Category Archives: Theology

What Does 1 + 1 = 2 Mean? — Why Christianity Matters for Math (and Everything Else)

[Note: This is the sixth article in an occasional series on apologetics and worldview analysis.]

Over the past few decades evangelicals have expressed a renewed interest in the concept of vocation. No longer is it uncommon to hear call to “think Christianly” about our work or, for academics, their fields of study. Some people (like me) go a step further and claim that we’re merely fooling ourselves if we believe that we can approach our vocations at the deepest levels of engagement with a sense of religious neutrality. “Thinking Christianly” about our work is not something we add on as an afterthought; it radically changes the nature of our work.

111Not surprisingly, this view is often met with skepticism. Even those who agree with my general point do not see, for example, how there could be a particularly Christian view to subjects like mathematics.

While I certainly understand their hesitation, I do in fact believe there is a Christian view of mathematics. Indeed, I believe that there is a distinctly Christian view of everything.

The reason this idea seems so foreign (if not downright absurd) is that most of our theories about the world have only a minimal pragmatic affect on how we actually live our lives. Both my neighbor and I, for example, may get sunburned even if we hold radically different beliefs about the sun. The fact that I think the sun is a ball of nuclear plasma while he believes that it is pulled across the sky in a chariot driven by the Greek god Helios doesn’t change the fact that we both have to use sunscreen. It is only when we move beneath the surface concepts (“The sun is hot.”) to deeper levels of explanation (“What is the essential nature of entities like the sun?”) that our religious beliefs come into play.

Even the concept that 1 + 1 = 2 — a formula which almost all people agree with on a surface level — has different meanings based on what theories are proposed as answers. These theories, claims philosopher Roy Clouser, show that going more deeply into the concept of 1 + 1 = 2 reveals important differences in the ways it is understood, and that these differences are due to the divinity beliefs they presuppose.

But before we can see why this is true, let’s review the claims made in my previous article about what constitutes a religious belief.

A belief is a religious belief, says Clouser, provided that (1) It is a belief in something(s) or other as divine, or (2) It is a belief concerning how humans come to stand in relation to the divine. The divine, in this definition, is whatever is “just there.” He contends that self-existence is the defining characteristic of divinity, so that the control of theories by a belief about what is self-existent is the same as control by a divinity belief and thus amounts to religious control of all theories.

Whether we refer to it as being self-existent, uncaused, radically independent, etc., it is the point beyond which nothing else can be reduced. Unless we posit an infinite regress of dependent existences, we must ultimately arrive at an entity that fits the criteria for the divine.

Different traditions, religions, and belief systems may disagree about what or who has divine status, or whether such an ontological concept should be considered a “religious belief.” But what they all agree upon is that something has such a status. A theist, for instance, will say that the divine is God while a materialist will claim that matter is what fills the category of divine. Therefore, if we examine our concepts in enough detail, we discover that at a deeper level we’re not agreeing on what the object is that we’re talking about. Our explanations and theories about things will vary depending on what is presupposed as the ultimate explainer. And the ultimate explainer can only be the reality that has divine status.

Returning to our example, we find that the meaning of 1 + 1 = 2 is dependent on how we answer certain questions, such as: What do “1” or “2” or “+” or “=” stand for? What are those things? Are they abstract or must they have a physical existence? And how do we know that 1 + 1 = 2 is true? How do we attain that knowledge?

Let’s look at the answers proposed by four philosophers throughout history:

Leibnitz’s view — When Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, an inventor of the calculus, was asked by one of his students, “Why is one and one always two, and how do we know this?” Leibnitz replied, “One and one equals two is an eternal, immutable truth that would be so whether or not there were things to count or people to count them.” Numbers, numerical relationships, and mathematical laws (such as the law of addition) exist in this abstract realm and are independent of any physical existence. In Leibnitz’s view, numbers are real things that exist in a dimension outside of the physical realm and would exist even if no human existed to recognize them.

Russell’s view — Bertrand Russell took a position diametrically opposed to Leibnitz. Russell believed it was absurd to think that there is another dimension with all the numbers in it and claimed that math was essentially nothing more than a short cut way of writing logic. In Russell’s view, logical classes and logical laws — rather than numbers and numerical relationships — are the real things that exist in a dimension outside of the physical realm.

Mill’s view — John Stuart Mill took a third position that denied the extra-dimensional existence of numbers and logic. Mill believed that all that we can know to exist are our own sensations — what we can see, taste, hear, and smell. And while we may take for granted that the objects we see, taste, hear, and smell exist independently of us, we cannot know even this. Mill claims that 1 and 2 and + stand for sensations, not abstract numbers or logical classes. Because they are merely sensations, 1 + 1 has the potential to equal 5, 345, or even 1,596. Such outcomes may be unlikely but, according to Mill, they are not impossible.

Dewey’s view — The American philosopher John Dewey took another radical position, implying that the signs 1 + 1 = 2 do not really stand for anything but are merely useful tools that we invent to do certain types of work. Asking whether 1 + 1 = 2 is true would be as nonsensical as asking if a hammer is true. Tools are neither true nor false; they simply do some jobs and not others. What exists is the physical world and humans (biological entities) that are capable of inventing and using such mathematical tools.

For each of these four philosophers what was considered to be divine (“just there”) had a significant impact on how they answered the questions about the nature of the simple equation. For Leibnitz it was mathematical abstractions; for Russell it was logic; for Mill is was sensations; and for Dewey it was the physical/biological world. On the surface we might be able to claim that all four men understood the equation in the same way. But as we moved deeper we found their religious beliefs radically altered the conceptual understanding of 1 + 1 = 2.

What all of the explanations have in common, what all non-theistic views share, is a tendency to produce theories that are reductionist — the theory claims to have found the part of the world that everything else is either identical with or depends on. This is why the Christian view on math, science, and everything else must ultimately differ from theories predicated on other religious beliefs. We may appear to agree on the surface, but dig a little deeper and we find that what we believe about God changes everything.


Other Posts in This Series:

What is a Religious Belief?

When Atheists Are Angry at God

Do Tummy Aches Disprove God?

Naming Your Turtles

Should You Trust the Monkey Mind?

Themelios 39.1

Them39.1The Gospel Coalition just released the latest issue of Themelios, which has 212 pages of articles and book reviews. It is freely available in three different formats:

  1. PDF (ideal for printing)
  2. Logos edition (ideal for research and mobile access)
  3. web version (ideal for interacting and sharing)

It contains the following contributions:

  1. D. A. Carson | EDITORIAL: Do the Work of an Evangelist
  2. Michael J. Ovey | OFF THE RECORD: The Covert Thrill of Violence? Reading the Bible in Disbelief
  3. Brian J. Tabb | Editor’s Note
  4. Thomas R. Schreiner | A Biblical Theologian Reviews Gerald Bray’s Systematic Theology (with a response from Gerald Bray)
  5. Gerald Bray | A Systematician Reviews Tom Schreiner’s Biblical Theology (with a response from Thomas R. Schreiner)
  6. Collin Hansen | Revival Defined and Defended: How the New Lights Tried and Failed to Use America’s First Religious Periodical to Quiet Critics and Quell Radicals
  7. Robert W. Yarbrough | Should Evangelicals Embrace Historical Criticism? The Hays-Ansberry Proposal
  8. Ray Van Neste | PASTORAL PENSÉES: The Care of Souls: The Heart of the Reformation
  9. 76 Book Reviews
    1. Old Testament | 7 reviews
    2. New Testament | 19 reviews
    3. History and Historical Theology | 8 reviews
    4. Systematic Theology and Bioethics | 25 reviews
    5. Ethics and Pastoralia | 10 reviews
    6. Mission and Culture | 7 reviews

How a Too-Friendly Jesus Can Lead to Universalism

What Christians say about Jesus can have eternal consequences.

That’s a rather banal and uncontroversial claim, yet it’s surprising how often it’s overlooked or disregarded. We can forget that in our rush to defend Jesus and make him more palatable to our culture we can unwittingly lead people to accept soul-destroying beliefs. For example, I was reminded today of how an incorrect version of the claim “Jesus is a friend of sinners” can lead people to embrace universalism.

Jesus abstract]_thumbBefore I connect the dots between those two ideas, let me first provide some clarification about an unfortunate and disheartening incident.

In his recent column for Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt made erroneous claims about my views on an important topic. I’ve given a quote to Merritt before and, had he asked, would have gladly done so again. Instead, he quoted me selectively and out of context and misrepresented my actual beliefs. He also implies that he asked several evangelical scholars about comments I made (“I asked him about the notions espoused by Carter . . .”; “He pushed back against Carter’s assertion . . .”), but when I contacted several of those academics directly they told me that Merritt never mentioned me by name, much less asked them to comment on what I had actually said or written. Merritt substituted his version of what I said and asked them to respond. He also misrepresented claims made by my TGC colleague Kevin DeYoung.

I contacted Merritt and asked him to make an update and correction. He adamantly refused.

If the issue were merely a lapse in journalistic ethics by Merritt I would not be mentioning it now. But Merritt makes claims that have implications for the gospel that I feel are necessary to address. Since I will be referencing his article, I also feel it is necessary to let people know that many of the claims about my views in the article are inaccurate.

The posts by DeYoung and I were written to address whether Jesus would attend any and every kind of gathering of sinners. Merritt misrepresented us by saying we think Christians should only talk to soon-to-be Christians. That is, of course, not the case. Rather, we believe there are several gradations of “fellowship.” Jesus clearly reserves the category of “friends” to his disciples (John 15). Likewise, koinonia (fellowship or participation) is a special category for those who have union with Christ (see 1 Cor 10-11). The confusion—be it intentional or from ignorance—comes from jumbling up all these categories so that to speak of Jesus’ restricting his associations and fellowship on any level is to suggest that Christians walk on the other side of the street from pagans.

Responding to Merritt’s article and the unpleasantness of having to explain our disagreement is something I would have preferred to avoid. And I almost did. Then I saw that one of the country’s most influential religious figures—Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church—tweeted, “Got to go with Jonathan Merritt on this one.” That comment made me realize that if even noted evangelical pastors could be confused about this issue, then it’s an worthy of comment.

So what is it people are “going with” when they agree with Merritt’s argument? In his conclusion, Merritt says:

As some Christian leaders attempt to reimagine Jesus’ social habits, it’s time we set the record straight on the friend of sinners. There’s too much at stake.

A Jesus who loves us even if we don’t love back? A Savior who pursues us even as we run away? A Christ who offers fellowship to all indiscriminately without condition, no strings attached? That would be a Jesus who is better than we’ve imagined, and that would be good news.

As the article makes clear, when Merritt says “set the record straight on the friend of sinners,” he is referring, at least in part, to a claim made by DeYoung. In his article, “Jesus, Friend of Sinners: But How?” DeYoung wrote,

As precious as this truth is—that Jesus is a friend of sinners—it, like every other precious truth in the Bible, needs to be safeguarded against doctrinal and ethical error. It is all too easy, and amazingly common, for Christians (or non-Christians) to take the general truth that Jesus was a friend of sinners and twist it all out of biblical recognition. So “Jesus ate with sinners” becomes “Jesus loved a good party,” which becomes “Jesus was more interested in showing love than taking sides,” which becomes “Jesus always sided with religious outsiders,” which becomes “Jesus would blow bubbles for violations of the Torah.”

Merritt has followed this logic to (at least one) wrong conclusion. He supports the contention that Jesus would have “baked the cake” for a same-sex wedding ceremony and that Christians should therefore also be willing serve at a same-sex wedding.

But is it really true that “Christ offers fellowship to all indiscriminately without condition, no strings attached”? If so, then we must follow that claim to all its logical conclusions, for Christ, for Christians, and even for the unrepentant unbeliever.

Let’s start with the implications for Jesus and his followers. If Jesus would fellowship “indiscriminately without condition, no strings attached” then it means he would fellowship with any group of sinners while they engaged in any type of sin (that is what “without condition” entails). That means not only that Jesus would act in such a manner (i.e., hanging out with any sinners while they are engaging in any type of sin), but that we should do so too.

This is a hard claim to support. Would Jesus have sidled up to Paul during the stoning of Stephen and said, “Let me help you with some of those coats.” Would Jesus have joined Roman soldiers in casting lots for the robe of a crucified man? Would Jesus have served lemonade at a lynching?

When I asked that last question on Twitter, I was immediately condemned. As Aaron J. Smith said, “You are comparing a lynching to a [same-sex] wedding ceremony you don’t agree with.” He is right. I am. That is how logic works.

What is interesting, though, is how Smith and others seem to think that the comparison is unfair, offensive, and absurd. Their reasoning is based on what their peer groups or modern society consider acceptable. However, if you were to travel back to the U.S. South in the era of Reconstruction and make the same comparison, they would also say the comparison was unfair, offensive, and absurd—only in reverse. They would claim it was ridiculous to imply that Jesus would bake a cake for a same-sex wedding and wouldn’t serve lemonade at a lynching.

Of course some people refuse to accept the analogy because they believe, contra Scripture, that same-sex marriage doesn’t hurt anyone and isn’t sinful. For those cases I offer a substitute: Would Jesus serve wine at a polygamous wedding? Would Jesus bake a cake for an incestuous wedding? Would Jesus be the host for a “divorce party”?

While what our culture considers acceptable might change with the times, Jesus does not. He is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). What he would not deem acceptable in AD 30 or in 1863 does not change just because the calendar says it is 2014. And if Jesus would not condone the behavior, then we should not claim that believers are justified in condoning the behavior indiscriminately without condition, and with no strings attached.

There is an even more concerning implication, however, and that is for the unrepentant unbeliever. If it is true that “Christ offers fellowship to all indiscriminately without condition, no strings attached” then the logical implication is that universalism is true.

As I mentioned, Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His character is consistent. If Jesus was willing to continuously fellowship with any and all unrepentant sinners— indiscriminately, without condition, no strings attached—then he will continue to do so in the future. If an unrepentant sinner was willing and able in AD 30 to fellowship with Jesus in Jerusalem as much as they wanted, then why will they not be able to do the same in the New Jerusalem? Why could they not, if they so chose, fellowship with Jesus forever without ever feeling the need to repent of their sins?

(Calvinists would obviously say the unrepentant would not will to do so, but Merritt and other Arminians would likely disagree. UPDATE: Merritt says he is not an Arminian. I apologize for the error.)

I don’t believe Merritt, Andy Stanley, and the others who concur with his article believe in universalism. I hope they would say that would be following the logic of the argument too far. In fact, I’d encourage Merritt and Stanley for the sake of clarity to explain how their view allows for a change in Jesus’ fellowship of sinners upon his return to judge the living and the dead. I’m assuming they must make such an allowance in order to keep in line with Jesus’ own teaching and the Apostles’ Creed.

That is one of the problems with arguments. Other people will eventually come along and follow an argument to its logical end point—even when the logical conclusion is far past where we may be willing to go. Even if we are not willing to be consistent in our theology, those who hear us will. That is why we should be careful about claiming that the unrepentant can have unconditional fellowship with non-judgmental Jesus: some people might start to believe it’s a universal truth without an expiration date.

Themelios 38.3

coverThe Gospel Coalition just released the latest issue of Themelios, which has 200 pages of columns, articles, and book reviews. It is freely available in three different formats:

  1. PDF (ideal for printing)
  2. Logos edition (ideal for research and mobile access)
  3. web version (ideal for interacting and sharing)

It contains the following 70 contributions:

  1. D. A. Carson | EDITORIAL: The Hole in the Gospel
  2. Michael J. Ovey | OFF THE RECORD: Liberty, What Crimes Are Committed in Thy Name?
  3. Keith Ferdinando | Jesus, the Theological Educator
  4. Gavin Ortlund | “The Voice of His Blood”: Christ’s Intercession in the Thought of Stephen Charnock
  5. Robert Caldwell | The Ministerial Ideal in the Ordination Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: Four Theological Portraits
  6. Melvin Tinker | Secularisation: Myth or Menace? An Assessment of Modern ‘Worldliness’
  7. Andrew David Naselli | PASTORAL PENSÉES: 12 Reasons You Should Pray Scripture
  8. 63 book reviews
    1. Old Testament | 9 reviews
    2. New Testament | 19 reviews
    3. History and Historical Theology | 8 reviews
    4. Systematic Theology and Bioethics | 11 reviews
    5. Ethics and Pastoralia | 8 reviews
    6. Mission and Culture | 8 reviews

Don Carson includes this announcement at the end of his editorial:

Charles Anderson began serving as managing editor of Themelios shortly after The Gospel Coalition began producing Themelios in 2008. We announce with regret that he is stepping down and acknowledge with gratitude his singular contribution.

tabbOur new managing editor is Dr Brian Tabb, assistant professor of biblical studies and assistant dean at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis. Some readers will recognize his name from the reviews he has already written for Themelios. Dr Tabb may be contacted at brian.tabb [at]

And here’s a picture from last month when all six of the Themelios book reviewer editors finally met face-to-face at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society:


Pictured from left to right:

  1. Jason Sexton (Mission and Culture)
  2. Dane Ortlund (Ethics and Pastoralia)
  3. Hans Madueme (Systematic Theology and Bioethics)
  4. Jerry Hwang (Old Testament)
  5. Andy Naselli (Themelios Administrator)
  6. Alan Thompson (New Testament)
  7. Nathan Finn (History and Historical Theology)

TGC Announces a New Site en Français

Through our website, The Gospel Coalition aims to circulate excellent, gospel-centered biblical, theological, and pastoral resources. Our site, which attracted more than 31 million pageviews in 2012, enables us to deliver these essays, news reports, book reviews, videos, sermons, and much more for minimal cost. But the website also gives these resources a global audience. Last year more visits came from Sydney, Australia, than any other city except Chicago. London and Singapore also appeared in the top 10. The main factor limiting our reach has been language. Until this year.

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 12.50.16 PM

Working with friends around the world who share our beliefs and priorities, TGC began hosting a Spanish-language website in February. Today we are grateful to God that we can announce the launch of a French-language website [Twitter | Facebook] filled with editorial content provided by pastors, theologians, and other church leaders in France, Quebec, the United States, and elsewhere. We are merely providing the technical support; the French-speaking editors control the content. They do not propose to simply translate English resources into French. Instead, they hope to highlight and assist the French-speaking church by producing and distributing thoughtful, faithful resources from a variety of sources, including materials they write themselves.

Two men in particular have been and will be instrumental in guiding the Évangile 21 initiative (which is the name given to the Euorpean French version of The Gospel Coalition; the Quebec French organization is called Sola). Aurélien Lang, who currently serves at the Foyer Evangélique Universitaire de Grenoble, will oversee the site while Mike Evans, director emeritus of l’Institut Biblique de Genève, will serve as publication manager. Joining them on the editorial team will be Matthieu Giralt (graphics and video) and Fadi Akl (technical assistance and conference registration). Lang and Evans will oversee a growing group of translators and collaborators committed to the sufficiency of Scriptures and the doctrines of grace. On the background and need for the site, Evans remarks:

In 2012, Don Carson, John Piper, and Henri Blocher were the keynote speakers at a conference held in Geneva based on the theme of gospel-centered ministry. Ever since we have been under pressure to launch a website and continue with regular conferences. We are aware of a keen and increasing sense of interest among the new generation of Christian leaders for resources that will inform and stimulate gospel-centered ministry. It’s taken time to get everything on course because we’re dependent on the enthusiastic commitment of volunteers. Our debut is modest, but we are aiming to progressively increase the content of the Évangile 21 site in the coming months.

Through all these efforts we hope to serve, encourage, and collaborate with a network of French-speaking Christians who can stamp the next generation with gospel-centered resources for the global church. May the Lord himself strengthen his blood-bought church through the faithful proclamation of the gospel.

How to Prepare for Pain and Suffering

You wouldn’t want someone to hand you this book, because it probably means you’re enduring hardship and suffering. But you need to read this book, preferably before the hardship and suffering inevitably comes.

Walking with God through Pain and SufferingWe in the West somehow think if we’re lucky we’ll avoid the pain we see around us. So we cross our fingers and hope for the best. Of course no one can avoid death and aging, but we put off such thoughts until absolutely necessary and sometimes not until it’s too late.

Tim Keller’s new book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, forces us to confront life as it really is and not as our Western fairy tales suggest. The first part of the book considers the problem of evil, the way various cultures handle suffering, why Christianity prevailed in the Roman world, and the inability of secular views to give purpose to life. The second part digs deeper into Christian theology to explore various kinds of suffering in light of the sovereignty and suffering of God. And the final section helps believers walk, weep, trust, pray, think, thank, love, and hope through trials.

I talked with Keller, vice president of The Gospel Coalition, about the inspiring stories interspersed through the book, Dostoevsky’s answer to the problem of evil, the need to train our minds with the gospel to prepare for suffering, and much more.

Download the interview or stream the audio below. And be sure to subscribe to our iTunes podcast for fresh daily content including interviews, sermons, lectures, and more.

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Cereal-Aisle Hermeneutics

The grocery store cereal aisle has become a common metaphor for distinguishing the West from the rest of the world, and rightly so. Just after we moved to Eastern Europe years ago, my family and I began the hunt for cereal in our city. We found three options. Yes, three. First we were disappointed, then resentful. Really? Only Honey Nut Cheerios, off-brand corn flakes, and Muesli?

Yet limitation birthed newfound freedom, a liberty far preferable to our former cornflake cornucopia. We discovered the clarity and joy of simplicity. No longer was the cereal aisle an enemy of contentment, but in its simplicity we discovered a peaceful, non-confusing isle of contentment.

A message lies behind the plethora of choices. It is actually quite simple. Cereal choice is completely up to me. I really am Cap’n Crunch. I am Count Chocula.

Cereal Aisle of Hermeneutics

Combating the “cereal aisle” of contemporary thought, Scripture does not put us in the place of autonomy or sovereignty. We are created, not Creator. We are stewards, not owners.

These categorical truths, which dominate the pages of the Scripture, must take their rightful place in our study of it. We are recipients of Scripture’s meaning, not creators of it.

In a 1975 visiting lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, J. I. Packer addressed the formation of faithful and useful doctrine of Scripture for the coming ages. Contending that the bifurcation of biblical and theological disciplines had practically ripped Scripture’s essence from its interpretation, he insightfully (even prophetically) argued for integration. He argued that we must pull our doctrine of Scripture together with our hermeneutical method. I think he nailed it: What Scripture is must determine what we do with it.

Today, contemporary infatuation with choice dominates biblical interpretation. The field of biblical studies has become its own “cereal aisle,” with the hermeneutical options menu claiming a life of its own. The options now come in all sizes, shapes, and flavors. After all, not everyone has the same tastes, likes, and goals. But one thing remains constant: You get to choose. You pick your hermeneutical box.

Resulting problems abound. As D. A. Carson has pointed out, “It cannot follow that every reading is equally valuable or valid, for some of the interpretations are mutually exclusive. The tragedy is that many modern ‘readings’ of Scripture go beyond inadvertent bias to a self-conscious adoption of a grid fundamentally at odds with the text—all in the name of the polyvalence of the text and under the authority of the new hermeneutic.”

Despite Carson’s and others’ well-articulated protests, we have seen little relenting in the creation and advocacy of new interpretive approaches.

Scholars present their new versions of the so-called “new” hermeneutic, and seek to defend the value, usefulness, and appropriateness of their interpretive approaches. In many cases, unrelenting diversity of readers, cultures, languages, traditions, and religions drives the method, making interpretation a constellation of relativistic factors. In some cases, the hermeneutic advances our own agenda (for example, feminist, gay, liberation . . . the list could go on), ensuring that the Bible delivers us to our desired destination. In other cases, our methods reflect a lack of methodological self-consciousness, and we adopt simply what comes naturally (the new hermeneutic usefully corrects us here, calling us to greater methodological self-consciousness).

Interpretive Autonomy vs. Biblical Authority

We have not stopped to think about what we are actually doing. We carry on an interpretive method without considering what Scripture says about it. With interpretive negotiability corresponding to the choice between Kix and Raisin Bran, we pick our hermeneutic according to our own tastes, circumstances, and goals. The problem thus prevails. Whether willful or blind, autonomy is still autonomy. And interpretive autonomy and biblical authority remain enduring enemies.

Calvin complained, “In our own day there are many who, in order to display their acuteness in handling the Word of God, allow themselves to sport with it in the manner as if it were profane philosophy.” Five hundred years later, it is common to hear someone sporting with the Bible with these words: “I’m testing this out,” “I’m playing with this idea,” or “I’m enjoying this hermeneutical approach.”

Following Packer’s counsel, we must allow the authority of Scripture to exercise its Spirit-given interpretive weight. As dependent children, creatures made in God’s image called to receive God’s Word as stewards, we must remember hermeneutical method is not autonomous turf. Interpretive method is a matter of faith and obedience to the God who has spoken. Bible study is an act of stewardship, of worship.

From Hermeneutical Chaos to Rule of Faith

Navigating out of the current hermeneutical chaos will come only by functional trust in Scripture’s authority. God has spoken without stuttering. He has given the church, in the canon of Scripture, what we need “for life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). His Spirit guides the church to understand what he intends for us (1 Cor. 2:12-16).

Biblical interpretation is not easy or formulaic. Let it never be said that work in linguistics, history, language, and other biblically informing fields needs be trashed or dismissed. But children of the heavenly Father will always ask what he means in a less clear text on the basis of what he has more clearly said elsewhere. Stewards of the divine Word will suffer long to avoid speculation for the sake of submission. But how?

Echoing the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.9), John Murray wrote, “The infallible rule of the interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself. But there is no infallible interpretation of that rule and hence there has never been complete agreement in the church respecting every detail of interpretation and application.”

Murray was hardly naïve. A rigorous exegete, he knew that the self-interpreting authority of Scripture does not answer every hermeneutical question. He argued for “limitation and restriction,” but did so with an eye towards the church’s shared understanding of Scripture as expressed in confessions like Westminster.

Historic confessions and creeds protect the church from foolish “cereal aisle” autonomy. The Spirit who authored Scripture has through the years drawn the church to understand it, and the great church confessions greatly aid us in employing faithful hermeneutics. We are not advocating a paper pope, but a biblically grounded confidence in the historic analogy of faith. God reveals clearly in his Word precisely what he wishes—not only to this generation, but consistently over the entire life of the church.

That God is the Author of Scripture (2 Pet 1:19-21; 2 Tim 3:16) changes everything. As the Word of God, Scripture renders clear and certain boundaries for our belief and confession, and also for our interpretive method. Paul urged Timothy to be a student of Scripture who “correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). Not every question will be answered in the same way, but the chaos of comprehensive uncertainty evaporates when the church submits to what “the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:29), truth preserved and proclaimed through the ages.

Reduced to a Minimum 

Contemporary debates on divine accommodation in revelation, the relationship between history and theology (such as the historical Adam), the locus of meaning (author and/or reader), the New Testament’s use of the Old, and all the other live (and sometimes deadening) debates in the academy and the church drive us to a foundational focus: the functional authority of God’s Word for its understanding. Future expressions of the nature of Scripture must manifest divine authority by concrete, clarifying, consistent, and confidence-evoking implementation of that authority.

Accordingly, we would do well to heed the words of Geerhardus Vos, who warned against hollow claims to biblical authority: “When once the sense of allegiance to the Word of God as the only authoritative rule of faith has become weakened, or, while still recognized in theory has ceased to be a living force in the minds of believers, then the hope of a return to the truth once forsaken is reduced to a minimum.”

When our hermeneutical method suffers the “cereal aisle” syndrome, we stumble into hope-defying darkness. The only way out of the dark is the guiding light of functioning trust in God’s Word, where divine authority defines interpretation in a manner consistent with the illumining work of the Spirit over the history of the church.

Scripture’s authority functions or it is no authority at all. To uphold our high view of Scripture, our hermeneutics must show it consciously, consistently, redundantly, reverently.

Themelios 38.2

The Gospel Coalition just released the latest issue of Themelios. It is available as a 158-page PDF and in HTML. We’ve also partnered with Logos Bible Software to make it available as a free mobile-friendly Logos digital edition for use on all major platforms with one of their free apps.

  1. D. A. Carson | Kingdom, Ethics, and Individual Salvation
  2. Michael J. Ovey | From Moral Majority to Evil Disbelievers: Coming Clean about Christian Atheism
  3. Peter Orr | Abounding in the Work of the Lord (1 Cor 15:58): Everything We Do as Christians or Specific Gospel Work?
  4. Owen Strachan | Carl F. H. Henry’s Doctrine of the Atonement: A Synthesis and Brief Analysis
  5. Gerald R. McDermott | Will All Be Saved?
  6. Book Reviews
    1. Old Testament | 3 reviews
    2. New Testament | 20 reviews
    3. History and Historical Theology | 12 reviews
    4. Systematic Theology and Bioethics | 4 reviews
    5. Ethics and Pastoralia | 10 reviews
    6. Missions and Culture | 8 reviews

Is ‘Background Information’ Ever Necessary to Understand the Bible?

My answer is a cautious yes: “background information” (which I prefer to call the historical context) is sometimes necessary for understanding the Bible accurately.

I say “cautious” because there are dangers if you answer that question either yes or no.

Dangers If You Answer Yes

  1. Some misuse “background information” in a way that twists the text to contradict what it transparently says. (E.g., see Bob Stein, Clint Arnold, and Doug Moo share concerns about mirror reading.)
  2. Others so focus on “background information” that they end up foregrounding what is in the background and backgrounding what is in the foreground (to borrow language from Doug Moo’s critique of Tom Wright’s new perspective on Paul). And as important as, say, extracanonical Jewish literature is for New Testament studies (see here and here), those studies often illustrate the law of diminishing returns.

It’s important to remember John Piper’s three cautions in The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 34-36:

  1. We might misunderstand the sources.
  2. We might assume agreement with a source when there is no agreement.
  3. We might misapply the meaning of a source.

Dangers If You Answer No

Some argue that “background information” is never necessary to understand the Bible: archaeology and other historical knowledge can confirm that you correctly understand the Bible and enrich your understanding, but it is not necessary. Consequently:

  1. Some discard “background information” as relatively unimportant and thus not worth studying carefully.
  2. Some even view it as a threat to the Bible’s clarity and sufficiency.

Those who hold this view may fail to recognize how much basic “background information” they regularly employ to understand the Bible accurately.

Illustration: Wayne Grudem Answers No

Wayne Grudem illustrates someone who answers the question with a No, but he is not guilty of the two dangers I suggest above. He asserts (“The Perspicuity of Scripture,” Themelios 34 [2009]: 297, bold added),

Historical background information can certainly enrich our understanding of individual passages of scripture, making it more precise and more vivid. But I am unwilling to affirm that background information can ever be properly used to nullify or overturn something the text actually says. In addition, I am reluctant to affirm that additional historical background information is ever necessary for getting a proper sense of a text.

On the other hand, information about the meanings of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words in the Bible does have to be obtained from the vast linguistic resources found in extra-biblical literature, resources that I consider God’s good gift to the church for the purpose of enabling us to understand the Bible more accurately.

So what is the difference? I think (but I am not certain) that it is possible to maintain a distinction between (a) lexicographical resources in ancient literature and inscriptions that I think to be necessary for understanding the words of Scripture and (b) resources that provide historical background information (such as archaeological evidence and historical evidence from ancient texts) that I think to be helpful for improving our understanding but never necessary for gaining a correct understanding of the sense of a text. The difference (if it can be maintained) is the difference between what is needed for translation and what is useful for fuller understanding. For example, a translation will tell me that Ezra journeyed from Babylon to Jerusalem (see Ezra 7:9), and background information will tell me what the terrain was like and that it was a journey of about 900 miles (1,448 km). This does not change my understanding of the passage (it still means that Ezra traveled to Jerusalem), but it does give me a more vivid sense of the journey.

I stumble over that bold sentence and the distinction in the final paragraph.

I highly recommend Grudem’s article, and I’m sympathetic with his first paragraph above. Nevertheless, I’d gently push back on that bold sentence. There are at least two reasons to be gentle:

1. I’m not sure what Wayne means by “a proper sense of a text.” If he means “the general message of Scripture,” then I agree with him (see the final section of this article). But I suspect that he means more than that.

2. Wayne tempers his language. He says, “I am reluctant to affirm.” Later he adds, “I think (but I am not certain) that it is possible” to make this distinction (“if it can be maintained”):

  • “lexicographical resources” = “necessary”
  • “historical background information” = merely “helpful” (not necessary)

Here’s my pushback: How can one logically grant language this degree of independence from the historical context? It doesn’t seem possible because the authors use some words to refer to things outside the text (i.e., the words have extra-textual referents) that the first readers would have immediately grasped but that we might not. How can we determine the meaning of words apart from a historical setting?

Here are three examples (which we could easily multiply):

1. How can we determine what a δηνάριον (denarius) is without historical context? (Δηνάριον occurs 16x in the NT: Matt 18:28; 20:2, 9, 10, 13; 22:19; Mark 6:37; 12:15; 14:5; Luke 7:41; 10:35; 20:24; John 6:7; 12:5; Rev 6:6 [2x].)

2. It’s important to understand what a lamb is to understand parts of the Bible, and those passages are part of deeply important typology. But what if someone today (such as an adult in a remote tribe or a child in America) has never heard of (let alone seen) a lamb? They would need some extra-biblical information in order to get “a proper sense of a text” (to use Grudem’s words).

3. D. A. Carson writes this regarding Revelation 3:15 (“Approaching the Bible,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition [ed. D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham; 4th ed.; Downers Grove: IVP, 1994], 15-16):

A fair bit of nonsense has been written about the exalted Christ’s words to the Laodiceans: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” (Rev 3:15). Many have argued that this means God prefers people who are “spiritually cold” above those who are “spiritually lukewarm,” even though his first preference is for those who are “spiritually hot.” Ingenious explanations are then offered to defend the proposition that spiritual coldness is a superior state to spiritual lukewarmness.

All of this can comfortably be abandoned once responsible archaeology has made its contribution. Laodicea shared the Lycus valley with two other cities mentioned in the NT. Colosse was the only one that enjoyed fresh, cold, spring water; Hierapolis was known for its hot springs and became a place to which people would resort to enjoy these healing baths. By contrast, Laodicea put up with water that was neither cold and useful, nor hot and useful; it was lukewarm, loaded with chemicals, and with an international reputation for being nauseating. That brings us to Jesus’ assessment of the Christians there: they were not useful in any sense, they were simply disgusting, so nauseating he would vomit them away. The interpretation would be clear enough to anyone living in the Lycus valley in the first century; it takes a bit of background information to make the point clear today.

So historical context may sometimes be necessary to understand the Bible accurately.

Does that Mean that the Bible Isn’t Sufficiently Clear?

No. Here’s how I address that in “Scripture: How the Bible is a Book Like No Other” (p. 66):

Not everything in the Bible is equally clear. . . . But the Bible’s central message about God’s saving work throughout history is unmistakably clear and easily understood. Its basic storyline—creation, fall, redemption, and consummation—is so simple that a young child can easily grasp it. God’s communication in the Bible as a whole is accessible.

This assumes two debated premises. First, the Bible means what God and the human authors intended it to mean. Second, we can understand that meaning. But that doesn’t mean that we can understand everything to the fullest possible degree. Case in point: Can a young child understand Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”? Sure, that’s not hard for a child to grasp. But that same child’s understanding of Genesis 1:1 may continually increase as she learns more and more about the Bible and God’s world. We can’t know anything absolutely (exhaustively or omnisciently) like God, but we can know some things truly (substantially or for real).

If we can understand the Bible truly, then why don’t all humans completely agree with each other on what the Bible teaches? The problem is not with the Bible. The problem is with finite and sinful humans. Were it not for the effects of the fall on our heads and hearts we would interpret the Bible the same way. But the point to stress here is that the Bible’s central message is clear.

[Footnote] Cf. Wayne Grudem’s seven sensible qualifications: “Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but (1) not all at once, (2) not without effort, (3) not without ordinary means, (4) not without the reader’s willingness to obey it, (5) not without the help of the Holy Spirit, (6) not without human misunderstanding, and (7) never completely.” “The Perspicuity of Scripture,” Themelios 34, no. 3 (2009): 288-309.

So yes, “background information” is sometimes necessary to understand the Bible. And this should provoke us to study God’s Word (and his world) more diligently. Thank God for the abundant resources we have today to do that.


  1. Mike Bird reflects on the question.
  2. Don Carson and John Piper discuss the merits of studying hermeneutics and how much time teachers should spend investigating extrabiblical sources:

Can Life Have Meaning Without God?

One of my favorite Far Side cartoons depicts a hapless-looking man leaning over a couch and holding a bizarre contraption he has just pulled out from under one of the cushions. The caption reads: “Edgar finds his purpose.”

Humans naturally seek purpose and meaning in life. From a Christian perspective, the oddity lies not in Edgar searching for his purpose, but rather in discovering it inside a couch. From an atheistic perspective, however, should Edgar have been searching for his purpose in the first place? Can our lives have any meaning if there is no God?

The Meaning of ‘Meaning’

Before we explore that question, we should specify what we’re talking about when we refer to “the meaning of life.” What kind of meaning do we mean? I suggest that when we consider “the meaning of life,” we have in view at least three concepts: purpose, significance, and value.

First, we want to know whether our lives have purpose: whether they’re directed toward some goal or end. A refrigerator has a fundamental purpose: it’s for keeping things cold. Do I have a fundamental purpose too? Am I for something?

Second, we want to know whether our lives have significance: whether they count for anything as part of greater whole. In Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper, the disciple Thomas is portrayed with a single raised finger. We’re interested in the significance of that element of the painting. We’d like to know, among other things, what it contributes to the painting as a whole. A similar question arises about our lives. What does my life contribute to the universe as a whole? What does it count for in the grand scheme of things?

Third, we want to know whether our lives have value. Is my life worth anything overall? Is it better lived than not? Is the world a better place for having my life as part of it?

No doubt there’s more to the idea of “the meaning of life,” but this analysis will serve us well enough. So let’s return to our main question. Can our lives have meaning—can they have purpose, significance, and value—if there is no God?

Meaning from Outside

There are basically two ways a human life could possess meaning. It could have a meaning bestowed from outside—what we might call objective as opposed to subjective meaning. Alternatively, it could have a meaning that comes from within, a meaning that is self-ascribed and self-determined. Let’s consider each option in turn.

On the Christian view, it’s easy to see how human life in general, and individual human lives, would have objective meaning in all three senses defined above. Our lives would have a purpose, one defined and revealed by our Creator. One of the best summary statements ever formulated comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end [i.e., our highest purpose] is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Moreover, our lives would have significance as part of God’s wise and sovereign plan for his creation. And as creatures made in the image of God, designed to commune with God and with one another, our lives would have tremendous value.

Needless to say, none of this makes any sense on an atheistic view. There would be no transcendent personal Creator to give meaning to our existence. So what else could bestow objective meaning on our lives?

It’s hard to see what viable options are available to the atheist. We don’t have space here to canvas all the possibilities, but it seems that any meaning from outside would have to come from whatever we credit for our existence. The modern atheistic story is that humans are the products of naturalistic evolutionary processes: cosmic evolution (the formation of solar systems over billions of years after some foundational event such as the Big Bang) followed by biological evolution (the gradual development of complex life forms from elementary life forms via natural variation and selection).

Leaving aside the question of whether this story is scientifically credible, let’s consider whether naturalistic evolutionary processes could in principle give our lives meaning in any of the senses we’ve noted. The immediate problem is that evolution (as atheists conceive it) is entirely mindless and undirected. It has no purpose, no end, no goal. It isn’t directed anywhere. Evolution has no plan at all, never mind a plan of which we could contribute a significant part. Evolution doesn’t make value judgments; it doesn’t select one course over another because it is more valuable or worthy. Evolution thus offers no basis for the meaningfulness of human lives. From an evolutionary perspective, the existence of Homo sapiens is no more or less meaningful than the existence of woodlice, crabgrass, or rubble in a crater on Mars.

Don’t take my word for it. This is a conclusion that many modern atheists have drawn. Bertrand Russell wrote that the universe as he understood it is “purposeless” and “void of meaning”; the entire sum of human endeavors is “destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system” (“A Free Man’s Worship,” 1903).

Richard Dawkins has expressed much the same view: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (River Out of Eden, Basic Books, 1995, p. 133).

William Provine puts the matter plainly: “Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear—and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. . . . There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either” (“Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?” Origins Research 16:1 (Fall/Winter 1994)).

Alex Rosenberg is even more to the point: “What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, W.W. Norton & Company, 2011, pp. 2-3). Rosenberg argues that a scientifically informed atheist should be a nihilist when it comes to purpose, significance, and value.

Examples of such statements can be multiplied. It’s fair to say that theists and atheists tend to agree on this: if there’s no God then human life has no objective meaning. But does the atheist have another option?

Meaning from Within

Many atheists will concede that if there is no God then the universe and human life have no objective meaning. But they’ll quickly add that we shouldn’t conclude that our lives lack any kind of meaning. They’ll suggest that we are able to give our lives meaning, to bestow meaning on ourselves. Since there’s nothing outside us that could ascribe meaning to our lives, any meaning must come from within us, either as individuals or as a society. As Stanley Kubrick once put it, “The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning.”

We might find such an atheist saying something like this: “I’ve chosen to commit my life to discovering a cure for cancer. It’s my personal decision, rather than the decree of some deity, that gives my life meaning and purpose. My life does indeed have a goal: a goal that I myself have determined for it. My life is significant because I’ve made it significant; it’s valuable because I myself value it.”

On the face of it, this sounds quite plausible, even attractive. Why couldn’t we make our lives meaningful by choosing to live in certain ways, by choosing to embrace certain worthy goals? Unfortunately—for the atheist—this idea faces two serious objections.

In the first place, it suffers from a problem of arbitrariness. If the meaning of life is subjectively determined, then anything could become the meaning of life depending on one’s personal preferences and predilections. Sitting around all day eating donuts and playing video games could just as well be the meaning of life as finding cures for illnesses. A suicidal person would be entitled to make the meaning of life the destruction of his life. Worse still, a homicidal person would be entitled to make the meaning of life the destruction of other lives.

Once we recognize that the meaning-from-within view requires us to treat Osama bin Laden’s self-ascribed purpose on an equal footing with our own, that position seems considerably less appealing. The only way we could non-arbitrarily discriminate between all these subjectively meaningful lives—to deem one better or more worthy than another—is by smuggling some objective values through the back door. Sooner or later the meaning-from-within camp has to pilfer from the meaning-from-outside camp.

The second objection arises from what has been called the bootstrapping problem. This challenge is faced by any system expected to initiate and sustain itself without any external assistance. Just as it is impossible for you to lift yourself off the floor by your own bootstraps, so it seems impossible for you to confer meaning on your own life if your life lacks meaning at the outset (whether meaning-from-outside or meaning-from-within). If your life is meaningless to begin with, how could any of your choices be meaningful or meaning-creating? How could meaningful choices arise out of a meaningless life? Can you get things off the ground by simply choosing that your choices be meaningful?

Cornelius Van Til brilliantly captured the incoherence and absurdity of such a view by likening it to a man made of water in an infinite, bottomless ocean of water, trying to climb out of the water by building a ladder of water (see Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, P&R, 1972, p. 102). Could anything be more futile?

At this juncture the atheist might reply that these objections only apply to an individualistic view of life’s meaning. It’s not that individuals confer meaning upon their own lives, but rather than human society as a whole confers meaning upon human life. It doesn’t take much reflection, however, to see that both of these objections can be reformulated to apply just as well to the societal version of the meaning-from-within view.

Atheists Have Meaningful Lives Too

“But I’m an atheist and my life is very meaningful!”

This is the retort I’ve encountered most often when I’ve offered arguments like those above. (It’s usually followed by a list of worthy activities and valuable relationships enjoyed by that person.) My reply is simple: “I don’t deny for a moment that your life is very meaningful. But that’s true in spite of your atheism, not because of it!”

Atheists certainly do have meaningful lives, yet that’s only because their atheistic beliefs are false. A person can deny the existence of God and still have a meaningful life. But this fact no more proves that life can have meaning without God than a person who denies the existence of oxygen and still enjoys good health would prove that you can be healthy without oxygen. It only proves that people can hold beliefs at odds with reality—as if we didn’t already know that.

So here are some closing words to any atheists who happen to read this article. If you believe that your life has meaning—if you sense that it must have meaning—you’re absolutely right. But that meaning cannot come from within you, nor could it come from a universe outside you that lacks any ultimate purpose or value. It can only come from a transcendent personal Creator who made you, and the universe around you, for the most spectacular end: his eternal glory and the eternal joy of his people (Isaiah 43:6-7; Romans 11:36; Psalm 16:11; 1 Corinthians 2:9; Revelation 21:1-4).

My concern is not that you’re mistaken in thinking you have a meaningful life. No, my concern is that you don’t realize just how meaningful a life you have. So I pray that you would embrace the One who authored your life and who freely offers life in all its fullness (Acts 3:15; John 10:10; John 20:30-31).