White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Basic Apologetics: How can I know that God exists?

William Cwirla (LCMS): We know things in a variety of ways. We know things empirically, the way we know a scientific fact. For instance, we know that water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen because we can analyze water and literally take it apart. Since God can’t be measured or tested scientifically, we can’t know of God’s existence that way.

I’ve never been terribly impressed by the various “proofs” for the existence of God. All of them seem to lead to so much logical or philosophical arm wrestling, the God of logical necessities. I think these arguments are much more meaningful to believers than they are to skeptics.

We also know things inductively and retroductively, the way we know facts of history or the way a jury is convinced of a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt” by the evidence. The Apostle Paul writes that the pagans, who do not have the revealed Word, can still know something about God. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19-20). The Divine Suspect left his fingerprints.

Here, science has unwittingly done a decent job dusting for divine fingerprints. The finely-tuned order of the universe in a delicate balance of universal physical constants, the apparent rarity of Earth as a life-sustaining planet, the wonderful complexity of biological systems, and the intricacies of the genetic code all make a strong case for the existence of God. Like any circumstantial evidence case, there are always alternative explanations, so one can never be absolutely certain in knowing God this way, only reasonably certain.

This sort of natural knowledge of God is also quite limited. We can know of his eternal power and deity, namely that God transcends time and space and that he is omnipotent and omniscient and whatever other “omni” you can think of, but we can’t know anything about his character or person. That must ultimately be revealed to us.

To know Jesus Christ is to know God. He is the fullness of the Deity dwelling among us bodily. This kind of knowing is different from knowing facts about God or studying God the way one studies biology or chemistry. This is knowing in the biblical use of that word, as in entering into a relationship with someone. “This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).

The Incarnation is the grand revelation of God who’s been at work in, with, and under the created order from the beginning. He shows his face in the face of the Son of the Virgin, the Man of the Cross. If you want to know God, you need to learn from Jesus, the Son of God, the Word made flesh. You can be as certain of the existence of God as you are certain of the existence of the historic figure named Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God, and offered a variety of signs, culminating in his own predicted death and resurrection.

Michael Brown (URC): We know that God exists because he has revealed himself to us. He has done this in two ways: through creation (which we call his general revelation) and Scripture (which we call his special revelation). Many people try to avoid the latter, but no one can escape the former. General revelation is something that all people experience. It is, as Article 2 of The Belgic Confession puts it, “before our eyes as a most beautiful book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters leading us to perceive clearly the invisible things of God.” Like a book that tells a story, nature communicates a message-one that is understood by all people irrespective of their location, language, or education. This is precisely what David says in Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their measuring line goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4a).

Every day, nature reveals to the world the existence of its Creator. The rising of the sun and the shining of the stars say unequivocally to mankind: You are a creature living in the Creator’s universe. This, as Paul says in Romans 1:19-20, leaves people without excuse: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

Man cannot accuse God of not revealing himself. No one will ever be able to say, You didn’t give me enough evidence, God; I didn’t know that you existed! The fact is that every person knows God exists. Every human being knows something about God’s eternal power and deity by what is clearly perceived in nature. Moreover, as Paul points out in Romans 2:14-15, God has planted in the soul of every human being a basic awareness of God and his law. Calvin called this the sensus divinitatis-an elementary, intuitive perception of God’s existence.

Consequently, before a Christian even opens her mouth to give an argument for the existence of God, the unbeliever already knows that God exists. The unbeliever’s problem is not that he doesn’t know this, but that he hates and suppresses what he already knows to be true. This, according to Paul, is the indictment that God gives to the entire human race when he says: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Thus, “How can I know God exists?” is the wrong question. The question that the unbeliever needs to ask is, “How can I be saved from the wrath of God?”

Jason Stellman (PCA): This is such a profound question, but what makes it especially interesting is the fact that the Bible (which is the primary source of our knowledge about God) never actually argues for his existence. Instead,it presupposes it with the opening words of its first book, Genesis: “In the beginning, God… ” To those who doubt his existence, Psalm 14 just responds, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”

But when you think about it, it shouldn’t be that surprising that the existence of God is considered to be as central and basic as the Bible implies. After all, we all hold beliefs for which we have no proof and for which we never think to argue (such as the belief that truthfulness is better than lying, or that it is wrong to torture children for fun). Now I’m not saying that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated, it certainly can, but our belief in him is only strengthened by such evidence, it is not founded on it.

Though Scripture, as I said, doesn’t furnish us with arguments for God’s existence, it does appeal to his handiwork as a demonstration of his power and wisdom. Speaking of pagan idolaters, Paul insisted that they “knew God” and had witnessed “his eternal power and divine nature” by observing the wonders of creation. Yet because of the darkness of their hearts men refuse to glorify him, and choose rather to serve creatures instead of the Creator. Man’s “atheism,” therefore, is a farce. His “intellectual doubt” is often a moral refusal to admit what his eyes and heart plainly testify-that there is a God to whom he is accountable.

When you look at it this way, I guess you could turn the issue on its head and argue that God doesn’t believe in atheists.

A. Craig Troxel (OPC): Many people in the West respond to the reality of religious pluralism by affirming that all religions are really the same. But one problem with such a viewpoint is that it seeks to domesticate religions by stripping them of all that is unique about them. Certain beliefs must be sacrificed in order to amalgamate religions into parallel or analogous ways to God. The distinctive elements of the various religions are pured into one flavor-and by an “outsider”-who is an expert and, of course, has our best interest in mind. As Steve Turner puts it tongue-in-cheek, “We believe that religions are basically the same. …They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.”

The religion that is least conducive to such reductionism is Christianity, because the person who is least tamable is Christ. You cannot begin to treat Christ as merely a prophet or wise teacher (like Moses, Mohammed, Confucius, or Buddha). Yet in order to assert that the Christian faith is just another brand or label of one all-purpose universal religion, you must essentially gut the Christian faith of all its content, much in the same way that a modern taxidermist removes all of a fish so that hardly anything remains when it is mounted on the wall.

For example, in order to make his point, John Hicks argued in God Has Many Names that Jesus never designated himself as Messiah, never thought of himself as divine, and that the incarnation is a mythical idea applied to Jesus. Jesus gets reduced to being our “saving point of contact” with God. This is a huge distortion of Jesus’ declaration to be “the way, the truth and the life” and that people should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Emphasizing this truth, and the truth of his substitutionary death, resurrection from the dead, and future return is not a static or freeze-dried view of truth. It is the truth that set us free.

Next in the series: How can I know that the Bible is true?

From Modern Reformation (March/April 2006): “Does God Believe in Atheists?”

Succession: Ministers or Ministry?

There have been some interesting discussions lately on the blogs about “pastoral succession.” Don Carson discusses this issue with Tim Keller and John Piper at The Gospel Coalition site. Anyone in the middle of this process—or anticipating it—will benefit from their sage advice. Over at Reformation 21, Carl Trueman offered some wise thoughts of his own on the conversation.

Eventually, every church has to think through the connection between faith and practice when it comes time to call a new pastor. I’d like to tweak the conversation a little bit by raising the question of paradigms.  Are we looking for a certain kind of minister or, first and foremost, for a certain kind of ministry?  Is our “job description” determined by the charisma, style, accomplishments—and genuine gifts—of the minister or by the qualifications that Paul lays out in the pastoral epistles?

On one hand, pastoral succession can be a time of crisis.  Sometimes the crisis results from poor leadership.  The natural assets that make someone a great leader in business, entertainment, or politics may also become liabilities in ministry.  In the church, poor leadership doesn’t necessarily mean a failure to instill the confidence of others; it can actually be just such confidence that weighs a minister down and makes it really hard on the next guy.  In the church at least, poor leadership means creating a situation in which the minister, not the ministry, becomes the means of grace.

On the other hand, pastoral succession problems can also indicate a healthy church.  In my circles, we care about who follows famously faithful pastors, but we should care as much about who follows a faithful pastor down the street.  We care about “succession” because we care about God’s covenant faithfulness “to a thousand generations.”

Healthy churches may hit some rough water in the interim between pastors.  Even when the ministry has been faithful over many years, alas, the fruit of the flesh that the apostles diagnosed in their own church plants blossoms from a conquered but sturdy weed.  After years of keeping everyone’s eye on the Word, loss of godly leadership can often disintegrate quickly into squabbles over secondary issues.

However, when discussing pastoral succession, we have to beware of following a paradigm of leadership that is not consistent with our place in redemptive history.  Born in the “Jesus Movement” of the 1970s, one non-denominational denomination with which many of us southern Californians are familiar adopted the “Moses Leadership” model, which places all the power in the church in the hands of the pastor, who (like Moses) was directly accountable to God. Understandably, this rather “papal” form of government raises questions of succession to a new level.

At the same time, I wonder if we all obsess too much over pastoral succession these days.  We remember Calvin more than Beza because, among other things, the former turned the church in Geneva around; yet Beza had more direct influence in the international reformation in some ways than his predecessor.  There is a danger in looking for successors to a minister; what we should really be looking for is the succession of the ministry: the Word rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and the church’s doctrine, worship, government, and life regulated by Scripture.

Once upon a time there were no church marquees.  You just walked to your neighborhood parish church.  But even marquees used to have the name of the church and the text for the sermon that week.  Now it’s pretty universal to have the name of the pastor—and the name of the minister who is preaching that week.  Even in good churches, one sometimes hears people say, “Did you know So-and-So is preaching this week?”  In some cases, people even visit another church to hear the famous preacher.

When it comes to pastoral succession, I can’t help but let my presbyterian colors show.  At the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), even when the apostles were still living, it was “the apostles and elders” who made the decision that all the churches were to receive.  I’m always baffled when brothers and sisters say that presbyterian polity is “hierarchical” or “clerical.”  Actually, it’s just the opposite.  Spreading out the authority among ministers (teaching elders) and ruling elders, equally, both locally and in wider assemblies, means that no church or minister is more important than another.  It also means that the majority of each local session or consistory consists of laypeople rather than clerics.  Although ordained for their service, ruling elders are not full-time ministers.  They do not preach and teach.  Nevertheless, pastors do not rule and they definitely don’t run the temporal affairs of the church (the proper province of deacons).

In calling a pastor, the local session or consistory calls a congregational election to form a pulpit search committee and recommends a candidate.  After congregational approval, the candidate is examined by the presbytery or classis and upon successful examination is installed as pastor.  Following this covenantal logic, it has usually been the practice in Reformed and Presbyterian churches for the incumbent minister to recuse himself from the process entirely.

The apostolic ministry was extraordinary: the foundation-laying era of the new covenant church (1 Cor 3:10-11).  Although Paul could appeal to no human authority higher than his own office, he encouraged Timothy to recall the gift he received at his ordination, “when the council of elders [presbyteriou] laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:14).  None of us is a Moses.  None is a Paul or a Peter.  We are all “Timothys,” not adding to the apostolic deposit, but guarding and proclaiming it (1 Tim 6:20).

Carl Trueman wisely reminds us: “The elite watchmaker Patek Philippe had a slogan at one time that was something like this: `You never really own a Patek Philippe; you merely look after it for the next generation.’”  Thus it is with churches, in terms of the vibrancy of their life and their orthodoxy.  Those privileged enough to be involved in the appointment of their own successors, or those who can merely shape the nature of the session which will oversee the search, need to make sure they make the right choices. They do not own the church; they are merely looking after her for the next generation.

WHI-1055 | Consumers or Disciples?

In John chapter 6, Jesus begins to attract very large crowds. But is this necessarily a good thing? Are all the people in these crowds really disciples, or merely consumers who are looking to Jesus to solve their temporal problems? How does Jesus deal with this issue, and what are the implications of all this for our own view of ministry and discipleship? That’s the focus of this edition of the White Horse Inn: know what you believe and why you believe it!

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Made in America
Michael Horton
The Gospel According to John
D.A. Carson
The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton

PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Andrew Osenga

When Supporters Need Support

We rely on the faithful support of our monthly partners who commit to regular giving in support of our mission and work. But, sometimes our most faithful supporters show signs of addiction to the White Horse Inn. Now, there’s a support program for you! Thanks to our own Shane Rosenthal (executive producer of White Horse Inn) who found this great church sign yesterday.

I wonder if their communion is shaken, not stirred?

In keeping with our funny church name theme this week, this picture of St. James-Bond United Church was sent in yesterday. The correspondent says that it was demolished in 2006. Wikipedia says that it was located in Toronto.

New Audio from Mike Horton

On June 14th, Mike Horton was pleased to be Scott Oakland’s guest on ReformedCast. Mike and Scott spent a few minutes talking about Mike’s book, Christless Christianity, and the state of evangelicalism today.

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Review of “The Adjustment Bureau”

The Man vs. The Plan

Walk down any street in London and you will be caught on camera. Why? Because there are half a million cameras to make sure that Big Brother is watching you, making certain that every move you make is according to plan.

This week the movie The Adjustment Bureau fixed itself onto shelves and RedBoxes worldwide (coming soon to all of us who must wait for Netflix streaming). Why should this concern you? Because age old themes of free will and fate collide on celluloid giving life to an old Philip K. Dick story.

The movie begins with young hotshot politician David Norris (Matt Damon) running for senate in New York. On the night of his greatest political defeat he meets the love of his life, Elise (Emily Blunt), and departs from their potent interchange to make the greatest defeat/comeback speech a politician has ever produced. But he was never supposed to meet her. After his meeting he gets ruffed up by the Adjustment Bureau, a group determined to see the Plan carried out. These 1950’s IBM salesmen look-a-likes, armed with notebooks and fedoras, make sure that everyone stays on track and on Plan. You see, David Norris was in love and that put him off track. Now these “adjusters”  will do whatever it takes to keep him on the Plan and away from Elise. Why? Because the Plan says so. Ironically, these grey stalkers don’t even understand why the Plan must be followed, only that it must.

In all of the hustle and bustle of the movie, the director and writer paid keen attention to detail. In one scene, after a character is ‘adjusted’, he walks out of his room and ‘adjusts’ the picture that is crooked providing an interesting non verbal commentary on the movie’s theme.  The dialogue is clean crisp and sharp like a bite of cheddar. The attention to detail is elevated by the dialogue. When David and Elise meet, the chemists go home because the shop got blown up with their energy in the dialogue. These elements make this movie quick and enjoyable.

The Adjustment Bureau takes the place of some sort of higher power imposing its plan on lemming humans. And as the Adjustment Bureau enforces their plan, free will and fate collide. David Norris can “listen to the hand of fate, or follow his heart and go after her” says Director George Nolfi. The question strikes the audience: will you follow your free will or succumb to the nonsense of ‘The Plan’?

The point of contact with our friends, neighbors, and relatives can be found in questions such as, “Do you think anyone is watching over you?” or “Has your life ever been adjusted?” But we cannot forget the difference between free will and free agency. free agency is the ability to choose a differing path in this world while free will refers specifically to moral or spiritual good. Thus humans can choose anything they want in this world, such as chocolate or vanilla ice cream, and are held responsible for their choices, but they can never choose their way into being as good as God. Humans can never reach up to heaven and grab our destiny.

As you walk around this week and see the cameras taking pictures of people running stop lights, who’s watching you?

Reviewed by Nic Lazzareschi & John Stovall

Hungry?

Yesterday we pointed out that Lutherans are cool–at least in Cool, California! Today we received evidence from our Orange County correspondent that Presbyterians are hungry–at least in North Carolina.

Review of “The Tree of Life”

Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life, will provoke considerable discussion and debate on many levels. Malick, 68, also directed The Thin Red Line and was one of the producers of Amazing Grace.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  After enduring the theological prattle and wrestling of Job himself, God finally steps into the conversation with that famous rhetorical question (Job 38:4,7).  This verse opens “The Tree of Life,” starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as parents of three pre-teens growing up in Waco, Texas.  Sean Penn makes a late appearance as the oldest son as an adult.

Perhaps “story” overstates the narrative character of this movie.  Director and writer Terrence Malick puts the “cinema” back into movies with this controversial film.  (The audience at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, ranged from ovation to boos, and it’s provoking similar reactions this week.)   Astonishing vignettes are woven throughout the film of natural wonders from the Big Bang to, apparently, something like the Big Crunch, with volcanoes, seas, and dinosaurs in between.  At first, these seem distracting, but it becomes clear that they are the “big picture” context for which the family story serves as a microcosm.

There isn’t much dialogue, which has been distressing to many initial movie-goers who expected more of the usual blockbuster film with these stars.  However, it’s very philosophical—even theological.  And there is definitely a story that, in my view at least, doesn’t get lost in but is rather deepened by the bigger questions.

Toward the beginning—I think it may be the opening spoken lines, the narrator says that “there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace.”  “Nature is willful, it only wants to please itself, to have its own way.”  On the other hand, “grace” is “smiling through all things.”  According to the way of grace, “the only way to be happy is to love.”

Artists like Malick will probably turn up their nose at attempts to summarize “what the film is about,, but that’s what this film is “about”: nature and grace.  Besides the obvious reference to the “two ways,” the father—a strict disciplinarian—is “nature” and the mother—fountain of unconditional love and generosity—is “grace.”  The last line in the movie (as I recall anyway) is the oldest son’s recognition, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me.”

The father takes his family to church, occasionally prays, and loves music, but basically he failed to pursue his dream early in life.  He takes out the frustrations for his own self-doubt on his boys, especially the oldest, who says in one moving scene to his father, “You wish I were dead, don’t you?” (In an interview at Cannes, Bratt Pitt said he was raised much like the son, in a conservative Christian family, with a graceless father.  “It was a pretty stifling environment,” he said.)

Basically, the nature-grace thing is told with a pretty Roman Catholic twist, too.  Malick, who was raised in the Bible belt (interestingly, Waco), attended an Episcopal school and went on to study philosophy at Harvard and Oxford (Magdalen College, with philosopher Gilbert Ryle as his supervisor).  Reformed theologians have been tweaking Roman Catholic tails for some time now over the way in which the latter seems to turn everything into a nature-grace instead of a sin-grace problem.  Briefly put, Rome teaches that grace elevates or perfects nature, raising it from its imperfect natural state into a supernatural condition.  A perennial Reformed objection is that this makes nature—creation—inherently flawed and demands that it becomes something other than what God created it to be in order to be truly “good.”  And that also means that grace is the infusion of divine goodness and love into the soul, to raise the creature from being trapped in earthly (material) things.  In ever-ascending steps, the soul climbs the ladder toward the light of the beatific vision.

Something of this almost dualistic view of nature and grace forms the philosophical backbone of this story.  After a tragedy in the family (can’t divulge that one!), everyone is asking Job’s perennial questions.  Nature clearly has no answers, but grace stumbles, too.  Much of the dialogue is directed from the characters to God.  At no point is grace identified with Christ.  In fact, it’s a version of salvation-by-love.  The mother still trusts God’s purposes, while the father can’t understand why this has happened to him, since he prays and tithes regularly.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, but it’s provoked by the film itself.  Intentional or not, the movie exhibits some of the deep ontological flaws in Roman Catholic theology.  It’s not just a doctrine here or there, but a worldview in which nature tends toward evil and grace, rather than being God’s favor toward sinners on account of Christ, is a cosmic-metaphysical substance infused into the world to make it, well, less worldly.  Add to this the incarnation of the nature-grace antithesis in the father-mother antithesis, and you see some of the darker aspects of this system at a pretty deep level.  Perhaps the heavenly Father, too, wishes we were dead?  There is one particularly arresting prayer, “Why should we be good if you aren’t?”  A close second is the simple prayer, in the face of despair, “Who are we to you?”

The nature-father vs. grace-mother business is underscored also by the powerful, arbitrary, and destructive forces of cosmic evolution in the stunning vignettes scattered throughout.  At least in a lot of popular Roman Catholic devotion, Mary is larger-than-life, like the mother in this film.  Wrapped in eternal light with angels in an assumption-like scene, the mother says, “I give you my son.”   This is rather different from the biblical gospel, where the Father is the one who “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son….”

For all these reasons—and more, “The Tree of Life” is a stunning visual experience that weaves big questions about God, evil, and the meaning of life with a family and its setting so concrete in its details that you can’t help but sympathize with all of the characters.  As a Christian parent especially, it reminded me once again how powerfully our father-images shape our experience of God, for better and for worse—not just on the surface, but in the depth of things.

New Study Kit: The Preached Word

We are slowly adding White Horse Inn study kits to our new online store. These study kits include full WHI audio, clips for use in a group setting, Modern Reformation articles, study questions, group activities, and a leader’s guide. We have a number of kits in the works, including some built around Mike Horton’s books.

There are two study kits currently in the store. One is built around our popular Galatians series. The newest one is built around our series on “The Preached Word.” For $18.99 you get a seven-part study discussing “The Preached Word” with the White Horse Inn and many special guests. This study explores the primacy of preaching “Christ and him crucified” from all the Scriptures. Included in this study are:

  • A Leader’s Guide
  • A Group Guide
  • Relevant Modern Reformation articles
  • WHI Audio Clips pertaining to each lessons
  • Seven complete WHI shows

All the materials available in this kit are digital downloadable files (MP3 and PDF contained in compressed ZIP files) which will be available to you immediately upon purchase along with a license to create as many copies of the study guide as you need for the size of your group.

Purchase The Preached Word study kit.

Take advantage of these new resources from the White Horse Inn. Send us an email to let us know how you’re using them, where they could be improved, and what study kits you might like to see in the future.

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