Coming out in 2012 is the documentary Half Devil Half Child which follows missionaries in Bangladesh who are preaching in secret to the Muslim world. They are facing opposition from other Western Missionaries who are allowing Muslim “Christians” to continue to live and act like Muslims. This teaser clip speaks to the issue we brought up last week concerning the removal of offensive words in Bible translations being produced for Muslims.
Every national election cycle in the US affords fresh opportunities for speeches calculated to assure us that our president will not only be a capable executive and commander-in-chief but will be our philosopher-in-residence and faithful high priest of the civil religion. The President has become the shepherd of the national soul.
In the UK, the head of church and state (the monarch) is a different person from the head of government (the prime minister). However, in the US we combine these offices in one. Maybe that’s one reason, historically, why we place so much weight on our presidents to embody our own spiritual aspirations and convictions. Yet since the Constitution distinguishes clearly between civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions (shaped by Madison’s training under Princeton Presbyterian’s John Witherspoon as well as American Baptists), that sacred trust cannot favor any particular confession. Hence the tightrope one must walk: required to steward a broad civil religion (basically, a morality grounded in a Supreme Being who has a special place for America in his plan), displaying some personal commitment to a particular Judeo-Christian community, while not giving preference to his own denomination in making policy.
Quite a number of past presidents would not have made it across that tightrope today. In terms of personal beliefs and commitments, George Washington seems to have been a more faithful Mason than a Christian. One thinks of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who quite publicly revealed their profound disagreement with orthodox Christian beliefs such as the Trinity and the deity of Christ. By the best accounts, Abraham Lincoln was a very nominal Baptist—probably Unitarian in his views—who nevertheless shared the public sense of belonging to a chosen nation, favored by Providence yet for that very reason subject to the judgment of Providence for failing to fulfill its sacred mandate.
Understandably, most conservative evangelicals today would identify the policies of Woodrow Wilson as part of the drift toward big government. Confessionally, however, he was a staunch “Princeton” Presbyterian. (B. B. Warfield nominated him to Princeton’s presidency.) In modern British history, the Labor Party relied heavily on the intellectual capital and numerical strength of nonconformist Puritans and evangelicals. Westminster Chapel’s famous pastor, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, was personally committed to the labor movement—and the Labor Party. Why? Because he believed that humanity was created in God’s image and therefore are “men, not pigs.” Christians sharing the same theology have always disagreed about which policies are most consistent with it. Unlike the old covenant, the New Testament doesn’t include a blueprint for a nation’s foreign and domestic policy.
Although confessional distinctives have been largely downplayed in American evangelicalism in favor of the experience of being born again, theology has moved from the back page to headline news in recent weeks. Are Mormons Christians? Is President Obama truly born again or is he a liberal Protestant, agnostic—or even a secret Muslim? Is he driven by a theology that is different from the one that most Americans would espouse? In spite of several marriages, would Newt Gingrich’s policies support family values? Is America the last bastion of good in the world and therefore the focus of Satan’s attacks?
Meanwhile, striking a superior pose, secularists pretend that they are above all of this “abolute truth” business, even as they pronounce edicts of atheistic materialism that they have no scruples about imposing on the public for its own good. It’s all about politics, they say, and playing the religion card is just another way of trying to win an election.
Secularists like to pitch themselves as tolerant caretakers of democracy, claiming that the quest for “abolute truth” (and the conviction that one possesses it) lies at the heart of the culture wars. Recently, one writer opined, “The essence of democracy is that we, the people, get to choose our values. We don’t discover them inscribed in the cosmos. So everything must be open to question, to debate, to change. There can be no fixed truth except that everyone has the right to offer a new view. It’s a process without end, whose outcome should never be predictable. A claim to absolute truth—any absolute truth—stops the process of democracy”
However, secularists are no less convinced that they are right—even about absolute truth. They just have different authorities and inhabit different communities that affirm their convictions. There are plenty of core convictions and values that are not “open to question, to debate, to change” on their side. And that’s as it should be—must be, in fact. Whether in science or public policy or a religious community, you can’t leave everything open or there is no shared consensus on anything and thus no community.
It is not that theology doesn’t matter in the public square, or this election year in particular. President Obama does indeed draw deeply from his own worldview, and this worldview is laden with theological assumptions and beliefs—as every worldview is. There is no such thing as a “naked public square.” We bring ourselves to every discussion and any religion or worldview that is merely private, with no relevance for how we live in the world, is about as publicly interesting as stamp collecting. Do I see a lot of contradictions between Mr. Obama’s puplic profession of faith in Christ and his stands on various important issues? Yes, of course I do. I also see contradictions on the Republican side. I also see on both sides a tendency to claim more warrant from Jesus and the Bible for views that one would hold (in fact many non-Christians do hold) apart from it. Danger lurks not in favoring certain policies that can’t claim explicit biblical warrant, but in claiming carte blanche divine authority for these views. Secularists are mistaken in thinking that God’s ultimate authority doesn’t matter; believers err when they fail to realize that their interpretation of Scripture and application of biblical teaching to specific policies are always shaped by a lot more than Scripture itself. Political liberals and conservatives seem to me often to over-interpret some passages and under-interpret others according to an ideology they would have regardless of their faith.
The real issue is whether the confusion of kingdoms (which can only lead to a bland civil religion) is creating an atmosphere that brings harm to the cause of Christ and the common good of our society. Recently, Franklin Graham has explained his personal test for candidates, which seems to be reducible to the validity of their personal testimony to having a personal relationship with Jesus. For Senator Santorum, it’s a more objective test: a question of one’s worldview and the theology undergirding it. Boston College’s Stephen Prothero offered a sane analysis of Senator Rick Santorum’s statement about President Obama’s “phony theology.”
To speak freely, I have serious questions about the theology of all of the candidates. Many Roman Catholics would parse their theology differently in relation to the environment than Senator Santorum. In terms of moral fitness, many bishops and priests would be more concerned about a candidate (Newt Gingrich) with multiple marriages being the standard-bearer for a platform of family values. I have lots of problems with Roman Catholic theology. Some of the candidates earlier in the race had close ties to extreme Pentecostals. Their rhetoric of “dominion” and claims to private revelation were more worrisome to me than the religious or irreligious beliefs of anybody in the field. This is even before we talk about Mormons or liberal Protestants! Where does the religious test stop?
We do not have access to the hearts or minds of others—not through their personal testimony or to their personal morality. We only have access to their public profession and to the policies that appear most directly to derive from it.
Secularists need to back off of their smug illusion of neutrality in religious and worldview matters. One’s faith—and worldview—matter. Many in the media don’t realize this because religious convictions and practices are not important to them personally. With little or no background or training in any particular religious tradition, they assume that the rest of us leave our deepest convictions at the door of the voting booth. Until they see the significance of ultimate convictions for the lives of millions of their fellow-Americans, they will miss the story behind the story again and again. There should be freedom to explain how it matters in shaping policies directed at the public good.
Yet believers also must stop expecting politicians to double as high priests of a false religion, an idolatrous religion, that substitutes real confessional communities for a generic moralism. Even where a candidate’s confession differs from our own, we have to ask what we’re looking for in our political leaders. Are we seeking an icon who will reassure us that even in a wildly pluralistic and relativistic society we are the ones in the right, safely ensconced in the walls of absolute truth? Or do we have the more modest goal of electing presidents who will eschew any messianic mantle and pursue policies that we believe are more likely to do more good than harm to the republic’s common good and the Constitution that they swear to uphold?
The current issue of WORLD magazine has a feature article “The battle for accurate Bible translation in Asia” which interviews Fikret Bocek extensively. Fikret is concerned with Western missions organizations not being patient enough with work being done among Muslims and therefore, they are making Bible translations more “palatable” to Muslim readers and loosing some of its truth. This is a great article that sheds light on the current struggles to proclaim the gospel of Christ to the Muslim world. May we continually pray for the Spirit to work in the hearts of those that are lost and turn the offensiveness of the Scriptures into sweet, sweet words of God to their souls.
If the name of Fikret Bocek sounds familiar to you that is because the WHI interviewed him on our October 23, 2011 program. The audio of that show is below:
Last week we posted on our blog information that two of Dr. Horton’s books were available on Logos Bible Software. Now we are excited to announce that Logos has given White Horse Inn friends the ability to purchase their base packages at 15% off using the coupon code WHITEHORSE! (Please note: this discount does not apply to the bundles including Mike’s books.) To learn more about Logos and to purchase a base package head to logos.com/whitehorse
If any of our readers will be going to the LIBERATE conference (beginning Thursday, February 23) Logos will have a booth and will be giving a presentation at some point, so if you have any questions you can ask them directly.
Back in February 2010 Mike Horton participated in a “The Village Green” segment for Christianity Today with his article “Lent—Why Bother? To Lead us to Christ.” Mike continued the discussion on our blog by responding to a question that was asked about the practice of Lent in light of the Regulative Principle of Worship. Since the season of Lent is again upon us, we invite you to reconsider these these two conversations. You might also enjoy reading a side-bar article on the church calendar that Mike wrote for Modern Reformation in the January / February 2001 issue of MR.
Lent—Why Bother? To Lead us to Christ
While Israel’s neighbors celebrated the cycle of seasons as shadows of the realm of the gods, Israel celebrated the interventions of God in historical events of judgment and deliverance. The major feasts include Passover, Firstfruits (Pentecost), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and Tabernacles (Sukkot). In commanding these feasts, God was incorporating them into his unfolding drama, anchored in his promises and their future fulfillment in Christ.
Unlike the Old Testament, however, the New Testament does not prescribe a church calendar. Furthermore, Lent became associated in the medieval church with all sorts of rules and superstitions. For the most part, the Protestant Reformers continued to celebrate Lent, but in a more evangelical way. They inveighed against the connection between fasting and penance “as a work of merit or a form of divine worship,” as Calvin put it. Lent is still celebrated today in Lutheran, Anglican, and many Reformed churches.
However, many of the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians went further, arguing that such observances fostered superstition, constrained the conscience where God had left it free, and undermined the Christian Sabbath as God’s appointed holy day. (At the same time, the Puritans did call for special days of thanksgiving and fasting, by order of Parliament!)
In my view, these special days are valuable chiefly as a teaching opportunity. To be sure, every Lord’s Day is a celebration of Christ’s saving work. Paul seems to have allowed freedom to celebrate old covenant feasts, but upbraided those who bound Christian consciences on the matter, especially with fasts and abstinence.
I believe an evangelical celebration of Lent affords an opportunity to reinforce rather than undermine the significance of Christ’s person and work.
Lent is a 40-day preparation for the observance of Christ’s passion and Easter. It gives us an annual opportunity to trace the history of redemption. We learn that the number 40 is associated with a trial, a preparation, even an ordeal that leads either to blessing or curse in the stories of Noah, Moses, and Jonah. Recapitulating Adam’s trial and Israel’s 40 years of testing, Jesus was taken by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days, fasting instead of following Adam and the wilderness generation of Israelites in demanding the food they craved (Matt. 4:1-4). Resisting Satan’s temptation with God’s Word, Jesus was the Last Adam and Faithful Israel who fulfilled the trial not only for himself but also for us, as well as bearing the curse for our covenant-breaking.
New disciples in the ancient church were instructed daily in Christian doctrine and practice for the 40 days of Lent, leading to their baptism on Easter Eve. They realized that they were quite literally wrestling with demons from their pagan heritage. Isn’t our culture just as toxic? Are we really making disciples, or just superficial converts?
When unburdened by superstitious rites, Lent still holds tremendous promise if we will recover its evangelical purpose; namely, leading us and our children to Christ by his Word. Hopefully we can all agree that this goal remains the central mission of the church every Lord’s Day.
From the February 2010 issue of Christianity Today.
Lent and the Regulative Principle
Not trying to start a fight, I am trying to humbly submit this question: when did the Reformed start participating in the “we do it for pragmatic beneifts” woship stuff instead of “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the … See More imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (WCF 21.1)”? Truly wondering how our confession just quoted squares w/ Horton’s statement in the CT article: “Unlike the Old Testament, however, the New Testament does not prescribe a church calendar”? Again, I’m not trying to be malicious, but humbly submitting myself to your guidance, how should we think about Lent in terms of WCF 21.1 and not the pragmatic benefits (which too many use to vilify so much un-godliness in the church today) of it?
Mike Horton responded:
Great question, Justin, and thanks for raising it. You quote my statement, “Unlike the Old Testament, however, the New Testament does not prescribe a church calendar.” Before that remark, I listed Israel’s various festivals. My point was that we cannot use these old covenant festivals as a justification for new covenant festivals, such as Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension Day, etc.. In other words, observance of these Christian holidays cannot be considered as necessary for true worship. Some (most of the Westminster divines) would eliminate (did eliminate) all Christian holidays, although they encouraged special days for thanksgiving. The Continental Reformed tradition did not do this, however, and continues the tradition of calling stated services on these special days. With respect to the regulative principle, it’s definitely a line-call and there are those on both sides of the issue who affirm the principle. I hope this helps!
Modern Reformation sidebar article from Mike Horton: A Year of Signposts-Following the Church Calendar
Ken Jones, co-host of the White Horse Inn, contributed a chapter in Keep Your Head Up: America’s New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation edited by Anthony Bradley and recently released by Crossway. Ken’s chapter is titled “The Prosperity Gospel,” something that he has been discussing with the “cast of characters” around the WHI table for many years.
Crossway provides this synopsis of the book: “Continuing the renowned “Cosby Conversation” first started in 2007 by Bill Cosby and Dr. Alvin Poussaint, Anthony Bradley has assembled a team of pastors, scholars, and leaders to address specific issues within the black community.”
“Covering topics such as the black family, hip-hop, masculinity, and the prosperity gospel, this book will open your eyes to the serious challenges facing the black church today. It will leave you with hope, however, as each contributor brings the conversation back to the Bible and the gospel as the only source of true, enduring change.”
Usually, the call to be world-transformers comes from church leaders: pastors and theologians. It comes in different forms. Sometimes it’s the biblically defensible application of Christ’s announcement that his church is a city on a hill, his followers “salt and light” in the world. They are to be what they are where God has placed them, in their many different callings in life.
On other occasions, though, it is a more general and somewhat vague but nevertheless urgent call to a deeper, broader, and collective activism. On the right, it tends to be a call to greater personal and public morality. Reacting against a familiar agenda, many younger evangelicals don’t want to be the Fox Network at prayer; whatever their politics, they want to make a difference in the world by radical discipleship, sacrificing their personal comforts for suffering neighbors at home and around the world. No doubt sociological demographics plays a role in where one lands. Younger people, either single or without children, are freer to focus their energies on a broader range of neighbors, while later they find themselves focusing on the family, both at home and in the public square.
Maybe the obsession reveals more about the dangers of ministers stewing in our own juices—perhaps even suffocating in the caverns of regular ministry—that we don’t get out much. But what about their parishioners? Is the most important thing we have to say to them that they are not making a difference in the world, making touchdowns for Jesus, and transforming culture?
Think of the nurse who dragged herself out of bed to attend the means of grace after having worked a fifteen-hour shift. Ministers shouldn’t feel guilty for not having cared for the physical needs of hundreds of neighbors in the hospital this last week. But why should they load down this nurse for failing to “live her faith” because she extended hours of neighbor-love in her ordinary vocation rather than as an identifiable church-related “ministry”?
Or picture the parents of 4 children, one of whom has a rare blood disease. They both work tirelessly, one outside the home, loving and serving neighbors. They would like to have more friends and open up their home. Stirred by the opportunities and needs to volunteer for all sorts of good causes, they find that all of their time, energy, and resources go to caring for their family. Are they world-changers? Should they be giving more time to “finding their ministry” in the church, so that the church can receive the credit for having an impact on the community?
I also think of the banker who came to church today. On Thursday he stretched the “best practices” a bit to extend a low-interest loan to a responsible but disadvantaged young family for their first home.
I picture the mom and dad who, though tired at the end of a busy day, read Scripture and prayed with their children and then tucked them into bed with an imagination-building story.
A Sunday school teacher who labored over the lesson in between working two jobs, the high schooler whose vocation is to learn, grow, and assume civic as well as church responsibilities, the struggling artist who makes us all stop to imagine ourselves and our place in the world a little differently, the lawyer who prosecutes the claims of justice and defends the rights of the accused—who just this past week offered pro bono hours to a victim who couldn’t afford legal advice.
On and on I could go. Are these folks your platoon for your own vision of having an important ministry that changes your community and your world? Is it not enough to “aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work well with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:11-12)? To love and serve our neighbors—especially those nearest to and most dependent on us—regardless of the burden?
Sure, there are the Wilberforces who can truly be said to have changed the world. However, they did so in their worldly callings as believers and neighbors. It’s what James Hunter calls “faithful presence.” Moreover, they don’t set out to change the world but to live out their identity in Christ where they are in all sorts of ordinary ways that sometimes turn out to present extraordinary moments of extraordinary opportunities for extraordinary service. Rosa Parks got up one morning (December 1, 1955) in Montgomery, Alabama, and got on the bus as she usually did, only this time she refused to sit in the back as she was expected to do. She didn’t set out to become “the mother of the freedom movement” or “the first lady of civil rights,” but she was the right person, with the right convictions and character, in the right place, at the right time.
Now, all of these people are there before you. After their long week, filled with the hopes and fears of this present age, they are longing to hear something new, that they have not—could not—hear from the various institutions, media, and personalities they’ve encountered over the last six days. There are single people who are struggling with their relationships, wondering if they will always be lonely—and whether they’re to blame. Others are struggling in their marriages, troubled by the way their children seem to ignore them, wrestling with real possibility that one or both of them will be laid off at work. You are Christ’s ambassador, entrusted with his words. You dare not speak in his name, except for the fact that he authorized and commanded you to do so. What will you say?
The world-wide headquarters of White Horse Inn has just been informed that two of Dr. Horton’s books will be included in Zondervan’s “Zondervan Bible Reference Bundle” for Logos Bible Software which includes 63 Biblical and Theological volumes! The two volumes of Dr. Horton’s to be included are The Christian Faith and For Calvinism and these will have the full Logos Software functionality.
- Some of the benefits of Logos include the following:
- All Scripture references are linked to English translations, like the NIV, and Greek and Hebrew texts.
- All cross-references are also linked, which means clicking the citation takes the user to the source.
- When a user copies and pastes a reference into a sermon handout or an academic paper, citations are automatically generated using the user’s preferred style guide.
- When commentaries are lined up side-by-side with the text of the Bible, everything scrolls together in-sync.
- Logos also provides advanced search functionality with the Passage Guide, which acts as a digital research assistant, finding and organizing content from commentaries and reference books on the text a user is studying.
To learn more about this bundle and its features check out the Logos description page.
As if taking a sheet from the revivalistic playbook, the New Atheists are planning their own Cane Ridge event. This March 24th, thousands of secular humanists will converge on the National Mall in the nation’s capital for The Reason Rally. The event, billed as “the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history,” is advertised here. One sympathetic commentator, a scientist blogging on the NPR site, expressed fears that slating Richard Dawkins as a headline act may “drive a stake through the heart of The Reason Rally.” There’s good reason for that concern, as became obvious in Dawkins’s latest gaff reported in this excellent piece by London’s chief rabbi.
All of this reminded me to recommend Terry Eagleton’s book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale, 2009).
Reared in a traditional Catholic background in Ireland, Terry Eagleton—a celebrated Marxist scholar of culture and literature—has in recent years been drawn back gradually to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for Christian theology. Having traveled in a pack with Christopher Hitchens and his kin, Eagleton had a long-running and quite public spat with Hitchens for abandoning the progressive agenda. More recently, at Yale no less, Eagleton took aim at the ironies and strawmen of “New Atheists.” The lectures are now published as Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale University Press, 2009).
Leading the team of atheism revivalists is Richard Dawkins, who is so interchangeable with Christopher Hitchens that Eagleton’s critique refers repeatedly to the “Ditchkins” view. There are a number of points worth pondering from these published lectures. (Note: All blockquotes are from Reason, Faith, and Revolution)
First, a running critique is that the in their sweeping generalizations “New Atheists” are woefully ignorant of the actual teachings of Christian theology. Making light work for themselves, they are attacking a view of God, the world, and the relationship of faith and reason that may circulate in pop culture and may characterize extreme sects here and there but can hardly be equated with the serious (and reasoned) arguments of centuries. “As far as theology goes,” writes Eagleton, “Ditchkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists.” “Both parties agree pretty much on what religion consists in; it is just that Ditchkins rejects it while Pat Robertson and hiss unctuous crew grow fat on it…So it is that those who polemicize most ferociously against religion regularly turn out to be the least qualified to do so, rather as many of those who polemicize against literary theory do not hate it because they have read it, but rather do not read it because they hate it.” Eagleton is hardly finished with the rhetorical barbs. “Ditchkins on theology,” he adds, “is rather like someone who lays claim to the title of literary criticism by commenting that there are some nice bits in the novel and some scary bits as well, and it’s all very sad at the end.” In fact,
God is Not Great is also a fine illustration of how atheistic fundamentalists are in some ways the inverted mirror image of Christian ones. And not just in their intemperate zeal and tedious obsessiveness. Hitchens argues earnestly that the Book of Genesis doesn’t mention marsupials; that the Old Testament Jews surely couldn’t have wandered for forty years in the desert; that the capture of the huge bedstead of the giant Og, king of Bashan, might never have occurred at all, and so on…Fundamentalism is in large part a failure of the imagination, and in his treatment of Scripture (as opposed, say, to his reading of George Orwell or Saul Bellow), Hitchens’s imagination fails catastrophically…In any case, you do not settle the question of whether, say, the New Testament is on the side of the rich and powerful by appealing to what most people happen to believe, any more than you verify the Second Law of Thermodynamics by popular acclaim. You simply have to argue the question on the evidence as best you can.
By the way, I’d add that the New Atheists in many ways are not only mirroring their fundamentalist nemesis; they are also trading in a kind of old-fashioned positivism that few scientists themselves would hold today, dividing neatly between “fact” and “value,” as if science were concerned with the former and religion with the latter. We shouldn’t be too hard on atheists, by the way, since liberal theologians largely paved the way for this dualism. It was romantic liberals from Schleiermacher to Spong who have driven a chasm between faith (a purely subjective leap) as opposed to reason (actually, naturalistic presuppositions masquerading as reason).
Dawkins makes an error of genre, or category mistake, about the kind of thing Christian belief is. He imagines that it is either some kind of pseudo-science, or that, if it not that, then it conveniently dispenses itself from the need for evidence altogether. He also has an old-fashioned scientistic notion of what constitutes evidence. Life for Dawkins would seem to divide neatly down the middle between things you can prove beyond all doubt, and blind faith. He fails to see that all the most interesting stuff goes on the neither of these places. Christopher Hitchens makes much the same crass error, claiming in God Is Not Great that ‘thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.’
In any case, Eagleton argues that these simplistic antitheses don’t do justice either to theology or science. The former is not an attempt to explain take nature of atoms and energy, but it’s a fairly unenlightened and unreflective person who thinks that the questions addressed by science are the only important ones. Furthermore, science is hardly cold facts. When scientists like Heisenberg or Schrödinger tell us that “the elegant and beautiful are more likely to be true than the ugly and misshapen,” they demonstrate that “science is thoroughly and properly value-laden.”
Drawing especially on Thomas Aquinas, Eagleton points out that God isn’t a “celestial engineer” who exists alongside the world, but is the transcendent God who created everything from nothing “simply for the love and delight of it.”
He made it as gift, superfluity, and gratuitous gesture—out of nothing, rather than out of grim necessity…Because there is no necessity about the cosmos, we cannot deduce the laws which govern it from a priori principles, but need instead to look at how it actually works. This is the task of science. There is thus a curious connection between the doctrine of creation out of nothing and the professional life of Richard Dawkins. Without God, Dawkins would be out of a job. It is thus particularly churlish of him to call the existence of his employer into question…Unlike George Bush, God is not an interventionist kind of ruler. It is this autonomy of the world which makes science and Richard Dawkins possible in the first place.
Because of this fact, science has its legitimate domain, understanding the natural causes. But that doesn’t mean these are the only cause, or even the ultimate.
Where do our notions of explanation, regularity, and intelligibility come from? How can we explain rationality and intelligibility themselves, or is this question either superfluous or too hard to answer? Can we not account for rationality because to do so is to presuppose it? Whatever we think of such queries, science as we know it is possible only because the world displays a certain internal order and coherence—possible, that is to say, for roughly aesthetic reasons.
Was Einstein onto something or simply waxing poetic when he observed that ‘the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible,’ adding as he did that one would not a priori expect such a high degree of order in the world?…Is it equally reasonable for science to place its faith in the consistency of mathematics, even when Gödel’s second theorem demonstrates that it cannot be proved?
Impervious to Reality
Second, although Eagleton isn’t sure about how far to take biblical stories such as the fall in Eden as actual history, he confesses to having found its narrative of creation and the fall as “far more radical” and compelling than the cheerful myth of perfectibility and progress, “with its eminently suburban, smugly sanguine trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.” At the heart of Christian theology, Eagleton observes, is a humanism more radical than atheists can muster and an appreciation for the tragedy of the human condition that they are emotionally opposed to even considering. Christianity is the sort of faith expressed “by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.”
The problem with the Dawkinses of this world, however, is that they do not find themselves in a frightful situation at all (unless, like myself, one counts Oxford High Table in that category), beyond the fact that there are a lot of semi deranged people called believers around the place. It is natural, then, that they have no use for such embarrassingly old-fashioned ideas as depravity and redemption. Even after Auschwitz, there is nothing in their view to be redeemed from. Things are just not that desperate…This is one important reason why God-talk makes no sense to them, though it is by no means the only reason.
However, this imperviousness to reality is hardly restricted to atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens.
A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics, and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the kind of depth where theological questions can even be properly raised, just as it rules out political and moral questions of a certain profundity. What on earth would be the point of God in such a setup, other than as ideological legitimation, spiritual nostalgia, or a means of private extrication from a valueless world?
For moderns, “religion retires from the public sphere in the West to be cultivated as a private pursuit, like troilism or marquetry,” while a fashionable posmodernism doesn’t even have the seriousness—or good humor—to ask the questions.
It is unlikely that words like ‘grace’ or ‘fallenness’ or ‘redemption’ can exert much force in a social order where even words like ‘emancipation’ are greeted with a bemused silence. Emancipation from what, exactly? Isn’t that just too sixties to be true?…What is the point of faith or hope in a civilization which regards itself as pretty well self-sufficient, as being more or less as good as it gets, or at least as a spectacular advance on what went before?
It’s Not Reason vs Faith, But Plausibility Structures
In the modern world, Eagleton explains, God is pushed out—or rather in to the self, living “a shadowy afterlife in the form of respectable suburban morality, as indeed he does today.”
In Faustian spirit, Man would fall in love with his own apparently boundless powers, forgetful that God in the doctrine of the Incarnation is shown to be in love with the fleshly, frail, and finite. Besotted by his own infinity…Self-authorship is the bourgeois fantasy par excellence. Denying that our freedom thrives only within the context of a more fundamental dependency lies at the root of a good deal of historical disaster. It is certainly one of the driving forces of Western neo-imperialism today.
Like a good Marxist, Eagleton turns the tables on the historical critique:
Besides, if religion has so fragrantly failed to live up to its own founding principles, what about liberalism? What of the middle-class liberal or Enlightenment lineages which Ditchkins so zealously champions? Have these not been a little less than perfect in their fidelity to their own admirable doctrines? What of the violent suborning of freedom and democracy abroad, the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine, the warfare and genocide of sublime proportions, the arming and championing of one odious tyrant after another? What human carnage terrorism has so far murderously wreaked in the West is minor compared to the long history of slaughter and oppression of the West itself…One cannot imagine Ditchkins describing the capitalist system as ‘almost unequivocally demonic,’ words used of it by the greatest twentieth-century theologian, Karl Barth. Ditchkins, in short, is not just a liberal rationalist, but a readily identifiable kind of English middle-class liberal rationalist.
The popularizers of New Atheism aren’t on their home ground, not only when engaging actual theological positions but even in dealing with history more generally. “Ditchkins keeps throwing out the “Enlightenment view” as the destroyer of religion. “One should note that what counts as an ‘Enlightenment’ view is far from obvious. Francis Bacon was an enthusiast of magic, David Hume was a prominent Enlightenment figure with deep skepticism of reason, Newton dabbled in alchemy, while Voltaire believed in God.” To be sure, informed people cannot ignore the bloody legacy of Christendom.
At the same time, this enlightened liberal humanism served as the legitimating ideology of a capitalist culture more steeped in blood than any other episode in human history. This, one may note, is what Ditchkins unaccountably forgets. Only Marxism recounts the story of how these two contrasting narratives are secretly one. It reminds us of the mighty achievements of Francis Bacon, but also of the fact that he believed in torture. It insists that modernity means both contraception and Hiroshima, liberation movements and biological warfare…The radical answer to the question of whether modernity is a positive or negative phenomenon is an emphatic yes and no.
Again, “Ditchkins” reflects a simplistic confidence in human progress—in spite of the actual world we live in. “If ever there was a pious myth and piece of credulous superstition,” says Eagleton, “it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world…Radicals are those who believe that things are extremely bad with us, but that they could be feasibly much improved; conservatives believe that things are pretty bad with us but that’s just the way it is with the human animal; and liberals believe that there’s a little bit of good and bad in us all.” Ditchkins’s “Whiggish” view of history “is a stupendously simple-minded, breathtakingly reductive world picture, one worthy of a child’s crude drawing…In the nineteenth century, one of the most unlovely strains of religious belief, Evangelical Christianity, was hottest in the pursuit of the emancipation of slaves. There was no royal road, then, from the natural sciences to godlessness.”
It isn’t that Eagleton is against the idea of progress. In fact, he thinks that the only way it can be rescued is by freeing it from “the complacency of Ditchkins and the modish skepticism of the postmodernists.” “There is indeed progress—as long as we bear in mind that the civilization which manifests it is also one which seems bent on destroying the planet, slaughtering the innocent, and manufacturing human inequality on an unimaginable scale.” There’s no nuance in the Ditchkins view of history; it’s all steady progress from religion to enlightenment.
There are, Dawkins is gracious enough to acknowledge, ‘local and temporary setbacks’ to human progress (one thinks of such minor backslidings as Belsen, Hiroshima, apartheid, and so on), but the general upward trend is unmistakable. We have it, then, from the mouth of Mr. Public Science himself that aside from a few local hiccups like ecological disaster, ethnic wars, and potential nuclear catastrophe, History is perpetually on the up. Not even beaming, tambourine-banging Evangelicals are quite so pathologically bullish. What is this but an example of blind faith? What rational soul would sign up to such a secular myth?
However, “Christian theology believes in the possibility of transforming history without the hubris of the idea of Progress.” “Modernity believes in grand narratives, while postmodernity does not; Jews and Christians hold that there is one still to come, which will operate retrospectively.”
At the same time, liberalism fostered an atomistic notion of the self, a bloodlessly contractual view of human relations, a meagerly utilitarian view of ethics, a crudely instrumental idea of reason, a doctrinal suspicion of doctrine, an impoverished sense of human communality, a self-satisfied faith in progress and civility, a purblindness to the more malign aspects of human nature, and a witheringly negative view of power, the state, freedom, and tradition…In this sense, the civilized and the barbarous [Western civilization and Islamic radicalism], the enlightened and the irrational, are by no means the simple antitheses they may appear” (94). “Liberal rationalism, that is to say, has its own metaphysical articles of faith, and to that extent has something in common with the religious belief it excoriates…How far is the dream of a thoroughly rational future a substitute for heaven? Is ‘Progress’ the liberal-rationalist translation of ‘after-life’? Has liberal rationalism really got out from under religion?
So if Christians need to own their own historical failures, secularists need to accept their share of blame for modernity. “Many Western liberals are careful to distinguish their criticisms of so-called radical Islam from a criticism of Islam itself; they are rarely so scrupulous when it comes to Christianity. It seems not to be the case that liberalism begins at home.”
Faith and Reason
Not everything Eagleton says is on-target, but there are a lot of gems. Despite the rationalist pose, Dawkins, for example, “seems to nurture a positively Mao-like faith in faith itself—in the hopelessly idealist conception, for example, that religious ideology (as opposed, say, to material conditions or political injustice) is what fundamentally drives radical Islam.” But the only thing that saves reason is to realize that it doesn’t “go all the way down.” We can’t live without reason. “Yet it is only if reason can draw upon energies and resources deeper, more tenacious, and less fragile than itself that it is capable of prevailing, a truth which liberal rationalism for the most part disastrously overlooks.”
The New Atheists misunderstand the nature of faith and reason.
There is probably no greater evidence of Ditchkins’s theological illiteracy than the fact that he appears to subscribe to what one might call the Yeti view of belief in God. I mean by this the view that God is the sort of entity for which, like the Yeti, the Loch Ness monster, or the lost city of Atlantis, the evidence we have so far is radically ambiguous, not to say downright dubious; and because we cannot thus demonstrate God’s existence in the reasonably straightforward way we can demonstrate the existence of necrophilia or Michael Jackson, we have to put up instead with something less than certainty, known as faith. One scarcely needs to point out even to first-year theology students what a travesty of Christian faith this is. On the most elementary questions of theology on which he chooses to pronounce with such portentously self-regarding authority, Ditchkins is hopelessly at sea.
First, Christian theology argues that God is not one being among others in the universe, but is the Creator who transcends the world infinitely.
Moreover, faith is for the most part performative rather than propositional. Christians certainly believe that there is a God. But this is not what the creedal statement ‘I believe in God’ means. It resembles an utterance like ‘I have faith in you’ more than it does a statement like ‘I have a steadfast conviction that some goblins are gay.’ Abraham had faith in God, but it is doubtful that it could have occurred to him that he did not exist. The devils are traditionally said to believe that God exists, but they do not believe in him.
When it comes to reason, the assumptions are just as superficial: reason equals absolute certainty.
But only fully paid-up rationalists think that nothing certain but indisputable knowledge, if indeed such an entity exists…The virtue of hope for Christianity equally involves a kind of certainty: it is a matter of an assured trust, not of keeping one’s fingers crossed. Whatever else may divide science and religion, it is not for the theologian the idea of certainty. The certainty appropriate to faith is not, to be sure, the same kind as that of a well-entrenched scientific observation like, ‘It’s just turned red,’ or ‘The mouse is clearly drunk and the experiment is accordingly being abandoned,’ but neither for that matter are statements like, ‘I love you,’ or ‘Liberal democracy is a lot better than slavery,’ or ‘The overweening Emma Woodhouse finally gets her well-deserved comeuppance.’…A belief, for example, can be rational but not true. It was rational, given their assumptions and stock of knowledge, for our ancestors to hold certain doctrines which turned out to be false. They thought that the sun circled the earth because it looks as though it does. ‘Reasonable’ is not quite the word that leaps spontaneously to mind when we are told that the same nuclear particle can pass through two different apertures at the same time….Those who demand a theorem or proposition rather than an executed body are not on the whole likely to have faith in any very interesting sense of the term.
Only an inadequate view of reason and faith keeps them in constant friction between fundamentalists and atheists. “None of this is to suggest, as Dawkins seems to suspect, that religious claims require no evidence to back them up, or that they merely express ‘poetic’ or subjective truths.” In fact, Eagleton goes so far as to say, “If Jesus’s body is mingled with the dust of Palestine, Christian faith is in vain.” The key point in all of this is that Christian theology addresses the relationship between God and human beings in history. As in any relationship, faith and reason are intertwined.
We might clarify the relations between faith and knowledge here with an analogy. If I am in love with you, I must be prepared to explain what it is about you I find so lovable, otherwise the word ‘love’ here has no more meaning than a grunt. I must supply reasons for my affection. But I am also bound to acknowledge that someone else might wholeheartedly endorse my reasons yet not be in love with you at all. The evidence by itself will not decide the issue…All communication involves faith…There is no point in simply brandishing the evidence unless you have a degree of trust in those who have gathered it, have some criteria of what counts as reliable evidence, and have argued the toss over it with those in the know.
Truth is an event that interrupts the ordinary flow of history.
Truth is what cuts against the grain of the world, breaking with an older dispensation and founding a radically new reality…Such momentous ‘truth events’ come in various shapes and sizes, all the way from the resurrection of Jesus (in which Badiou does not believe for a moment) to the French Revolution, the moment of Cubism, Cantor’s set theory, Schoenberg’s atonal composition, the Chinese cultural revolution, and the militant politics of 1968…But truth is also a question of solidarity, involving as it usually does the birth of a believing community such as the church…Like divine grace, a truth event represents an invitation which is available to everyone. Before the truth, we are all equal.
This is why Christian faith is founded on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is hardly a call to leap into the dark of subjective experience or personal therapy. “The resurrection for Christians is not just a metaphor.” And yet, faith (for or against) is already involved in the search for the truth on this score.
For Saint Anselm, reason is itself rooted in God, so that one can attain it fully only through faith. This is part of what he means by his celebrated asertion ‘I believe in order to understand’—a proposition which in a different sense could apply to believers like socialists and feminists. Because you already take a passionate interest in women’s liberation, you can come to understand the workings of patriarchy better. Otherwise you might not bother. All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment…Faith for Christian orthodoxy, then, is what makes true knowledge possible, which is true to some extent of everyday life as well.
The “rules” of belief—the reasons for specific convictions—are as different in each case as the object of that faith. Belief in individual freedom is as different from a scientific or rational proof as is belief in the resurrection. The following nicely summarizes his argument thus far:
Ditchkins cannot ground such beliefs scientifically, and there is absolutely no reason why he should. Which is not to suggest, of course, that he is dispensed from adducing evidence for them. We hold plenty of beliefs that have no unimpeachable justification, but which are nevertheless reasonable to entertain…Yet this, needless to ssay, is not to suggest that the whole of our knowledge and belief is a fiction. A hunger for absolute justification and belief is a neurosis, not a tenacity to be admired. It is like checking every five minutes that there is no nest of hissing cobras under your bed…Christopher Hitchens would appear to disagree about this question of grounding. ‘Our belief is not a belief,’ he writes of atheists like himself in God Is Not Great. ‘Our principles are not a faith.’…What he is really doing is contrasting his own beliefs with other people’s. ‘We [secular liberals] distrust everything that contradicts science or outrages reason,’ he observes. Most Christians do not in fact hold that their faith contradicts science—though it would be plausible to claim that in some sense science contradicts itself all the time, and that this is known as scientific progress. Hitchens fails to distinguish between reasonable beliefs and unreasonable ones…Humanists differ from religious believers, God Is Not Great informs us, because they have no ‘unalterable system of belief’ (250). One takes it, then, that Hitchens stands ready at any moment to jettison his belief in human liberty, along with his distaste for political tyrants and Islamic suicide bombers. In fact, of course, he turns out to be a skeptic when it comes to other people’s dogmas and a true believer when it comes to his own…Hitchens dislikes people who ‘know they are right’ (282), but most of the time he sounds very much like one of them himself.
The bottom line is that reason needs something deeper than itself to justify it. Reason and faith, evidence and trust, grow in specific communities, whether the church or the scientific guilds. There simply is no neat and tidy division between faith and reason, although there are certainly weak faiths and bad reasons.
It certainly makes sense that science should restrict itself to natural explanations, but even this “is indeed a postulate, not the upshot of a demonstrable truth.” “Science, then, trades on certain articles of faith like any other form of knowledge.” “Like religion, science is a culture, not just a set of procedures and hypotheses…Science has its high priests, sacred cows, revered scriptures, ideological exclusions, and rituals for suppressing dissent.” This doesn’t make science unreasonable, since its practitioners must still make arguments and offer evidence, even as Christians must do as well.
One of the reasons for the standoff between faith and reason is that the former has often taken refuge in irrationalism and the latter has been reduced to “dominative, calculative, and instrumental” reason. As a consequence, “it ends up as too shallow a soil for a reasonable kind of faith to flourish…Rationalism and fideism are each other’s mirror image.”
In modernity, religion becomes privatized and therefore relativized. Eagleton explores some of the ways in which cultural barbarism has been as much the result of secularism as anything else. “Modern market societies tend to be secular, relativist, pragmatic, and materialistic. They are this by virtue of what they do, not just of what they believe.” The practices in which we’re enmeshed make any serious or ultimate questions irrelevant. ‘As President Eisenhower once announced in Groucho Marx style: ‘Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious belief—and I don’t care what it is.’ Religious faith in this view is both vital and vacuous.”
With the advent of modernity, culture and civilization were progressively riven apart. Faith was driven increasingly into the private domain, or into the realm of everyday culture, as political sovereignty passed into the hands of the secular state. Religion represented rather more belief than the liberal state could comfortably handle, hijack it though it might for its own legitimation.
Therefore, postmodern obsession with tolerance and openness (one of Eagelton’s pet peeves in other works) is really the consummation of modernity. Here’s one gem:
In a pluralistic age, conviction is thought to be at odds with tolerance; whereas the truth is that conviction is part of what one is supposed to tolerate, so that the one would not exist without the other. Postmodernism is allergic to the idea of certainty, and makes a great deal of theoretical fuss over this rather modest, everyday notion. As such, it is in some ways the flip side of fundamentalism, which also makes a fuss about certainty, but in an approving kind of way. Some postmodern thought suspects that all certainty is authoritarian. It is nervous of people who sound passionately committed to what they say…The line between holding certain noxious kinds of belief, and holding strong beliefs at all, then becomes dangerously unclear. Conviction itself is condemned as dogmatic.
Here, as with the Ditchkins simplification of “faith and reason,” postmodernists fail to distinguish between good convictions and bad ones. In this case (rather different from Ditchkins), certainties are inherently dangerous. To all of this Eagleton replies,
Certainties may indeed destroy. But they may also liberate, a point which Jacques Derrida, with his quasi-pathological distaste for the determinate, never seemed capable of grasping. There is nothing oppressive about being certain that your wages have been cut. For their part, liberals hold the conviction that they should tolerate other people’s convictions…Our age is accordingly divided between those who believe far too much and those who believe far too little—or as Milan Kundera would put it, between the angelic and the demonic. Each party draws sustenance from each other.
Actually, the more dangerous kind of religion or science or politics is the sort that is based on mere whim.
Faith—any kind of faith—is not in the first place a matter of choice. It is more common to find oneself believing something than to make a conscious decision to do so—or at least to make such a conscious decision because you find yourself leaning that way already. That is not, needless to say, a matter of determinism. It is rather a question of being gripped by a commitment from which one finds oneself unable to walk away. It is not primarily a question of the will, at least as the modern era imagines that much fetishized faculty.”
“Such a cult of the will characterizes the United States,” he adds. With great insight, Eagleton contrasts this with Christian faith:
The Christian way of indicating that faith is not in the end a question of choice is the notion of grace. Like the world itself from a Christian viewpoint, faith is a gfit. This means among other things that Christians are not in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in God. But neither is anyone in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in keeping fit, the supreme value of the individual, or the importance of being sincere. Only ultrarationalists imagine that they need to be…This is not to say that faith is closed to evidence, as Dawkins wrongly considers, or to deny that one can come to change one’s mind about one’s beliefs. We many not choose our beliefs as we choose our starters; but this is not to sasy that we are just the helpless prisoners of them, as neopragmatists like Stanley Fish tend to imagine.
There are many more intrigues in this book, but this will suffice to conclude this string of quotes:
The distinction between Ditchkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those like Ditchkins who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. This in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity; but it holds that this is possible only by confronting the very worst. The only affirmation of humanity’s worth in the end is one which, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and can see what Jonathan Swift’s king of Brobdingnag has in mind when he describes the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own.
There’s something quite Chestertonian about it all.
With the growing rediscovery of expository, Christ-centered preaching, many believers—and pastors—are falling in love with the Bible again. It’s not a handbook of “how-to” principles. Jesus is a Savior, not a life coach or personal therapist.
I’ll be the last person to take issue with these sentiments! Yet still, faithful believers will often ask, “So, um, ahem, does the Bible have anything to say also about raising my kids, having a good marriage, and being a good neighbor?”
At this point, it’s easy to take one of two ways out. The first is simply to say that the Bible isn’t about these things. Sure, there are a few verses here and there in Proverbs and the Epistles, but that’s not the point. The second easy way out—far more common in evangelical circles—is to say, “That’s what the application part of the sermon is for!”
I’d like to suggest another way of looking at the question.
1. Application as Law
First, it’s helpful to identify what sort of “animal” we’re talking about. Stated in technical categories, the question is, “What’s the third use of the law and how do we preach it?” “Gospel” is “good news”: specifically, the announcement of what God has done to save us from the guilt, tyranny, and eventually the very presence of sin through Christ’s life, death and resurrection. “Law” is anything that God commands. It reaveals God’s righteous and holy will. In its first use, the law exposes our guilt, leaves us without any hope in ourselves, and drives us to Christ. In its third use, the law is our guide. Having “quenched Mount Sinai’s flame,” as John Newton’s other famous hymn has it, the gospel frees us to cherish the law as the loving will of our Father rather than fear it as the basis for the Judge’s sentence.
Jewish exegesis distinguishes between hallakah and haggadah: that is, commands and story. The former arise out of the latter. As Jesus observed, the Pharisees had focused myopically on hallakah and missed the haggadah, with himself as the lead character. At the same time, Jesus hardly left commands out of the picture. The difference—and it’s a big one—is that his commands are grounded in his story, the kingdom that he is building by grace, made up of all the riff-raff whom the religious leaders preferred to exclude.
On one hand, the danger is that we take the gospel for granted, assuming that everyone knows it already and now we need only the “house rules.” On the other hand, we can swing to the other end and imagine that every imperative is simply the “first use” and that we’ve handled an imperative text faithfully if we have simply said, “Jesus did this for us and bore our judgment for not having done it.” Take Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, for example. Galatians 5 (on the fruit of the Spirit) has its roots deeply embedded in the first four chapters (centering on justification). It’s a letter and as such its original audiences would have heard it from beginning to end in one reading. So even when one is preaching on chapter 5, hearers should be reminded of the gospel indicative from which it arises. Nevertheless, chapter 5 is not just a repetition of the first 4 chapters.
There are many exhortations in Scripture. It is easiest to see the flow in argument from indicatives to imperatives in the epistles (especially the Pauline letters), but wherever we meet a command in Scripture it’s important to find the “why?” (i.e., the gospel grounding it) as well as the “what and how” (the “reasonable service” that responds to it). Having done so, we should never shy away from pressing the claims of the imperatives. Romans 6 is an obvious exampe. There, Paul applies the gospel to the question, “Should we then continue in sin so that grace may abound?” Yet what he applies there is the gospel: Being buried and raised with Christ in baptism, we are no longer under the dominion of sin. “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies, giving in to its every whim.” The imperative itself is an application—or, better yet, imiplication, signified by “therefore” ( oun).
So when people clamor for more application in preaching, they are usually asking for more “law.” That is not necessarily wrong. It may well be that the preaching they hear is ignoring biblical exhortations or restricting the use of the law to its first use. Yet in other cases, it may be a reflection of the fact that by nature we gravitate toward the law rather than the gospel. This can show up in lots of ways: in the self-help orientation of Boomers (how to have a better life/relationships/self-esteem/success, etc.) or in the other-regarding ethic of younger generations (“deeds, not creeds”; “living the gospel”; “making a difference in the world”). The antidote is neither to ignore the third use—that is, the application of exhortations to Christian discipleship—nor to try to find some arbitrary balance between the law and the gospel. Rather, it’s to go through the Bible book-by-book, always distinguishing but never separating what God has joined together. If we can’t preach Galatians without blinking an eye, we shouldn’t be in the ministry. But if we can only preach the first 4 chapters and rush hurriedly through chapter 5, we aren’t discharging our office faithfully either.
2. Application Shouldn’t Only Be “Law”
Granted that we typically think of “application” as moral exhortation (and therefore, law), Scripture itself requires us to widen our view of the matter. In fact, doctrine generally can be seen as an application of the unfolding story of God’s redemptive work in Christ. Jesus was crucified and raised, but he was “delivered up for our transgressions and raised for our justification” (Ro 4:25). What does it mean for me—for us—that Jesus was crucified and raised? Paul gives us the application here. Or in chapter 6, he applies the gospel and then applies that by stating the necessary implication for our practice.
I think that most of us preachers assume that “application” means the “to do” part of the sermon. Thinking rather woodenly about having an “application” section at the end of each sermon, we can easily miss the point that in Scripture itself there are applications all along. Sometimes they are applications of the gospel; in other cases, of the law. If we simply preach the passage in view, connecting it to its surrounding context, we should be applying God’s Word as we go along.
The formulaic “application” section at the end has the danger of ending God’s speech to his people on a note of uncertainty. The pastor’s “application” question, “Does this describe you?”, cannot be the last word. By all means, use the first use of the law to draw hypocrisy and unfaithfulness out of the shadows, but then remind even believers that they cannot find peace with God by redoubling their efforts. In assuring their trembling conscience, they have to throw their whole confidence on the gospel, without any appeal to the law. By all means, press home the exhortations of the text (i.e., the third use). In any case, though, the gospel must have the last word. The problem is not application coming at the end, but application of the law coming at the end, especially in such a way as to revert back to the first use without then actually holding up Christ as the believer’s only hope.
3. “Good and Necessary Consequences”
Another temptation in having an explicit section of each sermon called “application” is that it’s the opportunity to go off-script. The first chapter of the Westminster Confession lays down a wise rule of interpretation—and application. Scripture teaches whatever we need for salvation and life, whether stated explicitly or “by good and necessary consequences can be deduced therefrom.” Some applications are clear The qualification is key: Not only must the conclusion one draws from Scripture be good; it must be nececssary.
Application takes into account not only the context of the biblical passage but of our hearers. An application that we might make in a given instance may not have occurred naturally to the biblical author. That’s understandable: How would Peter have known anything about global climate change? But we have to be exceedingly careful not to make possibly good but not necessary applications. We can call people to creation stewardship with many rich and varied passages underneath us. However, we have neither the authority nor the expertise to interpret publicly in God’s name the scientific data, adjudicate questions that vex experts, and impose a specific agenda for reducing carbon emissions.
It’s easy for preachers to trott out their own hobby-horses in this application section. (I know this lure from my own experience.) It’s frequently the preacher’s opportunity to go off the reservation, spouting off on something in the news, a political cause, recent movies, or something that has been bugging him about the last three counseling sessions he has had. Of course, the pastor’s work outside the pulpit in shepherding the flock should help make him sensitive to their pastoral needs in the pulpit. However, there is after all this text standing in front of him—indeed, above him. It’s not the pastor’s space for attaching a personal appendix to the sermon.
The specific application must be found either “expressly set forth” in the passage or “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced therefrom.” This is the so-called “regulative principle” in action. Not only can’t we preach anything contrary to Scripture; we cannot preach anything that Scripture does not sanction. Our applications not only have to be good (i.e., consistent with Scripture); they have to be necessary (i.e., required by Scripture). Admittedly, this would eliminate a fair amount of applications in many sermons. However, it would also restore greater integrity to the pulpit.
The term “Trinity” doesn’t appear anywhere in Scripture, but the doctrine is clearly drawn from a host of passages. It is not only a good but a necessary inference from Scripture. The hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures in one person is a necessary application of the broad and specific teaching of Scripture. Abortion-on-demand is a personal sin and social evil. No verse says that in explicit terms, but it can be supported by from many passages. Murder, the taking of innocent life, is clearly and explicitly condemned; abortion is the taking of an innocent life. This is a “good and necessary consequence.” However, the further inference that Christians must endorse a particular policy, person, or party for ending this evil is an abuse of ministerial authority. We are on solid ground to apply God’s Word to the problem of drunkenness, but prohibition is not a “good and necessary consequence”; in fact, it flies in the face of express passages. So whether we are applying the law or the gospel, teaching doctrine or exhorting believers to godly living, we must pledge to preach “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
It’s easier to imagine how to apply Proverbs or ethical texts in the New Testament than it is to apply the historical books, for example. Looking for an application in every sermon on the Pentateuch or the Gospels, it is easy to miss the point of the events—many of which have little or nothing to offer by way of a moral to the story but are instead pieces of a story that leads inexorably to Christ. Often, demanding a formulaic application turns these stories into something like Aesop’s Fables. That doesn’t mean that there can’t or shouldn’t be application, but in these cases it will most likely come by pressing home the specific place that this passage or event has in the history of redemption. We don’t draw a straight line from David to us, but from David to Christ—and then, “in Christ,” to us as his beneficiaries.
Going to Proverbs looking for history is as ill-fated as reading the Song of Solomon as an allegory of Christ and the church. Reading apocalyptic literature as if it were the morning newspaper generates intriguing end-times novels, but misses the point. Reading through the Bible for family devotions, we spent a lot of time in Proverbs. My wife and I marveled at the practical wisdom of our Lord in guiding our lives. To be sure, God has made Jesus Christ our “wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30). Nevertheless, you don’t go first to Proverbs for the gospel story, but for advice about how to live with the grain of the reality that God has created. (There’s a reason we give inquirers or new believers one of the Gospels rather than Proverbs to read first.)
Think about how you read non-inspired literature. I read the newspaper mainly to get the latest news (no surprise there!), rather than primarily to discern how I should live. Things are heating up in Syria regardless of how I respond to it. My reaction doesn’t affect the news in any way. Nevertheless, the news does provoke me to respond in a certain way. Similarly, the gospel is news, an announcement. Whether I believe that Jesus was crucified and raised on the third day or not, the news is an objective report. It provokes—even calls for—a response, but the gospel itself is distinct from my reaction.
Not everything in Scripture is “gospel.” And not everything that is “law” is meant simply to drive me to Christ. In many cases, it is there to guide me now that I am in Christ by grace alone.
5. The Forest and the Trees
Herman Bavinck well states that the prophets, psalmists, Jesus and the apostles “all teach us unanimously and clearly that the content of the divine revelation does not consist primarily in the unity of God, in the moral law, in circumcision, in the Sabbath, in short, in the law, but appears primarily and principally in the promise, in the covenant of grace, and in the gospel.” The law was never confused with the promise nor did it replace it. God’s covenant with Abraham was a gracious promise, so that even the moral law that attended it “was not a law of the covenant of works, but a law of the covenant of grace, a law of gratitude.”1“
Eager to shoe-horn Jesus into every passage is like the youngster who answered the Sunday school teacher’s question, “What has a bushy tail and gathers nuts?” by saying, “It sounds like a squirrel, but I’ll say Jesus.” It’s the sort of thing that drives exaggerated exercises in typology, where we go beyond the legitimate types and their fulfillment identified in the New Testament to imaginative speculations. You shouldn’t be able to preach basically the same sermon from any text. Preaching Christ from all the scriptures means exegeting a specific passage in the light of its wider context. The distinctiveness of each passage has to be unpacked, but always with respect to the fact that it’s part of this unfolding mystery with Jesus Christ as its fulfillment. To say that the unfolding drama has Christ as its central character is not to say that he shows up in every scene. It’s to say that all roads lead to Christ, that he is not only the means but the end.
With this in mind, we might think of the “application” section as the opportunity to show more fully where this passage fits in the history of redemption and what it means for us that “all of God’s promises are ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ in Christ” (2 Cor 1:20). This even comprehends our ethical response: As those who are swept into the history of this passage, in the era of fulfillment in Christ, we are free now to walk no longer according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
6. Christian Liberty
Where Scripture has not clearly spoken, believers are left to godly wisdom. Legalism and antinomianism conspire to drive out this godly wisdom. “Make-a-rule” and “break-a-rule” are cut from the same mold. Wisdom, however, requires the hard work of discernment, looking around at specific situations in which a specific application might be right here but wrong there.
A sound ministry of the Word will bring maturity to everyone. Steeped in the explicit and implicit applications of Scripture, they will be able to apply God’s Word to their own decisions in the posts to which God has called them in their daily vocations. Seminaries train ministers to be specialists in God’s Word; in most cases, they will have parishioners who know more than they do about economics, the arts and sciences, politics, and business. God’s Word applies to all of life, but that does not mean that pastors are called or equipped to do all of the application. C. S. Lewis wrote, “I believe…not only because I see the Light but it’s the Light in which I see everything else.” As believers are immersed in God’s Word, participate in the sacraments, submit to the instruction and discipline, and share in the mission of the church, they will be able to apply God’s revealed truth in ways that we as ministers would never have imagined.
1. Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 192-93. [Back]