Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Great Debate

For Christian apologists, which is really to say for all faithful Christians, there is no better example of intellectual apologetics than Greg Bahnsen. Not only does Bahnsen behave in a pious manner, but he demolishes the intellectual fallacies of atheism, agnosticism, and opposing religions. Below is a debate between Greg Bahnsen and Gordon Stein concerning the existence of God. Enjoy it, study it, gain confidence from it, and incorporate its principles into your thinking and speaking about the hope that is within you.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Christianity and Culture

The following are excerpts from J. Gresham Machen's address, "The Scientific Preparation of the Minister," which was delivered September 20, 1912, at the opening of the one hundred and first session of Princeton Theological Seminary. It has been reproduced in several places and may be found online in several as well. I'm excerpting the text from this website.

Modern culture is a tremendous force. It affects all classes of society. It affects the ignorant as well as the learned. What is to be done about it? In the first place, the Church may simply withdraw from the conflict. She may simply allow the mighty stream of modern thought to flow by unheeded and do her work merely in the back-eddies of the current. There are still some men in the world who have been unaffected by modern culture. They may still be won for Christ without intellectual labour. And they must be won. It is useful, it is necessary work. If the Church is satisfied with that alone, let her give up the scientific education of her ministry. Let her assume the truth of her message and learn simply how it may be applied in detail to modern industrial and social conditions. Let her give up the laborious study of Greek and Hebrew. Let her abandon the scientific study of history to the men of the world. In a day of increased scientific interest, let the Church go on becoming less scientific. In a day of increased specialization, of renewed interest in philology and in history, of more rigourous scientific method, let the Church go on abandoning her Bible to her enemies. They will study it scientifically, rest assured, if the Church does not. Let her substitute sociology altogether for Hebrew, practical expertness for the proof of her gospel. Let her shorten the preparation of her ministry, let her permit it to be interrupted yet more and more by premature practical activity. By doing so she will win a straggler here and there. But her winnings will be but temporary. The great current of modern culture will sooner or later engulf her puny eddy. God will save her somehow--out of the depths. But the labour of centuries will have been swept away. God grant that the Church may not resign herself to that. God grant she may face her problem squarely and bravely. That problem is not easy. It involves the very basis of her faith. Christianity is the proclamation of an historical fact--that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Modern thought has no place for that proclamation. It prevents men even from listening to the message. Yet the culture of today cannot simply be rejected as a whole. It is not like the pagan culture of the first century. It is not wholly non-Christian. Much of it has been derived directly from the Bible. There are significant movements in it, going to waste, which might well be used for the defence of the gospel. The situation is complex. Easy wholesale measures are not in place. Discrimination, investigation is necessary. Some of modern thought must be refuted. The rest must be made subservient. But nothing in it can be ignored. He that is not with us is against us. Modern culture is a mighty force. It is either subservient to the gospel or else it is the deadliest enemy of the gospel. For making it subservient, religious emotion is not enough, intellectual labour is also necessary. And that labour is being neglected. The Church has turned to easier tasks. And now she is reaping the fruits of her indolence. Now she must battle for her life.

Culture is an unavoidable category. Every individual works to inculturate. Every individual is worked upon by inculturation. Inculturation is a product of beliefs, which are in turn a product of ideas to which individuals have assented to and subsequently act upon. Machen is here recognizing that while modern culture expends great intellectual rigor in its efforts, it does so largely devoid of a knolwedge of the Gospel. What elements it does gather from the Gospel it does so unwittingly of its intellectual dependency. The response of Christianity to this onslaught of intellectual paganism in Machen's day was, in large part, to retreat from intellectual endeavors in order to focus upon individual and even corporate piety that emphasized inward experience and conversion to a limited set of propositions touching on matters left unrelated to the larger forces of inculturation. What Machen advocates is for Christians to do the serious intellectual work of distinguishing the elements of modern culture that must be refuted and consecrating those elements of modern culture that have stripped away the God-honoring motivation of legitimate endeavors. If the Church does not commit to this intellectual work she will languish and be overrun, not to destruction, but certainly to her shame and until God removes the slothful and replaces them with the diligent.

The situation is desperate. It might discourage us. But not if we are truly Christians. Not if we are living in vital communion with the risen Lord. If we are really convinced of the truth of our message, then we can proclaim it before a world of enemies, then the very difficulty of our task, the very scarcity of our allies becomes an inspiration, then we can even rejoice that God did not place us in an easy age, but in a time of doubt and perplexity and battle. Then, too, we shall not be afraid to call forth other soldiers into the conflict. Instead of making our theological seminaries merely centres of religious emotion, we shall make them battlegrounds of the faith, where, helped a little by the experience of Christian teachers, men are taught to fight their own battle, where they come to appreciate the real strength of the adversary and in the hard school of intellectual struggle learn to substitute for the unthinking faith of childhood the profound convictions of full-grown men. Let us not fear in this a loss of spiritual power. The Church is perishing today through the lack of thinking, not through an excess of it. She is winning victories in the sphere of material betterment. Such victories are glorious. God save us from the heartless crime of disparaging them. They are relieving the misery of men. But if they stand alone, I fear they are but temporary. The things which are seen are temporal; the things which are not seen are eternal. What will become of philanthropy if God be lost? Beneath the surface of life lies a world of spirit. Philosophers have attempted to explore it. Christianity has revealed its wonders to the simple soul. There lie the springs of the Church's power. But that spiritual realm cannot be entered without controversy. And now the Church is shrinking from the conflict. Driven from the spiritual realm by the current of modern thought, she is consoling herself with things about which there is no dispute. If she favours better housing for the poor, she need fear no contradiction. She will need all her courage, she will have enemies enough, God knows. But they will not fight her with argument. The twentieth century, in theory, is agreed on social betterment. But sin, and death, and salvation, and life, and God--about these things there is debate. You can avoid the debate if you choose. You need only drift with the current. Preach every Sunday during your Seminary course, devote the far ends of your time to study and to thought, study about as you studied in college--and these questions will probably never trouble you. The great questions may easily be avoided. Many preachers are avoiding them. And many preachers are preaching to the air. The Church is waiting for men of another type. Men to fight her battles and solve her problems. The hope of finding them is the one great inspiration of a Seminary's life. They need not all be men of conspicuous attainments. But they must all be men of thought. They must fight hard against spiritual and intellectual indolence. Their thinking may be confined to narrow limits. But it must be their own. To them theology must be something more than a task. It must be a matter of inquiry. It must lead not to successful memorizing, but to genuine convictions.

After reminding the Christian of his proper hope--the objective power and infallible purpose of Christ to subject all creation to His rule--and his proper calling--to fight the unbelief of all with the truth revealed by God in His Word--Machen further emphasizes the objective of religious education: All intellectual study is apologetic in nature. The Christian is either destroying the errors in his own thinking or he is destroying the error in those around him, and the proper tool for such destruction is the truth, and the propoer method is the intellectual study of Scripture with an eye both to the inculturation it proclaims and to the inculturation it condemns. There is no third way. There is no neutral sphere. There is no benign thought. There can be but one Master of our minds, wills, and actions. The consequences of our thinking are pervasive, and so the fight begins with the mind--our own and with the minds of others. The so-called secular humanist understands this principle well, for he expends a great amount of energy seeking to educate others--and especialy the young and impressionable--to accept what he believes to be the best course of life, the proper set of beliefs and necessary conseqeunces. Thus, the Christian must gain understanding, love wisdom, and get knowledge in order that he may stand firm against the principalities and powers that lie behind the material world we observe with our physical senses.

The Church is puzzled by the world's indifference. She is trying to overcome it by adapting her message to the fashions of the day. But if, instead, before the conflict, she would descend into the secret place of meditation, if by the clear light of the gospel she would seek an answer not merely to the question of the hour but, first of all, to the eternal problems of the spiritual world, then perhaps, by God's grace, through His good Spirit, in His good time, she might issue forth once more with power, and an age of doubt might be followed by the dawn of an era of faith.

Machen's historical situation is some years removed from our own, but the spiritual situation appears to us as though we held up a mirror to our own. The Christian must trade the apologies for the perspicuity of Scripture that condemn our culure for the apologetic that will speak with knowledge and boldness. Ignorance has no trouble shouting, but true changes in belief are most often preceded by the meticulous removal of false thinking. Only the wise possess the ability to discern truth from error and demonstrate the futility of the latter. One does not become wise by hasty quotations of Scripture, nor by parroting great thinkers. One must discern the system that Scripture reveals, one must press his world through this system in order that the system of thought in Scripure would be the system of thought by which experience is interpreted, by which the meaning of experience is set forth. One must become a thinker himself. Does not the Lord promise to give aid to those who seek Him, that is, who seek to know Him and the power of His resurrection? First things must precede secondary things if one is to reach any goal properly, rather than floundering in one's efforts. No measure of pragmatism, no sophisticated predictions, no lofty prayers for miracles will substitute for the first principle of Christian obedience and evangelical proclamation: Get wisdom, get discernment, get knowledge. The worst that will happen is that your faith in will grow larger in Godly devotion in an age growing larger in godless desertion.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

By This Standard

The title of this post is only partially related to what content will follow. One of the books I completed this month was Greg Bahnsen's By This Standard. The book is a pared down version of Bahnsen's much larger and more scholarly book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (which I have yet to read).

I highly recommend the shorter version to every Christian, and to anyone who has an interest in Biblical Law and its contemporary validity. The book is a smashing defense of the validity of all of God's Law, including the ceremonial laws. If the last sentence appears controversial, it is not, for what is valid may not be enforced in the same manner. For example, the stipulations of the ceremonial law have been fulfilled in the work of Christ, so that we adhere to the ceremonial law by way of worshiping Christ as our propitiation for all of our sins, even unknown sins, instead of relying upon the priest to release the scapegoat, to use one example.

The moral law, and even more particularly civil laws, are more controversial because they remain in force today in ways different from believing in the work of Christ for our behalf. It is a hard word for the peoples of modernity and postmodernity, and even for Christians among these peoples, when fed the argument that the death penalty is still the valid punishment for homosexuality, adultery, and fornication, to use a pointed set of sins.

It is one thing to recognize that certain stipulations in Ancient Israel and in our modern society adhere to the same principles of law while differing in their manifestation: for example, fences upon rooftops and fences around pools represent laws for protecting life by providing safe environments. It is another thing to recognize that, given the proper level of heinousness and the required evidence to convict, a son or daughter should die for disobeying their parents.

But divorced from the all-too-easy emotional reactions to particular hypotheticals, Bahnsen's major point is rather elementary. If we do not place our faith in God's divinely given laws, what will be the alternative, except autonomous human subjective law? Are we willing to trust in the Sovereign Lord rather than in are own understanding, or can we affirm with Scripture, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding"???

When one grasps the necessity of trusting God's revealed law instead of some fictitious natural law derived from human observation, or some subjective consensus of autonomous individuals, the acceptance of the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws follows by necessary implication. Of course, the issue then becomes the proper identification of the principles implicit in the applications, and the proper translation of those principles into contemporary applications. What a better situation it would be if we fought over such issues as opposed to fighting over whether or not God's law should even be considered!

I do have one quibble with Bahnsen's book, or rather, a quibble with one of his propositions, at least in the way it is phrased. Bahnsen, like so many other fine theologians, described the whole law of God as a reflection of God's character. Now such a phrase sounds honorable, properly meek, and even poetically pleasing. But it also contains a troublesome ambiguity.

What does it mean that the Law of God is a reflection of His character? In one sense, we might say that Creation itself is a reflection of God character, if by saying so we mean that its orderliness reflects God's orderly thinking. In a similar way we can say that God's laws given to men to follow reflect God's Sovereignty as the Lawgiver, meaning that God, being eternally omniscience and omnipotent, as the right and pleasure of commanding His created creatures howsoever He wants. By interpreting the phrase this way we do no harm and elucidate a rather important aspect of God's Sovereignty.

However, another possible interpretation is that, as a reflection of God's character, God Himself is bound to keep the law, that is, God is by nature incapable of transgressing the laws he has given men to obey, for they reveal the limits of His own moral bounds. I am not willing to argue that such an interpretation is what Bahnsen is meaning, but only to point out that such an interpretation can be drawn from the ambiguous term "reflection."

The implications of this second interpretation are severely damaging to an understanding of the nature of God. First, if God were subject to the Law He has given men, it would mean that He could not take the life of men for the reason of His own pleasure. If God is subject to His Laws given to men, it would be wrong for God to have enticed Pharaoh to sin, it would be wrong for God to have commanded an evil spirit to lie to the prophets under Ahab's command, and it would be wrong for God to choose some men to be vessels of wrath and others to be vessels of honor.

To show the complete absurdity of such a view, one needs only consider the summary of the Law: to love God with all one's heart and to love one's neighbor as oneself. God certain fulfills the first, but does God love His neighbor as Himself? Indeed, can God love anyone other than Himself as He loves Himself and still be self-sufficient? What about the command to love one's enemy? Can all the passages of Scripture that indicate God righteous wrath upon His enemies be reconciled with the command to love one's enemies? Does not God hate whomever He will hate and love whomever He will love?

It is foolishness, then, to argue that God is in some way, in any way, subject to the Law, which He has given unto men to obey. God's complete determination of all things stands in utter contradiction to many of the stipulations commanded in the Law. Consider: God desired that Christ, the only innocent man and His only Son, should not only die, but bear His wrath. Certainly there is no provision in the Law that gives anyone the right to command an innocent person to die on behalf of another. Yet this is precisely what God decreed from eternity.

God is not subject to the Law, and if the Law reflects anyone about God's character, it reflects His Sovereignty as the Lawgiver who is free to command His creatures in whatever way He sees fit, for His own glory. I think Bahnsen would agree with that, and I think he would see the absurdity of the alternative. Still, I wonder why in particular he chose to use the ambiguous phrase?