Abandon Facts but Keep Feelings? (Machen)

J. Gresham Machen Liberalism is not new.  The liberal seminary magazines I get in the mail are printed in full color and talk about smartphones, laptops, and podcasts, but the liberalism in them pre-dates today’s technology.  The magazine I got in the mail last week doesn’t mention the cross, sin or the resurrection, and it barely mentions Jesus or the Bible.  But it does talk about social justice, “Christian” art, interfaith dialogues, and debt.  This kind of liberalism has been around quite some time.

J. Gresham Machen and others had to deal with liberalism a century ago.  Back then the liberals didn’t mind letting go of facts as long as they could keep their religious feelings.  In other words, it didn’t matter to them if Jesus actually came back to life.  What was important was that they could feel him living on in their hearts.  Machen addressed this false Christianity quite well:

“It seems to be such a promising solution of our apologetic difficulties just to say that science and religion belong in two entirely different spheres and can never by any chance come into conflict.  It seems to be so easy for religion to purchase peace by abandoning to science the whole sphere of facts in order to retain for itself merely a sphere of feelings and ideals.”

“But in reality these tactics are quite disastrous.  You effect thus a strategic retreat; you retreat into …an inner line of defense whence you think that science can never dislodge you.  You get down into your pragamtist dugout and listen comfortably to the muffled sound of the warfare being carried on above by those who are old-fashioned enough to be interested in truth; you think that whatever creedal changes, whatever intellectual battle there may be, you at least are safe.  You have your Christian experience, and let science and biblical criticism do what they will!”

“But do not comfort yourself.  The enemy in this warfare is good at mopping up captured trenches; he has in his mechanistic psychologists a very efficient mopping up squad.  He will soon drive you out of your refuge; he will destroy whatever decency and liberty you thought you had retained; and you will discover, too late, that the battle is now lost, and that your only real hope lay not into retreating into some anti-intellectualistic dugout but in fighting bravely to prevent the initial capture of the trench.”

“No, the battle between naturalism and supernaturalism, between mechanism and liberty, has to be fought sooner or later; and I do not believe that there is any advantage in letting the enemy choose the ground upon which it shall be fought.  The strongest defense of the Christian religion is the outer defense; a reduced and inconsistent Christianity is weak; our real safety lies in the exultant supernaturalism of God’s Word.”

Exactly.  Abandoning the facts of the faith (like the flood, the exodus, the wilderness wanderings, the monarchy, the miracles of Christ, his death and resurrection, etc.) may seem like a peaceful move, but it only exposes one to the head-on assaults of Satan.  Machen is right: “Our real safety lies in the exultant supernaturalism of God’s Word,” which gives the historical, factual accounts of God’s supernatural intervention to redeem his people from sin through Christ’s cross.  Under that banner, the Christian can bravely fight the battle!

The above quote is found on page 362 of Machen’s Shorter Writings.

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

 

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The Resurrection as Hoax?

I read this book last year and really appreciated it: Jesus and the Logic of History by Paul Barnett.  Recently, as I was skimming through it again, I found the following section where Barnett helpfully talks about the resurrection of Christ and the various theories of it (e.g. the disciples stole the body, Jesus wasn’t really dead but revived in the tomb, or that they crucified the wrong person by mistake):

The view held by many contemporary scholars, that the disciples were subject to some kind of visionary experiences, is hard to accept.  Two people sharing one bed seldom have the same dream.  The proposal that between five and six hundred people on twelve or so separate occasions over forty days had the same visionary experience is extremely unlikely.

In any case ‘resurrection from the dead’, a Jewish concept, literally means, ‘standing up in the midst of corpses’ (anastasis nekron).  A resurrection which was not bodily is self-contradictory and has ben likened to a circle which is square.  The various subjective or visionary theories of the resurrection are culturally contradictory.

Here’s how Barnett ends this section:

There is only one serious alternative explanation.  It is that the disciples stole the body and proclaimed Jesus to have been raised from the dead.  In other words, it was a deception, a hoax.  A number of objections may be raised against this hypothesis.  Apart from the unlikelihood that the perpetrators would call a gospel based on deceit the ‘word of truth’ and repeatedly call for truthful behavior among believers, such a theory is difficult to reconcile with subsequent apostolic history.

Through the pages of the New Testament we are able to trace the ministries of Peter, James and Paul, the leaders of various mission groups, from the time of the resurrection to their martyr-deaths.  This is a period of about three decades.  It is implausible that all three would have maintained the deception throughout those years and then gone to their deaths without exposing a hoax.  Moreover, there was more than a little friction between these men.  Had the resurrection not been true, it is likely that one or other of these strong personalities would have broken ranks to expose the others.

Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History, p. 130-131.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

The Blind Faith of Naturalism (Colson)

Growing up, I remember overhearing Chuck Colson’s “Breakpoint” from my mom’s kitchen radio.  Sometimes I would stop and listen.  I grew to appreciate his commentary, even though I didn’t always agree with all of it.  Here’s part of a previously unpublished memo of Colson’s from around 10 or 15 years ago:

It never ceases to amaze me that people are willing to bet their lives on naturalism; not only is it self-refuting, but to believe it is an act of supreme hubris.  I say supreme hubris because naturalism is the assumption that the only thing that can be known is that which you see and can validate with one of your five senses.  So what the naturalist is really saying is, if I can’t prove it’s true, then it can’t be true.  If I can’t, by physical observation, conclude something is real, then it can’t be real.

Of course, there are all kinds of things in life that we cannot see or apprehend with our senses that are nonetheless true, love being one of the most obvious.  The principle that allows an airplane to fly, the lift created by air traveling more slowly under the wings than over the wings, is a visible principle, but you can’t see the air actually moving.  It is measurable, of course, but still a certain amount of faith is involved in knowing anything.

Later Colson notes how naturalism is self-refuting because a naturalist presupposes that everything came about by chance, by evolution.  The naturalist says that reasonable, intelligent, and rational human beings evolved by chance mutations and evolutionary principles.  How can one prove this by physically observable facts?  Here’s Colson:

…To come to that conclusion, you’re relying on a brain and a thinking process that evolved by chance.  If it has evolved by chance, you have no idea whether it’s reliable.  Attempt to prove to me that an organ that evolved by chance is going to be reliable to always give you the right answer to any particular question.  Or prove to me that this organ has the capacity of knowledge, which is distinguishing what is real from what isn’t.  The answer, of course, is that you can never get there.

The naturalist is proceeding in blind faith.  He is defying what is self-evident, both in nature and the creation and in terms of our moral inclination.  He is, as C. S. Lewis said, like a man trying to lift himself up by grabbing himself by the collar and raising his hands.  He won’t get off the ground, but he will very likely strangle himself.

The naturalist is in the position of assuming that he knows everything he needs to know, and that everything that can be known is accessible to him through his senses.  It takes an extraordinary leap of faith to arrive at that conclusion.  But once you do, you have nothing.  You are defying the evidence.

Chuck Colson, My Final Word, p. 226-227.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

“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

The Tension of Unbelief (Guinness)

Fool's Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion Fool’s Talk by Os Guinness is an excellent resource for thoughtful Christian apologetics.  I’ve mentioned it here before so I won’t go into details.  But there is a section I was recently reading again – a section which is well worth posting here.  It’s based on Romans 1:18ff:

“At the core of unbelief is ceaseless, unremitting and inescapable tension and conflict.  Unbelievers suppress the truth in unrighteousness, but it is still always the truth, so they can never completely get away from it.  An unbeliever’s view of the world without God may contain many deep truths and have all sorts of genuine merits.  But that view of the world can never be completely true, because the unbeliever will not accept God, without whom it will always be finally false at some points.  Yet at the same time, the unbelievers’ views of the world are never completely false, because they can never get away completely from God and his truth.  Unbelief is therefore always an inherently in tension, and it can never escape this conflict.  Whatever view of the world unbelief espouses, it is always partly true but twisted, and it is always twisted, though never other than still partly true.”

Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk, p. 93-4.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Robin Hood, History, and Neo-Atheists (Copan)

Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God Some people have “issues” with aspects of the Old Testament.  In the OT you find stories of stoning, incest, polygamy, bloody warfare, and so forth.  Neo-atheists try to make hay out of these OT stories and argue that God is immoral, unjust, blood-thirsty, hateful, and sexist (etc. etc.).  What do Christians do in light of such accusations?  Paul Copan gives some helps for Christians in his book Is God a Moral Monster?  I’ve mentioned this book here before, so I won’t give all the details again.  But I do want to quote a section that I’ve highlighted more than once, a section where Copan assess the anti-Christian arguments of many Neo-atheists.  I’ll summarize the first and third point, and spend a bit more time on the second point:

First, for all their emphasis on cool-headed, scientific rationality, Neo-atheists express themselves not just passionately but angrily. …Michael Novak, author of the thought-provoking book ‘No One Sees God,’ comments about the Neo-atheists’ writings that there’s ‘an odd defensiveness about all these books – as though they were a sign not of victory but desperation.”

Second, the Neo-atheists’ arguments against God are surprisingly flimsy, often resembling the simplistic village atheist far more than the credentialed academician.  The Neo-atheists are often profoundly ignorant of what they criticize, and they typically receive the greatest laughs and cheers from the philosophically and theologically challenged.  True, they effectively utilize a combination of emotion and verbal rhetoric, but they aren’t known for logically carrying thoughts through from beginning to end. …I’ve observed that while these men do have expertise in certain fields…, they turn out to be fairly disappointing when arguing against God’s existence or Christian doctrine.  And a quick check of Dawkins’ documentation reveals a lot more time spent on Google than at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

“…Rodney Stark puts it this way: ‘To expect to learn anything about important theological problems from Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett is like expecting to learn about medieval history from someone who had only read ‘Robin Hood.””

Third, the New Atheists aren’t willing to own up to atrocities committed in the name of atheism by Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao Zedong, yet they expect Christians to own up to all the barbarous acts performed in Jesus’ name.  …I think the reason it’s difficult, if not impossible, for New Atheists to acknowledge immorality in the name of atheism is because it would take much wind out of their sails when criticizing religion.”

I appreciate these three points – and I recommend reading them in full.  They’re found in the first chapter of Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

Pragmatism and Postmodernity (Groothuis)

In chapter six of Doug Groothuis’ helpful book, Christian Apologeticshe does a nice job explaining and refuting postmodernism from a Christian point of view.  He notes that in postmodernity, “dialoging about one religion being true or another false is beside the point.  All are ‘true’ in the postmodern sense because they give meaning and direction to people’s lives….”

“The postmodernist view also bears on the increasing tendency of some contemporary people to create their own religions (or ‘spirituality’) by mixing and matching elements of several religions, however incompatible these may be.  If spiritual truth is a matter of social or individual construction, then one need not be constrained by logical consistency or adherence to a received tradition (say Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, or Islamic).”

“There is an element of pragmatism here as well.  If it ‘works’ for someone to combine elements of Hinduism (the practice of yoga) and Christianity (church attendance, the golden rule, and prayer), one need not worry about intellectual consistency or spiritual fidelity to an ancient tradition or revealed authority.  But this smorgasbord approach lacks intellectual integrity because it makes religious belief something to use instead of something to discover and live by.”

Excellent points!  And of course, postmodernist and pragmatic views of religion and spirituality fall short:

“Postmodernity often erodes religious confidence.  What results is a free-floating spirituality largely devoid of certainty or sustained convictions.”

The Christian faith, however, isn’t free-floating, nor is it devoid of certainty, sustained convictions, or truth.  Because the gospel is true, it gives us direction, certainty, and convictions.  You can find this entire excellent discussion in chapter 6 of Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics.

Shane Lems