recent years.
I do not know if there is any difference between “evangelization” and “evangelism.” It seems to just be Catholic-speak for the same thing. However, their usage does appear to be different, given the different theologies and histories behind the two terms. For Catholic “evangelization,” the renewal of the culture is a big ingredient and, indeed, the telos of the whole initiative. For Protestant “evangelism,” the conversion of individuals is the primary connotation, whereas this appears to be secondary in Catholic discourse. Even among Protestants who embrace the “worldview” mentality of “every square inch,” the term “evangelism” is still mostly reserved for the act of witnessing to the gospel in its proclamation to the lost.
The term, “evangelization,” has become so widespread in Catholic circles that it has become a sure-fire way to identify a Catholic. They don’t say, “evangelism,” but “evangelization.”
October 5, 2014
Two years ago, Fred Sanders at Biola and Oliver Crisp at Fuller decided to organize and host a new series of lectures in constructive dogmatics, located in that God-forsaken wasteland known as Southern California. Okay, just kidding about the last bit. The lectures have been similar to the Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology, organized by Kevin Vanhoozer at TEDS and inaugurated by John Webster in 2007. The difference is that the Los Angeles series features multiple presenters. It is very encouraging to see our evangelical institutions sponsoring serious theology.
The topic for the first LA Theology Conference was “Christology, Ancient and Modern.” The lectures have been published as a book. You can also view the individual lectures, as well as the group discussion, in the videos below. The presenters include Alan Torrance, George Hunsinger, Katherine Sonderegger, Peter Leithart, and a pre-beard Oliver Crisp.
The lectures were added to YouTube last year, but I have only just now started to view them. So far, I have watched Crisp’s and Torrance’s lectures, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.
September 29, 2014
I don’t think Calvin could get a job at Westminster Philly:
Hebrews 2:7. Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels. A new difficulty now emerges in the exposition of these words. I have already shown that the passage is properly to be expounded as referring to the Son of God, but the apostle now seems to use the words in a different sense from that in which David understood them. The phrase ‘a little’ (βραχύ τι) seems to refer to time, as meaning for a little while, and denotes the humiliation when Christ emptied Himself, and restricts His glory to the day of resurrection, whereas David extends it in general to the whole life of man. I answer that it was not the purpose of the apostle to give an accurate exposition of the words. There is nothing improper if he looks for allusions in the words to embellish the case he is presenting, as Paul does in Rom. 10.6 when he cites evidence from Moses — ‘Who shall ascend into heaven’, etc. — adding the words about heaven and hell not as an explanation but as an embellishment. David’s meaning is this: Lord Thou hast raised man to such dignity that he is very little distant from divine or angelic honour, since he is given authority over the whole world. The apostle has no intention of overthrowing this meaning or of giving it a different turn; but he only bids us consider the humiliation of Christ, which was shown forth for a short time, and then the glory with which He is crowned for ever, and he does this more by alluding to the words than by expounding what David meant.
[John Calvin, Hebrews and I & II Peter, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, p. 22-23]
According to Westminster Theological Seminary, if the NT author is not “expounding what David meant,” then you can find yourself a new job. Sorry, Calvin. You’ll have to go to Fuller. By the way, Herman Bavinck could not get a job at Westminster either, as Wyatt Houtz has provided for us. If Calvin and Bavinck are too loosey-goosey for your Reformed seminary, then you might want to reevaluate your doctrine of Scripture.
I am referring to the fiasco surrounding the forced retirement of Professor Douglas Green from WTS. Professor Bill Evans (Erskine College) has given the most thoughtful responses. I mentioned the controversy briefly back in June:
Professor Green teaches that the “authorial intent” of the OT writers need not include an explicit christology. The divine intent, partially veiled in earlier redemptive history, was discerned by the NT writers in their (inspired) appropriation of the OT. Call me naive, but I thought this is what everyone believed.
It seems to me that the administration is benefiting, for their purposes, from the example of Peter Enns, who was similarly dismissed a few years ago. With Enns proving to be far more controversial, culminating in the rejection of Israel’s portrait of God in the conquest narratives, WTS can feel rather vindicated in dismissing him. Now with Green, they can likewise weather the criticism and point to the example of Enns. The problem, however, is that Green has not ventured along Enn’s path, not to any significant extent that I have seen. And if Bill Evans’ theological evaluation is sound, as I believe it is, then WTS is tragically isolating themselves — not in some brave contra mundum stance, but against the best of their own tradition.
September 15, 2014
It is worth highlighting and further commenting on, as I called it, “the most ridiculous moment” in God’s Not Dead. As a reminder, here is the description in my review:
After this heated exchange between Josh and the professor, each student begins to stand, one by one, declaring, “God’s not dead.” (Think of Dead Poets Society and all the students declaring, “Oh Captain, my Captain.”) Over and over, “God’s not dead. God’s not dead.” Eventually the entire class is standing. Remember, this is the same class that wrote, “God is dead,” with their signatures just a few weeks prior. Josh is so persuasive that he wins over the entire class!
This is the coup d’etat for Josh. He has just delivered his final blow to the professor. Standing victorious, Josh watches the class rise in an emotionally-gripping declaration of their belief in God. Martin, a student from China, is the first to stand. Earlier in the film, he informs his father back home that he was being persuaded by arguments for God’s existence, much to his father’s displeasure (commie atheist bastard that he is, of course, because only stereotypes exist in this evangelical fantasy world). Apparently Martin was not alone, as we see every student in the class rise after him, determined and defiant with their newfound faith in God.
That should strike you as profoundly disturbing. Josh has converted the entire class. How? By proclaiming the love of God in Jesus Christ? No. By preaching repentance and forgiveness in the cross of Jesus Christ? Nope. By mentioning at least something vague about Jesus Christ, the promise of redemption, the hope of glory, or any of the sort? No again. The message of the film is clear. You don’t need Jesus or the Holy Spirit to convert a classroom of students to belief in God. Reason alone is a sufficient bridge from unbelief to belief. No “foolishness” to the Greeks here. Sorry, Paul. “God is alive,” and you don’t even need to change your heart of stone to a heart of flesh.
Josh has “put God on trial,” as he stated at the beginning, and God won! Whew, I’m glad that God has such great lawyers on his defense team. What would The Almighty do without them?
Switching topics. In the review, I talked about the one-dimensional characters and the filmmakers’ apparent inability to grapple with the complexities of human nature. In the comments, Robert has a sober reflection:
When contemporary Christians produce “art,” including and perhaps especially popular “art,” that so poorly reflects the truth of the human world around them, reducing it to caricature (and they do this very, very often), it inevitably supports the suspicion among perceptive non-believers that, since Christians are so badly out of touch with the truth about human reality, they are even less likely to be in touch with the truth about divine reality. It in fact produces the same suspicion in me, a Christian, about many other Christians, both the ones who produce this “art” and those who gleefully consume it. This is why it’s so embarrassing, and cringe-worthy.
Amen. The End of the Affair, this movie ain’t, and it is hard to imagine evangelicals today being capable of such.
September 12, 2014
This past summer, I prepared and taught a Sunday school course at our church, aimed at equipping our high school students for college — especially those who are entering freshmen this fall. I addressed a wide range of issues, with a special focus on both the intellectual and the moral struggles of Christians in a college environment. The course was well-received, I am happy to say. There is a desperate need for such courses in all churches. Since we are Presbyterians, you might think that we wouldn’t need to equip our already bright and sober students, but you would be wrong. (That’s me being humorous.)
A number of folks in the congregation asked me if I had seen God’s Not Dead, the recent evangelical film chronicling the plight of a freshman in college who is challenged to defend his faith. I had not seen it. Until now. The film has been something of a sensation in the niche market of Christian films, preforming extraordinarily well at the box office. And if Amazon reviews are a reliable indicator, it is much beloved by a good many people — currently at over 2,000 reviews with an average of 4.5 stars.
The scenario which God’s Not Dead attempts to portray is something which Christian parents and students alike need to be conversant about. To the extent that this film may generate some much needed discussion, I am happy. But this is not the film we need. My review will be highly negative, with only a few positives along the way. There will be major spoilers, though I doubt it matters. The plot is not exactly riveting.
The protagonist in our story is a newly arrived freshman on campus, Josh Wheaton. We know nothing about him except that he wears a Newsboys t-shirt and a cross necklace, which prompts a fellow student to warn him about the philosophy 101 course on his schedule. The professor of the course, Dr. Jeffrey Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), is well-known for his avowed atheism and disdain for religion. After the brief exchange with the fellow student, we are treated to Josh’s first day of class with Professor Radisson.
The scene starts decently enough. Kevin Sorbo puts in an enjoyable performance as a charismatic and very confident professor of philosophy, who doesn’t skip a beat in his Dawkins-esque monologue against the primitive and infantile belief in a supreme being, who is now made obsolete by the advance of science. It’s a bit over the top, but that’s nothing compared to what happens next. The professor instructs the students to pull out a sheet of paper. Their first assignment is to write the words, “God is dead,” and then to sign their name underneath! Without any objections, the entire class obliges. It’s a large class of about 80 students, since this is a gen ed course. Yet the lone student who is struggling with writing, “God is dead,” is Josh. When the professor approaches Josh, he informs him that if he refuses to do the assignment, he will fail this portion of the class. Josh holds his ground, even while Professor Radisson mocks him mercilessly. The professor then gives Josh the option of defending his thesis that God is not dead — in front of the class during the next few sessions.
That’s how the movie begins. It’s ridiculous. It’s so painfully ridiculous that I was genuinely shocked and embarrassed as a Christian. The portrait of Professor Radisson is the fanciful product of an overactive evangelical imagination, an imagination too long steeped in fear. It’s a mockery of atheists and other skeptics, who have every justification to be angry at the film. It’s an exaggerated portrait, an unfair portrait, and an outright silly portrait. Philosophy professors do not require their students to sign a statement that God is dead. They would be reprimanded, and a sufficient number of students in the class would have refused — not just our protagonist. With the recent happenings at Cal State and Vanderbilt, there is not much that would shock me about the “benign guardianship” of our liberal elites. But this is dumb — nothing more than an obvious scare tactic in order to portray the professor as villainous as possible and Josh as the great martyr-hero. I was fully expecting Professor Radisson to next instruct the class to write 666 on their foreheads.
Afterwards, Josh is walking through the campus with his girlfriend, who is not happy that Josh is jeopardizing his grades and potentially ruining their future together, with him hoping to enter law school. She encourages him to just comply with the professor’s demands, to which Josh responds, “I feel like God wants someone to defend him.” And sure enough, Josh is the man to do it. He is given four different class sessions in order to make his case for the existence of God. During his first session, he tells the class that they are going to “look at the evidence” and “put God on trial.” Seriously. These are real quotes. Surprisingly, his first point is actually not too bad. He states that, against Aristotle’s belief in a “steady state” universe without beginning or end, both Genesis and the Big Bang indicate a beginning to the universe. I was pleasantly surprised to see the Big Bang and billions of years in a film geared toward an evangelical audience, where Young Earth Creationism still has its ardent proponents.
But everything else is downhill from here. With each session, Josh gains in confidence, though he was already rather confident from the beginning. You would never know that he was a freshman. The point, of course, is to show that our Christian hero is just as confident and capable as the evil professor. The problem is that he’s a college freshman, not a professor. The film encourages the completely unrealistic expectation that any Christian, after reading a few Josh McDowell or John Lennox books, can take on any professor. I can assure you, every Christian at every university can tell you that this is just plain stupid.
There are some bizarre moments, like when Professor Radisson tells Josh after class, “Do not humiliate me in front of my students,” which is followed by the threat, “If you continue with this charade, I will destroy any hope of you getting a law degree in the future.” Professor Radisson is a completely one-dimensional character, in a film with only one-dimensional characters. Everyone is stereotyped in an exaggerated manner. The good guys are really good, and the bad guys are really bad. The Christians are kind and thoughtful. The non-Christians are mean and flippant. This inability to deal with the complexities of the human personality is, frankly, amateurish and pathetic. If this is Christian artistry today, God help us. You would never know that we have Shakespeare and Tolkien in our heritage.
Worst Moment in Film History
I have not disclosed the most ridiculous moment in the movie. Here is the scene: During Josh’s fourth and final performance in front of the class, Professor Radisson engages with Josh in a tit-for-tat, where Josh comes across like a rock star lawyer. (Think of A Few Good Men with Cruise versus Nicholson.) Josh is blasting away about the immorality and meaninglessness of life without God, and the professor is responding from the Dawkins playbook about the “disease” of religion and so forth. It all culminates with Josh yelling at the professor, “Why do you hate God?!” Radisson responds, “Because he took everything from me,” in reference to the death of his mother when he was a child. “Yes, I hate God.” Josh deals the final blow, “How can you hate someone if he doesn’t exist?”
Booyah! You see what happened? The professor’s rejection of God is not about reason. It’s about emotions. It’s about the loss of his mother. Josh even declares that Radisson knows that the reasons are on Josh’s side. Atheism is not about reason. We’ve already seen how easily Josh has been able to demolish all of the rational objections. So it must be about something else. Emotions. Nevermind that this is exactly the same tactic that skeptics use against Christians. After this heated exchange between Josh and the professor, each student begins to stand, one by one, declaring, “God’s not dead.” (Think of Dead Poets Society and all the students declaring, “Oh Captain, my Captain.”) Over and over, “God’s not dead. God’s not dead.” Eventually the entire class is standing. Remember, this is the same class that wrote, “God is dead,” with their signatures just a few weeks prior. Josh is so persuasive that he wins over the entire class!
That, my friends, was the most ridiculous moment in the whole movie.
There are other characters in the film — various sub-narratives that lend support to the overarching narrative between Josh and Professor Radisson. We have Amy, a young and attractive journalist, highly ambitious and highly condescending toward Christians. She gets cancer, and when she reveals this to her equally driven boyfriend (played by Dean Cain), his response is callous beyond imagination (“This couldn’t wait until tomorrow?,” since he was celebrating his promotion) and he dumps her. Trisha LaFache plays Amy, and I thought she did a fine job. She lends a great deal of empathy to her character. Throughout her struggle, she is alone and afraid. Amy eventually comes to faith at the Newsboys concert at the end of the movie. Yep. Everything comes to a resolution at a Newsboys concert. Professor Radisson, while on his way to the Newsboys concert, gets hit by a car and, while he is dying on the street, the minister in the movie (who happened to be present at the intersection) shares the gospel message and Radisson finally relents and accepts Christ for his salvation. There is also a Muslim girl who is severely beaten by her father for secretly being a Christian (after her brother catches her listening to Franklin Graham sermons on her iPod). And there is Martin, a Chinese classmate of Josh who comes to faith after hearing his arguments in the class. And, finally, there is the minister, who actually has some solid practical wisdom in the film.
The film ends with Newsboys’ lead singer giving a shout-out, during the concert, to Josh. He praises him for “defending God’s honor” and “putting a smile on God’s face.” Before the rolling credits, we have an exhortation on the screen: “Join the movement. Text everyone you know. God’s not dead.”
That’s right. They will know us by our texts.