Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Unbegotten Son? Is Driscoll right to reject the eternal generation of the Son of God?

This is the second in a series of posts that sets out to examine the claim made by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, in Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe, that the attempt to"define eternal relations in the immanent or ontological Trinity seems misguided" (p. 27) and that "it is best to omit the creedal terms 'begotten' and 'proceeds' from our definition of the Trinity" (p.28).  You can read the first post here

I need to underline the fact that the whole chapter on the Trinity is very helpful, and the applications are worth reading, weighing and living by.  In fact, from what I have read so far, the book strongly combines doctrine and application in a way that I, and I hope many other readers, will benefit from.

The eternal generation of the Son of God, that he was "begotten by the Father, before all worlds" is a doctrine found in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, the Chalcedonian Definition, and, among other Reformed Confessions, the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Standards.  It is no small thing to jettison a doctrine with that kind of theological pedigree.  Driscoll and Breshears affirm the eternal Sonship of Christ, but argue that we should not use the category of Christ being the eternally begotten Son.  He is then the eternal but unbegotten Son.

In the next post I will interact with the three reasons they give for omitting the eternal generation of the Son from the doctrines that we should believe, but before doing that there are some matters of theological method that I want to touch upon that would unnecessarily lengthen that discussion, hence this separate post. 

Here are some things to bear in mind as you enter the world of Trinitarian theology. 

Every mental power that you possess is inadequate to grasp the infinities and immensities of the Triune God.  The capacity for rational thought granted to you by the Trinity, a rationality that has, in believers, been sanctified by the Spirit, is a finite rationality that must receive the truth of God's revelation about himself knowing full well that the God who stoops to speak to us is ultimately incomprehensible to us as creatures. 

Faith seeking understanding is no futile endeavour once we place ourselves under the authority of the word of God written, in conscious dependence upon the illumination of the Holy Spirit.  God's verbal revelation to us in Scripture gives us all that we need to know and establishes the boundaries of what may and may not be known. 

Failure to respect the Creator-creature distinction, failure to acknowledge that God accommodates himself to our level when speaking to us, failure to remember that all of God's revelation of himself to us in Scripture is properly anthropomorphic (it is a knowledge of God suited to our capacities as creatures, given to us by God) will leave us in a world of theological confusion, pain and destruction.  In a word this knowledge is analogical

For example God remembers Noah in the ark.  We remember where we left our car keys.  But we do not remember things in exactly the same way that God does.  He never forgot where Noah was.  We retrace our steps mentally to figure out where the car keys are, God knows things immediately and entirely.

God reveals himself to us in three persons.  The second person is said to be the Son of the first person.  Indeed he is his only begotten Son, not a Son by adoption but his natural or proper Son.  If we begin with our own experience of fathers and sons we might be tempted to think that designating the second person as the Son of the first inescapably leads us to conclude that he is lesser, that he has a point of origin.  Or, in the words of the Arians, that "there was when he was not."  That would hold true if we were dealing with finite persons.  I have two daughters.  Before they were born I was not a father.  I only became a father when my first child was born.  With finite persons begetting occurs in time.  But God the Father and God the Son are eternal persons.

In human generation a father always exists prior to a son.  In divine generation, because we are dealing with infinite and not finite persons, this is not the case.  Athanasius underlined this point:
Nor, as man from man has the Son been begotten, so as to be later than his Father's existence, but he is God's offspring, and, as being proper Son of God, who is ever, he exists eternally.  For, whereas it is proper to men to beget in time, from the imperfection of their nature, God's offspring is eternal, for his nature is perfect.
When did the first person of the Trinity become a Father?  He has always been the Father, because he has always had a Son.  Did the Son become the Son at a point in eternity past?  If he did then at the same time, if one may bend language in this way, that was when the Father became the Father.

The Father-Son relationship in the being of God is archetypal of creaturely father-son relationships.  The original and proper reality is in God.  In God this relationship is eternal, in creatures it is temporal.

We need to keep in mind the counsel of W.T.G. Shedd:
There is no analogy taken from the finite that will clear up the mystery of the infinite -- whether it be the mystery of the eternity of God, or that of his trinity.
If we depart from this then the next station down the line is Idolville Central.

Some people struggle to accept that there is one God who eternally exists as three distinct persons.  They see that statement and think "but that's three Gods" (the heresy of tritheism), or they reduce the mystery to that of one God playing out three successive roles (the heresy of modalism), or else they consider one person (the Father) to be God and the other two persons to be creatures made by the will of God (the heresy of Arianism).

What categorical mistake unites these three errors?  It is that God can only be one person.  Why would we think that?  Because when it comes to finite essences, finite beings, a second person demands that there be a second essence or being.  That holds true for finite beings.  With God we are dealing with an infinite being.  The real question is, what has he actually told us about himself? 

The Christian Church has confessed, on the basis of the Old and New Testaments, that there is only one true and living God, one being who is eternal, infinite and unchangeable, who is one in substance or essence, and three in persons.  To quote Shedd again:
The not prior to the persons, either in order of nature or of time, nor subsequent to them, but simultaneously and eternally in and with them
The heresies of tritheism, modalism and Arianism have in common a non-negotiable commitment to think of God according to the measure of the fallen human mind.  They are all afraid of infinitude.  Doug Kelly, in the first volume of his systematic theology, cites some helpful words on this from T. F. Torrance, "the epistemological principle of the Arians (was)...that what men cannot understand cannot be true."  That principle can only ever result in the embracing of heresy.

It is worth us bearing in mind that with regard to God being one in essence and three in person, with regard to the eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, those who have believed these things and defended them have done so conscious of how much these truths are infinitely above our capacity to understand them.  Listen to the voices of four giants as they guide us on these matters.

Consider the wise counsel of the Puritan John Owen:
We have, I say, words and notions about these things; but as to the things themselves what do we know?  What do we comprehend of them?  Can the mind of man do any more than swallow itself up in an infinite abyss, which is as nothing; give itself up to what it cannot conceive, much less express?

 Is not our understanding 'brutish' in the contemplation of such things, and is as if it were not?  Yea, the perfection of our understanding is, not to understand, and to rest there.  They are but the back parts of eternity and infiniteness that we have a glimpse of.

What shall I say of the Trinity, or the subsistence of distinct persons in the same individual essence -- a mystery by many denied, because by none understood -- a mystery whose every letter is mysterious?  Who can declare the generation of the Son, the procession of the Spirit, or the difference of the one from the other?
This counsel echoes that given more than a millennium before by Ambrose:
I inquire of you when and how the Son was begotten?  Impossible it is to me to know the mystery of this generation.  My mind faileth, my voice is silent -- and not only mine, but of the angels; it is above principalities, above angels, above the cherubim, above the seraphim, above all understanding.

Lay thy hand on thy mouth; it is not lawful to search into these heavenly mysteries.  It is lawful to know that he was born -- it is not lawful to discuss how he was born; that it is not lawful for me to deny -- this I am afraid to enquire into.
Gregory of Nazianzen grasped the limitations that these truths place upon us:
But the manner of his generation we will not admit that even the angels can conceive, much less you.  Shall I tell you how it was?  It was in a manner known to the Father who begat, and to the Son who was begotten.  Anything more than this is hidden by a cloud, and escapes your dim sight.
Finally the great Athanasius wrote:
nor again is it right to God begets, and what is the manner of his begetting.  For a man must be beside himself to venture on such points; since a thing is ineffable and proper to God's nature, and known to him alone and the Son, this he demands to be explained in words...It is better in perplexity to be silent and believe, than to disbelieve on account of perplexity.

When was he rich?

I was reminded yesterday that although grave doctrinal errors call for sophisticated rebuttals, more often than not they are stopped dead in their tracks by some very simple and straightforward Scripture texts, dare I say it, by proof-texts.

It was a complete nonsense for Unitarians, Socinians and others, to argue from the Bible that Jesus was a mere man, that he had one nature not two, and that this sole nature was a human nature.   He was a man, but he was more than a man.  He was and is the possessor of a divine nature.  Jesus is both God and man, having two natures in one person.  Scripture emphasises this, in part, by telling us what he became, and in doing so also telling what he was before that.  The Shorter Catechism helpfully expresses this truth in the twenty first question and answer (emphasis added):
Q. 21. Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect?
A. The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.

2 Corinthians 8:9; Phil. 2:7; and John 1:14 lie behind the words of Maxentius (below), and the first of these verses lies behind the anecdote about the Welsh nineteenth century preacher David Morgan:
We do not confound the diversity of natures, howbeit we believe not what you affirm, that Christ was made God; but we believe that God was made Christ.  For he was not made rich when he was poor; but being rich, he was made poor, that he might make us rich.
He did not take the form of God when he was in the form of a servant; but being in the form of God, he took on him the form of a servant.  In like manner, he was not made the Word when he was flesh; but being the Word, he was made flesh. 
 On 23rd December 1858, David Morgan ministered at Pen-llwyn and his preaching had a marked prophetic quality:
In the middle of his sermon he startled his audience by suddenly exclaiming, 'If any of you tonight deny the deity of the Son, I have nothing better to tell you than what Morgan Howell, Newport, shouted on Lampeter bridge, "Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor. He became poor when He came to Bethlehem; tell me, when was He rich?"' 
This remark was utterly irrelevant to the preacher's subject matter, and no one could conjecture whence it came, and wither it went. The mystery was solved in the after-meeting, for among the converts were three Unitarians...whose presence in the service was quite accidental, and certainly unknown to the preacher.

They believed he was a mere man but still worshipped him

When it came to degrading views of the person of the Lord Jesus Christ the seventeenth century Socinians were worse than the fourth century Arians. 

The Arians believed that he was the first and greatest of creatures, created out of nothing before the world was called into being.  The Socinians believed that he was a mere man who, on account of his obedience, was exalted to to such a place of honour that he should receive worship.

These differences are simply one of degree.  Both Socinians and Arians committed themselves to believing, teaching and confessing heresy. 

Whether he was made from nothing before the creation of time and space, or whether he was a mere man with no spiritual pre-existence before his conception, he was still a creature, he was still treated by them as belonging to the side of that great division where things are classed as made, created, contingent, finite, and not classed as infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. 

They were both horrifically wrong to make him stand solely with us as a creature, and not to bow the knee to him as Creator and Lord, the eternally begotten Son of the Father, equal with the Father in power and glory.  And that, ultimately, is a wicked thing to do.

The Socinians, however, although they believed that Jesus was a mere man, still worshipped him. 

The infamous Unitarian Joseph Priestly commented in 1782 on this self-evident inconsistency in Socinian doctrine and practice:
It is something extraordinary that the Socinians in Poland thought it their duty, as Christians, and indeed essential to Christianity, to pray to Jesus Christ, notwithstanding that they believed him to be a mere man, whose presence with them, and whose knowledge of their situation, they could not therefore be assured of.
The following extract from H. P. Liddon's The Divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ on this Socinian anomaly makes for interesting reading:
The earliest Socinians taught that the Son of God was a mere man, who was conceived of the Holy Ghost, and was therefore called the Son of God.  But they also maintained that on account of his obedience, he was, after finishing his work of redemption, exalted to Divine dignity and honour.

Christians were to treat him as if he were God: they were to trust him implicitly; they were to adore him.  Faustus Socinus zealously insisted upon the duty of adoring Jesus Christ; and the Racovian Catechism expressly asserts that those who do not call upon or adore Christ are not to be accounted Christians.

But this was only the archaeology, or at most the better feeling of Socinianism.  Any such mere feeling was destined to yield surely and speedily to the logic of a strong destructive principle.  In vain did Blandrata appeal to Faustus Socinus himself, when endeavouring to persuade the Socinians of Transylvania to adore Jesus Christ: the Transylvanians would not be persuaded to yield an act of adoration to any creature.

In vain did the Socinian Catechism draw a distinction between a higher and lower worship, of which the former was reserved for the Father, while the latter was paid to Christ.  Practically this led to a violation of the one positive fundamental principle of Socinianism; it obscured the incommunicable prerogatives of the Supreme Being.

Accordingly, in spite of the texts of Scripture upon which their worship of Christ was rested by the Socinian theologians, such worship was soon abandoned; and the later practice of Socinians has illustrated the true doctrinal force and meaning of that adoration which Socinianism refuses, but which the Church of Jesus Christ unceasingly offers to Jesus, the Son of God made man.  Of this worship the only real justification is that full belief in Christ's essential unity with the Father which is expressed by the homoousion. (p. 414)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The insufficient explanatory power of Modalism

Before I post part two of my assessment of the rejection of the eternal generation of the Son of God by Driscoll & Breshears in Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe let me post this item from the archives.  This may be helpful in the light of the discussion thread on the previous post...

One of the heresies to trouble the early church, and not only the early church, for it has to a lesser or greater extent continued to present itself as a plausible alternative to Trinitarian orthodoxy, was the heresy of modalism.

This heresy posits no distinction between the persons in the Godhead, refusing to speak of three eternally distinct persons in communion. Rather, what we have is a God who is one in essence and person. The modalist understanding is that although God manifests himself as Father, Son and Spirit these are not three distinct, co-equal and co-eternal persons. The appearance of the three persons is only the successive appearance of three modes by which God reveals himself.

The modalist interpretation of the relationship between the being of God and the titles Father, Son and Spirit, is, at the very least, an exegetical failure. It fails to fully account for all the biblical material, it fails it synthesize that data, and it fails assign the proper meaning to the texts at hand. This deficiency was pointed out by the fourth century father Hilary of Poitiers:
For there have risen many who have given to the plain words of Holy Writ some arbitrary interpretation of their own, instead of its true and only sense, and this in defiance of the clear meaning of words. Heresy lies in the sense assigned, not in the word written; the guilt is that of the expositor, not of the text.
On the Trinity, Book 2, section 3

Since, therefore, they cannot make any change in the facts recorded, they bring novel principles and theories of man’s device to bear upon them. Sabellius, for instance, makes the Son an extension of the Father, and the faith in this regard a matter of words rather than of reality, for he makes one and the same Person, Son to Himself and also Father.
Book 2, section 4
In contrast to that a minimal framework for Trinitarian belief would include the following affirmations:

A. There is only one God

B. There are three distinct persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son and the Spirit

C. Each of these persons is fully God

What should we consider to be the necessary and sufficient evidence to affirm these points?

1. That it can be shown from Scripture that there are distinctions between the persons, distinctions that show that the threeness of persons and oneness of essence are equally ultimate.

2. That it can be shown from Scripture that the titles, works, and worship that belong properly to the one true and living God, are given to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

3. That we read and interpret the biblical data conscious that the lens through which we view the Trinity is that of the economy of salvation (the Father sending the Son, the Son humbling himself and becoming incarnate as the last Adam, the Spirit of God coming to glorify Christ and apply his saving work). This lens is itself part of the biblical data.

On point (1) this evidence would include texts that speak of :

1.1. The sending of one divine person by another (e.g. Exodus 23:20-21; Isaiah 48:16; Malachi 3:1-2; John 15:26)

1.2. The work of one divine person in relation to another divine person (e.g. Isaiah 61:1-2; Hosea 1:7)

1.3. The ascription of divine titles and works to more than one person within the same literary unit (e.g. Genesis 19:24; Zechariah 2:9-12; Psalm 110:1; Joshua 24:2-12 cf. Judges 2:1-4; Malachi 3:1-2; John 1:1, 18; Galatians 1:3; Revelation 1:8, 17; 22:12-13)

1.4. Reference being made to more than one divine person within the same literary unit, to whom elsewhere in Scripture divine titles and works have been ascribed (e.g. Isaiah 48:16; 63:9-12)

1.5. One divine person speaking of another divine person (e.g. Exodus 23:20-22; Isaiah 48:16; Isaiah 52:13, cf. Isaiah 6:1, 57:15, Hosea 1:6-7; Mark 1:11; Mark 9:7; John 15:26)

1.6. One divine person speaking to another divine person (e.g. Genesis 1:26-27; Psalm 45:6-7; Psalm 110:1; John 17:5)

Some of the texts and categories above are obviously interconnected. Exodus 23:20-21 fits into 1.1./1.3./ and 1.5. The selection of passages above is only representative. As there is a superabundance of NT passages I have chosen more from the OT.

By the way, modalists tie themselves up in knots when the try to explain away the obvious. Jesus prays to his Father. Is this not clear evidence that they are two distinct persons? The modalist would have to say that Jesus' human nature is praying to his own divine nature. But persons speak to each other, not natures.

John Owen, made easy...

Thanks to my friend Lewis Allen for this

Monday, June 28, 2010

Begotten before all worlds? Is Driscoll right to reject the eternal generation of the Son?

Concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, Augustine wrote that "In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable" (De Trinitate 1.3.5). That is a weighty sentence and worth remembering. In medicine precision matters and we care about it a great deal. In theology it matters even more.

Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears new book Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe, has a truly grandstand opening. In unpacking the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity they reason that:
Our longings for love, unity in diversity, communication, community, humility, peace, and selflessness are in fact - by design - longings for the Trinitarian God of the Bible and a world that is a reflection of the Trinity. (p. 12)
What follows, or, more perhaps more appropriately given the subject, what proceeds from this, in the rest of the chapter is a straightforward, robust, well applied articulation, anchored in Scripture, of the truth that:
The Trinity is one God who eternally exists as three distinct persons -- Father, Son, and Spirit -- who are each fully and equally God in eternal relation with each other (p. 13).
Now it would be fair to say that most of us find it easier to defend from Scripture the truth that there is only one living and true God, that there are three distinct persons in the Godhead, and that each of these persons is fully God ("which means that they share all the divine attributes, such as eternality, omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence" as Driscoll and Breshears helpfully put it) than we do to explain it. Moreover, we find it easier to demonstrate that the doctrine of the Trinity is found in Scripture than we find it to explain the relationships between the persons that distinguish them as distinct persons.

We know that Father is different from the Son because he is the Father. We know that the Son is different from the Spirit because he is the Son. But this difference is not found in their attributes as God. The Father, as God, is not more eternal than the Son is. The Son, as God, is no less self-existent than the Father is. The Spirit is no creature but is as omnipotent and omnipresent as the Father and the Son. Each person may be described as very God.  These truths are articulated by Driscoll and Breshears, and the corresponding heresies of Modalism (one God playing three successive roles), Arianism (one God, with Christ and Spirit lacking deity) and Tritheism, suitably smacked down.

How then are we to distinguish the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit from each other? Well, historically, this has been done by speaking in terms of their personal properties. The Westminster Larger Catechism sets this out as follows:
Q. 10. What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?
A. It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity.
These are the historic categories that Christians have reached for to state clearly, but not exhaustively, and with a self-confessed inability to adequately explain just how it is so, that the Father is “unbegotten,” that the Son is “begotten” and that the Spirit (who is neither “unbegotten” nor “begotten”) “proceeds,” from the Father and the Son from all eternity. The Son is therefore eternally begotten, and the procession of the Spirit is an eternal procession. These are eternal acts beyond our capacity to understand. You cannot find a point in time before they occurred. The Son was not begotten at a point in eternity past so that he became the Son.

Although Driscoll and Breshears deal with the personal properties of the Son and Spirit in the book my comments here will be restricted to the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. This is an important theological conviction for us to hold to, as I hope to show in due course. This is what Driscoll and Breshears say about it (I've broken up the paragraphs for ease of reading):
As the doctrine of the Trinity developed, theologians struggled to explain the eternal relationships of the Trinity. What differentiates Father from Son and Spirit? Using philosophical methodology, they worked backward from God's economic working in the world to define his eternal relationships.
The Bible says the Father sent the Spirit to conceive Jesus in the womb of Mary. Jesus is therefore referred to as the "only begotten [monogenes] Son." Theologians extended this begetting in history back into the eternal Trinity and posited that the Son is eternally begotten of or generated by the Father.
The whole attempt to define eternal relations in the immanent or ontological Trinity seems misguided. (p. 27)
The doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son of God can be found in the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Chalcedonian Definition, and the Reformed Confessions.  To jettison a doctrine that has a remarkable theological pedigree on the grounds that it has insufficient Scriptural support and is misguided is a significant claim, and one that needs to be carefully looked at and weighed.

Let me raise some preliminary questions about these statements.

  •  Is the Sonship of the second person of the Trinity eternal, or is it temporal? 
  • When Scripture speaks of the Son being begotten is it only talking about his human sonship and nature derived from Mary? Is this when he was begotten by the Father? 
  • Has he always been the Son, or did the second person of the Trinity become the Son of God only when he became incarnate as Driscoll and Breshears seem to imply in the statements above? 

I'm not entirely sure what to make of the statement that The Bible says the Father sent the Spirit to conceive Jesus in the womb of Mary. Jesus is therefore referred to as the "only begotten [monogenes] Son.” It strikes me as a sentence that doesn't precisely convey what the authors believe about the eternality of the Sonship of Christ.  Are they really suggesting that there is one generation of the Son, and that this consists in his being begotten by Mary?  Do all the references in Scripture to the Son being begotten by the Father refer to this?

We ought to speak of God creating the humanness of the Son from the substance of Mary, but we should avoid any implication that Christ's Sonship was begotten from the substance of Mary. Jesus is not referred to as the only begotten Son because of Mary, but because, unlike us, he is the natural Son of God.

Things are cleared up a little later on in the chapter when our authors helpfully say that “God the Father and God the Son were proverbially face-to-face in eternity past” (p. 34) and of the “unity and love that exist eternally between the Father and the Son” (p. 30). From these last two statements it seems clear that they do hold to the eternal Sonship of the second person of the Trinity in addition to his eternal pre-existence and deity.

Evidently then, the identity of the Son as the Son did not begin in a outhouse in Bethlehem. This is important. The principal casualty in the tinkering with the eternal Sonship of Christ, for tinkering there has been throughout church history, is the eternal paternity of God.  If the Son is not eternal, then the Father has not been the eternal Father, and before we know it the mutual love of the persons of the Trinity has been evacuated of its eternal depth and richness.  We are left with persons, but can no longer speak of how they relate to each other in eternity, and we cannot say with any confidence therefore that this relationship is one of eternal love.  This error is one that, even with their rejection of eternal generation, Driscoll and Breshears clearly avoid.

Driscoll and Breshears affirm that the Son is in eternal relationship with the Father, and the Spirit, but, that we know nothing, and can say nothing, concerning the nature of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son. They are not willing to affirm that he is the Father's only begotten Son, “begotten, before all worlds.” Although the first person of the Trinity has revealed himself as the Father, and the second person of the Trinity is revealed to us as the eternal Son of the Father, and although the first person is said to have begotten the second person in Scripture (there is explicit Scriptural warrant for this in Hebrews 1:5 and elsewhere, there are nine references given in footnote 66 on p. 27), we are warned that any attempt to define this eternal relationship is misguided.

There are yet more questions to ask. What “philosophical methodology” did these theologians use as they worked backward from what the Trinity has done in time to work out what the Trinity is like in eternity? We are not told. What are we to make of the words of Jesus in John 5:26, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself,” as passage that Driscoll and Breshears do not refer to or discuss.

In the next post I will take up the three reasons why Driscoll and Breshears think that the attempt to "define eternal relations in the immanent or ontological Trinity seems misguided."

Man is a genius and man is a beast

"Man is a genius and man is a beast."  
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones 

Bizet's The Pearl Fishers is a work of genius

The Nature of Heresy

Over at the Reformed Forum Express you can listen to a short clip from an interview that I did with them where we discuss the nature of heresy

Monday, June 21, 2010

Believe it or not: New atheists in short trousers

You may be interested in taking a look at David Bentley Hart's essay "Believe It or Not" on the New Atheists (HT: Gary Benfold).  Here are some highlights:
I think I am very close to concluding that this whole “New Atheism” movement is only a passing fad—not the cultural watershed its purveyors imagine it to be, but simply one of those occasional and inexplicable marketing vogues that inevitably go the way of pet rocks, disco, prime-time soaps, and The Bridges of Madison County.
This is not because I necessarily think the current “marketplace of ideas” particularly good at sorting out wise arguments from foolish. But the latest trend in à la mode godlessness, it seems to me, has by now proved itself to be so intellectually and morally trivial that it has to be classified as just a form of light entertainment, and popular culture always tires of its diversions sooner or later and moves on to other, equally ephemeral toys.

The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness.
What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).

But how long can any soul delight in victories of that sort? And how long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists—with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for?

But a true skeptic is also someone who understands that an attitude of critical suspicion is quite different from the glib abandonment of one vision of absolute truth for another—say, fundamentalist Christianity for fundamentalist materialism or something vaguely and inaccurately called “humanism.” Hume, for instance, never traded one dogmatism for another, or one facile certitude for another. He understood how radical were the implications of the skepticism he recommended, and how they struck at the foundations not only of unthinking faith, but of proud rationality as well.

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.
On Richard Dawkins he writes:
But something worse than mere misunderstanding lies at the base of Dawkins’ own special version of the argument from infinite regress—a version in which he takes a pride of almost maternal fierceness. Any “being,” he asserts, capable of exercising total control over the universe would have to be an extremely complex being, and because we know that complex beings must evolve from simpler beings and that the probability of a being as complex as that evolving is vanishingly minute, it is almost certain that no God exists. Q.E.D.
But, of course, this scarcely rises to the level of nonsense. We can all happily concede that no complex, ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent superbeing, inhabiting the physical cosmos and subject to the rules of evolution, exists. But who has ever suggested the contrary?

Numerous attempts have been made, by the way, to apprise Dawkins of what the traditional definition of divine simplicity implies, and of how it logically follows from the very idea of transcendence, and to explain to him what it means to speak of God as the transcendent fullness of actuality, and how this differs in kind from talk of quantitative degrees of composite complexity.
But all the evidence suggests that Dawkins has never understood the point being made, and it is his unfortunate habit contemptuously to dismiss as meaningless concepts whose meanings elude him. Frankly, going solely on the record of his published work, it would be rash to assume that Dawkins has ever learned how to reason his way to the end of a simple syllogism.
On Christopher Hitchens he says:
To appreciate the true spirit of the New Atheism, however, and to take proper measure of its intellectual depth, one really has to turn to Christopher Hitchens. Admittedly, he is the most egregiously slapdash of the New Atheists, as well as (not coincidentally) the most entertaining, but I take this as proof that he is also the least self-deluding.
His God Is Not Great shows no sign whatsoever that he ever intended anything other than a rollicking burlesque, without so much as a pretense of logical order or scholarly rigor. His sporadic forays into philosophical argument suggest not only that he has sailed into unfamiliar waters, but also that he is simply not very interested in any of it.
His occasional observations on Hume and Kant make it obvious that he has not really read either very closely. He apparently believes that Nietzsche, in announcing the death of God, literally meant to suggest that the supreme being named God had somehow met his demise. The title of one of the chapters in God Is Not Great is “The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False,” but nowhere in that chapter does Hitchens actually say what those claims or their flaws are.

On matters of simple historical and textual fact, moreover, Hitchens’ book is so extraordinarily crowded with errors that one soon gives up counting them. Just to skim a few off the surface:
He speaks of the ethos of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as “an admirable but nebulous humanism,” which is roughly on a par with saying that Gandhi was an apostle of the ruthless conquest and spoliation of weaker peoples.
He conflates the histories of the first and fourth crusades. He repeats as fact the long discredited myth that Christians destroyed the works of Aristotle and Lucretius, or systematically burned the books of pagan antiquity, which is the very opposite of what did happen.
He speaks of the traditional hostility of “religion” (whatever that may be) to medicine, despite the monastic origins of the modern hospital and the involvement of Christian missions in medical research and medical care from the fourth century to the present. He tells us that countless lives were lost in the early centuries of the Church over disputes regarding which gospels were legitimate (the actual number of lives lost is zero).
He asserts that Myles Coverdale and John Wycliffe were burned alive at the stake, although both men died of natural causes. He knows that the last twelve verses of Mark 16 are a late addition to the text, but he imagines this means that the entire account of the Resurrection is as well. He informs us that it is well known that Augustine was fond of the myth of the Wandering Jew, though Augustine died eight centuries before the legend was invented. And so on and so on (and so on).

In the end, though, all of this might be tolerated if Hitchens’ book exhibited some rough semblance of a rational argument. After all, there really is a great deal to despise in the history of religion, even if Hitchens gets almost all the particular details extravagantly wrong. To be perfectly honest, however, I cannot tell what Hitchens’ central argument is. It is not even clear what he understands religion to be.
And on Nietzsche he notes that:
The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche. How much more immediate and troubling the force of his protest against Christianity seems when compared to theirs, even more than a century after his death. Perhaps his intellectual courage—his willingness to confront the implications of his renunciation of the Christian story of truth and the transcendent good without evasions or retreats—is rather a lot to ask of any other thinker, but it does rather make the atheist chic of today look fairly craven by comparison.

Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness.
His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists—those who merely do not believe—to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.

Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, and the elevation of a Jewish peasant above all gods, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated.
He understood also that the death of God beyond us is the death of the human as such within us. If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?

Coping with criticism

Helpful words from Marcus Honeysett.  There are shades of Psalm 73 in this counsel:
Worship is the refuge that allows us to respond to criticism well rather than defensively. Worship is the means by which God is allowed to be bigger in our perspective than our critics. Worship allows us to not be precious about us and our reputations because we are absorbed not with ourselves but with him. 
Criticism isn't nice, but criticism that gets out of perspective is debilitating. Worship puts our perspective right, bastions our hearts, makes us rejoice in God and find our happiness (that criticism would wish to destroy) in him.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A makeover and some mini Exodus motifs

My thanks to Dave Bish for restoring the Against Heresies banner which had disappeared, and which he had designed in the first place.  He has also, very kindly, upgraded some features and very much improved the design of the blog.  So hats off to him.

The banner itself, which would look great on a t-shirt or a mug, is an adaptation of "Augustine refuting heretics."  And as I'm currently reading Augustine's De Trinitate I will, in due course, post some highlights.

Take a look at his post Of Midwives and Sons - The Exodus and a New Creation

The early chapters of Exodus have some remarkable mini-Exodus motifs, such as the son saved from the waters of judgement and the pursuit of his enemies, a real foretaste of what will happen later in the book.

There are also some NT miniatures.  Moses, of course, is the saviour rejected by his people (Exodus 2:11-14) but welcomed by the Gentiles (2:15-20).  A wonderful glimpse (in fact a type) in miniature of the Christ that Moses both spoke of, served and suffered for (see Stephen's point about God's people rejecting their Saviour in Acts 7:23-53, and the writer to the Hebrew's point about Moses regarding disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt in 11:26).

Sunday, June 13, 2010

You do the math (updated)

Thanks to Sheena Strain for drawing my attention to this headline.

And thanks to Justin Taylor for pointing out to me that it was probably inspired by this:

For more on the connection between the headlines go here

Still, let's not let forget the fact that to England it felt like a defeat, and the New York Post confuses the "British" with the "English."

Let us not forget that no Welsh, Scottish, or Northern Irish goalkeeper would have committed such a howler.  Let us also not forget that no Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish goalkeeper had the opportunity to commit such a howler at the World Cup seeing as we all failed to qualify.  A small but important fact.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Under the knife

No this is not a post about dissecting heresies and cutting out diseased theologies. I went under the knife on Wednesday and had functional endoscopic sinus surgery and a septoplasty. I'm now confined at home for two weeks so as to avoid infection.

Writing, reading, and thinking straight are not really working at the moment. I do however, have a box of Krispy Kreme donuts to hand and am assured that they contain remarkable healing powers.

Doctrine: A review you will actually want to read

My friend Iain D. Campbell has written a review of Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears.

Iain D. writes:
There are some books I wish I’d written. Let me re-phrase that. There are some books I come across, whose design and structure is so brilliantly simply that I could wish I had thought of it myself.

This new book on ‘Doctrine’ has a structure that gets right to the heart of theology. Theology is about God. It is not about proving that there is a God; nor is it about our responses to the world around us. It is simply a bringing together of the great themes and strands of revelation, without which there can be no theology.

So the chapter headings in ‘Doctrine’ all remind us of this simple fact: ‘Trinity: God is’, ‘Creation: God Makes’ ‘Covenant: God Pursues’, ‘Incarnation: God Comes’ – and so on. It is all about God...It is a matter of knowing God before it is a matter of serving him. Creeds are far more important than deeds or needs.

The review contains notes of appreciation and notes of disagreement. It is well worth reading. Here is Iain D.'s conclusion:

So would I give ‘Doctrine’ to someone for their theological education? Absolutely, although I would insist on Berkhof as a companion volume. This book, however, is a masterpiece of thoroughness and simplicity, covering all the theological topics in one simple, readable volume. That’s the sort of book I want to write one day.

You can read the whole thing here

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Defense Against the Dark Arts: Some questions to ask

Theological conflict is unavoidable.

Scripture warns us about the presence of heretics (2 Peter 2:1-3; Jude 4; 1 Cor. 11:19), the danger they present (Matthew 7:15; Acts 20:29-30; 2 Timothy 2:18; Titus 1:11), and tells us about the firm stand that elders and congregations must make against them (Romans 16:17-18; Titus 1:9, 11; 3:9-11; 1 John 4:1; Rev. 2:2).

Being a pacifist is not an option. At the same time the church does not need gung ho fighters who will shoot first and ask questions later.

It is always important that apologists and polemicists not only take great pains to understand the positions that they intend to respond to, but that they also give careful consideration to the strength of those positions.

It is all to easy to be hasty and sketchy, and to be dismissive. But no one who sets out to rebuke error and defend orthodoxy should allow their rhetoric to to run ahead of them. Opposing arguments should be carefully studied, analysed, and weighed.

Unless it is obviously the case we should be very cautious about treating an opposing view in an overtly cavalier fashion, piling in with rhetorical punches, making out as if only stupid people could ever believe it.

As with so much in the Christian life great wisdom is needed.

The other danger that lies close at hand is to give a position too much credence, and its holder too much deference, when his teaching should really receive a good belly laugh and he should be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and thrown out of the church. The question is, do you answer a fool according to his folly? Will it be Proverbs 26:4 or Proverbs 26:5?

It is critically important to ask what theological, moral, hermeneutical, epistemological, and pastoral reasonings underpin a commitment to the position that you are seeking to refute.

Put yourself in your opponents shoes. Why does their view seem plausible to them and better than yours? What attracts them to it? What problems does it seek to solve?

If you have not done this, in addition to your theological homework, then you've not begun to engage with error in a responsible way.

There are of course logical consequences to the errors of your opponent. You may see them better than he can, but be careful not to attribute convictions to him that he has not stated in his own position. You can point them out but don't assume that they are being argued for.

There are important questions to pose in seeking to understand an opposing viewpoint. The following are a sample of the theological, exegetical, hermeneutical and pastoral questions that I would want to ask:
  • Has this person properly understood the truth that they are rejecting, or does this rejection stem from a distorted perspective of this truth?
  • What theological and pastorals problems is this position being offered as a solution to?
  • What assumptions are being made about the being and attributes of God and how do these relate to the issues at hand?
  • What is their view of authority in general and of the nature and authority of Scripture in particular?
  • Where do they position themselves in relation to the Word of God written?
  • What interpretative methods are being used in handling the Bible?
  • Is there a reliable understanding of context (unit of thought, chapter, book, location in redemptive history etc.), and of the harmony of Scripture?
  • In the interpretation of Scripture how is the issueof genre handled?
  • Does this person show signs of a teachable spirit when criticisms of their position are being offered? How do they view correction?
  • How does this teaching impact upon other doctrines? How does it affect our understanding of the gospel?
  • How does this teaching affect one's relationship to God, assurance, and the living of the Christian life?
  • How does this person treat other believers, ministers and churches? How does he speak about them? How will the promotion of this belief impinge upon gospel and confessional unity?
  • Has anyone held this position previously in church history? If so why did they do so and what effects did it have?

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Seven characteristics of false teachers: Thomas Brooks

A couple of years back I spoke on "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Heretics" at the Eccentric Ministers Conference. At the time I wasn't aware that the Puritan Thomas Brooks (1608-80) had beaten me to it.

Brooks is very quotable. Here are his headings and some highlights taken from his pastoral masterpiece Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices published by the Banner of Truth Trust:

"Satan labours might and main, by false teachers, which are his messengers and ambassadors, to deceive, delude, and forever undo the precious souls of men."

He cites Jer. 23:13; Micah 3:5; Matt. 7:15; Philippians 3:2; Prov. 7

"Now the best way to deliver poor souls from being deluded and destroyed by these messengers of Satan is, to discover them in their colours, that so, being known, poor souls may shun them, and fly from them as from hell itself."

1. False teachers are men-pleasers

"They preach more to please the ear than to profit the heart."

"They handle holy things rather with wit and dalliance than with fear and reverence."

"False teachers are soul-undoers."

"False teachers are hell's greatest enrichers."

He cites Isaiah 30:10; Jer. 5:30-31; 23:16-17

2. False teachers are notable in casting dirt, scorn, and reproach upon the persons, names and credits of Christ's most faithful ambassadors

He cites the experience of Moses and Aaron in Num. 16:3; Micaiah's experience in 1 Kings 22:10-26; Paul's experience in 2 Cor. 10:10; and Christ's experience at the hands of of the Scribes and Pharisees Matt. 27:63

3. False teachers are venters of the devices and visions of their own heads and hearts

"These are Satan's greatest benefactors, and such as divine justice will hang up in hell as the greatest malefactors, if the physician of souls do not prevent it."

He cites Jer. 14:14; 23:16

4. False teachers easily pass over the great and weighty things both of law and gospel, and stand most upon those things that are of the least moment and concernment to the souls of men

He cites 1 Tim. 1:5-7; 6:3-5; Matt. 23:2-3; 24:32; Rom. 2:22

5. False teachers cover and colour their dangerous principles and soul impostures with very fair speeches and plausible pretences, and high notions and golden expressions

"Many in these days are bewitched and deceived by the magnificent words, lofty strains, and stately terms of deceivers"

"As strumpets paint their faces, and deck and perfume their beds, the better to allure and deceive simple souls, so false teachers put a great deal of paint and garnish upon their most dangerous principles and blasphemies, that they may the better deceive and delude poor ignorant souls."

"They know that sugared poison goes down sweetly; they wrap up their pernicious, soul-killing pills in gold."

He cites Gal. 4:12; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Rom. 16:17-18; Matt. 7:15; 16:6, 11, 12

6. False teachers strive more to win over men to their own opinions, than to better them in their conversations

"They busy themselves most about men's heads. Their work is not to better men's hearts, and mend their lives."

He cites Matt. 27:17

7. False teachers make merchandise of their followers

"False teachers are the great worshippers of the golden calf."

He cites 2 Peter 2:1-3; Rev. 18:11-13; Jer. 6:13

"Now, by these characters you may know them, and so shun them, and deliver your souls out of their dangerous snares; which that you may, my prayers shall meet yours at the throne of grace."