Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Problem with Man Worship

Man-worship is a real problem in modern Christianity. And no, I don’t mean the explicit and obvious kind where people are actually bowing down and serving men, though I’m sure someone, somewhere in America actually does this. Rather, I’m talking about theological and philosophical heroes of the faith that we have propped up on a pedestal. This surely needs to stop, as there is only one God, and that is the God of Christianity.

Let me give you an example of something I need to be careful of. I’ve already written, in the past, about making sure we don’t get ourselves too attached to any one scholar. This is a very closely related topic. I want to put myself in the shoes of someone who might be accused of man worship. Specifically, I had to ask myself two questions. First, is there anything on which I disagree with William Lane Craig? If the answer is “no,” then I’m almost assuredly suffering from at least one of two maladies: I’ve either not thought hard enough about some issues, or else I’m engaging in man worship. Second, if someone were to disagree with William Lane Craig, what would be my first reaction?

To the first question, I can point to a few places where I either disagree with Craig or else haven’t firmly committed myself to his position. However, I tend to think he’s right far more often than he’s wrong!  To the second question, I have to admit that my initial reaction to hearing someone say Craig is wrong would be to attempt a defense of his view, whatever that might be. “Aha!” you might think. “Randy worships a man!” You never know: perhaps some of the time I may in fact be guilty of this. However, I believe the key is not having this natural reaction, but what we do with this natural reaction. Do we temper it, being willing to evaluate the claims and evidence and come to what we think is the right conclusion after all? Let’s be honest: we aren’t always interested in what’s true as much as what we would like to be true.

And here’s the kicker: at bottom, we worship men because we worship ourselves. It is we who are right; it is we who discovered the truth, on our own, thank you very much, and anyone who disagrees is either ignorant or insufficiently honest. This kind of pride can lead to a bizarre kind of pseudo-intellectualism, where we uncritically accept whatever a leading figure says about, say, inerrancy, and applaud away while he makes the case for a specific interpretation of a passage, then says that to deny that interpretation is to deny what God has said!

The point is not that we cannot trust things that people say, nor is it that we should trust everything that those same people say. Both extremes must be avoided. Rather, we must ask ourselves if a particular viewpoint is allowed by Scripture, and what philosophy and theology have to say about it if it might be. No man worship should ever enter the equation—not even worship of ourselves. We must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Two New Blogs!

There are a couple of new blogs I wanted to highlight briefly and encourage you to view on a regular basis. They are written by a couple of guys who, together with me, comprise a philosophy group that meets on a weekly basis (usually, anyway). The first blog is by Ethan Tittle, and he calls it “Apologia Aletheias,” or a defense of the truth. It’s brand new, and so only has two entries, but he plans on writing more. He’s starting with a kind of statement of the beliefs he holds to be true, including starting with a very important one: the truths of God’s existence. Ethan will be more likely to respond to issues, in my opinion, that affect the whole person. Thus, those with an existential bent, mixed with some early modern philosophy, will find a kindred spirit here. I encourage you to check it out, and keep going back!

The second new blog I’d like to share with you is from Matt Files (and it should be called “The Matt Files,” though I’m not in charge). It’s actually called “Faith and Knowledge,” and he too has two posts available currently. A feature of Matt’s posts is that they all reflect, in some way or another, his testimony. Thus, those who value honesty, and seeing how apologetics, doctrine, theology, and the Christian faith work themselves out in the lives of believers will find an insightful example here. Please read both of these guys, and respond to them. In this way, we can all sharpen each other, both intellectually and spiritually.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Discussion on the Unfruitful Branches of John 15

What follows is a brief discussion I had with my students in my Johannine Writings class, as we were discussing John 15 and the identity of the unfruitful and non-abiding branches (vs. 2 and 6). I ask the reader’s forgiveness, since it’s more or less strung-together notes and commentary. I added a D.A. Carson quote which I think helps a bit.

I want to offer my take on the situation, which I think would be different from all but one of you (and different from Towns, and, I believe, even Dr. Christmas). First, we need to see the particular context. In John, this really starts in John 13:31. John records a series of brief discourses by Jesus with his 11 remaining disciples, broken up only by some comment or question from one of the disciples. In each section, Jesus alludes to those who really know Him, really love Him, really know the Father, and/or distinguishing them from the world. John 13:35 says, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." Verse 36 has Peter wanting to know where the Master is going, and Jesus responds that Peter could only follow later (by following Jesus in death, due to obedience to Christ). John 14:1-4 discuss Jesus' receiving the believers unto himself, and that they know the way, which will turn out to be Christ himself (v. 6). Verses 9-14 establish that the Son and the Father are one and the same insofar as divine authority, and the works done by Christ are the Father's, and the works done by true followers of Christ will be greater because of Christ's sake. Verses 15-22 detail that doing what Christ commanded is a mark of a true believer. The apostle John would continue that theme in the epistle of 1 John; if you don't love the brethren, you aren't saved. Plain and simple. Judas, not Iscariot, wanted to know how Jesus would be able to show himself to believers, and not the world. How is such a thing possible? Because, Jesus says, he knows those who are His and in the Father, because of their fruit. And that's the context of chapter 15: distinguishing believers from the world by their fruit.

If that's the case, then we see that the most plausible interpretation, given the context, is that those in verse 2 who don't believe in Christ are eventually sifted out from the true believers: they do not possess salvation. Check out verse 24 in chapter 14: he that doesn't love Christ doesn't keep his sayings. This interpretation is also consistent with John 6:64-66, where Jesus claims that some of his larger group of disciples (followers of Jesus) were not really true believers at all! This idea of people being called disciples of Jesus without actually being saved is why the "in me" language of John 15 doesn't persuade me these are real believers. This is why I challenged some of you on the topic of the paper itself: why assume that John 15:2 is talking about the fate of unfruitful "believers," when the text only says "branches"? D. A. Carson seems to agree with this. He writes of this passage,

If we must think of ‘branches’ with real contact with Jesus, we need go no further than Judas Iscariot . . . Indeed, there is a persistent strand of New Testament witness that depicts men and women with some degree of connection with Jesus, or with the Christian church, who nevertheless . . . finally testify that the transforming life of Christ has never pulsated within them.[1]

Similarly, verse 6 has the word "fire," which is best understood in the context of judgment. It's metaphor extending, I think, to assign the "men" in verse 6 to be someone in charge of judgment; it's plausibly not the point of the metaphor to discuss what the men are doing. So, in my view, verse 6 is most plausibly speaking of unbelievers. If one is a believer, his life will, given enough time, show some fruit of some kind. Those who do not have any fruit at all are not saved. It's a way of marking the difference between believers and unbelievers, and of underscoring the importance for believers to abide in the True Vine, Jesus. What higher goal could any of us have than to abide in Christ?!

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), 515.

Monday, October 6, 2014

What Would it Take for You to Become a Christian?

So what would it take for you, if you are not a believer, to become a Christian? What should it take for you to take that step and believe? I think that many people aren’t too interested in believing if only it were rationally defensible. Instead, in online conversations at least, one often hears the line, “I would love to be convinced that there’s a God.” What, precisely, does this mean? Does this mean something like “I have evidence which I cannot deny that entails the conclusion that the Christian God exists”? If so, that’s bordering on “I won’t believe unless I’m coerced” (unless, of course, one holds that belief in God can be chosen—which is usually the opposite of what many Internet atheists argue). But surely there’s some epistemic virtue in being open to the evidence such that if belief in Christianity were to be rationally defensible, one would become a Christian Why do I say that?

Because it shows that one actually has a desire to become a Christian. Forgive me, but I’m very skeptical when a skeptic asserts that he’d really love to become a Christian, but . . . . As a matter of fact, I think that, most times, he really doesn’t want to be a Christian at all. He’d rather rig the game so that unless he absolutely has to become a Christian, he won’t. I’m not saying there are no genuine seekers, and I’m not saying all atheists are like this. Just many, perhaps most, of the Internet atheists.

So where am I going with all of this? Well, if you are not a Christian, then I think you ought to be open to the possibility of becoming one. More than that, I think that if it were to be shown to you that accepting the truth of Christianity would be rational, then you ought to give becoming a Christian serious consideration. Why? Because not only does it show you are sincerely seeking, it shows that you care about morality, ethics, and questions surrounding ultimate meaning and purpose.

It evinces a desire to acquire the truth, and to deal with oneself honestly for what he or she really is, deep down, where no one can see. It shows a willingness to move beyond the puerile meme culture that decides truth for the masses, and a step away from the “One-Liners as Scholarship Club.” Beneath all the misplaced anger lies either a willingness to explore intellectually, or a desire to destroy intellectually. What are you willing to do? Only you can decide that. If you ever have any questions, objections, or concerns, and you’re willing to become a Christian or give it serious consideration if it were shown to be rationally permissible for you to do so, then I’m always here to listen!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Right in the Middle

One of my friends used to say to me, “How does it feel to ride the fence on everything?” He was only kidding, but the idea was I seemed to be in the middle on many theological debates and positions. In my philosophy group the other day, we were discussing what it means to hold middling positions, and if this is a good thing. It does seem to be a good thing to be in the middle of two theological extremes. But why is this the case? And is it even correct? What do I even mean by this?

To see some examples, consider: Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Many Baptists prefer neither label, but instead embrace some middling position (I myself prefer Molinism). God’s sovereignty vs. man’s free will. Trichotomy vs. dichotomy. The list goes on. I could explain in interesting ways (well, interesting to me anyway) how and why I appropriate middling positions. But the question is why does there seem to be some kind of epistemic virtue in affirming a “balanced” position?

I think that this is, in general, epistemically virtuous (if there is such a thing) in light of the fact that these middling positions typically capture commonly shared intuitions from both sides of the spectrum. One of the reasons major debates in Christian theology continue, seemingly unresolved, for centuries is due to the fact that they say things that are plausible; virtually no one would want to sign on to some position for which there was no plausibility. I think there’s some truth to most of the major positions on the major issues in Christian doctrine. If that’s true, then it’s worth it to capture the truth within these positions and see what coherently fits together. But it’s this point that brings up two warnings: first, simply because something seems to be in the middle of two positions, it doesn’t always follow this position is correct. Always use standard truth-gaining methods! Second, if you lean to one extreme or the other, take extra care to ensure that this position is necessary for a correct understanding of the truth. Otherwise, you may just be a theological extremist, married more to the idea you’re defending than the truth of Christianity and doctrine! What other tips or pointers/comments do you guys have?