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 23, 2014
In the “letters to the editor” portion of the latest issue of First Things (October 2014), George Hunsinger responds to Matthew Rose’s attempted take-down of Karl Barth in the June issue. Among others, I wrote a response, “Barth’s failure?” Within Barth studies, I am close to Hunsinger’s interpretation of Barth, so we both highlight similar points, namely Rose’s unacknowledged indebtedness to a particular reading of Barth, which was itself not very well presented.
After Hunsinger’s letter, there is also a brief response from David Congdon, unfortunately not available online without a subscription. Congdon rightly challenges the claim that Barth depended upon “Kantian epistemological concepts” that are grounded in “secular axioms regarding human reason,” ignoring the Scriptural warrant that was Barth’s only justification for proceeding forth with his project.
Rose responds to Hunsinger and, very briefly, to Congdon. His response is also not available online without a subscription. In response to Hunsinger, Rose basically says that the ambiguity in Barth’s doctrine of God is the problem. But this is not the thrust of Rose’s essay, where he is quite confident that Barth was a disastrous anti-metaphysical plague in the bloodstream of modern theology. In regard to Congdon, he has the odd reply, “David Congdon insists that Barth finds his epistemology in Scripture. Here we have another version of the same problem. I don’t think Barth was unsuccessful in doing this. I think it cannot be done” (p. 11).
Huh? If it cannot be done, then Barth was unsuccessful in doing it.
September 22, 2014
With a snappy title like, “God’s Eternal Self-Consciousness,” you know this post is going to be good! An alternative title could have been, “The Aseity of a Personal God,” which is just as catchy!
If you have ever struggled to explain how the Trinity is necessary for a personal God, then this is what you say:
The idea of the Trinity of essence is one with the idea of the Divine personality; and, therefore, to have an ontological conception of the essential Trinity is to have a conception of the form which is fundamental and necessary to the personal life of God; is to have a conception of those momenta of the essence of God, without which personality and self-consciousness are inconceivable. It is true, both ancient and modern Arianism is of opinion that God may be a personal God without being a Trinity, and that the personality of God is sufficiently secured if we represent to ourselves a “God the Father,” to whom we attribute self-consciousness and will . But we ask, — is it possible for us not merely to imagine to ourselves, but to think, that God could have been from eternity conscious of Himself as a Father, if He had not from eternity distinguished Himself from Himself as the Son, and if He had not been as eternally one with the Son in the unity of the Spirit? Or, in other words, Is it possible to conceive of God as eternal self-consciousness without conceiving of Him as eternally making Himself his own object? When, therefore, following in the footsteps of the Church, we teach that not merely the Father, but also the Son and the Holy Spirit eternally pre-existed and are independent of creation, we say that God could not be the self-revealed, self-loving God, unless He had eternally distinguished Himself into I and Thou (into Father and Son), and unless He had eternally comprehended Himself as the Spirit of Love, who proceeds forth from that relation of antithesis in the Divine essence.
[Hans Martensen, Christian Dogmatics, p. 107]
This is applicable to how God can be personal while preserving his aseity and freedom vis-à-vis creation. In a Unitarian reckoning, you can have a personal “Father” God in relation to the creation, but then creation would be necessary for this personal dimension of God. By contrast, if God is self-constituted in his essence as an I and Thou, then he can exist in free relation to his creation as the One who has life and fellowship in himself (using Barth’s language).
However, Martensen turns to the love of God as the basis for establishing a certain necessity between God and the world for God’s perfection (see below). So, whereas Martensen does not use the personal relations of God per se to make such a connection, he turns to the attribute of love, established by these personal relations, in order to do so.
Martensen has an intriguing account of the Holy Spirit as the free, ethical relation of God to himself, which would not be the case if his love terminated in the Son alone. And it is this free “procession” within the Triune God that is the basis for creation ad extra (see p. 110). It is at this point where Martensen ventures into questionable statements about the necessity of creation for a loving God, which he has avoided heretofore. For example, he states that “perfect love is not merely the love of God to Himself, to His own perfection, but must also be conceived as love to what is imperfect; in other words, it must be conceived as the will to create a world, one of whose essential features is the need of God…” (111). The divine blessedness becomes perfect only when the grace and love of God are fulfilled in the “glorious liberty” of his children:
[The divine blessedness] then for the first time becomes perfect, in so far as it is the will of God not merely to rest in His eternal majesty — for in this the Triune God was able to rest independently of the world, before the foundations of the world were laid; but to rest and be blessed in the completed work of grace and love, in the glorious liberty of the children of God, — a goal which will not be reached until, in the words of the Apostle Paul, God shall be all in all. [112-113]
So, God is able to rest eternally in his “majesty,” but that would be less than the “blessedness” of revealing and consummating his love to a dependent creation. As such, an attribute (or perfection) of God requires the existence of a creation ad extra. For some of us, usually Reformed sorts, that would undermine the freedom of grace, toward creation, by turning it into a necessity for God’s perfection. Not surprisingly, he faults Calvin for not recognizing this mutually constituting relation between God and his free creatures (p. 115).
However, Martensen tries to avoid the Reformed criticism, as I see it, by designating this “lack in God” as a “superfluity”:
In a certain sense one may say that God created the world in order to satisfy a want in Himself; but the idea of God’s love requires us to understand this want as quite as truly a superfluity. For this lack in God is not, as in the God of pantheism, a blind hunger and thirst after existence, but is identical with the inexhaustible riches of that liberty which cannot but will to reveal itself. From this point of view, it will be clear, in what sense we reject the proposition, and in what sense we accept it, “without the world God is not God.” 
Whether this notion of a “superfluous” necessity is convincing, the reader will have to decide. I have my doubts. Nonetheless, the doctrine of the Trinity in Martensen’s dogmatics is highly stimulating and beautifully expressed. I recommend it to one and all!
Image: Trinity Window at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Asheville, North Carolina
September 18, 2014
A final note: Is it really Schleiermacher who is Hauerwas’s progenitor? Might not a better candidate be the great, and neglected, Albrecht Ritschl, surely the theologian of liberal Protestant Christian moral culture? Ritschl was, to be sure, no sectarian. But his repudiation of metaphysics, his fear that preoccupation with fides quae is a speculative distraction from viewing the world in terms of moral value, and his conviction that Christian faith is principally a mode of active moral community are not far from much that may be found in Hauerwas’s corpus. Perhaps one of the services of this fine book may be to cause its readers to ponder the irony that a body of writing that sets its face resolutely against the liberal tradition of modern moral theology may in important respects be that tradition’s heir.
“Ecclesiocentrism,” First Things, October 2014
If you’re familiar with Webster’s works, as you should be, then you will have a good grasp of why Webster appreciates the book so much.
September 17, 2014
A disheveled musician walks around his motel room and smokes cigarettes, while his pretty girlfriend shows-off her legs.
That’s all you need to know. Enjoy.
“Time Shows Fools” by Justin Townes Earle, from his new album, Single Mothers. You can increase the video quality to HD.
This is definitely a different vibe than Harlem River Blues and his other albums. It’s too early for me to judge the album as a whole, but I hope that Earle is not venturing into smooth John Mayer territory. The critics are somewhat mixed but mostly positive from what I’ve seen. I recommend the review from SavingCountryMusic.com.
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
A number of folks in our congregation asked me if I had seen God’s Not Dead, the recent evangelical film which chronicles 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 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. [UPDATE: 14,000+ reviews as of March 2016]
The scenario which God’s Not Dead attempts to portray is important. It is something which Christian parents and their children need to have open and honest dialogues. In this regard, I hope this film may generate some much needed discussion.
But this is not the film we need! My review will be highly negative, with only a few positive observations along the way.
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 what? About the Philosophy 101 course on his schedule. The professor of the course is Dr. Jeffrey Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), who is well-known for his avowed atheism and open disdain for religion. The next scene is Josh’s first day of class with Professor Radisson.
The scene starts decently enough. Kevin Sorbo portrays the professor. It is an enjoyable performance. He is a charismatic and very confident professor of philosophy, who doesn’t skip a beat in his Richard Dawkins-esque monologue. This monologue is targeted 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.
September 11, 2014
If you were to ask Christians to list the attributes of God, I do not think that humility would rank very high. It would probably barely even register. Humility is what we do, not God. Glory and Power and Might, yes. Humility, not so much. Even when we think of Love and Mercy, we do not often define these in terms of God’s humility from eternity.
These are not mutually exclusive — the attributes of freedom and the attributes of love. God can hold together contraries in his being, which we separate and pervert in our being. But it is impossible for us to know this, without God first enacting this possibility in Jesus Christ. And if we look to Jesus Christ as where the fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col 2:9), then humility defines God in his essence.
I just started reading Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s journals. He mentions God’s humility in one of his entries (below), which I found helpful. When we try to find humility within ourselves, it is when pride manifests itself sub contrario — as we are all too aware, if we’re honest. Instead, we have to look toward God’s humility and find our place within His life:
Essentially, all sins come from two sources: flesh and pride. But pride is more frightening (after all, it ruined the angelic powers). Christians have focused their attention, their religious “passion,” on flesh, but how easy it is to succumb to pride. Spiritual pride (truth, spirituality, maximalism) is the most frightful of all. The difficulty of the fight against pride lies in the fact that pride, unlike the flesh, appears in so many different forms and most easily appropriates that of the angel of light. In humility, people gain the knowledge of their unworthiness and defects, yet humility is the most divine of all possible qualities. We become humble, not because we see ourselves (one way or another, that always leads to pride because false humility is just another aspect of pride, perhaps the most difficult to conquer), but only if we see God and His humility.
Wednesday, February 28, 1973
[The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p. 4]
September 9, 2014
I recently wrote a post, “Faith Without Apologetics,” and I stand by every word! But I appreciate when an apologist offers some wise advice on how to talk with real people, which is not something I typically associate with my fellow systematic theology nerds.
Mary Jo Sharp teaches at Houston Baptist University, and here is a Question and Answer session with her:
She avoids, here at least, all of the facile maneuvers that have plagued apologetics, and she demonstrates an obvious depth of both warmth and intelligence. May she prosper in all things (3 John 1:2).