Sunday, February 26, 2012

Apologetics in black and white

In this weeks Apologetics class we are looking at different approaches to apologetics. These might be classified into three categories, depending on whether they stress revelation, creation, or personal experience.

1. Presuppositionalism stresses revelation.
The principal modern exponent of this was Cornelius Van Til. Earlier practitioners would include Augustine, Calvin, and Abraham Kuyper. More recents include Francis Schaeffer and John Frame. It proclaims the Gospel as true without need for justification by reason which is corrupted by human sin. I discuss it in more detail below.

2. Evidentialism stresses creation, building arguments based on historical and scientific evidence that is available to all.
Proponents or practitioners include Josh McDowell, William Lane Craig, John Lennox, and C.S. Lewis.
In practise particular emphasis is given to the historical reliability of the New Testaments documents and evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.

3. Experientialism stresses personal experience and the limitations of dry rational argument and intellectual assent to truth statements or propositions. Being a Christian involves a living relationship with God. Historical exponents would include Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Emil Brunner.

I can't say that I favour one approach over another. They all have strengths and weaknesses. However, I do have a concern about the justification given by some of the proponents. Some of them seem to make very strong categorical black and white statements to support their case. Here are a few concerning presuppositionalism [as paraphrased by Andrew Reid in the course notes]
sin has tainted everything, including the mind, and therefore no arguments or evidence will be able to persuade a person 
If we maintain that humans can come to know God through reasoning, then we find ourselves in the position of denying a basic biblical truth that humans need to be dependent upon God in all things,  
[a point of contact] is impossible since Christians and non-Christians have totally incompatible world views 
[presuppositional apologetics should] only use reason to demonstrate that all reasoning rests on one or the other of two presuppositions. It can either rest on the truth of Scripture or on the supremacy of unaided (or `crippled') reason.
I just think there are a lot more shades of gray than this.
In some ways, this very "logical" approach seems to very modernist, i.e., embedded in  Enlightenment presuppositions and the value/supremacy of self-evident truths and logic. This is rather ironical.

Sin has corrupted reason. But that does not mean that reason is useless. [Sin has corrupted democracy, but that does not mean it is useless!] Perhaps reason and argument needs to be used to get a person to the point that they are willing to consider an alternative view and look at the Bible. Perhaps the sovereign God can be working through such a process. Humans do need to be dependant on God in all things. But that does not preclude us making use of worldly devices. I need to depend on God for my health and healing but part of trusting God in this may mean trusting the doctor and modern medicine to heal me!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The idolatry of war

In our fortnightly reading and discussion group ["The Volfians"] today we are looking at two articles by William Cavanaugh.

At odds with the Pope: Legitimate Authority and Just Wars  published in Commonweal in 2003. It argues that Catholics should not support the Iraq war and that contrary to the claims of some neo-conservative Catholics the U.S. government did not meet the criteria of the Catholic Cathecism (2309): "The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy [of war] belongs to the prudential judgement of those who have responsibility for the common good."

Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the nation state is not the keeper of the common Good published in Modern Theology in 2004.
It makes a strong case that the main driving force in the historical origin of nation-states was the need for ruling elites to organise resources for their wars: collect taxes and recruit soldiers.
Part of the conclusion is particularly apt:

the nation-state is simply not in the common good business. At its most benign, the nation-state is most realistically likened, as in Alasdair MacIntyre’s apt metaphor, to the telephone company, a large bureaucratic provider of goods and services that never quite provides value for money. 
The problem, as MacIntyre notes, is that the nation-state presents itself as so much more; namely, as the keeper of the common good and repository of sacred values that demands sacrifice on its behalf. The longing for genuine communion that Christians recognize at the heart of any truly common life is transferred onto the nation-state. Civic virtue and the goods of common life do not simply disappear; as Augustine saw, the earthly city flourishes by producing a distorted image of the heavenly city. The nation-state is a simulacrum of common life, where false order is parasitical on true order. In a bureaucratic order whose main function is to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war. The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the Church, meant to save us from division.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The secularisation of a wedding vow

My wife and I went to see The Vow at the movie theatre. I thought it was good harmless romantic fun. It also has strong themes of forgiveness, redemption, the importance of family, and a passion for life.
However, the undoubted underlying world view is that romantic love conquers all and being happy is the ultimate goal of life.

Then, I was a bit disappointed when I cam home and read the Wikipedia page. The movie is based on a true story recounted in a book, The Vow: the Kim and Kritick Carpenter Story. The Carpenter's Christian faith was key to their marriage vow, to their commitment to one another, and their perseverance after the tragic accident.
The Hollywood movie has removed any reference to Christian faith.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Theological foundations for apologetics

This might be considered from four different aspects, following notes from the Moore College Correspondence course written by Andrew Reid.

1. Creation
God has left his imprint on the world.
Order, beauty, and design are present.
We are made in the image of God.
Humans have rationality, personality, truth, goodness, conscience, and morality.
What is the origin of and explanation for these things?

2. Redemption
Things are not the way they ought to be.
Humans are fallen. Our ability to think about creation and about God is corrupted.
We suppress the truth about God.
By being redeemed through Christ we can begin to see ourselves, creation, and God rightly.

3. Revelation
The Bible records God’s self-revelation in history: through Israel, Jesus, and the Apostles.
The Holy Spirit takes this word about the Word of God and reveals its truth to us.

4. The Incarnation
God desires to make himself known to us.
God’s method is to be with us (Emmanuel) through becoming human.
This identification and humility provides both motivation and methodology for apologetics.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Towards effective alms for the poor

There is an excellent article Cost-effective compassion: the ten most popular strategies for helping the poor, in the latest issue of Christianity Today.
The title is not completely accurate. The ten strategies listed are those rated the most effective [highest impact/cost ratio] by a group of leading Christian economists. Here are the top 4

1. Clean water in rural villages
2. De-worming treatments for children
3. Mosquito netting
4. Child sponsorship

The sobering and challenging take home points at the end of the article are particularly worth digesting.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Karl Barth on apologetics

the Gospel does not enter into competition with the many attempts to disclose within the known world some more or less unknown and higher forms of existence.... The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge. The man who apprehends its meaning is removed from all strife, because he is engaged in a strife with the whole, even with existence itself. Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel—that is, Christian Apologetics—is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome. … It [the Gospel] does not require representatives with a sense of responsibility, for it is as responsible for those who proclaim it as it is for those to whom it is proclaimed. It is the advocate of both. … God does not need us. Indeed, if He were not God, He would be ashamed of us. We, at any rate, cannot be ashamed of Him.
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition, page 35
[This appears in the commentary on Romans 1:16-17].

So was Barth against apologetics? Should we be? I don't think Barth's point is that apologetics is a waste of time or that Christians should not engage it. The real issue is one of perspective and attitude towards apologetics. What are Christians hoping to achieve by engaging in apologetics? A Christian has no need to be ashamed or embarrassed about the Gospel. It is God's power for salvation.

The Trinitarian God does not need our help to decide whether or not he exists! The truth of the Gospel is not determined by social consensus or a cleverly constructed argument. But, evidence and arguments may be used by the Holy Spirit to convict people of truth, righteousness, and judgement.

Christians need not be anxious. Ultimately, on the Last Day, God will clearly reveal to everyone what is true and what is not.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The trivialisation of racism

These thoughts are prompted by watching the media circus associated with recent incidents in the English Premier League. The recent installment of the Suarez-Evra conflict seems to me to be largely about a "win at all costs" mentality from all the parties. Peoples' actions and statements seem to have more to do with unbridled male testerone than racism. Pre- and post-game statements and actions by players, managers, and club owners are just "mind games" to intimidate opponents or public relations exercises to protect corporate profits. Actual and perceived racism may not be the real issue of concern. It is just a convenient "politically correct" vehicle to achieve ones sporting goals. I am reminded of how Marxist-Leninists [and some politicians] seek and exploit issues of concern to the "proletariat" to propel themselves to power.

Real issues of racism are crippling inequities in access to health care, criminal justice, political and religious freedom, education, and employment. Tragically, they are not being discussed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Special versus general revelation

I am about to start teaching a course on apologetics at our church. We will be working through material from the Apologetics unit of the Moore College Correspondence Course. It gives a nice balanced and comprehensive overview of the subject.

An over-riding theme/issue is finding the appropriate relative weight  or value to give to special revelation and general revelation. The latter concerns the idea that God can be found (or has revealed himself) through nature, human conscience, and reason. Special revelation concerns God being revealed through specific events, people, and documents (e.g., miracles, prophets, Jesus Christ, and the Bible).

The relative weight given to special and general revelation affects the type of apologetic strategy (experiential, evidential, or pre-suppositional) favoured, the balance of faith versus reason, and the use of arguments for the existence of God.

Important passages to examine about what the appropriate weight is include Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1 and Romans 1. I find it fascinating that different people can read these passages and come to quite different conclusions about the relative importance of special and general revelation.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Conflict is undergirded by idolatry

At church we are going through a sermon series based on the book The Peacemaker, which is quite challenging. This week was about taking the log out of our own eye before we look at the speck in the eye of someone else. The underlying issue is idolatry in our heart. I found it helpful and challenging to consider the underlying progression: I desire, I demand, I judge, I punish, I end the relationship.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The known God

the object of evangelical theology is God in the history of his deeds. In this history he makes himself known. But in it he also is who he is. In it he has and proves, in a unity which precludes the precedence of one over the other, both his existence and his essence. The God of the Gospel, therefore, is neither a thing, an item, an object like others, nor an idea, a principle, a truth, or a sum of truths. ....The sum of the truths about God is to be found in a sequence of events, even in all the events of his being glorious in his work. 
Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: an Introduction,
page 9.

It is wonderful to listen to a live recording of Barth giving this lecture.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The crisis of ethics in modernism

Stanley Hauerwas has a fascinating article  How "Christian Ethics" Came to Be. 
It argues that prior to the Enlightenment Christians did not separate theology, ethics, and personal discipleship. They were all just part of living the Christian life. However, the Enlightenment ripped away the notion that the Bible and the Church provided a foundation or basis for deciding what was moral. What would the foundation be then?
The birth of modernity is coincident with the beginnings of ethics understood as a distinguishable sphere or realm of human life. Faced with the knowledge of the diversity of moral convictions, modern people think of themselves as haunted by the problem of relativism. If our "ethics" are relative to time and place, what if anything prevents our moral opinions form being "conventional"? And if they are conventional, some assume they must also be "arbitrary". But if your morality is conventional, how can we ever expect to secure agreements between people who disagree? Is it out fate to be perpetually at war with one another? "Ethics" becomes that quest to secure a rational basis for morality so we can be confident that our moral convictions are not arbitrary?
Stanley Hauerwas, How "Christian Ethics" Came to Be (1997)
Reprinted in the Hauerwas Reader, p.43-44.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Telescopic philanthropy

It is Charles Dickens 200th birthday and I have enjoyed reading some of the tributes. It makes me want to read some of his books!
Besides his literary genius Dickens is particularly appreciated because of the awareness he created of poverty and social injustice in Victorian England.

One thing I learnt was that Dickens coined the phrase Telescopic philanthropy: how we can be blind to needs close to home because we are so concerned with being "do gooders" in foreign lands. Dickens used the phrase as a chapter title in the novel Bleak House to describe the character Mrs. Jellaby.
I thought this 1992 article from the Independent somewhat interesting. It considered Mrs. Jellaby in light of Catholic teaching about the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Dives).

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Do I believe in the soul?

In a scientific age, the question of the existence and definition of "a soul" seems to be one that perplexes and confuses Christians. Earlier I posted a review I wrote of a disappointing book on the subject.

It seems to me that from a Biblical perspective the key concept is that of a whole person. When the Bible talks about "heart, mind and soul" it is not defining the separate parts of a person but rather trying to capture the concept of a whole person. Note that the "heart" it is discussing is not the bodily organ but the desires, intentions, and aspirations of a person. Souls cannot be detached from bodies; it is bodies that will be resurrected and exist eternally.
“We have been fooled, not for the first time, by a view of death, and life beyond, in which the really important thing is the ‘soul’ — something which, to many people’s surprise, hardly features at all in the New Testament.
“We have allowed our view of the saving of souls to loom so large that we have failed to realise that the Bible is much more concerned about bodies."
N.T. Wright, For all the Saints, Remembering the Christian Departed, 2003
[a large extract can be read here].

In the tradition of bad journalism, prior to publication of this book, The Times ran a misleading headline, Durham's new Bishop abolishes Heaven and the soul.

This issue is also explored in great detail in Nancey Murphy's book Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies. Based on hearing a lecture she gave on this subject, I have some sympathy to her views, and especially that she emphasizes the relevance of the concept of emergence, and the limitations of reductionism. However, at times I also find she over-uses technical jargon in a way that is not particularly illuminating or convincing.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A scandal that does not make the news

Imagine if a jumbo jet full of children crashed and all died. It would make headlines. Imagine if 5 jumbos crashed on the same day. Wow! That would get a lot of attention. Imagine the outcry if it turned out that all the crashes could have been preventable by simple maintenance. There would be a huge outcry, formal inquiries, demands for resignations, lawsuits, new government regulations, ....
Imagine if this happened two days in a row.... every day in a week.... every day of the year!

Well it does happen....
Every day of the year about 22,000 children under the age of 5 die, most from preventable diseases.

This is some of what I learnt this week at an excellent evening run by Compassion. I am a big fan of their child sponsorship program. They have started an additional program, the Child Survival Program, which focusses on pregnant mothers and new borns. I realised the value of this given research (discussed in an earlier post) showing how early childhood trauma can shape brain development and have such a significant effect on a child's future.

One really encouraging thing about this depressing topic is that due to concerted action things are getting better. (Pessimists like myself need to hear this). Since 1990 there has been a significant decrease in child mortality, from 12.5 million to 8.1 million in 2009. The 4 million decrease is like saving the lives of all the young children in Australia every year!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

There is no crisis in science

If you are interested in the multiverse and other silly ideas some theoretical physicists come up with (and embarrass and frustrate their colleagues) then you may find a recent post on my work blog interesting.

Hauerwas on discipleship

Discipleship is quite simply extended training in being dispossessed. To become followers of Jesus means that we must, like him, be dispossessed of all that we think gives us power over our own lives and the lives of others. Unless we learn to relinquish our presumption that we can ensure the significance of our lives, we are not capable of the peace of God’s kingdom.
Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, 1983