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Know what you believe and why you believe it

Angry Atheists Again

It’s a familiar story, but a recent Huffington Post article caught my attention.  The author, a non-Christian physicist, expresses shock after posting an article on the age of the earth.  Expecting a torrent of abuse from religious conservatives, he was surprised that it was the atheistic fundamentalists who piled on.

One of the biggest objections to religion is that there are so many competing truth claims.  How can each claim to be right?  Religious detractors argue that this is in sharp contrast to science, which is based on facts upon which any rational person can agree.

How do we handle this objection?  First, it is important to point out that the number of truth claims on the market has nothing to do with whether which, if any of them, is true.

Take something as significant as belief in a transcendent creator.  Cambridge mathematician and astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle noted, “A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.  The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”   In sharp contrast, biologist and passionate defender of atheism Richard Dawkins says, “The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and toward atheism.”  These thinkers can hardly be distinguished by their scientific credentials.  If anything, Hoyle contributed far more to applied science than has Dawkins so far.  Both came to radically different conclusions based on their considerable study of nature.

Albert Einstein saw himself as more of a pantheist like Spinoza than an atheist like Marx or Nietzsche.  “[T]he fanatical atheists,” he wrote to a friend, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle.”  They are simply rebelling against their religious upbringing.  Indeed, he added that although he didn’t believe in a personal God, “such belief seems to me preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook.”  Following Spinoza, he was a strict determinist.  He wrote to physicist Max Born,

You believe in a God who plays dice, and I in complete law and order in a world which objectively exists, and which I in a wildly speculative way, am trying to capture. I firmly believe, but I hope that someone will discover a more realistic way, or rather a more tangible basis than it has been my lot to find. Even the great initial success of the quantum theory does not make me believe in the fundamental dice game, although I am well aware that some of our younger colleagues interpret this as a consequence of senility.

Scientists disagree about all sorts of things: from matters as metaphysical as string theory to details over genetic mutation.  In fact, as Michael Polanyi argued years ago, scientists belong to a concrete, historical community of interpretation.  They too have lives, histories, and experiences within which they interpret reality.

We all remember the ill-fated pronouncements of the church in relation to Copernicus and Galileo, but it was scientists who made the biggest fuss at least initially over the new cosmology.  Not unlike religious communities, the scientific community resists massive paradigm shifts.  That’s good, because we’d be starting over every day if it were otherwise.  It takes a lot of anomalies to overthrow a well-established paradigm.  But it happens.

Of course, one reason that paradigm revolutions can occur is that there are rigorous standards for evaluating and testing theories.  I would argue that this is what sets Christianity apart from other religions.  It arose not out of a projection of felt needs, the charisma of a sage, or the profundity of its universal ideas, but as a historical claim with cosmic significance: the resurrection of Jesus.  It was a paradigm revolution within the Jewish community that sparked momentous debate.  Even greater was the shift that it provoked when it met the Greek world.  The idea of God as personal—and three persons to boot; that the world is created out of nothing, as a free act by a good God, not to mention the incarnation of this God in history and his death and resurrection as redemption-bringing events, were completely revolutionary.  One couldn’t really be a good Platonist by day and a Christian by night.  A choice had to be made.

Even within religious communities there are major paradigm shifts.  The Reformation is an example.  Fresh exegesis turned up new evidence and shed new light on passages that had been misunderstood—even mistranslated in the Latin Vulgate.  This doesn’t explain it all, of course, but it was a big part of it.  The reformers didn’t set out to cause a revolution.  They didn’t touch most of the Christian doctrines—affirming the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and other key teachings without alteration.  However, they did cause many throughout Europe to rethink the meaning of the gospel.  Pretty significant on its own merits.

At some point, we have to take responsibility.  We can’t just dismiss the search with Pilate’s shrug, “What is truth?”

At a conference a number of years ago, I was on a panel with Bill Nye (as in “The Science Guy”).  Like a modern-day David Hume, he made general arguments about religious claims as equivalent to fairy tales that evolve over time with each telling.  I agreed with some of his assertions about religion in general, but asked him to evaluate specific claims for Christ’s resurrection.  Going through these claims, one by one, he became increasingly impatient.  Finally, without addressing even one of the arguments, he dismissed the whole thing with a single brush, returning to his opening assertions.

Christianity has been in the business of offering arguments and evidence from the beginning.  The Hebrew prophets mock the idols of the nations because they cannot speak and cannot make good on their promises in history.  The God of Israel has done so in Jesus Christ and “has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

Of course, none of us is neutral.  We all come to the evidence with big assumptions about reality.  The Holy Spirit alone can bring conversion, but he does so through his Word.  And he also uses supporting arguments and evidence that reveal too many devastating anomalies—indeed contradictions—that our reigning worldview can’t accommodate.  One thing is for certain: to say that miracles do not happen because they cannot happen is as vicious a circle as any argument can be.  In fact, it’s not an argument at all, but mere assertion.  Isaac Asimov said, “Emotionally, I am an atheist.  I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect that he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.”  Insert “believer” and change “doesn’t exist” to “does exist” and there is nothing expressed here that the Dawkinses of the world wouldn’t leap upon as evidence of blind faith.

Hoyle concludes, seemingly against his personal inclinations, that the evidence requires a transcendent creator, while Dawkins’ conclusion couldn’t be more antithetical.  No less than religious ones, scientific claims about ultimate reality are driven by deeper worldview assumptions.  But the sheer fact that there are competing claims doesn’t settle anything.  Whether or not we take the time to investigate those claims on their own terms is a decision that closed minds on both sides of the debate will have to consider seriously if the search for truth is of any significance to being human.

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Baby Mama or Bride?

Our friend, Matt Marino (of “Cool Church” fame), has written another great post on the church: The Church is Christ’s Bride, Not His Baby Mama. Here’s a preview:

In case you are not up to speed on the last decade’s slang, a baby mama is someone with whom you made a baby, but have no commitment to and little contact with.  In other words, someone objectified, used, abandoned, and now mocked for being dumb enough to think the guy would actually be faithful to her.

If you are a Christian does that remind you of anything?

I hear similar attitudes towards the church expressed in Starbucks every week. People waxing eloquent about how into ‘Jesus’ and ‘spirituality’ they are, but not so much ‘religion’ or the ‘Church.’ It is why 24 million people watched Jefferson Bethke’s spoken word video “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” last year.

I am most amazed when I see Christian leaders encouraging people to use the church as their ‘baby mama’ –  for their own desires and preferences, and when she no longer ‘does it for me’ to ditch her for a younger, sexier model. What I am whining about exactly? Here are a few examples:

  • Checking to see if the “good preacher” is on before going.
  • Having one church for worship, one for small groups, and one for preaching.
  • Changing churches because you just aren’t “feeling it” anymore.
  • Driving so far across town for a church you like that your unchurched friends would never think of coming with you.
  • Picking your church, not on beliefs, but simply because your friends all go there.
  • Criticizing the church you didn’t go to from Starbucks on Sunday morning.

I especially felt the sting of, “Driving so far across town for a church you like that your unchurched friends would never think of coming with you.” You will find the rest of Matt’s post equally discomforting, but necessary even for Reformation Christians who can be guilty of the same consumerist mindset that plagues our evangelical friends.

Read the rest of Matt’s post here.

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How Far Is Too Far?

I argued in my previous post that while true faith can exist with remarkable ignorance, confusion, and doubt, believers are called to learn everything that our Lord teaches in his Word. “How much is enough?” is basically a cop-out. It assumes that we’re saved by passing a doctrinal exam and we just want to know what will be on the test. That doesn’t exactly make a disciple—which first and foremost means a pupil. The corollary question is “How far is too far?” Yes, faith can coexist with ignorance and perhaps confusion, but what about outright contradiction of the truth?

At this point, we have to be careful about what we put under the category of heresy. Faith is trusting in Christ to save us from condemnation and death by his own life, death and resurrection. That’s why Paul says that these events in history are “of first importance”; they are the gospel (1 Cor 15:3). Deny the resurrection and you are cut off from all hope. Yet in that same chapter Paul goes on to unpack that gospel in its glorious effects: justification, sanctification, and glorification. It is possible for Christians to disagree about crucial definitions of these truths while nevertheless directing their faith to Jesus Christ. Whatever they say in theological debate, if you ask them where their confidence for salvation is lodged, they name Jesus Christ.

I have Roman Catholic and Protestant friends who don’t accept what I am convinced is the clear teaching of the gospel with respect to justification. I think they’re on dangerous ground. Yes, I believe that their salvation is endangered—not because they don’t check the right box on a doctrine exam, but because justification by Christ alone through faith alone is the only consistent way of articulating what it means to trust in Christ. I think the 17th-century Puritan John Owen was correct in his repeated warnings against the threat of Arminianism and Roman Catholic teaching on this point. Yet I also agree when he says, “Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny; and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed” (The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone in Owen’s Works 5:163-64).

Another unimpeachably Reformed source is Herman Witsius (1636-1708). He wisely counsels,

To point out the articles necessary for salvation, and precisely to determine their number, is a task, if not utterly impossible, at least extremely difficult…It does not become us to ascend into the tribunal of God, and to pronounce concerning our neighbor, for how small a defect of knowledge, or for how inconsiderable and error, he must be excluded from heaven. It is much safer to leave that to God. It may not be safe and expedient for us to receive into church-fellowship a person chargeable with some error or sin; whom, however, we should not dare, on account of that error or sin, to exclude from heaven…Our faith consists not in words, but in sense; not in the surface, but in the substance; not in the leaves of a profession, but in the root of reason. All the heretics of the present day, that claim the name of Christians, are willing enough to subscribe the words of the Creed; each however afixing to them whatever sense he pleases, though diametrically opposite to sound doctrine (Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010, 16, 27-29, 31).

True faith is directed to the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit. When we call on the name of the Lord for salvation, we are invoking for rescue the Father who has given his Son as our Mediator and his Spirit as our Life-giver. Believers did that in prayer and in baptism even before the Council of Nicea. The doctrine of the Trinity was defined over against heresies that challenged what the earliest Christians were directed to believe and to do already by Jesus and his apostles. To direct our faith to anyone but this Savior, Jesus Christ, is idolatry. We have the wrong God as the object of our trust. We may still hope that someone who denies the Trinity is saved, but we have no biblical justification to recognize the legitimacy of their public profession of faith. This is rather different from the believer who is confused or is struggling to accept the mystery of “one in essence, three in person.” To recall the illustration above, one may be relying on the lifeguard for rescue and only afterward come to appreciate more fully the peril and the credentials of the rescuer. It is possible to trust in this Savior with the slenderest of knowledge and even with confused or errant beliefs. The problem is that if we do not go on to maturity, our faith more easily will shift eventually from Christ to someone or something else.

Wrong views of God, the person and work of Christ, justification, and the like are so critical that they strike at the very foundation of the faith. If one follows errant views on these points consistently, one would not be looking to Christ for rescue. Happily, many believers are inconsistent and do trust in Christ even though the way they articulate that doesn’t fit with—and undermines—that confidence.

What I have suggested here in relation to Christians applies more broadly to churches. This is why churches of the Reformation have identified the marks of a true church with the true preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments according to Christ’s institution.

The Roman Catholic Church officially embraces many crucial truths, but contradicts the gospel at its heart. Condemning the doctrine of justification as taught by the apostles, Rome just as explicitly affirms justification by our meritorious obedience as we cooperate with enabling grace. The merits of Christ are not sufficient for our salvation. This is not an inference, but the clear and consistent teaching of Rome’s magisterium to the present day. Rome is therefore not a true church. And yet I can say with Calvin that “there is still a true church among her.” On one hand, there are remnants of the gospel in the actual preaching, liturgy, and baptism administered in Roman Catholic circles. On the other hand, these remnants are buried or even contradicted by serious errors in doctrine and worship. The same could be said of Protestant churches. There are many such churches where the gospel is not being faithfully preached and the sacraments are not being properly administered. Sure, there may be true believers among them. Yet they are in spiritual danger. Soon they will realize either that their faith in Christ is being challenged and will therefore seek a true church or, like the frog in the kettle, they may remain as their profession of faith is increasingly confused, weakened, and perhaps even abandoned.

Whether we are talking about individuals or churches, we hold simultaneously to charity and discernment. This is clear in 2 Timothy 2. There is indeed a “pattern of sound words,” as Paul mentions earlier in the letter (1:13). How we say things is important. That’s why we have creeds, confessions, and catechisms: to learn the grammar of the faith. Like a trellis, these consensual statements give proper direction to our faith, leading us to Christ. However, we can easily become slaves of words to the point where we listen not for what a brother or sister is actually affirming or denying, but the precise formula. Faithful pastors don’t encourage “quarreling over words,” Paul reminds Timothy (2:14). That was one of the points that Witsius makes above.

Paul adds, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2:15). He warns against specific false teachers. “Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity’” (vv 17-19). Timothy is approved and those who follow the gospel (specifically here, the bodily resurrection in the future) are approved as well, while the false teachers are not. They have in fact “swerved from the truth” and are “upsetting the faith of some.” The latter are not to remain under the tutelage of these false teachers, but must “depart from iniquity.” This is an act of discernment. It is foolish to remain in a false church. At the same time, Timothy is called to exercise charity. Even in this case, faithful shepherds recall straying sheep from hirelings in love, “correcting his opponents with gentleness.” Why? “God may perhaps grant them repentance, leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (vv 25-26).

In short, Paul reminds all of us with Timothy that only the Lord knows his elect. Pastors and elders in council may approve valid professions of faith and guard the ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline, but only the Great Shepherd can separate the sheep from the goats on the last day. Until then, our calling is to entrust ourselves to faithful shepherds and to long earnestly and prayerfully for the repentance of those who have strayed from Christ’s Word.

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How Much Do I Need to Know?

“How far is too far?” Growing up in conservative evangelicalism, that question was common in youth group. Of course, we were talking about physical intimacy. When everything’s reducible to making a rule or breaking a rule, it’s important to know when you’ve “crossed the line.” I’m not downplaying the importance of guiding young people through the mysterious era of puberty—and even in suggesting wise guidelines where there is no clear chapter and verse. But when “How far can I go?” is the main question, we’ve already lost too much. It suggests that character has not been formed by life in a particular community—especially home and the church—when people just want you to net it out for them like that. Usually we ask that question when we’re just about to dive in. We just want to know when to push the eject button.

A similar phenomenon happens when people ask, “How much do you need to know to be saved?” It’s like asking, “How ignorant can I be?” At one end, there’s the official Roman Catholic answer: assent to everything the church teaches. It’s called implicit faith because you can’t possibly know for yourself everything that the church teaches. The Geneva reformer John Calvin described this view as ignorance disguised as humility. At the other end, there is that line from evangelist D. L. Moody: “I can write the gospel on a dime.” How much do you need to know? Enough to lead someone to Christ in an elevator.

We recall the question of the rich young ruler. Assuming that he had so far done everything he knew to do, he asked Jesus, “What’s the one thing I have to do to be saved?” Jesus pressed him to face the full brunt of the law, showing him that he had not even begun to fulfill the duty of loving God with total devotion and loving his neighbor as himself. As confessional “Reformation” folks, we get that. However, we are so good at works-righteousness that we merely shift the bar of merit from things we do to things we know.

According to Scripture, the object of our faith is neither our actions or our knowledge, but the person of Jesus Christ. Of course, trusting a person involves knowledge and assent, but we’re saved by Christ, not by doctrines. The purpose of the doctrine is to direct us to the right person and to keep us looking to him until that day when faith yields to sight.

In his Great Commission, Jesus called his disciples to go to the whole world preaching the gospel, baptizing, and teaching them to observe everything he had delivered. He mentions things in a certain order: faith comes by hearing the preached gospel, converts are baptized along with their children (you knew I had to say that), and then is set for a whole life of learning everything. The “learning everything” part of it is not the condition for salvation, but the wonderful privilege of unpacking the gifts we’ve been given for the rest of our life. Faith is not mere assent to truths, much less blind submission. It’s trust in Christ. To trust in someone, you have to know something about them and have some confidence that they can do what they promise. However, faith is not saving as a virtue in itself, but because it embraces Christ who is our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. A weak faith clings to a strong Savior.

Our faith in people rises or falls with the reliability of their word. We lose our faith in a friend who promises something over and over again but never comes through. We stop believing what he or she says. A broken marriage vow cuts the cord of trust. In many cases it can be repaired, but it doesn’t come quickly. Instead of focusing on our faith, we should focus on the Triune God as the promise-maker and promise-fulfiller. Look at the history of God’s promises and his track-record in delivering. That’s what the prophets do when they contrast the reliability of Yahweh with the breathless idols. Look especially to the one in whom all of these promises reach their goal: Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return in glory at the end of the age. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor 1:20).

So we can err in either direction.

The first error is to assume that we only need to know the bare minimum that is necessary for salvation. There are too many exhortations in Scripture to go on to maturity, to grow up into Christ through the knowledge of his transforming word, and so forth. Discipleship is first and foremost a humble eagerness to hear every word that comes from the mouth of our Lord. However untaught and even confused we have been, we are called to grow up by instruction and participation in God’s means of grace. How much do we need to know? Everything.

The second error is to assume that we need to know everything correctly in order to be saved. Who among us can claim that without delusional pride? According to the Great Commission, unbelievers hear the gospel, believe, and are baptized. Then they go on to maturity. If it’s unbiblical to require people to yield blind assent (implicit faith) in everything the church teaches, it’s also unscriptural to require them to have explicit knowledge of and assent to everything Scripture teaches. Indeed, there is no expectation in Scripture that one knows explicitly even everything that is important.

Reacting against the first error, many freshly-minted reformers veer toward the second. We call it the “cage phase,” when those who’ve just discovered the doctrines of grace wonder if they were truly believers before—and question the status of everyone else who remains under the pall of ignorance. After all, Arminians believe in free will and deny God’s electing grace. They believe that people can lose their salvation if they don’t cooperate with God’s grace. How could they possibly be true believers? Aren’t they trusting partly in themselves and partly in Christ? Ironically, we end up advocating salvation by works just as surely as our worst fears concerning others. We’ve just shifted the basis from moral to doctrinal correctness. In my own cage phase I wondered if I was even a believer experiencing the “Romans revolution.” Looking back on it now, I can see how God used those early years at home and in church as crucial for developing a love for and basic knowledge of God’s Word through which God led me to the doctrines of grace. With every growth spurt, I marvel at my spiritual immaturity that, at the time, seemed like quite an advance on the previous stage. Shouldn’t that lead me to a little humility about where I am now?

How much did those folks know in order to be converted in Acts 2? God has fulfilled all of his promises to Israel in Jesus Christ, specifically in his death and resurrection. “What must we do to be saved?”, they asked. Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Ac 2:38). A drowning person doesn’t need to know a lot about the rescuer in order to place his or her confidence in that person.

Question 2 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” Answer: “Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are [Rom 3:9-10; 1 Jn 1:10]; second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery [Jn 17:3; Ac 4:12; 10:43]; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance [Mat 5:16; Rom 6:13; Eph 5:8-10; 2 Tim 2:15; 1 pet 2:9-10].” Each of these is simple enough to know in order to cling to Christ and yet deep enough to swim in throughout one’s life without touching bottom.

Trusting in a person, based on certain promises this person has made, can coexist with confusion and ignorance. One may trust in the Triune God known in Christ as he is clothed in the gospel without being able to pass a doctrinal exam. At the same time, we go on to maturity, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Savior, because we want to understand the richness, depth, and vastness of our inheritance in Christ. Faith is constantly threatened by doubts, anxieties, and circumstances; it needs to be fed regularly by God’s Word, grounded in his gospel and guided by his law. A knowledge of the gospel that you can write on a dime may direct you to Christ, but it will hardly sustain you during the crises of life. And sooner or later, it will be taken for granted like the alphabet—perhaps even forgotten.

Yes, ignorance and perhaps confusion, but what about outright denial: heresy? I’ll take up that one in the next post.

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Pilgrim Theology Now Available!!

The White Horse Inn store is now ready to ship copies of Michael Horton’s newest book Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctines for Christian Disciples. Before you head off to Amazon, know that they aren’t going to ship until February 5. Oh, and there is one other thing, only the WHI store will send you the book signed by Dr. Horton!

Get your copy today!

The 2011 award-winning publication The Christian Faith garnered wide praise as a thorough, well-informed treatment of the philosophical foundations of Christian theology, the classical elements of systematic theology, and exegesis of relevant biblical texts. Pilgrim Theology distills the distinctive benefits of this approach into a more accessible introduction designed for classroom and group study.

In this book, Michael Horton guides readers through a preliminary exploration of Christian theology in “a Reformed key.” Horton reviews the biblical passages that give rise to a particular doctrine in addition to surveying past and present interpretations. Also included are sidebars showing the key distinctions readers need to grasp on a particular subject, helpful charts and tables illuminating exegetical and historical topics, and questions at the end of each chapter for individual, classroom, and small group reflection.

Pilgrim Theology will help undergraduate students of theology and educated laypersons gain an understanding of the Christian tradition’s biblical and historical foundations.

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Les Mis and the Limits of “Redemptive” Film

It’s been out for a while, but depending on how things go at the Oscars on February 24, Les Mis may be around for a while.  We have a White Horse Inn interview on the movie here and a blog review here.  But a long-time contributor (former editor) and pastor/professor Brian Lee has a slightly different take on the film.  In keeping with our purpose of provoking good conversations, we’re delighted that Brian wrote this for our blog.

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Almost a month has passed now since a new generation of audiences have experienced the musical production of Les Miserables on the big screen. I was among those who had long heard of the redemptive power of Victor Hugo’s story, yet had never seen or read the story. Going in, I was primed to be blown away by a lifetime of sermon illustrations about silver candlesticks.

And I was indeed blown away. The ample analogies of the Law and Grace have been ably catalogued elsewhere, including in the excellent White Horse Inn discussion. Being a good Calvinist, the story already had me at its portrayal of slavery and bondage… yes, the waterworks began in the opening number. But the gracious gift of the aforementioned candlesticks, offered to the ungrateful rebel in the place of a guilty verdict, packs a big punch. The gifted candlesticks travel with Valjean through the film; a life is transformed; grace resonates through the ages. The gift is even Christological, given by a representative of Christ and premised upon his passion and blood. The Law in Javert hounds. There are echoes of the substitutionary atonement, and the recurring question whether Valjean will identify with the Old Man, the criminal, or the New.

And yet, by the closing song I was nagged by the impression that much of what had been offered me by the one hand of grace had been taken back by the other. What really surprised me in the film (and this is not a plot spoiler), was the degree to which the themes of law and grace echoed equally through the personal transformation of Valjean and the political transformation of the Paris revolutionaries. (The political background of this conflation has previously been discussed on this blog).

As much as I was emotionally drawn into the plot of personal redemption, I was somewhat surprised by this confusion of the heavenly kingdom of grace with earthly utopia. When I heard, for instance, the orphan sing of a castle on a cloud: I know a place where no one’s lost, I know a place where no one cries, crying at all is not allowed, not in my castle on a cloud… Well, I’m thinking of the Heavenly Zion, Jerusalem above, where every tear is wiped away. But in the finale the chorus sings on the barricades in Paris:

For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies… They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord… The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward. Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?

The heavenly city is an earthly Utopia. The transforming power of grace is an entirely immanent one. The sacrifice of fallen comrades in revolutionary battle is the transforming inspiration of grace that will ultimately overthrow the oppressors of the wretched, the law that demands its pound of flesh.

It was like hearing a solid Law-Gospel sermon that surprisingly closes by shifting the category back to guilt, leaving you with Law-Gospel-Law and asking, “What have you done for Jesus lately?”

Walking out of the theater, somewhat disappointed after all the build up, I wondered if I was picking nits. C’mon, man! It’s not a sermon, it’s a movie. Give your inner systematic theologian a break. There’s no such thing as a perfect analogy.

But the nagging sense continued, and I couldn’t help but believe that even the brilliant gospel images of Les Mis are ultimately a case of truth in the service of a lie. Hugo uses the emotional power of Valjean’s story to drive home a political message. There is a certain degree of manipulation involved, made worse because it runs roughshod over biblical truth.

Ultimately, the political confusion at the end of the film led me to revisit the personal story of grace in Valjean’s life, which strikes a few troubling notes. The biggest warning sign here is that Valjean is still haunted by his past at the closing of the film. Am I forgiven now? Valjean asks in his closing scene.

Perhaps this is just the lingering doubt of a troubled soul, but there is a lurking sense in which the transforming power of the story’s gracious act is more driven by guilt, than gratitude. Valjean is ever a man on the run, hunted by the Law. The Law is never satisfied, but eluded, and deceived.

Grace in Les Mis is imperfect, because there is no substitute, no one to bear Javert’s punishment on Valjean’s behalf. Valjean’s only hope of deliverance is by his transformation, and his own acts of kindness. In fact, I think it is safe to say that Hugo portrays the Law more powerfully, and more accurately, than the Gospel — at least the Hugo of the musical, I haven’t read the book. At the end of the day, there is no reconciling of grace and justice in Les Mis, and to the extent that Javert’s law grasps and grapples with Valjean’s grace, it is led to a place of utter despair. This insatiable force of the Law, it’s inability to take anything but it’s full pound of flesh, is essentially Roman Catholic in its understanding, which is not surprising given Hugo’s french context.

We tend today to think of images, and especially moving images, as a more effective medium of communication than mere words. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But as T. David Gordon points out, there are certain things that pictures can’t convey, like the gospel of justification through imputation by faith alone. This is why, in part, Paul tells us that “Faith comes from hearing.” While moving images may tug our emotions far more effectively, they lack the precision and clarity to convey saving words, the legal declaration of our covenant-making — not image making — God. Les Mis shows how emotionalism can miss the mark, and how any merely human story of redemption will tend to miss the mark.

This is not to say that the film is not great art. If you haven’t seen the film, take this criticism as an endorsement. But enjoy the film for what it is… a movie, a story. While it is natural for Christians to get excited about Gospel imagery in popular culture — and Les Mis has it in spades — we need to be aware of the limits of “redemptive” film, and preserve the category of entertainment. Unfortunately, much of the mania for redemptive cultural efforts (see this list of the Top Ten “Most Redeeming Films of 2012”), broadens the Christian concept of redemption to the point of which it is practically useless.

Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Washington, DC

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Is Science Necessarily Anti-religious?

As everybody knows, well-known biologist Richard Dawkins moonlights as a polemicist against religion. Yet recently a leading physicist described Mr. Dawkins as a “fundamentalist.” The physicist is Peter Higgs (as in Higgs Boson particle). Higgs is expected to win the Nobel prize after this summer’s discovery in Geneva supported his theory about how particles attain their mass.

Although Higgs says he is not a religious believer himself, he chalks it up to his secular upbringing. Science and religion are not incompatible, Higgs asserts, but religion needs to rethink some of its arguments in the light of contemporary science.

Recently I also had the opportunity to ask Harvard astrophysicist Owen Gingerich about the religious implications—if any—of the Higgs Boson, which has been called “The God Particle.” He was kind enough to write up the following insights exclusively for our White Horse Inn readers.

The recent discovery of evidence for the elusive and short-lived Higgs boson stirred up a great deal of short-lived press coverage. My friends knew somehow that it was Very Important, without knowing quite why, nor why it was referred to as “the God particle.” Were there deep religious connotations in this discovery?

The discovery was long ago predicted (if everything was all right with the so-called “standard model” of nuclear particles), and thus long awaited. Already two decades ago Leon Lederman, sometime director of the Fermi Lab and Nobel laureate in physics, was frustrated by the difficulty of finding the particle, and he wanted to vent his frustration by titling his forthcoming book on the elusive boson The goddamned particle. This American idiom expressed his feeling perfectly and without religious connotations, but his publisher vetoed the idea, settling simply for The God Particle. Thus, unwittingly, the pot was stirred unnecessarily for religious connections.

A similar situation has repeated over and over in seeking for the larger context of scientific findings. A particularly interesting case occurred following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Outcries that the book was antireligious brought a thoughtful response from the American botanist Asa Gray, who was a staunch Presbyterian but a serious supporter of Darwin’s evolutionary views. Gray ended his review by arguing that whereas a reader could use Darwin’s theory in support of an atheistic view of Nature, one could use any scientific theory in that way. Darwin, Gray wrote: “merely takes up a particular, proximate cause, or set of such causes, from which, it is argued, the present diversity of species has or may have contingently resulted. The author does not say necessarily resulted.”

Thus it is that cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, already known for his outspoken atheistic stance, captures the opportunity to call the Higgs boson “The Godless Particle.” It is no surprise to learn that his prior views find a confirming place for the particle in his philosophy. Likewise readers of my book, God’s Universe, will not be astonished to discover that I consider the Higg’s boson simply to be one of countless numbers God’s particles that make up the material universe. There are discoveries awaiting to be made that will surely give rise to thoughtful discussions with far more interesting philosophical issues than the discovery of evidence for the Higg’s particle. To name just one, the on-going Kepler mission, which continuously monitors approximately 150,000 stars for the brief dimming that results when a planet passes in front of one of them, has already found a couple thousand so-called exoplanets. Some of these will surely be earthlike, in the sense of being rocky bodies in just the right temperature range for liquid water and therefore possible environments for life. If we eventually find many of them, but with no evidence for life, this may support an argument for the rarity of life in the universe. On the other hand, if hints of primitive life are found, it will verify that the universe is designed to be congenial for life. Of course Lawrence Krauss will argue that the formation of life is automatic and therefore no big deal.

As we never tire of saying around here, God works through means. The Reformers emphasized that God’s glory isn’t lessened by the layers of creaturely means he uses to get something done. On the contrary, it shows just how involved God is at every level, in every event, even to bring good out of evil. Just as the Triune God works in saving grace through the ordinary means of preaching, baptism and the Supper, his common grace is evident in the layers of natural processes that his wisdom, goodness and love direct. In nature and in grace, everything holds together in Christ (Col 1:17). He is eternal Son who became flesh for us and for our salvation. Even in this game-changing event, his miraculous conception was complemented by a natural gestation and birth, like that of any other baby.

In God’s economy, extraordinary means—miracles—play nicely alongside ordinary means. Sometimes God works directly and immediately, but most of the time he works through secondary causes. Even in Genesis 1 and 2, along with the direct fiat that creates “from nothing” (ex nihilo)—”‘Let there be x.’ And there was x.”—are interlaced descriptions of a more ordinary procedure: “‘Let the earth bring forth x.’ And the earth brought forth x.” This is not a recent theory to accommodate contemporary science; it’s one of many long-standing contributions of our older theologians to contemporary conversations. This distinction has always been helpful in better days, when science and faith were on friendlier terms.

The science-religion conversation is complex, far more so than religious and anti-religious fundamentalists imagine. Yet it may be that our greatest weakness in this discussion is not traditional arguments from the past, but the fact that we have largely forgotten what they were.

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

I need to let you know that we need your help. The White Horse Inn is a listener supported broadcast dedicated to recovering the clarity of the gospel of grace in our time, and we really need your help to continue with this mission now more than ever. We’re a relatively small organization without a lot of overhead, but we’re currently facing a significant budgetary shortfall and as a result we’re going to need to make some significant cuts in the very near future. If the message that we proclaim week after week really resonates with you and you’ve never supported us financially, now is the time to get behind us. As we’re nearing the end of the year, please consider making a one time gift or signing up as a monthly supporter. Or even if you are already a supporter, consider signing up a friend or relative as a Innkeeper, Architect or Reformer so that they begin receiving the monthly CDs and a subscription to Modern Reformation. For more information, give us a call at 1-800-890-7556 or visit the support tab at whitehorseinn.org.

We’re excited to begin working our way through the Gospel of John in 2013! It’s probably the most famous book in the Bible. John’s Gospel is portion of Scripture we often recommend first to new Christians, and it’s led more people to Jesus than just about any other document. But even though it so plainly sets forth Christ to the beginning reader of Scripture, its treasures can’t be exhausted throughout the course of any person’s life. For the next few months the hosts will be mining the riches from this amazing text, and through this study we hope to deepen your understanding of, and love for, the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Click on the audio file below for a preview of our next series on the White Horse Inn.

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The Real War on Christmas

I’d like to add a couple of chapters to C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Not to say that I’m up to it, but some thoughts spring to mind. Here’s a go at one of the new letters from the senior demon to his nephew-apprentice Wormwood, counseling the junior tempter as to how he can more effectively seduce “the Patient”:

You can’t do it all at once and you can’t do it one by one. You’ll have to work very hard to change the whole framework of a generation’s assumed convictions. The way you should do this won’t make sense at first, but I assure you that it works. You have to shift their habits of thinking from the more serious to the more trivial (without blowing your cover and provoking the opposite reaction). Affirm the second-best thing against the first-best, then the third-best against the second-best, and so on. Here’s what I mean.

First, encourage them to take their faith for granted, by relying on what others believe. Distract them from explicit concern to a foggy memory of slogans and phrases they learned in their nurseries. This shouldn’t be difficult. They’ve grown up in it, after all. The Enemy uses that to his benefit, so we should too. It doesn’t really matter if they assent to beliefs about the Trinity, the Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, and all, as long as they don’t know why they believe it or why it matters. Get them somehow to think that the Enemy is either too far away to really care about them or so near that he’s a harmless pet—even better, their own inner voice. But the important thing here is to dissuade them from reflecting on what happened—you know, the stuff you’ve heard about “Immanuel: God with us.”

Second, now that they have begun to take it all for granted and wear it lightly, affirm the importance of spirituality, feeling, and doing good to others. That’s already there in the Enemy’s speeches, of course, but separate all of this from the question of truth. If possible (and it is, I assure you), use these very “virtues” celebrated by the Enemy as weapons against the doctrine. As long as they keep him in their private experience, but don’t really think of the Enemy entering history and bringing “salvation” to “sinners,” we should have less trouble with them spreading their nonsense. Help them to shift the burden of their religion from public truth to personal experience and happiness. Then, once they run into some rough patches they’ll realize it doesn’t work. The key: just keep it all light and superficial. There should be plenty of good resources already available for that sort of thing. Soon, they’ll forget it altogether.

Third, now they’ll be ripe for an outright offensive strategy on your part. Now that the “weightiness” of the Enemy’s speeches have been drained from their daily routines, and they think, feel, and live more like us, attack the beliefs straight-on. They already wear them lightly, so, with a little sophistry, they shouldn’t be likely to hold onto them too dearly. At this point, though, while you’re doing this, be careful to assure them of the good that religion can do in the world. I know that it works against your grain, but it does work in the end. For example, make them deeply concerned to celebrate Christmas and Easter as cultural holidays. They really love Christmas. Puff the holiday, but add in all sort of other things that make it sentimental rather than serious. They can still have the trappings; the important thing at this stage is that they let go of what it meant. Maybe they’ll start thinking of the Enemy’s so-called “achievements” no longer as an announcement but as a philosophy for living, cultural values, and that sort of thing. Just get it out of the sphere of “Good News,” as some of them still call it. Again, there should be plenty of resources near at hand for you to use—especially look for ones that they produce themselves!

OK, I don’t know if that works as fiction. But, sadly, it has worked in reality. Check out this provocative article in the Daily Telegraph: “Britain Will Miss Christianity When It’s Gone.”

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“One of them Got Better”

Recently Dr. Horton responded to Bill O’Reilly’s statements about Christianity not being a religion but a philosophy (see A Dangerous Christmas). This past Monday it almost seemed as if Jon Stewart of The Daily Show had read Dr. Horton’s post because he correctly understands the truth claims of Christianity that need to be believed concerning Christ being true God as well as the fact that Christ rose from the dead, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Stewart even admits that though he knows these central doctrines of the Christian Faith and could “pass the philosophy test,” he does not trust in Christ and therefore, “doesn’t get to go to the afterparty.”

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