Learning About God From God: Athenagoras

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      Athenagoras (d. c. 200 AD?) was an able Christian apologist in the early church.  Before he became a Christian, he was a Greek philosopher.  After he became a Christian, he used his gifts to defend the Christian faith against the opposition of the Roman government that was hostile to Christians.  One of Athenagoras’ writings that survived is called “A Plea for the Christians,” which was written to Roman rulers and philosophers.  The entire work is certainly worth reading; below is one part that stood out to me.

“Since, therefore, the unity of the Deity is confessed by almost all (even non-Christian Greek philosophers of the past), even against their will, when they come to treat of the first principles of the universe, and we in our turn likewise assert that He who arranged this universe is God – why is it that they can say and write with impunity (exemption from punishment) what they please concerning the Deity, but that against us a law lies in force, though we are able to demonstrate what we apprehend and justly believe, namely, that there is one God, with proofs and reason accordant with truth?”

“For poets and philosophers, as to other subjects so also to this, have applied themselves in the way of conjecture (speculation), moved, by reason of their affinity with the afflatus (impulse) from God, each one by his own soul, to try whether he could find out and apprehend the truth; but they have not been found competent to fully apprehend it, because they thought fit to learn, not from God concerning God, but each one from himself; hence they came to their own conclusion respecting God, and matter, and forms, and the world.”

“But we have for witnesses of the things we apprehend and believe, prophets, men who have pronounced concerning God and the things of God, guided by the Spirit of God.  And you too will admit, excelling all others as you do in intelligence and in piety towards the true God, that it would be irrational for us to cease to believe in the Spirit from God, who moved the mouths of the prophets like musical instruments, and to give heed [instead] to mere human opinions.”

Athenagoras is saying that not only was it unfair that Christians are punished for their beliefs about God while philosophers are not, it is also true that philosophers did not learn about God from God, so they are wrong in their beliefs.  Christians, however, learn about the true God from his prophets, whom the Spirit used to speak God’s truth.  To put it simply, Christians learn about God from God – that is not irrational nor should it be the reason for punishment and persecution!

The entire work can be found in volume 2 of The Ante Nicene Fathers – page 129ff.

shane lems

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The Dilemma of Unbelief

Product Details This is a helpful book on the topic of presuppositional apologetics: Every Thought Captive by Richard Pratt.  I appreciate the following paragraphs that highlight the dilemma of unbelief.

“On the one hand, if the unbeliever claims to have absolute certainty, he can do so only by ignoring his total uncertainty.  As illustrated before, certainty is impossible for the non-Christian since he has rejected the only source of true knowledge and is left to finite speculation.  For the unbeliever to hold any view tenaciously, he must do so in total disregard of his limited awareness and his rebellion against God.”

“On the other hand, if the unbeliever claims total uncertainty, questioning man’s ability to know, he does so only by ignoring that his view is in reality a statement of absolute certainty.  Often this position is presented by the unbeliever as an attempt to avoid arrogance and dogmatism.  He may say that we cannot be sure of what we think we know or that we may arrive only at ‘probable knowledge.’  Such a stance may seem less presumptuous on the surface, but it is actually a statement of absolute certainty as well as total uncertainty.  Non-Christians who claim total uncertainty for man’s knowledge say, ‘It is absolutely certain that there are no absolute certainties.’  The unbeliever can continue to hold this view only as he ignores how absolutely certain he must be to hold it” (p. 47-48).

Richard Pratt, Every Thought Captive (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1979).

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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.

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“God is Dead:” Who Said It?

  NOTE: This is a re-blog from December, 2009.

Most of us have heard the phrase, “God is dead,” and we’ve probably even heard some say we’re living in the age where that mindset is prevalent.  Though many enemies of the gospel have said similar things throughout history, the penman of ’God is dead’ is the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900).  I’ve read parts of Nietzsche before, including selections from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Ecce Homo, and Twilight of the Idols.  Nietzsche is an animal as far as writing goes; you don’t just read it and “get it.”  It takes time and patience – and the help of excellent books like The Shadow of the Antichrist (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006) by Stephen Williams.

I agree with Carl Trueman’s assessment of this book: “Williams offers both an exposition and response to Nietzsche which combines trenchant criticism with appropriate acknowledgment of the fact that Christians have much to learn from careful reflection on this most insightful of anti-Christian polemicists” (from the WTS bookstore site).

In case you’re interested, here’s the context of the in/famous ‘God is dead’ phrase.

“The madman – haven’t you heard of that madman who in the bright morning lit a lantern and ran around the marketplace crying incessantly, ‘I’m looking for God! I’m looking for God!’  Since many of those who did not believe in God were standing around together just then, he caused great laughter.  ‘Has he been lost, then?’ asked one.  ‘Did he lose his way like a child?’ asked another.  ‘Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone to the sea? Emigrated?’  Thus they shouted and laughed, one interrupting the other.  The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes.  ‘Where is God?’ he cried; ‘I’ll tell you!  We have killed him – you and I!  We are his murderers.  …Hasn’t it got colder?  Isn’t night and more night coming again and again? …Do we still hear nothing of the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God?  Do we still smell nothing of the divine decomposition? – Gods, too, decompose!  God is dead!  God remains dead!  And we have killed him!’”

Later the madman goes into churches singing aeternam deo and singing “What then are these churches now if not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”  (Williams, p. 118-119).

This selection comes from Nietzsche’s Gay Science (“gay” as in the older meaning of the word): God is dead, the tomb is the church, and Nietzsche (labeled himself) the antichrist.  If you’ve read some Nietzsche, and want a great book that wrestles with Nietzsche written from a thoughtful Christian perspective, grab William’s Shadow of the Antichrist.  It isn’t a quick, light read, but Williams interacts with those who influenced Nietzsche (‘Dionysus,’ Schopenhauer, and Wagner for example) as well as others who help illumine the study of Nietzsche (Barth, Bonhoeffer, Dostoyevsky, among others) to give the reader a pretty thorough picture of the man who said “God is dead.”

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Pascal on Justice, Evil, Truth

Here is number 699 of Pascal’s Pensees.

“When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board ship.  When everyone is moving towards depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops he shows up the others who are rushing on, by acting as a fixed point.”

And here is Peter Kreeft’s commentary on it.

“Since ‘everything flows,’ everything is relative.  This is Einsteinianly true of all physical things.  Relative to the sun, the earth moves, but relative to the earth, the sun rises and sets.  This is not a problem but a principle in physics; but it is a problem in ethics.  Clearly Pascal’s description of the whole ship sailing down into depravity describes our society; but it also describes history as a whole.  Only a fixed point above the flow of time and history can judge the flow.  Concretely, these fixed points are the saints, who navigate not by the waves of history and the winds of fortune but the fixed stars of Heaven.  Therefore we windswept, sinking relativist call them ‘religious fanatics,’ all because of the principle of relativity Pascal describes here: to a cold-blooded reptile, 98.6 degrees is a high fever.”

As I said earlier, this book is great.  Even though I don’t always agree with every point, it is brilliant and thought-provoking.  Highly recommended: Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees, Edited, Outlined, and Explained (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

shane lems

Christianity for Modern Pagans

On the "New" AtheismThis is a great book for those of you who like apologetics, philosophy, epistemology, and theology: Christianity for Modern Pagans by Peter Kreeft.  In this book, Kreeft gives a short commentary on the Pensees of Blaise Pascal (d. 1662).  Kreeft arranges the Pensees in a topical order to make them easier to read and digest.  Here is a big picture outline of this book: 1) The Problem: The Human Condition, 2) Two Popular Pseudo-Solutions, 3) How to Find the Truth, the Real Solution, 4) Six Clues along the Way, 5) The Turning Point, the Wager, and 6) The End, the Point of it All.  The book is just over 300 pages of witty, provocative, and even disturbing thoughts about life, death, God, and Christ.  I like this part of Kreeft’s introduction.

“Pascal is the first post-medieval apologist.  He is ‘for today’ because he speaks to modern pagans, not to medieval Christians.  Most Christian apologetics today is still written from a medieval mind-set in one sense: as if we still lived in a Christian culture, a Christian civilization, a society that reinforced the Gospel.  No.  The honeymoon is over.  The Middle Ages are over.  The news has not yet sunk in fully in many quarters.”

“It has sunk into Pascal.  He is three centuries ahead of his time.  He addresses his apologetic to modern pagans, sophisticated skeptics, comfortable members of the new secular intelligentsia.  He is the first to realize the new dechristianized, desacramentalized world and to address it.  He belongs to us.  This book is an attempt to reclaim him” (p. 12-13).

Later, Kreeft writes this.

“The world will do anything to get rid of the consciousness of sin, for the smell of its sins stinks to high Heaven and makes Sodom and Gomorrah look like a church service.  There is enormous social and psychological pressure, inside the Church as well as outside her, to ignore, deny, or minimize sin, as Molina and the Jesuits did in Pascal’s day.  It seems that the most important question in the world, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ (Acts 16:30), is never asked; and if it is, the answer is not to be born again, but just born; not otherworldly but this-worldly; not repentant but respectable; not self-denying but self affirming (see Mt 16:24).”

“Yet even if every voice in the world should preach the gospel of spiritual auto-eroticism, there are two voices that tell us we are sinners in need of a Savior: the voice of conscience within and the voice of God without: in Scripture, in all the prophets and saints and above all in the teaching of Jesus and his living Church.  And these two voices, not society’s, are the only two we can never escape, in this world or the next.  Better to make peace with them even if it means war with the whole world, rather than vice-versa.  That is not Jansenism, it is simply Christianity” (p. 14- 15).

I realize Pascal wasn’t a proto-evangelical, but his writings – and this book Kreeft wrote – are certainly full of wisdom and intelligence that will benefit anyone interested in these things.  Note: this book isn’t a beginner’s text on apologetics or philosophy; it is more in the category of intermediate or advanced.  Don’t get it unless you’re somewhat familiar with these areas of study.  I’ll blog more on it later, DV.

Here’s the full info: Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees Edited, Outlined, and Explained (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

shane lems

The Beauty of the Infinite

Click for larger image

 A friend (thanks Alex!) recommended David Bently Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) for my reading pleasure.  Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and teacher who has taught at several different American universities and schools.  This book is thick and dense; in fact, it is probably the most difficult book I’ve ever read.  I’m quite sure I missed about 1/2 of what Hart was trying to do.  The writing style is difficult and his interaction with major and minor theologians and philosophers from various countries and eras make it a book for only the most serious students of philosophy and theology. 

To be sure, there is much gold to be mined here.  For example, the opening quote was great (and it is probably the easiest quote in the book).  I’ll end with it.

“Christianity has from its beginning portrayed itself as a gospel of peace, a way of reconciliation (with God, with other creatures), and a new model of human community, offering the ‘peace which passes understanding’ to a world enmeshed in sin and violence.  The earliest confession of Christian faith – kurios christos – meant nothing less radical than that Christ’s peace, having suffered upon the cross the decisive rejection of the powers of this world, had been raised up by God as the true form of human existence; an eschatologically perfect love, now made invulnerable to all the violences of time, and yet also made incomprehensibly present in the midst of history, because God’s final judgment had already befallen the world in the paschal vindication of Jesus of Nazareth.”

“It is only as the offer of this peace within time, as a real and available practice, that the Christian evangel (and, in particular, the claim that Christ has been raised from the dead) has any meaning at all; only if the form of Christ can be lived out in the community of the church is the confession of the church true; only if Christ can be practiced is Jesus Lord.”

shane lems