Course Review: Apologetics 101 – Scott Oliphint, Westminster Theological Seminary

Scott Oliphint Apologetics 101.png


Apologetics comes from the reality of Scripture. It is not an invention of theologians and philosophers.


Letter II‘ve decided to try something new, to start a new type of series. I love to read, and I’ve been writing book reviews for years. I also love to listen to lectures, and often fill the time during my daily commute with courses from the online libraries of schools such as Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster, Gordon-Conwell, Covenant, and others.

So I’ve decided start providing summaries, analysis, and critiques of these courses and lecture series, partially to help me process what I’ve encountered and partially because it’s not something I’ve seen done before and I think it’ll be fun.

The first series of lectures I will be reviewing is Dr. Scott Oliphint’s course Apologetics 101 at Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS).

Scott is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster. He is one of the foremost experts on Cornelius Van Til and the sphere of presuppositional apologetics (along with John Frame and the late Greg Bahnsen), and is perhaps best known for his re-framing of presuppositionalism in the form of Covenantal Apologetics.

Scott is on Twitter, has written for Ligonier and DesiringGod, and has many resources available on SermonAudio.

This course is available for free on iTunesU.

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Book Review: The Psychology of Atheism – By R.C. Sproul

SproulPsychologyofAtheism

Letter MMuch has been written trying to explain the psychology of theism. The foundational text in that field is probably Sigmund Freud‘s The Future of An Illusion, where Freud theorizes that religion came about as a sort of coping mechanism; it was comforting for early man to personalize the forces of nature and to turn their chiefs into legends, and eventually this evolved into the more institutional forms of religion.

Freud may have been the first, but he was far from the last. Feuerbach theorized that the gods were just man’s projections of himself onto the universal scale. Marx theorized that religion was just a way to keep the working class placated. Nietzche theorized that religion was rooted in fear of the nihil; Bertrand Russell followed a similar line of thinking. More recently, Richard Dawkins dismissed religion as a meme, a sort of ‘mind-parasite’.

In each case these writers are not asking “Is there a God?” Rather, they presuppose there is not a God, and then ask why there is religion. At the same time, they suppose – at the very least through implication – that they are explaining away or debunking religion. In each case these writers fail to realize that explaining what a man can or might do is not in the least determinate for what he actually did do. Or, as Sproul puts it:

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Book Review: The Dawkins Delusion – By Alister McGrath & Joanna Collicutt McGrath

McGrath The Dawkinks Delusion.pngLetter TThere are many individuals who act as poster-boys for certain religious and anti-religious movements. For the New Atheists, one of those individuals is Richard Dawkins; for evangelical Christianity, one of them is Alister McGrath. Both are doctoral graduates from Oxford with degrees in the sciences.

The Dawkins Delusion, as one could easily guess from the title, is the Alister and his wife Joanna‘s response to  Dawkins book The God DelusionThe self-stated goal of the text is to “assess the reliability of Dawkins’s critique of faith in God” by means of challenging Dawkins “at representative points and let readers draw their own conclusions about the overall reliability of his evidence and judgement.”

Calling it a response might be abit of an overstatement, the book is actually much more like a extensive book review. It is not designed as a serious academic rebuttal – either in tone or in content – to Dawkins’ book, but is more of a survey of some of the key issues that the McGraths have with the book.

The book goes about assessing the shortcomings of Dawkins’ book by addressing four areas of Dawkins’ argument which McGrath takes to be key points (or at the very least, points which can be used as representative of Dawkins’ intellectual integrity). The four points addressed are Dawkins assertions that belief in God is fundamentally deluded, infantile, and irrational; that science has disproved God; that the origins of religion lie in wish fulfillment, mental viruses, or ‘memes’; and that religion is evil in and of itself.

Each of these areas offers a survey of what the McGraths take to be Dawkins’ arguments and offer cursory rebuttals to each: that religion is based upon mature rational belief; that science by definition cannot disprove God; that Dawkins’ assertions about the origin or religion are not scientific, ignore current anthropology, and are little more than ‘maybe it happened this way’ type statements; and that the goods produced by religion cannot be ignored (nor the evil produced by many atheists). Each point is made well enough, though in order to understand many of the reasons McGrath takes issue with Dawkins it would be necessary to look to the endnotes, as none of McGrath’s arguments are made in detail and many of them are asserted rather than argued.

As an academic rebuttal, the book isn’t very great. As a book review, it does well enough at addressing some of the issues. So while the book may have various shortcomings in terms of specific debate points, one way I think it stands out is in the grander picture that it presents. It is written in a more informal tone and offers alot of insight and draws many of its points from sources outside of The God Delusion (such as Dawkins other books, personal conversations, and other atheists). While this does make it worse as a direct critique of that book, it does give a nice perspective on the overall debate and of Dawkins view of the relation between science and religion – specifically that there can be no relation, that scientists (and even atheists) or say that there are limits to science or that there may be some compatibility must not be being honest, and that religious people who say the same (such as the Pope in regards to evolution) must be being equally dishonest.

But the overall message to be had from the book to expose the dogmaticism and lack of scientific or rational grounding for much of what the New Atheists argue. Reviewers on places like Amazon give McGrath grief for calling Dawkins’ views dogmatic and then presenting his own dogma, but a key difference is that Dawkins view completely crumbles if it is based on dogma, whereas the Christian view cannot. The entire basis of Dawkins’ position is that it is based upon and only upon scientific observation and reasoned logic, not dogma or emotion or unargued premises, and it is this point that make this book worthwhile – it points out where Dawkins is relying upon dogma, where he is diverging from science in order to fulfill his own agenda.

While the book is unlikely to convince anybody of anything, it is worth the very brief time it takes to read it (at less than 100 pages) at least in order to get a feel for the generalities of the debate.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The God Delusion seems more designed to reassure athiests whose faith is faltering than to engage fairly or rigorously with religious believers and others seeking truth.”-96

-“All ideals – divine, transcendent, human or invented – are capable of being abused.”-81

-“The book is often little more than an aggregation of convenient factoids suitably overstated to achieve maximum impact and loosly arranged to suggest that they constitute an argument.”-13

-“Yet the fact that Dawkins has penned a four-hundred-page book declaring that God is a delusion is itself highly significant. Why is such a book still necessary? Religion was meant to have disappeared years ago. For more than a century, leading sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists have declared that their children would see the dawn of a new era in which the “God delusion” would be left behind for good.”-8

Specific Criticisms

The tone of the book is probably its biggest problem, and the one that will likely keep it from being taken seriously by atheists. The McGraths’ come off as condescending and insulting at various points, often using sarcasm as a means of presenting their or their opponent’s position. It is not the tone of an academic text, but is much more along the lines of a Sunday school lesson aimed at condemning the rival position.

In that sense, this book is a good illustration of how not to interact with nonChristians; the tone undercuts whatever value the arguments have.

Book Review: The Abolition of Man – By C.S. Lewis

Lewis Abolition of Man.pngLetter DDuring the past few centuries within discussions of philosophy there has been what might be called a revitalization of skepticism. This skepticism, what many deem free inquiry or free thought, has come to question everything, such that during the early Twentieth Century G.K Chesterton wrote that: “It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself.”

The Abolition of Man is C.S. Lewis‘ answer to this same thought, his answer to the skepticism which has once again begun to run rampant throughout all philosophy and all society since the beginning of modernity. Despite being a well-known Christian writer, in this particular text Lewis is not arguing distinctively for a religious system, but is simply addressing the question of objectivity and first principles.

In short, Lewis’ argument is in favor of what he terms the ‘Tao‘, that is, the “practical principles known to all men by Reason” or in other words “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false.” In rejecting this Tao Lewis argues that mankind has created “men without chests.” They have done away with basic axioms of morality and virtue in attempt to create their own system.

Yet for Lewis this is impossible, stating that “neither in any operation with factual propositions nor in any appeal to instinct can the Innovator find the basis for a system of values.” In short, in rejecting objective values the ‘Innovator’ has placed themselves in position in which they can have no values at all, and which any attempt to create values is simply a contradiction in which they draw upon the objectivity which they reject. This phenomena, combined with man’s attempts at conquering nature (first through doing away with old moralities and then through more physical means) paradoxically results in the state which the title describes, the abolition of man. Through skepticism they have done away with value and all obligation, leaving only the impulse of nature: “They are not men at all: they are artifacts. Mans’ final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.”

Perhaps the summation of Lewis’ argument can be found here:

“If you will not obey the Tao, or else commit suicide, obedience to impulse (and therefore, in the long run, to mere ‘nature’) is the only course left open. At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ – to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammeled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.”

In the final analysis The Abolition of Man is a powerful argument for first principles, those basic and universal values which are shared by mankind, standing as self-evident and thereby forming the only foundation upon which anything – even any argument – can be based, for without axioms no progress can be made and nothing can be proven. Finishing out at a nice 81 pages the book can easily be read in one sitting and serves as wonderful food for thought while pondering the basic questions of morality and values.

Memorable Quotes:

-“No emotion is, in itself, a judgment; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.”

-“It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

“If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is of real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color…”

-“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

Specific Criticisms

Perhaps my only criticism of this text is that I think Lewis sets out on a futile task by denying himself the argument for theism, specifically Christianity. Granted, he does state that “In order to avoid misunderstanding, I may add that though I myself am a Theist, and indeed a Christian, I am not here attempting any indirect argument for Theism. I am simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason as having absolute validity… Whether this position implies a supernatural origin for the Tao is a question I am not here concerned with.”

Personally, I don’t believe that it is possible to address whether there are “ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason” without discussing (directly or indirectly) whether or not these have a supernatural origin; not only this, but sufficing to refer to these as simply the results of ‘Practical Reason’ is to do somewhat of a disservice to the creator who put them in place. There is no basis for Practical Reason outside theism. Perhaps one might dismiss this as attempt to gain a neutral ground with his audience, designating these axioms as natural reason and using a third party term (Tao) when speaking of them. This may be a valid case, though it still encourages the autonomy of man in such cases (where it is the this rebellious autonomy which is the true issue).

————————–

This isn’t a criticism, but simply an interesting note which I’d never noticed in Lewis before; that is, the presuppositional nature of some of his thought. Two quotes will do well to illustrate this

“But as we have seen, all the values which he uses in attacking the Tao, and even claims to be substituting for it, are themselves derived from the Tao. If the Tao falls, all his own conceptions of value fall with it… Only by such shreds of the Tao as he has inherited is he enabled to even attack it.”

“Unless you accept these without question as being to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory, you can have no practical principles whatever. You cannot reach them as conclusions: they are premises… If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. Similarly if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all.”

In replacing the Tao with God, in replacing ‘for its own sake’ with ‘due to the nature of God, we begin to have one of the basic arguments of the presuppositional apologetic. That is, that without God one cannot have meaning, nor can one make sense of anything which they see before them. “If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved” and the basis for their self-evidence is the testimony of God, the standards which He has set in place. Any system which is created apart from the Christian one is held up by boards and pillars borrowed from the Christian worldview, that is “Only by such shreds of [Christianity] as he has inherited is enabled to even attack it.” Or as Belloc states “Wherefore, it is said of heresies that ‘they survive by the truths they retain.'”

Compare this to statements made by presuppositional apologist Greg Bahnsen:

“If Christianity were not true, the unbeliever could not prove or understand anything. Only the Christian worldview makes sense out of the logic, science, morality, etc. to which both sides to the dispute appeal — not to mention, alone makes sense out of the very process of reasoning and arguing at all.”

“The unbeleiver is not completely blind to any and all truth, for he shares in common grace – yet this truth that he has is borrowed from us.”

Book Review: The Problem of Pain – By C.S. Lewis

cslewis-problem-of-painletter-cC.S. Lewis is one of those authors I can always turn to when in need of a good read. The goal of this book is pretty self-explanatory by the title: to address the problem of pain. More specifically, the goal of this text is to solve the intellectual problem of suffering; this is important, as the book is an endeavor in the philosophical/theological, not primarily the pastoral or the therapeutic.

The book begins with a short apologetic for the Christian system, pointing out how the idea of Christianity (especially in relation to the presence of suffering) is not something that would have ever cropped up naturally; thus: “If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator? Men are fools, perhaps; but hardly so foolish as that. The direct inference from black to white, from evil flower to virtuous root, from senseless work to a workman infinitely wise, staggers belief. The spectacle of the universe as revealed by experience can never have been the ground of religion : it must always have been something in spite of which religion, acquired from a different source, was held.” Lewis also makes it a point to note that it is only from within the Christian system that the problem of pain even presents itself, such that “In a sense, [Christianity] creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.”

With this foundation set Lewis goes on to discuss first the nature of divine omnipotence, divine goodness, and then mankind and our relation to God (namely, the fallen-ness of man and his wickedness). This discussion focuses both on the way in which mankind is free and the way in which God may use both good and evil actions in order to further his purposes. Pain, ultimately, serves to draw man closer to God by demonstrating the way in which pain “shatters the illusion that all is well.” In sum, however, Lewis takes the road of explaining pain through appeal to free will; that in order to absolutely avoid the presence of pain or evil God would be required to constantly over-ride the will of man.

The overall explanation is fairly typical of mainstream Christianity, with Lewis’ discussion of simple evils producing complex goods being a little more innovative. The text is concise, and generally a good read with many wonderful quotes, yet it is not without its fair share of faults (as detailed below).

Memorable Quotes:

– “All men alike stand condemned, not by alien codes of ethics, but by their own, and all men therefore are conscious of guilt. [Moral consciousness] is either inexplicable illusion, or else revelation.”-10

– “I do not think I should value much the love of a friend who cared only for my happiness and did not object to my becoming dishonest.”-37

– “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the wall so his cell.”-41

– “To be God – to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response – to be miserable – these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows – the only food that any possible universe can ever grow – then we must starve eternally.”-42

– “God may be more than moral goodness : He is not less. The road to the promised land runs past Sinai. The moral law may exist to be transcended : but there is no transcending it for those who have not first admitted its claims upon them, and then tried with all their strength to meet that claim, and fairly and squarely faced the fact of their failure.”-53

-“No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepentant rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of the rebel soul.”-83

– “Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger.”-86

– “For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.”-99

– “In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.”-116

Specific Criticisms

C.S. Lewis is a great writer, and a brilliant thinker, yet while his books are always packed with profound insight, due to his status as an amateur in the realms of theology and philosophy, he sometimes says things that are just terrible. His books are full of magnificent highs and dreadful lows; I’ve covered the highs, here are the lows…

Before getting into the major critiques of this book I’ll first offer a few minor ones. These are things like Lewis assuming that to surrendering to God will thereby make things “good and happy”(p78), which stinks of the seeds of the health/wealth ‘gospel’; surrendering to God will very likely increase your turmoil rather than diminish it. Lewis claims that humans can prevail through “painful effort”(p71), and while it is through painful effort, it is not merely through painful effort, but rather the grace of God working to empower man. A final minor critique is where Lewis states – in reference to the doctrine of man being present in Adam’s loins – that “these theories may have done good in their day but they do no good to me, and I am not going to invent others”(p74); while Lewis might not find the doctrine helpful, it will hardly do to just sweep a historic (and important) piece of Christian theology out the door as unhelpful. In fact, the reason that Lewis finds it unhelpful is that he takes the free will defense of evil, while said doctrine is a truth emphasized by the Reformed tradition in accounting for the transference of the fallen nature (or rather, why all men are guilty of one man’s sin; somebody who believes each individual freely causes their own fall naturally sees no need of this).

As for the major critiques, the first is Lewis’ reliance on the science of his day to support his views, such as taking for granted the theory of evolution; thus he states “For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself” (p65). Not only is relying on science a bad way to go about theology, but relying on bad science – such as the theory of evolution – is an especially bad way to go about theology.

Perhaps the most prominent theological/philosophical error made by C.S. Lewis in this book is that he takes the wrong side on the Euthrypo debate (which is solved by monotheism; the dilemma in the argument is only there because of the polytheistic foundation present); that is, he maintains that “God commands certain things because they are right…” and that “God’s will is determined by His wisdom which always perceives, and His goodness which always embraces, the intrinsically good”(p88), even going so far as to say that something could theoretically be good apart from God. This is, in effect, to supplant the god of Plato for that of Christianity; it is to make God subject to an authority outside of, and even more importantly, higher than, himself. For Lewis, God is not the ultimate standard, but instead something above God; this is quite simply a pagan position to hold.

While the most prominent problem might be Lewis’ mistaken view of Euthrypo, the most pressing problem is that – much like Chesterton – the Gospel is generally absent from his books, or else something that you have to infer from a few select lines. There are a few lines where the Gospel peeks through in this book, but only just, yet when addressing the problem of pain – or any point of Christianity – one cannot afford to minimize the Gospel.

Book Review: The Future of An Illusion – By Sigmund Freud

S Freud The Future of An Illusion.png

Letter WWell known for his work in the fields of psychology and particularly his founding of the field of psychoanalysis, The Future of An Illusion is Freud‘s tackling of the foundations and future of religion, especially as it relates to civilization.

Religion, as Freud see is, arose out of the “necessity of defending oneself against the crushing superior force of nature” where “the primal father was the original image of God,” or rather a model on which he was shaped. Freud sees religion as a sort of neurosis which, with the advancements of science and proper education, the human race will eventually overcome.

Within the past fifty years or so we have seen the development of a certain critique of the sciences (and of rationalism in general) in the form of postmodernism and its “incredulity towards metanarratives” as defined by Jean-Francois Lyotard. Many mistakenly think this is an aversion to stories which try and fit all of human experience into some over-arching schema (meganarratives), but this isn’t the case.

What it is opposed to is the sort of stories told by science while claiming not to be telling stories; stories that, in another way of putting it, don’t account for their own presuppositions.

The key problem with Freud’s presentation of religion is that he’s simply telling stories while claiming not to be telling stories.

Thus he concocts explanations of the origins of religion based upon narratives that he has dreamed up of the way that primitive man thought and related to each other and nature at large. He offers an explanation, but there is nothing to say that his explanation is the correct one, or even a likely one.

Freud simply presupposes that his view is correct, that religion is wrong, and that science is the only way to truth.

This is the essence of circular reasoning. Religion is wrong because it is untrue, and science is right because it is true.

Thus he simply suffices to say “scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves” or “an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give we can get elsewhere.” As Etienne Gilson rightly observes, those with this mindset simply “prefer a complete absence of intelligibility to the presence of a nonscientific intelligibility” to the point that they would just assume cripple the human intelligence by dismissing metaphysical rationale than admit that there can be nonscientific truth (even though science itself never makes any such claim upon the intellect).

Science does not claim to be all-encompassing, it only claims to seek the answer to the question “what?”

Freud offers a view, but he does not even begin an attempt at justifying it, and even within the view presented he finds himself littered with internal contradictions. The book is a decent study on what Freud thought in relation to religion, though, as I note below, even if we give Freud the benefit of the doubt his own narrative is littered with internal contradictions.

Memorable Quote:

-“Most people have obliged to restrict themselves to a single, or a few, fields of [human activity]. But the less a man knows about the past and the present the more insecure must prove to be his judgement of the future.”(p1)

-“Human creations are easily destroyed, and science and technology, which have built them up, can also be used for their annihilation.”(p4)

-“… art offers substitutive satisfactions for the oldest and still most deeply felt cultural renunciations, and for that reason it serves as nothing else does to reconcile a man to the sacrifices he has made on behalf of civilization.”(p18)

Specific Criticisms

I’ve long been of the belief that any sort of objection to religion can be met with Christian orthodoxy; that I have never actually seen an argument against Christianity, only against its heresies. Here Freud can be seen falling into that same line, stating that the justifications used for religious beliefs are that “they were already believed by our primal ancestors” that “we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from those same primaeval times” and “it is forbidden to raise the question of their authentication at all.”(p39)

In viewing these as the supposed justifications for religion it is no wonder that Freud had a dismal view of it – the problem is that very few religions would actually use this sort of rationale (as with most things, Freud doesn’t cite any sources but creates straw men or simply says whatever suits his position), nor does the religion that Freud would have been most exposed to and most directly addressing, that of Christianity. Freud asserts that religions “are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillment of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.”(p47)

Freud seems to have had virtually no exposure to any sort of real religious philosophy, whether existential or that of natural theology.

Furthermore, as stated above, Freud’s account of religion seems to be littered with internal contradictions.

On the one hand he argues that religion is something that spawned from attributing deity to nature and the father-figure. Yet then he goes on to state that “civilization gives the individual these [religious] ideas, for he finds them there already; they are presented to him ready-made, and he would not be able to discover them for himself. What he is entering into is the heritage of many generations, and he takes it over as he does the multiplication table, geometry, and similar things.” Yet the maths are objectively true, rationally constructed forms, so how is religion related to them without being of this type as well, and if religion is already in civilization ready-made, then how can it also be derivative only from tribal superstition?

We can see this same trend in his statements that “I think it would be a very long time before a child who was not influenced began to trouble himself about God and things in another world.”(p78) And yet he posits that the earliest tribal peoples, on their own, came to the idea of God and of another world.

This alone seems enough of an inconsistency, yet the greater problem with this statement is that it ignores the manifold experience of anybody who has had the slightest exposure to children, and that is that one of their fundamental inquires about the world is “why?”, which is the primary question which science is utterly unqualified to answer, nor does it suggest that it can. Yet as soon as one asks ‘why?’, one begins to tread the path towards contemplation of God.

In retrospect on the events of the 20th Century, this statement is particularly falsified: “Civilization has little to fear from educated people and brain-workers. In them the replacement of religious motives for civilized behavior by other, secular motives would proceed unobtrusively; moreover, such people are to a large extent themselves vehicles of civilization.”(p63) This is not only because it was educated people and brain-workers who gave us two World Wars, but it also ignores the even more important fact that if we look at the progression of history it has been the religion in every case which has preserved the culture of prior civilizations.

Were it not for the Christian scholars, scribes, and monks, the Renaissance would have had no text to look back to Rome from. Were it not for the Muslims (and the Christians before them), Aristotle would have been lost to time.

Religion preserves because it has a set ideal and a set goal. Secular society destroys because it can never decide what it wants, and therefore consistently tears all of its ideas down to rebuild again.

Exploring The Uniqueness of the Bible [In Its Ancient Near Eastern Context]

bible-and-coffeeLetter TThe ancient world was one filled with myths and stories of all types, stories about gods and about prophets and oracles who spoke with those gods. In secular society the Bible is often seen as just another one of these ancient myths.

The Bible is not just another myth, but it is in the context of these myths that the Bible was written. They provide the background against which we are to interpret the text; it was often these sorts of myths which the Biblical narrative was responding to. Thus, it is important for Christians to analyze the Scriptures in light of their ancient Near Eastern literary and cultural contexts.

So just what are the similarities and differences were between the Scriptures and those other myths which seem to bear some resemblance to it? It is by answering this question that we may determine whether or not the Bible is indeed unique in its content.

Some areas in which the Christian might compare the Scriptures to similar texts in the Near East include (1) how they present their creation accounts, (2) their understandings of morality, and (3) their understandings of prophecy and revelation.

Creation

Given that creation myths begin in the beginning, comparing the creation myths is one of the better places to start. One such text that the Scriptures might be compared to is the Enuma Elish, and one of the most immediately striking differences is the manner in which the myths are told.

One of the disti
nctiveness about ancient Near Eastern creation accounts is that they are told in a distinctly mythic manner. In contrast, the creation account in Genesis gives its account in a highly historical, concise and matter-of-fact manner.

Thus we can see the Enuma Elish begin with:

When in the height heaven was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being,
And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained;
Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven,
Lahmu and Lahamu were called into being…
Ages increased,…
Then Ansar and Kisar were created, and over them….
Long were the days, then there came forth…..
Anu, their son,…
Ansar and Anu…
And the god Anu…
Nudimmud, whom his fathers, his begetters…..
Abounding in all wisdom,…’
He was exceeding strong…
He had no rival –
Thus were established and were… the great gods.enuma-elish

These primeval gods eventually start fighting one another, monsters, dragons, scorpion-men, fish-men, and all sorts join the mix. All sorts of shenanigans ensue, Marduk eventually arises and Tiamut is killed. Marduk then fashions the heavens and the earth out of her body:

Then [Marduk] rested, gazing upon [Tiamut’s] dead body,
While he divided the flesh of the … , and devised a cunning plan.
He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
One half of her he stablished as a covering for heaven.
He fixed a bolt, he stationed a watchman,
And bade them not to let her waters come forth.
He passed through the heavens, he surveyed the regions thereof,
And over against the Deep he set the dwelling of Nudimmud.
And the lord measured the structure of the Deep,
And he founded E-sara, a mansion like unto it.
The mansion E-sara which he created as heaven,
He caused Anu, Bel, and Ea in their districts to inhabit.

In all this it takes about six chapters just to get to the creation of the world.

In contrast to this we have the creation of the world in Genesis: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

That’s it. God simply does it. No great battles, no wrangling of primordial forces, no monsters. God simply makes it happen. Along the same lines, there is nothing before God in Genesis. He doesn’t use pre-existing material, he does his work ex nihilo.

Genesis is simply concerned with the fact that creation came into being and that God is the one who did it.

Just as noteworthy as differences in the way creation comes into being is the difference in the way mankind comes into being. In the Enuma Elish we find Marduk create mankind:enumaelish

“My blood will I take and bone will I fashion
I will make man, that man may
I will create man who shall inhabit the earth,
That the service of the gods may be established, and that their shrines may be built.
But I will alter the ways of the gods, and I will change their paths;
Together shall they be oppressed and unto evil shall they….

Mankind is made – according to the Enuma Elish – in order to be slaves. They are made in order to build shrines and to be oppressed. They are made out of the substance of a god and yet they have no dignity.

Contrast this with Genesis:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

 And God blessed them. And God said to them,“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

In ancient Near Eastern myth, man is created out of the substance of a god as a slave to be oppressed. In contrast, Genesis has man made in the image of God, and he is made with dignity. He is made to have dominion, to multiply and subdue the earth.

Thus the second contrast with see is that in Scripture, man is made with dignity for noble ends.

While the Bible may bare similarities to other texts these similarities prove to be mostly superficial due to being attempts at answering the same questions about the universe. While the religious literature of other groups in the region revolve around elaborate mythologies and religious sayings – or aphorisms – the literature of the bible is primarily revelational and historical, and indeed it is revelational through its history, for God has communicated himself in the history of a nation, namely that of the Hebrew peoples.

The historical aspect of Scripture reveals the way that God interacts with humanity in history.

Morality

Along with having differing creation accounts and differing views of revelation and prophecy, the Bible also differs in its morality. One of the premier examples of this can be seen in the relation between the Proverbs and the writings of Amenemope, whose ethical teachings closely parallel one another.

On the one hand one might be able to see this as an example of natural law working its way out in two unrelated individuals, on another one might be able to see it as a Biblical writer source-texting a non-Biblical writer.

Either way the Biblical text is not put in jeopardy, especially when one realizes that the underlying nature of Scripture is time and again vastly different than that of its counterparts. The chief reason for this is that Scripture presupposes the Christian God, which is something that no other myth or system of ethics can boast.

That is, the motives for writing these instructions are radically different.

Thus when we read the writings of Amenemope we find that he simply offers good guidance, his goal is for his reader to prosper, and so he begins:

Give your years and hear what is said,mask_of_amenemope
Give your mind over to their interpretation:
It is profitable to put them in your heart,
But woe to him that neglects them!
Let them rest in the shrine of your insides
That they may act as a lock in your heart;
Now when there comes a storm of words,
They will be a mooring post on your tongue.
If you spend a lifetime with these things in your heart,
You will find it good fortune;
You will discover my words to be a treasure house of life,
And your body will flourish upon earth.

You should listen to him because it is profitable and you will find good fortune. The goal is simply to give good advice that will help you along your way.

In contrast to this we have the Proverbs:

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their griddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Or as he says later in chapter 22:

That your trust may be in the Lord,
    I have made them known to you today, even to you.

The goal of the Proverbs is not simply to provide good advice, its advice has a goal. This goal is not merely that you would prosper, but “That your trust may be in the Lord.”

The Lord under-girds the wisdom given in the Proverbs. The boundary stone is not moved because “their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you.”

It is not simply that you shouldn’t, but you shouldn’t do it because there is a transcendent God who is your standard and will hold you accountable.

Again one observes a vastly different foundation between the Bible and its contemporaries.

Prophecy and Revelation

With this in mind, another area in which one might compare the Bible to its contemporaries is in the realm of prophecy and revelation. While the Bible is not alone in putting forth prophecy, it is clear that the other sorts of prophecy which abounded in the ancient world are in no way like those of Scripture.

One of the chief differences is that the prophecy of Scripture alone has a moral imperative with a direct relation to God. In contrast to this, pagan prophecy is more akin to guessing an effect from a causal relationship, and is therefore much more mechanical than Biblical prophecy.

Furthermore, while most pagan prophets directed their prophecy to royal households, the Biblical prophets directed theirs towards the people as a whole, for it was the moral action of the people as a whole which determined how God would act towards them.

Finally, pagan ‘prophecy’ seems to have been written after the fact, which would seem to disqualify it from being any sort of real prophecy.

Just as the Biblical creation accounts differed from the pagan mythology through its centeredness on God, and just as the Proverbs and moral imperatives of the Bible also differed from their pagan counterparts through their centeredness on God, so the prophecy of the Bible differs in its centeredness on God – particularly how he interacts with his covenant people.

It is the prophecy of Scripture alone with confronts the idolatry, immorality, and injustice of the people of God, presenting them with a moral imperative and a road either to or away from God.

This is in contrast to pagan prophecy trying to guess causal relationship and necessary relations. Yet the greatest division between Biblical prophecy and that of the pagan nations comes in its reality, in its actual ability to foresee and foreshadow the future.

Whereas pagan ‘prophecy’ seems written after the fact, the Biblical prophecy foreshadows real events, whether this be Jeremiah speaking of Babylon devastating Judah, Haggai foretelling the return of the Davidic line or Zechariah foretelling that the Messiah will be killed, the Bible prophecy and the revelation of God rings true.

The Bible Unique

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the cultural and literary contexts is the God is unique in the way he does things, and that the Word of God is unique from anything else that man might develop, for doesn’t act in a way that might be anticipated.

He doesn’t tell the story of the creation like men would, hence the vast difference between Genesis and all other creation accounts; nor does he give a morality just for the sake of horizontal relations between people; nor does he give the gift of prophecy and the light of revelation purely for the good of pedigree of mankind.

Everything he presents is centered around himself, not around man, and yet man is dignified – all men, for they are made in his image.

The Bible is unique.

 

 

Book Review: The Everlasting Man – By G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton Everlasting Man.png

Letter WWith such a well-beloved author as C.S. Lewis positing this book as one of the great contributors to his conversion to Christianity one can’t help but give into the curiosity to delve into the mind of Chesterton.

During the early Twentieth Century four of the biggest writers were H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton; the latter two often engaging in debates with the former. As was noted with Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy, it was written in a format parodying that of one of Wells’ essays.

In continuing the bout, The Everlasting Man is Chesterton’s answer to a book written by Wells entitled The Outline of History (which was possibly plagiarized anyway). Chesterton’s issue with Wells’ book was the minuscule role given to Christianity in the history of the world and thus he set out his own outline, that of The Everlasting Man (Hilaire Belloc’s book The Great Heresies similarly attempts to portray religion’s impact on history).

The book is divided into two parts: the first a discussion of man and the second a discussion of Christ and the church. Chesterton begins his text in a discussion of the anthropology of his time, specifically as it had begun to analyze primitive man [in relation to evolutionist theory]. This discussion is amusing and insightful; the ideas concerning the gulf between man and the animals, and his refutations concerning evolution, are quite good. One such quip involves art, stating: “A monkey does not draw clumsily and a man cleverly; a monkey does not begin the art of representation and a man carry it to perfection. A monkey does not do it at all; he does not begin to do it at all; he does not begin to begin to do it at all. A line of some kind is crossed before the first faint line can begin.”

Following this discussion of science and anthropology Chesterton takes a step backwards, to discussing the mythology and philosophy of the pagans, how they grew into their golden age, became all that man could be on it’s own, and yet the never combined into a universal system. These two quotations serve well to sum up the section: “Simple secularists still talk as if the Church had introduced a sort of schism between reason and religion. The truth is that the Church was actually the first thing that ever tried to combine reason and religion… Polytheism, or that aspect of paganism, was never to the pagan what Catholicism is to the Catholic. It was never a view of the universe satisfying all sides of life; a complete and complex truth with something to say about everything.”

By the time he gets to the second section of his book the central theme has emerged, a theme standing in great contrast to the of Wells, the theme of history being centered around Christianity. Calvary was the crux of history, producing something completely unique to itself, something incomparable to everything that was or came afterward.

Again I’ll offer two quotations which convey well the ideas presented: “To compare the Christian and Confucian religions is like comparing a theist with an English squire or asking whether a man is a believer in immortality or a hundred-per-cent American. Confucianism may be a civilization but it is not a religion… In truth the Church is too unique to prove herself unique. For most popular and easy proof is by parallel and here there is no parallel… Nobody understands the nature of the Church, or the ringing note of the creed descending from antiquity, who does not realize that the whole world once very nearly died of broad-mindedness and the brotherhood of all religions.”

Christianity is a thing unique amongst itself which served to bring life to a mankind which had exhausted it’s own resources, the pinnacle of which is placed in the high mythology and philosophy of Greece and Rome. The church has faced many trials and even died, but as Chesterton notes it has as its head a figure who knows the way out of the grave.

While this is a fairly short read I don’t recommend it as a first step into reading Chesterton, for that I’d recommend Orthodoxy or one of his novels (such as The Man Who Was Thursday). Still, The Everlasting Man is a brilliantly written text which will serve to challenge any readers perception of history, specifically the place of Christ in it.

Memorable Quotes:

[As with Orthodoxy this book is filled to the brim with memorable quotes, here are a few of my favorites…]

-“If man cannot pray he is gagged; if he cannot kneel be is in irons.”

-“When the world goes wrong, it proves rather that the Church is right. The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.”

-“In other words, whatever else is true it is not true that the controversy has been altered by time. Whatever else is true, it is emphatically not true that the ideas of Jesus of Nazareth were suitable to his time, but are no longer suitable to our time. Exactly how suitable they were to his time is perhaps suggested in the end of his story.”

-“Now that purity was preserved by dogmatic definitions and exclusions. It could not possibly have been preserved by anything else…. If the Church had not insisted on theology, it would have melted into a mad mythology of the mystics, yet further removed from reason or even from rationalism; and, above all, yet further removed from life and from the love of life.”

-“It was supposed to have been withered up at last in the dry light of the Age of Reason; it was supposed to have disappeared ultimately in the earthquake of the Age of Revolution. Science explained it away; and it was still there. History disinterred it in the past; and it appeared suddenly in the future. To-day it stands once more in our path; and even as we watch it, it grows.”

Specific Criticisms

I don’t have many criticisms of this book. One, as I noted above, is that it’s not the most accessible of his writings and therefore I wouldn’t recommend it as a first book to read by him. That’s not to say that it’s difficult reading, simply that it’s much easier reading once you’re used to his style.

Another minor criticism is the way in which the author casually references philosophers, classic authors and his own contemporaries, as if the reader should simply be aware of all these individuals and their ideas. One can generally get the idea of the text without being familiar with them but it still causes the writing to be more dense and less accessible to audiences not living during Chesterton’s time.

Lastly, I’m not sure what’s up with the landscape on the cover pictured above, it looks more suitable to one of Tolkien’s books than this one, but I digress…

Book Review: The Certainty of Faith – By Herman Bavinck

Bavinck Certainty of Faith.pngletter-aAs Bavinck says in his second chapter: “When our highest interests, our eternal weal or woe is at stake, we must be satisfied with nothing less than infallible, divine certainty. There must be no room for doubt.”

The title of this book, The Certainty of Faith, seemingly has two different connotations. At a glance, the title seems to refer to a discussion on how it is that the Christian comes about having certainty in their faith; in actuality, the book is an answer to that self-same question. The book is not primarily a discussion on how to obtain certainty in faith, but a discussion of the differing types of certainty, one of which is faith.

There is no question that in the wake of the Enlightenment that the quests for certainty became a major theme in academia, a quest which ironically made doubt the key theme of thought from that point onward. Certainty for the author is that point at which “the spirit finds complete rest in its object of knowledge.”

As outlined by Bavinck there are various forms of certainty: there is the certainty that comes through science and observation; the certainty that comes through rational thought; and the certainty that comes through faith. The first two types of faith, Bavinck notes, while being more universal, lack the strength of the tie to the soul brought by the certainty of faith – it is admittedly more objective, but in this case it is the subjective note that is striven for, the note that touches the soul of the individual. As the author says: “Scientific certainty can’t stand up to the torch and stake.”

Even within religion this certainty has been sought in a variety of ways: through works, through rationalism, through pietism, through experience. Often individuals have look outward or inward, seldom upward. The certainty of faith is one built on revelation (“Revelation is the presupposition, the foundation, the flip-side, the necessary correlate of religion. A religion that no longer dares to come forward in God’s name and authority loses its very essence. It has become mythology or philosophy of religion.”) and “a knowledge gained from a reliable witness.” Thus, “Just as knowledge only occurs when the known object and the knowing subject agree, so true knowledge of God is possible only through faith, which He Himself quickens in our hearts.”

The certainty of faith as outlined by Bavinck comes through the inward work of the spirit, not through works, through arguments, or through experience. Being divinely given, this certainty has the infallibility sought by Bavinck and in being divine is thereby the only certainty worthy of the complete trust of the soul’s destiny.

In terms of significance I think the distinction being made here by Bavinck is an important one, and I’ll admit that I went into the book with the wrong mindset, thinking it was about something that it wasn’t. The book is not an apologetic arguing about how to have certainty in our faith, but rather a discussion on a type of certainty, the certainty of faith. I don’t think this is a distinction or even an idea that is very prevalent in the church today, and when the church is constantly searching for an apologetic by which to bring certainty to faith, it is of immeasurable importance to realize that faith, in itself, is a type of certainty.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Just as faith cannot be undermined by scientific argument, it cannot be convincingly established by it. It always rests on revelation, authority, a divine word, whether true or presumed, and is therefore always only a fruit of faith, a faith that – for whatever reason – recognizes this authority and bows before it in obedience.”(p24)

-“Proofs come after the fact in every religion; they don’t lead the way but trail behind. They are conceived for those who don’t believe… Apologetics is the fruit, never the root, of faith.”(p22)

-“Truth always brings certainty, but certainty is no proof of truth.”(p33)

-“All proof presupposes a starting point common to those for and against, a foundation recognized by both. It is impossible to reason with someone who denies all principles. Both the proofs as well as the presuppositions on which they rest vary from science to science.”(p54)

-“In order to study the religions, compare them, judge them according to their true, distinct values, we require a standard, an idea of religion, no mater how vague and general, which precedes such study and evaluation, and which guides and rules it.”(p56)

-“Certainty became the goal rather than the starting point of all his striving. To be saved was the object of all his desires.”(p94)

Specific Criticisms

Perhaps my only criticism is that the system set forward by Bavinck seems to be circular at some point, at least when he speaks of the doubt that sometimes accompanies faith. At one point he states that “As long as we aren’t certain and firm in our faith and we still doubt, we will continue to experience anxiety and fear and will not have the boldness and trust of children of God… But if in faith we fasten immediately onto the promises of God and take our stand in His rich grace, then we are His children and receive the Spirit of adoption.”(p92)

As I read this, it seems to essentially be saying that if we aren’t firm in our faith, the remedy is to strengthen our faith. He essentially says “If we aren’t certain in our faith, we will continue to be uncertain in our faith… but if in faith we fasten onto the promises, then we will receive faith (since faith is the work of God in our hearts to those who he elects as his children).”

Yet if a lack of faith is the problem, then a call to strengthen your faith cannot be a solution, given that faith is the work of God. An uncertainty in faith, on this system, must be remedied by God. To suggest an attempt by man seems to come out saying “increase your faith by increasing your faith”, which is hardly useful.

Book Review: The Universe Next Door – By James W. Sire

 

Universe Next Door Sire.pngLetter IIn the wake of the Enlightenment it became more and more clear as people began to try and doubt everything that there was to doubt, that eventually one runs into a dilemma, either to doubt their-self away or to posit some first principles, some axiom, some presupposition. We have become more and more self-aware from that point forward – and indeed it is one of the hallmarks of the postmodern philosophy – that we are all operating upon and within certain presuppositions or worldviews.

In The Universe Next Door James W. Sire sets out to explore these worldviews, these other universes which we neighbor. As is stated in the preface: “I am convinced that for any of us to be fully conscious intellectually we should not only be able to detect the worldviews of others but be aware of our own – why it is ours and why, in light of so many options, we think it is true.” In good fashion, Sire doesn’t claim or attempt to be exempt from this standard, and claims up front to be coming from the worldview of Christian Theism. His goal is to take a look at nine different worldviews – Christian Theism, Deism, Naturalism, Nihilism, Existentialism, Eastern Pantheistic Monism, The New Age Spirituality, Postmodernism, and Islamic Theism – and to examine the answers that these varying worldviews give to seven basic questions revolving around reality, the human condition, epistemology, morality and ultimate meaning.

Throughout the course of his text Sire provides insight into the foundations and weaknesses of all the worldviews presented, and so while the text is an introductory survey of the worldviews held, it is also an apologetic for the Christian worldview based upon the philosophic and logical consistency found in the various worldviews.

On that note, Sire’s text is a great introduction for the Christian into the other worldviews which they might run up against and also provides a fairly solid basis on which to critique those other worldviews. It is accessible and coherent, with a clear flow and analysis, and I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to get an idea of the presuppositions underlying their views regarding the world (and if you’re not a Christian, then it may serve as an excellent case study into the way that Christians view opposing worldviews, as well as their own).

Memorable Quotes:

-“Few people have anything approaching an articulate philosophy – at least as epitomized by the great philosophers. Even fewer, I suspect, have a carefully constructed theology. But everyone has a worldview.”(p19)

-“We thus end in an ironic paradox. Naturalism, born in the Age of Enlightenment, was launched on a firm acceptance of the human ability to know. Now naturalists find that they can place no confidence in their knowing.”(p106)

-“The problem [with the morality of our day] is not that moral values are not recognized but that they have no basis.”(p108)

-“Art is nothing if not formal, that is, endowed with structure by the artist. But structure itself implies meaning. So to the extent that an artwork has structure, it has meaning and thus is not nihilistic.”(p115)

-“The weakness of resting on a paradox is the difficulty of knowing where to stop.”(p137)

-“In postmodernism the essence of modernism has not been left behind. Both rest on two key notions: (1) that the cosmos is all there is – no God of any kind exists – and (2) the autonomy of human reason.”(p242)

-“If we expect to know anything, we must assume we can know something.”(p281)

-“Christian theism as I have defined it was culturally abandoned not because of its inner inconsistency or its failure to explain the facts, but because it was inadequately understood, forgotten completely or not applied to the issues at hand.”(p284)

Specific Criticisms

While I have said that this is a great text for getting to know what worldviews are out there it is not without its flaws. Minor flaws include such things as mistaking metanarratives for meganarratives, which results in a skewed critique of postmodernism. I also think Sire would have done better to be slightly more objective in his analysis, and to weigh the power that the questions being asked have over the conclusions that are reached. Finally, I think Sire could have been somewhat more self-aware as regards his judgments of the opposing worldviews, recognizing that his judgments are based upon the standard set by Christianity. While the opposing views are judged by their inconsistency (which is excellent), they are also judged by their failure to conform to the authors own presuppositions (which is less excellent, but still worthwhile for a certain audience).