The Riddle or Enigma of Man (Bavinck)

The Wonderful Works of God by Hermann Bavinck Cover Image. Westminster Seminary Press. Here’s a great excerpt from the first chapter in Bavinck’s Our Reasonable Faith (aka The Wonderful Works of God or Magnalia Dei). I really like how Bavinck integrates Augustine and Pascal in his biblical reflections:

The conclusion, therefore, is that of Augustine, who said that the heart of man was created for God and that it cannot find rest until it rests in his Father’s heart. Hence all men are really seeking after God, as Augustine also declared, but they do not all seek Him in the right way, nor at the right place. They seek Him down below, and He is up above. They seek Him on the earth, and He is in heaven. They seek Him afar, and He is nearby. They seek Him in money, in property, in fame, in power, and in passion; and He is to be found in the high and the holy places, and with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit (Isa. 57:15). But they do seek Him, if haply they might feel after Him and find Him (Acts 17:27). They seek Him and at the same time they flee Him. They have no interest in a knowledge of His ways, and yet they cannot do without Him. They feel themselves attracted to God and at the same time repelled by Him.

In this, as Pascal so profoundly pointed out, consists the greatness and the miserableness of man. He longs for truth and is false by nature. He yearns for rest and throws himself from one diversion upon another. He pants for a permanent and eternal bliss and seizes on the pleasures of a moment. He seeks for God and loses himself in the creature. He is a born son of the house and he feeds on the husks of the swine in a strange land. He forsakes the fountain of living waters and hews out broken cisterns that can hold no water (Jer. 2:13). He is as a hungry man who dreams that he is eating, and when he awakes finds that his soul is empty; and he is like a thirsty man who dreams that he is drinking, and when he awakes finds that he is faint and that his soul has appetite (Isa. 29:8).

Science cannot explain this contradiction in man. It reckons only with his greatness and not with his misery, or only with his misery and not with his greatness. It exalts him too high, or it depresses him too far, for science does not know of his Divine origin, nor of his profound fall. But the Scriptures know of both, and they shed their light over man and over mankind; and the contradictions are reconciled, the mists are cleared, and the hidden things are revealed. Man is an enigma whose solution can he found only in God.

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, p. 22-23.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

A Reason for These Astonishing Contradictions (Pascal)

The Harvard Classics 48: Blaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters, and Minor Works I always enjoy reading Blaise Pascal.  Here are two paragraphs from a section of his writings called, “Morality and Doctrine”:

The greatness and the wretchedness of man are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us both that there is in man some great source of greatness, and a great source of wretchedness. It must then give us a reason for these astonishing contradictions.

In order to make man happy, it must prove to him that there is a God; that we ought to love Him; that our true happiness is to be in Him, and our sole evil to be separated from Him; it must recognise that we are full of darkness which hinders us from knowing and loving Him; and that thus, as our duties compel us to love God, and our lusts turn us away from Him, we are full of unrighteousness. It must give us an explanation of our opposition to God and to our own good. It must teach us the remedies for these infirmities, and the means of obtaining these remedies. Let us therefore examine all the religions of the world, and see if there be any other than the Christian which is sufficient for this purpose.

Blaise Pascal, The Harvard Classics 48: Blaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters, and Minor Works, ed. Charles W. Eliot, trans. W. F. Trotter, M. L. Booth, and O. W. Wight (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1910), 140.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Prenatal Genetic Testing and Abortion (Moreland/Rae)

 Our culture today has very subjective and illogical views on what it means to be a person.  For one of several examples, some say that an unborn baby with Down syndrome is not a person.  In fact, as many of our readers know, pregnant women can have tests to see if their unborn baby has a defect or health issue.  Moreland and Rae explain:

“It is widely assumed that if the couple were to get bad news about their child’s genetic makeup, they would end the pregnancy. But consider what that assumption indicates about the view of a human person. This kind of presumption about prenatal genetic testing suggests that personhood and the attendant rights to life are dependent on the child’s possessing an acceptable genetic makeup.  What constitutes such an acceptable makeup would be entirely up to the subjective preferences of the parents. It is solely the genetic anomaly that, in the minds of the parents, renders the fetus as less than a full person, since without the child’s anomaly, the parents would undoubtedly consider ending a pregnancy with their wanted child as immoral.

The fact that couples would end a pregnancy on the basis of genetic abnormality assumes that the fetus in the womb is not a full person.  Without that assumption, there would be no morally significant difference between ending the pregnancy when a woman is carrying a genetically defective fetus and ending the life of a genetically handicapped adult.  Society and the law take the latter as absurd, and in fact the argument is commonly made that the law owes even greater protection to the genetically handicapped because of their vulnerability. If personhood is denied based on genetic abnormality, then there is no justification for protecting the adult genetically handicapped population, which faces physical, mental and genetic challenges. Prenatal genetic testing and the corresponding assumptions about ending a pregnancy indicate a deeply flawed view of a human person.  Further, that assumption about what constitutes a person is illogical, since it cannot be applied evenly to all segments of the population.

I agree.  This example shows how our culture has a subjective and illogical definition of “person.”  Thankfully in Scripture we find an objective and logical definition: to be a human is to be a person and to be a person is to be a human.  This is assumed in Bible stories.  Furthermore, in Scripture a baby in the womb is considered a person.  It was David himself whom God knit together in his mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13).  Even terminally ill humans are considered people in Scripture (e.g. the story of Jairus’ daughter in Luke 8).  This is objective and it makes sense.

Finally, this biblical definition of person means that all people – from embryos to newborns to middle aged to senior citizens, whether very healthy or very ill – all people are created in God’s image and have dignity and worth because of it. All these are people Christians are called to love and serve.  Don’t let anyone tell you that the Christian view of man is oppressive and dehumanizing.  The opposite is true!

The above quote is found on pages 308-309 of Body and Soul by J.P. Moreland and Scott. B. Rae.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Limits of Science Concerning Human Nature (Moreland/Rae)

 Since I’m doing a sermon series on image and identity, I picked up Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey.  I’ve mentioned it here several times in the past month or two.  I also recently picked up Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics by J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae.  Body and Soul is a biblical and philosophical study of the human body and the human soul: what they are and how they relate.  It’s a rather difficult read, to be honest, since it is a philosophical look at these topics.  I’m learning some new things such as metaphysical distinctions relevant to anthropology, degreed and nondegreed property, mereology, and so on.

The main thesis of the book is that, in the authors’ view, human persons are not property-things, but substances.  They back up their thesis with Scripture and with logical arguments from philosophy.  The last three chapters are application chapters where the authors discuss beginning of life ethics and end of life ethics based on their biblical and philosophical view that humans are substances, not property-things.

One part I appreciated was where they discussed science’s input on human persons:

In our view, when it comes to addressing the nature of human persons, science is largely incompetent either to frame the correct questions or to provide answers.  The hard sciences are at their best when they describe how physical systems work, but they are largely incompetent when settling questions about the nature of consciousness, intentionality, personal identity and agency, and related matters. Recently, philosopher and scientific naturalist John Searle have argued that 15 years of focused on philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence and cognitive psychological models of consciousness have been a waste of time in a number of ways…

… We do not agree with everything Searle says here, but he is correct in claiming that various disciplines studying the nature of human persons have been mired in chaos and confusion for at least a half a century. In our view, the reason for this chaos has been the assumption that science is the best way to approach the relevant questions.

The authors go on to give some assertions that are very difficult, if not impossible, for hard sciences to explain (e.g. mental states, the human soul, thoughts, etc.).  I agree with Moreland and Rae in that science can do much to help our understanding of humans, but science has its limits.  Thankfully we have God’s Word, which not only tells us about him, it also tells us about ourselves, humans, made in the image of God, body and soul, male and female.  And Scripture gives us a teleological outlook: the chief end of man is to glorify and enjoy God forever!

The above quote is found on pages 41-42 of Moreland and Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

“What is Man?” and Apologetics (Pascal)

As I’ve mentioned a few times here before, Douglas Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics is one of my favorite books on this topic.  I don’t agree with every part of it, but every part of it is insightful and worth reading.  One part that sticks out is the chapter called “Deposed Royalty.”  This chapter is a discussion of Blaise Pascal’s defense of the Christian faith from an anthropological angle.  In other words, one way Pascal aimed to prove the truth of the Christian faith is by arguing that Christianity has the best and most satisfying answer for the fact that man is both wretched and great at the same time.  No other religion can explain this fact nearly as well as Christianity.  Here’s Pascal:

“Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.””Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched: a tree does not know it is wretched.  Thus it is wretched to know that one is wretched, but there is a greatness in knowing one is wretched.”

Pascal is saying that humans have a sort of “dual nature.”  Here’s how Pascal said it (from God’s perspective):

“…You are no longer in the state in which I made you.  I created man holy, innocent, perfect, I filled him with light and understanding, I showed him my glory and my wondrous works.  Man’s eye then beheld the majesty of God.  He was not then in the darkness that now blinds his sight, nor subject to death and the miseries that afflict him.””But he could not bear such great glory without falling to presumption.  He wanted to make himself his own center and do without my help.  He withdrew himself from my rule, setting himself up as my equal in his desire to find happiness in himself, and I abandoned him to himself.  The creatures who were subject to him I incited to revolt and made his enemies,  so that today man has become like beasts, and is so far apart from me that barely a glimmering idea of his author alone remains of all his dead or flickering knowledge.”

Pascal, of course, says more about this.  But the gist of his apologetic argument is that the philosophers never did reconcile the fact that man is both wretched and great at the same time.  The Christian faith alone gives the best and most plausible reason for why humans are like they are.  Created upright and in God’s image, we fell into sin, and now we are both wretched (sinful) and great (still have a faint reflection of God’s image).  Pascal also noted that humans are redeemable by grace.  Douglas Groothuis summarizes the argument with a Creation-Fall-Incarnation logic:

Humans are 1) wretched because fallen, 2) great because of their unfallen origin and the vestiges of it, and 3) redeemable through the incarnation.

Finally, here’s Pascal’s challenge after talking about the need to answer the “what is man” question:

“Let us examine all the religions of the world on that point and let us see whether any but the Christian religion meets it.”

Pascal’s argument is very much worth considering.  Groothuis did a good job in summarizing it.  If you’re interested, pick up Christian Apologetics and see the chapter called “Deposed Royalty.”  And while you’re at it, check out the other chapters as well!

Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

A Theology of the Body (Or: Zombies)

Though I don’t agree with it all, this is one interesting, thought-provoking, and helpful book: Incarnate: The Body of Christ and the Age of Disengagement by Michael Frost.  In it, Frost argues that humans are becoming less involved with one another in a personal, face to face way.  One of his main points is that because of certain technologies, it is possible for people to live disembodied lives, where one can interact online, go to church online, do one-click activism work online (called slacktivism), and generally avoid real and “embodied” relationships.  He contrasts excarnate or disembodied living with incarnate, embodied living, making excellent points against the former  and arguing in favor of the latter.

In one example, Frost uses the recent zombie craze to make his point.  He asks the question, “Why are [zombies] so popular and so enduring as a pop culture device?

“Some have suggested that zombie apocalypse is a more palatable end-of-the world scenario because it’s a truly secular one with no judgmental deities presiding over the fate of humankind.  Others have speculated that it’s a cracked, secular version of resurrection.  However, culture watcher Dan Birlew suggests the reasons for the popularity of zombie fiction lies somewhere more primal:”

‘There’s an entire world full of walking punching bags.  People are now zombies, and you have to kill them before they kill you.  So it doesn’t really matter what you do to them, because they’re not people anymore.  They’re former people that you can beat down and tear apart in the most gruesome ways you can think of.  …Take out all your frustrations in all the ways you ever dreamed, it doesn’t matter anymore.  No one’s going to stop you from killing a monster, even if it used to be a person.’

Frost then says that though mowing down zombies is at one level entertaining for some people,

“[It] is horrifying because it too represents our greatest fear: that we are dispensable.  While many people are happy to treat their own bodies and those of other people like zombies – casually and indiscriminately – deeper down there’s a sense of horror that our bodies could mean so little.”

Since action scenes where mobs of humans are mowed down (e.g. Rambo) are politically incorrect these days, Frost notes, “we’ve had to resort to killing unhuman objects like zombies for the same effect.  And all the while we are picking at the scab of our nagging anxiety of our own indispensability.”

Frost ends the chapter by stating a biblical understanding of the human body: “We are our bodies.  We don’t live in our bodies.  And therefore our bodies and the bodies of others are precious and worthy of respect (cf. Phil. 1:20-23).

“[Christ’s] bodily resurrection from the dead signaled the Christian hope for the ongoing identity of a person with his or her own body. The body is not a prison to be released from but is the person in a profound sense.”

Michael Frost: Incarnate (DownersGrove, IVP, 2014), chapter three.

shane lems

The Meaning, Purpose, and Dignity of Mankind

“The creature is not self-existent.  It has not assumed its nature and existence of itself or given it to itself.  It did not come into being by itself.  It does not consist by itself.  It cannot sustain itself.  It has to thank its creation and therefore its Creator for the fact that it came into being and is and will be.  Nor does the creature exist for itself.  It is not the creature itself but its Creator who exists and thinks and speaks and cares for the creature.  The creature is no more its own goal and purpose than it is its own ground and beginning.”

“There is no inherent reason for the creature’s existence and nature, no independent teleology of the creature introduced with its creation and made its own.  Its destiny lies entirely in the purpose of its Creator as the One Who speaks and cares for it.  The creature’s right and meaning and goal and purpose and dignity lie – only – in the fact that God as the Creator has turned toward it with His purpose.”

“Any other attitude than that of God’s free acceptance of this turning towards it and therefore of this advocacy and care; any claim to a right inherent it its being and nature, to a meaning which has not first been received, to a goal which it has fixed for itself, to a purpose which it has in and for itself, to a dignity independent of the free will of its Creator – all this is just as meaningless as the illusion that it came into being by itself, that it consists in itself and that it can sustain itself.  By its very creation, and therefore its being as a creature, all such views are shown, like this illusion, to be basically impossible, and thus disclosed as falsehoods.”

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/1, 94-95.

shane lems