White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

WHI-1136 | An Introduction to The Gospel of John

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.

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Immanuel: God With Us
Michael Horton
Jehovah’s Witnesses & Jesus Christ
Bruce Metzger (offsite PDF)

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Zac Hicks

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RECOMMENDED BOOKS

John
R. C. Sproul
Gospel of John
F.F. Bruce

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The Messiah
WHI-1078

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.

WHI-1135 | That’s Your Interpretation!

How do we respond to someone who dismisses your understanding of Scripture by saying, “Well, that’s your interpretation”? What should we say when a Bible study leader asks the question, “What does this verse mean to you?” How do we know if we are interpreting the Bible correctly? Is there even such a thing as a “correct” interpretation? The hosts will address these questions and more on this edition of White Horse Inn (originally broadcast Mar 25, 2007).

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Dave Hlebo

PROGRAM AUDIO


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WHI-1134 | Sexual Abuse & The Gospel of Grace

According to a host of recent indicators, sexual assault is on the rise, and unfortunately it appears to be occurring just as frequently inside the church as it is in the outside world. So how are we to deal with this growing challenge? More importantly, how are we to apply the gospel of grace to both victims and perpetrators of this type of abuse? On this program Michael Horton discusses this issue at length with Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, authors of Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.

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On The Grace of God
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How Much Is Paris Worth?

Reviews of Victor Hugo’s 19th-century classic Les Miserables shouldn’t be too miserable, right? Sadly, I may disappoint you in what follows—I do not provide much insight into the relationship between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, between the ex-con full of grace and the bulldog Law-man. For such discussions, please refer to the recent podcast with Dr. Horton and David Zahl.

Instead, I propose that we look at a somewhat underappreciated but enticing question raised by Hugo’s magnum opus: how do the micro-level interactions of individual characters (Valjean, Javert, the romantic revolutionary Marius, the street urchin Gavroche, etc.)  and the macro-level concerns of government, rebellion, and peace coalesce in Les Mis?

So, here’s the de rigueur plot summary (with little to no spoilers): Les Miserables is a sprawling epic of early 19th-century France and the post-Napoleon French monarchy, focusing on the life of Valjean, who is released from a 19-year prison sentence and resolves to reform his life, enriching the life and prosperity of a small French town. Unfortunately, the strong arm of the law pursues him in the form of Javert, a police inspector. Valjean rescues Cosette, a dying widow’s daughter, from servitude and the pair seek shelter in the metropolis of Paris. A decade passes and anti-royalist sentiment grows. Hugo then depicts the rise and fall of the 1832 Revolt—for the rest, you’ll have to read or watch the movie!

How then do these disparate characters come together as a whole? The answer lies in the omnipresence of Hugo as narrator. Hugo’s presence as narrator in Les Mis is more akin to the blatant power of a jackbooted thug than the subtle gossip of a Parisian salon: every other page reveals yet another authorial foray into historical, philosophical, social, or cultural analysis. On one level this is what you and I expect from a 19th century novelist—obvious and passionate social critique, coupled with rigorous descriptions of daily life. Hugo tries with all his detailed research and writing panache to force a revolution in the very hearts and minds of his readers—you and I are brought into the vivid story of Valjean, Marius, Gavroche, Mabeuf, and Cosette. Scene after scene evokes our compassion, breaks our hearts. We are compelled to see Hugo’s vision: the outcasts, sinners, widows and orphans of Paris and of France—along with a dollop of Progress and revolution, will fuse kindness and martyrdom to create a future heaven on earth. In a phrase, Hugo desperately seeks to instill the virtues, values, and mindset of “pure religion” (James 1:27) in his readers.

At another level, however, the Sisyphean efforts of Hugo to cause an internal insurrection evoke not the impassioned cry of disciples, but the sad image of an apocalypse gone bad. A picture of this desperation is found in Hugo’s revolutionaries (Marius et al): they allude constantly to ancient Rome and Greece, to Napoleon and Washington, to the past—yet they also speak of the oh-so-close future era when the July Monarchy will be destroyed and (republican) peace will reign forevermore. In other words, through these characters, Hugo narrows past, present, and future into one apocalyptic moment—the hopes and dreams of all the years. To speak theologically, Hugo is attempting to immanantize the eschaton, to bring about the consummate Utopia in the streets of Paris.

But the bloodstained cobblestones echo ghastly failure. The disappointment of the 1832 revolt ultimately speaks of deferred eschatology—Hugo himself knew that even the great revolutions of 1848 did not bring peace on earth. Yet he details the history of this Parisian riot, I believe, for one crucial reason—to spark not only passion, but also pity and virtue. And here is where the micro and macro levels combine, showing how Les Mis rends hearts asunder. For while Valjean’s grace-soaked success gives internal hope to all who read, the institutional failure of Marius and co. gives external pause. Hugo begs his readers to finish what he has started in their hearts, to complete the insurrection.
How best to respond to Hugo’s evocative plea? As we celebrate this Christmas Day, the answer should be clear. You and I are not les miserables in the story of a pillaging author, a tyrant whose rampaging words plunder our hearts and leave nothing but smoke and fire.

Rather, we are this day in the presence of the author-turned-outcast. The Incarnation resounds like a sonic boom around the world—the Creator has become the creature. Hugo may have eaten zoo animals during the Paris Commune, but he remained a celebrity, never coming near to Cosette’s orphaned state. The Lord Jesus Christ took on flesh in a way that Hugo could only dream, utterly fulfilling the command to love God and love his neighbor, yet cast out from Jerusalem, left to die as a convicted criminal. Neither saintly bishop nor Romantic rebel was there to save him. Is the death of Christ merely another footnote to add to Hugo’s list of failures? If so, where is the vaunted Utopia?

Reflecting upon the nature of rebellions, Hugo places an insightful line in the middle of Les Mis: “An insurrection may become a resurrection”.  How right he is in his goal of new creation, yet Hugo’s resurrection would come about through internal swelling of virtue in our happy hearts, when the innate goodness of humanity rebelled against oppressive powers.

In sharp contrast, the insurrection of Christ does not speak of overthrowing political foes by barricades or sheer kindness, but of and by the vicarious death of the author. The revolution of Jesus does not advance through human grasping at heaven, but through the inbreaking of the Word into our sordid and miserable state. As brilliant as the story of Valjean is, we are plunged back into the miserable narratives of our own lives the moment we finish Les Mis. The true story of Christ is far more radical, imaginative, and effective—those who revolt against the Law are gunned down yet reborn by the Gospel. In short, Hugo’s vision is realized not in the Third, Fourth, or Fifth French Republics but ultimately in the church, in the king and citizenry of the New Jerusalem. At the end of the day, we are all royalists.

Paris is worth neither a Mass nor the masses. Paris, like New York or Los Angeles, like all that throbs with power, success, and privilege in our world, pales in comparison to the city whose builder and architect is God, whose king is neither impotent nor tyrannical, but who is gathering and will gather all his people, whether outcast or rebel, no matter their misery.

John Stovall is a M. Div candidate (2013) at Westminster Seminary California and a licentiate in the Presbyterian Church in America.

WHI-1133 | The Gospel According to Isaiah, Part 6

On this program the hosts will wrap up their six-part series by walking through the “servant songs” of Isaiah. Again we discover the theme that this servant will not merely restore the tribes of Jacob but will become “a light for the nations.” He will “sprinkle many nations” by being “stricken, smitten and afflicted.” “All we like sheep have gone astray… but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” This was to be the heart of the messiah’s mission, “to give his life as a ransom for many.”

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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.

WHI-Bonus | Law, Gospel & Les Miserables

On this special BONUS edition of the White Horse Inn Michael Horton and David Zahl explore many of the rich themes found in Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Miserables. This discussion is especially relevant in light of the highly anticipated release of a film adaptation of Boublil and Schönberg’s musical of the same title which will appear in theaters on Christmas Day. In particular Horton and Zahl discuss the themes of grace and redemption as it unfolds throughout the story, and the way in which the two characters, Javert and Jean Valjean, end up personifying both the unbending nature of the law, and the incredible liberation of the gospel of grace.

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The Return of Les Mis…,
David Zahl (offsite)
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PROGRAM AUDIO


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WHI-1132 | The Gospel According to Isaiah, Part 5

Isaiah’s mission was to pronounce both law and gospel. As God’ prosecuting attorney, he was called to pronounce the covenant curses on unfaithful and disobedient Israel. Yet in the midst of all these “woes,” we continue to discover more and more about God’s messianic promise. In the days of this coming redeemer, Jerusalem will become a “herald of good news” and God will “tend his flock like a shepherd.” On this program the hosts will walk through chapters 26 through 40 of Isaiah’s amazing prophecy.

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PROGRAM AUDIO


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A Review of The Hobbit (The book, not the movie)

Reviewing literature can be a daunting task—the interplay of author, characters, plot, motifs, and my own thoughts is a complex thing. And when the book under review is The Hobbit, a work both popular and well-studied, the tension is ratcheted up.

Nevertheless, in what follows, I give a brief overview of J. R. R. Tolkien’s first published entry into Middle-Earth and Bilbo Baggins—in case you’ve only just begun to read in anticipation of the cinematic experience later this week or have never ventured into a land flowing with hobbits and dragons. What you’ll encounter is not only the bare plotline of strange whimsy, but the conjunction of this present age and an age long past: the old and the new collide in the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.

While many have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, a slightly different fantasy appears in The Hobbit. Written with an eye to children, it presents a tale of Bilbo, hobbit ordinaire. Pressed into service with a band of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf, Bilbo embarks on a quest for lost treasure whose twists and turns have enthralled for decades.

I could go on about Smaug the dragon, Beorn, trolls, and wood-elves, but I trust that you will read or see them soon enough. Instead, I’d like to talk about a couple of subtle elements that lurk beneath and behind the scenes of Tolkien’s Hobbit.

First is the element of history. The world of The Hobbit, this Middle-Earth, is not quite the filled-out world with lurid and detailed maps that it will become when Frodo Baggins appears on the scene. Bilbo’s home is called “The Hill”, not Hobbiton; there is a noticeable lack of any description of Gondor or Mordor; the great evil Sauron is merely the “Necromancer”. Tolkien, in other words, is writing here for children, not adults—the rush and flood of names would bog down most young readers.

Despite this comparative lack of detail, there is still the inescapable sense that the history and world of The Hobbit is not simply window-dressing, not merely an artificial stage concocted for a one-off story. Middle-Earth pulses with history—the aura of the ancient is palpable. Tolkien’s world is not like so much of the fantasy literature you and I see nowadays—filled with names compiled by pushing consonants through a random-number generator—it has coherence and substance outside of The Hobbit. The world Bilbo inhabits, so we gather as we read, can exist without him: indeed, Middle-Earth is different from him. He (as the English are wont to do) may enjoy tea-time, butchers, and an efficient post office. Elves, dwarves, and dragons know little of such things.

So just like us readers, Bilbo begins the tale as a modern hobbit living in an ancient world—the second element. He hears noises that sound like the rumble of steam engines—an anachronistic touch in fantasy, but perfectly normal in 20th century England. Whereas the Harry Potter series (for instance) solves the ancient-modern conundrum by positioning its wizarding world upon 21st century “Muggle” England, Tolkien takes a different tack. He places modern tastes, values, and phrases in the character of Bilbo, forcing an interaction and clash between the ‘old world’ of Middle-Earth and the new world of industry and individuality.

Yet as the story advances, the aura and enchantments of Middle-Earth begin to worm and work their ways into Bilbo’s modern soul. By the time he encounters the “small slimy creature Gollum”, Bilbo’s perception has changed:

“…his hand came upon the hilt of his little sword…somehow he was comforted. It was rather splendid to be wearing a blade made in Gondolin for the goblin-wars of which so many songs had sung…”

The young hobbit, originally pictured as a middle-class English type—a love of clocks, precision, and technology uppermost in his mind—is thus slowly transformed into a man with one (hairy) foot in both worlds. Look at, for instance, the “bravest thing” Bilbo does: it is not the clash of weapons or the fire of dragons he must ultimately conquer, but himself. The real battle, according to Tolkien, is braving the warren of dark tunnels close to the snoring dragon Smaug. This internal conflict between bravery and fear is not prominent in ancient literature, but pervades modern, angst-driven literature. Bilbo does not lose his modernity, he rather adds to it the positive qualities of Middle-Earth. Chief among these old-world characteristics are dignity in the face of crisis and loyalty to one’s friends (as seen through the interactions of the dwarves with each other).

Whether this theme of ancient pasture transmuting modern piston is a thinly veiled attempt to critique mid-20th century modernity is not my concern: Bilbo bridges the gap between the age of today and the age of yesterday, yet the seeming contradictions of old and new are not fully resolved in Bilbo’s life.

For you and me, though, does The Hobbit offer a similar experience? Can we read it and be shaped by its world or values, or is this fantasy literature merely a decent bedtime story for children? In a word, yes—Tolkien’s fictional and fantastical elements, though marketed widely today, should not obscure the richness of his characters nor the interplay between the two ages of Middle-Earth and our Earth. The emotional depth present in the short-temper of Gandalf or the animalistic ferocity of Beorn are not for children only, but are reminiscent of the unique peccadillos of your friends, neighbors, and even your very self. Seeing these emotions and these dual ages writ fantastic on the pages of The Hobbit should whet your appetite—not just for the movie or for more Tolkien, but for a quest which, ultimately, resolves.


John Stovall is a M. Div candidate (2013) at Westminster Seminary California and a licentiate in the Presbyterian Church in America.

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