Book Review: The Pursuit of God – By A.W. Tozer

Tozer The Pursuit of God.pngLetter IIn his book The Knowledge of the Holy A.W. Tozer outlines what it is we mean when we speak of God, in The Pursuit of God he outlines what our response should be once we have found him. The Christian endeavor doesn’t end with salvation, with discovering God (or as it were, with God discovering us); even after God is acknowledged we are still to strive after him, indeed, because of this acknowledgment we strive after him. As Tozer says: “To have found God and still pursue Him is the soul’s paradox of love…”

And yet the problem for many Christians according to Tozer is that they may have come to a ‘right’ understanding of God and yet aren’t experiencing Him in their lives, “To most people God is an inference, not a reality. He is a deduction from evidence which they consider adequate; but He remains personally unknown to the individual.” Furthermore “Everything is made to center upon the initial act of ‘accepting’ Christ (a term, incidentally, which is never found in the Bible) and we are not expected thereafter to crave any further revelation of God to our souls.”

This the problem which Tozer confronts, this loss of pursuit which hits Christians who settle for a simply intellectual knowledge of God or who believe that the work of Christ ceases to affect their lives after salvation. If they do continue their work they do so by turning to programs, methods, organizations, and activities, believing that the pursuit has ended; yet God is speaking and the Christian must strive for experience with him. We must continue to pursue him and experience him, despite obstacles which stand in our way such as the fear of being found out as inadequate, complacency, or perhaps worst of all, the dividing of the Christian life into various spheres and being content to confine our religious life, our pursuit after God, into simply one of these spheres.

As Tozer notes: “One of the greatest hindrances to internal peace which the Christian encounters is the common habit of dividing our lives into two areas, the sacred and secular… Its deadliest effect is the complete cleavage it introduces between religion and life… Let every man abide in the calling wherein he is called and his work will be as sacred as the work of the ministry. It is not what a man does that determines whether his work is sacred or secular, it is why he does it. The motive is everything.” The outplay of this is often spoken of as the doctrine of vocation.

This the goal after which Tozer is striving, that we make God the Lord of our entire lives. Not just the lord of a certain moment to which we attribute our salvation. Not just to that hour or two a week we spend in church. Not just to a sphere of religion, apart from our work and our family and our hobbies. Rather for Tozer the pursuit of God is to indwell our entire life and we are to continue to strive to not only know of God but to experience him as well.

Overall this is a solid devotional book by Tozer. At just over 100 pages it is a fairly short (and easy) read which will no doubt serve the reader well in their desire to pursue God.

Memorable Quotes:

-“[Abraham] has everything, but he possessed nothing.”

-“Social religion is perfected when private religion is purified.”

-“Obedience to the word of Christ will bring inward revelation of the Godhead.”

-“Rest is simply release from that burden. It is not something we do, it is what comes to us when we cease to do.”

-“The whole course of life is upset by failure to put God where he belongs. We exalt ourselves instead of God and the curse follows.”

-“In the Scriptures there is practically no effort made to define faith… It assumes the presence of faith and shows what it results in, rather than what it is.”

Specific Criticisms

Despite the overall good review of this book there are a few criticisms which I have of it. One of the most prominent comes from this statement: “God made us for Himself: that is the only explanation that satisfies the heart of the a thinking man, whatever his wild reason may say. Should faulty education and perverse reasoning lead a man to conclude otherwise, there is little that any Christian can do for him. For such a man I have no message.

While it may be perfectly true that there is nothing any Christian can do for them (and even that is a stretch), to say that you have no message for such a man while proclaiming the Christian message is patently absurd. The statement is to say “If you are already seeking God then I have a message for you, otherwise sorry bub, you’re on your own.” The Gospel message is expressly for the person which Tozer notes here, to dismiss them on such brittle ground as “faulty education” is to do a disservice to the message being given. One might argue that this Gospel message isn’t the express concern of this book, but I disagree, for any book concerned with Christianity the Gospel is the only concern it may have – it is simply expressed in different forms and at different stages.

A more minor issue comes in the statement that “Self is the opaque veil that hides the Face of God from us. It can be removed only in spiritual experience, never by mere instruction.” While this may be true Tozer fails to elaborate exactly by what means this experience comes about, how it is removed (that is, by the work of Christ).

A final issue which I take with Tozer in this text is his statement that “Before a sinful man can think a right thought of God, there must have been a work of enlightenment done within him; imperfect it may be, but a true work nonetheless, and the secret cause of all desiring and seeking and praying which may follow.” This comes following Tozer’s introduction of prevenient grace (that said, this issue is one general theological theory, Tozer is more Arminian that I). I believe it is a vast disservice to call the enlightening work of God in man “imperfect.” A more correct term may be ‘immature’, in the sense the sanctification has only just begun and will grow to maturity throughout the Christian’s life. I will grant that it may be perfectly possible that Tozer has the same idea in mind with the term ‘imperfect’, that it will be ‘perfected’ over time through sanctification, however this isn’t the impression which is given.

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: Rid of My Disgrace – By Justin & Lindsey Holcomb

JandL Holcomb Rid of My Disgrace.pngletter-sSexual assault is not something that happens to someone, ends, and is over; rather, it has lasting effects that can have an impact on every aspect of the person’s life. In Rid of My Disgrace, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb seek to address shame and disgrace, particularly powerful and lasting influences on those who have experienced sexual assault. While these are real effects, there is hope for escape from them, and it is this hope which the authors seek to convey.

The authors go about addressing this in three parts. In the first part of their book the define sexual assault, analyze its effects (to include the trauma, negative stereotypes, and self-blaming), discuss the emotions which go along with it, and begin a discussion on how healing is to be found in the grace of God. The second part of the book focuses on how this grace is applied, with each chapter being preceded by the story of somebody who was sexually assaulted and gained the freedom of grace.

This section of the book seeks to address six ways that grace is applied: first in overcoming denial (facing the truth, admitting the damage, naming the evil, and seeking God’s presence); second in restoring the distorted self-image (through the renewed identity in Christ); third in defeating shame (through the biblical truth of its defeat by Christ on the cross, whereby shame no longer defines nor has power of you); fourth in removing guilt (through the biblical truth of the grace of God being applied; through the truth that you are accepted by God); fifth in assessing anger (realizing that anger is warranted and justified, and yet moving from this to find forgiveness); and sixth in escaping despair (through the hope of redemption in Christ).

This second section is the more practical application of theology portion of the book. In the third part they move on to a general presentation of the gospel of grace as particularly addressed to victims of sexual assault, and as seen through the lens of the Old and New Testaments, ending with a concluding prayer.

All in all, this text is an excellent presentation of the gospel’s power to overcome the shame and disgrace inflicted by sexual assault. While there is much other healing which may need to be done, the truths presented here are central to finding a solid basis on which the person may find freedom from their shame.

Memorable Quotes:

“What has happened to you was not your fault. You are not to blame.”-p.15

“Grace is being loved when you are or feel unlovable.”-p.15

“the message you hear most often is self-heal, self-love, and self-help.”p.16

“Naming and describing the evil done to you does not ensure automatic personal healing. However it does provide clarity regarding sexual assault, and it allows for acknowledgement.”-p.35

“What you believe has a huge connection to how you respond to disgrace, violence, denial, shame, guilt…”-p.44

“Perhaps the greatest fear of a person marked by shameful defilement is the fear of exposure.”-p.102

“No longer do you have to hold your head in shame in prayer, but you can come to the Father with Christ-centred confidence.”-p.203

“Christ’s victory give us back our identity and restores our meaning.”-p.204

Book Review: Candide – By Voltaire

Voltaire Candide.pngLetter VVoltaire seems to be one of those figures in philosophy who’s name everybody recognizes and yet one doubts whether they’ve actually read anything by him. Most seem ready to quote him as saying “a witty saying proves nothing” whenever they’ve been bested with a quote; which is at once incorrect, a self-contradiction and a misquotation.

The writers of the movie The Nines are some of these individuals who know Voltaire’s name but don’t seem to have ever read him. This is evidenced in their having the main character reading a copy of Candide, while another character comments on the the desirability of “the best of all possible worlds” (and then the movie ends with the best of all possible worlds). While it’s true that Candide does revolve around the best of all possible worlds, it’s express goal is to argue that this world is not the best one possible.

Voltaire’s Candide, is as said, written in response to an argument in which his opponent is claiming that this world is the best that it can be and can be no different. The Professor Pangloss takes up the role of Voltaire’s opponent in the book, arguing that “‘It is demonstrable,’ said he, ‘that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. ‘” Whenever anything bad happens it is his role to respond “it was a thing unavoidable, a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds.”

The formula of the book is very simple, and it would suffice for the reader to simply read the first few chapters and the last – everything in-between is fluff serving to drive home a repetitive argument. Quite simply the story starts out with Pangloss giving his philosophy and then subsequently everything that can go wrong does, lots of murder, rape, and bloodshed designed as a counterargument to Pangloss, concluding with the notion that we must “cultivate our garden.”

I can’t say that I have much to say about the book. It’s short and can easily be read in one setting; if nothing else it’s worth picking up just so one can say they’ve read something by Voltaire. Candide’s shortness is rivaled only by it’s simplicity, which makes one wonder why it is even as long as it is.

Memorable Quotes:

“I was in hopes,” said Pangloss, “that I should reason with you a little about causes and effects, about the best of possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and the pre-established harmony.”

At these words, the Dervish shut the door in their faces.

“I have only twenty acres,” replied the old man; “I and my children cultivate them; our labour preserves us from three great evils–weariness, vice, and want.”

-“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

Specific Criticism

Again, I have little to say about this text. It’s better seen as a philosophical rebuttal than a work of fiction, thus it gets monotonous rather quickly. My only annoyance is that it takes thirty chapters to say what it could have said in three.

Book Review: On Guard – By William Lane Craig

LaneCraig On Guard.png

Letter IIn the world of Christian apologetics, William Lane Craig is one of the contemporary giants, and is also one of the philosophers primarily responsible for the resurgence of classical Christian apologetics (as opposed to presuppositional).

On Guard is what is described as a “one-stop, how-to-defend-your-faith manual,” and aims at providing a basic overview of the classic arguments for the Christian faith. Craig begins his text by presenting a defense of apologetics itself, and a justification for it, to demonstrate of what great difference question such as “Does God exist?” and “Why does anything exist?” are of such importance. Following this Craig goes through some of the classical arguments for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument, the argument of fine-tuning, the argument from morality, and also deals with the question of suffering. After this more philosophical approach to apologetics Craig turns to the more historical/evidentialist/Biblical approach, discussing such questions as the historicity of Jesus, the resurrection, dispelling the mistaken belief that Jesus being a ‘legend’ is a valid option, and the exclusivity of the Christian faith.

Throughout this Craig not only offers the basic logical arguments, but also – in the classic manor of Aquinas – also offers the basic objections to his arguments, followed by a rebuttal against those objections. This aspect of the book is perhaps one of the most helpful parts; many holes which I thought drilled in the classic arguments were plugged by Craig, to my great satisfaction.

After having studied presuppositional apologetics over the years I had come to the conclusion that the classical approach to apologetics was bunk, having been beaten into final submission by Kant, and yet Craig in this text manages to answer most of the objections that might be offered. I have to say that it was an overall refreshing read.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Part of the challenge of getting American people to think about God is that they’ve become so used to God that they just take Him for granted. They never think to ask what the implications would be if God did not exist. As a result they think that God is irrelevant.”-29

-“The question is not: Must we believe in God in order to live moral lives… can we recognize objective moral values and duties without believing in God… can we formulate a system of ethics without referring to God… Rather the question is: If God does not exist, do objective moral values and duties exist?”-134

-“I’m convinced that for most people the terrible suffering in the world is really an emotional, not an intellectual, problem. Their unbelief is born, not out of refutation, but out of rejection.”-153

-“This is really quite extraordinary when you reflect on how obscure a figure Jesus was. He had at most a three-year public life as an itinerant Galilean preacher. Yet we have far more information about Jesus than we do for most major figures of antiquity.”-185

– “In a real sense, then, hell is self-perpetuating. In such a case, every sin has a finite punishment, but because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment.”-273

Specific Criticisms

While I did thoroughly enjoy this book, it is not without its problems. My most pressing complaint to get out of the way is the fact that this book doesn’t have an index, which automatically drops it a few points in my book. As somebody who frequently does research, an index is an indispensable part of any book and I always get annoyed when an otherwise good book doesn’t contain one. Some other problems might be:

– At some points I feel that Craig relies a little too much on scientific theories in order to prove his point, such as with the Big Bang and the expanding universe. While it might be possible to make these theories work in favor of the Christian system, they are still only one possibility and therefore too much stock should not be placed in them.

– In regards to the problem of suffering, it needs to be noted that the question is not whether God and suffering are incompatible once the system is in play – that is, now – but the probability of it coming it being at the outset.

– Even with Craig’s splendid presentation of the cosmological argument, a contention might still be that it may just as well prove the possibility of a polytheistic world as a monotheistic one.

One other problem which I haven’t had the time to think through at the moment is Cornelius Van Til‘s classic critique of this sort of apologetic that it leads to a Platonic God; that it ‘proves’ a God which is not the Christian God and therefore proves nothing at all (at least in relation to Christianity).

Book Review: The Concept of God – By Ronald H. Nash

 

809930Letter The Christian doctrine of God has throughout history been subject to incredible debate and controversy, specifically as regards his attributes. Within the past few centuries it has become increasingly common to question the coherence of the Christian view of God, with two of the most recent adversaries being those who believe that the Christian view of God (or any God) must be abandoned altogether (atheists) and those who wish to keep a view of God but wish to alter it dramatically (the Process theologians).

In The Concept of God Ronald Nash aims on the one hand to defeat the argument that theism is incoherent in itself, and on the other to address what road to take within theism. The two most visible alternatives are between Thomistic theism and Process theology, yet Nash desires to make it clear that this is not a mutually exclusive relationship.

Throughout the course of the text Nash analyzes six different attributes of God – omnipotence, omniscience, eternity, simplicity, immutability and necessity – in order to show that it is possible to create a coherent system between these and to create one that neither falls into Process theology nor is forced to be content with Thomism.RonNash

While Nash spends much time quoting other writers, the strength of this book is that it attempts not to leave any critique or option unaddressed. Furthermore, Nash is upfront in terms of his own thoughts on the matter, and when he is unsure of the absolute conclusion he lets the reader know.

All in all The Concept of God is not only a great discussion on six of the attributes of God and the doctrine of God overall, but it is also a great view into how the doctrine has developed throughout history and as well as the current trends in thought, which is where Nash’s liberal use of quotations comes in.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The conflict between Thomistic theism and Process theology s basically a revival of the struggle between competing schools of Greek philosophy, one emphasizing being, the other stressing the dominance of becoming.”(p31)

-“Since any sound argument or refutation must begin by presupposing certain rules, it is impossible to argue against someone who rejects the most basic rules of reasoning.”(p39)

-“Whatever God’s relation to the laws of logic may be, it is clear that all human thinking and communication must presuppose the law of non-contradiction… A supralogical God is a God about whom nothing can be said or known. Moreover, a supralogical God would introduce devastating implications into any religion promoting such a concept. If God can do self-contradictory acts, then there is no inconsistency in His promising eternal life to all who trust in Christ but actually condemning to everlasting damnation all who trust in Christ.”(p40)

-“So long as changes occur only in God’s intentional order (that is, in God’s consciousness), His immutability is not compromised.”(p102)

Specific Criticisms

All in all, I don’t have any criticisms of this book. I think the author could be a little more clear as to when he is giving the opponent’s position and when he is giving his own, but this is only minor.

Book Review: God and Philosophy – By Etienne Gilson

Gilson God and Philosphy.pngletter-god and Philosophy is author Etienne Gilson‘s history of philosophy as regards its relationship with the idea of God and the demonstration of his existence. The text is divided into four sections: God and Greek Philosophy, God and Christian Philosophy, God and Modern Philosophy, and Contemporary Thought, roughly following the progression of thought from the Milesians through Augustine and Aquinas to Descarte, Spinoza, and finally Kant, Comte, Einstein and Huxley.

The history of philosophy presented by Gilson is very well done, yet it is the analysis and critique found within each of the sections which makes the text truly worthwhile. Here we see the tension of the Greeks between philosophy and religion, the medieval wrestling with metaphysics that they borrowed from the Greeks, the Enlightenment in turn borrowing from the scholastics in reconciling their science, and finally the scientists disregarding metaphysics and wondering why their science cannot answer questions that it is no designed to ask.

All in all Gilson’s text is a lucid, insightful and fairly accessible text regarding the way that the world has approached the notion of God, the difficulties in reconciling him with the philosophies of the day, and the shortcomings of the various systems in confronting the question. I’ve chosen a rather large number of memorable quotes as I feel they can better sum up the position and the merits of this text than I can through summation.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The great curse of modern philosophy is the almost universally prevailing rebellion against intellectual self-discipline. Where loose thinking obtains, truth cannot possibly be grasped, whence the conclusion naturally follows that there is no truth.”(pXV)

-“The Greek gods are the crude but telling expression of this absolute conviction that since man is somebody, and not merely something, the ultimate explanation for what happens to him should rest with somebody, and not merely with something… Mythology is not the first step on the path to true philosophy. In fact, it is no philosophy at all. Mythology is a first step on the path to true religion: it is religious in its own right.”(p22)

-“Human reason feels at home in a world of things, whose essences and laws it can grasp and define in terms of concepts; but shy and ill at ease in a world of existences, because to exist is an act, not a thing.”(p67)

-“Modern philosophy has been created by laymen, not by churchmen, and to the ends of the natural cities of men, not to the end of the supernatural city of God.”(p74)

-“The essence of the true Christian God is not to create but to be.”(p88)

-“The true reason why this universe appears to some scientists as mysterious is that, mistaking existential, that is, metaphysical, questions for scientific ones, they ask science to answer them. Naturally, they get no answers. Then they are puzzled, and they say that the universe is mysterious.”(p123)

“Why should those eminently rational beings, the scientists, deliberately prefer to the simple notions of design, or purposiveness, in nature, the arbitrary notions of blind force, chance, emergence, sudden variation, and similar ones? Simply because they much prefer a complete absence of intelligibility to the presence of a nonscientific intelligibility.”(p130)

-“Yet the fact that final causes are scientifically sterile does not entail their disqualification as metaphysical causes, and to reject metaphysical answers to a problem just because they are not scientific is deliberately to maim the knowing power of the human mind.”(p132)

-“We do not need to project out own ideas into the economy of nature; they belong there in their own right. Our own ideas are in the economy of nature because we ourselves are in it. Any and every one of the things which a man does intelligently is done with a purpose and to a certain end which is the final cause why he does it… Through man, who is part and parcel of nature, purposiveness most certainly is part and parcel of nature. In what sense is it arbitrary, knowing from within that where there is organization there always is a purpose, to conclude that there is a purpose wherever there is organization?”(p134)

Specific Criticisms

I don’t really have any criticisms of this text. There are a few random bits that I either failed to understand or disagreed with, such as the assertion that science has been successful in coming to a “perfectly consistent philosophy of the mechanical universe of modern science” and this somehow shows that the pure philosophical positions are somehow found more truly in science than Christianity.

FATQ: Will There Be Free Will In Heaven?

freewill.pngLetter Today’s Frequently Asked Theology Question is: Will there be free will in heaven? If so, is there a chance anyone in heaven will ever sin? Adam and Eve communed with God and yet sinned, so how probable is it that millions of people with free will can refrain for all eternity?

The answer to this question depends a lot on what we mean when we say ‘free will.’ In general there are two different things we can mean:

1) “I can choose whatever I want” – Libertarian Free Will

Firstly there is what we might call the libertarian free will. The idea of libertarian free will asserts that a will is free when it is unbiased and completely unbound by any causality. This will is not determined by human nature, the environment, the will of God, or even our own desires (the will is the source of desires, not vis versa). These things may exert influence on the will, but they do not ultimately determine its choices.

The will is free in this sense when it has no decisive influences skewing it one way or the other. It has ultimate self-determination. It has the capacity to do anything, good or bad, left or right, chocolate or vanilla.

It is this notion of free will that is usually at the center of debates concerning determinism, of whether free will can coexist with the sovereignty of God or whether we are truly free if God knows the future, and it is this notion of free will that Jonathan Edwards dissects in his book The Freedom of the Will.

Part of Edwards’ argument is that this notion of the free will is counter-intuitive, that it just doesn’t make sense. As he explains, this notion of the free will “rests on the supposition that out of several possible courses of action the will actually chooses one rather than another at the same time that it is perfectly indifferent – perfectly evenly balanced between them – which is just say that the mind has a preference at the same time that it has no preference.” Edwards’ point is that we cannot say that the will has no preference and also say that it chooses, because the act of choosing implies a preference. The will, then, is determined by something; it is not free in this sense.

Rather than speaking of the will being free, Edwards posits that we should speak of the agent being free. The will is not self-determining, but is determined by the acting agent, by the person, by “the willing spirit.” The question, then, is whether the spirit is free, and what determines the preferences of the spirit.

2) “For freedom Christ has set us free” – Christian Free Will.

There is then a more Augustinian/Calvinistic – and I would argue, Pauline – notion of ‘free will’ which asserts that the libertarian notion of a free will is imaginary (or at most, only ever existed in Adam & Eve). Here the will is always biased one way or the other, towards sin or towards righteousness; the will is biased because the spirit is biased.

Whether or not the will is free, in this sense, depends on what the will is biased towards. If the will is biased towards evil, then it is not free. It is a slave to sin. If the will is biased towards righteousness, then that is when it is ‘free’, free from its slavery to sin.

In the biblical model it must be said that the will always has desires, and a will that has a desire or propensity to choose evil is not free.

The freedom of the will is thus about propensity first, not capacity. Capacity comes second, in that propensity determines capacity. A will that has a propensity to good is incapable of doing evil, and vis versa.

A ‘free will’ in biblical categories is thus a will that has been set free from its slavery to sin and which is now biased towards serving God. At present our wills are only partially free, for we are still mortifying sin. Upon glorification (that is, in the new heavens and new earth) our wills will be fully free, that is, fully biased towards righteousness. In this sense it is better to talk about a “freed will” than a “free will.” The will has been freed from its bondage to sin.

Thus, contrary to the notion of the libertarian free will where the will is the source of desires, in the biblical understanding the desires are the sources of the will. It is the heart and the spirit that ultimately matter.

Our wills will be free in that they will have no desire towards sin and therefore no capability of sinning. A will that still held the capacity to sin would be a will that still held the propensity to sin, and as such it would not be free.

Thus I would follow Augustine‘s model as laid out in his Enchiridionwhich is further explained by Thomas Boston in his Human Nature in its Fourfold State. Commenting on these four states of mankind Augustine states that “the first is before the law, the second is under the law, the third is under grace, and the fourth is in full and perfect peace.”

These four states are therefore: (1) before the Fall, where we were ‘able to sin and able not to sin’; (2) after the Fall, where we are ‘not able not to sin’; (3) regenerate man, where we are ‘able not to sin’; and (4) glorified man, where we are ‘unable to sin’.

The new earth is not a return to the seemingly unbiased state of Adam, but it is a state better than his, a state where we are fully free from any temptation or desire to sin and fully desirous of glorifying God. When you have been fully made new by God – ie, glorified – such that your only desire is to glorify Him, then sin will be by definition impossible.

So far as the Scriptures are concerned, it is only this freedom – the freedom of the will from sin – that has any meaningfulness when speaking of the will. John Piper puts it well when he says that “instead of speaking of the will as free or not, I prefer to speak of people as free or not, because that is the way the Bible does… Christians are free from the bondage to sin and from the oppressive demand of having to perform our own salvation.”

It is therefore not so much that there will be no opportunity to sin, but that there will be no propensity to sin and therefore a lack of capacity for sin, and it is this lack – replaced with a desire to glorify God – that will make our wills truly free.

[For a discussion of how the libertarian notion of free will might coincide with the Christian faith in the amoral sphere (ie, regarding actions that lack a moral character), check out Sovereignty and Contingency in Christianity.]

 

Book Review: Found: God’s Will – By John MacArthur

Found Gods WillLetter TThe will of God is not a thing that is lost, in need of finding; in fact, it is quite an easy thing to discover. This is the opening point of John MacArthur‘s book Found: God’s Will which – as the subtitle asserts – aims to help the reader find the direction and purpose God wants for their life.

In this straightforward little text, MacArthur works to reorient the reader’s understanding of what it means to find or be in God’s will. The popular conception is that one must work to discover what that specific thing is God wants you to do with your life through great self-reflection and a healthy amount of wise discernment, with maybe a little mysticism thrown in for good measure. MacArthur’s point is that figuring out what God’s will for your life is is much simpler than it has been made out to be.

In laying the groundwork for this point, MacArthur first argues that the primary will of God for your life is your salvation. This requirement, above all else, must be met if one wants to know anything further about God’s will. As MacArthur argues “If you are stumbling around in life and tossing up some periodic prayers to God but have never come on your knees to the foot of the cross and met Jesus Christ, then you are not even in the beginning of God’s will. God has no reason to reveal to you anything particular about your life because you have not met qualification number one: salvation.” (p.13)

Following this MacArthur lays out four other things that the individual must do if they are to know God’s will further. They must: become Spirit-filled, where “The only way to [become Spirit-filled] is to study that book that discloses all He is!”(p.33); become sanctified, by remaining pure, subduing the passions, treating others fairly, etc; become submissive, ie, submit to lawful authority; and suffer, as “if you are a Christian who is living a godly life in an ungodly world, you will suffer.”(p.54)

With this foundation laid, MacArthur moves to make his primary point, that is: “God’s will is that you be saved, Spirit-filled, sanctified, submissive, and suffering. God’s Word makes all of this clear… If you are doing all five of the basic things, do you know what the next principle of God’s will is? Do whatever you want! If those five elements of God’s will are operating in your life, who is running your wants? God is! The psalmist said, “Delight yourself in the LORD; and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4). God does not say He will fulfill all the desires there! If you are living a godly life, He will give you the right desires.”(p.67-68)

That is to say, if you are properly pursing God in your spiritual life, if you are striving towards holiness, then God will place His will in your heart, such that your specific desires will match his specific desire for your life. Thus, if you are striving for holiness, you should do whatever you want, because your wants and desires for your life will match God’s wants and desires for your life. Thus: “Get into the mainstream of what God is doing, and let Him lead you to that perfect will.”(p.71) because “You see, the will of God is not primarily a place. The will of God is not, first of all, for you to go there or work there. The will of God concerns you as a person. If you are the right you, you can follow your desires and you will fulfill His will.”(p.74)

MacArthur does a good job of convincingly laying out his argument through this little text. His point is short, simple, and yet with great depth, and overall makes for an enjoyable and edifying read.

Apart from the central point of the book, MacArthur also gives a helpful tip for becoming familiar with the Bible. Instead of reading one set of verses or chapter a day until one finishes a book, MacArthur suggest reading through an entire book (or section of a book, if longer) every day for thirty days. Thus, one would read through the entirety of 1 John every day for thirty days, at the end of which one will have a very solid understanding of what 1 John says; one then continues this same pattern with the other books (again, breaking the larger books into sections).

Memorable Quotes:

“When will the Christian realize that they have everything?”-22

“If you are waltzing through life comfortably, it either means that you are not living a godly life or you are living it out in the bushes in a place where the ungodly world cannot see you.”-55

“If the truth offends, then let it offend. People have been living their whole lives in offense to God; let them be offended for a while.”-63

Specific Criticisms

As laid out by the book How Then Should We Choose: Three Views on God’s Will and Decision Making, MacArthur’s approach to finding the will of God most closely resembles what the books calls the ‘Relationship View’, in which one’s relationship with Christ provides the context for the discernment of God’s will. MacArthur has his own nuance, but the basic point is that if you pursue God in holiness, he will align your will to His specific will for your life. This gives it much in common with the ‘Specific-will View’ presented in the book, which argues that God has a specific will that the individual must in turn discern. MacArthur and the ‘Relationship View’ essentially replace the criteria ‘discernment’ with ‘holy living’, each of which will in turn lead the individual towards God’s specific will for their life.

In opposition to these two views, I am much more likely to lean towards what is termed the ‘Wisdom View’ by the book. This view posits – much like MacArthur – that God’s primary will is his moral will as revealed in Scripture and needs to be obeyed; thus, one God’s will is that one be saved and pursue sanctification, doing everything to the glory of God. This view asserts that, in turn, God provides wisdom to those who ask in order to make good decisions, yet ultimately asks the individual to trust in the sovereign [specific] will rather than attempt to discern it.

Thus, the Wisdom View posits that God’s will for you life is your salvation, and that you pursue holiness, that’s it (an idea worked out well in Kevin DeYoung‘s book Just Do Something). That is what God’s will is for your life. God’s will is that you be saved and pursue holiness, living your life to glorify God. This is much in line with Martin Luther’s idea of vocation, where it does not matter what job you have in life, just that you do it to the glory of God.

Thus, in opposition to MacArthur, I would tend to argue that getting saved and living a holy life not cause God to plant His specific will for your life in your heart (ie, take this job or do this thing); rather, getting saved and living a holy life is God’s specific will for your life. Getting saved and living a holy life is not a means to the end goal of entering into God’s will; getting saved and living a holy life is God’s will, it is the end to which we strive. Thus, if we are saved and living a holy life, we can do whatever we want. Yet, unlike MacArthur, we don’t do whatever we want because God has made us want some particular thing that he wants us to want. Rather, we do whatever we want, because God simply wants us to glorify Him in whatever we do.

As long as both choices are morally righteous, God doesn’t care whether we take this job or that job, marry this person or that person, do this or that; he simply cares whether – when we take this job or that job, marry this person or that person – that we do so to his glory. We work at whatever job we take in such a way to glorify God. We conduct the relationship with whatever person we marry to glorify God.

God has a sovereign will for our lives, but we simply trust in this fact, rather than taking it upon ourselves to figure out what God has in store for us. You cannot be outside of God’s sovereign will, so there is no need to discern it, there is only need to trust in it. But you can be outside of his moral will, therefore, that is the thing that matters in discerning God’s will.