Book Review: Hitler’s Theology – By Rainer Bucher

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Letter TThere aren’t many individuals in modern history more studied – or at least referenced – that Adolf Hitler. As we know from Godwin’s Law, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.”

One of the areas which has received less attention in all of this discussion is the topic of Hitler’s theology. Many assume that Hitler was an atheist, others that he was a Christian, and others believe that it is irrelevant what his thoughts about the theological were. A sea’s worth of ink has spilled trying to discern what happened in Germany during the early part of the 20th century, but very little on the topic of Hitler’s theological system. Enter Rainer Bucher.

Mr. Bucher’s goal in this is not to argue against or disprove Hitler’s theological views, but merely to study what they were, and to furthermore study why many theologians (and philosophers and scientists in actuality) welcomed his views so enthusiastically.

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

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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 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.

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Book Review: The Angelic Doctor‏ – By Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain The Angelic Doctor.pngLetter TThe Angelic Doctor, as one might well guess from the title, is Jacques Maritain‘s biography of Thomas Aquinas, as well as a treatise on the philosophy of monolithic thinker. The latter portions of the book are especially devoted to discussing the philosophy of Aquinas as it affects us today and laying out what Maritain believes to be the proper course of action for Christians in the face of the various systems of thought which face them.

As noted the first sections of the book are devoted to discussing the life of Aquinas in a purely biographical arena. The life of Aquinas as presented by Maritain is both readable and informative, as well as insightful.

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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.

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FATQ: Is there any biblical justification for exploring space?

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Letter IIn recent news, Congress has passed a bill (S.3346) which is being hailed as “a solid commitment” towards the goal of having a manned mission to mars within the next 25 years. The bipartisan bill authorized a budget increase for NASA, taking their total budget up to “$19.5 billion.”

This raises the question in many minds: Is there any biblical justification in exploring space and more importantly, spending such large amounts of money to do so? It seems to be an important question, after-all, we don’t want to support something if it amounts to a violation of God’s law.

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Book Review: The Man Who Was Thursday – By G.K. Chesterton

 

Chesterton Man Who Was Thursday.pngletter-oOver the past few years I’ve read almost every work written by Chesterton. This book, however, stands above the others as having been my first glimpse into his paradoxical yet brilliant mind. I was first exposed to it in a video-game, Deus Ex, which coincidentally turns out to be one of the greatest video-games ever created – whether or not this was in part because portions of this text were included in it perhaps we’ll never know…

Written in 1908, The Man Who Was Thursday is a book which is difficult to pin down, though it has stood the test of time and remains one of Chesterton’s most famous works. Not only is it hard to pin down now, but it was hard to for critics to pin down back then as well, and even Chesterton in his autobiography keeps from completely explaining what exactly is going on. It’s part espionage, part mystery, part allegory and part philosophy on the state of man. At less than 200 pages it’s certainly worth the time it takes to read it.

The story revolves around the man Gabriel Syme as he is recruited into a new sect of Scotland Yard, a group who believe that “the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher,” and thus seek to infiltrate the Council of Days, the intellectual dynamiters who would reek anarchy upon the nation. At the center of this council is the ominous and ambiguous Sunday, a leviathan of a man who seems to posses an unclear and yet overwhelming power of being. It is a story that is at once compelling and comic, surreal and yet touching on the heart of the human condition. It has a pattern of predictability and yet still manages to keep to the reader guessing though to the puzzling end.

The only thing left worth stating are Chesterton’s own words on the book, though to get a true idea of his vision one must of course read the book: “So far as the story had any sense in it, it was meant to begin with the picture of the world at its worst and to work towards the suggestion that the picture was no so black as it was already painted…. I was trying vaguely to found a new optimism, not on the maximum but the minimum of good. I did not so much mind the pessimist who complained that there was so little good. But I was furious, even to slaying, with the pessimist who asked what was the good of good.”

Memorable Quotes:

“…burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the central ideal of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it.”

“No one has any experience,” said the other, “of the Battle of Armageddon.”

“But I am really unfit-“

“You are willing, that is enough,” said the unknown.

“Well, really,” said Syme, ” I don’t know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.”

“I do,” said the other-“martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good day.”

“Yes,” he said in a voice indescribable, “you are right. I am afraid of him. Therefore I swear by God that I will seek out this man whom I fear until I find him, and strike him in the mouth. If heaven were his throne and the earth his footstool, I swear I would pull him down.”

“How?” asked the staring Professor. “Why?”

“Because I am afraid of him,” said Syme; “and no man should leave in the universe anything of which he is afraid.”

Specific Criticisms

If you wanted to criticize something about this book there are two big points you could use. The first is the repetition of similar twists, resulting in a predictable pattern of events once you notice what’s going on. The second is that the ending of the book, and thus the book as a whole, is very hard to make sense of.

On the first, while there is this element of repetition to the book I don’t necessarily view it as a bad thing. It’s like using a trope or a cliche, it’s only bad if you use it poorly. Chesterton doesn’t use pattern poorly, but instead uses it to give an overall flow and form to the novel, similar to the bass-line in music. It is somewhat predictable, but that’s not what it’s about, it’s about everything that’s going on around it and where that pattern leads.

On the second, there’s not much I can say about this, especially without just giving away the ending. Hopefully the commentary given by Chesterton helps in resolving that.

Book Review: The Truth War – By John MacArthur

 

John MacArthur Truth War.pngLetter TThe Truth War is John MacArthur’s account and call-to-arms against what he claims to be the most pressing pitfalls in contemporary theology, specifically, postmodernism and the arrival of the emergent church. Most pointedly it addresses the issue of truth and what we can know concerning scripture, as well as delving into just what it is that is causing so much trouble in today’s churches.

MacArthur begins his book with an expounding of just what it is that ‘truth’ means, how it relates to Christianity, and how it relates to the context of culture. Naturally MacArthur takes a very strong stance on truth, as opposed to the “rejection of every expression of certainty” that he identifies with the postmodern movement. This done he then goes on to explain just how it is that contemporary theology got to the place that it is, giving a brief overview of the progression of philosophers and finally arriving at a critique of those present ‘theologians’ who align themselves with the emergent church, especially Brian McLaren (who is seen as one of the chief leaders of the movement).

The overall theme of the book is one of the need to contend for the faith, to defend the truth, and to assert the truth of Christian doctrine rather than abandoning the hard truths in favor of appealing to the culture and society at large.

It is about exercising Biblical discernment and refusing to give into those who sacrifice truth in order to gain acceptance. The postmodern calls the Christian arrogant for asserting the ability to know any truth with any certainty, instead raising up an idol of uncertainty and ambiguity, removing from Christianity anything that defines it as being separate from the world or even as a religion distinct in itself – preferring to acclimate wherever possible. Since no doctrinal truth can be asserted in these contexts the ‘believer’ (if they can still be called that) is simply encouraged to live the Christian life. A call to salvation and repentance of sins is out the window and yet another works-righteousness heresy is lifted up in its place.

MacArthur presents a call to truth in contemporary churches, especially those who would call themselves evangelical and yet show no discernment in “rightly dividing the word of truth,” but simply roll with the fads. In being just over 200 pages it’s a moderately short, easy read, and gives a good view of the way those in the church see the emergent church movement and why they feel so strongly the need to struggle against it. The goal is not only to enlighten the reader as to the struggle, but to engage them in it, not in arrogance or harshness, but in order to defend the truth of Christ, lest his gospel be stripped of it’s message in favor of yet another form of works-righteousness (at least theoretically, more on that below).

Memorable Quotes:

“Truth never changes with the time, but heresy always does.”

“The belief that no one can really know anything for certain is emerging as virtually the one dogma postmodernists will tolerate. Uncertainty is the new truth. Doubt and skepticism have been canonized as a form of humility. Right and wrong have been redefined in terms of subjective feelings and personal perspectives.”

“The most compelling question in the minds and on the lips of many pastors today is not “What’s true?” but rather “What works?” Evangelicals these days care less about theology than they do about methodology. Truth has taken a backseat to more pragmatic concerns”

“Christians ought to have learned by now that we cannot avoid being an offense to the world and still remain faithful to the gospel. The gospel is inherently offensive. Christ Himself is offensive to all who reject the truth.”

Specific Criticisms

My first few criticisms have less to do with MacArthur’s message and more to do with his presentation. For example while the book is moderately short there are various chapters which could quite simply be removed without the book actually losing anything. At one point MacArthur spends numerous pages discussing the book of Jude, who Jude was, the significance of his name and how it’s translated, and the in’s and out’s of what it is that is going on with Jude that prompted his book. Now, while all this is a good and well and is nice to know, it really doesn’t do much in advancing the theme of the book.

MacArthur’s goal here seems to be to explain why Jude knows what he’s talking about due to the things he’s been through and his relationship to Christ. For somebody who simply accepts that Jude knows what he’s talking about on merit of it being in the Bible, all this isn’t really necessary – still I guess it is useful for those who might need some more convincing.

A similar area which I feel doesn’t do much to advance the books theme is a near chapter-long summary of various early heresies and their histories in the church, specifically Sabellianism and Arianism. While this is all good information in understanding the history of the church and the history of heresy, and why we should fight it, it seems that the same effect could have been accomplished in just a few paragraphs, rather than repeating oneself for pages on end.

The last criticism in this vein is that while there are these two areas which seem side-tangents from the main theme stuck in the middle of the book, the ‘Appendix’ is one of the best chapters in the book and is regulated to being jumbled in after the conclusion. Personally, I’d have much rather had the sections found in the appendix dispersed relevantly throughout the rest of the text.

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Moving on from that, another area which MacArthur may hurt his message is in his harshness; despite his repetitions that the Christian should act gentleness he has a tendency to blast his opposition. This goes along with another criticism, which is his focus on only a few of the emergent church thinkers such as Brian McLaren (with brief mentions of Rob Bell and a few others). I’ve seen this particular facet of the text criticized as bifurcation between orthodoxy and the most radical of the postmoderns (given that there are not only lesser degrees but also diverse types). MacArthur would do better to focus less on individuals and more on the movement as a whole; it’s easy to find a few cringe-worthy individuals in any movement.

My last, and probably biggest complaint with the book is that I don’t think MacArthur has much of an understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of postmodern thought.

One might argue that he is immune to this criticism because of the fact that he is primarily addressing postmodern theology itself and the things which go along with it, rather than the philosophical root of the matter – ie, he’s addressing the problems that it creates in the church, not necessarily the worldview as a whole. This is similar to treating the symptoms rather than illness.

While he does make a few good points against the emergent church and does give a good [albeit extremely superficial] understanding of postmodern theology, I think if he were wanting to write an actual apologetic against it he would do better to attack the root, demonstrating how emergent church theology is ultimately drawn from these faulty premises. If he attacks only the manifestations in theology his opponents can simply disagree with him, for he hasn’t done anything to shake their worldview – if he cuts their root, even if he doesn’t defeat them he’ll at least force them to enter the discussion.

Granted, this entire criticism could be set aside on the argument that that isn’t the audience MacArthur is addressing, that he just wants to give the general populace sufficient reason to reject emergent theology. Personally, I think he could have done both.

Regardless, one gets the impression in reading MacArthur that the only information he has about postmodernism is what he has read from its critics. That may be enough information if your only interest is preaching to the choir, but it fails in the sphere of offering any substantial engagement.

Book Review: On Liberty – By John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill On Liberty.pngletter-aAs stated by Mill the topic of On Liberty is the role society should take in interfering with the liberty of an individual, that is, the amount of power that society may legitimately exercise over its people.

The sphere of Mill’s inquiry is the system of a democracy, where the main danger to individual liberty is that of the “tyranny of the majority,” in which minorities are subjected to the whims of the majority such that the “weaker members of the community” are “preyed upon by innumerable vultures.” Mill’s argument is that “self-government” is not “the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest.”

Mill’s main thesis is that society and the governing bodies have no right to interfere with the liberty of thought, action or individuality in any person save when those liberties may cause harm to others; that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” This is to say that society is unable able to interfere with individuals unless they’re harming somebody, not including themselves – a person has every right to do harm to themselves and society may not intervene simply for the good of the individual.

Apart from this, Mill also believes that keeping away the “tyranny of the majority” is good not only for the individuals and the minorities, but for society itself as well; that the argumentation/discussion which leads from freedom of thought is pivotal in the development of the society and truth. It is only in this that societies can avoid stagnation and people can truly learn; they must be able to see both sides of the argument (from people who truly believe them) and the ideas must be allowed to clash, thus, “genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.”

In arguing for freedom of expression Mill argues that because the opinions of the individual may be true (or at least contain some portion of truth) and because human fallibility makes it so there are none fit to judge whether the opinion is true anyway, full freedom must be granted; not only this, but because there are none fit to judge, [according to Mill] there is no absolute certainty.

This is all to lead into a sort of Hegelian system which Mill puts forth, noting that both sides of any argument generally only contain a portion of the truth and that it is only by bringing these two ideas together that the full truth can be found; a balance must be found between the ideas. The ideas must clash and in this clashing the synthesis between them will be found.

Overall Mill’s text is a good read even for people today. The ideas being presented are just as relevant now as they were during Mill’s time, such the fact that the voice of third parties is all but crushed in the U.S.’s two party system or the discussions over gay marriage, abortion, or even something as small as free speech zones on college campuses. All of these feed back into the issue being discussed by Mill, that is, how much power society should be able to wield over its members and just what is the nature and extent of our liberty.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.”

-“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

-“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

-“What was not wanted was that the rulers should be identified with the people, that their interests and will should be the interest and will of the nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will There was no fear of tyrannizing over itself.”

Specific Criticisms

From a secular standpoint I’m not sure how much can be critiqued of Mill’s ideas. From a Christian standpoint there are two chief issues which may be taken.

The first issue that may be taken is with the idea that ‘over himself the individual is sovereign.’ This is exactly the mindset which Scripture rails against and sets up as the original sin, to think that we are our own sovereigns, to usurp the sovereignty of God over his creations.

The second issue which may be taken is with lack of any solid judge for truth. Simply put, the Christian would argue that God is the standard against which we measure truth, and due to his immutability he stands as a very good standard by which to judge. There is still the factor of fallibility which Mill notes, however this is not to say that truth cannot be discovered or that no statements can be set as entirely false.

Book Review: The Meaning of It All – By Richard P. Feynman

feynman-the-meaning-of-it-allletter-eEvery now and then I browse for a book to read outside my normal discipline, and this was the one I chose for my quarterly dose of science. In this I have to say that I was only partially successful, and it’s only tenuously that I actually categorize this as a scientific text.

While science is no doubt the key element around which the text is written, it is much more concerned with a philosophy of science than a study of some specific scientific idea, and even more-so than that it is concerned with the the general thoughts of how the author perceives science as interacting with the rest of the world.

The Meaning of It All is a text adapted from a series of lectures given by the late Richard Feynman in 1963 at the University of Washington. As noted above, I think the proper category for the text is in the philosophy of science. Feynman opens with a discussion of what exactly science is: what does it encompass, what is its purpose, what is outside its bounds, and what are the fundamental features of the endeavor.

The two chief principles laid out are the value in science of uncertainty and doubt, hence: “All scientific knowledge is uncertain… You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.” and “If we were not able or did not desire to look in any new direction, if we did not have a doubt or recognize ignorance, we would not get any new ideas.”

What follows from this talk of what science is and how it operates is a discussion of how science (and its methods) can and do affect various other aspects of life to include religion, politics, psychology, ethics and society in general. In a sort of biographical prose Mr. Feynman discusses everything from the church and education to war, from flying saucers to faith healing to telepathy to politicians and the role of government. He is entertaining, witty, and openly honest, with the added benefit of being informative.

At only 122 pages The Meaning of It All is a short book, and one that makes for a very fun and light introduction to the philosophy of science. I imagine, also, that it is a very good introduction to the writings of Mr. Feynman, or at least it was for me, and I will probably be keeping my eye out for other books by him. He may be over 20 years passed, but he is still a fun and relevant read, even if some of the things he discusses are long past.

Memorable Quotes:

-”Why repeat all this? Because there are new generations born every day. Because there are great ideas developed in the history of man, and these ideas do not last unless they are passed purposely and clearly from generation to generation.”(p.4)

-”Words can be meaningless. If they are used in such a way that no sharp conclusions can be drawn.”(p.20)

-”The third possibility of explanation of the phenomenon is that the young man perhaps doesn’t understand science correctly, that science cannot disprove God, and that a belief in science and religion is consistent.”(p.36)

-”You see, if you don’t have a good reason, you have to have several reasons…”(p.43)

-”The only way that we will make a mistake is that in the impetuous youth of humanity we will decide we know the answer. This is it. No one else can think of anything else. And we will jam. We will confine man to the limited imagination of today’s human beings.”(p.57)

-”This is in the attitude of mind of the populace, that they have to have an answer and that a man who gives an answer is better than a man who gives no answer, when the real fact of the matter is, in most cases, it is the other way around.”(p.66)

-”Writing commentaries is some kind of disease of the intellect.”(p.115)

Specific Criticisms

If I wanted to be extremely nitpicky I could probably critique some of Feynman’s comments on religion, but really, that would serve no purpose, so I won’t. When taken as a whole there is very little I could take issue with. One comment I might make is upon the conclusion where Mr. Feynman discusses how ideally (in the realm of morals and ethics) we could simply agree that we agree, and not argue about why we each agree upon the given conclusion.

Perhaps the chief issue with this line of thinking is that it offers no justification; if ethics are not justified, but simply agreed upon, then there is nothing to say that they are not arbitrary apart from popular consent. Morals and ethics simply become a matter of majority rule – but what about the minority or the one who questions the ethics of those who all agree with each other? Simply, if we are without a why then we are without a reason.