White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

The Reason Rally

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)

“Atheistic Fundamentalism”

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.

Eagleton adds,

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.”

Tolerance

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.

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Application in Sermons

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.”

4. Genre

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]

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Kevin DeYoung on the Freedom of the RPW

The Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) usually gets a bad rap. This is probably due to the fact that when held up to the RPW much of what happens in many churches is ruled “out of order.” Since we would rather do in worship what we want to do instead of what God wants us to do, the RPW is dismissed outright. Kevin DeYoung recently wrote a post about the freedom that actually comes with following and taking seriously the RPW.

“The Freedom of the Regulative Principle”

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An Evangelical for Evangelicalism’s Reform

Some in our circles have a pretty cheerful estimate of the state of evangelicalism in America today and identify criticism with “Reformed chauvinism.” In that context, this October 2009 article by Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, is worth reading: “In the Beginning, Grace”.

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A Response to John Frame’s The Escondido Theology

I’ve been reluctant to respond to Professor Frame’s The Escondido Theology, published recently by Whitefield Media. Since the book focuses its critique on Westminster Seminary California, where I teach, I’d encourage readers to visit the Seminary website for a brief response from our president, W. Robert Godfrey. It would be of no edifying value to anyone to go into the details of John Frame’s departure from WSC. Suffice it to say that there are two sides to every story and if you’ve read The Escondido Theology, you have only heard one side whose details many of us would dispute. None of this matters in any case for the general good of the church and the Great Commission, so I will not raise it here.

There are a lot of criticisms in the book directed at my writing, so I’ll say a brief word about it. Having read the book recently, my reluctance is due primarily to the fact that I don’t know quite where to begin and to respond point by point may not contribute much to the cause.

The bottom line for me is this. Whether intentionally misleading or merely sloppy, this book represents a new low in intra-Reformed polemics. I’m encouraged to hear that various Reformed companies declined to publish the book. It is so replete with caricatures, misrepresentations, and straw opponents that a healthy debate on important issues is aborted at the outset. If I held some of the views John attributes to me, I would be alarmed as well. Old grudges appear to cloud his judgment, even to the point of defending Joel Osteen, for example, against my critique (which, again, he caricatures). I hope readers of John’s book will also consult the books that he attacks rather than take his word for it that they say what he claims.

John Frame has consistently defended “evangelical reunion,” even while questioning the ecumenical formulation of the Trinity, the Reformed regulative principle of worship, and downplaying many historic categories of classical Reformed theology. He often scolds those who take creedal and confessional subscription seriously, while even defending people like Joel Osteen with remarkable sympathy.

There’s a history here of being nicer to those outside Reformed circles than within. A while back, John’s critique of David Wells’ scholarly study of evangelicalism and American culture (acclaimed by many outside as well as inside Reformed circles) went in tandem with his odd arguments against Richard Muller, the dean of Reformed scholasticism specialists. (See Richard Muller’s response in Westminster Theological Journal 59 [1997]: 301-310.) I wish I had the good sense of humor expressed by David Wells’ response, “On Being Framed” (in that same issue). John seems to be the least charitable to those who are most convinced of the distinctive contributions of the Reformed tradition and who, despite their long and serious contributions to the evangelical movement, are worried that it has become too captive to modernity.

A number of John’s claims cluster around the charge of being “Lutheran.” Yet he does not represent Lutheranism fairly (lacking serious documentation for sweeping generalizations); nor does he represent my views accurately. So there is only a vague suspicion, with the terrifying prospect that in spite of all of their notable feuds, Luther and Calvin—and their heirs—might nevertheless have been leaders of the same magisterial Reformation. Apparently, my association with Baptists does not raise eyebrows, but Lutheranism is beyond the pale.

This would have been odd even to American Presbyterian and Reformed folks a century ago. Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos and Herman Bavinck, would not have understood this development. Of course, they also defended Reformed distinctives over against Lutheran, Baptist, and other positions. Nevertheless, they took it for granted that confessional Lutheran and Reformed Christians were natural allies, joined at the hip on major issues.

Just for the record, I am not a Lutheran or a Baptist, as my Lutheran and Baptist friends will attest. Unlike Calvin, Bucer and other Reformed leaders, I have never signed the Augsburg Confession. My confession, without reservation, remains the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards. That should be clear enough to anybody who has read my books, including my systematic theology, The Christian Faith.

Doubtless, there are many reasons for the fear of “Lutheranism” among some in our circles. Since the Great Awakening, pietism and revivalism have formed the ties that bind American Protestants. Confessional Lutheran and Reformed immigrants didn’t quite fit and they were often only too happy to remain in relative isolation. Ever since the “Shepherd controversy” (see below), some (like Professor Frame) have sought to distance Reformed theology as much as possible from Luther and Lutheranism, even as they embrace other non-Reformed traditions (from broad evangelicalism in some cases to Roman Catholic and Orthodox perspectives in others). So “Lutheranism” becomes the bogeyman for a lot of sweeping charges that are not fair to Lutherans, much less to Reformed people who recognize important areas of common agreement.

Let me briefly summarize the rest of my response under the four following points of criticism:

1. Two Kingdoms

First, WSC has no official litmus test on “two kingdoms.” Our president, Robert Godfrey, is a committed Kuyperian and Kuyper’s legacy is seen by many of us here as closer in some respects to a “two kingdoms” view than many neo-Kuyperians assume today. (For example, Kuyper’s “sphere sovereignty” distinguishes clearly between what the church is authorized to do as an institution and what Christians are authorized to do in various callings.) None of us has presented the idea as a test of orthodoxy in Reformed circles; on the contrary, some of our friends have turned its denial into a test.

Where Reformed theology sees distinctions without separation, John often seems to press a false choice. If you distinguish our heavenly and temporal citizenship, then he suspects that you separate them, denying the latter. (The same tendency is evident in the law-gospel distinction below: either law and gospel are really the same or you deny the former.)

From the days when I was John’s student, I have heard his defenses of theonomy (or Christian Reconstruction). Although he dissented on some points, he seemed to appreciate the movement’s broader emphases. Years ago, the faculties of Westminster Philadelphia and California produced Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Zondervan, 1990), edited by William Barker and W. Robert Godfrey. Richard Gaffin, Jr., defended amillennialism and Will Barker articulated a biblical-Reformed case for political “pluralism.” Put those together and you basically have “two kingdoms.” Other great essays were included by Tim Keller, John Meuther, and terrific historical chapters by Robert Godfrey (on Calvin) and Sinclair Ferguson (on the Westminster Confession). John Frame contributed a chapter trying to unite theonomists and their critics. My point is that a critique of “one kingdom” thinking by the joint faculties of both Westminsters was mainstream in 1990. I’m sure that John didn’t agree with everything in that volume, but to my knowledge he didn’t call his colleagues “Lutheran,” even though it expresses the views that we at WSC still hold today.

Calvin embraced the “two kingdoms” doctrine explicitly—in those terms. Of course, it was the era of “Christendom,” where Luther no less than Calvin expected the civil magistrate to defend the true faith. Nevertheless, at least in theory, he made precisely the same arguments as Luther. I wonder if those sympathetic to theonomy or making America a “Christian nation” are really serious. Do they really want the White House or the legislative or judicial branches to enforce the first table of the law? Will orthodox Protestants be the only ones allowed to rule, or will a few Roman Catholics, Jews, and perhaps a conservative mainliner or two pass the Senate confirmation hearings? This is not to say that God’s moral law is no longer in force, that it no longer expresses God’s eternal measure of righteousness. Rather, it is to recognize that the New Testament teaches us to live as “strangers and aliens” in this present age, loving and serving our neighbors through our callings, witnessing God’s Word to them, and contributing toward the common good of a city that is important but never ultimate.

Although John’s book claims that this idea of “two kingdoms” is an extreme view, he explicitly states that he isn’t interested in engaging with David Van Drunen or others who have explored the history of Reformed interpretation in detail. So he turns to an exegetical critique that turns out to be thin on exegesis. Only by reducing the view to a caricature is he able to refute a straw position.

With Luther, Calvin, and, yes, Kuyper, a proper Reformed view of Christ and culture affirms God’s lordship over all spheres of life, while nevertheless distinguishing between the way Christ rules his church by his Word and Spirit from the way he rules in providence and common grace. Why did Luther call them “the kingdom of the left hand” and “the kingdom of the right hand”? Because they were both God’s hands! It affirms that special revelation clarifies general revelation, the latter of which we by nature suppress in unrighteousness (although, as Van Til pointed out, sinners can’t suppress everything at the same time). The church proclaims God’s Word, both the law and the gospel, to the world. Where it speaks, we speak. Neither I nor my colleagues teach anything remotely suggestive of the idea that the Bible has no bearing on the convictions and actions of Christians in the public square.

Let me offer an example. I hold a pro-life stance as a Christian, on the basis of the biblical truths of creation, fall, redemption, and the consummation—as well as explicit commands for extending love to neighbors. I make those convictions explicit even in talking to non-Christians. However, because they are made in God’s image and cannot suppress everything at the same time, and the Spirit is also at work restraining evil in common grace, I can appeal to what I know they know even as they suppress its logical conclusions. As Calvin reminds us, “The moral law is nothing other than the natural law that is written on the conscience of all.” Of all people, Christians should not remain passive in the face of slavery, abortion, racism, exploitation, injustice, and failures to be stewards of God’s good creation. However, they can work alongside non-Christians in these callings without having the church bind their consciences about specific policies or agendas that are not authorized by God’s Word.

In content, this natural law is a revelation of God’s righteousness, justice, power, and moral will—distinct from the revelation of his saving will (the gospel) in Jesus Christ. Here, as in many cases throughout John’s critique, crucial distinctions are often blurred and then if you deny this synthesis you are accused of not holding to both.

2. Law and Gospel

At first, John seems to affirm the distinction. He even concedes that Calvin and Reformed writers affirmed it as well as Luther and Lutheranism. What he’s against is a “radical law-gospel antithesis.” Yet once again, his own alternative is a blurring of the distinction altogether. The gospel includes commands and the law includes gracious promises, he argues. So it’s not clear to me whether he affirms the distinction or denies it, but the latter seems to be the last word. If he were to say that the covenant of grace includes commands (or that there are commands to repent and believe the gospel), who could argue? But these commands to repent and believe (and obey) are not the gospel; they are the proper response to it. Or, if he were to say that the gospel was promised to the old covenant saints through types and shadows, again, who could take issue? Yet to say that the gospel itself is law and the law itself is gospel is not to hold them together; it’s to make them one and the same thing.

In the 1970s, Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia was racked by a controversy surrounding Norman Shepherd’s denial of the classic Reformation doctrine of justification. The law and the gospel were confused. Well did Calvin’s sidekick Theodore Beza remark that “This confusion over law and gospel has been and remains the greatest source of corruption and abuses in the church.” Eventually, Professor Shepherd resigned and left the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Two decades later, the theonomy debate stirred the pot. And more recently, the “Federal Vision” movement arose in our circles, largely out of these two tributaries.

In each of these challenges to the Reformed confession, John’s sympathies have been explicit. While demurring on some points, he has defended and endorsed these movements’ writings even as both “Westminsters” and all of the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations have ruled them beyond the bounds of the confession. The two forewords to The Escondido Theology are written by noted theonomists. One vigorous endorsement of The Escondido Theology comes from a theonomist and Federal Visionist who denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification. It is this neonomian paradigm that conflicts with the Reformed confession. Reformed critics, however, are dismissed as “Lutherans” or “Machen’s warrior children.”

This is ironic. Sadly, I’m not surprised that he appreciates their blurring of the distinction of law and gospel or of justification and sanctification. What does surprise me is that someone who is so adamant against anything that smacks of similarity to a “Lutheran” scheme is so sympathetic to a movement that embraces baptismal regeneration and the possibility of losing one’s justification/regeneration.

In both his exegesis and passing historical remarks, John refutes a position that nobody (at least nobody at WSC) holds and then jettisons a distinction that Reformed as well as Lutheran theology regards as fundamental and crucial. He shows little interest in wrestling with the historical debates, because he embraces “something close to biblicism.” In other words, his exegesis of Scripture trumps everyone else’s; what he believes is “biblical” is therefore “Reformed,” even if it goes against the consensus of Reformed interpretation.

3. Application of God’s Word to All of Life

Related to the previous points, John misrepresents me (and my colleagues) as teaching that we should not apply God’s Word to all areas of life.

First, given the fact that John has been critical of the traditional Reformed application of God’s Word to worship in the “regulative principle,” this is an odd charge. Not even the regular preaching of the Word is an essential element in the public service, John argues in this book (and elsewhere). It would surely be odd if one thought the Bible sufficient for politics, but not for the worship and government of the church.

Second, according to John, I relegate God’s Word to the private life of individuals or the corporate life of the church, having nothing to do with the believer’s stewardship and vocations in the world. I don’t know how anyone could conclude this from anything I have written. In fact, I’ve written books on the role of the law in the Christian life (The Law of Perfect Freedom), the importance of a world-embracing vision of Christian vocation in all spheres (Where in the World is the Church?), and the importance of engaging in culture with godly discernment (Beyond Culture Wars). John even alleges that we don’t talk enough about the Great Commission, when it forms the backbone of much of our curriculum. By the way, I wrote a book on the Great Commission, which also clearly advocates Christian involvement in the world and application of God’s Word to all areas of life.

One point where John is especially egregious in his misrepresentations of my view concerns the third use of the law. At the outset, this would hardly be a “Lutheran” move, since Melanchthon first coined the “third use” and it was included in the Book of Concord in the section against the antinomians. Furthermore, in many places I’ve argued that Calvin and other Reformed writers more carefully nuanced the position and emphasized the third use (including the importance of a disciplined life and church). There are important differences between Lutheran and Reformed traditions. However, those differences pale in comparison with the denial of the important distinctions that both traditions affirm together and writers like John Frame either deny or confuse.

4. Translation

In several places John is irritated by my suggestion that we have bent over backwards “translating” the gospel in terms not only that people can understand but that they can accept. It’s not a question of making it communicable, but palatable. Another distinction he doesn’t seem to recognize in my argument. Of course, I affirm translating the Bible into vernacular languages (where would the contrary assumption be gleaned from anything I’ve said)? Of course, I believe that we need to communicate clearly and effectively, drawing analogies from everyday life in our own day. Of all the reviews I’ve seen, only John’s interprets me as suggesting that we should just read the words of the Bible and not try to explain it to people.

What I point to explicitly is something like Paul Tillich’s “method of correlation,” where you ask the world to define the questions and then go to the Bible for the answers. The wrong assumption here is that we already know what we need before God tells us. In opposing this tendency to accommodate God’s radical Word to the fallen mind and heart, I am simply defending what Kuyper and Van Til referred to as the “antithesis” between godly and ungodly thinking. It’s surprising that a distinguished disciple of Cornelius Van Til would take issue with that argument. (He also takes issue with my advocacy of the archetypal-ectypal distinction—and the analogical view of human knowledge—evidently siding more with Gordon Clark over Van Til in that important debate.)

Conclusion

Speaking for myself, I have endeavored to explore the riches that I have discovered personally in the catholic, evangelical and Reformed heritage. I owe much of my deepest convictions to professors I had at Westminster California, including Edmund Clowney (who helped me understand, among many other things, “two kingdoms” thinking without calling it that), Robert Godfrey, Robert Strimple, M. G. Kline, Dennis Johnson, and others.

In spite of the seriousness with which I take my calling as a minister, I don’t doubt my capacity for error and the need to be open to critique. Reviews are great ways of taking on board important critiques that lead to further reflection and correction. However, as I tell students in class, you have to earn the right to critique first by stating the position held by others in terms that they would at least recognize as fair. It’s one thing to say that you believe a certain view should lead logically to such-and-such a conclusion; it’s quite another to misrepresent someone’s view as actually advocating a position that he or she in fact rejects.

All that I ask is that those who disagree with my arguments in fact disagree with my arguments, not with John Frame’s description of them. Do not assume that if you’ve read The Escondido Theology you actually have any grasp of what I or any of us teach at Westminster Seminary California. Like all of my colleagues, I’m trying to participate in a long conversation that is both appreciative and self-critical of our tradition’s interpretation and application of God’s Word so that the church can be more faithful in this generation. It is a work in progress, and our differences among ourselves as a faculty are treated as the grist for the mill of constant dialogue and mutual correction.

Unlike the days when I was a student, there are no factions on the faculty or among the student body. There is a wonderful spirit of mutual trust, spirited discussion—even debate, and, above all, a common conviction that it’s not about us or any party that we might form around ourselves. We’re collaborating in preparing pastors, missionaries, and teachers to bring all of God’s Word to all of the world in all of the ways that our Lord mandates in his Great Commission. We do need to have healthy debate and discussion in our circles of these important issues. We all tend to emphasize the points that we think are being obscured or over-emphasized by others. However, the level of the conversation in conservative Reformed circles has to improve. Otherwise, our internecine squabbles and confusion will thwart the great promise of a tradition that has always sought, at least at its best, to be “Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God.”

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Ryan Glomsrud on Office Hours

Dr. Ryan Glomsrud, the Executive Editor of Modern Reformation and Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California was recently interview on Office Hours to discuss what books he would want to have with him on a desert island.

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That Word Above All Earthly Pow’rs: The Kingdom of the Cross Under the Sword of the Crescent

Newsweek‘s current cover-story is “The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World,” by Ayann Hirsi Ali, who fled her native Somalia and served in the Dutch Parliament before taking a position at the American Enterprise Institute. As the article points out, widespread anti-Christian violence is exploding even in countries with Muslim minorities. How do we respond wisely as Christians to this growing threat?

1. Prayer

First, the crisis calls for concerted prayer on behalf of our brothers and sisters under the cross. More Christians have been martyred in the last several decades than in all of the centuries combined—including the early Roman persecutions. We are directed by Christ to pray first and foremost for the coming of his kingdom, come what may. But we also are called to pray for the “daily bread” and protection from temptation that become especially critical needs under persecution. Corporate and private prayers for all the saints, especially those under the cross, should be high on our list.

2. Faithful Witness

Second, instead of watering down the faith, Christians in the West should stand with fellow saints who are witnessing to Christ even to the point of death. It’s striking that when Paul, writing from prison, asks for prayers on his behalf, he does not even mention better conditions. The gospel is his overriding passion. The “prisoner of Christ” asks for prayer “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph 6:19-20).

The temptation is great to tone down the radical message of the gospel. A growing trend in evangelical missiology, known as the “Insider Movement,” encourages people to become “Jesus followers” while remaining Muslims. They need not profess faith in Christ publicly, be baptized, or become part of the church; they may continue to be Muslims outwardly. In the church’s first centuries, a similar challenge arose. Many, including some bishops, claimed that they could remain Christians inwardly while outwardly surrendering their Bibles and any public identity as believers. Excommunicated, they were known as the “lapsed,” and this gave rise to the well-known statement by the third-century bishop and martyr Cyprian, “Outside the church there is no salvation.”

In the West, including the US, there is a growing detachment from public identification with Christ, including baptism and membership in the church. Emergent church leaders encourage people to become “followers of Jesus” while remaining Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, or Muslims. After all, it’s “deeds, not creeds.” There is growing reluctance to witness openly to Christ for fear of being perceived as narrow-minded and intolerant. While we eschew all appeals to temporal power, much less violence, for the spread of Christ’s kingdom, we must pause to consider the seriousness of Christ’s claims not only in the face of martyrdom but in the face of the more subtle forms of compromise that are weakening our witness at home and abroad. While brothers and sisters sit in prisons for their testimony to Christ, their greatest disappointment is to learn that some Western missionaries are encouraging what amounts to apostasy. It’s a policy that doesn’t even make sense pragmatically, since the duplicity of “Muslim followers of Jesus” outrages the Muslim community even where Christians and Muslims live in relative co-existence.

Controversy over Wycliffe Bible Translators for apparently softening the references to Jesus Christ divinity as the eternal Son of the Father raises further suspicions that we in the West may be losing our nerve just at the moment when Christ is calling his sheep to martyrdom around the world. I had the privilege of participating in a film directed by Bill Nikides. Soon to be released, “Half Devil, Half Child,” includes interviews with Christians in the Muslim world, as well as Muslim leaders. A trailer can be seen here (www.halfdevilhalfchild.com).

3. Human Rights, Not Just Christian Rights

Third, Christians in the West should advocate publicly for human rights, including religious freedom, as part of the universal mandate of neighbor-love. Ramez Atallah, an evangelical leader and general secretary of the Bible Society of Egypt, reportedly counseled, “It’s not to our benefit to have loud voices overseas talking about Christians. It’s a great benefit to us to have loud voices abroad talking about a more universal bill of rights for all Egyptians.” (See that article here).

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You Win!

Thanks to the 358 commenters on our 20th Anniversary post. Using a random number generator, our staff chose 11 winners.

The grand prize winner is David Crabb who will receive a signed Horton library, a one-year subscription to MR, and five one-year subscriptions to give to his friends. Our ten other one-year subscription winners are:

  • Scott
  • Dan
  • Vince Canilla
  • Brian Thornton
  • Ashwin Ramji
  • Prayson Daniel
  • Daniel
  • Robert Caron
  • Mark Stumpff
  • Phillip

Congratulations, too, to the winners of Justin Taylor’s contest. His post generated 460 entries/comments!

One of the best things about this contest was reading your many, many comments about White Horse Inn, Modern Reformation, our hosts, and your memories. We passed along many of your comments to the staff and hosts. It really encourages us to hear how our work is making a difference for you.

If you didn’t win, you can still take advantage of our 20 years for $20 anniversary special. This is the lowest price we’ve ever offered for the magazine. In addition to the print version (published six times per year), you’ll also have access to our digital version, which can be read on any smartphone or tablet device, and you’ll get immediate access to twenty years of our archives!

We’re also offering a special bulk subscription rate for pastors and churches, which will allow you to purchase individual copies of the magazine for bulk distribution for only $1 apiece.

You can take advantage of both of these deals by calling our office at 800.890.7556 or go online and complete your purchase there.

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Moving from West to East? | Mike Horton on Office Hours

In recent decades a large number of evangelicals (and some Reformed folk) have left the evangelical faith for some version of Eastern Orthodoxy. Recently the CBS news program “60 Minutes” claimed that the Eastern Orthodox church is only unbroken tradition in Christianity. In the latest episode, Office Hours asks Mike to tackle these questions and more.

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Celebrating 20 Years

This year marks the Twentieth Anniversary of the publication of Modern Reformation magazine. In an era of disposable information (and media) this is no small milestone. We’re grateful to you and our many supporters over the last twenty years who have helped make this celebration possible. We want to share our joy by inviting you to participate in a contest to win a free one-year subscription for you and five of your friends plus a Mike Horton “library”: signed copies of The Christian Faith (Christianity Today’s 2012 book of the year in theology/ethics), For Calvinism, the Twentieth Anniversary edition of Putting Amazing Back Into Grace which includes a DVD of Mike teaching on each chapter, the Christless Christianity trilogy (Christless Christianity, The Gospel-Driven Life, and The Gospel Commission), A Place for WeaknessIntroducing Covenant Theology, A Better Way, and Where in the World is the Church.

This is probably the easiest contest you’ve ever entered! Just leave a comment below by Thursday at midnight (PST). We’ll randomly choose one comment to win the grand prize. We’ll also choose ten more comments to win one-year subscriptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you don’t win, you can still take advantage of our anniversary special: 20 years for $20. Get a one-year subscription to the magazine, which includes access to 20 years of archived content on our website for the ridiculously low price of $20. At this price you should buy a subscription for everyone you know! (Ok, maybe not everyone, but at least one or two people that you really like.)

Ok, are you ready to play? Just leave a comment below and you will have “entered” the contest. (Make sure you give us a working email address, otherwise we have no way of contacting you!) Not sure what to say? You don’t win based on the quality of your comment, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Tell us when you started reading Modern Reformation
  • Who introduced you to Modern Reformation?
  • Where do you like to read Modern Reformation?
  • Any articles/issues that stand out? made you mad? led to an “ah-ha!” moment?
  • Or, you can simply wish us happy anniversary

But wait! There’s more. You have TWO chances to win! Our friend, Justin Taylor, is helping us celebrate by running this same contest on his blog. You can leave a comment there and get a second chance to win.

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