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

Transhumanism: Humanity 2.0?

It’s the theme of many movies and books: becoming more than human.  This is called transhumanism, the desire to become posthuman.  It’s also called humanity 2.0, mankind upgraded; this is biotechnology’s striving to mesh computers, brains, and DNA.  Think cyborgs, cryonics, and uploading a person’s “self” from his body to a computer.   Transhumanists want to give people a chance to develop or evolve beyond human limits.

Matthew Eppinette discusses this topic in his helpful essay, “Human 2.0: Transhumanism as a Cultural Trend” (in Everyday Theology).  Eppinette gives a good summary and theological critique of this movement, and in doing so, he nicely explains that scientific and technological advances are not the only reason for this rise of transhumanism.  What else explains this trend?

“Scientific developments have set only part of the stage for transhumanism; philosophical and cultural trends such as individualism and postmodernism also contribute.”

Individualism is the idea that one’s own needs, interests, and desires are more important than those of others or of any larger group or community.  In our culture, this emphasis on individuality has, in many ways, become a radical personal autonomy under which each person is a law unto himself or herself.”

“The term ‘postmodernism’ is used in a variety of ways, most of which encompass the idea that any kind of universal story or metanarrative is at best suspect and more likely a tool of manipulation or control.  Postmodernity thus rejects traditional religious views and values, favoring – in conjunction with individualism, personal constructions of origins, ethics, and eschatology.”

Epinnette then notes how technology, individualism, and postmodernism intersect in the current desire to be “better than well.”  That is, much like the 20th century eugenics movement (improving humanity through careful breeding), today people seek to be better than well through performance enhancing drugs, plastic surgery, and the transhuman desire to mesh man and computer/machine.

This is quite a detailed and lengthy discussion, but Eppinnette ends the article well by giving a theological Christian critique of the transhuman desire.  For example, humanity’s biggest problem is not being human; the biggest problem is sin.  The answer is not transcending humanity, but the removal of transgression through God’s gift of his Son.  Since God created man in his image, humans (including their bodies!) have dignity.  Happiness and meaning are not found in some transhuman cyborg state – they are found only in Christ.  As Christians we do not want to discard or move beyond the body; we long to have it renewed and glorified when Jesus returns.  The list goes on.

If you’re interested in this topic (transhumanism), a topic that many movies and books highlight, and you want a Christian critique and response to it, read Epinnette’s article: “Humanity 2.0: Transhumanism as a Cultural Trend” in Everyday Theology.

shane lems

Mythical Adam = Mythical Gospel

Should Christians Embrace Evolution?: Biblical and Scientific Responses Many of our readers probably know that some in broadly Christian circles debate whether Adam and Eve were real, actual, historical people.  Some believe, based on the theory of evolution, that Adam and Eve were either not the first humans or they are simply myths or symbols God used to describe some truths.  Historic Christianity, however, has strongly and firmly insisted that Adam and Eve were actual, historical people – the first two humans, the first people God created.

Michael Reeves, in Should Christians Embrace Evolution?, makes an excellent biblical, theological, and logical case that Adam and Eve were in fact historical people.  His essay is too large to summarize here, but it is worth quoting a few parts of it.

“[In Romans 5:12-21] Paul could hardly have been clearer that he supposed Adam was as real and historical a figure as Christ and Moses (and Abraham).  Yet it is not just Paul’s language that suggests he believes in a historical Adam; his whole argument depends on it.  His logic would fall apart if he was comparing a historical man (Christ) to a mythical or symbolical one (Adam).”

“If Adam and his sin were mere symbols, then there would be no need for a historical atonement; a mythical atonement would be necessary to undo a mythical fall.  With a mythical Adam, then, Christ might as well be – in fact, would do better to be – a symbol of divine forgiveness and new life.  Instead, the story Paul tells is of a historical problem of sin, guilt and death being introduced into the creation, a problem that required a historical solution.”

There is more to Reeves’ excellent argument.  His closing statement, which I’ll conclude with below, is a summary of the main points:

“The historical reality of Adam is an essential means of preserving a Christian account of sin and evil, a Christian understanding of God, and the rationale for the incarnation, cross, and resurrection.  His physical fatherhood of all humankind preserves God’s justice in condemning us in Adam (and, by inference, God’s justice in redeeming us in Christ) as well as safeguarding the logic of the incarnation.  Neither belief can be reinterpreted without the most severe consequences.”

Michael Reeves, “Adam and Eve” in Should Christians Embrace Evolution? (chapter 3).

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

“Flesh” (Sarx) in Paul’s Epistles

Fallen: A Theology of Sin (Theology in Community) The Greek word ‘sarx’ (flesh) is often a difficult word to translate and define in Paul’s epistles.  Most Bible translations use more than a few English words for the Greek word ‘sarx.’  For example, some translations use “human body,” “body,” “person,” “sinful flesh,” “earthly,” “physical,” “natural,” or other similar words to translate ‘sarx.’  So what does this word mean?  It is a long answer, I suppose, since the term has various meanings depending on context.  I appreciate Douglas Moo’s summary of this term in his article, “Sin in Paul.”  Here’s how Moo summarizes the meanings of ‘sarx.’

1) The most basic meaning of sarx, and the most common in secular Greek, is ‘the material that covers the bones of an animal or human body.’  Paul occasionally uses the word with this sense (cf. 1 Cor. 15:39, Eph, 2:11, Col. 2:13, Gal. 6:13).

2) Following precedents in secular Greek, Paul also applies sarx to the human body as a whole (cf. 2 Cor. 7:1, Gal. 4:13, Eph. 5:31).

3) But more often, Paul uses sarx to refer not to the human body narrowly but the human being generally (cf. 1 Cor. 1:28-29, Gal. 1:16, 2:16).

4) This #3 meaning merges almost imperceptibly into a bit broader concept, namely, the human state or condition.  While debated, 1 Cor. 10:18 probably falls into this category.  This is what some call the ‘neutral’ use of sarx.  [Although some scholars say] a certain negative nuance often clings to sarx even when Paul uses it in apparently neutral senses (cf. Rom. 1:3-4, 9:5).

5) Finally, sarx can designate the human condition in its fallenness (Gal. 5:16-17).  This is what some call the ‘ethical’ use of sarx.  This sense of sarx is quite common in Paul.

[As a side, this reminds me of Ridderbos’ explanation of ‘sarx’: “On the one hand, ‘flesh’ has for [Paul] the significance of what is human in its weakness, dependence on God, and perishableness in itself; on the other hand, ‘flesh’ is the pregnant and very specific description of man in his sin, and the coinciding of being human and being a sinner is therefore expressed in it” (Paul: An Outline of His Theology, p. 93).  It seems like Ridderbos is also working with a “neutral” and “ethical” sense of the word ‘sarx.’]

While there is more to this discussion, and while this may not answer all the questions about the term ‘sarx,’ it is a helpful outline to consider when thinking about this word in Paul’s epistles.

The above outline (which I’ve edited slightly) is found in Moo’s article in Fallen: A Theology of Sin.

shane lems
hammond, wi

How Do Human Beings Differ From Animals?

In one section of his excellent book, Seven Truths That Changed The World, Ken Samples explains how human beings differ from animals.  It might seem like a no-brainer to some, but this is important to remember when evolutionary theories are creeping into Christian circles and churches.  (Note: as usual, I’ve edited this list to keep it brief, though I recommend the entire section and book.)

“Specific qualities and traits set people apart from all other creatures.  According to historic Christianity, and specifically in light of the imago Dei, these acute differences are expected.”

1) Human beings have an inherent spiritual and religious nature.  Nearly everyone pursues some form of spiritual truth.  People generally have deep-seated religious beliefs and engage in intricate rituals.  This defining characteristic of humankind is so apparent that some have designated humans as homo religiosus (religious person).  Though animals can be intelligent, they show no sign of spirituality or of concern with ultimate issues.

2) Human beings possess unique intellectual, cultural, and communicative abilities.  Humans are thinkers capable of abstract reasoning and able to recognize, apply, and communicate the foundational principles of logic.  Only human minds develop propositions, formulate arguments, draw inferences, recognize universal principles, and value logical validity, coherence, and truth.

3) Human beings are conscious of time, reality, and truth.  Humans alone recollect the past, recognize the present, and anticipate the future.  Only human beings pursue the truth, which has led to the founding and development of philosophy, science, mathematics, logic, the arts, and a religious worldview.

4) Human beings possess a conscience, identity, a value system, and legislate moral laws for society.  People have an inner sense of moral right and wrong or good and bad (conscience).  They deliberate about moral choices, feel the pull of prescriptive moral obligation, and conform their lives according to a system of ethical conduct.

5) Human beings are uniquely inventive and technological.  Human innovation has not only lengthened the human lifespan but also brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction.  In this sobering and humbling fact, people once again prove themselves unique among all living creatures.

6) Human beings possess an intense curiosity to explore and understand the created realm.  Birds may look to the star patterns in the sky to guide them in migrations, but humans seek to comprehend the source of starlight and what lies beyond it.

7) Human beings possess aesthetic taste and appreciation for more than just practical purposes.  People distinctly create, recognize, and appreciate beauty.  Humans often create because they are moved by a deep and mysterious sense of the beautiful.

“These seven characteristics clearly place human beings in a different category from the rest of Earth’s creatures.  In many respects humans are different in kind, not just in degree, from the animals.  And the distinct attributes of humankind comport well with what Scripture reveals concerning the imago Dei.”

Kenneth Samples, Seven Truths That Changed The World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), chapter 12.

rev 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