The Biological Basis For Religion?

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Douglas Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics has many strong points.  One part I appreciated was his section on neurotheology, which is the study of the biological basis for religious beliefs.  Some scientists today believe that religious beliefs (e.g. belief in God) can be explained “on the basis of certain functions in the brain.”  In other words, the only reason people have religious beliefs is because of the way our brains work – there is no external or objective basis for religion and faith.  Religion is a figment of our biological and neuro makeup – so they say.

The first thing Groothuis mentions about this is that it is begging the question since these scientists start with a materialistic presupposition: “Since we know there is no God and no sacred realm (all is material), we need to explain (and explain away) why so many have religious experiences.”  This presupposition seriously flaws their thesis.

Another thing Groothuis says is that this is no threat to the faith since we are material as well as spiritual beings.  The mind interacts with the body – Scripture confirms that.  We shouldn’t be surprised to find that brain states correlate with religious beliefs and experiences.

Groothuis continues:

“There is another problem for this reductive view: it works as a boomerang against itself.  If religious beliefs can be explained away as illusory simply because their neurological components (physical states) are identified, we must, by the force of the same argument, explain away as illusory the belief that religious beliefs are illusory (there is no God) because they too are merely neurological states.  This kind of reduction and refutation would extend to all beliefs that can be identified with brain activity.  But this conclusion results in an epistemological nihilism that is unsupportable logically and existentially.”

“It speaks volumes to note that while millions of dollars in grant money goes to explaining the neurological basis of religion, nothing goes to explain the neurological basis of atheism or skepticism.  Apparently, atheism and skepticism are innocent until proven guilty, whereas religious beliefs are just plain guilty.”

Well said!  These are great things to remember the next time you run across an article or person who says religion is a figment of the mind.  It may at first glance sound like a decent thesis, but there are huge flaws in this reasoning, and it comes not from bias free scientific studies, but a materialistic and anti-Christian point of view.

Scripture’s teaching makes much more sense – that because there is a God, and because he created us in his image, we have a “sense of the divine,” as Calvin called it.  Sadly, many people suppress this truth in unrighteousness.

The above quote was taken from Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, p.384.

shane lems

The Sweet Direction of the Law

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 2 Historic Reformed theology teaches that the law is useful for the Christian in two main ways: 1) to show him his need for Christ by convicting him of sin and 2) to guide him in thankful living for the glory of God (see Westminster Confession of Faith 19.6).  Below are some quotes showing how Francis Turretin (d. 1687) discussed the use of the law for the regenerate.  I appreciate the fact that a clear law/gospel distinction goes hand in hand with the law as a guide for living the Christian life (a “sweet direction” as Turretin calls it).  Here’s Turretin:

“[The law] serves (a) to convince and humble man so that – his own misery and weakness being felt – he despairs of himself and renounces confidence in his own righteousness and merit and rests upon the mercy of God alone.  (b) To lead men to Christ… inasmuch as it compels man – cast down and despairing of his own strength – to seek the remedy of saving grace.”

“…It consequently also directs him already renewed through Christ in the ways of the Lord; serving him as a standard and rule of the most perfect life, to which he is called by Christ and which he ought diligently to pursue (1 Tim. 1:5).”

“Thus the law leads to Christ and Christ leads us back to the law; it leads to Christ as the redeemer and Christ leads to the law, as the leader and director of life.”

“…It is one thing to be under the law as a covenant to acquire life by it (as Adam was) or as a schoolmaster and a prison to guard men until the advent of Christ; [it is another thing] to be under the law as a rule of life, to regulate our morals piously and holily.”

“In the first covenant, man was bound to do this in order that he might live (to deserve life); but in this [covenant of grace] he is bound to do the same (not [so] that he may live, but because he lives) to the possession of the life acquired by Christ and the testimony of a grateful mind (as the apostle in the same place exhorts believers to obedience).”

Francis Turretin, Institutes, volume 2, pages 139-143.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond wi

Behind a Dark Providence

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms One big question that often comes up in the Christian life is, “Why is God letting this happen to me?”  Similarly, we ask what point trials, temptations, and tribulations have in our lives; it seems like they crush and hurt us, and when we’re in the middle of them, we struggle to stay afloat in the faith.  We surely need a biblical anchor during trials!

The Westminster Confession talks about this under the topic of God’s sovereign providence.  In 5.5 it says,

“The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave, for a season, his own children to manifold [various] temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts….”

Why?  Why would a gracious God let his children go through this?  Here are a few reason the Confession gives (edited slightly):

1) …to chastise them for their former sins,
2) or to discover unto [reveal to] them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled (2 Chr. 32:25-26, 31; Deut 8:2-3, 5; Lk 22:31-32)
3) and to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself,
4) and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin,
5) and for sundry [various] other just and holy ends (Ps. 73:1-28, Ps. 77:1-12, Mk 14:66-72, 1 Cor. 12:7-9).

It is a great comfort to know that God, in his loving and sovereign providence, uses trials and temptations ultimately for our good.  Knowing God is sovereign in his providence towards us means, as the Heidelberg Catechism says,

“We can be patient when things go against us (Ps. 39:10), thankful when things go well (1 Thes. 5:18), and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love (Rom. 8:35-39).  All creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved (Prov. 21:21, Acts 17:24-28)” (Q/A 28).

shane lems
hammond wi

The Creation Mandate, Christian Liberty, Growth in Godliness, and Psychotropic Medicine

The biblical doctrine is then to the effect that there are two aspects to man. Using the word ‘entity’ to denote that which has distinctness of being, we can say that there are two entities in man’s constitution, diverse in nature and origin, the one derived from the earth, material, corporeal, phenomenal, divisible, the other derived from a distinct action of God, immaterial and ordinarily not phenomenal, indivisible and indestructible. These two entities form one organic unit without disharmony or conflict. In the integral person they are interdependent. They coact and interact. The modes of coactions and interaction are largely hid from us. The union is intimate and intricate and we are not about to define its mode, nor can we discover the relations they sustain to each other.

John Murray, “The Nature of Man” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume Two, pgs. 21-22.

Humans are created as both body and soul. No human can exist without a soul and no human is intended to exist indefinitely apart from the body. (Remember, the great hope of the age to come is not disembodied existence, but glorified bodily existence in a new creation.) But this mind-body connection is a complex one, especially as it relates to struggles that involve both mind and body in various yet unquantifiable ways. (Note, for example, that in many cases, one cannot say with certainty that the mind is, say, 58% responsible for a given issue whereas the body is only 42% responsible).

As tempting as it is to emphasize one constituent part of man over the other, responsible soul care is holistic. In his counseling textbook Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives (Zondervan, 2014), Robert W. Kellemen does a nice job of paying equal attention to people’s spiritual and physical parts when it comes to helping them with their problems. Informed by a Reformed worldview with its roots in the creation mandate, Kellemen gives a robust place for psychotropic medicine while not giving into the temptation to thereby give the body more importance than the soul.

He writes:

God created and ordered the material universe. Science investigates the material universe and affirms that order. Logically, then, as Christians we should embrace science, research, and medicine as disciplines that examine God’s creation in obedience to the Creation Mandate. As Steve Viars states, “Those ministering the Word through counseling should be friends of good science and desire to promote the research and development of hard data in every area of human existence.”

Studying and treating the complex mind-body connection is part of the Creation Mandate. Neurological psychology, rightly undertaken, involves the scientific study of the physical brain, its normal functioning, abnormal functioning, and physical cures leading to a restoration of normal functioning. Such scientific research done in submission to the Creation Mandate has great potential for addressing these complex mind-body issues….

A biblically based, holistic approach to counseling respects all dimensions of personhood created by God in the full context of the Bible’s grand narrative. It is naïve and potentially harmful to treat people as one-dimensional beings. While this means that we must take into account possible physiological contributions to life struggles, it also means that we should never view psychotropic interventions as the sole solution for life issues. Sadly in a fallen world, fallen scientists tend to see us simply as material beings, soulless machines. Thus, what could be part of the curative process can be used as justification to ignore the inner-life issues that may well be connected to various emotional and mental struggles.

In addition to legitimate concern with a materialistic worldview, it is also wise to acknowledge that psychotropic medication is still in its infancy. We would be naïve not to take into account their side effects and the low current success rate in actually helping troubled people.

Still, as part of the Creation Mandate, psychotropic medication and neurological psychology as part of a comprehensive, whole-person approach has biblical legitimacy. Psychotropic medication is an issue of Christian liberty and wisdom. Therefore, if Ashley were to decide to take medication for her depression, God’s people should respond with compassionate understanding, not with guilt-inducing attitudes.

Gospel-Centered Counseling, pgs. 48-49. Bold emphasis added.

There are some (e.g., old-school nouthetic counseling people) who will feel Kellemen concedes too much and does not sufficiently affirm the centrality of God’s word in helping people with their problems. This is a misunderstanding of Kellemen; the title of his book is, after all, Gospel-Centered Counseling. There are others (e.g., anti-biblical-counseling people) who will feel Kellemen is not supportive enough of medicine. This may also be a misunderstanding of Kellemen, although, it may also be due to a skewed perspective. (This would be analogous to the the perspective so evident in modern homosexuality debates which claims that any absence of effusive praise, or any evident hesitancy to affirm something without reserve is nothing less than “hate.”)

What Kellemen actually does is provide an important path through the debate. May God continue to raise up scientists and doctors who can better understand and treat the factors that influence the human body (whether physical or spiritual). And may God continue to raise up pastors and counselors who can minister the word to those with spiritual and physical problems and help them to enjoy closer communion with Jesus Christ.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

Three Things Our Enemies Cannot Do

Volume four of John Newton’s Works is a nice collection of fifty of his sermons.  This is a great volume to get if you’re looking for solid, brief, and edifying devotional material.  Here’s an excerpt from Newton’s sermon on Romans 8:31.  I’ve edited it slightly and formatted it for this blog:

Whatever men or devils may attempt against us,
there are three things which
– if we are true believers –
they cannot do.

They may be helpful to wean us from the world.
They may add earnestness to our prayers.
They may press us to greater watchfulness
and dependence upon God.
They may afford fair occasions of evidencing our sincerity in the faith,
the goodness of our cause,
and the power of God who is for us.

Such are the benefits that the Lord teaches his people
to derive from their sufferings,
for he will not let them suffer or be oppressed in vain.

But no enemy can deprive us
1) of the love with which God favors us,
2) or the grace which he has given us
3) or the glory which he has prepared for us.

What shall we say to these things?  If God is for us, who can be against us?

John Newton, Sermon #45, “Divine Support and Protection.”

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Disability and God’s Sovereignty

Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace One of the biggest frustrations about living in this fallen world is the fact that there is disability.  To be sure, all humans are disabled to some extent because we’re sinful creatures and neither our minds nor our hearts nor our bodies are free from the effects of sin.  But it often brings tears to our eyes to think of (or face) worse forms of disability; this is why the stories of Jesus healing disabled people (lame, blind, deaf, blood disordered, crippled, etc.) are such a big part of the Good News.  There is hope in Jesus for sure, and his people can thankfully look forward to a Day where they will be fully and finally healed.

But what about disability and God’s sovereignty here and now?  How do these two relate?  I like how Michael Beates (who has a family member with a severe disability) answered this question in an appendix of his book, Disability and the Gospel.  Here are his summarized points (from pages 161-166):

1) First, as previously noted, God creates some people with genetic anomalies simply for the sake of his glory.  Scripture teaches that all things are made by him (John 1:13) and for his glory (Is. 48:10-11; Rom. 11:33).  [This is] a hard teaching, but in it there is great comfort, and by our very affirmation of it, we further glorify our awesome sovereign God. The comfort is that when we embrace the truth that God will glorify himself through everything that happens, we know that in the providence of God nothing is lost or in vain.  Nothing we experience is meaningless; everything is significant, the bitter and the sweet.  We may not see the sweet side of it in this life….  However, we can rest absolutely certain that such things are not mistakes nor do they happen by chance.  We can also be certain that even such awful things [as death] will glorify God because he has said so, and he keeps his promise.

2) Second, God creates some people with genetic anomalies not only for the sake of his own glory but also to show us our own brokenness and our need of his grace.  The disabled among us, whether genetically disabled or otherwise, remind us of our own inherent disabilities.  When we see them with their limitations, we can begin to see ourselves in a new, more honest manner as broken men and women before God in need of redemption – body and soul.

3) Third, God creates some people with genetic anomalies not only for his own glory and to show us our own brokenness, but also because such disabled people present the church with the gift of allowing followers of Christ to serve them unconditionally – with no expectation of receiving back.  In this way they help us to mirror God and to experience giving grace to another as God does to us.

4) Fourth, God creates some people with genetic anomalies to increase our desire for heaven.  Revelation 21:3-4 says, ‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying… He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore….’ In that final state God promises to redeem all things, making all things new and perfect.  Things like genetic anomalies serve as signposts, reminding us that we are on a journey and that this world is not our home.”

As I mentioned in an earlier review (HERE), Disability and the Gospel is a helpful book – I recommend it, and I recommend reading the entire section I edited above.  If you are disabled to any extent, or if it affects you in some way, please press on in the faith, try to set a good Christian example for others, and be greatly encouraged that since Jesus died on the cross, rose from the grave, and promised to come back and make all things new, you will one day receive a glorious body like his (Phil. 3:21).  It won’t be long now!

shane lems
hammond, wi

Motivate Your Child: A Review

I’ve often found that Christian parenting books begin to sound the same after you read a handful of them.  I wouldn’t quite say, “If you’ve read one, you’ve read them all,” but there is significant overlap in quite a few Christian parenting books.

Motivate Your Child by Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller is not exactly like other parenting books.  It is a Christian book written from a Christian perspective, but it is different in that it gives parents practical and biblical advice on getting children to do what they’re supposed to do without being told over and over (and over!).  That does sound impossible, I realize.  (I think I’ve told my three boys to brush their teeth around 10,000 times in their lives, and they still don’t quite get it!)  This book helps in that area.

Motivate Your Child is divided into two main parts: 1) Moral development in children, and 2) Spiritual development in children.  Here’s a brief summary of each part:

Part one discusses internal motivation and parenting strategies for motivation.  Strategies include right words, proper tone, and discipline/direction.  Part one also talks about conscience, choosing what is right, and dealing with mistakes kids make.  Furthermore, the authors mention compassion towards others, initiative, and consequences in part one.  I appreciated this part of the book because it didn’t just talk about external obedience, but it also discussed a child’s heart and how God’s word directs and shapes a heart.  The little section on goal setting for children was also helpful; we should teach our children about goals in life and attaining them.

Part two is where the authors talk about spiritual development in children, including family devotions, the importance of Christian teaching in the home, and teaching kids to apply God’s word to their life (by the parents’ example and by parents’ teaching).  Basically, this part of the book gave some good advice on passing down the faith in such a way that kids are motivated to live it, not just hear it.  I was happy to see the authors mention the importance of the church in kids’ lives.  The authors were also wise to mention how spending time with kids, discussing real life issues and the faith, is good for our kids.  There was even some mention of what to expect as far as roadblocks in passing down the faith.

While I don’t agree with everything in this book, there are many strengths.  I liked the emphasis on patience, love, forgiveness, and moral compass and direction.  The book encouraged me to keep working hard to be a better Christian parent.  It’s easy to get discouraged when parenting, and this book reminded me to stay focused and deliberate while parenting in our Christian home.  I suppose one weakness of the book is that there is a lot of info in these 250+ pages.  You’ll have to take notes or mark the book up well to remember all the good advice and biblical principles!  But it is for sure worth the read.

Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller, Motivate Your Child (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015).

Thanks to “Booklook Bloggers” for sending me a review copy; I was not compelled to write a positive review.

shane lems
hammond, wi