Packer on Our Moral Ill-Desert

This comes from chapter 13 of J. I. Packer’s classic book Knowing God, there he talks about God’s grace. This is a very lucid, insightful, and damning description of modern man:

1.  The moral ill-desert of man. 

Modern men and women, conscious of their tremendous scientific achievements in recent years, naturally incline to a high opinion of themselves.  They view material wealth as in any case more important than moral character, and in the moral realm they are resolutely kind to themselves, treating small virtues as compensating for great vices and refusing to take seriously the idea that, morally speaking, there is anything much wrong with them. They tend to dismiss a bad conscience, in themselves as in others, as an unhealthy psychological freak, a sign of disease, and mental aberration rather than an index of moral reality. For modern men and women are convinced that, despite all their little peccadilloes – drinking, gambling, reckless driving, sexual laxity, black and white lies, sharp practice in trading, dirty reading, and what have you – they are a heart thoroughly good folks.  Then, as pagans do (and modern man’s heart is pagan  – make no mistake about that), they imagine God as a magnified image of themselves and assume that God shares his own complacency about himself.  The thought of themselves as creatures fallen from God’s image, rebels against God’s rule, guilty and unclean in God’s sight, fit only for God’s condemnation, never enters their heads.

J. I. Packer, Knowing God, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2005), 146-147.

Carol Ann Duffy’s Poem for Richard III

Today is the reinterment of King Richard III (1452-1485) at Leicester Cathedral. I wish I could have been there, how many opportunities do you have to witness the burial of an ancient king? Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s poet laureate, wrote these words for the occasion:

Richard

My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,

a human braille.  My skull, scarred by a crown,

emptied of history.  Describe my soul

as incense, votive, vanishing; your own

the same.  Grant me the carving of my name.

 

These relics, bless.  Imagine you re-tie

a broken string and on it thread a cross,

the symbol severed from me when I died.

The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –

unless the Resurrection of the Dead…

 

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath

in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;

or sensed you from the backstage of my death,

as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

 

For more, see here.

 

Calvinism and Choice

Note: I inadvertently posted this in unfinished form when I intended merely to save an edit. Please take the updated version below as the final. Forgive me if this causes any confusion! 

The philosophy department at Tyndale University College has a blog called Every Thought Captive that is worth having on your Feedly (or whatever blog reader you use). I have had the privilege of meeting Dr. Paul Franks, one of the members of the department, a number of times, and brief though those times were, I enjoyed our conversation. I have not met Dr. Rich Davis yet, but his reputation among students of his whom I know is high. I am thankful that they teach at my local Christian university and are having an impact for the gospel in my locale and abroad.

Drs. Franks and Davis have done of a number of good series on their blog. I’ve particularly appreciated the detailed critique that they have provided of Brian McLaren’s work called “The McLaren Files.” I look forward to reading their critique of Dave Fitch in “The Fitch Files.” They are also writing a series of posts critiquing Calvinism, their most recent is what I would like to offer some thoughts on.

In “The ‘C’ in Calvinism,” Dr. Davis shares his concerns with the notion of choice and whether it is a real option given Calvinism. He asks whether choice and “determinism” are compatible. The Calvinist of choice (pardon the pun) who functions as the foil for this essay is R. C. Sproul of Ligionier Ministries, a well-known popular expositor of Reformed theology. At hand is Sproul’s notion of “Edwards’ Law of Choice” (ELC) that was outlined in his influential book Chosen By God. ELC is so-named due to its earlier articulation by the New England theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) in his work Freedom of the Will.

Dr. Davis’ piece is, as to be expected, from a philosophical point of view. I have a keen interest in philosophy, but I would like to reply to this theologically. Not because I think that free will and sovereignty are questions that only theologians can answer, but because theology is the discipline whose methods I am most familiar with. I do not think this keeps us (that is, the philosopher and the theologian) from coming to shared conclusions because the question posed by Dr. Davis, and indeed Calvinism (whatever that is), is relevant to both the philosopher and the theologian. I also think that some of the problems in the essay are theological, and need to be addressed as such. I come at this as someone sympathetic to Reformed theology, and so my thoughts are largely critical.

First, when I read the essay it struck me that it was a sophisticated way of asking a simple question, one that most Calvinists and non-Calvinists who have reflected on the question of choice have asked: Is there such thing as free choice if God is sovereign? This is something we have all wrestled with, I know that I certainly have. The essay takes this a step further by evaluating the Edwardsean answer, the so-called ELC. But it is important to remember that this is not a new question and that there are plenty of resources available giving various answers to the problem.

Second, I am not totally sure why Dr. Davis has decided to take on this particular answer (ELC) to the question of free choice. My suspicion is, due to some of his comments at the beginning of his essay about the Young, Restless, Reformed (YRR), that he might see in Sproul, and by extension Edwards, a key element and that a criticism of him/them is a de facto criticism of the broader movement. If this is the case, I do not value this kind of argument as it tends to make a movement like YRR seem monolithic, which it is not. Nor is Reformed theology, historically or at present. Arguments such as this can unfairly paint a disparate group of people with one brush. But it may not be the case that Dr. Davis has taken this approach.

Third, ELC is not the only answer given in the history of Christian theology to the problem of choice and sovereignty. In fact, it is not one that all Reformed people buy into. Even those Reformed theologians who do, also buy into other arguments. Popular conceptions of Calvinism may not make this apparent, but there is an at-times sharp distinction between Edwardseans and traditional Reformed theology. The former is generally viewed as “deterministic,” due to the influence of thinkers like Hobbes and Locke on his thought. As we will see, Reformed theology should not be tarred with determinism. Whether Edwards can be viewed this way is up for debate, but it’s significant that this distinction be made. If Dr. Davis is aware of this, I wish that it had been stated, because it can run the risk of making unsuspecting readers think that to knock down ELC is to knock down Calvinism (whatever that is) as a whole.

Fourth, what is Calvinism? Is the Edwardsean version of Calvinism the only one? Is it the true one? Is Dr. Sproul’s version? Is Calvinism even a legitimate term to use? There are a host of assumptions in Dr. Davis’ essay that make readers such as myself wish that the sophistication of the philosophical language had given way to a more sophisticated understanding of the theological issues. This is not meant as an insult, Dr. Davis is much smarter than I am, and I have the fullest confidence that he has the chops to do more.

The term Calvinism is fraught with historical and theological problems. It assumes that Calvin is the sole progenitor of this brand of theology. Historians of the Reformation have put this misunderstanding to rest, and is why many of us do not particularly like the appellant “Calvinist.” We get stuck using it because of its general, popular use, but it is a term that would be better left behind. This might sound like a mere semantic quibble, but it poses serious definitional problems. How does one define Calvinism? Is it Edwards’ version? There is a lack of evidence in Edwards’ corpus that Calvin was a significant influence. The Reformer’s writings do not even appear in the catalogue we have of Edwards’ library. I would argue that the best place to go for such answers about the nature of Reformed theology—a more satisfying term—is the confessional documents of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. We also need to take into account the broader range of Reformed writers who contributed to the development of Reformed theology such as Bullinger, Musculus, Junius, Ames, Ussher, Owen, Turretin, and a host of others. There are a goodly number of theologians today who have done this, why not interact with them to get a truer picture? Or at least acknowledge that this is the case so that readers are not given the idea that Calvin is it for “Calvinism.”

Fifth, why use a secondary source to tell us about so-called “ELC”? Dr. Sproul’s ministry has been of incredible use to the church in popularizing Reformed theology, making some of the tough language easy for the lay-person to understand. Indeed, when I wrestled with these issues over a dozen years ago, it was Chosen By God that was a key book that helped me come to grips with the doctrine of election. My comments here are not meant to disparage Dr. Sproul at all. I am only making an historians’ point that when telling us about Edwards’ views it would be better to use Edwards’ own work. In the case of Edwards, this is particularly easy to do because Freedom of the Will, where ELC comes from, is readily available online at Yale’s site dedicated to Edwards’ Works (here). This is not say that Dr. Sproul misinterprets Edwards’ view of choice. It is to say that Edwards’ treatise is much longer with more detailed argumentation and defenses than Chosen By God because they were written for entirely different purposes.

Sixth, Dr. Davis, in his discussion of the power of contrary choice, seems to assume libertarian free will (LFW). This is not surprising, as most contemporary evangelical philosophers hold to this view (think Plantinga). This assumption contrasts LFW with Reformed theology. But is this necessarily the case? The answer to this depends on the view one takes of Reformed theology. While I do not personally espouse this, Oliver Crisp has recently argued that libertarianism can be consistent with the theology outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). At the very least, we can say that WCF statements on these matters allow for either a necessitarian or non-necessitarian view (see here). It would have been good for Dr. Davis to acknowledge this to see how it may have augmented some of his conclusions.

Seventh, Dr. Davis at a number of points refers to the Reformed view as “determinism.” This is an unfortunate use of terms and does not accurately reflect the way the Reformed tradition views itself on these matters. This is so because the term was not known in the early-modern period; opponents of Reformed theology referred to it as “Stoic fate.” Ironically, this puts more clearly the misconceptions that critics of Reformed theology have. However, to use that language would be as bad as me calling Dr. Davis a “Pelagian,” as the Reformed sadly would refer to their opponents. Such terms are unfortunate, and I hope that moving forward Dr. Davis (and others) would refrain from the term determinism when describing Reformed theology generally, because it does not accurately reflect our self-understanding and the nature of our argument.

Eighth, Dr. Davis  suggests that Calvinism (I’ll use this term as it’s the one he uses) makes no sense of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37. Erasmus made this argument as well in his debate with Luther. Dr. Davis says, “If the reason for Jerusalem’s being unwilling is God’s not having given them I[rresistable] G[race], why chastise these people for their unwillingness? … Here the people are simply acting in accord with those desires.” Some thoughts: First, this does not take into account that this is Jesus in his human nature speaking. It says nothing of the divine will. Second, were it to speak of the divine will, Dr. Davis does not take into account the notion, as argued by John Piper, that God has two wills. This is well-reflected in Luther’s distinction between the hidden and revealed will of God. Third, it is exegetically misguided to think that this text has any bearing on the question at hand. Jesus has outlined in a series of parables and confrontations the hypocrisy of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. In Matthew 23 he pronounces a series of prophetic woes against the hypocrites. It is not a text, like Romans 9, which would be a much thornier text for Dr. Davis to deal with, that has direct bearing on this question. Specifically, it answers the “control problem” that he points up later. A helpful rejoinder to the Arminian understanding of Matthew 23 is given over at Triablogue that I would suggest readers consult.

Ninth, Dr. Davis takes up the Old Testament figure of Gideon as an example of the power of contrary choice. Gideon was given a command to knock down his father’s idols in Judges 6:25, 27, but only did so at night out of fear. Dr. Davis argues that Gideon’s most powerful impulse was fear, but he acted contrary to this impulse in obedience to God’s command. “Why, otherwise, did he do it at night? Still, he obeyed the Lord—contrary to his most powerful impulse.” It strikes me that Dr. Davis has misunderstood ELC in his illustration of Gideon of what we might call Gideon’s Powerful Impulse (GPI). Is it the case that GPI is fear? If Gideon knocked down the idols, irregardless of doing so at night to mitigate his fear, he still acted on the the command to knock the idols down. Is it not the case the GPI is always manifested in the action? Dr. Davis is aware of this answer, but accuses it of question-begging. This is not question-begging, it is simply the relationship between one’s desire and action. GPI overrode his fear and enabled him to follow the command. His will was governed by his desire. It seems as though GPI affirms ELC.

Tenth, Dr. Davis quotes Dr. Sproul as defining ELC as: “The will always chooses according to its strongest inclination (desire) at the moment.” The corollary of this, that appears contradictory but is not (according to Dr. Sproul), that every choice is both free and determined. This appears incompatible, but it is is not because coercion is not involved. Dr. Davis does not agree. He argues that due to the coercive nature of “irresistable grace,” choice is not really free. There is a lot here to unpack, so for the sake of space in an already long post, I would like to offer some brief thoughts. First, if a person is dead in trespasses and sins as Ephesians 2 tells us, how is that person made alive? Is it the spiritually dead person who does it? If not, who? It must be God because Jesus tells us in John 3 that we are born from above (or again) by the Spirit. Was I born according to my own will when I was physically born? No, I had no choice in the matter. Likewise, I do not have the choice in this matter, because of my spiritual deadness, I need to be made alive by force outside of myself (extra nos). Second, coercion here is a change of nature, not a forcing upon me something against my will. This is called grace for a reason. God, in regeneration, changes my nature so that I can freely choose what before, due to my sin, I could not. I have been released by shackles of sin so that I could now choose the good. In my deadened state, I made free choices, but they were always in conformity with my sinful nature. This is a good thing. Why take it as something bad? Even if it does in fact violate or vitiate my free will, I am glad it does! Third, I am not sure that Dr. Davis has proved the point that coercion (in the sense of regeneration, which is really what we are talking about) violates freedom. The philosophical idea of “compatibilism” gives us the categories to articulate how two seemingly opposed propositions are both true. See the helpful essay by philosopher James Anderson on Reformed views of determinism and compatibilism here for more. Fourth, and related to the third, is that a more helpful way to express this language is that of J. I. Packer in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God where he spoke of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility as an “antinomy.” In this case, both seemingly opposed views are held in common because both are clearly revealed in scripture. We see this in the story of Joseph’s description of God and man’s role in his captivity (Genesis 50:20), or in Peter’s description of God and man’s role in the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23).

I conclude with a book recommendation. A helpful book on the subject of Reformed theology and the freedom of the will is that edited by William J. van Asselt, J. Martin Bac, and Roelf T. te Velde entitled Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Reformed Theology. In it we learn that the Reformed orthodox were very concerned to maintain human freedom, yet they did not want to do so at the expense of God’s freedom as their opponents did. The editors’ introduction opens with a quote by Francis Turretin (1623-1687) that illustrates this: “We establish free choice far more truly than our opponents.” After the (excellent) introduction, there are chapters devoted to freedom in the thought of Zanchi, Junius (my favourite), Gomarus, Voetius, Turretin, and de Moor. The book is a primary source reader for each. It is helpful because it ranges over the stages of orthodoxy and thus addresses variously situated theological and philosophical problems. Despite the different figures involved and the contexts they were addressing, the conclusion the editors come to is that Reformed theology self-consciously upholds the freedom of the human will and does so better than its opponents. This should not be surprising as they are part of the broader anti-Pelagian tradition rooted in Augustine (354-430), who very clearly affirmed libero arbitrio (see especially his “On Grace and Free Choice”).

I hope that this post is taken by all as a friendly rejoinder offered by one brother to another. I am thankful for the chance to rethink my own position due to the challenge that Dr. Davis poses. May my thoughts shared above go some small way towards giving greater understanding between two Christian positions as we work out our theology together in the kingdom of God. Soli Deo Gloria.

Theologians Behaving Badly

Here was a terrific test for my irony sensors:

 

For those of you not paying attention to emergent theology inside baseball-type stuff, Tony Jones has lately had some very credible accusations levelled against him about his treatment of his ex-wife. I don’t know whether it’s a deficiency of shame or of irony that would lead Jones to retweet something about assholes having bad theology, but I wonder what it’s going to do to Tony’s theology book sales when people realize he’s an asshole.

But maybe it isn’t theology? Maybe its some kind of personal experience of God? Here’s something else that showed up in one of my social feeds:

So here John Piper takes a bit of a different tack, to him it’s not theology, but some kind “knowing” that he does not elaborate on. I know that Piper is sympathetic to charismatics, so maybe it’s something on that axis? Now Piper, despite saying things that I don’t agree with and sometimes sympathizing with assholes does not appear, by all accounts, to be an asshole himself.

He might still be wrong about this though, I would argue that one can have just about any theology and have all kinds of personal, mystical, intimate, ecstatic ways of knowing God and still be an asshole. Here is a video where Žižek talks about a couple of giants of mysticism who were also monsters:

There is nothing in our experiences or our theologies that can keep us from being terrible to each other. Even if we can speak in tongues of men or of angels or can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge… and so on

The Reaper in the Room

Two remarks I recently came across.

(1) Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things. – Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 133.

(2) Ernst Kantorowicz, discussing the palpable contrast seen in funerary rites between juristic theories of the immortality of the king’s dignity and the mortality of his natural body:

In short, one revelled in strong contrasts of fictitious immortality and man’s genuine morality, contrasts which the Renaissance, through its insatiable desire to immortalize the individual by any contrivable tour de force, not only failed to mitigate, but rather intensified: there was a reverse side to the proud reconquest of a terrestrial aevum. At the same time, however, immortality–the decisive mark of divinity, but vulgarized by the artifice of countless fictions–was about to lose its absolute, or even its imaginary, values: unless it manifested itself incessantly through new mortal incarnations, it practically ceased to be immortality. The King could not die, was not allowed to die, lest scores of fictions of immortality were to break down; and while kings died, they were granted the comfort of being told that at least “as King” they “never died.” (The King’s Two Bodies, 437)

I suppose the trope is perennial, the human attempt to avoid and divert itself from its own mortality, but these days nothing represents to me this custom so much as the endlessly renewed but disposable constituents of the celebrity pantheon.

We Saw Someone Doing Journalism In Your Name…

amc

So this kind of came out of nowhere for me, but Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette fame is a Christian and said as much in the Daily Beast piece I linked. I don’t think I’d ever contemplated what her religious beliefs were or if she had any. It’s not something I try to do too often with public figures, mainly because my sense is we often project our grid of what someone who believes X or Y ought to be like onto those people and force our information about them into that grid. And we end up making stupid assumptions by virtue of this practice. (I read a story once where a French journalist interviewing U2 insisted to them that their songwriting was repressed by their Catholic upbringings – even though three of them, including the principle lyricist, were raised Protestant.)

I suppose all this is to say that if Ana Marie Cox announced that she was an atheist or a Buddhist or Jewish or had some New Age practice she followed I would have been equally reacting with a sense of, “Oh, okay” much like I did to this article – at least for the most part. I don’t know Ms. Cox and so it’s not like I have anything to base my perception on other than her journalism, which I often enjoy but which, you know, didn’t scream anything to me about religion particularly. There were a couple things that stuck out to me, and I think that her reluctance about even writing on this topic was the most significant:

“My hesitancy to flaunt my faith has nothing to do with fear of judgment by non-believers. My mother was an angry, agnostic ex-Baptist; my father is a casual atheist. (I asked him once why he didn’t believe in God, and he replied easily, “Because He doesn’t exist.”)

I am not smart enough to argue with those that cling to disbelief. Centuries of philosophers have made better arguments than I could, and I am comfortable with just pointing in their direction if an acquaintance insists, “If there is a God, then why [insert atrocity]?” For me, belief didn’t come after I had the answer to that question. Belief came when I stopped needing the answer.

No, I’m nervous to come out as a Christian because I worry I’m not good enough of one. I’m not scared that non-believers will make me feel an outcast. I’m scared that Christians will.” [emphasis mine]

This should not sit well with anyone else who calls themselves a Christian. Yes, I think it’s fine that many Christians, particularly of the evangelical ilk will still insist that she change her views on any number of social or political issues, just as I think it’s fine that she insist the same of them. I hope however that I do not see an onslaught of people insisting that she is not really a Christian until thinks and acts like Sarah Palin or Michelle Duggar or whatever public figure is the celebrity Christian of the moment. Ms. Cox has also made it clear on her Twitter account that she’s not going to jump on the religion beat all of sudden. This is not religion as a career move, this is someone simply declaring her ordinary, simple faith in Jesus.

Go read the full article.

What is Best In Life?

Permit me a bit of amateur psychology. I think we in the Western world would have to try very hard to miss that a lot of us spend time seeking a handful of things. We pursue goods that are easy to reach. Food and alcohol, sex, contest, and music are the most obvious examples.

Food and alcohol do their work immediately, with the taste, and then with the feelings of satiety and/or relaxation.

Assuming one is not starving or dying of thirst, it is fairly common knowledge that the strongest of physical passions is the sexual. Basically everyone thinks sex is good. Just the thought of it can cause people to obsess, and even the lacking of it can satisfy in other ways (e.g., the feelings of having a “crush” can themselves be pleasant). We seek and give sex, broadly considered, in various ways. A good number of regular Western pastimes involve indulging in this, if not always with the intent of actually having sexual intercourse, then at least with the intent of enjoying the sensations that imagination brings. Romance movies generate “crush” feelings; pornography more directly aims at sexual titillation. Advertisements often play on one or both pleasures. The lyrics of much music uses these tropes. The general habits of the clubbing world are obviously all circling around this particular passion.

People also enjoy defeating threats. The hope of victory, the risk of failure, and the adrenaline rush that drives us to seek the first in the face of the second. The two most obvious instruments for creating this sensation are sports events and action films.

Then there’s the good of music. I’ve quoted Richard Hooker before on this blog on the power of music, but here he is again:

The reason hereof is an admirable facility which music hath to express and represent to the mind, more inwardly than any other sensible mean, the very standing, rising, and falling, the very steps and inflections every way, the turns and varieties of all passions whereunto the mind is subject; yea so to imitate them, that whether it resemble unto us the same state wherein our minds already are, or a clean contrary, we are not more contentedly by the one confirmed, than changed and led away by the other.

Music is so beloved because it has the power to alter our moods in a very direct way. Though we may lack a certain good in reality, music can still make a chimera dance on our mind’s stage.  Pop music is certainly not an exception here. As Roger Scruton notes:

This surely accurately describes the way in which contemporary pop—from Crystal Castles to Lady Gaga—is received by its devotees. I am not talking of the words. I am talking about the musical experience. It is surely right to speak of a new kind of listening, maybe a kind of listening that is not listening at all, when there is no melody to speak of, when the rhythm is machine made, and when the only invitation to dance is an invitation to dance with oneself. And it is easier to imagine a kind of pop that is not like that: pop that is with the listener and not at him. … The externalized beat of pop is shoved at us. You cannot easily move with it, but you can submit to it. … And the dance is not something that you do, but something that happens to you—a pulse on which you are suspended.

This aspect of pop music might be one of its main attractions: in its common forms, it overwhelms with the passions. It forces people to feel. Of course, a great deal of it aims at producing one or both of the previously mentioned passions: sexual euphoria or something like what the Greeks would have called thumos.

These goods are the easiest to reach, and so become the highest end for many. As Wittgenstein said in another context, people are captured by an image, a picture of something within their grasp, and often lose desire for any others beyond their immediate reach. But there are other kinds of goods, ones that often have more of a slow burn than a quick sizzle. Yet these kinds of goods can provide a more deep and lasting enjoyment of life than the ones above.

Imagine accomplishing a difficult objective. You decide to do something that seems like a good idea,  you eventually face opposition from nature or other people, you persevere and reach the goal. How do you feel? Bored? Of course not. The experience is often more pleasant than it would have been had there been no resistance at all. The victory through struggle gives knowledge of self as adequate to overcome difficulties, and to know this is to know something good. Further, you will have the good you originally sought.

Another good difficult to reach, but which provides much deeper and lasting satisfaction, is friendship. Knowing and loving another human being in a significant way. Human beings are the height of creation. Their strength, compassion, intelligence, creativity, beauty, humour, quirkiness, majesty, and piety, both in combination and separately, when deeply appreciated, can bring much joy to the people who experience them. But these are things that can only be discovered with time and effort; one must decide to sacrifice time and comfort and, instead of seeking directly pleasurable pursuits, to endure boredom, awkward moments, moral flaws and injuries, weaknesses and insecurities, and any number of other things that make people unattractive. Yet when another person is deeply known and loved, the happiness is almost incomparable.

Then there are intellectual goods. The human capacity to understand reality abstractly, as a coherent whole, to ask and answer the question “why?”, is arguably what distinguishes us most from the kingdom of nature. And curious people fulfill this potential when they encounter an intriguing but difficult question, and then pursue the answer with determination. When they reach their destination, a deeper understanding of the “why?” produces a sensation that artists and poets have long compared to elemental forces of nature: fire, light, electricity, and even a kind of intoxication. To seek and to find wisdom is one of the most exquisite pleasures human beings know.

But the highest good is not any of these things in themselves. It is nothing other than God. The most pleasurable good that human beings can pursue is understanding of the Creator, the ultimate answer to “why?”, and friendship with this being, the one who contains every good quality in its most perfect form. But of all pleasures, this is the hardest one to reach, and it cannot initially be reached through the kind of effort to accomplish that I mentioned above. Indeed, Jesus taught that it was impossible unless God gave us a taste for it first: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” God rescues the soul by giving an experience of God’s goodness: “For God … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Once this gift has been given, effort to see it more clearly is also given, and when increased clarity is achieved, the root of joy sinks ever deeper. But that gift is laid on a foundation of the first one; to want to pursue God further one must first have seen why he is indeed worth pursuing. The darkened character of our intellects will prevent us from seeing this until God opens our eyes to do so. When he does, we will forever want to see things in the aura of his light.

Why You Need To Know About The Epistle to Diognetus

You need to know about this because a common refrain of some critics of the faith is that major Christian doctrines were not present in the earliest years of the church. They were accoutrements that developed over time. The full divinity of Jesus? Not till Nicea. A substitutionary atonement? Not until Anselm rigged the jury in the middle ages.

There are of course many ways to respond to this. One way that Dr. Michael Kruger has pointed out is to appeal to the Epistle to Diognetus, a second century work of Christian apologetics. It’s clear that the author of this Epistle had a high Christology and affirmed a robust view of substitionary atonement and even imputation.

No early evidence of the divinity of Jesus? Consider this:

But the truly all-powerful God himself, creator of all and invisible, set up and established in their [Christians’] hearts the truth and the holy word from heaven, which cannot be comprehended by humans.  To do so, he did not, as one might suppose, send them one of his servants or an angel or a ruler…but he sent the craftsman and maker of all things himself, by whom he created the heavens, by whom he encloses the sea within its own boundaries, whose mysteries all the elements of creation guard faithfully, from whom the sun was appointed to guard the courses that it runs during the day, whom the moon obeys when he commands it to shine at night, whom the stars obey by following the course of the moon, by whom all things are set in order and arranged and put into subjection, the heavens and the things in the heavens, the earth and the things in the earth, the sea and all the things in the sea, fire, air, the abyss, creatures in the heights, creatures in the depths, and creatures in between–this is the one he sent to them. (7.2)

So, then, did he [God], as one might suppose, send him [his Son] to rule in tyranny, fear, and terror? Not at all.  But with gentleness and meekness, as a king sending his own son, he sent him as a king; he sent him as God; he sent him as a human to humans.  So that he might bring salvation. (7.3-4).

The Word appeared to them [the apostles] and revealed things, speaking to them openly.  Even though he was not understood by unbelievers, he told these things to his disciples, who after being considered faithful by him came to know the mysteries of the Father.  For this reason he sent his Word, that it might be manifest to the world. This Word was dishonored by the people but proclaimed by the apostles and believed by the nations. For this is the one who was from the beginning who appeared to be recent but was discovered to be ancient, who is always being born anew in the hearts of the saints.  This is the eternal one who “today” is considered to be the Son, through whom the church is enriched and the unfolding grace is multiplied among the saints. (11:2-4).

No substitutionary atonement?

But [God] was patient, he bore with us, and out of pity for us took our sins upon himself. He gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the innocent one for the wicked, the righteous one for the unrighteous, the  imperishable one for the perishable, the immortal one for the mortal. (9.2).

For what else could hide our sins but the righteousness of that one? How could we who were lawless and impious be made upright except by the son of God alone? Oh the sweet exchange!…That the lawless deeds of many should be hidden by the one who was upright, and the righteousness of one should make upright the many who were lawless!

If you read the comments section of the post, there’s a fairly developed interaction between Dr. Kruger and a commenter named John S that some might find helpful if they want to see this point developed further.

 

 

Just Lights and Clockwork

One of our culture’s most brilliant contemporary non-Luddite critics of our use of technology must be Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows and more recently The Glass Cage. At the close of a chapter dubbed “White-Collar Computer” he pinpoints the special danger that automation might pose to culture by way of undermining the distinctive feature of philosophical thinking: Wonder. 1

If we’re not careful, the automation of mental labor, by changing the nature and focus of intellectual endeavor, may end up eroding one of the foundations of culture itself: our desire to understand the world. Predictive algorithms may be supernaturally skilled at discovering correlations, but they’re indifferent to the underlying causes of traits and phenomena. Yet it’s the deciphering of causation–the meticulous untangling of how and why things work the way they do–that extends the reach of human understanding and ultimately gives meaning to our search for knowledge. If we come to see automated calculations of probability as sufficient for our professional and social purposes, we risk losing or at least weakening our desire and motivation to seek explanations, to venture down the circuitous paths that lead toward wisdom and wonder. Why bother, if a computer can spit out “the answer” in a millisecond or two?

In his 1947 essay “Rationalism in Politics,” the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott provided a vivid description of the modern rationalist: “His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void.” The rationalist has no concern for culture or history; he neither cultivates nor displays a personal perspective. His thinking is notable only for “the rapidity with which he reduces the tangle and variety of experience” into “a formula.” Oakeshott’s words also provide us with a perfect description of computer intelligence: eminently practical and productive and entirely lacking in curiosity, imagination, and worldliness. [The Glass Cage, 123-124]

Notes:

  1. For those who might imagine that a computer could someday replicate even this aspect of human nature, I would suggest reading Edward Feser’s review of Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind.

How Reading The Chronicles Of Narnia Can Help With Your Doubts

One of the most helpful disciplines a Christian can develop is to learn how to chase down their doubts. I first learned this from JP Moreland. A danger zone for a believer is when their vision becomes clouded with vague and ethereal doubts. The solution is to get specific. Write them down and list them in order of importance. And then chase them down, one by one. Talk to people. Research. Keep chipping away at it. I’ve practiced this in my own life and I’ve found the solution to be a strengthened and weathered faith. One of the benefits of such an approach is that it builds confidence. Once you’ve worked through the process a couple of times, you’re not flummoxed by every doubt that shows up at your door for tea.

With that being said, not all doubts are intellectual. And the solutions to some doubts aren’t intellectual. Joe Rigney, of Bethlehem College & Seminary, tells of how reading and rereading the Chronicles of Narnia helped him deal with periods of doubt and depression in his life:

Over the years I’ve had a handful of bouts with significant questions, anxieties, and doubts about the Christian faith. Being somewhat of a bookish guy, my doubts are usually sparked by intellectual or theological questions, which then spiral into emotional upheaval and panic. During those seasons, I get lost in my own head, unable to break out of the prison of my own mind. It’s like there’s this incessant accusing voice in my head, and I end up in endless debates with him which rob me of joy and life (and sleep).

One of the things that has helped me when my sense of God and myself and my place in this world is so fragile has been a strong dose of what Lewis called “quiddity,” or the “realness” of things. For me, quiddity has usually hit me as the experience of deep beauty and desire, like when I can’t help but find the way that the sun hits storm clouds on the horizon to be beautiful.

Lewis himself once said that his apologetic “argument from desire” was a kind of spell that might be used to break us from deadly modern enchantments. The Narnian stories, and the way that my soul cries “Yes!” when I read them, have helped to anchor me in those uncertain times. When I’m overwhelmed by intellectual doubts, it is profoundly helpful to me to experience the undeniable and insatiable desire for the glorious vision of reality that Lewis depicts in Narnia.

I’ve come to think of it in this way. We often talk about the classical triad of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. What I’ve come to see is that these three are so interwoven that when one of them falters or grows dim in our eyes, the others can be used to keep us hanging on. When the Truth about Christ and the gospel feels shaky, the Beauty and Goodness of the Christian vision of life can shore up its weaknesses.

In other words, to continue to hold on to the gospel in the dark valley of intellectual doubt because you find it irresistibly beautiful is a good and gracious thing, a gift from God. Narnia has that sense of irresistible beauty, and so I’ve been enormously helped by the grace of God through it.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’m just reading through the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time myself, but providentially, I’ve been going through a period of doubt and have found myself similarly blessed as Joe Rigney.