Book Review: Hitler’s Theology – By Rainer Bucher

Hitlers Theology Bucher
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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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).

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FATQ: Can Science Disprove Free Will?

brain

Letter TThere is no shortage of speculation today as to whether sciencemost often, neuroscience or quantum physics – has successfully disproven the idea of free will. “Free will might be an illusion created by our brains, scientists might have proved,” or so the commentary would have us believe.

Philosophers and theologians have said much on the topic, it is said, but what is needed is something more concrete, something that can prove the issue one way or the other. In short, something more scientifically testable. The assumption of free will is said to be eroding as “the sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect.”

As we are better able to analyze the networks of neurons in our brains – networks shaped by our genes and environment – there is widespread agreement that “the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.” If these neurons are not subject to our will, we must not be free – or so the argument goes.

The issue here is primarily one of methodology.

The methods of science necessarily work in the direction of determinism because science is concerned with the question of causes. If you can only ask about causes, you will without fail end in determinism. Thus, to say that science comes down on the side of determinism is to do little more than utter a truism.

As F.H. Jacobi put it: “Every avenue of demonstration ends up in fatalism.” 

Or Paul Roubiczek: “[Determinism] is the natural outcome of the scientific method; it is bound to work in the direction of establishing causality… As the method is designed to disclose necessity, freedom can never be proved in this way.” 

Roubiczek’s final point is the clutch of this discussion.

A method designed to disclose necessity cannot prove something defined as being without necessity.

Science – and to a similar extent, rationalism – are focused almost exclusively on the question of causality. When one of the only questions that can be asked is “what caused this?” it should come as no surprise when the process can point only to various causes. Even if science were to discover something which seemed uncaused, the good scientist would proceed on the assumption that the cause was simply unknown or undetectable via the current equipment or processes.

Science has a necessary bias towards causality; this is not a weakness or a fault, but merely a limitation. In the end, science can neither prove nor disprove free will, simply because it is a question which falls outside the bounds of what science can determine.

[This question ends up being less of a theology question and more of a philosophy question. It’s relevance to theology comes in the way that questions about God or ethics similarly simply fall outside the bounds of what science can determine. Those who think otherwise – as Richard P. Feynman put it – don’t “understand science correctly, that science cannot disprove God, and that a belief in science and religion is consistent.”]

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.

The Puritans: Church and State

puritansLetter DDuring the early seventeenth century the group known as the Puritans left England and settled the area of New England, there setting up their colony. They would do this due to a combination of wishing to escape religious persecution in England and the desire to create for themselves a sanctuary where they could develop their ideas and prove to the world that their form of religion could work.

In the creation of their colony the Puritans wished to be sure that the same sort of situation were the church was dominated by the government would not occur in their colony as it had in England, however at the same time they wished to create a “city upon a hill.” In organizing and making their colony a reality the Puritans would need to have a working relation between the church and the state to give liberty to their citizens but also to ensure discipline and deter depravity.

Three authors that discuss this dynamic in various ways are Jack P. Greene in his book Pursuits of Happiness, Thomas J. Wertenbaker in The Puritan Oligarchy, and David D. Hall in his book The Faithful Shepard.

Each work discusses the topic and for the most part, each work agrees fluidly on the way that the Puritans organized their colonies and dealt with the issue of the relationship between the church and the state.

The State’s Duty to Maintain the Church

In his book Pursuits of Happiness, Jack Greene delves into the formation of the British colonies in North America and their social, cultural and economic development. In his discussions Greene spends some time addressing the creation of the Puritan colonies and the relationship they had between church and state.

Greene is quick to note the desire of the Puritans to become a model for the Christian world to form itself after and that in this desire for such a Christian model the Puritans would need a powerful church and clergy.

Furthermore, in order to create such a model the relationship between the religious and civil leaders would need to be a close knit, supportive one. The Puritan colonists desired a community of Christian love and of people of the same mind as themselves.

They desired to keep order, hierarchy, and subordination and in doing so to exercise control over the economic, moral and social conduct of the citizens; all imperative for maintaining their model Christian colony.

This was coupled with a desire to exclude and isolate those who opposed their beliefs, a justification for being highly intolerant of other religions.

In the course of reaching these ends the magistrates passed laws mandating that communities establish schools for the purpose of creating in children the right religious and social principles desired. The state thus required religious schools.

Furthermore, Puritan voting rights were based upon the classification of freemen, a classification which was given only to those with church membership. Greene even goes so far as to note that in the duties of the magistrates apart from “establishing political institutions, allocating land, making laws” and “dispensing justice” included “reinforcing the position of the clergy and churches.” It is this relationship and debates over the organization of church government, focusing much on voting rights, which would cause the Puritans much trouble later.

Not only does Greene discuss the way in which the civil aspects cooperated with the religious, but the religious also worked towards helping the civil government. The Puritans accepted a social hierarchy as well as the authority of their magistrates, authority which was enhanced by the cooperation of the clerical leaders.

The religious leaders believed that it was their responsibility to create and maintain a “political society which would have as its primary emphasis the protection of the rights of the churches.”

The Puritans believed the community was bound in a covenant with God. This visible group of secular and clerical leaders, which they often brought with them from England, gave authority to the government as well as the church through their cooperation.

Finally Greene notes the strong power of family in the Puritan community. According to Green these strong, extended, patriarchal families played a part in helping to keep the social control and in guaranteeing peace. This power was so much that it leaned towards oligarchy as a few wealthy families dominated office, families that had previously grown from the older powers.

All in all Greene views the Puritan relations between church and state as a cooperative one. The church helped the state and in turn the state helped the church, thus giving the ministers considerable political power. To top it off the community as a whole was dominated by powerful, near oligarchic, families.

Church & State – Mutually Supportive Enforcers

In his book The Puritan Oligarchy Thomas Wertenbaker approaches the relationship between the church and the state from multiple angles and for the most part, Wertenbaker and Greene agree on how this relationship was conducted. He notes the close relationship between the civil and the religious and expounds upon the degree to which they worked as one.

Beginning with the founding, Wertenbaker notes that the Puritans intentionally tied the government with the church in the colonies due to their failure to gain support in England before their migration.

In this the ministers had a powerful influence in the community; a power that was not only religious, moral or intellectual, but also political.

The amount of power that the minister held is made apparent in the voting laws. As Greene had also pointed out, in order to vote a person had to be a freeholder, or freeman, and in order to be a freeholder a person had to be a member of the church.

The rationale for this was that only people of God could elect godly leaders.

The minister’s power came in that he had the ability to excommunicate the members of the church. This ability would thereby indirectly give the minister the power to decide who voted and who didn’t, a considerable political tool.

To further tie the state and the church Wertenbaker describes how it was the congregation that elected the minister but it was the town as a whole that paid the minister’s salary. This meant that even those not a member of the church still paid for the minister (although at least for the first generation there were few inhabitants who weren’t members of the church).

Wertenbaker describes the Puritans as a whole creating a mutual ruling relationship between the church and the state. In support of this he quotes the Puritan Urian Oakes as declaring “the commonwealth and holiness in the churches inseparable” and that “to divide what God hath conjoined… is folly in its exaltation;” that God’s interests are set in both the institutions.

The church government was there to strengthen the civil government rather than to oppose it and the civil government was there to support the faith and suppress all others.

Both church law and civil law where to be based upon the Bible, thus it was also the duty of the magistrates to punish such things as blasphemy, heresy and idolatry. The magistrates were thereby in effect responsible for punishing sins.

Finally, Wertenbaker makes it apparent that for all intents and purposes, most of the people who ran the state also ran the church and vise-versa.

Since in the beginning almost everybody was in the church it was not unusual for the congregation and the political body to be one and the same, even though on paper the two where separate institutions. The freemen assembled in a meeting-house that the community was built around and as Wertenbaker notes they discussed both religious and civil affairs; as Wertenbaker puts it “it (the council) could at one moment be considering the matter for the common fence around a grain field and the next, if it so chose, convert itself into the congregation without leaving the meeting room.”

Wertenbaker builds a picture of the Puritan community as one were the church and state enter mutually supportive roles. Each was there to strengthen the other and to serve God. They were meant to work together and as Wertenbaker points out this was quite easy as the same people that made up the civil government also made up the congregation.

Church & State in Conflict

As with Greene and Wertenbaker, David Hall in his book The Faithful Shepard also describes the close relationship between the Church and State in Puritan New England.

Unlike Greene and Wertenbaker, Hall focuses more on the struggles concerning the minister’s role in the society and the changes in that role throughout the Puritan period, primarily changes concerning the appointing of the minister and voting rights. Hall’s goal is to follow the evolution of the minister’s status, power and conflicts from the founding through the declension.

He takes a slightly different stance on the church and state relations.

winthrop.jpegHall begins his chapter on Church and State by describing John Winthrop telling his shipmates that “a covenanted people must build their form of civil government upon the basis of the word.”

This is quite similar to Wertenbaker’s statement that the Puritans believed both civil and church law were to be based upon the Bible. However, unlike Greene or Wertenbaker, Hall goes on to note that with the creation of a godly state in mind, a “’Theocracy’ in which the civil government served the will of God” was the plan for the Puritans.

The Puritan ministers at a point began to speak in terms of “soldiers” and how these soldiers should act in Christ’s stead to rule the kingdom.

The magistrates, according Puritan Thomas Cartwright, were there to defend the church.

According to Cartwright “the civil magistrates must remember to subject themselves unto the Church, to submit their scepters, to throw down their crowns before the Church, yea, as the prophet teacheth, to lick the dust off the feet of the Church.”

Despite this goal of a sort of theocracy and the harsh subjection of state to church that Cartwright promotes, Hall describes a relationship between church and state that is quite adversarial.

Hall points out the church membership requirement in voting and how the Puritans believed this was vital in order for the state to be a tool for enforcing moral law. The state and church were also close in that the ministers had power and used it such as in cases of warfare where the minister had to be consulted beforehand. Even further the colonies extended the protection of the state to ministers.

Hall describes them as believing that the church and state should help and strengthen one another, allowing the ministers to intervene in state affairs, have direct consultations with the government and to attend sessions of the General Court, even when it met as a judicial body. This meeting of the ministers with the court went so far as to even allow the ministers in at least one case to listen to debate, give advice and make motions on the court floor. The meeting days would even be scheduled on lecture days so that the most ministers available could attend.

This shows great cooperation between the church and state, yet even with all of these factors to create a close relationship between the Church and State they were still often at odds with each other.

Puritan John Cotton insisted that the two institutions be separate but equal, both seeking to promote the good of men and God’s glory. He believed that both religious power in state hands and civil power in church hands were wrong.

Ministers turned to politics when attempting to turn theory into practice and found politicking useful for maintaining social order, the state fought against this.

In cases where this happened the social authority of the minister could be degraded. Furthermore, offices could not be held in both institutions such as in the case of Increase Nowell, an elder of the church who was told that he could not be both an elder and the secretary of the Massachusetts government. To make this matter more fragile there was the conflict over voting rights, and furthermore over whom it was that could ordain pastors, God or the people. The Puritans believed the post to be an “ordinance of God” but also needed to elect the individual, thus they sought ways around this.

With these complicated relations between the church and the state in New England a sort of compromise was reached in the time of the declension, though not to the original desire of either side. Hall notes how around the 1640s, the ministers joined with John Winthrop and his magistrates in order to fight against the “purists to their left and the worldly to their right” during the declension.

This alliance between church and state is still apparent, though it wasn’t the norm but rather a reaction to troubled times.

Hall shows just how complicated the relationship between the church and the state were in Puritan New England.

He shows them as being two institutions that weren’t meant to be crossed but that often worked together. He also shows them as being adversarial and working against one another at times despite their closeness, fighting to keep themselves separate and from becoming as they had in England, one institution dominating the other.

Putting It All Together

On the whole the three texts discussed all work together to create an agreeable theory. The three all recognize the requirement of church membership for the allowance of voting rights and the power of the ministers in regard to this, but also the strife that it caused between the church and the state. All three also agree on the close relationship between the church and the state and the power that both the ministers and the magistrates held.

They all note that the two worked together, or at least that the ministers had a strong hand in the affairs of the civil government and they also all recognize the state carrying out the lack of toleration of those not of the faith, persecuting for the church and its religious mandates such as those against blasphemy.

Whether the church and state are described as “separate but equal” or as a group of people fulfilling two roles, the mutually supportive relationship is the same.

Finally they all also agree on the power of the family, Wertenbaker even to the point of calling the colonies a “Puritan Oligarchy.” In these ways the three texts complement each other, each offering a good picture of the Puritan life. Each offers a slightly different point of view, whether the slight overview offered in Pursuits of Happiness, the focus on the founding, family, and decay in The Puritan Oligarchy, or the analysis of the minister’s changing duties and roles throughout the Puritan period in The Faithful Shepard.

Though there are no major contradictions there are some grievances between the conclusions reached by the authors.

Where Greene points to a hierarchy Wertenbaker argues against one, especially within the church government of the colony. Greene states that the Puritans wished to maintain a hierarchy and to subordinate those that disagreed with them. Contrary to this Wertenbaker notes that, especially in the church, the Puritans believed that there should be no hierarchy as it “had no sanction in the Bible.”

Hall also differs from both Greene and Wertenbaker in his depiction of the negative relations between the civil and the religious aspects of the Puritan society.

While all three describe the closeness that the church and state felt and the openness of the civil government and magistrates to the opinions and desires of the ministers, Hall more-so than Greene or Wertenbaker describes the disdain of the magistrates for the ministers meddling in civil affairs, especially towards holding office in both church and civil government. Hall also more than the others describes a subordinate position of the state to the church through the eyes of Thomas Cartwright.

The differing conclusions reached by each author show us one primary fact about the Puritans, the Puritans were not monolithic. If we read the writings of individual Puritans we find that some desired a more hierarchical system while others believed this unbiblical. We’ll find that many desired a close relationship between the church and the state while others saw this as problematic.

We will also find that the views of the Puritans as a group changed over time. During the first generation the Puritans as a group – while they still had their differences – were fairly homogenous. This is why it can be noted that early on to only allow church members to vote still resulted in most everybody being able to vote.

Yet as time passed the first generation gave birth to a second generation and a third. These latter generations were tied less to the ideals of their parents and grandparents. This resulted in an inevitable tension between those who were ostracized by the Puritan system, with tensions growing between the groups on the matter of how closely the church should identify with the state (and vis versa).

The Puritans had a close relationship between church and state, one that could be at times interpreted as a theocracy but was in fact much more complicated and filled with much more tension. It was a system in which the church attempted to guide the formation of the society through its influence in the state, but which ultimately could not be sustained as the society grew and became more diverse.

Rereading the Faith for Today – Gnostic Tendencies and Defending Against Them

 

Princeton.pngLetter IIn his book The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesterton asserts that “the whole world once very nearly died of broadmindedness and the brotherhood of all religions.”

Chesterton is here referencing the way the early church had to deal with their contemporary culture attempting to bring all religions into one accord; the solution as Chesterton presents it was to formulate a creed, to define the Christian faith against those who pushed for mere assimilation.

One of the groups which Chesterton has in mind here are the early Gnostics. Although early Christianity was able to overcome the threat of Gnosticism in its day there is a perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith, a perpetual tendency for sinful man to read the faith in a way congenial to his own culture. The failure of one attempt, such as the rationalistic Christianity of the Enlightenment, is followed by another, the Gnosticizing relativism of our present day.

When the the stars of cultural tendencies in which people re-read the faith align -as they have done today – the result in something akin to ancient Gnosticism.

This perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith thus gives the appearance of an ongoing gnostic tendency plaguing the church throughout its history. As Nicholas Perrin puts it “The battle between orthodoxy and Gnosticism isn’t over yet and probably won’t be any time soon.”

Gnosticism in its Origins

In his systematic theology The Christian Faith Michael Horton provides a definition of Gnosticism in which he states that the primary underpinning was dualism, such as a contrast between the God of the Old Testament and that New Testament or the contrast between matter as evil and spirit as good.

They sought salvation from the evil material world, and believed this could be accomplished by gaining a secret knowledge. The cause of this as laid out by Horton is that this group of Jews and Christians “tried to reinterpret the biblical narrative in a basically Greek philosophical framework.”

When we read Tertullian’s writing against the Gnostic heretic Valentinus one realizes that Horton’s definition is only a rough generalization of the Gnostic position. Gnosticism as it expressed itself during the period of the early church had a very elaborate metaphysic consisting of varied and convoluted emanations from the central deity which comprise the various spirits of the world, a complex creation account which places the god of the Old Testament at fault, and has the creation of mankind (and the material world as a whole) being an error.

Although the original expression of Gnosticism is quite complex it is not necessary to go into the exact details of the system. Part of the reason for this is because Gnosticism was expressed in a wide variety of ways during the period of the early church, and because it had such a strong focus on subjective experience and interpretation it is difficult – if not impossible – to give any explicit statement of exactly what Gnosticism entailed.

Another reason for this is because Gnosticism is to a large degree merely a borrowing of philosophic trends popular of any given period; in the instance of the early church this borrowing was done primarily from Platonism.

The result was a group which focused on “a subjective, immediate experience” and “concerned themselves above all with the internal significance of events.” It regarded “all doctrines, speculations, and myths – their own as well as others’ – only as approaches to truth.”

Because the focus here is on the subjective “knowledge of the self as divine is the essential pillar of Gnosticism.” It is with these attributes in mind that one may analyze how Gnosticism is affecting contemporary Christianity.

General Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Ideas reminiscent of Gnosticism entered the contemporary era in a variety of ways, and it might be said that it was these tendencies which brought about the revival of interest in Gnosticism proper present in contemporary academia.

While one of the more recent expressions of gnostic-esque ideals was the New Age movement of the 1980’s and 90’s, the principle characteristic responsible for the gnostic presence in contemporary Christianity is the aforementioned way in which the Gnostics attempted to reinterpret the faith in the light of their culture’s philosophy.

In H. Richard Niebuhr’s analysis of the different ways in which Christianity interacts with the world around it – Christ and Culture he labels this sort of approach towards society as ‘The Christ of Culture’. As described by Niebuhr this is the approach which interprets Christ “wholly in cultural terms and tends to eliminate all sense of tension between him and social belief or custom” and seeks to “reconcile the gospel with the science and philosophy of their time.”

In not-to-distant history this can be seen in the way Enlightenment and modernist worldviews attempted – in step with their gnostic forebears – to interpret Christianity in light of the science and philosophy of that time period.

The result of this attempt was a rationalistic Christianity which put forth the idea “that truth must be a risk-free venture, leaving us with only two options: absolute certainty or thoroughgoing skepticism.” One of the results of this was an adherence to “the notion that we believe the Bible to be God’s Word on certain proofs” and a standard which required an “interpretation-free history.”

It is rather ironic then that in an attempt to find an interpretation-free history, the liberals of the day merely managed to “reinterpret the faith by the pagan philosophy of the day.”

When this ideal of absolute certainty inevitably failed and skepticism took center stage the door was opened for writers such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels – and prior to them Walter Bauer – to try and legitimate the original writings of Gnosticism.

Through the perpetual tendency to re-interpret Christianity via the lens of the popular philosophy, ancient Gnosticism itself was once again able to gain a hearing in the public square.

Yet the rise of Gnosticism is not merely a result of the Enlightenment and modernist thinkers attempting to rationalize Christianity. Other philosophic developments have occurred since then – some of them good and some of them bad – which have also served in one way or another to promote this revival of Gnosticism. Perhaps one of the most relevant philosophic developments in this regard are those of Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault.

The first of these philosophic influences which has opened the door for Gnosticism – while at the same time itself owing its existence to the influx of gnostic tendencies –  is that of Derrida’s idea that there is ‘nothing outside the text.’ The idea presented is that reality is always being interpreted through the lens of language, so much so that reality itself is a sort of text requiring interpretation.

When interpreted through a more liberal schema, this is seen as showing that since everything is merely interpretation that the truth cannot be truly arrived at objectively, and therefore all interpretations are valid.

It is with cognitive dissonance that writers such as Ehrman and Pagels on the one hand insist on the modernist standards of an interpretation-free history, and on the other push the idea that all interpretations are valid.

Another of the primary philosophic influences forging the way for the Gnostic revival is the idea of Lyotard that has a disdain for meganarratives and an ‘incredulity toward metanarratives.’

The meganarratives are those which attempt to tell a grand story arching over human history, while metanarratives are those which attempt to legitimate themselves through appeal to some sort of universal reason.

The major result of this view was that the overarching narrative of the triumph of orthodoxy over the innumerable heresies began to be questioned, with a secondary result being an attack on the legitimacy of that orthodoxy’s appeal to something outside itself.

The last of these philosophic influences which was both brought about by gnostic tendencies in the faith and in turn enabled a newfound focus on ancient Gnosticism is Foucault’s idea that ‘power is knowledge’.

The idea behind this notion is that those in power have the ability to influence what is considered true ‘knowledge’, they are able to define what is the ‘correct’ interpretation of a given set of data.

For the resurgence of Gnostic thought-patterns, this meant that contemporary interpreters focused their attacks to a large degree on the way in which – according  to their view – the success of orthodoxy was merely the result of the dominant party powering their way to the front and rewriting the narrative surrounding their history.

Specific Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Even before there was an explicit focus on Gnosticism as a system, gnostic-esque ideas were working their way into the overall worldviews surrounding the church.

The primary of these aspects is the aforementioned tendency to re-interpret the faith through the lens of the popular philosophy.

During the early church period this played itself out in such a way that a variety of Platonism was brought into the church; during the modern period it played itself out in such a way that rationalism was brought into the church; in the contemporary period it is playing itself out in such a way that subjectivism and relativism have become major aspects of many churches.

The most aspect most reminiscent of Gnosticism in the contemporary church is the present focus upon individual experience, where truth is ultimately personal.

As has been already stated, the gnostics concerned themselves primarily with the internal significance of events, which in turn causes them to focus on the internal significance of whatever is perceived as conveying truth.

One way in which this presents itself in the church is a tendency in many Bible studies to focus on ‘what the passage means to me.’

Often, rather than attempting to try and discover what the intended meaning of a certain Biblical passage is, such groups focus on whatever personal feeling or message the reader thinks the passage is trying to tell them, and each person’s interpretation is just as valid as the next person’s. This individual interpretation and experience is elevated above adherence to any particular doctrine.

Indeed, the doctrines of the church are seen as things to be stretched and molded to suite one’s own personal understanding of truth.

A common phrase on the lips of those who take this line of thought is that ‘I have a relationship, not a religion.’ Here a false dichotomy is set up, for what they have is both a relationship and a religion, with the proper term for this being the church.

One chief effect of this focus on individual experience and interpretation is that it produces a class of Christians who are generally ignorant regarding what they believe or why they ultimately believe anything.

When faced with skeptics these individuals often find their faith shaken; when faced with those such as Bart Ehrman who tell them that there are other legitimate versions of their faith or that their faith is founded upon a lie, they have no idea how to respond (and may thus even end up embracing Gnosticism itself as a system, as opposed to merely being influenced by some of its aspects).

Those such as Rob Bell call them to question the doctrines of the faith, but fail to give any advise on actually arriving at an answer to those questions or on what standard these doctrines are supposed to be held to.

This is because the standard being looked to is not external, but internal.

The Christian faith turns to focus on “contemporary ideals of self-discovery, self-awareness, self-actualization, and self-salvation” coupled with a “dislike of any kind of authority” such as that represented in many doctrinal statements.

When the goal becomes this sort of self-discovery not only is the result a group of poorly informed individuals, but also a group that has little real cause for evangelism; since personal experience cannot be conveyed from one person to the next an attitude of ‘if it works for you, do it, if not then try something else’ is adopted.

Not only is simply difficult to be evangelical with a message of subjectivism, but such individuals must also worry about whether they are forcing their own beliefs on others – this fear of being imposing is perhaps the thing that kills evangelism the fastest.

Responding to Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Figuring out how best to respond to these trends is one of the challenges of thoughtful Christians.

tertullian (1)One good way to figure out how to respond is to look back to those who responded to these issues the first time they came about, such as Tertullian. In Tertullian’s writings at least three approaches may be found, to include: making others aware of what is influencing them, pointing out the shortcomings in their belief system along with the strength of the orthodox position, and appealing to the truth of Scripture.

The first way of response which can be picked up by Tertullian is simply to point out what it is that the other side is doing. That is, to bring it to their attention the way in which popular philosophy is influencing their beliefs.

This sort of approach is seen in Tertullian when he asks “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?” and goes on to exclaim “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition.”

His goal here is to bring it to the attention of his opponents – and more importantly to those who might be influenced by his opponents – where the true origins of their beliefs lie. The previous sections detailing the general and specific aspects of Gnosticism present in the contemporary world (including how they came to be there) are themselves an attempt at this approach, and thus while they served to be primarily informational, that information is an apologetic in and of itself.

Tertullian’s approach may be emulated in the contemporary world by pointing out the way that the church was originally influenced by modernistic values, which then led to its influence by postmodern values. Before the problem can be properly addressed those who fall prey to it must be made aware of it.

Another way of response which can be found in Tertullian is the need to point out the failings of the opposing position.

This sort of tactic can be seen throughout Tertullian’s writings, such as in his writings against Marcion, where he systematically goes through the different implications of Marcion’s views to show how they are inconsistent with themselves. One example of this is where he shows that Marcion’s god is weak and unjust, for “how is it possible that he should issue commands, if he does not mean to execute them; or forbid sin, if he intends not to punish them” because “it would have been far more right, if he had not forbidden what he meant not to punish.”

In the contemporary world this may be accomplished by pointing out the ways in which subjectivism and relativism really keep the individual from saying anything meaningful, and that merely adhering to the popular philosophy is simply to trade one master for another – except whereas one master is constant and able to speak to people consistently over thousands of years, the other is fickle and ever changing with every new fad of thought.

Yet not only does Tertullian demonstrate the shortcomings of the opposing view, he also demonstrates the consistency of the orthodox view.

An example of this is Tertullian’s classic line that “the Son of God died, it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.”

His point is not that the Christian faith doesn’t make sense, but that for it to make sense one must accept it as a whole.

In this case that entails accepting that Christ was a man of flesh, and that in turn “Christ could not be described as being man without flesh… just as He is not God without the Spirit of God.”

In the contemporary world this may be accomplished by pointing out the ways in which Christianity, or the world at large, only makes sense when taken from an orthodox point of view. Furthermore, because the Gospel message is true, it is the only thing that will be able to fully account for their feelings and experiences, and to then offer hope.

A final way that Tertullian gives a good example of how to approach contemporary Gnostic influences in the world is through appeal to the Scriptures.

As he states, “We want no curious disputation after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.” Thus Tertullian can be seen appealing again and again to truth as presented in the Scriptures, such as detailing the authority of Christ from Luke, or proving the nativity through Matthew.

In the contemporary world Christians must appeal to the truth of Scripture, because ultimately it is the only avenue to any sort of salvific truth. If individuals are convinced to follow Christianity because of something other than the truth of Scripture, then more than likely they are merely adhering a different philosophy than they were before, but have found no true conversion.

Today

The perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith has resulted in the resurgence of gnostic-style influences being alive and well in the world today, and through these influences a newfound focus on Gnosticism itself has arisen.

The primary of these influences is the tendency to interpret the faith in the light of the popular philosophy of the day, which in turn leads to a relativising and a watering-down of the truth.

The danger that this presents to the church is not something seen only by those defenders of the faith such as Chesterton. Quite the contrary, those promoting such gnostic views realize exactly what the danger is; as Elaine Pagels puts it, “Had Christianity remained multiform, it might well have disappeared from history, along with dozens of rival religious cults of antiquity.”

The difference lies in the fact that those such as Pagels view having dozens of rival religious cults as a better thing than having only one, because in the opinion of herself and those like her all of the rivaling cults are merely diverse approaches to truth and God. Because such individuals places no real truth-value on orthodox Christianity it is not a true problem for them if it fades into obscurity beneath a newfound diversity – indeed, that would be a good thing from their perspective.

Yet with a proper understanding of Scripture and of the theological and philosophic issues surrounding it, the Christian is aware of just how dangerous these trends can be.

Gnosticism is far from dead; as put by Alister McGrath, “Its echo is heard today in those who interpret Christianity as a religion of self-discovery, not redemption.” 

The Christian knows that grace and redemption is what is needed by the world, and it is with this in mind that they are called to fight against the influences which would try and make the faith palatable by making it relative.

 

 

 

Book Review: On Guard – By William Lane Craig

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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).

A Continuing Orthodoxy: A [Fairly Short] PCA History

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Letter Roots of the PCA

In telling the story of the Presbyterian Church in America there are a number of different places one can start. One could begin with the Reformation. Presbyterianism places itself in the Reformed tradition and thereby traces its roots back to the Reformation in the 16th Century, where the Reformers broke off from the Catholic church in order to work towards a purer theology.

Two of the main groups that would eventually come out of the reforms are the Lutherans and the Anglicans. Some distinctly Presbyterian groups would form in Scots-Irish lands and make the journey to the Americas; meanwhile in England, again seeking doctrinal purity, groups would once again work to reform the church. These groups from England – the Congregational Puritans, Presbyterian Puritans, and Separatists – joined together to form the Congregationalists in the 17th Century America, then divided into Presbyterians and Baptists in the 18th Century.

Once in America the first presbytery was established in 1706. The history of American Presbyterianism is marked by a series of splits and reunions, again with many of them being theological. Colonial era Presbyterianism would split over issues such as what qualified as ‘subscription’ to the confessional standards and over whether the church’s emphasis should be on confessional adherence or the more pietistic Awakening. The more revivalistic group who supported the Awakening were referred to as the New Side, the more strictly orthodox were referred to as the Old Side. These two groups would have many quarrels but would eventually reunite. The church as it was known at this time was the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.

Though they had worked through many of their differences in order to achieve union, the denomination would stay united for less than a century. Another split would come between what were referred to as the New School and the Old School. Revivalism was once again a part of the issue, as well as a more general battle of adherence to conservative reformed orthodoxy that would serve as a precursor to the later schisms that would occur in the wake of modern liberalism. The New School was of a more revivalistic stance whereas the Old School stood for confessional orthodoxy. The Old School and the New School would further split over the issue of slavery, with the Old School emphasizing the spirituality of the church and attempting to the keep the church out of the issue of slavery by focusing on its political aspects over its moral aspects. The Old School and the New School would eventually reunite in 1869, but before this reunion could come about the southern section of the Old School broke off in 1965 to form what would become The Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS).

It is from this denomination that the PCA was finally formed.

Breaking from the PCUS

            The break of the PCA from the PCUS is the defining moment of PCA history. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries a way of approaching the Scriptures called ‘theological liberalism’ had been making its way from Germany into the Christian churches of America. By the early 1930’s it had began making its way into the PCUS. Those who aligned themselves with theological liberalism sought to apply the rigid standards of science and rationalism to the Scriptures.

The result of this was often a denial of such key doctrines as the the inerrancy and authority of Scripture and the deity of Christ. These men sought to get their views accepted into the churches by first getting their views accepted into the seminaries and the colleges. Once they had taken the seminaries then they would be the ones educating the ministers, who would then take their teachings into the churches. This agenda didn’t only affect theology, but also replaced what had previously been a focus on evangelism and missions with a focus on the social agenda.

The problem was not with the social reforms in and of themselves, but with the unhinging of the social reforms from the evangelical and missional focus.

As theological liberalism worked its way into the churches, by the time of the 1960’s and 70’s many ministers in the PCUS felt that they could not remain in the denomination. Kennedy Smart noted that “I knew I was denying my Lord and lending my name to actions which denied the Word of God.” He would go on to say that “The Bible was not our authority, but rather, our authority was the humanistic agenda of men whose view of Scripture allowed them to choose for themselves what they wanted to accept as the Word of God.”

They felt that it was no longer possible to remedy the problem through the practice of church discipline in the courts, and so they took the advice of Francis Schaeffer who said that when this happens “you must practice discipline in reverse and leave, but your leaving must be with tears, not with flags flying and bands playing.”

With this reverse discipline in mind many ministers began to meet and discuss how to go about breaking off from the PCUS (with a focus on how to keep their church property in the process).

On December 4, 1973, delegates from 260 churches met in Birmingham, Alabama, to form the National Presbyterian Church, which was soon renamed to the Presbyterian Church in America. Although it had broken off from the PCUS, the PCA saw itself as a “continuing church” of the PCUS. That is to say, the PCA saw itself as the true successor – or at the very least, the spiritual successor – to the PCUS.

The PCUS had wandered from its conservative reformed heritage by way of theological liberalism and those who formed the PCA saw themselves as carrying on that heritage, the heritage that stretched back through the Old School, through the Old Side and the New Side, back to Scotland and England and back to the Reformation. This heritage is pivotal for understanding the theological foci of the PCA.

Thus the Old Side/New Side debates gave the church a dedication to unity in the essentials of the faith and liberty in the non-essentials, noting the need for both experience and orthodoxy in the Christian life. The later split between the New School and the Old School – with the PCA tracing its roots through the Old School – would give it a significant emphasis on the spirituality of the church. These issues come to manifest themselves perennially in the life of the church.

Once the PCA had been formed it continued to grow and it continued to draw in other churches. The initial growth of the denomination was largely through this sort of expansion, of other churches joining the denomination. Thus many conservative presbyterian churches in the south left the PCUS to join the PCA up until 1992 (the PCUS allowed churches to leave with their property up until 1990). Churches didn’t only join from the PCUS. In 1982 the the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) merged with the PCA. This merger brought with it Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary. This provided the PCA with a denominational college and seminary, whereas they had previously utilized more independent schools such as Reformed Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary.

The PCA also invited the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) to join them in merger, and while the OPC voted to accept the invitation to join the PCA the PCA voted against receiving them. By the time the PCA renewed the offer the OPC as a whole no longer desired to join, though some individual congregations left to OPC to join the PCA. These congregations – often called the called “New Life Churches” – brought with them a focus on Sonship Theology. After this initial period of growth through churches joining the PCA from other denominations PCA growth shifted to being largely accomplished through church planting and outreach rather than by transfers of whole churches.

Contemporary PCA History

Since its founding the PCA has been one of the faster-growing denominations in the United States. While it has been steadily growing since its founding the PCA there has been some disunity over the years. Many of the debates which littered the early presbyterian history would make their way into the PCA, along with the some new debates.

Early on the denomination had to deal with the perennially recurring question of subscription. Some wanted a strict subscription, thereby placing the Standards almost above amendment. The alternate view of the Good-Faith subscription was also advocated. The issue was not resolved during the 1st Assembly, and would come up again during the 19th and 26th-29th Assemblies. The first year of the PCA also marked the first conference held by Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). Though the RUF had been founded by Mark Lowrey two years prior it eventually became a full-fledged arm of the PCA.

Many of the other issues facing the PCA during its early years were logistic, along with the aforementioned matters of bringing the RPCES and the attempt to bring the OPC into the denomination. During the 8th General Assembly one of the more significant theological issues came onto the scene, that being the issue of theonomy. Theonomy suggested that all of the Old Testament laws should be applied today. The issue ended up being postponed till the following year and the theonomist eventually left the PCA.

During the same period of time Reformed Theological Seminary had hired Greg Bahnsen as apologetics professor, who also turned out to be a theonomist and who after a fair amount of controversy ended up being forced to leave the school. The issue of theonomy came before the Assembly once again in 1983 at the 11th General Assembly when a presbytery asked for guidance on how far they could question a theonomist and a small number at the Assembly gave indication that they were in favor of the view.

During the 13th General Assembly questions were raised regarding both the Free Masonry and whether or not women should be ordained as deacons. The former was passed on for further consideration and the latter was ruled against. The 14th General Assembly approved the PCA’s entering into full membership of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), through which the PCA came into relations with the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). The PCA would thereby came to participate in the formation of the World Fellowship of Reformed Churches in 1992 (later World Reformed Fellowship), a group mainly made up of conservative Presbyterian denominations in the Americas.

While the question of the ministry of the Holy Spirit had been present earlier on in the PCA, it came further into view during the 14th Assembly. The issue at stake was primarily a desire to confirm that those speaking in tongues or a prayer language did not identify those with revelation. The issue would come up again in the 16th Assembly, which would finally  conclude that a candidate may hold to the gifts of prophecy and tongues provided that he does not believe they provide any binding special revelation.

With one issue settled another would come up, and during the 17th and 20th Assemblies the question of theonomy was once again brought forward, namely as theonomic elders worked to keep members of their congregations from transferring their membership to other churches; when members would try and transfer the theonomic elders would place them under discipline and refuse to allow them the transfer.

Despite the many disputes that were present in the PCA it continued to grow during this time. During 1992 forty new churches joined the PCA from the PCUSA due to the liberalizing influences in that denomination. While the PCA did have its fair share of disputes these disputes were still disputes within the conservative camp and thus the PCA was still able to draw in those who were seeking refuge from the liberalizing tendencies of the PCUSA.

The issue of subscription which was central to the Old Side/New Side debates and which presented itself at varying points throughout presbyterian came up once again in the early 2000’s. This was first during the 26th and 27th Assemblies, which attempted to settle the question of whether to allow diversity of views on the length of creations days and whether those who held to other-than-24-hour Creation Days would be required to declare exceptions to the Westminster Confession.

The Assembly refrained from making a solid judgement, instead leaving it up to the lower courts to determine if a man’s views are in accord with the constitution. The resulting Report of the Creation Study Committee demonstrated that there have been a plurality of approaches taken by respected reformed and presbyterian theologians over the years. They stated that while they “recognize that a naturalistic worldview and true Christian faith are impossible to reconcile, and gladly take our stand with Biblical supernaturalism” that they were “unable to come to unanimity over the nature and duration of the creation days.” This question of creation would come up again in the 40th and 41st Assemblies, specifically on the question of the historicity of Adam.

While the 26th and 27th Assemblies had discussed how views on creation related to subscription, the 29th General Assembly of 2002 attempted to address the question of subscription as a whole, echoing back more directly to the Old Side/New Side debates. In this discussion four different views of subscription were taken: Dr. Tim Keller presented the System-Subscription View; Dr. Bryan Chapell presented the Good-Faith (or “Vital-to-the System”) Subscription View; TE David Coffin presented the Articles-of-Unity (or “Logically Consistent”) Subscription View; Dr. Joseph Pipa presented the Full Subscription (or “Strict Subscription”) View. Dr. Chapell’s position won out, and the following year the 30th Assembly subsequently approved and enacted a “Good-Faith Subscription” amendment to the Book of Church Order.

This system means that a prospective minister must declare every difference he has and the Presbytery rules on each as to whether it is allowable; it is assumed that the candidate agrees with everything he does not explicitly take exception to. This differs from strict subscription which allows no exceptions on the one hand and the system subscription which doesn’t require exceptions to be stated on the other. The result of this was that a presbytery would be allowed to use their discretion and approve candidates whose stated differences they deemed as not out of accord with any fundamental of the Confession and not striking “at the vitals of religion.”

It was also in the early 2000’s that the denomination saw movements towards racial reconciliation. The 30th Assembly adopted a statement urging racial reconciliation. This statement included a confession of past actions, of the denomination’s “covenantal involvement in these national sins” such that they “publicly repent of our pride, our complacency, and our complicity” and “seek the forgiveness of our brothers and sisters for the reticence of our hearts.” This issue would come up again in the 43rd Assembly and was the central topic of discussion at the 44th Assembly.

In tandem with discussions of racial reconciliation were questions of homosexuality, of the homosexual lifestyle and homosexual marriage. These discussions were spawned in response to laws that had been passed by the U.S. government as well as the military repealing its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Thus the Assembly sent down a statement prohibiting legal recognition of homosexual marriages by presbyteries as well as an overture encouraging PCA members, pastors, churches, and institutions to support adoption of the Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The 30th Assembly also saw the launch of byFaith magazine. byFaith would serve as the PCA’s denominational magazine. The mission of the magazine was to draw readers into the life of the Church by “informing, edifying, and encouraging them with news of God’s Kingdom.”

In the mid-2000’s the denomination would begin to wrestle with the New Perspective on Paul and the incursion of Federal Vision theology into the PCA. In 2006 the Mississippi Valley Presbytery had pushed to distribute its own “Report on the New Perspectives on Paul, the Theology of N. T. Wright, the Theology of Norman Shepherd, and the Theology of the so-called ‘Federal Vision’ in the PCA.” The General Assembly refrained from distributing this report but the following year (2007) the 34th General Assembly approved the creation of an ad interim committee to study “Federal Vision, New Perspective on Paul, and Auburn Avenue Theologies.”

The goal of this committee was to determine whether these views conformed with the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards. Those in favor of Federal Vision (Jeff Meyers and Peter Leithart, specifically) saw their system as a way to rid the church of the influences of American revivalism and individualism and return it to the theology of the Reformers, and in 2007 some of the prominent members of PCA – Jeff Meyers and Peter Leithart– had signed the Joint Federal Vision Profession. Those opposed to Federal Vision felt that those such as Meyers and Leithart had gone too far and that their revisions resulted in a heterodox position, if not outright heresy. Critics argued that the Federal Vision system in essence taught baptismal regeneration, denied the dual imputation of Christ’s work, and thereby made sanctification a works-based endeavor.

The investigation found Leithart not guilty of being out of accord with the Standards in his teachings. This was not the end of the matter, however, as an elder of that Presbytery appealed the case to the PCA’s Standing Judicial Committee (SJC), which concluded that the Presbytery had erred and sent the case back to the Presbytery for action. The Presbytery then chose to file charges against Leithart on the grounds that he held views contrary to the Standards.

At the same time the New Perspective on Paul was an attempt to reinterpret the doctrine of justification in the light of Second Temple Judaism. Those opposed to the New Perspective argued that Paul should be interpreted in light of the Old Testament rather than rabbinic writings. They saw the the New Perspective as rejecting the historic Protestant understanding of justification, specifically the forensic and legal aspects of it. All of these developments: the allowance of a multiplicity of views on creation, the allowance of Federal Vision, requiring merely a “good faith” subscription were and are seen by many as evidence of a liberalizing trend in the PCA that is growing in strength.

In 2008 at the 36th Assembly approved the admission of Canadian and American Reformed Churches and the Presbyterian and Reformed Church into the North America Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). The other major issue at the Assembly was the role of women in local church ministries of mercy, a revisiting of the issue as it had been addressed during the 13th Assembly. This issue continued on into the 2009 Assembly, with the basic question being whether women involved in mercy ministry should be designated as “deaconesses” and officially commissioned; Ligon Duncan argued against this proposal while Tim Keller argued in favor of it. The Assembly chose not to allow women the title of deaconess.

During the 39th General Assembly in 2011 another major controversy came before the PCA, this time in the form of the Insider Movement. The Assembly approved the formation of a committee to study the Insider Movements in Islam and Bible translation. The basic issue was and is one where missiologists have suggested Christian converts in circumstances where public baptism and joining a Christian church may subject them to persecution should remain in their non-Christian religions. They further suggested that standard translations of the Bible might confuse non-Christians (for instance, implying that the Father engaged in sexual intercourse with Mary to produce Jesus) and that the notion of God having a son may offend and repel many Muslims from converting to the faith. The PCA’s denominational mission agency – Mission to the World (MTW) – took the position that Christian converts should not continue to practice non-Christian religions but should become part of the Church. They further took the position that Bible translations which remove references to God as “Father” or Jesus as “Son” alter key Christian doctrines (such as that of the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, and the doctrine of Scripture) and are generally out of accord with God’s revealed Word.

Continuing the controversy from 2007, in 2011 the PCA’s Pacific Northwest Presbytery found Peter Leithart not guilty of charges of being out of accord with the Standards in his views associated with Federal Vision. In 2012 a complaint was once again taken to the SJC, which in 2013 denied the complaint thereby affirming the ruling of the Presbytery.  The SJC argued that Leithart’s differences with the Standards were largely semantic and a matter of injudicious use of language and insufficient explanation. The SJC did not endorse Leithart’s views, but simply concluded “that neither the prosecution nor the Complainant proved that TE Leithart’s views, as articulated at the trial or otherwise contained in the Record of the Case, violate the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards.”

This was again not the end of the controversy.

Three Presbyteries unanimously voted to overture the General Assembly to take original jurisdiction over the case. Their key claim was that there should be a mistrial because prosecutor TE Jason Stellman – whom the SJC had noted failed prove that Leithart’s views violated the Standards – had actually converted to Roman Catholicism shortly after a negative verdict. They argued that there should be a mistrial due to the conflict of interest present therein. A request for a rehearing was denied, and the Assembly sent the case back to the SJC.

The 41st Assembly in 2013 also saw the questions of the historicity of Adam and Eve and the Insider Movement come up once again, as well as that of paedocommunion in connection with the Federal Vision movement sections of the Pacific Northwest and Central Florida Presbyteries. The central question before the Assembly related to the Insider Movement was the question of “Are Allah of Muslims and Yahweh the same God?” No conclusion was found during that meeting and the topic was referred to further study.

The 43rd Assembly revisited the topic of race relations from 2002, though this time with the goal of achieving some sort of personal repentance and restitution. This resolution was referred to the 44th General Assembly. A key reason for referring the resolution to the 44th Assembly was to give time for lower courts to study and discuss the issues involved. During these discussions the older matter of the spirituality of the church has once again come to the forefront, with many arguing that it is not the place of the church to take action on such matters.2s09lxD.png

The 44th Assembly also instituted a new logo that looks like Boba Fett.

Summary

The PCA has always had a view of itself as the spiritual successor to the conservative Presbyterians of the PCUS, to the Scots-Irish Presbyterians and those seeking to purify the Church of England two centuries prior, and to the reformers who had sought to reform the Catholic church a century prior to that.

In this the PCA has taken special pride in its theological heritage. It has sought to continually uphold the reformed confessional truths found in the Westminster Standards against the ever encroaching tide of liberalism, of heterodoxy, and of heresy. It is for this reason that the PCA can view itself as a continuing church of the PCUS, and it is for this reason that those who hold the Standards and the heritage of the PCA in high regard continue to fight against such aberrations as Federal Vision, the New Perspective on Paul, or creation accounts that cede ground to secularism.

The denomination continues to grow, and as it grows it continues to face new challenges. The denomination began in 1973 with 260 churches, as of 2014 it has 1,831 churches with a total of  358,516 members, 4,556 ministers, and $766,520,059 in disbursements. Although the history of the PCA has been marked by controversy this controversy has largely been controversy within the conservative church as opposed to drifts towards liberalism, which has allowed the PCA to continue to be a denomination which those who flee from liberalism may find a home in. Further, though the PCA has continual debates it has also continued to uphold its dedication to unity in the essentials of the faith and liberty in the non-essentials.

It is this dedication that allows for those with such divergent views to find a home under the same roof, and it is the hope that we can continue to address our concerns with both a Christian love for God’s truth and a Christian charity.

Book Review: Velvet Elvis – By Rob Bell

RobBellVelvetElvis.pngLetter Velvet Elvis is author Rob Bell‘s attempt at bringing Christianity into the modern world. He begins by talking about a painting and noting how if, after this painting had been finished, it would have been a tragedy for the painter to announce that “there was no more need for anyone to paint, because he had just painted the ultimate painting.” He goes on to make the point that we need to be in a constant state of reforming, a constant state of “repainting the Christian faith.” This is because, he says, “the word Christian conjures up all sorts of images that have nothing to do with who Jesus is,” and because while past Christianity might have worked for their parents “or provided meaning when they were growing, but it is no longer relevant. It doesn’t fit. It’s outdated. It doesn’t have anything to say to the world they live in every day. Its not that there isn’t any truth in it… its just that every generation has to ask the difficult questions of what it means to be a Christian here and now…” And so Bell begins his journey into asking questions.

Rather than simply showing the people the correct image of Jesus or educating them on the relevance and applicability of traditional Christianity, Bell suggests that we remold it to suite the present time.

I went into reading this book without a clue who Rob Bell was or what the book might be about, though that the line “You rarely defend things you love” (p27) is in the book was a blatant indication that things were not quite right – after-all, what do you defend if not the things you love?

From reading other reviews it seems that the book is often praised for its fresh approach to Christianity. It is liked because he issues the challenge that one needs to keep digging into the Word, that one needs to continue questioning what is presented to you – on these premises alone one can understand how one can enjoy it on a surface level. Bell wants his readers to question doctrine because while there is truth in the Bible, no dogma can be the full truth, nobody has the be-all end-all absolute truth interpretation of the Word and so he challenges his readers to question those dogmas – the problem here is that that’s almost all he does, challenge the reader to ask questions.

A dichotomy is thus created, for though it is important to ask questions and learn for oneself why the doctrines you follow are as they are, it is equally important to actually arrive at doctrines which you can stand behind. Its important to come to conclusions in your beliefs – you question and look into the Word as Bell suggests to see why you believe what you believe, but this is inane unless you actually come to a conclusion (ie, Bell’s process of questioning provides you with the reasons why you will in turn stand behind your doctrine).

Bell attempts to be tolerant to all peoples and in turn denies this aspect of the purpose in his own statements – you don’t question doctrines in order to be tolerant, you question doctrines in order to see why it is that you defend them (ie, why, when it comes to your belief concerning the truth you are intolerant/inflexible in those beliefs).

One cannot only question, one must arrive at conclusions. Doctrine is not in place as a harsh issuer of intolerance and inquisition, its in place to show where previous individuals have gone through the same process and to show the [educated] conclusions they arrived at – they’re there to give you an informed outline to follow (thus why texts such as The Westminster Standards offers in-text citation of scripture, so you’ll know why they concluded what they did). One cannot be wholly tolerant, as G.K. Chesterton notes “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions” (for elaboration, check out his book Orthodoxy). One cannot perpetually question and seek truth, as Mark Twain notes “there are none but temporary Truth-Seekers; that a permanent one is a human impossibility; that as soon as the Seeker finds what he is thoroughly convinced is the Truth, he seeks no further” (for elaboration, check out What is Man?).

This where Bell fails, he questions but then proceeds to forget the purpose of questioning… he criticizes the idea of standing behind and defending a set of convictions and in doing so fails to realize that the people defending ideas are the ones who used to stand in his place, questioning the dogmas – however unlike Bell this was not just for the sake of questioning them, but for the sake of learning why they should defend them.

Specific Criticisms

Bell’s theology is at its foremost man-centered and denies really any sovereignty or legitimacy on God’s part, mentioning at one point that “Jesus is God’s way of refusing to give up on his dream for the world” (p157). This makes the fundamental flaw of assuming he ever considered giving up, of assuming he even had a reason to consider giving up. That he’s “refusing to give” up implies that something is not going according to plan, it implies that something is not in his control, essentially denying many of the essential qualities of God (namely his omnipotence and omniscience).

It should be a requirement that anybody wanting to make an argument or prove a point should first be forced to pass a class in basic logic. The entire first half of Bell’s book thrives on false logic, on implementing equivocation (first with ‘faith'(p19) and then with ‘believers'(p20)), creating straw men and taking versus out of context (p42) and with false analogies (ie, that Christianity is like a painting) in order to basically trick the reader into thinking what he’s saying has some validity.

There is little actual meat in Bell’s book. He has few real conclusions apart from that the Christian faith needs to be “repainted”, that doctrine and theology are “servants” (p25) to men and that men need to mold doctrine and theology to suit their current needs – basically, Christ needs to conform to the current world, even to the point of denying the authority of scripture and question the trinity if need-be (p22).

Of course, its only natural that there is little actual substance to the book. After-all, if there was substance to it then Bell might have to defend his ideas, but that would make him too ‘bricky’, as he puts it (even though Paul compares us to bricks (Eph 2:22) being used to build something).

You don’t have to really believe any certain doctrine according to Bell, you just have to be willing to live like Jesus and play on the trampoline – for him the church is the trampoline and the springs are the doctrines. Of course nobody defends a trampoline as Bell would assert, but people will defend their home, they will defend a Temple – and it is a house and a Temple that God calls the church, not a trampoline. We are compared to bricks being used to build a Temple, set on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ as the cornerstone (again, Eph 2:22) – the Bible describes the church just as the brickworld that Bell rallies against. Bell would place the Bible upon a chopping block and cut off anything that anybody might disagree with or that might cause argument, that might cause somebody to have to defend their views.

One final note is his statement of “Hell is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for” (p146) – yet if Christ died for them then they are forgiven and their debt is paid. If they are forgiven and their debt paid then they will not be punished as if they weren’t forgiven or held to the debt as if it weren’t paid, that defeats the whole point. A person cannot say “no, you have not forgiven me”, a person cannot say “no, my debt is not paid”. If you erase a person from a debt to you, even if they don’t accept that you forgave it, you’re not going to make them pay anyway – neither is God. If you forgave a person a trespass against you, even if they don’t accept it, you still forgave them and aren’t going to exact vengeance and justice upon them – neither is God (granted, this is abit of a false analogy in assuming that rejection is even possible). God created everything, God is in control of everything.

I could go on for quite some time giving quotes and rebuttals but I see little point. Suffice to say that it is a sharp departure from any form of orthodox Christianity.

Bell’s error is in his basic premise – Christianity is not comparable to a painting. A painting is meant as a service to its audience, we are meant as servants to God.

 

On Apologetics – Purpose, Why You Should Take An Interest

 

apologetics3.pngLetter Not too long ago I had a conversation with a man who has been a pastor for quite some time, and who was at the time taking a course in apologetics. He was clearly frustrated with the course, and as he spoke he attempted to explain why he disliked it so much. His main criticism? That it was pointless.hylian_shield_vector_by_reptiletc-d49y46o

As I listened further I discovered something interesting, his reason for the belief that apologetics was pointless. He said to me “I have no need for this class. I already know why I believe what I believe, and I believe the Bible. The Bible is the only reason I need.”

This statement was interesting, because it betrayed a twofold misunderstanding of the nature of apologetics.

First, the pastor’s statement betrayed a misunderstanding of how to approach belief in the Bible. If one is to believe the Bible one must have beliefs, it will not do to simply say “I believe the Bible” – you must follow that up with what you believe the Bible says and why, and how that squares with your experience of the world. This misunderstanding was addressed in our article Beliefs and Believing the Bible, so it needn’t be addressed any farther here.

Second, the pastor’s statement betrayed a misunderstanding of just what it is that apologetics – more specifically a course in apologetics – is trying to do for the believer.

Somehow he had come upon the misconception that this course in apologetics was meant to give him reasons why he should believe in the truth of Christianity. In case there is some misunderstanding, or in case this view is somehow more prevalent than I realize – that is not the point of apologetics. The goal of learning apologetics is not to convince yourself of the faith; the goal is to give you 1) An understanding of other groups and other perspectives so that you will know how to approach those who come at the world from a different viewpoint, and 2) An understanding of logic and reason as it relates to philosophy and theology as a whole, so that you may know how to explain the truthfulness of your beliefs to others, so that you may give a defense of your faith. Not to give you a reason to believe, but so that you may explain to others how there are reasons to believe. The goal of apologetics is a defense of the faith; to give an answer to those who bring objections against it, and to give reasons for it.

So if you are studying apologetics and feel that you are wasting your time, remember, you’re not learning it for your sake, you’re learning it for the sake of your neighbor, so that you may answer their questions in love and provide not just a testimony of how Christ has changed your life, but also a rational explanation of how He is true.

Because many people have genuine questions about the faith, hard questions, and we as Christians need to be able to address those questions; we need to be able to explain what and why we believe.

There are answers to the hard questions, and learning the school of apologetics will help train you in giving those answers.


If you’re not already a believer, then you should know that it is right and proper for you to have questions and misgivings about the faith, but you should also know that there are answers to your questions. We as Christians have often done a poor job of educating ourselves on those answers, of not being able to explain why we believe what we believe, and we need to amend that; but that is a mistake of individual Christians, not of Christianity as a faith.