For the Establishment of True Religion (Calvin)

 I realize many evangelicals do not like the term “religion” and even use it primarily in a negative way.  However, we have to remember that the word is found in Scripture (e.g. James 1:26).  Granted, we do have to define it properly, but we shouldn’t by default think of “religion” as a bad thing.  For example, John Calvin called his now famous work the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  In his work on the history of Reformed doctrine,  Richard Muller spends some time discussing “religion” and its use/definition among Reformers and Reformed scholastics.  Here’s his section on Calvin and the term “religion”:

This systematic approach to religion as the pattern of knowledge and worship directly related to faith and foundational to the elaboration of theology is profoundly evident in the successive editions of Calvin’s Institutes. In 1536 Calvin identified his work as an “institute” or instruction “of the Christian religion embracing almost the whole sum of piety and whatever it is necessary to know in the doctrine of salvation.” What is more, Calvin’s expansion of the Institutes, in which five chapters on the knowledge of God were added or developed as a kind of prologue, only serves to underscore in those introductory sections the primary emphasis on religion, piety and instruction in them.

Calvin’s 1539 expansion of this portion of the Institutes has a series of significant antecedents, not the least of which is Zwingli’s linking of the discussion of religion to the problem of the “knowledge of God” and the “knowledge of man.” Like Zwingli, moreover, Calvin rests much of his discussion on Cicero’s De Natura Deorum. Given the universal recognition, implanted in all human beings, that there is a God, Calvin argues, it would be sheer folly to claim that religion is a human invention: it is certainly true that wicked and “clever” persons have invented many superstitions designed to keep human beings in subjection, but it is equally clear that they would never have been able to do so had there not been a fundamental conviction of the existence of God and the need to worship him already present in all human beings. Given, moreover, the depth of human sinfulness and the extent of idolatry and superstition wrought by sin, Scripture is needed for the establishment of a right knowledge of God—and, by extension, for the establishment of true religion.

Although Calvin does not spell out the etymology and definition of “religion” in the detail one finds in Zwingli, the conception is quite similar: true religion must ultimately be grounded in the word of God and it is set apart from the false religions of idolatry and superstition. Nowhere is it assumed, moreover, that “religion” indicates a human phenomenon: even in its false forms, it presumes the fundamental sensus divinitatis and is grounded in the objective reality of the God who must be worshiped. This sensibility will carry over into Reformed orthodoxy.

(This quote is found on page 167 of PRRD, Volume 1)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI


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

The Evolutionary Theory of Religion

In part of his introduction to religion, Winfried Corduan briefly discusses the evolutionary theory of religion – a theory which more than a few people believe today.  Corduan gives three theoretical and methodological assumptions of the evolutionary theory of religion:

1) Religion is an aspect of human culture, which must be understandable without reference to actual supernatural powers….

2) Religion began on a very primitive and childlike level from which it evolved to greater and greater levels of complexity….

3) Religion as practiced among the least developed cultures in the world today must be closest to the religion of early human beings….

Corduan explains those three points a bit, then summarizes by giving an outline of this evolutionary theory:  A) Primitive forms of religion: Mana and magic; B) Animism – visualizing spiritual forces in terms of personal spirits; C) Polytheism then Henotheism; D) Monotheism; E) (the next evolutionary stage).

Corduan then critiques this evolutionary theory of religion(s):

“The biggest problem with the evolutionary model of religion is that the kind of development it describes has never been observed.  Certainly there is a lot of change in the religious life of many cultures.  But the changes may occur anywhere along the line and can proceed in either direction.  We have no record of any culture moving precisely from a mana- [magic] like beginning to a monotheistic culmination, incorporating all stages in proper sequence, or anything even close to it, and the same thing is true for any of the variations of the evolutionary model.  In fact, there is no region in the world where such a sequence is demonstrated by successive different cultures either.”

“The only place that we see it is as a presupposition that scholars continue to bring to the study of a particular religion, …when they just assume that a supposedly lower stage must have preceded an allegedly higher stage.”

“…There are many examples of cultures moving backward or forward in their spiritual development.  Just consider these facts: Japan is a modern, highly industrialized country, but its religion, Shinto, is for the most part animistic, at best polytheistic in nature.  On the other hand, a Bedouin in the Syrian desert, living in a tent as he keeps his camels, may be a strong monotheist.  There definitely is no universal, let alone normative, pattern of upward development in any culture.”

Corduan says quite a bit more, which I don’t have the space to note here.  The main point is a good one, however: though the evolutionary theory of religion(s) is accepted and presupposed by many people today (in biblical studies and school classrooms), it is suspect and very much open to critique.  In fact, as Corduan notes, it has enough holes and inconsistencies in it that it isn’t really a viable position to hold.  But more on that later….

For more info, see the intro to Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions by Winfried Corduan (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012).

shane lems

Avoiding False Spirituality/Spiritualities

The Christian's Reasonable Service, 4 VolumesThere are many popular quasi- and pseudo-Christian spiritualities in existence today.  The “Christian” bestsellers typically include books about spirituality without a clear explanation of or belief in the gospel.  Some popular “Christian” authors deny key aspects of the historic faith and others talk about being spiritual without much dependence on Scripture.  You can find bestselling books about someone supposedly going to heaven and you can read a book that puts words in Jesus’ mouth.  Most of the time, these spiritualities are quite man centered, focused on internal feelings and emotions.

These things have happened before in history.  For just one example, after the Reformation there were radical reforming groups such as the Anabaptists – some of whom rejected the written Word of God only to focus on the inner voice/word/light (called “mysticism”).  Around 1700, Dutch Reformed pastor Wilhelmus a Brakel even addressed this pietism/quietism/mysticism in his systematic theology, since Quakers, Pietists, and other such sects had come on the scene.  The chapter is called, “A Warning Exhortation Against Pietists, Quietists, and all Who in a Similar Manner have Deviated to a Natural and Spiritless Religion under the Guise of Spirituality.”  In this chapter, Brakel gives 6 propositions to help Christians stand firm in biblical spirituality and avoid quasi- and pseudo-Christian spiritualities.  Here’s an edited summary:

1) A Christian must have great love for the truth; all splendid pretense void of love for the truth is deceit.  The truth is the way of salvation as revealed by God in his Word (John 17:17, Eph. 1:13).  There is no other way unto salvation but one.  Christ’s church has this truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and it is the means whereby God draws sinners out of darkness (James 1:18, 1 Pet. 1:23).  God’s truth in Scripture is what true faith rests upon and what our life must be regulated by.  We are obligated to stand on this truth and uphold it – we must never trifle with the truth.

2) A Christian must have great love and esteem for the church (Ps. 27:4, 122:1-2).  The church is the congregation of the living God (Rom. 9:26), his people whom he loves.  Who would not have the highest esteem for the church which as God and the Lord Jesus as King?  How can one claim to love God and love the church – his children – an not have esteem for her? (1 John 5:1).  If you do not love the brothers, you certainly do not love God – regardless of what you may say.

3) The Holy Scriptures are the only rule for doctrine and life.  In the Word all saving truth is comprehended, upon which the church is built, and which God has given to the church for the purpose of spreading and preserving the truth.  This the Pietists either reject or minimize.  The Word is everything to the church.  There is no church without the Word and there is no Word without the church.  He who wishes to live godly and desires to be saved must regulate his intellect, will, affections, words, deeds, and entire religion according to this Word.

4) Regeneration is the originating cause of true spiritual life, and of all spiritual thoughts and deeds (Luke 6:45, Rom. 8:5). A person can appear to be very religious and spiritual, which even shows up in the writings of pagans, but if a person is not regenerated by God, this religion and spirituality is nothing but darkness and pollution, and not worthy of being called spiritual.  Regeneration is not separating yourself from the world; it is not ‘sinking away in God;’ it is not losing sight of yourself.  Rather, it is a complete change of man wrought by the Holy Spirit through the Word.  It is being brought from death to life and involves the whole man.

5) A Christian continually avails himself of faith.  True religion means going to Christ, receiving him and entrusting yourself entirely to him.  Faith in Christ is a daily exercise, a daily reality.  It is not as if one can believe a few times, and then move along.  Rather, one exercises faith as long as he lives.  Although true faith waxes and wanes, it constantly trusts in Jesus.

6) All of man’s felicity, here and hereafter, consists in communion with and the beholding of God.  God savingly reveals himself to his reconciled children who presently believe in him, and thus not to the world – not to unconverted and natural men (Mt. 11:27, John 6:46, 2 Cor. 4:6, etc).  Many unconverted engage themselves in beholding God by means of their natural light.  They speak about divine meditations, doing so with expressions which are lofty as their imaginations can devise.  But we must follow the advice of the apostle: Believe not every spirit, but test the spirits… (1 John 4:1).  To follow one’s own spirit and ideas, as if they were from the Holy Spirit, is to run to one’s own destruction.  Therefore it behooves all Christians to live in the presence of God, avail themselves to his will found in the Word, and to heed the Spirit speaking in the Word.

We need these propositions today as much as God’s people did in 1700!  Remember, not every spirituality and religious thought is biblical and Christian.  Brakel’s six propositions, which are based on the Word, will help us steer clear of false spiritualities and religions and help keep our feet firmly planted in the historic Christian faith.

You can read the entire chapter in volume 2 of Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service.

shane lems

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 Religious Compartment

Jacket Two days ago I mentioned William Wilberforce’s book called Real Christianity (that’s the modern title for it anyway).  In chapter four he explains the true character of the real Christian life and then contrasts it with the beliefs and practices of nominal Christians.  The second section of this chapter is where Wilberforce describes how nominal Christians view the Christian religion.  Here are a few excerpts:

“They [nominal Christians] assign to religion a plot of land – larger or smaller according to their views and circumstances – in which it has merely a qualified (limited) jurisdiction.  This done, they presume they have a right to roam at will over the spacious remainder of territory.”

“In other words, religion can claim only a stated proportion of their thoughts, their time, their money, and their influence.  If they may give a liberal allowance to one or more of these resources, then they assume they have satisfied religion.  The rest is theirs; they do with it what they please.  They have paid their tithes; they have satisfied the demand of the church.  Surely they have won permission to enjoy what is left without interferences!

“It is scarcely possible to state too strongly the mischief that results from this fundamental error.  Its consequences are obvious.  For it assumes the greatest part of human actions are indifferent to religion.  If men are not chargeable with actual vices, they are decent in the performance of their religious duties; and they do not stray into the forbidden ground.  And if they reflect the rights of the portion of land given to religion, what more can be expected of them?”

Wilberforce is saying that nominal Christians give a portion, or compartment, of their life to the Christian religion.  That compartment has a place in life along with other things, and sometimes the religious compartment claims some of their time or thoughts or money, and they think that’s good enough.  The other compartments of life are theirs to do with what they want. What happens then, as Wilberforce notes, is that the religious compartment doesn’t affect/influence other parts of life; however, no one can criticize them (they think), because they are “religious” (i.e. they have a religious compartment).

Later Wilberforce says first of all this is unbiblical because Scripture says that the heart and actions – indeed, all of life – should be lived by faith and obedience.  Secondly, this is a tragedy because often the religious “compartment” of a nominal Christian’s life shrinks as time goes on and as the world gets into the heart:

“The space occupied by it (the religious plot/compartment) diminishes until it is scarcely discernible.  They (nominal Christians) extinguish its spirit and destroy its force, reducing it to little more than the nominal possessor even of its contracted area.”

The next step is totally avoiding religion and becoming one’s own master.

In summary, compartmentalizing our faith (the Christian religion) is an unbiblical error that often leads to complete denial of the faith.

This should not make us point fingers at others; rather, it should encourage us to “decompartmentalize” our lives if we’ve done so.  It should make us pray that God would grant us the grace to be truly religious in every area of our lives – for his glory (1 Cor. 10:31)!

For more info, see Chapter 4, section 2, of Wilberforce’s Real Christianity.

shane lems

Portions from Pascal

I’ve always appreciated Pascal’s Pensees; I also enjoy Peter Kreeft’s commentary on some of them.  Below are some of my favorites – random portions of Pascal’s Pensees found in Kreeft’s commentary (followed by his comments).

Pascal: “There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.”

Kreeft: “The only choice, then, is between being sinners who know they are sinners and repent; or sinners who don’t.  Saints are not the opposite of sinners; saints are sorry sinners, saved sinners” (p. 158).

Pascal: “If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural.  … If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.  … Two excesses: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”

Kreeft: “This is neither fideistic religion, rationalistic religion, fideistic irreligion, nor rationalistic irreligion – the four miserable alternatives, all irrational, that we see sprawled around on every side while the truth stands erect and serene in the middle” (p. 236-7).

Pascal: “The Christian’s hope of possessing and infinite good is mingled with actual enjoyment….  Christians hope for holiness, and to be freed from unrighteousness, and some part of this is already theirs.”

Kreeft: “The Wager thus is not wholly a leap in the dark but is partially testable and confirmable experientially in this life” (p. 307).

Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

shane lems