Monday, August 31, 2015

Seeking a Foundation in the Midst of Pastoral Failures

I don’t know about the rest of you, but it’s honestly been a tough summer. For me, it started with the news of high profile pastors (some in my own denomination, even) who had committed adultery. Then it seems like over the summer more and more news has emerged about various pastors and Christian leaders needing to leave the ministry because of serious moral failings. All that time, even through that news I kept my head up, I encouraged myself that these sorts of things are sad realities in our fallen world, even among Christian leaders, but I told myself that I would somehow remain untouched by it all.

However, in a very real sense, the whole house of cards came falling down for me when it was discovered that a close friend and mentor was part of this number of men whose sin had disqualified them from the ministry. At that point, I couldn’t keep up the ruse that everything was fine and the house would stay standing. The last week has been…upsetting and more difficult than I'd care to admit. I still love my mentor. I still love this man. And at first I thought I had no right to be upset…after all, he isn’t my spouse. It was his wife who had been betrayed, not me. I fought for stoicism and failed. The hurt started to leak in. It started to weigh on me, and I decided to just let the sadness and the tears come. The truth is, it hurts to see men falling around you like dominoes — especially when you’re about to become a pastor yourself. There’s no denying that it is encouraging to see men doing what you will be doing, fighting the good fight, standing up under temptation. But this experience has shown me that if you begin to feel secure and ready for what’s coming because other people are doing it successfully, you are setting yourself up for some serious pain. Such an attitude shows that you’ve lost your way; your emotional and spiritual compass is all screwed up.

The great thing about preaching lectio continua straight through the Bible is that you don’t get to pick the texts, the texts are given to you. That’s how it was for me this past Sunday. I traveled 2 1/2 hours to the far reaches of Mississippi, and it was a long drive. It was a hard drive. Here I was someone who was going to preach God’s Word, and I was so discouraged — I truly felt beaten down. I prayed as I drove, but was frankly having a hard time finding any reason for hope.

Now, I had prepared this sermon a couple of weeks ago and hadn’t looked at it much in the days before, so when I went into the pulpit and read the text, I was being fed by the Word in a way that I badly needed. The text was from 1 John 1:5-10. While there is so much in that text that ministered to me (v. 9 in particular is a verse I probably repeat to myself every day), the passage that stood out the most was verse 5: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

This message is a message about God. God is light. Whereas the world around us is mixed and mingled with darkness and light, various shades of gray and ambiguity, moral failings mixed with successes, there is one who is untainted by it all, and it isn’t my mentor, and it isn't your pastor.

The failure of Christian leaders is sad; incredibly sad. There is destruction and sorrow and broken hearts and trusts that aren’t easily repaired. God is mocked by unbelievers and perceived to be insufficient to meet our greatest needs in situations like these. Churches are in turmoil, and no doubt some on the fringes will decide that church maybe isn't for them. But if you’re like me and you find yourself leaning maybe a bit too much on the faith and perceived spiritual success of others — including the leaders in your life — you need to hear this message from John. John says that the message that Jesus brought was not, at its core, a message about you and me. It’s a message that starts with God. This means that the anchor of your life, of reality, of your existence isn’t your pastor. Yes, he is important, he is used by God in incredible ways to edify and build you up (thank God for him!) but he isn’t your rock. He isn’t your salvation. He isn’t the one in whom you trust or rest on.

You know this, probably, but you might have forgotten it. I knew it intellectually, but over time it becomes second nature to lean on things that just work without being aware that you're doing it. If you are one of those Christians who find yourself deeply discouraged by the sins, failures, and failings of Christian leaders, let me invite you to be reminded of who it is that is at the center of all of this. I don't have the silver bullet to solve every problem when it comes to working your way through messes like this, but I do know where you need to start. There was one who came and led and stood up under temptation. There was one who, when faced with every form of temptation (Heb. 4:15), came away clean, but it wasn’t your pastor — it was Christ himself. Make him your rock. Make him the one on whom you lean and rest and find your hope. I know of no other rock (Ps. 18:31).

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The OPC Split of 1937 and Christian Liberty (Part 4)

In the first three parts of this series we not only explored the centrality of Christian Liberty to the debates and discussions that led to the OPC’s division, but actually spent the third part focusing on the 3rd General Assembly, which was followed shortly by the exodus of the McIntire/Buswell group and the creation of the Bible Presbyterian Church.

Aftermath In The OPC
After the division of 1937 some began to speak of the OPC as a “wet church,” which for the time was a derisive term (as it was probably intended).[1] In a booklet called “The Presbyterian Church of America and the Liquor Question” Clifford Smith defended the OPC’s refusal to speak in favor of total abstinence. He argued that while drunkenness was clearly condemned in Scripture (something all parties were agreed upon), he also classified moderate liquor consumption as a “thing indifferent” — something that is neither morally virtuous nor evil in itself.[2] He referred to moderate alcohol consumption as “among things that are morally indifferent and is to be dealt with on this basis.” Although there were perhaps those in the McIntire/Buswell camp who believed alcohol consumption in any amount to be sinful, those who wrote and published publicly on the matter generally dealt with consumption of alcohol by classifying it alongside of those things that cause others to stumble but are not sinful in and of themselves.[3]

Smith expressed a common sentiment among those who defended the OPC’s refusal to take a stand on abstinence: “Just because a thing is morally indifferent in itself, it does not follow that every Christian has free license to do it.”[4] Nevertheless, he argued, that was not a sufficient ground to forbid the thing. Smith also went to great lengths to point out that the OPC’s refusal to move on the issue as the abstainers desired did not mean that the OPC was a “wet church.” They did not have a position on total abstinence, just as the Bible did not have a position on total abstinence.

Aftermath In The BPC
When McIntire, Buswell, and company parted from the OPC in 1937, they left to form the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC). When the first General Synod met in September of 1938 they passed a resolution stating that “we deem it wise to pursue the course of total abstinence.” This statement was re-affirmed at the Bible Presbyterian Church’s fourth General Synod.[5] There the discussion was not framed in terms of clear prohibitions from Scripture but in terms of applied wisdom.

The Harvey Cedars Resolution, which the BPC passed in 1945, is worth considering at this point. Though the Harvey Cedars Resolution was passed eight years after the BPC split from the OPC, it arguably contains what may be the most mature and careful expression of the moral position that characterized the McIntire/Buswell party within the OPC prior to the split. In that Resolution, the call to personal moral separation is framed in terms of wisdom:
We deem it wise to pursue the course of total abstinence with regard to alcoholic beverages, and also tobacco; and furthermore we are unalterably opposed to the modern saloon, and the liquor traffic in general. We urge all ministers and Christian leaders among us to discourage these and other worldly practices among the Lord's people, and to give their testimony uncompromisingly against all forms of sin.[6]
In both of the preceding statements, spanning 1937-1945 the argument of the abstainers was consistent: based on the wisdom of abstinence, abstinence was the required lifestyle of the Christian.[7] The Harvey Cedars resolution stated that this call was “in conformity to the Word of God,” though it also said that this was “without adding thereto any rules binding the conscience.” They were careful to avoid framing the discussion in terms of biblical commands or prohibition, though it arguably became, in effect, a biblical command several steps removed. For the abstainers who left the OPC, this was a matter of prudence, and the prudent thing was to avoid alcohol altogether.

In Carl McIntire’s magazine The Christian Beacon, the separation of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Seattle and of California Presbytery from the OPC were characterized in strikingly heroic terms. The Beacon portrayed them as having left in order that they “might remain true to that purpose for which it left the apostate U.S.A. Church.”[8] If this sentiment accurately reflects that of those who left the OPC for the Bible Presbyterian Church then it becomes clear that the Westminster group and McIntire/Buswell group had, from the beginning, envisioned drastically different purposes in their departures from the PCUSA to begin with. The McIntire/Buswell supporters envisioned the separated life as essential to their purpose. As D.G. Hart explains it, however, Machen’s “purpose throughout the fundamentalist controversy had been to preserve a seminary that would train ministers in Old School Presbyterian theology and a church where those seminarians could minister.”[9]

In his own reflection on the division of the OPC, George Marsden argues that, ultimately, the cause of division cannot entirely be placed squarely upon either the personalities or the theological issues involved.[10] Neither of them, in and of themselves, would have been sufficient to effect the division. Rather, says Marsden, each side in the conflict represented competing visions of what a Presbyterian Church ought to be. The Mcintire/Buswell group represented a vision of Presbyterianism as “a Bible-believing church witnessing to the world both in the preaching of the Word and the ‘separated life.’” The majority, says Marsden, wanted “an orthodox church whose witness would reflect an informed study of the scriptural principles in the church and its work.”[11] Marsden concludes that these two compatible visions of the church — which could (in principle) be held in balance — became incompatible when the balance between themselves was lost. Perhaps the only man who could hold the factions of the OPC in balance was Machen himself, but his death in January of 1937 meant that such questions would belong only to the realm of conjecture and speculation.

If it is true that only Machen could hold these groups together, then the uneasy alliance that opposed modernism in the PCUSA could never have held together on their own in the long-term. The majority in the OPC chose a path that would eventually put them at irremediable odds with the desire for the separated life expressed by the McIntire/Buswell group.

Even if one granted that it was wise or expedient for Christians to abstain from alcohol, was the wisdom of abstinence sufficient grounds to constitute a requirement for such abstinence? Absent a Biblical prohibition, could the Church make such a statement in the confidence that they spoke with the authority of Christ Himself? For those who left form the BPC, the answer to these questions was “Yes.” For those who remained in the OPC, the answer was “No.”


[ ] Clifford Smith, The Presbyterian Church of America and the Liquor Question. (PCA Historical Center, Buswell Collection, Box 286, File 105), 1.
[2] Ibid., 13.
[3] J. Oliver Buswell, The Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1937), 86.
[4] Smith, 16.
[5] Minutes of the 4th General Synod of the BPS (1941), 6.
[6] PCA Historical Center. “The Harvey Cedars Resolutions,” (accessed Jan. 2, 2015).
[7] This was true not only of statements in print but also in personal correspondence. For instance, in a letter to Charles Woodbridge, J. Oliver Buswell argues that this whole discussion was ultimately a matter of how wisely and carefully the believer exercises his freedom. Appealing to Paul’s words in Romans 14:15-22 he argues that the offensiveness of liquor is in itself sufficient reason to forbid ever drinking it. Letter from J. Oliver Buswell to Charles Woodbridge (April 24, 1937).
[8] The Christian Beacon 2 Vol. 23 (July 15, 1937), 1, 8.
[9] D G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R, 2003), 170.
[10] Marsden’s concluding analysis of the split makes for fascinating reading. See George M. Marsden “Perspective on the Division of 1937” in Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble, eds., Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986), 321.
[1] Ibid., 322.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The OPC Split of 1937 and Christian Liberty (Part 3)

In the prior two posts we considered the importance of Christian Liberty to the division of the OPC in 1937. In this post we will focus on the events themselves as they played out at the third General Assembly.

Two months after Buswell’s clarification and exchange with Stonehouse was published in The Guardian, the third OPC General Assembly convened. June 1, 1937 was a unusually warm day for Philadelphia at that time of year, reaching a balmy high of 90 degrees. The heat outside of the General Assembly’s meeting at Spruce Street Baptist Church was matched only by the heated disagreements between those factions that had formed within the OPC over the course of the previous year. Soon after this assembly convened, and before the first session had even commenced, J. Oliver Buswell “openly declared his intention to withdraw from [the denomination] if the Assembly did not take what he considered to be the only proper action on the overtures involving the question of total abstinence.”[1] Everyone would soon discover that these were not empty threats.

In the course of the assembly, three proposed overtures called for the church to endorse abstinence from alcohol. The overture from Chicago Presbytery cited prior statements by the PCUSA from the 19th century where total abstinence was endorsed. This included statements from the 1812, 1818, 1829, 1865, and 1877 General Assemblies (among others).[2] Indeed, the McIntire/Buswell group seemed to have the historical argument on their side, as temperance does seem to have held the field in 19th century American Presbyterianism. Despite valiant efforts and strong arguments for historical pedigree, none of these overtures passed.[3]

On the other hand, a contrary overture calling for caution against man-made rules was also submitted, which was successfully passed.[4] This overture referenced the Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 20, Sections 2-3 which read in part, “God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word…” This passage was a favorite of those who opposed making statements endorsing total abstinence.

In another failure on the part of the McIntire/Buswell group, overture no. 8 from Iowa Presbytery argued that the denomination ought to allow a broad latitude of eschatological views. This did not pass, which dealt a double blow not only to defenders of temperance but to the perceived future of dispensational premillennialism in the OPC. The McIntire/Buswell supporters in the OPC took these successive defeats as a painful signal that they were not welcome in the newly conceived denomination and that they would not have a voice in it.

Before the third General Assembly had adjourned, the McIntire/Buswell group presented and filed a formal protest. This protest was with reference to the Assembly’s rejection of Overtures 2, 3 and 6 and passing of Overture 1.[5] They offered as their reason for protest a “deep conviction that, in the interest of making clear the position on this matter which we hold, and which we believe is held by the majority of the members, of this Assembly, we should have declared that we deem it wise to pursue and to encourage the course of total abstinence.”[6]

After the Assembly convened, seventeen total Teaching and Ruling Elders left the OPC and announced their intention to form a new denomination, the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC). They subsequently established Faith Theological Seminary — a seminary that corrected what the BPC men had seen wrong with Westminster Seminary while feeling powerless to change it.

In Part 4 we will conclude this series of blog posts by considering the aftermath of the split between the OPC and the BPC.

[1] The Presbyterian Guardian 4 (June 26, 1937), 88.
[2] Minutes of the 3rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, 5-7.
[3] The specific overtures were Overture No. 2 from the Chicago Presbytery (which failed to pass 24-65), Overture No. 3 from the California Presbytery, and Overture No. 6 from the Presbyter of New Jersey (the latter two of which were rejected without a vote).
[4] This was Overture No. 1.
[5] Minutes of the 3rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, 27.
[6] Ibid.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The OPC Split of 1937 and Christian Liberty (Part 2)

In the first part of this series of blog posts we talked about the environment from which the OPC emerged. We concluded by surmising that the greatest issue in the OPC was not necessarily the issue of alcohol itself, but rather the question of how Christian Liberty is to be practiced. In this post I want to focus on the events, arguments, and correspondence that drew out the importance of these issues, culminating in division.

A little over three years after the repeal of the Volstead Act, and six months before the division of 1937, J. Oliver Buswell published a book called The Christian Life in which he argued that moderate alcohol use eventually leads to drunkenness. Because of this sad reality—argued Buswell—and based upon Paul’s teachings of lawfulness versus expediency in 1 Cor. 6:12 and 10:23, he concluded in this book that total abstinence from alcohol is required for Christians.[1]

In the book, Buswell fully concedes that “the Bible does not explicitly teach total abstinence,” even granting the possibility of some hypothetical utopia where people do all things in moderation — a scenario in which he actually says drinking alcohol might be acceptable.[2] In one of the overtures that would come before the OPC General Assembly in June 1937, the New Jersey Presbytery would echo Buswell on this point, agreeing that moderate alcohol consumption is not condemned in Scripture.[3] What Buswell argued, however, is that there was such a tendency to drunkenness in Americans that they needed to abstain completely. This conclusion of Buswell was again echoed by the New Jersey Presbytery a few months later when they argued that the “tendency of the American people to go to harmful excess” with regard to alcohol was sufficient reason to condemn its use altogether.[4]

In The Christian Life, Buswell anticipated the claim that Jesus’ production of wine at the wedding of Cana was sufficient to demonstrate that its use was not completely wrong. His response was to claim that America is such a different place than first century Palestine that (even granting that the wine at Cana was alcoholic) this kind of reasoning is tantamount to saying we ought to walk in the middle of traffic because Jesus walked in the middle of the road in his own day.[5] “If it was alcoholic wine which our Lord drank in his ordinary fellowship with men, if it was alcoholic wine which he made at the marriage in Cana of Galilee (this is open to dispute), we are not at liberty to argue that he would use or approve of the using of alcoholic beverages in America today.”[6]

The majority group wondered how, absent a Scriptural prohibition against something, would one arrive at the conclusion that something was to be prohibited? At the end of the day, there was much agreed upon within the early OPC, but when it came to the alcohol question the two parties were deeply divided as to how Christian liberty ought to be put into practice.

The centrality of Christian Liberty became clear when Charles Woodbridge responded to Buswell against accusations that Westminster Seminary was a “wet campus.” Woodbridge (one of those who opposed taking a stand on alcohol) attached to his letter a lengthy quote from Charles Hodge that Woodbridge believed was relevant to clarifying the real issue. His inclusion of the Hodge quote indicates that for Woodbridge the issue was not the harmfulness of excessive alcohol use, but rather the danger of speaking as the Church of Christ on an issue where Christ Himself, in the Scriptures, did not speak.
When it is obligatory to abstain from the use of things indifferent, is a matter of private judgment. No man has the right to decide that question for other men. No bishop, priest, or church court has the right to decide it. Otherwise it would not be a matter of liberty. Paul constantly recognized the right (εξουσια) of Christians to judge in such cases for themselves. He does this not by implication only, but he also expressly asserts it, and condemns those who would call it in question. “Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth.” “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” (Rom. 14:3, 4, 5.) It is a common saying that every man has a pope in his own bosom. That is, the disposition to lord it over God’s heritage is almost universal. Men wish to have their opinions on moral questions made into laws to bind the consciences of their brethren. This is just as much a usurpation of a divine prerogative when done by a private Christian or by a church court, as when done by the Bishop of Rome. We are as much bound to resist it in the one case as in the other.[7]
For the Westminster group, the issue was not whether alcohol could be destructive, but rather, the wrongness of the Church declaring prohibitions where the Bible had not. In many ways, Buswell’s response in his letter to Woodbridge seems to be utterly unexpected: “I agree with what you quote from Dr. Hodge.” According to Buswell, the issue was not man-made laws (which he didn’t think he was guilty of making). Buswell goes on to tell Woodbridge that for those advocating abstinence from alcohol, the real issue is how the believer is supposed to exercise his liberty, pointing to Romans 14:15-22.[8] Who are the “weaker brethren” of Romans 14:15-22, according to Buswell? “Converted alcoholics and the young people in the social swirl of today.”[9]

Following the publication of The Christian Life, the Presbyterian Guardian ran a response by Guardian editor Ned Stonehouse on Feb. 27, 1937, titled “Godliness and Christian Liberty.” In that article, Stonehouse argued that, in light of Christ’s own miracle of turning water into wine, Buswell simply went too far: “It is a serious reflection on our Lord to hold that moderate drinking inevitably leads men into a life of drunkenness, as Dr. Buswell seems to do in his recent book on The Christian Life, p. 88.”[10]

In April of 1937 Buswell responded to Stonehouse’s article not by appealing (as he had in his book) to a disjunction between Christ’s own day and modern America, but by instead arguing that he was being misrepresented. “If the reader will turn to chapter three in this book he will find that the argument is based squarely upon the scriptural doctrine of expediency.”[11] In the same issue, Stonehouse retorted that “the argument in his book goes beyond an appeal to inexpediency.”[12] To Stonehouse’s credit, pages 85-88 of The Christian Life did not make any references to Christian Liberty but rather to the raw destructiveness of alcohol, as well as the irrelevance of Christ’s own example to the modern context. This isn’t to say that inexpediency was not a part of Buswell’s argument (pages 88-91), but Buswell’s response does seem to have been an attempt to steer the debate towards what Buswell perceived to be the stronger elements of his argument.

In Part 3 of this series, we will look at the actual events of the 3rd OPC General Assembly.

[1] The Presbyterian Guardian 4 (April 10, 1937), 12.
[2] J. Oliver Buswell, The Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1937), 86.
[3] Minutes of the 3rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, 8.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Buswell, 87.
[6] Ibid., 86.
[7] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 265.
[8] Personal letter from Buswell to Charles Woodbridge, April 24, 1937, 2. (PCA Historical Center, Box 285, file 14)
[9] Buswell, The Christian Life, 91.
[10] Guardian 3 (Feb. 27, 1937), 203.
[11] Guardian 4 (April 10, 1937), 12.
[12] Ibid.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The OPC Split of 1937 and Christian Liberty (Part 1)

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church emerged from a hotbed of conflict. This was a conflict that, as Darryl Hart and John Muether have argued, was to define the OPC[1] in nearly every area of its polity, doctrine, and personality even up to the present day.[2] This conflict from which the OPC emerged was not a conflict between two Christian groups who simply could not agree on some details, but — as J. Gresham Machen portrayed it — between Christianity and Liberalism: two entirely different religions.[3] The battleground of this conflict was the mainline Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) of the 1920s and 30s and the conflict arguably struck its zenith with the trial and ejection of J. Gresham Machen from its ranks. By June of 1936 the OPC was formed by Machen and a small group of conservatives who chose not to remain in the PCUSA any longer.

Because it was a child of war, the OPC was originally composed of an oddly mismatched (in retrospect) coalition that might be roughly divided into two: the Westminster group and the McIntire/Buswell group. On the Westminster side were leaders who were associated with Westminster Seminary such as J. Gresham Machen, Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, Paul Wooley, Ned Stonehouse (the editor of the Presbyterian Guardian), and Charles Woodbridge. Those who occupied the McIntire/Buswell camp were those who eventually left the OPC. This group, of course, included among them Carl McIntire and J. Oliver Buswell.

In their battles with the modernists of the PCUSA these groups found themselves sharing a similar agenda and a common enemy. George Marsden puts it this way: “As long as conservatives were confronted with the presence of modernists within their own institutions, and as long as there was real hope of retrieving control of the church, there was little time for disputes on fine points.”[4] After the split with the PCUSA, of course, these two conservative groups now shared the same house. From the perspective of hindsight it seems like a marriage that was destined to fail, but at the time it did not perhaps seem so obvious. Why, after all, should it be so hard to remain together, now that the issue of an aggressive and militant form of modernism was off the table?

In the beginning there was what might be termed a “honeymoon phase” for the newly formed denomination. One detects it in the triumphant declaration by J. Gresham Machen that in forming the OPC “we became members of a true Presbyterian Church; we recovered, at last, the blessing of true Christian fellowship. What a joyous moment it was! How the long years of struggle seemed to sink into nothingness compared with the peace and joy that filled our hearts!”[5] That sense of joy was not to be long lived or shared by all. Less than a year later, however, some of those same people would choose to separate from this “true Presbyterian Church.”

It would be a mistake for anyone to think that the sole issue which caused the division of 1937 was the issue of the church’s relationship to the alcohol question. The issues were not at all simple. As Marsden summarizes it, there were at least three primary driving issues leading to the split: dispensational premillennialism (doctrinal), abstinence from alcohol (moral), and participation with non-Presbyterians in foreign missions (ecclesiastical).[6] It was never just one thing, and there were many factors and personalities at play beyond these three, as well (not the least of which was the death of Machen in January of 1937). In George Marsden’s analysis, however, the issue of temperance was certainly “the most emotionally charged of the issues that had been raised.”[7]

Through a series of upcoming blog posts we will look more closely at this “most emotionally charged” of the issues that divided the OPC. By the end, not only will we have explored a fascinating period in Presbyterian history, but we will really see that the issue which was most pressing in the division wasn’t ultimately disagreement over the wrongness of alcohol, but disagreement over two competing visions of how Christian Liberty ought to be put into practice.

In Part 2 of this series we will consider the developments that ultimately led to the division of the OPC in 1937.

[1] The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was initially called the Presbyterian Church of America until it was forced to change its name by court order. However, in spite of the anachronism and for the sake of continuity I will here refer to it by its later name, the OPC.
[2] D G. Hart and John R. Muether, Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Committee on Christian Education and the Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1995), 7.
[3] See J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009), 2.
[4] George M. Marsden “Perspective on the Division of 1937” in Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble, eds., Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986), 299.
[5] The Presbyterian Guardian 2 (June 22, 1936), 110.
[6] Marsden, 296.
[7] Marsden, 308.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The PCA In the Horns of a Dilemma OR Why Does the PCA Have a Confession At All?

North Texas Presbytery and Tennessee Valley Presbytery have put forth overtures to the PCA General Assembly this year suggesting the creation of a study committee regarding the recreation clause of the Westminster Standards. Others have already pointed out that there is probably a hugely widespread misunderstanding among those coming into the PCA about what was meant by these clauses, and addressing that isn’t my purpose here today. Rather, I want to suggest that the PCA needs to be reminded of why it has a confession to begin with.

What is a confession? And why do we have them? R.L. Dabney defines a confession as “a summary statement of what some religious teacher or teachers believe concerning the Christian system, stated in their own uninspired words.” The case for the use of such confessions is two-pronged: a) It has biblical precedent, and b) it makes practical sense.

There are examples of creeds (albeit inspired creeds) in Scripture (Phil. 2:6-11; 2 Tim. 2:11-13). Joseph Pipa, Jr., in his article “The Confessing Church,” argues that confessions are not only biblical, but that they are commanded. He does so on the basis of 2 Tim. 1:13-14. While it is hard to see a specific command for confessions in this passage, it is easy to see how confessions might nevertheless be a means to keeping this particular command of Paul. In this regard there is something to be said for pragmatic arguments in favor of confessions. [1]

Samuel Miller makes his case for the use of creeds in his booklet “On the Utility and Importance of Creeds.” Miller makes multiple arguments in favor of creeds, but among his strongest is his argument that creeds play a practical role in the life of the church: namely, they make unity possible.  “Without a creed explicitly adopted, it is not easy to see how the ministers and members of any particular church, and more especially a large denomination of Christians, can maintain unity among themselves.” And so creeds are a means of keeping unity among the people of God. Because the practical purpose of the creed is to promote the unity of those who hold to it, Miller says that creeds “always ought to contain a number of articles besides those which are fundamental.” The result of this process is a creed that is not merely composed of the bare essentials of the faith, but also of those things that the creed’s adherents cannot live in harmony without clarifying.

The PCA currently finds itself in the horns of two problems: (I) the problem of “good faith subscription” and (II) the problem of common exceptions. As Overtures 2 and 9 before the 2015 General Assembly point out, exceptions regarding the “no recreation” clause are so commonplace as to barely register a reaction in most presbyteries.

With regard to the first problem (I), the PCA requires subscription to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, but it does so on the basis of “good faith” (BCO 19-2). This phrase “good faith,” of course, introduces a slippery element of subjectivity. The problem being that what one person might be able to affirm in good faith may be different than what another might be able to affirm in good faith. The result of this form of subscription is that doctrinal standards will actually have an unspoken, unofficial confession within the Westminster Standards, and that unspoken “good faith” confession, at the practical level, will effectively become the new de facto standard of the denomination.

The second problem (II) is the common-ness of exceptions in the PCA. Because the confession is held by its adherents to accurately reflect the teachings of Scripture, “An exception to the Confession, from the point of view of the Church confessing, is an exception to the teaching of Scripture.” [2] This implies that any exception with the standards ought to be regarded by the ruling body as a very serious and troubling issue. From the position of the confession’s adherents, the person who takes exception with the confession is taking exception with the teaching of Scripture and must now decide if the disagreement with Scripture is serious enough for them not to form a ministerial relationship. Currently exceptions are both expected (some men go so far as to question your honesty if you say you don’t have exceptions) and are seen as no big deal to many. This, of course misses the seriousness of an exception.

For some, the question of confessional subscription is one of looseness of subscription — of how closely a man may or may not hold to the written document. David Coffin, however, argues that this gets the dilemma all wrong: “the debate about subscription is really a conflict about which articles ought to be subscribed to, not the strictness, or looseness, of the subscription.” [3]

In light of this helpful point, perhaps the best and most practical thing to do in the PCA is to take steps that will make allowable exceptions to the Confession and Catechisms exceedingly rare or else difficult to get past the Presbytery. This can either be done by (A) moving to a form of strict subscription (instead of “good faith” subscription) while removing the parts of the confession that are the most common sources of exceptions. Or this can also be done by (B) moving to strict subscription while keeping the Confession and Catechisms just as rigid as they already are. The practical result of (A) would be a less robust confessional environment that makes room for a broader coalition of men (“A Big Tent”) who will presumably be required to take less exceptions and presumably will encourage greater unity in terms of confessional adherence. The practical result of (B) would be a smaller denomination that is more tightly bound together in terms of Confessional adherence but also, perhaps, with a greater claim to historic Reformed pedigree.

The answer as to what to do about the two problems mentioned above [(I) and (2)] will require soul searching on the part of the leadership of the PCA, and answering what to do is certainly above this writer’s pay grade. Many would argue that none of these options are viable and that the status quo should probably end up ruling the day. Whatever the case may be, the current environment is not conducive to the unity in truth that a creed is intended to promote.

[1] Carl Trueman argues that Paul, in 2 Tim. 1, is referring to something resembling a confession of his own here, though he doesn’t go so far as Pipa in arguing that confessions are here commanded. See Carl R. Trueman. The Creedal Imperative (Kindle Locations 1121-1122). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
[2] David F. Coffin Jr., “The Justification of Confessions and the Logic of Confessional Subscription,” in The Practical Calvinist: An Introduction to the Presbyterian and Reformed Heritage, ed. Peter A. Lillback (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 340.
[3] Coffin, 337.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

17 Ways To Glorify God

Most good Presbyterians know the first question from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, "What is the Chief End of Man?" The answer, of course, is that man's chief end is to "glorify God and enjoy him forever." If you read John Piper you've already gone over this hundreds of times before.

Thomas Watson, in his book Body of Divinity, offers a commentary on this question and its answer. In doing so Watson offers 17 ways in which the Christian glorifies God. I will give the bullet-point list of ways that Watson lists along with one quote and one Scripture reference that he mentions in his larger discussion. I do so in the hopes that readers will be encouraged to glorify God in their own lives and also to read the whole of Watson's answer in the book for themselves.

Watson says that we glorify God...

1. By aiming purely at his glory. "It is one thing to advance God's glory, another thing to aim at it." (see John 8:50)

2. By an ingenuous (innocent - unsuspecting) confession of sin. "The prodigal charged himself with sin before his father charged him with it." (see Joshua 7:19)

3. By believing. "It is a great honor we do to a man when we trust him with all we have, when we put our lives and estates into his hand; it is a sign we have a good opinion of him. Faith knows there are no impossibilities with God, and will trust him where it cannot trace him." (see John 3:33)

4. By being tender to God's glory. "When we hear God reproached, it is as if we were reproached." (see Psalm 69:9)

5. By fruitfulness. "Though the lowest degree of grace may bring salvation to you, yet it will not bring much glory to God. It was not a spark of love Christ commended in Mary, but much love." (see John 15:8)

6. By being contented in that state in which Providence has placed us. "When grace is crowning, it is not so much to be content; but when grace is conflicting with inconveniences, then to be content is a glorious thing indeed." (see Phil. 4:13)

7. By working out our own salvation. "God has twisted together his glory and our good. We glorify him by promoting our own salvation." (see Phil. 2:12)

8. By living to God. "The Mammonist lives to his money, the Epicure lives to his belly; the design of a sinner's life is to gratify lust, but we glorify God when we live to God." (see 2 Cor. 5:15)

9. By walking cheerfully. "The people of God have ground for cheerfulness. They are justified and adopted, and this creates inward peace; it makes music within, whatever storms are without." (see 2 Cor. 1:4)

10. By standing up for his truths. "God has entrusted us with his truth, as a master entrusts his servant with his purse to keep." (see Jude 3)

11. By praising him. "Praise is the quit-rent we pay to God: while God renews our lease, we must renew our rent." (see Psalm 86:12)

12. By being zealous for his name. "Zeal is a mixed affection, a compound of love and anger; it carries forth our love to God, and our anger against sin in an intense degree." (see Rev. 2:2)

13. When we have an eye to God in our natural and in our civil actions. "We glorify God, when we have an eye to God in all our civil and natural actions, and do nothing that may reflect any blemish on religion." (see 1 Cor. 10:31)

14. By laboring to draw others to God. "We should be both diamonds and loadstones; diamonds for the lustre of grace, and loadstones for attractive virtue in drawing others to Christ." (see Gal. 4:19)

15. When we suffer for God and seal the gospel with our blood. "God's glory shines in the ashes of his martyrs." (see John 21:18-19)

16. When we give God the glory of all that we do. "As the silkworm, when she weaves her curious work, hides herself under the silk, and is not seen; so when we have done anything praiseworthy, we must hide ourselves under the veil of humility and transfer the glory of all we have done to God." (see 1 Cor. 15:10)

17. By a holy life. A bad life dishonors God. "Though the main work of religion lies in the heart, yet our light must so shine that others may behold it." (see Rom. 2:24)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Gyges' Ring is Real

Have you heard of Gyges' Ring? Plato spoke about it in his book The Republic. Here is how Plato relates the discovery of this ring:
According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result-when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.
This isn't exactly the 'One Ring' from Lord of the Rings. It doesn't make you tired. There's no dark lord out to ruin you if you over-use it or anything like that. No horsemen are coming to get you if you have it. Nothing like that. It's a symbol of absolute freedom from responsibility for one's actions. Gyges' ring is Plato's own way of asking what a good person is like. Plato says that a just person is someone who would live their life the same whether they are wearing the ring or not. Such a person, says Socrates in Plato's dialogue, would be the kind of person who isn't a slave to their appetites.

Anyone who is reading this blog has probably been into the darkest, deepest, most horrifying depths of the internet. That place where the trolls come out to play and the monsters are real. That place where people actually behave like the disgusting monsters that they are on the inside. I'm speaking, of course, of the comments section on YouTube. Abandon hope all ye who read such a comments section - or nearly any comments section on any website, for that matter. It isn't just that people are irrational and mean, but they are frankly boorish, rude, uncaring, and cruel. It turns out that an anonymous citizenry really is as terrifyingly evil and irresponsible as we might fear.

A month ago, This American Life did a story about internet trolls, and one of the interesting things they talked about was a woman who was so tormented by trolls that someone actually found a picture of her father, started a Twitter feed in his name and with his picture and started tweeting cruel messages to her about what a failure and disappointment she was to him. Predictably she was totally aghast and heartbroken and brought to tears by this anonymous person's "joke." Anonymity allowed him to behave in a way that I trust he never would have behaved in the physical real world.

I am here to tell you (and you probably already know this) that Gyges' ring is real. And everyone with an internet connection has it. We now live in a society of where nearly everyone can behave as they want with virtual anonymity. Remarkably, the troll who tormented this woman I just spoke about on Twitter actually had a conscience and ended up apologizing over the phone to the woman with tears. He realized he had crossed a line and behaved like a ghoul. He took off the ring and realized that, at least in some sense, there is an obligation for all of us to treat one another with respect and kindness, whether we get caught or not.

How do you behave on the internet? How do you talk to other people online? How long do you pause before you push the "submit" button on a comment or before you push "return" after writing a Facebook comment? How big is the disconnect between the things you are willing to say to people face to face and the things you are willing to type to them? One definition of the word integrity points to the principle of undivided wholeness; I would suggest that having integrity with regard to the internet means that the person you behave as when you're wearing Gyges' ring ought to be the same person you are when you aren't wearing it.

Monday, March 2, 2015

"You Are Quite Wrong"

I used to celebrate that the emergent church has gone the way of the buffalo. With Rob Bell jumping the shark and Brian Mclaren's "marriage" of his son to another man it had outed itself as at best a reincarnation of old-school 20th century liberalism and at worst another vehicle for moving large numbers of people out of the church. But the reality is, the ethos and theologically unorthodox impulses haven't disappeared. Even more nefariously these impulses have been incorporated as a part of modern evangelicalism's already sickly emaciated theological assumptions. Perhaps the greatest lasting rhetorical aspect of the emergent methodology was its constant insistence that it was only asking innocent questions.

A few months ago one defender of emergent theological experimentation claimed that one of the godfathers of the emergent movement was publicly crucified. His sin?
  • "He deviated. He dared to ask questions. He challenged the status quo. He moved against the grain."
  • "He asked a ton of really natural questions about reconciling eternal punishment with a loving God."
  • "In the now infamous and pivotal volume that caused the Church to break-up with him, Bell didn’t give many answers. He only asked people, to ask the questions."
  • "He’s admitting the real questions that surface in the excavation of deep faith."
In all of these propositional assessments of how Bell was treated, of course, the author seems to assume that mere questions without propositions can be benign. Is it possible for mere "question" asking to be totally innocent? Certainly. You could be asking someone a genuine question and seeking an actual answer. But there is another kind of question-asking that is intended to expose absurdity and turn people away from a particular belief or series of beliefs. Jesus dealt with this exact method of questioning, and he saw right through it.

Near the end of the book of Mark during his confrontation with the leaders in Jerusalem Jesus is confronted by a series of adversaries, each with their own agenda. In the middle of this series of challenges, the Sadducees come to him and offer a challenge of their own (Mark 12:18). They want to argue that the resurrection is an absurdity, and they do it by means of narrative, telling the story of a woman who, for various reasons related to the levirate law (Deut. 25:5) has married a series of seven brothers, each of them dying and leaving her childless. The Sadducees ask Jesus whose husband she will be at this supposed resurrection that is coming. This is a hard question with a great deal of emotional and rhetorical force.

Notice the structure of the rhetoric employed by the Sadducees. They never once make a propositional statement (except when setting up the background of the story they're telling). Everything that they say is either story-telling or question-asking. They're just daring to ask "the real questions that surface in the excavation of deep faith," aren't they? They're only asking "a ton of really natural questions." And yet Jesus says to the Sadducees, "Is this not why you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?"

The Sadducees might just as well respond, "How can we be wrong? After all, we're just trying to start a conversation. We're just asking questions. How can a question be 'wrong'?"

It is also obvious to Jesus what the story is meant to accomplish. It's meant by these people who are "just looking for a conversation" to illustrate in vivid fashion just how silly or problematic the idea of someone being resurrected actually is. Of course, they have underlying assumptions (unstated) that Jesus has to deal with, and he does so first by reminding the Sadducees that heaven is not a place of marriage, and second by reminding them from the Scriptures that "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (12:27). Their problem, according to Jesus, is that their underlying, unstated theological assumptions are wrong and that they don't know their Bibles (v. 24). A truly deadly pair of problems that afflict far too many. Some even find it embarrassing that churches today still employ Jesus' methodology of quoting 2,000 year old Scriptures to settle theological and ethical disputes.

In spite of the supposed 'innocence' of such questions, Jesus responds to them that they are wrong. Contrary to the insistence of many, you can set forth a series of mere questions and stories and still be "quite wrong" (v. 27).

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Myth of the Gullible Ancients

One belief that is ubiquitous among those who write off Christianity is the suspicion that the persons who lived in biblical times were highly gullible. When I was an atheist teenager I looked down on the Biblical authors because I thought they didn’t understand the physical world and thought that it was inhabited by fairies and trolls at every turn. I found comfort in writing them off in this way. Richard Carrier in a recent episode of ‘The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ said that "The average person on the street would be like, 'Oh you saw God and he spoke to you? That must be for real!' That was the order of things.” It is common to hear the Israelite ancients referred to contemptuously as superstitious and gullible individuals. To anyone who knows the Bible this is, of course, a laughable generalization.

As I read the Bible each night with my kids one of the things I try to instill in them is that these are not stupid superstitious people, and this is easy to prove. It takes no manipulation of the text or reading in information that isn’t there; it rests on the surface and can be scooped up without any digging at all. Almost every time a miracle happens in the text I try to point out to them the amazement people have. Tonight in 2 Kings 4 we read about Elisha and the Shunnemite woman. We got to the part where he tells her she will get pregnant in spite of her husband’s advanced age and the woman says, "O man of God, do not lie to your servant." I asked them why she said this and my oldest daughter was very quick: "Because she knew that getting pregnant would have been a miracle, just like with Abraham's wife.”

My daughter was referring, of course, to Sarah’s unbelief (Gen. 18:12) — and Abraham’s unbelief (Gen. 17:17) — at God’s promise to give Abraham a child in his old age. He and his wife laughed at the thought that she would ever have a child. Why? Because old ladies don’t have babies, and Sarah knew this fact just like we do today. These were people who believed in the regularity and stability of the natural order. The sort of people who laughed when a miracle was promised. They didn’t believe that God’s existence meant that the universe was a place of pixies, fairies, confusion and flux.

Skepticism is a frequent response to the miraculous in Scripture. Think of Moses, who expects skepticism when he comes to the Israelites claiming to speak for God (Exodus 4:1). Or think of when Jesus healed the blind man and the text says “The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight” (John 9:18). Or think of Thomas who famously said “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). Dead men don’t come back! These ancient, unsophisticated people which no knowledge of Newtonian physics or string theory react to the miraculous with the sort of healthy skepticism that we normally associate with Sherlock Holmes or Gregory House. Skepticism. From such gullible people! Perhaps they weren’t as gullible as modern folks cartoonishly imagine them. Perhaps people need to be educated on what gullibility really looks like.

Being sophisticated enough to know that miracles are weird and rare and out of the ordinary shouldn't preclude miracles.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why Would Jesus Curse an Out-Of-Season Fig Tree?

What follows is an e-mail I sent in answer to a question from someone at a church I preached at this past week. I'm posting it for the benefit of anyone else who may have similar questions.

Thanks for asking me the question you did today about Mark 11:13, and especially your question about why Jesus would curse a fig tree that wasn’t producing figs if it wasn’t even the season for figs. As soon as I got home I looked into your question (a very good question) and I want to give you some information that I was able to find.

Specifically I am going to share with you a some insights from R.T. France's commentary on Mark, which I found very helpful. France points out that according to some horticultural expert, although it wasn’t the season for figs, Jesus would have still found little tiny green figs called paggim. “It may be then that these were what Jesus was hoping for, especially if the tree had…a particularly well-developed show of leaves” (France, 440). However, France says he is unable to evaluate these claims since he isn’t a plant expert. In reality France actually believes that Jesus’ demand of the fig tree is unreasonable, but like with other parables the reasonableness of every detail of the act isn’t what’s important but rather, the symbolic meaning of the act. Here’s what France says:
Mark has significantly focused the problem by the comment, "for it was not the season for figs.” …Without this clause, if Jesus might reasonably have expected to find ripe figs and was disappointed, his actions, even if still unusual, might seem more justified…For Mark, Jesus’ frustration was horticulturally unreasonable. He tells the story not because it offers a model for reasonable [plant care] but because of its symbolic value. A tree in full leaf at Passover season is making a promise it cannot fulfill; so, too, is Israel. And just as Micah, speaking for God, described his disappointed search (equally unreasonably at the other end of the growing season) for the ‘first-ripe fig for which I hunger’ (Mi. 7:1), so Jesus on his initial visit to the temple has found all leaves, but no fruit. His summary verdict on the ‘braggart’ fig tree is a verdict on the failure of God’s people and is of a piece with his developing polemic against the ‘barren’ temple.
France pointed to Micah 7:1, and it appears that in that passage God is also seeking figs at a time when they aren’t in season. Here’s the passage:
Woe is me! For I have become
as when the summer fruit has been gathered,
as when the grapes have been gleaned:
there is no cluster to eat,
no first-ripe fig that my soul desires. 
It seems like Mark has mentioned that the figs are out of season perhaps even specifically to parallel God’s condemnation of Israel in Micah 7:1 with what Jesus is doing. In the Micah passage God can scarcely find any righteous men in the land; this clearly is true in Jesus’ own time as well. I actually think that drawing a connection between Jesus and Micah 7:1 makes Jesus' actions make more sense. He acts in a way that draws a parallel between his own judgment in the Temple and God’s judgment on Jerusalem. The point becomes less about the expectations we have for our plants and more about the fact that Jesus is judging Israel (remember that the fig tree episodes of 11:12-14; 11:20-26 bookend Jesus’ visit to the unfruitful temple in 11:15-19) as God judged Israel in the time of Micah.

So there are a couple of possible approaches.

1) Jesus may be making a reasonable request of the plant,
2) or he may not.

Both are textually and horticulturally plausible, depending on which fig expert you ask about it. I’m actually fine with both. With the unreasonable request, it would seem to reflect more clearly that Jesus intends to copy God’s judgment in Micah 7:1, where God can’t find a “first-ripe fig," but I’m sympathetic with those who say that Jesus would still have expected to find something on the vine indicating fruitfulness.

I’m curious whether this satisfies some of your own curiosity. If not, feel free to let me know. I can keep digging!

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Not-So-Modern Yearning for Male Friendship

“Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.
How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!” (2 Sam. 1:26-27).
It isn’t unusual in our own day and age to see people lamenting the loss of the masculine friendship. In a lot of ways it isn’t hard to see why: not only does our society seem to be exchanging real-world, face-to-face relationships for the online, impersonal, Facebook-style relationship, but increasingly there is pressure on men especially to become distant and independent from their peers. In more recent trends, biographers of famous figures search the journals of their subjects combing them over for homoerotic overtones or hints of impropriety in their masculine relationships. Modern men increasingly fear having their sexuality challenged in this way or being misunderstood by others. Increasingly, the path that many men (even godly upstanding men) choose is the path of least resistance: isolation, solitude, independence, and loneliness.

Yet whenever I talk with other men about this problem, I sense that they do yearn for close friendships - that they don’t want to live in isolation. I have spoken with numerous men who, upon reading David’s lament for Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1, resonate deeply with David’s loss. David has not only lost King Saul, whom he loved and respected in spite of his horrendous failings, but he has also lost his best friend in all the world. As someone who moved several states to attend Seminary I have discovered that even in a place where so many around me have much in common, true friendships are hard to come by, and don’t just grow on trees. To lose a true friend is no small thing.

As many of us read of David’s loss we may feel an even deeper sorrow. We have experienced a loss of our own, in our day and age: in a sense we have lost the ability to know David’s loss. What David is speaking of may be so foreign to us that we are only able to experience David’s friendship and sorrow vicariously. We perhaps think, “I may never have such a friend, and I may never know such a loss, and yet it brings me comfort to think upon David himself baring his soul for those around him to hear.” We should be encouraged by David’s example that we should not choose the easy path of isolation in our personal relationships, but to do the hard work of spending time with other men and opening ourselves to the kind of godly, masculine relationship we see modeled for us here by David and Jonathan. Those who do know what it is to have a godly and intimate friendship with another man should thank God that he experiences such a gift. Whatever our experience might be, there is a comfort in knowing that such an intimacy and closeness is possible between men who are friends and fellow sojourners in this difficult journey called life.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Concerning Theologian/Scientists and Scientist/Theologians

How tempting it is to speak on subjects that we really don't understand! Especially when we know just enough about the subject to sound like we know what we're talking about. Consider the ease with which scientists slip back and forth between playing with science and playing with metaphysics. Think, for instance, of Stephen Hawking's book The Grand Design, where he argues that God's existence is not necessary and attempts to do so on scientific grounds.
Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.
Hawking does his best to give scientific-sounding arguments for this conclusion, but at the end of the day one has to ask how one could ever come to such theological conclusions from physical observations without making some sort of metaphysical assumptions at the beginning of the whole enterprise?

It isn't only scientists, however, who are guilty of moonlighting as poor theologians. Sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. Consider William Lane Craig, who almost a year ago pointed out in answer to a question on his blog that the "evidence for inflation" is confirmed by the research of the BICEP team.
The team went to great lengths to ensure that the polarization pattern detected was not due to error in instrumentation or the influence of cosmic dust or galactic factors.
Earlier that week, Craig appeared on Fox News arguing that the BICEP team's research confirms "the Christian view of the universe." He also spoke with Kerby Anderson on the subject. Inflationary expansion, of course, serves as a powerful confirmation for the cosmological argument for God's existence, which argues that if the universe had a beginning, it must have been God who was the cause of that beginning. This argument is a favorite arrow in the quiver of many Christian Apologists. This may be exciting for the moment when the news emerges, but things get less exciting when backpedalling becomes necessary.

The New York Times, in an article posted yesterday, says that things have changed since March of last year: "Now a new analysis, undertaken jointly by the Bicep group and the Planck group, has confirmed that the Bicep signal was mostly, if not all, stardust, and that there is no convincing evidence of the gravitational waves. No evidence of inflation." Is God's existence now more likely? Less likely? Has anything changed? If inflation is no longer "confirmed" does that mean Christian theologians will need to wait for further research before they can feel comfortable telling people that God exists?

As time goes on, I suspect more and more that theologians are far better off speaking of that which they know and not having an apologetic methodology that can be buttressed by one team of scientists only to be thrown into disarray the next moment when that team's flawed methodology is later exposed.

Earlier this week in one of my classes, my homiletics professor, Dr. Charlie Wingard, made an important comment in passing. He said, "In your preaching, when you give an illustration or an argument, never pretend as if you're a scientist or a doctor if that isn't your area of expertise. Inevitably someone in the audience will know better than you and you will lose your credibility."

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Some Podcast Recommendations

As a seminarian, one of the most important things I currently do is itinerant preaching. Nearly every Sunday morning I walk out to my old Toyota, kick the tires, adjust the mirror, and drive four hours round-trip to some distant part of Mississippi to minister in churches on the preaching circuit. It's a wonderful privilege, but as those who do long commutes know, your long road trips can be complete time wasters if you aren't purposeful about how you're going to use your traveling time. What I'm trying to say is that if all you do is sing Taylor Swift songs while driving to your destination, you may very well be doing what John Piper calls "Wasting Your Life."

While I like to listen to the Bible and audiobooks, one of my favorite things to do when I travel is to listen to podcasts. Anymore, I rarely listen to music. If I'm not praying or talking out loud to myself about the sermon that I'm preparing to preach, I'm listening to others talk. I also like to turn on my bluetooth speaker in the kitchen while making a meal and listen to something while I'm preparing food.

I think this is a worthwhile blog post because I know many of my classmates who don't listen to podcasts at all, and it got me thinking that there must be a lot of people out there who have never even thought of listening to podcasts before.

Since I spend so much time listening to them I figured I'm moderately qualified to make some recommendations of my favorite podcasts for others to get some ideas from. I'll list the podcast and then comment a bit about it, explaining why I like it.

Podcast App: Instacast
First of all, if you have an Apple product, I recommend you run as far away from the pre-installed, default app for podcasts, (simply titled "Podcasts"). It's horrible, it's slow, it has a bad interface. Just run for the hills. Instead, pony up $5 and get Instacast. I love it, it's easy to use, and there just is no program I'd rather use to manage my podcasts. I can't praise it highly enough.

My favorite feature isn't unique to Instacast, but I pretty much listen to every podcast that I listen to at double speed. I'm so used to hearing everyone talk quickly that I lose my mind if I hear them talk at normal speed. Because of this feature I can listen to nearly 8 hours of material every Sunday while driving to preach, which I think is a great use of my time.

Theology Podcasts:
Albert Mohler -- The Briefing
I listen to The Briefing every day. Now, I'm no transformationalist or Kuyperian. I grow frustrated with Mohler's constant hammering on worldview, and he seems to only talk about homosexuality and abortion. When I met him at RTS this past Fall I told him (half-joking) that he is the reason I had to explain what homosexuality is to my 9 year old daughter. Why do I still listen to every episode? Frankly, he's still interesting, and I don't read a ton of news or watch TV news, so he gives his take on what's the most important thing going on that day, and to me that's valuable.

James White -- The Dividing Line
Sometimes White talks about issues I'm interested in (Islam, Roman Catholicism, Calvinism), the rest of the time he talks about stuff that I've heard him hammer on a thousand times before. Nevertheless, I always find it interesting to see the sorts of theological debates that pop up around White and listening to how he deals with them.

Reformed Forum -- Christ the Center
Here at RTS we have great professors, many of whom were student at Westminster Theological Seminary. But even so, frankly, there just isn't enough Vos and Van Til in my life. Enter Christ the Center, where the crew get together usually to interview a seminary professor on a new book or on an interesting theological subject. Think of it as your weekly dose of meaty Reformed discussion. I highly, highly recommend this podcast to my fellow seminarians. These are advanced discussions going on at Christ the Center and can help you to become well informed on current topics that are worth thinking about.

Tom Rainer -- Rainer on Leadership
I graduate from seminary in a little over a year (Lord willing). This podcast gives seminarians a taste of the real life, boots on the ground struggles that pastors face. When I first got here, all I wanted to do was talk theology, but the closer I get to actually going out into the world and dealing with real people in real churches, the more I crave the practical discussions from old warhorses who have seen some stuff... the kind of stuff that turned their hair gray. Listening to this podcast will convince you that being a pastor is hard, and in ministry you will meet people who think you have the easiest job ever and will make tremendous demands on you. Rainer helps you to think through what you will say yes to, what you will say no to, how you will lead others, and how you can look after your own family in the midst of it all.

Justin Brierly (Premier Christian Radio) -- Unbelievable
I only listen to this podcast when I'm interested in the people he has on. But usually he has very interesting people in to debate both sides of the issues. This past week he has Al Mohler on to debate Chris Date on the subject of hell. A few weeks ago, Pete Enns debated David Intone-Brewer to talk about inerrancy. This is a diverse show that almost always has subjects for debate that interest me. This is another show that's highly recommended (I usually skip the last half hour after the debate is finished).

Dave Harvey -- Am I Called?
This is another one that I only listen to when I'm interested in the subject or the person he interviews. But I recommend keeping up with this one.

Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals -- The Mortification of Spin
I like listening to Carl, Todd, and Aimee do their round-table thing. It seems like they've finally stopped doing the thing where they'd insert random music clips in the middle of the show, which I'm grateful for, and they seem to be maturing into something they're comfortable with as time goes on. I am usually very interested in their discussions, though I almost listen more for the camaraderie than anything else.

News and Arts Podcasts
I don't watch TV news. Aside from the fact that I'm one of those cord-cutters who does everything online and truly has no television subscription at all, TV news can make you feel constantly panicked and send your anxiety through the roof. If you feel that way at all, try doing it like me. Get your news in bite-sized chunks, throughout the day, and let someone else filter through it for you.

NPR -- Hourly News Summary
A new episode goes up every hour, so make sure your app isn't downloading every new episode. But this is a good one just to check in on the news throughout the day without going to news websites or switching on the television. I usually listen to one in the morning and one in the mid-afternoon. If you listen at 2x, each episode only takes 2 minutes to listen to, so it's a good use of your time.

NPR -- NPR Topics: Story of the Day
These are hit or miss. Don't set them to automatically download, but check in to see if you're interested in the episodes as they go up each day.

WNYC -- Radiolab
This is very interesting, modern storytelling. If I could figure out a way to do a theology-related podcast and do it in a way that was as interesting as Radiolab, I would be on it in a heartbeat. Whenever I listen to this show, I always find myself thinking, "You know, somebody could explain the hypostatic union in a way that's as interesting as the way these guys are explaining talking to whales in today's episode."

Alec Baldwin -- Here's the Thing
Listen. Whatever you might think about Alec Baldwin, the man is a masterful interviewer. If you're the kind of person who writes blog posts littered with personal pronouns and you struggle with valuing the views of others in personal conversation, this is a great show for you. The man just knows how to get others to open up and talk about their lives. I (that dreaded personal pronoun!) once heard a great conversationalist say that there is nothing people like more than hearing the sound of their own name. Alec Baldwin completely tickles his interviewees' need to be valued and heard and models wonderfully how to take a real, (seemingly) genuine interest in others.

This American Life
The most popular podcast on the internet. Seriously, if you like storytelling, this is for you. It's also for you if you want to learn to be a storyteller (or at least somebody who wants to see clear communication done well). Ira Glass has spent 20 years learning to tell stories in a way that is gripping and now he could do it in his sleep.

It was probably Jay, okay? I'm one of the guys who thinks it was probably Jay somehow. I mean, he knew where the car was, but he couldn't keep the rest of his story square!  What's up with that? If you don't know what I'm talking about but you'd like to, start listening to Serial. It's a podcast that tells one story in detail from the first episode all the way to the last. This past season just ended.

When Alex Bloomberg left This American Life, he left with the intention of starting his own podcasting company. This show is basically him chronicling the creation of his podcast company, from his first embarrassing pitch to an investor to the struggle to find a name for his company, he brings his listeners along every step of the way as he starts up his business.

Reply All
In connection with the previous podcast mentioned above, Reply All is the first podcast launched by Bloomberg's podcast company. It's a show where they basically explore interesting things about the internet. They've done eight episodes now, and I find it very enlightening.

NPR -- Planet Money
This podcast is way more interesting than the name lets on. It basically is a show about the invisible forces that keep our society running. It's not just about money, it's about human motivations, decisions, and how to understand the stuff that connects everyone who lives in our world today. Way more interesting than I'm making it sound. And the episodes are only 20 minutes long, which is a great selling-point.

Dork Podcasts
I am a dork. I am a geek. I have a serious theologian side to me that loves to preach and loves to write, but I have another side to me that doesn't come out here at Bring the Books, and that is my video gamer/sci-fi lover side. Nearly everyone I know is into sports. They go to sporting events, they spend six hours or more a weekend watching college teams battle it out. But homie don't play that. I want to make Mario jump on bad-guys' heads and I want to listen to people talk about how much they like doing that. As such, when I want to unwind and forget about the pain of the world, I listen to these kinds of podcasts. I do think there is restorative value in entertainment and having hobbies, and frankly video games is my hobby. Here are my favorite podcasts in this area:

IGN -- Nintendo Voice Chat
Jose Otero, Brian Altano, and Peer Schneider love Nintendo as much as I do, and so I love to listen to them talk about what's going on in the world of Nintendo. They are pathetically obsessed with collecting every Amiibo (which I have no interest in doing), but hearing these guys get so OCD about collecting makes me feel better (I grade myself on the curve) about virtually every other feature of my own personality.

WIRED -- GameLife Podcast
This show is short, sweet, to the point, and is what I listen to when my other favorite shows have already been listened to. This show is interesting because it isn't specific to any one gaming system, and so listening to this show can give you an idea what's going on in the larger gaming culture.

Chris Hardwick -- The Nerdist
These guys basically interview famous people and ask them questions that people usually wonder about but are afraid to ask. I loved listening to Sam Raimi admit that Spider-Man 3 was "awful" and learning that his favorite pastime is gardening avocados. Honestly, it made me want to start growing avocados too, even though I don't eat them.

WIRED -- Geek's Guide to the Galaxy
I just mentioned this in my last blog post. Even when I disagree with the people they interview, the show is undeniably interesting. Christians can often be a cloistered people who usually only have conversations with themselves. Listening to shows like this can often give you an idea how people outside your own circles think and talk to one another. When I listen as a Christian I usually listen for the things that they take for granted in their discussions.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Geek's Guide to Being One-Sided

In the latest episode of The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy (a podcast that I normally enjoy because I'm a geek) two "experts" in the Bible (Robert Price and Richard Carrier) joined David Barr Kirtley to discuss the new Ridley Scott film Exodus: Gods and Kings. I was interested in what these "experts" (one of them a former baptist minister/member of the Jesus Seminar, and the other a humanistic expert in Roman history) would say about the movie. I shouldn't have been surprised to hear that the experts they called in were unbelievers who consider the entire Exodus narrative to be total myth.

Pick a Side!
In some places, this bias is helpful and even welcome. In particular, when it comes to discussing the film's curious relationship with rationalism, Carrier and Price observe (helpfully, I think) that Ridley Scott's decision to try to follow the narrative of the Bible, but with a naturalistic slant hurts the film's overall narrative and doesn't even end up making scientific sense. As they observe (rightly), it's better for somebody to decide whether they're going to portray the events as the text portrays them or don't portray them at all. Instead, Scott tries to do what Price and Carrier refer to as the 20th century Protestant Rationalist thing by saying that the events happened but can all be traced to naturalistic causes (49:30). As naturalists, they mock and laugh at the liberal approach that wants to offer a glib hat-tip to the Bible but also have a philosophical sophistication that will appeal to the modern scientifically minded person (liberals end up doing neither, of course).

The Gullible Ancients
If you've listened to the episode and you know me, then you will perhaps guess that I was far less impressed with the rest of the discussion. Early in the episode, Carrier talks about whether there even would have been naturalistic thinkers in 1300 BC Egypt. He presumes ancient people to be tremendously naive when he says that the average person would be prone to believe claims of people who said they spoke with God: "The average person on the street would be like, 'Oh you saw God and he spoke to you? That must be for real!' That was the order of things" (8:00-9:30). The narrative, of course, presumes that the actual people Moses is speaking to will not believe him. "But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, 'The LORD did not appear to you'" (Ex. 4:1). Why would Moses have a concern that he will be met with skepticism if the people were so naive and prone to believe anyone who claimed to have a word from God? The most obvious answer is that the people Moses was speaking to were far less naive than would serve Carrier's purposes. Richard Carrier simplifies the mindset of the ancient people turning them into a manageable caricature, but one far more gullible than Moses himself knows them to be in the context of the narrative.

Of course, the problem with Carrier is ultimately foundational. In his mind the text itself cannot be offered as evidence that the people were not gullible since only a gullible person would believe that these people were not gullible. Carrier, however, as a perfect example of gullibility himself, doesn't see anything naive in his own unprovable anti-supernaturalistic foundational assumptions which preclude the text as evidence of anything.

Constant Smug Laughter
Subjectively speaking, what really bothered me about the discussion was the smugly dismissive way that Carrier in particular laughed throughout the episode whenever Price or Kirtley would bring up those who actually believe that these events took place. Near the beginning of the episode Carrier laughs off the film as horrible history since there was no evidence that the Hebrews ever even lived in Egypt (6:50). "That's just something that was made up in Jewish literature centuries later." Later, Carrier almost seems unable to control his laughter even at the thought that somebody might actually believe the Exodus narrative to be historical. Kirtley asks if it would be possible to make a movie of the Exodus where God comes off as heroic instead of as a scary monster, which again causes Carrier to giggle extensively. Because he doesn't see God as heroic, he chooses to laugh at anybody who can see God as heroic in Exodus (36:00). His laughter reaches an almost fever pitch when they discuss why on earth people would need to place lamb's blood over the doors if God is all-powerful. Why require lamb's blood when God could just by fiat decide not to kill the Israelite children? Of course, any possible answer to this doesn't even seem cross their minds. I suspect that they know that it could conceivably make sense that God would require people to perform gestures for both didactic and symbolic reasons, but again - that isn't as funny and doesn't make them look as smart.

The Inconsistent Irrationality of Pharaoh
Price and Carrier don't use equal weights and measures in their complaints about the Exodus narrative. For instance, at one point Price complains that Pharaoh is made by God to be "irrationally stubborn" (32:40) in the Exodus narrative, but then he argues that Pharaoh's refusal to give the Israelites straw to make bricks is irrational (45:50). He offers this irrationality of refusing to help the Israelites make bricks as evidence that there is nothing remotely historical about the narrative. One wonders how it is possible for Pharaoh to be acknowledged as "irrationally stubborn" and then have his irrationality criticized as nonsensical. Price would like to have it both ways, of course: Pharaoh is irrational through and through, yet he clearly can't be real because he behaves irrationally toward the Israelites.

Listening to the Other Side?
Later in the podcast, Kirtley asks his panel members how religious believers reconcile God killing "innocent children" during the final plague against Egypt. The answers they give are all caricatures. They seem to not know how "religious people now explain it." Carrier himself admits that he has no idea how real believing interpreters deal with the text. It's at this point that I just paused the narrative and said to myself, "This is the part where they will now make up unfair, simplistic, ludicrous explanations and then attribute them to people who believe these events to be historical." (By the way, if I find the time, I may offer a post where I mention some of the views that Carrier and Price failed to consider, but that is not my purpose here.)

Carrier, to begin with suggests that some with a "medieval mindset" would see the death of the Egyptian children as just recompense for the Pharaoh's own murder of the Israelite boys in Exodus 1:22. Unable to come up with anything better, he passes the baton to Price, who admits to having "never actually heard them wrestle with it" (32:50). This is curious, of course, since Price supposedly spent years involved in apologetics and even had a degree in systematic theology. And during his "orthodox years" he never once wrestled with this question or heard anyone else wrestle with it? Rather than deal with anybody's actual approach to the narrative Price takes the opportunity to opine on the subject of hell and then talk about how the Bible's narrative doesn't make sense to him. It would be more honest for them to simply say, "I am a supposed expert in systematic theology, but I'm not open minded enough to read believing commentators on this passage, so I can't answer your question."

Concluding Thoughts: A Plea for Fairness
I definitely think that this episode of Geek's Guide to the Galaxy would have been far fairer and way more interesting to have a fair-minded Christian or Jewish theist who isn't a screaming fire breather and would be willing to offer their own side of the discussion. I can think of believing experts who are also movie lovers and would be eager to engage in such a discussion in a winsome way. Instead, GGG decided to turn the discussion over to two naturalists who see the Exodus narrative as myth and aren't even experts in the Old Testament. In the process they missed out on the chance to be exposed to the opinion of someone who approaches the Old Testament far less combatively.