Peter Hitchens Speaks

31 March 2010

Christopher Hitchens wrote a book titled God is Not Great, which, in the way these things go, led to a series of debates with Doug Wilson, which led to a book, a debate tour, and eventually to the excellent documentary Collision, which you should see.

In part as a response to his brother’s book, but also as a response to the new atheists generally, Peter Hitchens has written The Rage Against God. Gorilla Poet Productions has produced a short trailer and an 8-minute author interview. Watch them, especially the latter. Note particularly the way in which Peter Hitchens came to Christ.

That’s how we’re going to have to fight this battle. Gear up.

True Tales, Told God’s Way

19 July 2009

In the preceding post, I argued (contra Gordon Clark and various others) that the object of saving faith is the Person Jesus Christ, not merely a proposition or set of propositions about Him.  Among my theology-wonk friends — and there are many of them — this point usually provokes a particular response.  “So it doesn’t really matter what propositions I believe as long as I’m looking at Jesus?” they ask incredulously.

Well, of course it matters.  We’re talking about a particular person here, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Adam, Son of Abraham, Son of David, supposed son of Joseph.  As with any particular person, not all things are true about Him.  He had a certain height, and not some other height.  Eyes of a certain color; hair of a certain length; born in Bethlehem and not in Gaza, born to Mary and not to Elizabeth, suffered under Pontius Pilate and not under Nero, and so on.  Certain claims about Him are true, and others false.

We are called to represent Him, and to do so according to His nature.  Because He is the Truth, we represent Him truly.  We must therefore be faithful to what we’re given about Jesus.  We must say of Him the things Scripture gives us to say.  We must tell the stories Scripture gives us to tell.  We must be true to the volume of material Scripture gives us to present.  When we don’t have time to tell the whole story — which, let’s face it, is almost all the time — then we try to summarize or tell a piece of it that’s particularly important for this person at this time.  There’s nothing wrong with that; Jesus Himself does it all the time, as do the apostles, and we have them for a pattern.

But we should not confuse telling a small piece of the story with “boiling it down to essentials,” as though we could do without the rest of it.  If we’re to be faithful to what God actually gave us, then we’re going to overflow with stories, poetry, songs, parables, proverbs, and much more.  We’re introducing people to a Person, and that process proceeds by addition, not by subtraction. You don’t get to know someone by paring away all that is not essential to the person; you get to know someone by adding more and more: different situations, different angles, different facets of the personality.  Trying to do it the other way around is trying to live in a world God just didn’t make.  We can’t view the abstract proposition as “the essence of it all,” because God didn’t give it to us that way, and we must truly represent what God gave us.

Now God did, in some places, give us abstract theological propositions; they are also an essential part of communication — a point I will take up shortly.  But those propositions come in a cocoon of stories.  Apart from the story context that they elucidate and from which they take their meaning, the propositions are not even false so much as utterly useless, completely without referent in the real world.  Just try to explain “By grace you are saved through faith” without telling a story.  I dare you.

Salvation by Grace: Person or Proposition?

13 July 2009

For something over a year now, I have been saying that I needed to update my response to the Free Grace Food Fight.  But what with one thing and another, the controversy hasn’t been hitting my immediate fields of ministry in a way that called for a written response, nor has anyone bothered to attack me lately in a way that I felt compelled a response.  Other matters were more pressing, so here we are, a year later, and I still haven’t written anything.

Which is not to say that the time has been wasted.  In the interim, the controversy has been the subject of numerous private conversations, and in the lull in public activity, God provided me with time for some much-needed reflection and growth.

I still have some things to say publicly, but I’m much better equipped to say them than I would have been a year ago.  Those things, alas, will not all get said in this post.  But I’m going to make a start.

Let’s start with this:  Salvation is not by any form of works, including theological study, correctness, or acumen.

We are saved by a person, and that person is Jesus Christ.  God requires of us that we believe in that person, as we see in John 9 when Jesus talks with the man born blind:

Jesus heard that they had expelled him, and meeting him, He said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?”

He answered, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in Him?”

“You both have seen Him, and He is the one talking with you,” Jesus said.

“Lord, I believe!” he said, and worshiped Him.

I used to say that “believe in” always boils down to some sort of proposition about the person, a position I adopted from Gordon Clark. While Clark went to some lengths to demonstrate this idea, and clearly held it strongly, it always got him into trouble.  Having argued that saving faith is faith in a saving proposition, obviously he needed to identify that proposition, and he couldn’t.  In a chapter toward the end of Faith and Saving Faith, Clark admits — with, it seems, some embarrassment — that there appear to be multiple saving propositions in Scripture.

Some Free Grace folks have correctly observed that John’s Gospel is addressed to unbelievers — and that it is the only such book in the New Testament.  This narrows the search a little bit.  Although we would not be surprised to find the saving proposition in, say, Romans (a book addressed to believers), we really want to see how the saving proposition is put to an unbeliever, and in John, God presents Jesus to an unbelieving readership.  It’s an ideal place to look for a saving proposition.

Only problem is, it seems to vary there, too.  Jesus tells the woman at the well that He is the Christ (but doesn’t mention “Son of God”); He tells the man born blind that He is the Son of God (but doesn’t mention “Christ”).  He often mentions eternal life — but not always.  Taking away sins is mentioned sometimes — but not always.  There’s a raft of “believe in Me” or “believe in Him” statements — woefully unclear!  Clark would be no happier with the multiplicity of answers that arise from John than he was with the multiplicity of answers arising from Scripture as a whole.

I have come to believe that the entire proposition-hunting endeavor is fundamentally wrongheaded.  When Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” he missed the whole point.  Truth is not a ‘what,’ it’s a ‘who’: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  And likewise for eternal life: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  To have eternal life is to have Jesus; to know the truth is to know Jesus, not simply a proposition.  The matter is irreducibly personal.

Don’t get me wrong.  Propositions are necessary in order to tell the story and introduce the person to Jesus.  But they’re tools to an end, not the thing itself.  The message is Jesus, the Living Word of God, and He can be introduced by a story, by propositions, but not reduced to a proposition.

Salvation is not a substance, a thing you can put in your pocket.  Salvation is living relationship with the Person Jesus Christ. Faith in the real Jesus, however defective in some of its propositional details, is saving faith. (We can see this with the disciples, who believed in Jesus, but doubted His death, and then His resurrection.)

On the other hand, faith in the correctness of one’s propositions, however accurate they might be, is a threadbare attempt to earn God’s favor through theological acumen, an attempt God will honor as much as He honors other salvation-by-works schemes: “Depart from Me, ye that practice lawlessness; I never knew you.”

We are meant to look through the propositions as through a window, and see the Person standing behind them. When we just look at the propositions — whichever propositions — we’re getting caught up in staring at the window glass itself, preoccupied with every bump and bubble and speck of dust.

To the extent that the big food fight is about which part of the window glass to stare at, there’s not much to pick from on any side.  And to the extent that anyone’s conduct shows hatred for his brothers and his neighbors — certainly not true of everyone, but there’s a lot of it going around — he is plainly not walking with Jesus, so why should anyone listen when he talks about Him?

Skeletal Evangelism

5 July 2009

Having recently become acquainted with Duane Garner through his Church Music Through History series, I have been listening to some of the other things he’s done, most recently a couple of lectures from a series titled “The Christian Imagination: Creativity, Fiction & Poetry.” The following quote comes from the second lecture, starting at 41:55:

So, trying to do theology and to read the Bible, and to live without engaging the imagination — it leaves us without an image of the future, it leaves us with very little in the Bible that we can actually benefit from.  Take out the stories, take out the poetry, and what are you left with?  It’s difficult for me to relate to the sort of mindset that’s only content with the barest and weakest and most anemic expressions of faith : “If we could just boil this down to the essentials, then we’ve got it.”  Wouldn’t we much rather become a people who are enraptured with the stories and the songs that the Bible gives us, even if we don’t understand them all, even if there’s some mystery there, and then bust out with a creativity of spirit that says, “How can we celebrate this; how can we sing that; how can we recognize this; how can we mark that?”
It’s the very nature of our five senses to pull us into whatever is there: scent, rhythm, texture, vision.  This is the way God’s word pulls us in.  It draws us in with its beauty to participate in it.  And so the mature Christian imagination is concerned with story, and poetry, and creativity.  We hear the stories, we know the stories, we see their beauty, and we see our own part in the story, and the continuation of the story.  The Christian imagination understands life as meaningful history, the structure of which is revealed in Jesus.

Indeed.  And nowhere is this observation more applicable than in evangelism.

We try to make evangelism easier, less intimidating, and we generally do this by boiling it down to seven key statements, or four laws, or three points, or a saving proposition, or whatever.  We want to be able to tell people that they can be confident they’ve “given someone the gospel” when they have said X — whatever X is.

We do this to equip our fellow believers, to build them up so that they can evangelize confidently, and that’s a commendable goal.  But the way we’re going about it has a heavy cost: we lose sight of what actually happens in evangelism.

In evangelism we introduce people to Someone we love.  Relaying a couple of key facts is, at best, only a decent start.

When I try to describe my wife to someone who’s never met her, I may search my memory for that one story or factoid that perfectly captures Kimberly’s quirky sense of humor, or her wit, or her boldness.  But once I’ve relayed that one thing, I don’t sit back and think to myself, “That’s it.  That’s all anyone needs to know.”  No single fact or story could possibly capture the richness or depth of the delightful woman that I married, and when I want someone to know Kimberly, to see her as I do, the stories and facts pour forth without effort.  I’m not concerned to tell them the least they need to know; I want them to know far more than that.

How much deeper and richer is Jesus?

Jesus promises us the life we were always meant to live: harmony with God forever as His image in the creation.  He is able to make that promise because He died for our sins and rose the third day, the firstfruits of the resurrection in which we will all one day partake.  And He does all this for us while we are His enemies. You wouldn’t want to try to convey what Jesus is like without that part of the story.

But there’s so much more.  He’s the kind of guy who tells homespun fables that make us see respectable, self-satisfied leaders as disobedient children, or murderous tenants, or inhospitable soil.  Aesop’s got nothing on Him.  When they ask Him what kind of holy teacher hangs out with hookers and drunks, He asks them what kind of doctor spends all his time with sick people.  When He walks into the temple and sees a house of worship turned into a continuing criminal enterprise, He calls it like He sees it — and starts flipping over tables to clean the place out. When the wedding party runs out of wine, He supplies more than a hundred gallons of the very best.  In His presence, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them — and God blesses those who do not shy away from all that Jesus is.

Jesus did not live a minimalist life; the Bible does not give us bare-bones accounts of it.    Why are we so desperate to know how much we can hold out on our unbelieving friends?

Calvinist Evangelism and Dispensational Culture

16 May 2008

Introduction: Calvinists and Evangelism

Often non-Calvinists claim that evangelism is inconsistent with Calvinism. If all and only the elect are saved, and if God does the electing and the saving, and if even the person thus saved has no determinative role in the process, then what role is there, pray tell, for some third party? The elect will certainly be saved, whether I do anything or not; the non-elect will certainly be lost, no matter how many times I tell them the gospel. What difference does it make? Why ought I to evangelize?

Certainly some Calvinists have made the same arguments, and have chosen not to evangelize for exactly these reasons. But many others have had better sense. Scripture plainly instructs that believers proclaim the gospel, and since God is not the author of nonsense, they have sought a rationale for doing so.

[I should insert a disclaimer here: I am not a Calvinist of any stripe, following neither Dort nor the Remonstrants — it’s their common assumptions that are the problem. However, I read Calvinists and have Calvinist friends, and what I’m about to relate as Calvinist motives for evangelism is what they tell me.]

Their answer is twofold. First, God ordains means as well as ends. The means that God has ordained to bring about the salvation of the elect includes the proclamation of the gospel. God has ordained that His people proclaim the gospel, in order that the elect will certainly hear the gospel and be saved. It is the privilege of God’s people to be part of the means by which He brings His saving message to elect sinners. God’s people, of course, have no idea who is elect and who is not, and therefore simply proclaim the gospel to everyone — as God has instructed them to do.

But this, I think, is only part of the answer. Consider the implications if this were the whole answer. Suppose I were planting particularly bad corn, with a germination rate of only 20%. Not knowing which seeds would germinate, I would plant each seed. I would tend the ground where each seed was planted. I would water them all equally, and so on. But the earth is cursed because of sin, and 80% of my tender care would ultimately be wasted: 80% of the seeds would rot instead of sprouting.

Compare this to evangelism. Let us say that 20% of the people I evangelize will ultimately be saved before they die. If “God ordains means as well as ends” were the whole answer, then I would have to conclude that 80% of my effort would ultimately be wasted.

Yet my Calvinist brethren do not conclude this. If God is pleased to regenerate this man as he hears the gospel, then it is the aroma of life to him, and he is saved, to the glory of God. This much is obvious. However, if in His infinite wisdom God has not elected this person, then my proclamation of the gospel is a stumbling block and a foolishness to his ears, and to him it is the stench of death. This, too, my Calvinist brother insists, is to the glory of God. He may not be able to explain exactly how-although some have tried-but he nonetheless insists that it glorifies God. It is not wasted effort, because nothing done to the glory of God is ever wasted.

This brings us to the idea of calling. God has ordained that believers should preach the gospel. In God’s great plan, this preaching may be a means to an end, but since He has called us to do it, for us it is an end in itself. We need no further inducement than that God has called us, and we exult in doing His will, for ends that, many times, remain a mystery to us. For me as a believer to joyfully fulfill my calling is never a waste of effort; it is always worth doing.

Thus, although a superficial case can be made that Calvinists ought not to have motivation to evangelize, in fact they do, first because God ordains means as well as ends, and second because that which an obedient believer does to the glory of God is never a waste of effort.

Godly Culture: An Outgrowth of Consistent Dispensationalism

With these things in mind, let us turn to dispensationalism and culture. We dispensationalists are often accused of having no theology of culture, and making no real contributions to culture. To our considerable shame, the accusation is true at times. In fact, it is true often enough that our opponents-particularly the postmillennialists-have come to view abandonment of, and antipathy toward, culture as a necessary consequence of premillennial, dispensational theology.

I will grant at the outset that there are dispensationalists who hold exactly this position, and use their theology as an excuse to disobey the clear commands of Scripture, just as there are Calvinists who use their theology as an excuse not to evangelize. But I suggest that these are parallel cases in other respects as well. In both cases, the reasoning is specious, and for very similar reasons.

Let’s examine the reasoning. According to dispensational premillennialism, human efforts at cultural righteousness are ultimately doomed in the sense that the cultures of the world will some day inevitably descend into the conflagration of the Great Tribulation, only to be redeemed by Jesus returning to set up His Kingdom. “Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?” the dispensational barbarians ask.

Because the fact of the Great Tribulation is not all that the Bible says about culture. Since Adam, tending and keeping the earth has been the task of humanity, a task renewed and intensified in the Noahic mandates to include eating animals and executing criminals. We are all children of Adam through Noah, and therefore subject to these mandates. For so long as the Holy Spirit restrains the wickedness of the world, culture can only get so bad, and for so long as Messiah tarries, culture can only get so good. We will not descend into the Great Tribulation of our own accord until God permits it, and we cannot ascend to the Kingdom of our own accord in any case. However, between these two great boundary conditions, there is a lot of play, and between these two great boundary conditions, believers are to “do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [their] God.” This cannot but include submission to God’s first command to tend and keep the earth, which is the root from which all culture springs. Engaging all of life in a Christian fashion — in other words, righteous culture — is the task of God’s people, and always has been. Therefore, there is no discipleship without righteous cultural engagement.

Is that polishing the brass on a sinking ship? From one perspective, it is. The culture I improve today may descend into the abyss tomorrow, or in the next century. But does that make my work a waste of time?

It is not obvious that it does. God ordains means as well as ends, and it isn’t hard to see that a production such as Handel’s Messiah adorns the gospel with musical beauty. Surely the number of people who were first attracted to Christ through this and other artistic productions is not insignificant. A Christian political and socioeconomic philosophy, even when imperfectly implemented, similarly adorns God’s message to the world (see Deuteronomy 4:5-8, 1 Kings 10:4-9). Solomon’s implementation of the Law was obviously imperfect, and yet by God’s grace it still had the desired effect. Christian cultural development need not be perfect to be productive; we need not speak of abstract, hypothetically perfect cultural development untainted by sin, and unfortunately unobtainable in this world. There is great utility in the creations of flesh-and-blood, sinful saints working to the glory of God.

Second, and I think more important, is the idea of calling. We are the children of Adam through Noah, and their mandates are ours as well. Thus, to be human is to be called to culture.

To be sure, our cultural production will descend into the conflagration of the Tribulation, if it is not destroyed or forgotten long before. But Solomon, too, was well aware that the attempt to create enduring cultural institutions is grasping the wind, and that didn’t stop him from doing it. I doubt the Queen of Sheba considered it all a waste of time. Should we?

Moreover, we must remember that while various Christian cultural innovations may die out in history, the Christian creators of those innovations will live on in the resurrection, perhaps carrying their sanctified inventions with them. Certainly we will sing many songs in the Kingdom; who is to say that “Amazing Grace” or “Shout to the Lord” will not be among them? Failing all this, if we cannot quite make out what eternal value our cultural production might have, we need only reflect, as our Calvinist brethren do, on the fact that nothing done to the glory of God is ever wasted.

We are called to culture. We may not be able to explain God’s plan for our cultural productions as well as we would like, but we may nonetheless exult in fulfilling our calling to the best of our ability. Though in our fallenness we may not understand yet, and in our finitude we may never fully grasp our place in God’s plan, in our obedience we do better than we know.