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Ken Myers: “What Is Culture?”

Feb 04, 2016 | Justin Taylor

Ken Myers, founder and proprietor of Mars Hill Audio Journal:

Most anthropologists and sociologists define a culture as a way of life informed by and perpetuating a set of assumptions or beliefs concerning life’s meaning. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz, for example, offers a typical definition of culture as

an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes to life.

A culture is a system or network of abstractions (beliefs or attitudes) as well as specific things (e.g., books, songs, buildings, schools), which are sustained by conventional practices and institutions. Just as a garden is an ecosystem that includes soil, plants, insects, rainfall, patterns of sunlight, the effects of heat and cold, and weeding and fertilizing procedures, so a culture is a complex whole comprising elements that interact and influence one another.

But there is also, Myers claims, an irreducible incarnational aspect to human cultures:

Human cultures are more complex, since they also include beliefs, ideas, and the spiritual aspects of human personhood. But those intangible elements are only sustained by taking form. Cultures may be said to be inherently incarnational, the spirit necessarily taking flesh for a culture to be present.

Myers goes on to explain how cultures take shape in space and time:

Cultures take shape in space (through artifacts and practices) and also in time, through the transmission and perpetuation of a kind of legacy or inheritance. Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin writes that a culture is

the sum total of ways of living developed by a group of human beings and handed on from generation to generation.

Cultures may be said to exist for the sake of passing on from one generation to the next a vision of life well lived, a set of loyalties, a body of wisdom. Cultures cultivate the hearts, the minds, and the embodied actions of their current and their future members. They convey explicit beliefs through teaching and ritual, but at a more subtle level they convey a way of being in the world that renders some beliefs more plausible than others.

He then makes a theological turn:

Speaking more theologically, we may think of culture as what we make of Creation. Cultural artifacts from primitive tools to fine art are manufactured from the physical stuff of Creation. Such artifacts—together with the institutions, practices, and beliefs that call them forth—are often expressions of what we make of Creation in a figurative sense. Forms of cultural expression contain and convey assumptions about what kinds of beings we think we are and what we believe about the world that we inhabit.

What is most fundamentally cultivated by a culture is a posture or orientation to Creation, and thus to the Creator. This gives us a standard by which to evaluate cultural forms: Do they represent well the kinds of creatures we are and the kind of world in which God has placed us?

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Don’t Have Time to Read Books? Try This One Weird Trick

Feb 02, 2016 | Justin Taylor

book chair 2Sorry for the clickbait headline. I’ll keep this short.

Here’s my suggestion: if you don’t have time to read books, start reading chapters instead.

Almost every time I read from a book—whether a novel or a biography or a non-fiction book—I have two things with me: a pen and a bookmark.

I use the pen to underline or circle phrases or make notations in the margins. This makes finding things easier, and I tend to remember things better when I mark them.

I then place the bookmark at the end of the chapter. That creates a small goal: I simply want to finish the chapter. It’s motivation when I’m tired and I see there are just a few pages left—I can press on and get it finished. It allows me to hear the author’s coherent argument (or with biography or fiction, to see the picture that the author wants me to see). It doesn’t give me the entire argument or picture, but it gives me a coherent part of the whole.

If the average person readers 250-300 words a minute, and if the average book page has about that many words, then you can use that as a rough calculation. If you can find 10-15 minutes in your day to read, you can often get through a chapter.

Not every book needs to be finished. But I suspect if you think in terms of reading chapters, rather than reading “whole books” or reading “just a few pages,” you’ll end up finishing more books by thinking this way than the other ways.

Just a suggestion.

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Is C.S. Lewis’s Liar-Lord-or-Lunatic Argument Unsound?

Feb 01, 2016 | Justin Taylor

poached-eggC. S. Lewis popularized the argument that Jesus was either a liar or a lunatic or the Lord. But, as Kyle Barton has shown, he didn’t invent it.

In the mid-nineteenth century the Scottish Christian preacher “Rabbi” John Duncan (1796-1870) formulated what he called a “trilemma.” In Colloquia Peripatetica (p. 109) we see Duncan’s argument from 1859-1860, with my numbering added:

Christ either [1] deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or [2] He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or [3] He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.

In 1936, Watchman Nee made a similar argument in his book, Normal Christian Faith. A person who claims to be God must belong to one of three categories:

First, if he claims to be God and yet in fact is not, he has to be a madman or a lunatic.

Second, if he is neither God nor a lunatic, he has to be a liar, deceiving others by his lie.

Third, if he is neither of these, he must be God.

You can only choose one of the three possibilities.

If you do not believe that he is God, you have to consider him a madman.

If you cannot take him for either of the two, you have to take him for a liar.

There is no need for us to prove if Jesus of Nazareth is God or not. All we have to do is find out if He is a lunatic or a liar. If He is neither, He must be the Son of God.

C. S. Lewis, speaking in 1942 (and published in Mere Christianity in 1952), gave the argument its most memorable formulation:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. . . . Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. (Mere Christianity, 55-56)

Is this a good argument?

The argument can be formulated as follows:

  1. If Jesus were not Lord, he would be a liar or a lunatic.
  2. Jesus was neither a liar nor a lunatic.
  3. Therefore, Jesus is Lord.

To determine whether this argument is sound, we have to ask three questions:

  1. Are the terms clear?
  2. Is the logic valid?
  3. Are the premises true?

I would give the following answers:

  1. Yes, the terms are clear.
  2. Yes, the logic is valid; premise 3 follows from premises 1 and 2 based on the rules of logic (Modus Tollens: the negation of the antecedent of premise 1 can be inferred by the negation of its consequent).
  3. But no, the argument is unsound, because not all of the premises are necessarily true. As William Lane Craig points out in Reasonable Faith, the first premise leaves out other possible options and is therefore false. There is another alternative: perhaps the Jesus presented in the Bible is not the true Jesus of history. The Jesus of the Bible may not be a liar or a lunatic or a Lord but rather a legend. In other words, the Jesus of the Bible is not the Jesus of history, so your claims about what must be trust about the Jesus of the Bible do not lead to conclusions about the actual lordship of the Jesus of history.

But C. S. Lewis can help with the rebuttal here.

In a 1950 essay, “What Are We to Make of Jesus?” Lewis works through some of Jesus’s startling claims about himself in Scripture, repeating his insistence that you can’t conclude that he was simply a “great moral teacher.” If what he said is true, Lewis says, then they are the sayings of a “megalomanic.”

In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion, which undermines the whole mind of man. If you think you are a poached egg, when you are not looking for a piece of toast to suit you you may be sane, but if you think you are God, there is no chance for you. We may note in passing that He was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met him. He produced mainly three effects — Hatred — Terror — Adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.

It’s here that Lewis addresses the rebuttal that Jesus did not really say these things; his followers exaggerated the story and the legend grew that he really said these things. Lewis shows how unlikely it would be for the Jews to invent God become man:

This is difficult because His followers were all Jews; that is, they belonged to that Nation which of all others was most convinced that there was only one God—that there could not possibly be another. It is very odd that this horrible invention about a religious leader should grow up among the one people in the whole earth least likely to make such a mistake. On the contrary we get the impression that none of His immediate followers or even of the New Testament writers embraced the doctrine at all easily.

The other option is that the accounts of Jesus were written as legends. Here Lewis draws upon his scholarly expertise:

Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don’t work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so. Apart from bits of the Platonic dialogues, there is no conversation that I know of in ancient literature like the Fourth Gospel. There is nothing, even in modern literature, until about a hundred years ago when the realistic novel came into existence.

So Lewis thinks it implausible that monotheistic Jews would have invented an incarnate Messiah and he thinks that the genre of the gospels bears none of the typical marks of legends—based upon a lifetime of scholarly and leisure reading of ancient legends. Therefore, the Jesus of the Bible is the Jesus of history. And if this one Jesus were not Lord, he would be a liar or a lunatic. But he is truthful (not a liar) and sane (not a lunatic). Therefore he is Lord.

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Picture Two Jews the Day Before the First Passover

Jan 30, 2016 | Justin Taylor

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D. A. Carson on Whether Acts 17:23 Can Be Used in the Muslim-Christian Same-God Discussion

Jan 29, 2016 | Justin Taylor

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When the Apostle Paul visited Athens and addressed their pagan philosophers in the Areopagus (“Mars Hill”), he said: “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

At the recent Bethlehem College & Seminary Pastors Conference I led a panel interviewing Joe Rigney and Don Carson. I asked Carson about this text being used to defend the notion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

Here was his response:

The argument that some have put forward is that Paul does not in that address say, “We’re worshipping entirely different gods here,” but, “What you ignorantly worship, that I declare to you.”

But put it in context. A text without a context becomes a pre-text for a proof-text.

When they are speaking of an “unknown god,” it’s in a polytheistic context, not a context of monotheism. And the reason why they have an altar to an unknown god is because they live their lives in fear with respect to what the various gods can do. You propitiate the gods with appropriate sacrifices so that you can have a fat baby or a safe trip to Rome or whatever it is you’re asking for. And there might be some god out there who’s really quite nasty tempered so you offer a sacrifice to him, too (or her, as the case may be—there were goddesses as well as gods).

None of that is relevant to what Paul is saying. Paul is not saying, “This particular god is the God that I’m talking about.”

And even if it were, it scarcely applies to the Muslim world, where the Muslims do not say, “We don’t really know much about God, why don’t you fill the content for us.” Allah is not to them an unknown god. He is very known. And when I converse with my most serious Muslims friends—and I have some—they resent the notion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. They think it’s a terrible distortion for Christians to say things like that. They think it’s an abomination, in fact, because you actually believe things like God having a Son—things like that. In fact, one Muslim country, Malaysia, had made it illegal for Christians and Muslims to use the same word, Allah, for God.

So this use of Acts 17:23, ripped out of its context, reflects a sold-out commitment to a kind of muddle-headed Western notion of tolerance that is not thinking clearly about what Paul is saying in the context. He is saying that “what you ignorantly worship this I declare to you,” not because he is making an ontological statement of identity but because he is stressing their ignorance.

You can watch or listen to the whole hour-long discussion here, where we covered a number of topics (including voting for presidential candidates).

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How Donald Trump Uses Language

Jan 28, 2016 | Justin Taylor

Evan Puschak, the “Nerd Writer,” has put together an excellent video analyzing a single answer by Donald Trump to a single question by Jimmy Kimmel:

HT: @JoeCarter

Barton Swaim, author of The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics, made a number of these points in a September 15, 2015, piece for The Washington Post.

To get at what makes Trump’s language different, take a look at the shape of his sentences. They don’t work the way modern political rhetoric does — they work the way punchlines work: short (sometimes very short) with the most important words at the end.

That’s rare among modern politicians, and not simply because they lack Trump’s showmanship or comedic gifts. It’s rare because most successful modern politicians are habitually careful with their language. They are keenly aware of the ways in which any word they speak may be interpreted or misinterpreted by journalists and partisan groups and constituencies and demographic groups.

And so in important situations — situations in which they know a lot depends on what they say or don’t say — their language takes on (at least) two peculiar characteristics. First, their syntax tends to abstraction. They speak less about particular things and people — bills, countries, identifiable officials — and more about “legislation” and “the international community” and “officials” and “industry” and “Washington” and “government.”

Second, their sentences take on a higher number of subordinate clauses and qualifying phrases — “over the last several years,” “in general,” “in effect,” “what people are telling me,” and so on. This is the kind of language you use when you’re aware that your words might be misinterpreted or used against you.

When used well, it conveys competence and assures listeners that the speaker thinks coherent thoughts and holds reasonable positions. It suggests that the speaker cares about the truth of his claims. But politicians are frequently too careful with their language, and this conscientiousness can begin to sound like deceit or cowardice. When they rely too heavily on abstractions, when they avoid concrete nouns, when all their statements seem always hedged by qualifying phrases, they sound like politicians, in the worst sense of the word. To my ear, anyway, Hillary Clinton sounds this way almost all the time.

Whether used well or poorly, however, the language of a typical modern politician has a distinctive sound to it. It sounds complex and careful—sometimes sophisticated, sometimes emotive, sometimes artificial or over-scripted, but always circumspect and inevitably disingenuous.

Trump’s language is from another rhetorical tradition entirely.

You can read his analysis of the way Trump talks here.

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The 3 Phases of American History: Pursuing Hope Against the Strange Melancholy that Haunts Them

Jan 26, 2016 | Justin Taylor

downloadAfter visiting America in the 1830s, the observant Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville made the following comment:

Men easily attain a certain equality of condition, but they can never attain as much as they desire.

It perpetually retires from before them, yet without hiding itself from their sight, and in retiring draws them on.

At every moment they think they are about to grasp it; it escapes at every moment form their hold. They are near enough to see its charms, but too far off to enjoy them; and before they have fully tasted its delights, they die.

That is the reason for the strange melancholy that haunts inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of abundance.

download (1)Andrew Delbanco, in his book The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), originally delivered as the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization, comments on this strange and haunting melancholy in American life:

Any history of hope in America must . . . make room at is center for this dogged companion of hope—the lurking suspicion that all our getting and spending amounts to nothing more than fidgeting while we wait for death.

Delbanco identifies three phases in the history of America:

[1. God]

In the first phase of our civilization, hope was chiefly expressed through a Christian story that gave meaning to suffering and pleasure alike and promised deliverance from death.

This story held the imagination largely without challenge for nearly two hundred years.

[2. Nation]

In the second phase, as Christianity came under pressure from Enlightenment rationality, the promise of self-realization was transformed into the idea of citizenship in a sacred union.

This process, which began before the Revolution and did not run its course until the 1960s, has been efficiently described by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who makes clear that it was by no means unique to the United States: “The Enlightenment removes a personal God . . . delegitimizes kingship, by desacralizing it,” and substitutes “the people—a particular people in a particular land . . . the idea of a deified nation.”

[3. Self]

Finally, in the third phase—our own—the idea of transcendence has detached itself from any coherent symbology.

It continues to be pursued through New Age spirituality, apocalyptic environmentalism, and the “multicultural” search for ancestral roots; but our most conspicuous symbols (to use a word considerably degraded since it appeared at the opening of the Gospel according to John) are the logos of corporate advertising—the golden arches and the Nike swoosh.

Though vivid and ubiquitous, such symbols will never deliver the dispensable feeling that the world does not end at the borders of the self. (4-5)

Delbanco, who does not write from a confessional Christian perspective, offers little solution in this slim volume. But it is a perceptive outline with genuine insights to glean.

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Rare Audio Recording of Dwight L. Moody Reading Scripture

Jan 25, 2016 | Justin Taylor

According to biographer Kevin Belmonte, there are only two surviving recording of D. L. Moody’s voice. One is of him reading the Beatitudes; the other is of him reading from Psalm 91.

I’ve only been able to locate the former. Recorded in 1898, Moody would have been 61 years old at the time. He died on December 22, 1899, missing the 20th century by just over a week.

The recording is of poor quality:

Moody Bible Institute also has a recording of an audio clip of Moody’s friend and song leader Ira Sankey singing, “God Be with You.”

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Free Training Session in Pro-Life Apologetics

Jan 22, 2016 | Justin Taylor

Scott Klusendorf—founder and president of Life Training Institute and the author of  The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture—argues that successful pro-life apologists present their case in four steps:

  1. They clarify the debate, clearing away distractions.
  2. They make a compelling case for life using science and philosophy.
  3. They answer objections convincingly.
  4. They teach and equip.

In the four-part session below from the Clarkson Academy (October 2-3, 2015) in Central London, Klusendorf makes the case for life and provides training on how you can do the same.

(Exhaustive notes of the sessions can be found here.)

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Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”: The Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong

Jan 21, 2016 | Justin Taylor

“I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost once wrote to his friend Louis Untermeyer.

David Orr, the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, seeks to explain this in his book, The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong (Penguin Press, 2015).

The famous poem, Orr argues, “is popular for what seem to be the wrong reasons.”

Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance).

The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

You can read a fuller excerpt of the book here.

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Why Reconstructing the Past Is So Hard to Do

Jan 21, 2016 | Justin Taylor

Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco:

If we try to approach history, in R. G. Collingwood’s phrase, by discovering “the outside of events,” we shall never grasp something as elusive as the shape of hope or dread. We shall never get hold of mental states by making inventories of numerable things.

It is possible to chart the acceleration of locomotion and communications since the industrial age, the growing percentage of households with indoor plumbing and central heating since the Second World War, the hump in life expectancy since the discovery of antibiotics.

But it is equally possible to graph rising rates of illegitimacy, divorce, juvenile crime, and the expanding disparity between the incomes of rich and poor.

Such taunting symmetries are what Norman Mailer had in mind when he remarked that the problem in understanding even the recent past is that “history is interior.” Getting at the interior thought of a friend, or a spouse, or one’s own child is hard enough; trying to catch the mood of strangers in the present, even with the help of pollsters, is harder. But retrieving something as fragile and fleeting as thought or feeling from the past is like trying to seize a bubble.

One reason it is hard is that most of the voices still audible to us come from a tiny minority who left written accounts of their experience; and the relation is often mysterious between these few and the many more whom time has rendered silent. . . . .

In the face of such obscurities, the best we can usually manage is to take the scraps left by witnesses and try to assemble them, as if they were fossil fragments, into a reconstructed skeleton. The result will always be incomplete, and we can only guess at the missing parts.

—Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Cambridge, Mass./London: Harvard University Press, 1999), 6-8.

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“Donald Trump Is Not Capable of Serious Moral Reasoning”

Jan 20, 2016 | Justin Taylor

John McCormack of The Weekly Standard:

When Ben Carson was rising in the polls, Donald Trump was quick to attack the former neurosurgeon for being “pro-abortion not so long ago.”

The attack was more than a bit hypocritical because Trump himself was “very” pro-abortion not so long ago. In 1999, Tim Russert asked Trump if he would support a ban on “abortion in the third-trimester” or “partial-birth abortion.”

“No,” Trump replied. “I am pro-choice in every respect.” Trump explained his views may be the result of his “New York background.” Now that Ted Cruz has attacked Trump’s “New York values,” Trump’s views on abortion will be getting a second look by many Republican voters.

During the first Republican presidential debate, Trump explained that he “evolved” on the issue at some unknown point in the last 16 years. “Friends of mine years ago were going to have a child, and it was going to be aborted. And it wasn’t aborted. And that child today is a total superstar, a great, great child. And I saw that. And I saw other instances,” Trump said. “I am very, very proud to say that I am pro-life.”

When the Daily Caller‘s Jamie Weinstein asked Trump if he would have become pro-life if that child had been a loser instead of a “total superstar,” Trump replied: “Probably not, but I’ve never thought of it. I would say no, but in this case it was an easy one because he’s such an outstanding person.”

That Trump could go from supporting third-trimester abortion–something indistinguishable from infanticide, something that only 14 percent of Americans think should be legal–to becoming pro-life because of that one experience is a bit hard to believe. If it’s true, the story still indicates at the very least that Trump is not capable of serious moral reasoning.

You can read the whole thing here.

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What’s Going on at Wheaton? A Modest Proposal for the “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God” Debate

Jan 15, 2016 | Justin Taylor

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As many readers will know by know, Wheaton College is embroiled in a public controversy over comments made by Larycia Hawkins, the first female African-American tenured professor at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.

What’s Going On?

If you need to catch up on the discussion, Joe Carter has a handy “explainer” where he answers the following questions:

  • What is the Wheaton “same God” controversy about?
  • Was Hawkins put on leave because she wore a hijab?
  • How did Hawkins respond to the questions?
  • What was Wheaton’s response to Hawkins’s letter?
  • Does this mean that Hawkins has been fired?
  • How has Hawkins responded to the Notice of Termination?

Mistakes to Avoid

I think there are several mistakes to avoid in trying to process and comment upon this situation.

1. Assuming that we have all the information.

We only have the information that Wheaton has chosen to make public and that Professor Hawkins has chosen to make public. Anyone involved in leading an organization or school likely knows that there is more going on behind the scenes than can be made public, and therefore it is difficult to take limited information and try to form a full and fair judgment.

2. Assuming that this is about one issue.

Many people assume this is merely about one thing, whereas it seems likely that it’s a constellation of complicated and competing factors. Mark Galli of Christianity Today did a nice job of identifying at least some of them:

  • The theological integrity of a Christian institution
  • Loving our Muslim neighbors
  • Academic freedom
  • Maintaining boundaries
  • Diversity on Christian campuses
  • Tenure
  • Confidentiality
  • The right to know

So What about the Statement on Muslims and Christians Worshipping the Same God?

I think this remains one of the best opening questions for the discussion:

There is a sense in which the answer to this question could be answered in the affirmative and a sense in which it should (in my view) be answered in the negative. (Professor Hawkins has said as much herself.) The problem is that it’s a terribly ambiguous statement, such that two people can affirm it and mean very different things by it.

Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith provides a list of philosophers and theologians who answer the question in the affirmative:

And a list of those who answer it in the negative:

As well as those who offer more of a complicated yes-and-no answer:

One defeater offered to the denial that Christians and Muslims worship the same God is that Jews do not hold to a Trinitarian view of God either, and therefore this position seems to entail a denial that Jews worship the one true God or that Christians worship the God of Abraham and Israel. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has advanced this argument forcefully, arguing that Christians who fall prey to this line of reasoning are being heretical.

The best piece I know of in response to this line of argument is the new piece at TGC today by Lydia McGrew, a homeschooling mother and an analytical philosopher. She writes:

In one sense Christians and modern religious Jews worship the same God; in another sense they don’t.

Old Testament Jews, of course, didn’t reject the Trinity and the incarnation, since those doctrines hadn’t been revealed. If one emphatically rejects these truths about God, however, and explicitly worships God as non-triune and non-incarnate, then this makes a pretty good case that, in one sense, such a person does not worship the same God whom Christians worship.

In another sense, however, Christians can say to modern religious Jews:

The true God who called your forefathers out of the land of Egypt, who gave the law at Sinai, who chose you as his beloved, chosen people, really is the one who sent Yeshua the Messiah to die for our sins. We worship the God who really did found Judaism thousands of years ago, who really did give the Torah. And we are here to tell you more about him.

In this historical sense we can say the God we worship is the God of the Jews, though those who haven’t accepted Jesus don’t (of course) agree. But notice: Nothing like this is true of Islam. God didn’t really reveal himself to Mohammad. Mohammad was not a prophet of God. It isn’t enough that Muslims think the Being who revealed himself to Abraham also spoke to Mohammad. Truth matters, and since that isn’t true, there is no real historical connection—in the acts of God himself—between the Allah of Islam and the one true God. But there is a real historical connection in the acts of God between Judaism and Christianity.

I encourage you to read her whole piece, where she addresses a number of other objections as well.

A Modest Proposal for Both Sides: Can We Agree on This?

Much of this discussion has been in the language of philosophy rather than of exegetical theology.

Here is my proposal: Can we agree that the answer to whether or not Christians and Muslims “worship the same God” has a yes-and-no answer, depending on the meaning, but that Jesus taught that the following is true of all people, whether professing Jews, Christians, or Muslims?

1. If professing Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not honor God the Son, then they do not honor God the Father.

“Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” (John 5:23)

2. If professing Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not receive God the Son, then they do not have the love of God the Father within them.

“I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me.” (John 5:42-43)

3. If Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not know God the Son, then they do not know God the Father.

“You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (John 8:19; cf. John 7:28; 14:7)

4. If professing Jews, Christians, and Muslims deny God the Son, then they deny the God the Father.

“No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” (1 John 2:23)

5. If professing Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not come to God the Son, then they have not heard and learned from God the Father.

“Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” (John 6:45)

6. If professing Jews, Christians, and Muslims reject God the Son, then they reject God the Father.

“The one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16)

The virtue of this line of reasoning, it seems to me, is it forces us to reckon with the biblical text where Jesus addressed what we must believe and what we cannot reject.

So if you want to say “Muslims worship the same God as Christians” and you can affirm that “Muslims do not know and honor but rather deny and reject the one true God of Christianity”—then I think we are on the same page (though I also think the former statement will be very confusing to many people).

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The End of a Remarkable Writing and Speaking Ministry: An Update on J. I. Packer’s Health

Jan 14, 2016 | Justin Taylor

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We at Crossway learned this week that J. I. Packer (who will, Lord willing, turn 90 years old in July 2016) has developed macular degeneration in his right eye. His left eye has had macular degeneration for over a decade. He consented to let this information be shared publicly.

Age-Related Macular Degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss for those over the age of 65. The macula is a small spot near the center of the retina that helps to focus on objects straight ahead. Degeneration of the macula does not in itself lead to total blindness, but it can make it nearly impossible to read, write, or even recognize faces.

The disease struck Dr. Packer’s right eye over Christmas, which means (at time of writing) he has only been living with this for the past few weeks. He is unable to read, and therefore he will be unable to travel and speak. Because so much of his writing involves initial working with a ballpoint pen and blank paper, he is also unable to write.

You can read Ivan Mesa’s TGC interview with Dr. Packer today on his perspective on these developments.

Two of his final books have had resonance with the challenges he is currently facing: Weakness Is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength (Crossway, 2013) and Finishing Our Course with Joy: Guidance from God for Engaging with Our Aging (Crossway, 2014).

In the latter volume, he explained the difference between a worldly and a biblical view of aging:

How should we view the onset of old age? The common assumption is that it is mainly a process of loss, whereby strength is drained from both mind and body and the capacity to look forward and move forward in life’s various departments is reduced to nothing. . . .

But here the Bible breaks in, highlighting the further thought that spiritual ripeness is worth far more than material wealth in any form, and that spiritual ripeness should continue to increase as one gets older.

The Bible’s view is that aging, under God and by grace, will bring wisdom, that is, an enlarged capacity for discerning, choosing, and encouraging. In Proverbs 1-7 an evidently elderly father teaches realistic moral and spiritual wisdom to his adult but immature son. In Psalm 71 an elderly preacher who has given the best years of his life to teaching the truth about God in the face of much opposition prays as follows:

You, O LORD, are my hope,
my trust, O LORD, from my youth. . . .

Do not cast me off in the time of old age;
forsake me not when my strength is spent. . . .

But I will hope continually
and will praise you yet more and more.
My mouth will tell of your righteous acts,
of your deeds of salvation all the day,
for their number is past my knowledge.
With the mighty deeds of the Lord GOD I will come;
I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.

O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to another generation,
your power to all those to come. (Ps. 71:5, 9, 14-18)

And Psalm 92:12 and 14 declare:

The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. . . .
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green.

This biblical expectation and, indeed, promise of ripeness growing and service of others continuing as we age with God is the substance of the last-lap image of our closing years, in which we finish our course. Runners in a distance race, like jockeys in a horse race, always try to keep something in reserve for a final sprint. And my contention is going to be that, so far as our bodily health allows, we should aim to be found running the last lap of the race of our Christian life, as we would say, flat out. The final sprint, so I urge, should be a sprint indeed.

I thank God tonight that James Innell Packer’s course is not yet finished and that he is still running the race. In accordance with this counsel, I pray it will be a spiritual sprint through the finish line.

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J. I. Packer on Three Types of Evangelicals Today—And What the Puritans Can Teach Each Group

Jan 14, 2016 | Justin Taylor

9781433515811The following piece of brilliant analysis is from J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1990), 31-34:

Our numbers, it seems, have increased in recent years, and a new interest in the old paths of evangelical theology has grown. For this we should thank God.

But not all evangelical zeal is according to knowledge, nor do the virtues and values of the biblical Christian life always come together as they should, and three groups in particular in today’s evangelical world seem very obviously to need help of a kind that Puritans, as we meet them in their writings, are uniquely qualified to give. These I call restless experientialists, entrenched intellectualists, and disaffected deviationists. They are not, of course, organised bodies of opinion, but individual persons with characteristic mentalities that one meets over and over again.

Take them, now, in order.

[What the Puritans Can Teach Restless Experiential Evangelicals]

Those whom I call restless experientialsts are a familiar breed, so much so that observers are sometimes tempted to define evangelicalism in terms of them.

Their outlook is one of casual haphazardness and fretful impatience, of grasping after novelties, entertainments, and ‘highs’, and of valuing strong feelings above deep thoughts.

They have little taste for solid study, humble self-examination, disciplined meditation, and unspectacular hard work in their callings and their prayers.

They conceive the Christian life as one of exciting extraordinary experiences rather than of resolute rational righteousness.

They dwell continually on the themes of joy, peace, happiness, satisfaction and rest of souls with no balancing reference to the divine discontent of Romans 7, the fight of faith of Psalm 73, or the ‘lows’ of Psalms 42, 88, and 102.

Through their influence the spontaneous jollity of the simple extrovert comes to be equated with healthy Christian living, while saints of less sanguine and more complex temperament get driven almost to distraction because they cannot bubble over in the prescribed manner. In her restlessness these exuberant ones become uncritically credulous, reasoning that the more odd and striking an experience the more divine, supernatural, and spiritual it must be, and they scarcely give the scriptural virtue of steadiness a thought.

It is no counter to these defects to appeal to the specialised counselling techniques that extrovert evangelicals have developed for pastoral purposes in recent years; for spiritual life is fostered, and spiritual maturity engendered, not by techniques but by truth, and if our techniques have been formed in terms of a defective notion of the truth to be conveyed and the goal to be aimed at they cannot make us better pastors or better believers than we were before. The reason why the restless experientialists are lopsided is that they have fallen victim to a form of worldliness, a man-centered, anti-rational individualism, which turns Christian life into a thrill-seeking ego-trip. Such saints need the sort of maturing ministry in which the Puritan tradition has specialised.

What Puritan emphases can establish and settle restless experientialists? These, to start with.

First, the stress on God-centeredness as a divine requirement that is central to the discipline of self-denial.

Second, the insistence on the primacy of the mind, and on the impossibility of obeying biblical truth that one has not yet understood.

Third, the demand for humility, patience, and steadiness at all times, and for an acknowledgement that the Holy Spirit’s main ministry is not to give thrills but to create in us Christlike character.

Fourth, the recognition that feelings go up and down, and that God frequently tries us by leading us through wastes of emotional flatness.

Fifth, the singling out of worship as life’s primary activity.

Sixth, the stress on our need of regular self-examination by Scripture, in terms set by Psalm 139:23-24.

Seventh, the realisation that sanctified suffering bulks large in God’s plan for his children’s growth in grace. No Christian tradition of teaching administers this purging and strengthening medicine with more masterful authority than does that of the Puritans, whose own dispensing of it nurtured a marvellously strong and resilient type of Christian for a century and more, as we have seen.

[What the Puritans Can Teach Entrenched Intellectualist Evangelicals]

Think now of entrenched intellectualists in the evangelical world: a second familiar breed, though not so common as the previous type.

Some of them seem to be victims of an insecure temperament and inferiority feelings, others to be reacting out of pride or pain against the zaniness of experientialism as they have perceived it, but whatever the source of their syndrome the behaviour-pattern in which they express it is distinctive and characteristic.

Constantly they present themselves as rigid, argumentative, critical Christians, champions of God’s truth for whom orthodoxy is all.

Upholding and defending their own view of that truth, whether Calvinist or Arminian, dispensational or Pentecostal, national church reformist or Free Church separatist, or whatever it might be, is their leading interest, and they invest themselves unstintingly in this task.

There is little warmth about them; relationally they are remote; experiences do not mean much to them; winning the battle for mental correctness is their one great purpose.

They see, truly enough, that in our anti-rational, feeling-oriented, instant-gratification culture conceptual knowledge of divine things is undervalued, and they seek with passion to right the balance at this point.

They understand the priority of the intellect well; the trouble is that intellectualism, expressing itself in endless campaigns for their own brand of right thinking, is almost if not quite all that they can offer, for it is almost if not quite all that they have.

They too, so I urge, need exposure to the Puritan heritage for their maturing.

That last statement might sound paradoxical, since it will not have escaped the reader that the above profile corresponds to what many still suppose the typical Puritan to have been. But when we ask what emphases Puritan tradition contains to counter arid intellectualism, a whole series of points springs to view.

First, true religion claims the affections as well as the intellect; it is essentially, in Richard Baxter’s phrase, ‘heart-work’.

Second, theological truth is for practice. William Perkins defined theology as the science of living blessedly for ever; William Ames called it the science of living to God.

Third, conceptual knowledge kills if one does not move on from knowing notions to knowing the realities to which they refer—in this case, from knowing about God to a relational acquaintance with God himself.

Fourth, faith and repentance, issuing in a life of love and holiness, that is, of gratitude expressed in goodwill and good works, are explicitly called for in the gospel.

Fifth, the Spirit is given to lead us into close companionship with others in Christ.

Sixth, the discipline of discursive meditation is meant to keep us ardent and adoring in our love affair with God.

Seventh, it is ungodly and scandalous to become a firebrand and cause division in the church, and it is ordinarily nothing more reputable than spiritual pride in its intellectual form that leads men to create parties and splits.

The great Puritans were as humble-minded and warm-hearted they were clear-headed, as fully oriented to people as they were to Scripture, and as passionate for peace as they were for truth. They would certainly have diagnosed today’s fixated Christian intellectualists as spiritually stunted, not in their zeal for the form of sound words but in their lack of zeal for anything else; and the thrust of Puritan teaching about God’s truth in man’s life is still potent to ripen such souls into whole and mature human beings.

[What the Puritans Can Teach Disaffected Deviationists Evangelicals]

I turn finally to those whom I call disaffected deviationists, the casualties and dropouts of the modern evangelical movement, many of whom have now turned against it to denounce it as a neurotic perversion of Christianity. Here, too, is a breed that we know all too well. It is distressing to think of these folk, both because their experience to date discredits our evangelicalism so deeply and also because there are so many of them. Who are they?

They are people who once saw themselves as evangelicals, either from being evangelically nurtured or from coming to profess conversion with the evangelical sphere of influence, but who have become disillusioned about the evangelical point of view and have turned their back on it, feeling that it let them down.

Some leave it for intellectual reasons, judging that what was taught them was so simplistic as to stifle their minds and so unrealistic and out of touch with facts as to be really if unintentionally dishonest.

Others leave because they were led to expect that as Christians they would enjoy health, wealth, trouble-free circumstances, immunity from relational hurts, betrayals, and failures, and from making mistakes and bad decisions; in short, a flowery bed of ease on which they would be carried happily to heaven—and these great expectations were in due course refuted by events.

Hurt and angry, feeling themselves victims of a confidence trick, they now accuse the evangelicalism they knew of having failed and fooled them, and resentfully give it up; it is a mercy if they do not therewith similarly accuse and abandon God himself.

Modern evangelicalism has much to answer for in the number of casualties of this sort that it has caused in recent years by its naivety of mind and unrealism of expectation.

But here again the soberer, profounder, wiser evangelicalism of the Puritan giants can fulfill a corrective and therapeutic function in our midst, if only we will listen to its message.

What have the Puritans to say to us that might serve to heal the disaffected casualties of modern evangelical goofiness? Anyone who reads the writings of the Puritan authors will find in them much that helps in this way.

Puritan authors regularly tell us, first, of the mystery of God: that our God is too small, that the real God cannot be put without remainder into a man-made conceptual box so as to be fully understood; and that he was, is, and always will be bewilderingly inscrutable in his dealing with those who trust and love him, so that ‘losses and crosses’, that is, bafflement and disappointment in relation to particular hopes one has entertained, must be accepted as a recurring element in one’s life of fellowship with him.

Then they tell us, second, of the love of God: that it is a love that redeems, converts, sanctifies, and ultimately glorifies sinners, and that Calvary was the one place in human history where it was fully and unambiguously revealed, and that in relation to our own situation we may know for certain that nothing can separate us from that love (Rom. 8:38f), although no situation in this world will ever be free from flies in the ointment and thorns in the bed.

Developing the theme of divine love the Puritans tell us, third, of the salvation of God: that the Christ who put away our sins and brought us God’s pardon is leading us through this world to a glory for which we are even now being prepared by the instilling of desire for it and capacity to enjoy it, and that holiness here, in the form of consecrated service and loving obedience through thick and thin, is the high road to happiness hereafter.

Following this they tell us, fourth, about spiritual conflict, the many ways in which the world, the flesh and the devil seek to lay us low;

fifth, about the protection of God, whereby he overrules and sanctifies the conflict, often allowing one evil to touch our lives in order thereby to shield us from greater evils;

and, sixth, about the glory of God, which it becomes our privilege to further by our celebrating of his grace, by our proving of his power under perplexity and pressure, by totally resigning ourselves to his good pleasure, and by making him our joy and delight at all times.

By ministering to us these precious biblical truths the Puritans give us the resources we need to cope with ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, and offer the casualties an insight into what has happened to them that can raise them above self-pitying resentment and reaction and restore their spiritual health completely. Puritan sermons show that problems about providence are in now way new; the seventeenth century had its own share of spiritual casualties, saints who had thought simplistically and hoped unrealistically and were now disappointed, disaffected, despondent and despairing, and the Puritans’ ministry to us at this point is simply the spin-off of what they were constantly saying to raise up and encourage wounded spirits among their own people.

[Conclusion]

I think the answer to the question, why do we need the Puritans, is now pretty clear, and I conclude my argument at this point. I, who owe more to the Puritans than to any other theologians I have ever read, and who know that I need them still, have been trying to persuade you that perhaps you need them too. To succeed in this would, I confess, make me overjoyed, and that chiefly for your sake, and the Lord’s. But there, too, is something that I must leave in God’s hands. Meantime, let us continue to explore the Puritan heritage together. There is more gold to be mined here than I have mentioned yet.

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