Book Review: Homosexuality – The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate; By Stanton L. Jones & Mark A. Yarhouse

jonesyarhousehomosexuality.png
Letter TThe topic of homosexuality has been discussed from a variety of angles from within the Christian context. Some scholars seek to address the ancient near-Eastern and Greco-Roman contexts in which the Scriptures were written to best understand their injunctions, others attempt to deal directly with and exegete the Biblical texts.

The goal of Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse in their book here is to analyze how the most recent scientific research effects the Christian moral debate around homosexuality. To be clear, the book is not written to answer the question of whether homosexual actions are immoral in light of science, the authors begin from the assumption that it is. The goal is rather to show that “while science provides us with many interesting and useful perspectives on sexual orientation and behavior, the best science of this day fails to persuade the thoughtful Christian to change his or her moral stance.”(p.13) The goal is to answer the question of how research on homosexuality should inform the Christian understanding of homosexuality.

Overview

The basic issue that Jones and Yarhouse see in the current climate is that “After the stem ‘science says…’ sweeping and inaccurate generalizations are often made. After such generalizations ethical conclusions are often thrown out that are only loosely tied to the supposed scientific facts.” (p29) This book is written both to clarify what the current research actually says and to analyze how those findings are brought to bear on ethical discussions.

Continue reading

The Christian and Submission to Civil Government

govt

letter-aAGeorge Weigel reported in First Things, the past one-hundred years have been “the greatest era of persecution in Christian history,” so much so that “more Christians died for the faith in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history combined.

More and more often in the world there is an slowly increasing antagonism between the secular governments and the people of God. This antagonism has manifested itself even in the United States: Christian bakers and photographers being sued and driven out of business for refusing homosexual weddings; Christians-run businesses being forced to support programs that fund abortion; an overall increasing belief nationwide that person’s belief should be kept private.

As this antagonism continues and strengthens Christians are forced to ask the question: how are Christians to relate to government? Should they submit? Obey? Resist? Rebel? To what degree can Christians engage in civil disobedience while still being faithful to Peter’s command to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” and Paul’s command to “let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”

Continue reading

Sacred & Secular: How Should Christians Interact With the World?

vocationLetter IIn his classic work Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton asks whether one can “hate [the world] enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?”In this quote Chesterton – likely much to his chagrin – expresses something more in line with the reformer Martin Luther, setting Christ and culture in a paradoxical tension.

As sociologist James Davison Hunter has noted in the past, there is a tension between the church and the world that should not be minimized; there must be both affirmation and antithesis. According to Hunter, Christians can engage in world-building, but this is not kingdom-building (and it will not evolve into the kingdom this side of heaven). This affirmation is balanced with a constructive subversion of the negative aspects of the world. Hunter’s vision boils down to a doctrine of vocation – of being faithfully present in the world.

There is a danger when taking this approach of dichotomizing life into the sacred and the secular and thereby forcing the Christian faith wholly into the private realm. A proper doctrine of vocation should not result in a separation of the sacred from the secular, but of that which glorifies God from that which doesn’t.

Continue reading

What Evangelicals Can Learn From Rob Bell (and why they hate him)

holmesbellLetter MMy new favorite podcast – along with Mere Fidelity and The Partially Examined Life – is Pete HolmesYou Made It Weird. It’s an absolutely fabulous podcast, where comedian Pete Holmes just sits down and talks with a guest for two or three hours (usually on the topics of comedy, relationships, and God).

A few years ago he had an episode with Rob Bell, and it got me to thinking about what makes Mr. Bell so likable and helpful to so many. There is a message that Bell is sending that many identify with, and it’s a message that the evangelical community – so often the target of his critique – can and should learn from.

Mr. Bell is offering a valid critique of evangelicalism that evangelicals shouldn’t ignore. He is identifying some real problems in some traditional forms of Christianity. There is no shame or compromise in admitting that, because agreeing that the problems are real doesn’t mean evangelicals also have to agree with all of Bell’s solution to those problems.

By and large, evangelicals can learn from Bell’s exploration of the problems, but it’s his solutions to them that make them hate him (and in turn, make them ignore an otherwise valid critique).

Continue reading

Book Review: Galatians For You – Tim Keller

timkeller galatians for you.png
letter-gGalatians For You, as might be suspected, is a commentary on the book of Galatians. Timothy Keller’s aim with the book is to offer a bible centered, Christ glorifying, relevantly applicable, and easily readable look at the book in question.

The key point of Galatians for Keller is the fact that “the gospel is the A to Z of the Christian life. It is not only the way to enter the kingdom; it is the way to live as part of the kingdom. It is the way Christ transforms people, churches and communities” (p9). Paul is in essence calling his readers to live out the implications of the gospel, and Keller’s utmost goal is to point out to his readers how “It is not simply non-Christians but also believers who need continually to learn the gospel and apply it to their lives” (p11).

The commentary acts as a passage-by-passage (and to a degree verse-by-verse) breakdown of the book of Galatians. The chapters for each passage are then broken into two parts, with each part ending with a few “Questions for reflection.”

Throughout his commentary Keller lays out the uniqueness of the gospel and challenges the idolatrous habits in the lives of believers and nonbelievers alike. Keller brings out the fact that the gospel leads to both spiritual freedom, to cultural freedom, and to emotional freedom. The gospel offers freedom, and in a sense even freedom from the moral law, but – as Keller is keen to point out – “though not free from the moral law as a way to live, Christians are free from it as a system of salvation” (p42).

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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:

Continue reading

Should a D.Min be called ‘Doctor’?

duke divinity.png
letter-lLast month we talked about what a DMin is, and we ended that article with the question of whether or not someone who has earned a DMin should be referred to as ‘Doctor’.

So let’s talk about that.

At a glance the obvious answer would be “well of course they should be called doctor, it’s right there in the degree: Doctor of Ministry.” For many, though, this is not an adequate response, mainly because it is seen as giving the DMin too much credit, as putting in on par with a PhD.

Others say that neither of those should really be called doctor, that we should reserve the term for those in the medical profession (think Tim Allen’s character in The Santa Clause not wanting Neil to be referred to as a doctor since he’s just a psychiatrist).

To begin to answer this question let’s first look at the history of the term doctor.

At its base definition, the term doctor historically refers to an eminent theologian declared a sound expounder of doctrine or simply a learned or authoritative teacher. Etymologically, the word derives from the Latin verb docere ‘to teach’ (especially in reference to doctrine). It was first used by Cicero in his discussions of rhetoric and picked up by the early church to refer to the apostles, church fathers, and other authorities on the Bible (such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome as doctor ecclesiae, ‘doctor of the church’).

John Calvin expanded this designation into a more official office of the church (along with pastors, elders, and deacons), where their duty was to “the interpretation of Scripture only, in order that pure and sound doctrine may be maintained among believers.”

If we are basing our conclusions on etymology, it is likely safe to say that the one who has achieved a DMin fits  into this definition.

On the flip side, it could theoretically be asserted that – following Calvin’s model – that the DMin is disqualified because it is a degree pursued by pastors, by people who preside over discipline, the administration of the sacraments, admonitions, and exhortations, not people who’s sole job is to properly interpret the Scriptures.

If we choose to go with the loose definition, a DMin suffices as someone who is [ideally] a sound expositor of doctrine or a learned teacher in the church. The pastor by any definition is also a teacher, and if they have studied far enough to earn a DMin then they certainly qualify as a learned teacher of the church. If we choose to go with Calvin’s strict formulation of the offices of the church, then it might not.

Etymology seems to provide a case either way, so let’s look at academic rigor instead. One reason often given for not honoring DMins with the title of doctor is that the DMin is really just a fluff degree, ‘PhD Lite’, or a watered-down doctorate (as we saw last time, the fact of the matter is that it’s just a different type of degree).

The question is then raised, how do a PhD and a DMin stack up against one another academically?

In answering this question let’s look at a case study. Let’s look at Westminster Theological Seminary and compare the requirements for a DMin versus those of a PhD (assuming you did your entire academic tenure there beginning after undergraduate).

Below is a breakdown of what a student at WTS would  go through start to finish, based off an MAR leading up to the PhD and an MDiv to the DMin (note, this is a breakdown I put together based upon the information provided on the WTS website).

Westminster DMin PhD.png

So how do they stack up?

The PhD is a longer program than a DMin, and also has a much more substantial final project in its dissertation as opposed to the applied research project of the DMin. On the flip side, in the end a DMin will have taken quite a few more semester hours overall, and it would likely take an individual longer to get an MDiv and a DMin.

That is all merely to say, the PhD is no doubt more intense than a DMin, but the amount of coursework required to achieve a DMin is no pushover.


Note: We might also point out here that it is not accurate to compare the DMin to something like a Juris Doctor (which is a master’s level degree). A more apt comparison would be between someone in the medical field getting an M.D. versus a PhD in medicine.


Basing this case study at Westminster also gives the PhD an even higher boost. The average master’s-level degree is closer to 36 semester hours; thus, if a student earned a standard master degree and chose to go to a school that didn’t require the learning of Greek and Hebrew, the PhD would top out at 72 semester hours and 2 languages, compared to the DMin requiring well over 100 semester hours of coursework regardless.

This means that it is perfectly possible -and indeed, likely – to have a PhD who has completed about half as many semester hours as a DMin.

There is certainly something to be said for the dissertation, but there is also certainly something to be said for potentially having gone through twice as many semester hours; granted, this is largely due to the mammoth size of the standard MDiv, but I’d contend one should take the MDiv into account.

Given all of this, is it appropriate to refer to a DMin as doctor?

In my opinion, yes, based both on the historic usage of the term and on the amount of coursework put into earning the degree. By the time someone has finished a DMin they should certainly qualify as a sound expositor of doctrine and a learned teacher in the church, and they will have potentially done much more bare coursework than the average PhD.

That said, what should be avoided – and the thing that many objectors have a problem with – is the desire to be called doctor; that is, a minister who insists that those around them refer to them as a ‘doctor’ or who introduce themselves as such. There is a temptation towards pride that must be guarded against (though the same can be said of the PhD).

It as accurate to refer to a DMin as ‘doctor’, though whether it is prudent is perhaps a matter of circumstance, and we can probably agree that anybody who mandates that they be referred to in that manner is a prig.

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.”