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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

This course is available for free on iTunesU.

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FATQ: What Difference Does the Holy Spirit Make? Does It Matter?

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Letter FFor many of us it’s sometimes hard to understand just what difference the Holy Spirit makes. We unwittingly pare the Trinity down to two persons. We find ourselves asking, would our lives really look any different if the Holy Spirit didn’t exist? If so, how?

The question basically boils down to: What does the Holy Spirit do

To answer that we need to know three things: What is the core of Christianity? How does each member of the Trinity relate to that core? What would happen if the Holy Spirit’s contribution was taken away?

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FATQ: Can Science Disprove Free Will?

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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 Angelic Doctor‏ – By Jacques Maritain

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

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

With the life of Aquinas layed out Maritain goes on to speak of his philosophy. As posited by Maritain, “Saint Thomas’ method… is essentially universalist and positive. It aims indeed at preserving all the acquired knowledge of humanity in order to add to it and to perfect it; and it requires the more and more complete effacement of the personality of the philosopher before the truth of the object.” He goes on to note that “The philosophy of Saint Thomas is independent in itself of the data of faith: its principles and structure depend upon experience and reason alone.”

The prime duration of Maritain’s philosophy discussion is the exposition of his Thomism, concluding in a catalog of references to places in which the leaders of the Catholic church have shown support of that Thomism.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Thomism claims to use reason to distinguish the true from the false; it does not wish to destroy but to purify modern thought, and to integrate everything true that has been discovered since the time of Saint Thomas.”

-“The error of the modern world has been to claim to assure the reign of reason over nature by refusing the reign of super-nature over reason.”

-“I mean this in an altogether different sense: that common sense itself is an embryonic and rudimentary philosophy, a philosophy which has not yet reached the scientific state.”

Specific Criticisms

I’m unsure whether my criticisms serve as critiques of this book in particular, or of Maritain’s Thomism, or of Aquinas, or simply of Catholicism. It is possible my critiques are simply a reflection of my Protestantism. Either way they are the places I depart from the thought of the author (whether directly or indirectly).

My chief issue with the philosophy presented by Maritain, and the only one I’ll really bother to get into here, is that it sets up the problem of the Fall as an intellectual dilemma, it is one that he believes can be remedied by the use of the mind (which would make one wonder why there was any need of Christ if man could just think his way out of the trap he’d fallen into). Here are two examples of this mindset:

“A resurrection of metaphysics and a new expansion of charity: before all else this is the prerequisite for the return to human unity, to that unity which was perfect only in the Garden of Eden and in the heart of Christ in Gethsemane, but the longing for which will never cease to haunt us.”

“Now, it is important to realize that nothing below the intellect can remedy this disease which affects the intellect and which sprang from it; it is by intelligence itself that this disease will be cured. If intelligence is not saved, nothing will be saved.”

Within these two quotations we have presented everything which is in opposition to the message of Christ. In short, sin is not the problem. The issue is not one of the soul, or the will, but a simple problem of a diseased intellect – but the bright side is that even though it is the intellect which is diseased, the intellect is capable of curing itself!

A few other minor issues are the idea of a Christian philosophy being capable of existing independent of faith (operating solely on reason), as well as the general trend towards assimilating the ‘truth’ of all other philosophies into some Christian body of truth. The simple question is, ‘what are the qualifiers for bringing new truth into the Christian philosophy?’ Is it simply that which already agrees with Christian philosophy? In this case it would be redundant. Or is it simply acknowledging facts outside those expressly put forth in scripture (and/or tradition in the case of Catholicism).

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable Quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specific Criticisms

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

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

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

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

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

FATQ: Is there any biblical justification for exploring space?

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

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

Our religion seems as if it should play a role in our decision on whether or not to support space travel. It has been observed by many social commentators that Christians seem to have less interest in space exploration than the general population. In 2014 there was a study addressing this very issue entitled “Separation of Church and Space: Religious Influences on Support for Space Exploration Policy.”

The study found that religion did indeed play a part in people’s view of space travel. Naturally, those who believed that the return of Christ was imminent saw little value in such long term endeavors (a standard position for premillennialists). Others are worried that a major impetus for such ventures is the discovery of alien life in hopes of proving evolution. Ken Ham was criticized a few years ago for seemingly being opposed to space exploration on these grounds (along with an assertion that aliens [if they exist] would go to hell (Ken denied that he ever said this, but he did)). Ken doesn’t seem to actually be against space travel, but his criticism does raise a valid point that the motivations for space travel should influence our view of it.

Oh to be a child at space-camp again, oblivious to such considerations!

At the outset, however, we have to point out that there is a problem with the question, which we can counter with another question:

Is there any biblical justification for needing a biblical justification for exploring space?

That is, the original question assumes that something not having a ‘biblical justification’ means that it shouldn’t be done, and so first we have to answer the questions: What counts as Biblical justification? And more importantly, does the Bible tell us that all of our actions need to have a justification from somewhere in itself? 

So what counts as a biblical justification? Is our answer that the bible has to explicitly endorse something  – as we do with the regulative principle of worship? Afterall as Van Til famously stated “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything.” So if the Bible speaks of everything, what does the Bible say about space exploration? Not much at all, unfortunately.wendell_berry1

If we’re wanting a direct justification from the Bible on the question of space travel we’re out of luck. Then again, if we’re under the impression that we need an explicit justification for anything and everything we do in our lives then we’d best follow Wendell Berry’s advice and go agrarian (Wendell Berry is full of much wisdom, even if he probably doesn’t support space travel).

Perhaps a better approach to the question of what counts as a biblical justification is asking what principles we can infer from Scripture that can guide our decision-making. Van Til went on to say “We do not mean that [the Bible] speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication. It tells us not only of the Christ and his work, but it also tells us who God is and where the universe about us has come from…”

So perhaps the question is one of implication. Along those lines the only thing we can really mine from Scripture is that The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” While it would be wildly anachronistic to claim Psalm 19 is referencing space travel, the fact that the heavens declare the glory of God could theoretically provide some basis for exploration – afterall , the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, so perhaps exploring the realm that declares that glory would be an inherently good thing.

Maybe we can infer from this that space exploration can serve as an act of worship, that “God would allow and approve of humans developing space-travel as a means of studying the earth, moon, and other celestial bodies from a large-scale perspective,” or that “our motivation to study the creation is that we understand that the world is not the result of random chance, but that God purposefully designed it.” Along these lines we might ask ourselves how space travel differs from ocean or jungle exploration, or microbiology or atomic research?

But then the critic can retort, can we not understand that without space exploration? Can we not glorify God in this way without spending all this money? Many Christians believe we are spending too much on our space programs, and I’ve had discussions with others who say that we should be using the money for other more humanitarian needs.

At this point the debate becomes more historical or pragmatic rather than theological or exegetical. There is arguably no dichotomy between exploration for discovering the glories of God’s universe along with the practical benefits/scientific advances made along the way on the one hand, and causes like world hunger and education on the other.

This is because economics is not a zero sum game. The money spent on NASA is not money robbed from feeding people or providing clean water. Those $19.5 billion aren’t sent into space. The money spent on building a rocket is money that is poured back into the economy. It goes to the people who make the glass for the shuttle windows, it goes to all the different places where the raw materials for building a space shuttle come from, it goes to the farmers and food manufacturers who produce and process the food the astronauts eat, it goes to pay the employees and contractors at NASA, who use their paychecks by buying normal things just like the rest of us. The money is not sent into space, it is funneled back into the economy.*

explorationThe distinction between space (or terrestrial or microscopic) exploration and solving world problems is a false dichotomy. Exploration, even for its own sake, often results in both scientific discoveries and the development of technologies that make lives better around the world; we tend to make great progress towards our humanitarian goals in the midst of pursuing our scientific ones. The work at NASA has led to developments in an entire array of areas, to include water and air purification, trash compactors, freeze-dry technology, fire resistant materials, solar energy, pollution control and measuring devices, sewage treatment technologies, breast cancer detectors, ultrasounds scanners, microlasers, radiation detectors, improved aircraft engines, doppler radar, wireless communications, and others.

Many of these are problems that we would have not been trying to solve were they not needed to make space exploration more feasible. Society as a whole has benefited greatly, if indirectly, from the advances made in the course of exploring the final frontier, going where no man has gone before.

But we still haven’t addressed the basic question, the presupposition on which this entire discussion rests: Is there any biblical justification for needing a biblical justification for exploring space?

I think a good lens for answering this question is provided by Kevin DeYoung in his book Just Do Something. The book is about discovering God’s will for our lives, and Kevin breaks down the God’s will into two different biblical categories. The first is God’s will of decree, that is, everything he ordains to happen in his sovereignty. The second is God’s will of desire, that is, his moral will for our lives – love God and love our neighbor.

A third category that we like to make up on our own is what we might call God’s will of direction.  It is this will we refer to when we ask where we should live and work, who we should marry, whether we should use Xbox or PlayStation, Android or iPhone. As DeYoung states: “Trusting in God’s will of decree is good. Following His will of desire is obedient. Waiting for God’s will of direction is a mess.”mars1.png

The thing that the Bible is concerned with us following is God’s will of desire, his moral will, as expressed in his Law. The Bible doesn’t tell us whether or not we should become a farmer or a businessman, it doesn’t tell us whether we should go to university or go to tech school, and it doesn’t tell us whether we should go to the moon or to mars.

The Bible does speak of everything, but it speaks of everything in terms of providing a worldview through which to look at everything and a basic morality through which to approach everything.

It doesn’t tell us whether or not to go to space, but it tells God created the heavens and that they declare his glory. It doesn’t tell us whether or not to go to space, but it tells us to not to commit theft or murder in the process. It doesn’t necessarily tell us what to do, but merely how to conduct ourselves morally in the midst of our endeavors.

The Bible does not ask us to seek a justification for everything we do within, but it does tell to do whatever we do for the glory of God, it tells us to love our neighbor in the midst of whatever path we choose.

So let us continue to explore all of God’s creation, throughout all the earth and all the heavens, and resting assured that when the time comes God will “send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

 

 


*One caveat in this discussion is that much of the money spent on NASA is money that is created/printed for that purpose alone, money that in turn increase the national deficit and results in inflation (something true of most all large-scale government projects). The discussion resulting from factoring in these elements, however, is not directly relevant to the topic at hand. The topic at hand is not whether the government should fund such projects or whether NASA is the best means for carrying out these goals; that would be a purely political/economic discussion (and while we could discuss whether Christians should support that sort of taxation, that is not our topic here). The topic at hand is simply whether the goal of space exploration is justifiable in the first place.

 

 

Book Review: Arminian Theology – By Roger E. Olson

roger-olson-arminian-theologyLetter IIn On Liberty the Nineteenth Century British philosophy John Stuart Mill wrote that “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them… he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

That is, we must not lock ourselves into echo chambers, only listening to voices that sound like our own.

Roger Olson‘s Arminian Theology is a book that I saw sitting in my library bookstore and piqued my interest, and my curiosity, mainly because I had never read a true defense of Arminian Theology – and believing the thoughts of John Stuart Mill presented above to be true – I have been feeling it my duty for quite some time to read another side of the argument. However, there is something else which should be added to the thoughts of Mill, and those are thoughts of C.S. Lewis, from his book An Experiment in Criticism where he writes that “We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it if it was very good and ended up by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.” I went into this book giving it the benefit of the doubt, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The goal of Olson’s book is, as the subtitle points out, to discuss the myths and realities of Arminian theology. He begins by giving the outline of the age-old debate, by defining his terms, and by giving a basic overview of orthodox Arminian and Calvinist positions. He then goes on to address the myths of Arminian theology, to include: Arminianism is the opposite of Calvinism; a hybrid of Arminianism and Calvinism is possible; Arminianism is not orthodox evangelicalism; the heart of Arminianism is free will; Arminian theology denies the sovereignty of God; is human-centered; is not a theology of grace; doesn’t believe in predestination; denies justification by grace alone through faith alone; and believes in the governmental theory of atonement.

Olson systematically goes through providing explanations for why each of the myths regarding Arminian theology is false, and offering sources which explain the actual Arminian position, usually to include John Welsey, Simon Episcopius, Thomas Oden, and many others (as well as Arminius himself).

One downside of this (though it does show Olson’s sincerity) is that he is often forced to point out that many of Arminianisms main proponents do believe in and teach the myths put forth, though Olson regulates these to misunderstandings of Arminiansm – still, it does mean that not all of them are really myths, or at least that Olson’s understanding of Arminianism isn’t necessary uniform without that theological group.

Overall, Olson does a good job explaining his position and clarifying the position of Arminianism, and I have to say that walked away with a better understanding of where they are coming from (though I’d still posit that there are many gaps in the argument).

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Olson’s writing is his honesty and willingness to acknowledge the weaknesses in his own system. For instance Olson can be found noting that “all caviling aside, Arminians know that their belief in libertarian freedom is a mystery (not a contradiction).” He also does well at representing his opponent’s view, and understanding why his opponents object to his system: “These two views are incommensurable. To the Arminian, compatibilist free will is no free will at all. To the Calvinist, incompatibilist free will is a myth; it simply cannot exist because it would amount to an uncaused effect, which is absurd.”

Finally, Olson also offers a very good formula to abide by when critiquing other systems. Define your terms, be able to describe you opponents view as he would before opposing it, make sure you’re not attacking a straw man, admit your own weaknesses, and avoid attributing to the opposing party things they explicitly reject. All are great advice for anybody who wants their opponents to take them seriously, and I think Olson plays by his own rules fairly well in this text.

That said, I would recommend this text to Arminians and Calvinists alike.  It is a good read, and great for clarifying the Arminian position.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The most common root of confusion in theology is misunderstanding of terms.” (p15)

-“I have concluded that appealing to Scripture alone cannot prove one side right and the other side wrong… It is largely a matter of that mystery called perspective. Philosophers have called it ‘blik.’ It is a basic way of seeing reality. We see the world as such-and-such even when proof is lacking.” (p70)

“And Arminians do not see a way to embrace divine determinism (monergism) and avoid making God the author of sin and evil.” (p98)

-“A concept that is compatible with anything and everything is empty.” (p100)

-“The free will of human beings in Arminius’s theology and in classical Arminianism is more properly denoted freed will.”

Specific Criticisms

While I am a fan of this text, it is not without its share of difficulties. On of the main ones is that Olson addresses the ‘myth’ that the heart of Arminianism is free will, and then essentially argues the opposite (one way around this criticism would be to say that he means for the heart of Arminianism to be the ‘freed will’, but this is never stated outright). Hence we find Olson continually arguing in favor of free will, especially from the standpoint that “[free will] is necessary to protect God’s reputation.” (p98) 

Another issue is that the text is mainly directing his argument against ‘high calvinism’ or hypercalvinism. Olson acknowledges early on that hypercalvinism is not the primary view within Calvinism, and yet it is hypercalvinism that most of his arguments are aimed against.

Other areas include what one might call ‘gaps in logic’. For instance, Olson says that “Thus predestination is conditional rather than unconditional; God’s electing foreknowledge is caused by the faith of the elect.” (p35) and again, “Rather, the decisions cause God to know them.” (p188) How can an effect precede a cause? This is never addressed by Olson.

There are also instances such as these three quotations; Olson wants to make the point that humans action is necessary for salvation, but they don’t play a part, they cooperate but don’t contribute, they are a partner but play no part. “Thus salvation is conditional, not unconditional; humans play a role and are not passive or controlled by any force, internal or external.” (p37) “Cooperation does not contribute to salvation, as if God does part and humans do part; rather cooperation with grace in Arminian theology is simply nonresistance to grace.” (p36) “In salvation, God’s grace is the superior partner; human free will (nonresistance) is the lesser partner.” (p63) Frankly, I don’t think Olson makes his point clear at all.

There are various other nitpicks I have with the text, but one of the only other ones worth noting here is his statement that “Arminian belief in general redemption is not universal salvation; it is universal redemption from Adam’s sin.”(p33) My problem with this statement is that no proof text is provided to support it, and it is presumably an idea that is added on extra-biblically in the need to account for all the facts.

Book Review: The Great Heresies – By Hilaire Belloc

belloc great heresies.pngLetter TThe Great Heresies is Hilaire Belloc’s concise survey of what he deems to be the five chief heresies (and models of heresy) in the history of the [Catholic] Church. ‘Heresy’ in this sense for Belloc is defined as “the dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein… Heresy means, then, the warping of a system by ‘Exception’: by Picking out’ one part of the structure and implies that the scheme is marred by taking away one part of it, denying one part of it, and either leaving the void unfilled or filling it with some new affirmation.” The heresies tackled by Belloc include Arianism, Islam, Albigensian/Manichean, Protestantism, and what he simply calls ‘The Modern Attack’, which we today would simply refer to as ‘modernism’ or ‘classic liberalism’.

While these are theological issues which Belloc is confronting the book is not a refutation of heresy on those grounds. Belloc takes a stand against heresy but rather through historical, sociological and political routes. One of his main goals is to demonstrate the effect which heresy has had and continues to have on society; his point here is that “[Heresy] is a subject of permanent and vital interest to mankind because it is bound up with the subject of religion, without some form of which no human society ever has endured, or ever can endure. Those who think that the subject of heresy may be neglected because the term sounds to them old-fashioned and because it is connected with a number of disputes long abandoned, are making the common error of thinking in words instead of ideas… The whole story of Europe, her various realms and states and general bodies during the last sixteen centuries has mainly turned upon the successive heresies arising in the Christian world.”

For this reason the book should as a historical treatise rather than a theological one (though it does certainly contain theological elements), thus Belloc spends roughly half of each chapter discussing the historical impact of each heresy, their rise and their fall. Such instances play out in discussing wars between Rome and barbarians amidst Arianism, the economics of Islam, and the intricacies of Communism in relation to ‘the modern attack’.

In this aspect the text is a more unique look at heresies, historically rather than theologically. Belloc is also interesting in his defining of ‘heresy’, offering a definition broad enough to encompass everything from Islam to to Nestorianism to Anglicanism; the benefits and inconsistencies of this I won’t try and discuss here.

Overall the text is a short (~150pgs), yet dense, read. One not interested in history will not likely care for the book, and even one interested in history may find Belloc’s style a tad on the dry side, though I believe he makes up for it in the precision of his words.

Regardless it is a decent survey of various heresies. For the Protestant it will offer in an interesting perspective (given that Belloc labels Protestantism a [dead] heresy), and it will also offer a rather interesting analysis of Islam. It at least deserves a light skim from anybody interested in the subject matter covered.

Memorable Quotes:

-“The denial of a scheme wholesale is not heresy, and has not the creative power of a heresy. It is of the essence of heresy that it leaves standing a great part of the structure it attacks. On this account it can appeal to believers and continues to affect their lives through deflecting them from their original characters. Wherefore, it is said of heresies that ‘they survive by the truths they retain.‘”

“The modern attack will not tolerate us. It will attempt to destroy us. Nor can we tolerate it. We must attempt to destroy it as being the fully equipped and ardent enemy of the Truth by which men live. The duel is to the death.

-“Such an attitude would seem again to be a contradiction in terms; for if you deny the value of human reason, if you say that we cannot through our reason arrive at any truth, then not even the affirmation so made can be true. Nothing can be true, and nothing is worth saying. But that great Modern Attack (which is more than a heresy) is indifferent to self-contradiction.”

-“Terms are used so loosely nowadays; there is such a paralysis in the power of definition, that almost any sentence using current phrases may be misinterpreted.”

Specific Criticisms

My biggest complaint with Belloc (despite being a Protestant) is not that he labels Protestantism as a heresy. He’s a Catholic and this is to be expected; I can understand and even sympathize with this Catholic hostility (especially when I have essentially the same feeling towards modernism & postmodernism). In general Belloc attributes to Protestantism a break-up of unity and a worship of the text of the Bible.

My criticism isn’t necessarily of this, instead it is in his strange confidence in the death/defeat of Protestantism. As he says in the final chapter “[The modern attack] may die as Protestantism has died before our very own eyes.” He goes on to state that “But there is not one man of a hundred in Geneva today who accepts Calvin’s highly defined theology. The doctrine is dead; its effects on society survive…” As a Calvinist the assertion that my doctrine died near the beginning of the last century naturally strikes me as odd; the date of this final death he points as coinciding with World War I.

It’s quite possible that for the most part Belloc is referring to Protestant culture (which is what he references towards the end of the chapter on Protestantism). This would be an understandable analysis; Protestantism as a culture met with a great decline following the wars, though Protestantism as a theology met no such fate.

So, while ‘Protestantism dying before our very eyes’ may be an understandable sentiment if seen in reference to a distinctly Protestant culture being replaced by the culture of liberalism, skepticism and eventually postmodernism, one still can find no excuse for Belloc’s pessimism towards the state of Protestant doctrine and theology. As a theology Protestantism was alive then, though also sharing the attack of modernism, and it remains animatedly alive today. To declare Protestantism as a theology dead is simply a falsity, as the test of time has shown (though really, it was just as alive in his day).