Saturday, March 31, 2012

Barth against presuppositions

In the chapter on The Spirit in Evangelical Theology: An Introduction it is interesting how much Barth cautions about relying on presuppositions in theology. In particular, such a reliance can rob Theology of real power, that of the Holy Spirit. 
If theology wished to provide a presupposition for its statements, it would mean that it sought to make them, itself, and its work safe from any attack, risk, or jeopardy. It would presume that it could and must secure them (even if this presupposition was a tour de force, a Deus ex machina introduced in the form of a further theological statement). Precisely in this way theology would sell its birthright for a mess of pottage. Theology can only do its work. It cannot, however, seek to secure its operation. Its work can be well done only when all presuppositions are renounced which would secure it from without or within. 
What can be arbitrarily presupposed, obviously stands at one's disposal. Were theology to presuppose the power sustaining its statements and itself (in the manner that mathematics presupposes the axioms supporting its theorems), then theology would assume power in its own right, superior to that first and fundamental power. Theology could then muster that power for its self-protection or at least place it on guard duty.  
The true power, which is powerful in its own right, defies being a potency which theology can possess and manipulate in its statements. Such presumed potency would be something like M√ľnchausen trying to pull himself out of the bog by his own hair. In one way or another the very thing theology seeks (because in fact it needs it) would be lost whenever theology attempted to rely upon such an arbitrary presupposition. 
We have to speak, therefore, of the real power that is hidden in theological assertions-hidden, unattainable, unavailable not only to the environment but also to the very theology which serves the community. This is the power present and active in what the affirmations of theology declare, in the history of salvation and revelation, in the hearing and speech of the biblical witnesses, in the being and act of the community summoned by them, and also in the work of theology when it testifies to these things. But this power is also totally superior to theology itself.
Evangelical Theology, page 50-51.
The Holy Spirit is the vital power that bestows free mercy on theology and on theologians just as on the community and on every single Christian.... 
In its total poverty evangelical theology is rich, sustained, and upheld by its total lack of presuppositions.
page 59

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Science and religion in the secular university

Is there a role for academic studies of the relations between science and religion in secular universities? First, this is a fascinating intellectual issue with a long history.
Second, public misunderstanding about the relationship between science and religion presents major problems for society. Mutual hostility between entrenched parties on both sides is:
  • endangering civil public debate 
  • endangering the quality of science education
  • eroding public support for science 
  • undermining the contribution and credibility of the church in public ethical and political debate. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

5 types of argument for the existence of God

This week in the Apologetics course we are looking at the 5 main types of philosophical argument that have been historically used to argue for the existence of God. The course notes nicely summarise them with the figure below.
So what is the role of these arguments in apologetics?
To me, they show the limited role of reason. Even if one accepts one or more of these arguments they tell us nothing about the character of this God or Supreme Being, or the action of this God in history, or how we can or should relate to this God.
To me, none of these arguments presents a particularly compelling “stand alone” argument. I find the Moral and Teleological arguments the most convincing, perhaps because they are not just purely philosophical but engage with external evidence. On the other hand, putting all the arguments together with a Biblical world view, they may suggest that faith in God is not unreasonable.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Spirit of a modest happy free critical science!

This coming saturday in the theology discussion group we are reading and discussing chapters 4 and 5 of Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. The chapter titles are The Community and The Spirit. The latter includes: 

It was the Spirit whose existence and action make possible and real (and possible and real up to this very day) the existence of Christianity in the world. Up to this very day the Spirit calls into being the existence of every single Christian as a believing, loving, hoping witness to the Word of God. The Spirit does this certainly and irresistibly (for to wish to withstand him, when he steps in and acts, would be the one unforgivable sin), for he alone does this. "Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him" ( Rom. 8:9).
It is clear that evangelical theology itself can only be pneumatic, spiritual theology. Only in the realm of the power of the Spirit can theology be realized as a humble, free, critical, and happy science of the God of the Gospel. Only in the courageous confidence that the Spirit is the truth does theology simultaneously pose and answer the question about truth.
page 55 

Covenantal creation II

I am reading through Genesis and have been struck by the theme of covenant. This first occurs in Genesis 6 where God promises a covenant with Noah. It is striking that the word covenant occurs 7 times in chapter 9. This is followed by God's covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12-17, particularly 17).

I can see why Karl Barth read the covenant theme back into Genesis 1-2. His detailed exegesis of these 2 chapters in Church Dogmatics 3.1 were respectively entitled:

Creation is the external basis of the covenant

Covenant is the internal basis of creation

John Webster has an elegant summary of these two points.

Friday, March 23, 2012


Those are the powerful last words of the movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
I think it is a truly weird movie.
However, the final dialogue (below) redeems the movie.

This is quite the contrast to the average idolatrous Hollywood romance where the message is you have to find that special someone who will make you complete and fulfil you.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Is the Gospel true?

This week in the apologetics course we are looking at "Concepts of truth". There are four different ways one could ask and answer the question, "Is the Gospel true"?

1. Does the Gospel fit the facts?
The correspondence theory of truth

2. Does the Gospel make sense? Is it consistent within itself and with other observations?
The coherence theory of truth

3. Does believing the Gospel work? i.e., make a concrete difference in peoples lives.
The pragmatic theory of truth

4. Is the Gospel true for me? Is it personally relevant?
The personal theory of truth

I found it helpful to contrast the ancient Greek view of truth: something intellectual, independent of personal and moral connotations, with a Biblical view.
In the Old Testament truth is usually discussed in the context of the character of God or a person and is related to faithfulness, dependability, consistency, and reliability.
In the New Testament it is also related to completeness and integrity and personal involvement.

Overall, a Biblical view of truth is multi-faceted and should engage with all four questions above.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Repetitive creation

Reading through Genesis 1 the repetition is striking. For each of the six days text repeats the phrases:
And God said, “Let .....” And it was so. ..... And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the .... day.
What might we learn from this repetition? God's spoken Word has authority. God's creation is good. The creation is orderly and purposeful. Unlike Babylonian "creation" myths, the creation of YHWH was not an accident which resulted from random actions of fickle gods. Rather is was part of a purposeful plan of a purposeful God.

As an aside, it is interesting to see the English Standard Version has footnote on "let us make man in our image"
Genesis 1:26 The Hebrew word for man (adam) is the generic term for mankind and becomes the proper name Adam
Creation of the sun and moon, Raphael (1516)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Talk on leadership at home

This past saturday we had a men's breakfast at church, with a few short talks focusing on leadership: Philippians 2, Leadership at home, Leadership in the church. I gave the talk on Leadership at home, with an emphasis on a few practical things I have stumbled upon over the years. Here are my notes.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What do scientists actually believe about religion?

There is a 2010 Oxford University Press book, Science vs. Religion: what scientists really think by Elaine Howard Ecklund, a Professor of Sociology at Rice University. It is based on a survey of 1700 scientists at leading US universities. The findings of this systematic study go against most popular stereotypes of scientists beings hostile to religion.

There is a nice book review in the Times Higher Education Supplement by Andrew Briggs, Professor of Nanomaterials at Oxford.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A key verse in Revelation

I have been reading through the book of Revelation and was struck by a single verse which appears in the midst of graphic descriptions of angels, blood, wrath, beasts, ..

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.

Revelation 14:12

This is largely what the book is about, rather than giving a chronology of the "end times".

Monday, March 12, 2012

Should I watch Kony2012?

I am not inclined to after reading the following two articles

Kony2012: What's the real story? in the Guardian

Joseph Kony is not in Uganda (and other complicated things)
which was reprinted in the Weekend Australian

A goal of the video is to get the US government to continue to support using their military to support the efforts of the Uganda military to track down and kill Kony. Such endeavours have a terrible history. Often they result in arming and empowering tryants who themselves commit atrocities: Osama Bin Laden and Manuel Noriega were both originally funded by the CIA for "nobel causes".

The video seems to be largely a fund-raising tool for a "charity" which has poor governance and uses only a fraction of its fund for activities of direct benefit to needy children.

To me this is a new web-based colonialism. In past eras Africa was mined and stripped bare of natural resources and dignity to fuel Western economies.
Now Africa is being mined to fuel the moral indignation and self righteousness of a new generation of Westerners who yearn for meaning and purpose as they seek to be fulfilled by "changing the world" while sitting at their computers.

Was Barth an experientialist?

Andrew Reid's notes for the Apologetics unit of the Moore College Correspondence course helpfully gives three broad distinct approaches to apologetics: presuppositionalism, evidentialism, experientialism. Practically, these respectively lead to an emphasis on proclamation, persuasion, or personal testimony.

I found it curious that Reid classifies Karl Barth as falling into the last category of experientialism. I think that on some level Barth has more common ground with approaches with an emphasis on proclamation. He had reservations about apologetics in general. There was no reason to not be confident about the truth of the gospel. Theology does not have to justify itself. He considered that theology had a role to play in the university (even in the secular public university) because it called into question the presuppositions of other academic disciplines. But there is great irony with classifying Barth as a presuppositionalist because that puts Barth in the same camp as Cornelius van Til, the doyen of presuppositionalism. He was one of Barth's harshest critics, diminishing Barth's influence in conservative North American circles.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Theology is a modest happy free critical science!

In my theology discussion group this saturday we are reading the first three chapters of Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology: An Introduction [my choice!].

Theology is a "science" [wissenschaft = a discipline of study] because it seeks
"to apprehend a specific object and its environment in the manner directed by the phenomonen understand it on its own terms and to speak of it along with all the implications of its existence." 
page 3
Evangelical theology is modest theology, because it is determined to be so by its object, that is, by him who is its subject. 
page 7
theology is, for all its modesty, in an exemplary way a free science. This means it is a science which joyfully respects the mystery of the freedom of its object and which, in turn, is again and again freed by its object from any dependence on subordinate presuppositions. 
page 9
evangelical theology is an eminently critical science, for it is continually exposed to judgment and never relieved of the crisis in which it is placed by its object, or, rather to say, by its living subject.
page 10
 Evangelical theology is concerned with Immanuel, God with us! Having this God for its object, it can be nothing else but the most thankful and happy science!
page 12

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What has the Academy to do with the Church?

This question has a long history, going back to Tertullian (160-225), who famously asked, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" It is interesting to read the quote in context, which I would not claim to really understand.
Whence spring those "fables and endless genealogies," and "unprofitable questions," and "words which spread like a cancer? " From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, "See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost." He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from "the porch of Solomon," who had himself taught that "the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart." Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.
Tertullian, De Praescriptione Haereticorum 7.9
[On prescription to heretics, a helpful introduction is here].

The context seems to be that Tertullian was arguing against heretics having the right to use Scripture in their arguments, rather than against Christians making use of philosophy and reason.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Effective strategies for helping the poor

I previously posted about some Christian economists perspective on the ten best strategies for helping the poor.

It is interesting to read a response from someone working at the grass roots about the relative effectiveness of some of these strategies. It highlights to me the importance of context, education, follow up, and community based strategies. I think this is one of the reasons why Compassion's child sponsorship programs work so well.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

How do you answer children's questions about science and faith?

This is not easy. First, you need to be clear in your own mind.

Today my wife Robin and I are giving an elective, "Science and faith: what kids need to know" at Ignite, an annual conference in Brisbane for people involved in ministry to children. Here are the slides from our presentation. The main goal is to give teachers a framework for to think about the issue themselves. Hopefully they can then adapt this to communicate the ideas at the appropriate level to children. This is not easy.

We welcome feedback.

In previous years we have given an elective about using science experiments as a platform to teaching truths about God.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Testify, persuade, or proclaim?

The last post considered three forms of apologists, that have been dominant in the western world. In simple terms one might characterise the respective strategies as:

Simply proclaiming the Gospel

Using historical evidence to persuade others of the truth of the Gospel

Giving personal testimony about the Gospel.

Advocates tend to claim that one of these strategies is better or the only one that is Biblically based.

However, I think in different contexts one may be more appropriate than another. In some ways, a natural progression with an audience is to testify to create interest, to persuade to establish plausibility, and finally to proclaim.