Thursday, September 22, 2011

Have We Missed the "Gospel"?

In his latest book titled The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, Scot McKnight says we have. He says that "we've got the gospel wrong, or at least our current understanding is only a pale reflection of the gospel of Jesus and the apostles" (24). The gospel that McKnight thinks we, as evangelicals, have wrong is the gospel of justification by faith. McKnight does not want to deny justification by faith, but he does not think it is the gospel. "The Calvinist crowd in the USA...has defined the gospel in the short formula 'justification by faith'" (25). And it is this gospel of justification by faith that McKnight sets up as his foil.

What does McKnight offer in the place of this "wrong headed gospel"? To answer this question he starts with Paul’s summary statement of the life of Jesus found in 1 Corinthians 15 and then moves to the the Creeds of the Church and then he ends with a return to Jesus in the Gospels and Acts. In essence, his view is that the the death and resurrection of Jesus are the consummation of the story of Israel and that this is the gospel. He argues that "the book of Acts reveals that gospeling was not driven by the salvation story or the atonement story. It was driven by the Story of Israel, and in fact makes most sense in that story” (134, emphasis original). He goes on to state that "neither Peter nor Paul focuses on God's wrath when they evangelize in Acts, nor do they describe the saving Story of Jesus as an escape from hell" (135, emphasis original).

What are we to think of McKnight's proposal? First, it is true that the death and resurrection of Jesus are central to the gospel. Without these divine acts there is no gospel. However, what makes this message "good news"? In other words, why is the death and resurrection of Jesus good news to anyone? What is it about the death and resurrection of a Jewish Rabbi that is good news for anyone? The answer is found in what Jesus' death and resurrection accomplished, that is, in salvation. The very thing that McKnight wants to distance the gospel from. It is true that some might have over emphasized the salvation aspect of the gospel (as a few of the stories McKnight tells in the book pp. 25-26), but the solution to this over emphasis is not to remove salvation from the gospel.

Second, as McKnight himself points out, the preaching of the gospel in Acts does have aspects of judgment. For example, Acts 17:29-31 speaks of the fact that God will one day judge the world. It is the fact that Jesus removes us (or saves us) from this judgment that makes the whole gospel good news. Also, in Acts 24:25 Paul reasoned about the coming judgment. Further, Romans contains a few examples of wrath and judgment that are linked with the gospel. For instance, in Romans Paul begins his discussion by stating that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth" (Romans 1:18). This declaration of God's wrath follows right after Paul introduces the gospel (Romans 1:16-17). Thus, it seems that for Paul, the wrath of God is the (or at least a) starting place for the gospel. Also, In Romans 2:16 Paul links the gospel with God's judgment when he writes "...on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus."

So what is the gospel? I think McKnight has part of it right, it is the fact that God took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ to die a sinner's death and that he rose from the dead to prove his claims true and usher in the new creation. But this by itself is not good news, unless it is for me. That is why the full gospel is that Jesus did all of this for sinners. So sinners would not have to face the wrath and judgment of God. Jesus did all he did in the place of sinners; he died for sinners; he lived a perfect life for sinners; he rose again for sinners. And by faith alone all Jesus did is counted as all I did. This is the good news of the gospel. And this is what Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15. He writes, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins." That gospel is not just what Jesus did, it is that, but it is also what Jesus did for us.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Baker Give Away

The Tale of the Suicidal Turtle

Yes, more Walker Percy...

Speaking of the failure of the modern scientific age, Percy in his essay "The Delta Factor" speaks of man's unique position, not as homo sapien but as homo loquens, man the talker. Alone among animals, humans speak constantly and unceasingly. Modern scientists only see man as an organism in an environment, but as I shared earlier, man behaves like anything other than this (just look at how miserable people are, even in good environments).

But scientists, though their enterprise is doomed from the beginning, must batton down the hatches and dig in their heels.
Accordingly, it did not strike anyone as peculiar when scientists sought an explanation for man's perversity and upsidedownness in this or that atavism from man's evolutionary past. Man blamed beasts for his madness. Next, it seemed natural to look for the source of man's "aggressive" behavior in the aggression and "territoriality" of more primitive species...even though no...creature but man has been observed to wage war against itself (suicide) or against its own kind (war).
Curious, I took advantage of my modern age and used the internet to look for people who do think that animals commit suicide (I knew somebody must believe it). I was not disappointed.

One article, by Stefan Anitei, "Do Animals Commit Suicide?" says from the beginning that it is hard to really know if animals commit suicide, but then goes on to argue that they do, anyway. The entire article is a series of anecdotes which tell us more about the author than about the behavior of animals. If you enjoy Milo and Otis-style articles filled with anthropomorphic animal tales, this article will quite fit your fancy. The highlight of the article is actually the comments section, which I have a hard time taking seriously. Here is a standout written by "Brad":
I happen to know that animals DO commit suicide, and quite often... In fact I used to have a pet turtle who is my living proof. It enjoyed watching movies with me, some of its favorite's were films like Forest Gump, and Kill Bill. One day we watched Requrium [sic] For A Dream, and instantly after the movie, it crawled to its fake log in its cage, lifted it, then slammed it down on its neck, resulting in a catastrophic paralysis injury. I then had no other choice but to batter it with a heavy spoon to put it out of its own misery. Animals DO commit suicide.
Hilarious as this story might seem, I believe the author is sincere. Look at this response I found a little further down the page.
wow truly emotional brad..... yea wow. Animals have feelings like humans. People tend to think since animals are not so complex as us that they are less superior therefore less capable of emotions. Also that animals follow a daily ritual everyday. Just because they dont have a civilization or just because they dont have as many genes as us. does that mean they arent as complex as us? If you think about it, some animals minds work just like us. just because they cant speak a language or do other things like us dosnt mean that they are not capable of feeling emotions. cats and dogs show great emotion. if you have a dog or a cat when you are down about something (my cats atleast) will jump up on my lap and start purring and loving on me because they sense depresion. they obvioulsy can point it out so why do we think that they arent capiable to feeling it. thus deppression is the leading emotion to suicide in humans. So if animals can reconize depression and feel depression whats stopping them. plus we can argue that humans are animals too. just because we get out of the "state of nature" dosnt mean we arent animals, or mamals we are apart of them and they are apart of us.
Brilliantly, this comment by "vash" illustrates the absurdity of modern man which Percy is addressing. Professing to be unique among the animals for his ability to "get out of the 'state of nature'," vash still says that we are animals. There is nothing tongue-in-cheek about vash's response to the tale of the suicidal turtle. These people really believe that this turtle is capable of comprehending the crushing depth of man's lostness illustrated in Requiem and then responding with existential hopelessness by devising a mechanism of crushing its own skull.

If ever Percy needed help substantiating his claim that "Man blames beasts for his madness," Brad and Vash have done it for him.

I wonder if an internet search might find someone who believes that animals tell tales to one another of their human masters committing suicide...

Another (less fanciful) article on the subject from Time Magazine

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Emphasizing Self-Knowledge in Apologetics

"Know thy self."
I have recently become increasingly aware of the importance of self-knowledge - primarily as a result of my new infatuation with the writings of Walker Percy. I wanted to share a series of quotes dealing with self-knowledge and man's inability to find himself apart from God. I'll begin with a quote from Walker Percy's magnificent book Lost in the Cosmos. This quote alone has had such a profound impact on my own life, in existential terms, which I find difficult to describe. It's been about a month since I first read it, and I continue to be grateful for having read it:
The Self since the time of Descartes has been stranded, split off from everything else in the Cosmos, a mind which professes to understand bodies and galaxies but is by the very act of understanding marooned in the Cosmos, with which it has no connection. It therefore needs to exercise every option in order to reassure itself that it is not a ghost but is rather a self among other selves. One such option is a sexual encounter. Another is war. The pleasure of a sexual encounter derives not only from physical gratification but also from the demonstration to oneself that, despite one’s own ghostliness, one is, for the moment at least, a sexual being. Amazing! Indeed, the most amazing of all the creatures of the Cosmos: a ghost with an erection! Yet not really amazing, for only if the abstracted ghost has an erection can it, like Jove spying Europa on the beach, enter the human condition.
How empty are our pursuits of pleasure! If they do not find their root in God, then they are meaningless and we remain lost in the cosmos.

Many do not like Kierkegaard because of his high philosophical language and because of his "leap of faith" approach to apologetics, which one may or may not see much virtue in. Kierkegaard was a Lutheran, however, and understood that human antipathy against God lies at the heart of all human problems. For all of his faults he was a great thinker and had a profound grasp of the human condition. In this age of alienation, despair, and lostness, modern man could do worse than to grasp the reality of what Kierkegaard understood about the self and despair.
The human being is essentially spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is to be a self. But what is the self? In short, the self is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity. The self is the conscious unity of these factors, which relates to itself, whose task is to become itself. This, of course, can only be done in relationship to God, who holds the synthesis together. When is despair completely eradicated? It occurs when the self, in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself, is grounded nakedly in the power that established it. In other words, when it is related openly to and dependently on God. To transcend despair is neither to become finite nor to become infinite but to become an individual in their synthesis, which God alone holds together. In so far as the self does not become itself in this way, it is not itself. And not to be oneself, as God created you, is despair.
Lest one think all this talk about self-knowledge sounds a bit to high and philosophical, I wanted to bring in the friend of all good Presbyterians, John Calvin. Calvin famously argued at the very beginning of his Institutes (1.1.1) that self-knowledge is crucial to Divine knowledge, and that Divine knowledge is the only thing which would make true self-knowledge possible.
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also —He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced...But though the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are bound together by a mutual tie, due arrangement requires that we treat of the former in the first place, and then descend to the latter.
I believe it entirely possible that in our apologetics, we have - in terms of our language, in terms of our overall approach, so emphasized the objective truth of God's existence extra nous that we have neglected the one area where our fellow human beings cannot deny a lack in themselves. They do not understand themselves, and they hate the One who can make sense of their existence and self-hood.

It is patently obvious, though perhaps not scientifically provable, that human beings are, as Percy says, "something more than an organism in an environment, because for one thing he acts like anything but an organism in an environment." Is it possible that in reformed apologetics we have made the same mistake Percy says scientists are making, and that we are approaching the universe (and perhaps even God Himself) as a scientific observer rather than as one who is to "know and be known" by God?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Free Kierkegaard eBook

Christendom is a society of people who call themselves Christians because they occupy themselves with obtaining information about those who a long time ago submitted themselves to Christ's examination - spiritlessly forgetting that they themselves are up for examination.

-Soren Kierkegaard, as quoted in Provocations - The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard
Get the free eBook here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The (Wo)Men Without Chests

You can read the original story here. What interests me is the practical appearance of what C.S. Lewis predicted as the rise of "men without chests." What Lewis meant by this term was human beings who did not only deny the Natural Law in practice (everyone does that) but also in principle. Denying the reality of the Natural Law, human beings will still be expected to obey right and wrong, yet without the internal motive or drive to do so.

Look at the criminal in this case, Teonna Brown:
"I’m sorry. My mother did not raise me like this. I would really like to apologize to the victim, Miss Chrissy Polis."
It is doubtlessly the most heartfelt, passionate apology given since Nixon was impeached. Look at the victim's response to this obviously forced apology:
"I felt like I was going to die that day...I continue to suffer seizures, bouts of crying, mental anguish and anxiety. I fear being alone. I have flashbacks about the attacks. I do not forgive them for what they did to me."
One can hardly blame Ms. Polis for her unwillingness to forgive. It is difficult enough to accept a heartfelt apology in a case like this, let alone an apology that was likely composed by an accountant during his lunch break. However, when we consider that Ms. Brown seems not to really believe an apology is called for, and when we consider Ms. Polis' unforgiving approach to the entire situation, it is hard to imagine that this conflict is not a microcosm of what Western Civilization is coming to. Two parties who believe in their own rights, but not in either the virtue of a true apology, nor in the virtue of forgiving one's enemies.

I know that it is a cliche to deride the immorality of Western Culture, and so having said my piece I will now slink back into the cave.

Monday, September 12, 2011

More Than an Organism

Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century? ... Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments? ... Why do more people commit suicide in San Francisco, the most beautiful city in America, than in any other city? ... Why is the good life which men have achieved in the twentieth century so bad that only news of world catastrophes, assassinations, plane crashes, mass murders, can divert one from the sadness of ordinary mornings? ...
Man knows he is something more than an organism in an environment, because for one thing he acts like anything but an organism in an environment. Yet he no longer has the means of understanding the traditional Judeo-Christian teaching that the 'something more' is a soul somehow locked in the organism like a ghost in a machine. What is he then? He has not the faintest idea. Entered as he is into a new age, he is like a child who sees everything in his new world, names everything, knows everything except himself.

-Walker Percy, The Message in The Bottle, Page 9

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Arguments for the Continuing Validity of the Decalogue

I have been helping co-teach a small group at our church where we have made the Ten Commandments the subject of study. What follows are basically my notes for the first lesson where I argued that the Ten Commandments are not relics of a bygone legalistic era, but that they are, rather, gracious gifts from God to His church for her edification and sanctification. Our Assistant Pastor, Rick Franks, taught the first part of the lesson where he argued that Christians are still under the law - though not as a means of being justified. In the second part of the lesson, I argued that the Ten Commandments do stand apart from the rest of the Old Testament law as something unique and persistent.


With so many rules and laws in the Old Testament, why put such a special emphasis on the ten commandments? What about the many other commands throughout the Old Testament?

1. The Ten Commandments are a summary of the natural law in creation and therefore cannot be abolished or pushed to the side.

All ten commandments in one way or another are taught or implicit before the giving of the tablets of Sinai. This means that even if the Mosaic law were completely done away with, then the ten would still be a part of humanity's moral fabric.

(1) "No other Gods" (Ex. 15:11; Gen. 6:9) was implicit by the OT approval of those who walked with God, who worshipped only the Lord. Even the serpent's temptation to Eve was a temptation to set themselves up in God's place, therefore violating the first commandment.

(2) "No Idols" is already present in Genesis. As Philip Ross points out, the story from Gen. 31:34 where the menstrual woman is sitting on the idol is a "very sharp judgment on the unholiness and nothingness of this 'god'; a woman sat upon it in her uncleanness" (p 63). Also, at one point (Gen. 35:2) God commands Jacob to "Get rid of their foreign god."

(3) "Do not misuse the name of the Lord" is implicit whenever the name of the Lord is exalted or honored or sworn by in the pre-Mosaic fathers (Gen. 4:26; 24:3; 22:16).

(4) "Remember the sabbath" is referenced before the giving of the ten also. In Ex. 16:4-5 the people are told that they must collect enough mana and not to collect any on the seventh day. The narrative makes clear that the seventh day is to be "a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD" (16:23). God's complaint in 16:28 "How long will you refuse to keep my commands and instruction?", according to Ross, "implies knowledge of 'commands' and 'instructions' concerning the Sabbath." The greatest proof of the Sabbath, however, is that it is rooted in the creation account which specifically points to the seventh day as a day of rest for God who needs no rest. Clearly, then, the mention of the Sabbath day is not for God's sake, but for man's sake.

(5) "Honor your father and your mother" is demonstrably present before the giving of the ten as Noah's sons go with him into the ark (Gen. 7:7), and as Reuben and Judah plead with their father for Benjamin to come to Egypt (Gen. 42:29-43:13). Negatively, dishonoring one's parents is condemned in Gen. 9:20-27 when Ham is condemned for his disrespectful attitude towards his father's nakedness.

(6) "You shall not kill" is obviously present in the murder of Abel. If murder did not become a sin until the giving of the law at Sinai, then upon what moral grounds did God condemn Cain? Clearly the sixth commandment was part of the moral law given to all humanity before any written law. Recall, also, that Moses killed a man and sought to cover it up (Ex. 2:11-14). This was also before any law had been given to humanity. As Ross once again points out, "Murder was therefore a crime before Sinai, among the chosen people and in heathen nations."

(7) "Do not commit adultery" begins in the garden of Eden as Adam and Eve become united in a one-flesh union (Gen. 2:23-25). This is later pointed to by Jesus as the grounds upon which divorce ought not to happen. If divorce is forbidden by Adam and Eve's union in the Garden, then surely the breaking of that union by adultery was as well. Also, consider how Abraham allowed Sarah into Abimelech's house. What happened next is remarkable because God came to Abimelech in a dream and warned him not that "adultery is a transgression of the moral order - he knows that already - but so that he knows he will commit adultery if he touches Sarah (Gen. 20:3-7).

(8) "You shall not steal" is violated almost immediately when Adam and Eve stole fruit from God which they did not have any right to (although we'd be mistaken to reduce their sin to theft). Some major examples of theft before Sinai: Laban's defrauding of Jacob (Gen. 31:6-7), Rachel's theft of her father (31:19), and don't forget the episode involving Joseph's cup (Gen. 44). "Theft was in no sense acceptable before Israel heard the ten words" (p 73).

(9) "Do not bear false witness" immediately comes to mind when Adam passes the buck to Eve in the garden of Eden. After all, if he wasn't guilty then only Eve would have stood condemned in the Garden. Admittedly this is an indirect reference to lying, but it should be agreed that lying was a sin from the beginning. When Abraham lies to Abimelech about his wife, Abimelech the pagan lectures Abraham because Abraham was doing something "that ought not be done" (Gen. 20:9). Other events involved Sarah's lie in Gen. 18:15. Another is when Jacob recognizes that his deceit of his father to obtain the blessing would make him worthy of a curse (Gen. 27:12).

(10) "Do not covet" is also a command which is implicit in the fall narrative. The taking of the fruit was a desiring of something which Adam and Eve did not have a right to (Gen. 3:6). Geerhard von Rad observes also that Cain's murder of Abel sprang from his envy of God's pleasure in his brother. Joseph too experienced suffering at his brothers' hands when they coveted their father's affection from Joseph. Covetousness is a "constant theme" in the destruction of Abraham's family.

Natural Law was in place before Sinai:

(a) In Gen. 6:5 God judges the world because "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Clearly humanity lived under a moral law before the giving of the ten commandments. Once again, the moral law transcends the Sinai commandments.

(b) In Gen. 26:5 God says that "Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws." Ross notes that "This is the first time the Pentateuch uses those words, which are of considerable significance later." Another scholar writes, "This is no simple anachronism; it carries significance for understanding the place of the law in the pre-Sinai period."1

(c) Some scholars see significance in the fact that the ten commandments were given in a desert which was not understood to be owned by any particular nation. They argue that this emphasizes the transcendent and universal applicability of the ten commandments.

2. In the OT, the Ten Commandments are singled out as unique and distinct from the rest of the Old Testament laws.

(a) Deuteronomy 4:12-14 teaches not only that the ten commandments are important, but they are the covenant. Exodus 34:28 teaches the exact same thing. Clearly the ten commandments occupy a very important place right up front in Israel's history.

(b) Interestingly, the two tablets containing two copies of the commandments were kept in the ark rather than beside it as the law was. This emphasized the covenantal nature of the ten commandments as one copy was normally given to each party in ancient near eastern secular treaties. In the case of Israel, both tablets are kept together because the Lord himself will dwell with the Israelites.

(c) In Deuteronomy 5:22 it says: "These words the LORD spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly, at the mountain, from the midst of the fire, the cloud and the thick darkness; and he added nothing more." This clause is a boundary marker so that an answer might be given to the one who might ask, "Why the ten commandments? Why isn't the rest of the law of Moses seen as unique and applicable in all times and places?"

(d) Ross offers his own summary of his argument that "the Pentateuch recognized the Decalogue as a distinct element within the law"

1. The ten were not a marked historical development or a new law.
2. God spoke these words.
3. These words came from the finger of God.
4. He added nothing to these words and no other part of the law had that 'binding foundation-scroll' status.
5. The rest of the law was not written in a form which was addressed to the individual throughout.
6. Only the ten commandments function as the 'constitution' upon which 'all else is but commentary.' Ultimately, it was the 'constitution of the universe.'

The OT laws were traditionally divided into civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. Thomas Aquinas offered Deuteronomy 4:13-14 as a prooftext for this division of the law.

I should also note that our own confession, the Westminster Confession, teaches that while the moral law (again, summarized in the ten commandments) is still in effect for the church today, the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law are no longer binding for the church. So it recognizes this same division.
19.3 “Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.”

19.4 “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”
And so our own confession recognizes that while the moral law, which is summarized by the ten commandments, is still binding, the civil laws and ceremonial laws have "expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now."

3. The NT teaches that the Ten Commandments are still binding.

(a) Jesus did not change the law or his attitude to the law in any way during his life. Rather, as our Larger Catechism says, "Christ humbled himself in his life, by subjecting himself to the law, which he perfectly fulfilled."
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:17-19)
In all of the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as keeping each and every commandment of the Old Testament and of teaching others to keep them, as well. Even Jesus' teachings on the Sabbath, which some point to as being a change from the "old order" were entirely in keeping with Old Testament teachings. When we get to the fourth commandment we will address this question, but in the meantime it is useful for us to note that Jesus' teaching is always in keeping with the Old Testament teachings.

1 Matthew 4:10
2 John 4:24
3 Matthew 5:33-37
4 Luke 23:56
5 Matthew 15:4; Luke 2:51
6 Matt. 5:21-6; 15:9; 19:3-9, 18
7 Matt. 5:27-32; 15:19; 19:3-9, 18
8 Matt. 5:19; 19:18
9 Matt. 5:33-37; 15:19; 19:18
10 Luke 12:15

(b) Jesus saw the Ten Commandments as an inseparable unit. In Mark 10:17 Jesus is talking with the rich young ruler and when the man asks how he might have eternal life, Jesus points to the ten commandments: "You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'" What is so brilliant is that Jesus references the ten by pointing to several of the ten, but not all of them. He does not have to - this young man would have known all ten commandments by heart.

(c) The Ten Commandments are all presented positively in the book of Acts (both explicitly and implicitly), even after Jesus' ascension.

1 Acts 4:11-12; 4:24; 12:22-23
2 Acts 7:42; 15:20, 29; 19:19
3 Acts 23:3
4 Acts 13:14, 44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4
5 Acts 23:5; 25:6-12
6 Acts 7:51-53; 9:22-24; 21:30-31
7 Acts 15:20
8 Acts 5:4
9 Acts 5:1-11
10 Acts 20:33

(d) The Moral Law is never revoked. Elsewhere in the book of Acts (10:28), we find that Peter has a vision and is commanded by God to eat the unclean animals. In this event, God declares that the ceremonial (purity) laws of the Mosaic period are no longer binding. He does not revoke the moral laws. The Ten Commandments are NOT part of the ceremonial law. Rather, as we argued already, the Ten are a summary of the Natural Law which God has placed in the hearts of all men. Such a law cannot simply be revoked. However, many try to argue that of all the ten, only the Sabbath is part of the purity laws. Once again, this will be addressed when we discuss the fourth commandment. We must remember that the Ten are viewed by Moses, as well as by Jesus, as a unit, all written together, and to be obeyed without being separated from one another.

Almost none of this lesson would have been possible without the aid of Philip Ross' book From the Finger of God. Many of the arguments in this lesson were taken straight from (or were summarized from) his book.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Is Instinct the Measure of Morality?

AOL TV summarizes an interview with singer/actress Kristin Chernoweth, where she claims that "her staunch Christian beliefs are not at odds with her support for the gay community."
In an interview with 'The Advocate' Chenoweth says that people are born gay or straight, just like they're either tall or short, and that it's not a choice. In response to a question about people who cite Christianity as justification for passing discriminatory laws, she said "I would ask, 'What would Jesus do?'"

She added that, "It sounds so cliché and Pollyanna-ish, but I have a feeling if he were on the earth today, he wouldn't be walking around saying, 'You're going to hell' and 'You're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong.' I think he'd be accepting and loving."

Chenoweth continued, using her own tiny stature to illustrate her point. "What would I do if it was a sin to be short? That's the way God made me, so what could I do? Let's see, I could wear heels, I could tease my hair, and maybe on a good day I could be 5'1". But the bottom line is, I'm 4'11" and that's the way I was put together. And that's what I believe about homosexuals."
The example of "if it was a sin to be short" is of course, ridiculous. The fact is that there are lots of things that people believe are wrong even though people have a natural inclination to do them. From lusting in your heart after someone to the fact that by nature we enjoy stealing and talking about our neighbor behind their back, we are by nature sinners. Our natural condition or desire is no gauge for morality. I hate to drop a bomb like Lewis on Chernoweth's head, because she's such a sweet lady, but this notion that our natural desires are good and are the measure of goodness needs to be laid to rest once and for all. Take it, Lewis:
Telling us to obey Instinct is like telling us to obey 'people'. People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war. If it is held that the instinct for preserving the species should always be obeyed at the expense of other instincts, whence do we derive this rule of precedence? To listen to that instinct speaking in its own cause and deciding it in its own favour would be rather simple-minded. Each instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of all the rest. By the very act of listening to one rather than to others we have already prejudged the case. If we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn it from them. And that knowledge cannot itself be instinctive: the judge cannot be one of the parties judged; or, if he is, the decision is worthless and there is no ground for placing the preservation of the species above self-preservation or sexual appetite.
As far as I'm concerned, Christians ought to stop fighting the battle over whether or not some people are born with homosexual desires. Let us grant it. Supporters of the morality of homosexual behavior are still left in the position of defending a morality which is rooted in the human condition rather than in an external natural law. As Lewis says in the above quote from The Abolition of Man, this position is circular in nature.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

72 Hour Sale on New Kevin DeYoung Book

Westminster Bookstore is having a 72-hour sale on the new book by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. The book is The is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. The book is new, and obviously I don't know much about it. However, at Westminster's page for the book you can look at the first sixty pages of the book. Also, Michael Horton has a pretty glowing blurb for the book, if those sorts of things help in the decision-making:
"Christ is the greatest message in the world, and delivering it is the greatest mission. But are we losing our focus? Are we being distracted, sometimes even by good things? Zealous Christians disagree sharply today over the church’s proper ministry and mission. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert bring us back to first things in an age of mission creep and distraction. Offering balanced wisdom, this book will give us not only encouragement but discomfort exactly where we all need it. It’s the kind of biblical sanity we need at this moment."
The current special is, if you buy one copy of the book, you get it for 63% off ($5.99) and if you buy five or more copies, you get it for 69% off ($4.99). This is a good deal when you consider that this is no tiny book (300+ pages). The sale ends Saturday, Sept. 10th at 4:00 PM ET. Get the book here.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Walker Reviews Lexicon

The Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism has a review of the Compact Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, edited by Mark House. The review was written by our own Josh Walker and may be of interest to many of you.

Did 9/11 Give Your Life Significance?

In his book Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy discusses the fact that fallen humanity both need and desire violence in order to infuse common life with meaning. Much like Flannery O'Connor's fiction, many of Walker Percy's books involve characters who experience some sort of injury or violence, and that moment of violence creates a world of significance and escape from the boredom - at least for the moment.

Since 9/11 is coming up and it is en vogue to talk about it for the moment, permit me to offer an illustration. Most of us remember where we were when we learned that there was a terrorist attack on New York and Washington D.C. I was sitting next to my soon-to-be-wife during my freshman year of college, in a chapel session. Though it was horrific, there was something exhilarating about the thought that maybe - just maybe - the world was coming to an end. It suddenly felt that something was afoot - that there was something tremendously significant happening, and we were a part of it, and it was moving all around us in a way we didn't understand. Between our tears for the suffering and the dead, we felt alive again. This is a somewhat embarrassing truth because it makes us look callous and heartless, and we often care what other think about us. But this truth is also horrible, because it shows that we are not able to awaken ourselves from the malaise - from the joyless monotony. We emotionally need to be rescued from without by some unspeakable violence which few of us would admit that we need.

I hate to be too obvious, but it seems to me (and this seems to be Percy's answer, though he never says it explicitly) that the answer to humanity's permanent malaise has come in the death of Christ. Though this event took place thousands of years ago, it was arguably the most unjust, the most horrendous act of violence (spiritually and physically) which humanity ever committed or witnessed. If Christians are right that Christ was, Himself God, then their contention that Jesus was infinitely good makes the death of Christ infinitely horrible. As such, while events like 9/11 are horrible and are scarred onto us in a way that is unimaginable, the horror of it all is nothing compared to the evils and horrors of the death of Christ. His death was so rife with meaning and injustice that it still rings out, through the aeons, as the violent act which is alone truly capable of permanently shaking men from their malaise.

We have no grounds for boredom or laziness or meaninglessness or insignificance in a universe where Christ has been crucified. Those who find themselves in the malaise need only remind themselves of the bare facts of Christ's death on the cross before their soul and conscience is shocked to the core that a pure and innocent man should willingly die this ignominious, shameful, and violent death. Just as men said to one another, "Did you hear about the twin towers?" in order to feel alive again, men ought just as well to shock one another by something as simple as, "Did you know that the anointed one, the Holy One, the Messiah, died as a naked crook?" If our consciences were working properly, we would never cease weeping at the thought that the innocent Lord of Heaven and Earth hung naked on a piece of wood, despised by his Father and cursed by his people. Because Christ died, we know that forever, something is afoot - something is happening. And we know that it is a bigger deal than 9/11 felt like when it happened.

This may be the greatest testimony of man's wickedness - that upon hearing of Christ, we often respond with a careless yawn and feigned interest. It is no wonder that man has become bored with sex, bored with violence, bored with amusements - bored with himself. His own conscience is barely roused to cognitive wakefulness by the deepest dreadfulness the universe has ever known. If the death of Christ will not shock man out of the doldrums, then what makes him think that watching a person being mutilated on television or a children's hospital being blown up abroad via the news will barely more than increase his circulation?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Natural Law's Diversity: Moral Advances vs. Moral Innovations

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis spends a great deal of time defending the notion of Natural Law. As we have been bemoaning for some time, the notion of Natural Law has largely been largely lost in the Reformed theological world. One of the complaints which is often heard from those who might seek to downplay the significance of Natural Law is: "which one?" Which version of natural law, in other words, is the Natural Law? "If we lump together," Lewis asks, "the traditional moralities of East and West, the Christian, the Pagan, and the Jew, shall we not find many contradictions and some absurdities? I admit all this."

Lewis' solution to these difficulties, is to argue for a distinction between "a real moral advance" and a "real moral innovation." He argues that Christ's Golden Rule is an advance from something such as Confucius' "Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you." However, he argues that Nietzsche's ethic is an "innovation" which does not fit within Natural Law because it rejects its classically acknowledged contents.
But the Nietzschean ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgements at all. It is the difference between a man who says to us: 'You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?' and a man who says, 'Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.'
And so the bigger picture answer offered by Lewis - in a very barebones form - is to suggest that, of course, the Natural Law is objective and fixed, but that its application to each society is, to a certain degree, flexible (within a certain allowable range). To step outside of the range is to innovate. Those who stay within the range are making progress.

Modifications and advances in Natural Law are found throughout almost all societies. In fact, all societies which believed in objective right and wrong do have some variations in their laws (especially, Calvin points out, in each society's sanctions against lawbreakers), but these are differences of degree and not contradictions. Wherever contradictions exist, someone has legislated against the Natural Law. Humanity needs moral advances, not Nietzsche-esque innovations.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Christian Thoughts on Penn Jillette's Book God, No!

I'm trying to figure out how to talk about Penn Jillette's new book God, No!. After all, this is a Christian blog, and lets face it - Penn Jillette has a propensity towards colorful language.  You don't, for the most part, quote him in mixed company. Couple that with the fact that he is a self-described hard-core atheist (he doesn't even believe that other people believe in God) and you might wonder why I'm talking about his new book.

[Tangent: Penn seems to think that if people really believed in God, it would keep them from sinning. "It’s hard to believe people believe in god. If people really believed in god, how could they ever sin?" Maybe Penn is easily controlled by fear, but if the Bible teaches us anything it's that fear of Hell is not enough. End of tangent.]

The fact is, I like Penn Jillette. I am what he would describe as a totally insane, wacky Christian fundamentalist, and yet here I am reading his new book. It's because I like him. I think I see Penn Jillette as my non-Christian doppleganger. I mean, the man is a big, loud, opinionated, awkwardly shaped Libertarian, and he loves truth. We are more alike than we are different, in my opinion. And so I've felt an odd kinship from a distance with the man for - oh, the last ten years or so, I guess.

Last year I was in Las Vegas for a convention related to my job and as I walked around Vegas I hoped to myself that I might catch a glimpse of Penn Jillette. And you know what? Our convention put on a Brian Setzer orchestra concert and it just so happened that Penn Jillette was there, for free, juggling broken wine glasses and doing a pretty funny schtick all the while. It was such a thrill to see him in person. I even took a picture (left). If I could have found a way to do it and not seem like a stalker, I would have gone up to him and shaken his hand and told him I was a huge fan.  But... it didn't happen. I wouldn't have known where to find him after the Brian Setzer show anyway.

So here I am with this book. I read it. It's dirty. Okay? I won't recommend it to 99% of my friends. If you aren't gaga for Jillette and don't just really love the guy, then my advice is, there are a lot better ways to spend your money. Yes, Penn is very funny and thoughtful. But uh... there are tales in here that will curl your toes if you have anything approaching scruples. He actually has a chapter in the book which is basically a letter that he wrote to Penthouse magazine a few years ago. Yes, I skipped that chapter at a certain point. But a few of the other ones weren't any more wholesome. (There is a tale involving a hairdryer that will change the way you see Wendy's hamburgers, lets just put it that way.)

So why? Why read it? Well, I was interested in the book for its atheism content, mostly. If the book was really just a bunch of dirty stories, I probably would have passed. The fact is, I really think Penn has some things to teach Christians.  And even if Christians don't appreciate what he has to say, it's important that we read atheists so that we know who we're talking about.  Also, I like to laugh, and I knew Penn would deliver.  I know it would bother him to no end that Christians might just read his book and mine it for quotes to "rally the masses" as it were (that may be why he included so much profanity - so we'd be scared to quote it), but that's exactly what I plan to do. See, the fact is, Jillette is a pretty honest guy and he calls things the way he sees them, and in truth, he seems to "get" evangelism. We actually posted a video from Penn Jillette about three years ago. In the book he discusses his annoyance that fundamentalist Christian churches, organizations, and blogs used this same video to drum up evangelism efforts and mobilize the masses. He says nobody asked his permission to use the video except for Campus Crusade for Christ. Anyway, the video has now been made unwatchable on Youtube, but he basically shares the same message from the video in the book. He says that proselytizing is a moral thing and that whatever your view of things is, you must share it if it is true.
If our Charlie really believed that there was everlasting life through Jesus Christ, piggies, or L. Ron Hubbard, how can he not proselytize? How can it be moral to be politely quiet about something that important? If our life here is really just a brief vale of tears and the real joy is after we croak off the mortal coil, if someone really truly believes all that like ice like fire, don’t they have to preach to everyone all the time?
But there's a very real flipside:
Atheists are also morally obligated to tell the truth as we see it. We should preach and proselytize too. We need to help believers. Someone who believes in god is wasting big parts of his or her life, holding back science and love, and giving “moral” support to dangerous extremists. If you believe something, you must share it; it’s one of the ways we all learn about truth.
I should pause to say, this book fits right alongside the other books in the corpus of works by the New Atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins, et al) where there is more ad hominem and name calling than actual logic in defense of atheism going on here. I think this may, in part, be the nature of this book. The book is so rife with foul language and sexual content that Jillette almost certainly believe this book is preaching to the choir, because only the choir would read it. After all, why would some crazy fundie actually read this book? Anyway, there are not many arguments, if any, against Christianity. Jillette knows that Christianity is a superstitious, silly, baseless religion, and because of that, he is logically free to speak as he wants and tell the lewdest stories he can manage. For that fact alone, there is little to critique, since you can't critique name-calling.  Needless to say, this book is not a serious apologetic for atheism.  It is, for Jillette, a celebration of the freedom and meaning which he sees in his worldview.

The book is really just a series of vignettes which are not connected to one another. Jillette writes about growing up in a Christian home and being asked by the pastor to stop attending youth group because he was turning the kids into atheists. He ruminates on what it is to be in a business partnership with Teller. He discusses his rivalry with The Amazing Kreskin. He talks about Sigfried and Roy and what a classy pair of magicians they were even though he mocked them publicly whenever he had the chance. He talks quite a bit about his Libertarian political views and spends a great deal of time ripping on the TSA, which I quite enjoyed.

He has an interesting and hilarious anecdote about encountering the 'masked magician' who supposedly ruined tricks for magicians everywhere with his specials on FOX (it didn't even phase Penn). Most interestingly, he discusses magicians and their philosophy of magic. He despises performers like Kreskin, David Blaine, and Criss Angel who try to convince people that they have some sort of 'other worldly' powers behind their acts. He does connect this to Christians who cheapen their message by turning even the Gospel into a silly hat-trick.
It’s always astonished me how any magician can be spiritual. There are hippie magicians who do drum circles in the woods and then do a card force and a false shuffle and think they’re expressing something real. “Imagine a universe so limitless and yet so all-connected that you chose the three of clubs!” There are even “gospel magicians” who’ll do a cheesy “cake in the hat” trick and tie it to the resurrection of zombie Christ: “And god so loved the world that he gave his only son our lord and savior to die for our sins and give us this chocolate cupcake out of your baseball hat!” It seems like depicting the most important event in one’s philosophy with a $19.95 trick from a joke shop cheapens it a bit. Again, I guess I agree completely.
Jillette also falls right into line with the New Atheists when it comes to defining atheism. It used to be that atheists believed that God doesn't exist, but now it is very, very common to hear atheists define themselves more along the lines of what we think of as agnosticism.
Being an atheist means you don’t believe in god. When someone asks if god exists and you humbly say “I don’t know,” you’ve answered the question honestly. Once you’ve answered “I don’t know” to the existence of a god, the answer to whether you believe in god pretty much has to be no. That doesn’t mean you’re saying it’s impossible for there to be a god, or that we couldn’t have evidence of a god in the future. It just means that right now you don’t know. And if you don’t know, you can’t believe. Believing cannot rise out of “I don’t know.”
Lest you think he is really just an agnostic in disguise, you should think differently. He has strong words for so-called "agnostics":
“Agnostic” is often peddled as the gentler, more measured version of atheist, but I can’t see it that way. It doesn’t fool anyone. When someone hedges, we all know what he or she means. Most “agnostics” are really just cowardly and manipulative atheists.
Penn goes on.
Religious people aren’t as stupid as “agnostics” think (no one could be). Believers can smell a godless loser who doesn’t even have the guts to answer a question from half the length of purgatory away. An outright lie shows more respect than a dodge. If you’re going to lie, get down on your knees, pretend to praise god, and rot the faith from the inside like the worm that you are.
I saw a recent poll that said 1 in 6 pastors in Dutch churches is an atheist, so it sounds like some people have the same idea as Penn.

There is a laugh-out-loud moment near the end of the book that I really enjoyed. Penn is talking about how he and Teller will discuss pretty much anything on their Showtime series, regardless of who they offend. However, they do have their limits.
But we’re careful with Muslims. Again: Christopher Hitchens said, “There are no atheist martyrs.” That’s good thinking. If Penn & Teller were ever going to seriously punk a religion, we’d pick the Amish. F*** them all and the nonviolent horse and buggy they rode in on.
One point which I hope Penn's readers will not miss is that Jillette appears to believe emphatically in an objective morality.  This is perhaps the weakest aspect of Jillette's worldview because it would be impossible, I think, given his trenchant moral condemnations of evil in the world (much like Hitchens' God is Not Good) for Jillette to retreat into relativism if pressed.  And yet the atheistic worldview cannot account for universal, invariant, and nonphysical moral laws.  My guess is that Jillette would answer that there is nothing wrong with answering "I don't know" to such a challenge.

In the end, this review of Penn's new book was pretty sporadic, because the book itself is sporadic. I don't recommend it to anybody, simply in terms of its language and sexual content. There is good and funny stuff in this book, don't get me wrong, but you have to wade through an awful lot of things that almost any God-fearing believer wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. The truth is, I need to go detox after reading this. It's going to be the Apostle Paul and Walker Percy for me.