White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

WHI-1050 | An Interview with Skeptic Michael Shermer

On this program, Michael Horton talks with Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine and author of numerous books including, Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, and most recently The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. The conversation centers on Shermer’s new book, and why he believes his skeptical and agnostic worldview presents a better explanation for the universe than the claims of the Christian faith. Following the interview, Michael Horton talks with Dean L. Overman, author of The Case Against Accident & Self Organization, about the mathematical improbability of life forming by chance.

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PDF Document

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

The Believing Brain
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PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Zack Hicks

 

Camping Out

Harold CampingThis post is actually written for followers of Harold Camping to read on May 22, after their leader’s failed prediction of Judgment Day on May 21 (today) passes.

Undaunted by our Lord’s explicit warning against predicting “the day and the hour” of his return and his warning about false prophets in the last days, as well as by his own failed speculation that Jesus would return in 1994, Mr. Camping has squandered enormous resources on full-page ads in national newspapers and billboards across the country for his new date.

Reared in the Christian Reformed Church (in which he was an elder), Mr. Camping owns “Family Radio Network,” with over a hundred stations and translators in the US, and others around the world, including Moscow, Istanbul, and in various parts of Africa. His organization also owns several TV stations.

I recall listening to Mr. Camping’s “Open Forum” as a teen-ager, hearing for the first time serious teaching on the doctrines of grace. However, since 1988, when he left the Christian Reformed Church, he has gradually adopted a variety of teachings. In biblical interpretation, he employes a hermeneutic in which there are multiple layers of meaning and, as in much of medieval speculation, the “spiritual interpretation” seems to be his preferred method. So it’s not surprising that he would mine the Bible much like a medieval alchemist, looking for the secret meaning.

Some of these teachings are well-represented in evangelicalism, but contrary to Reformed teaching—such as the distinction between a rapture of the saints and the second coming of Christ. Other teachings are odd interpretations that he claims to have received directly from God, although they resemble past errors in church history. In recent years, he has argued that there is no eternal punishment (hell is simply death) and so emphasizes God’s eternal decree that Christ’s work in history is merely a demonstration of what he already accomplished in eternity.

By the turn of the millennium, he announced the end of the “church era,” calling his followers to abandon their local churches. And many did. Years ago, as president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, which sponsors James Boice’s “Bible Study Hour,” I met with Mr. Camping. He was asking us to delete any reference to the church in Dr. Boice’s sermons, which we refused to do. So many loyal listeners could no longer hear the broadcast. Resolute and self-confident in the meeting, Mr. Camping seemed for the first time to me then to have crossed the line from the idiosyncratic to the heretical.

Apostasy is a serious business. Nevertheless, Christ extends his open hand to Mr. Camping and his followers to return to him and his body. Tragically, some followers will be completely disillusioned on May 22. Having already abandoned the church, many will likely become skeptical of anyone who claims to teach Scripture, indeed even of Scripture itself. (I’ve even heard of one follower who said that if the prediction turns out to be wrong, then the Bible is wrong.)

Of course, Jesus may return tomorrow, or the next day, or long after we die. We simply do not know. However, we can be sure that the errors that he teaches—quite apart from his failed predictions—are enough to regard him, tragically, as a false prophet.

Also tragic is the shame that such movements bring to the cause of Christ. Predictably (no pun intended), atheists are planning “rapture parties” around the world. (BBC report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13468131; NBC report: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2J0ce66hzQ

As for the rest of us, we’ll be in church this Lord’s Day, proclaiming Christ’s death and resurrection, longing for his return…on his Father’s timetable, which none of us knows.

Cleaning up after Harold

I’ve read stories this morning at Slate and in The New York Times about Harold Camping’s prediction that the rapture will occur tomorrow. Each one makes the same kind of reporting mistakes that drive our friends at GetReligion batty. But what’s really tragic about the mainstream reporting on this issue is the barely disguised, thinly veiled mockery that provides the undercurrent for each narrative. There’s been fantastic theological and exegetical reflection elsewhere (here and here, for starters), which I won’t repeat here. Instead, I want to think about how we should interact with our friends and neighbors who have been overtaken by Camping’s madness.

A few days ago, the local Los Angeles evening news program featured an interview with Michael Shermer, the former Christian turned skeptic that Mike Horton interviewed for the next episode of White Horse Inn coming up this Sunday. Shermer and the anchor sat across from one another and traded smirks, eye rolls, and knowing grins about all those deluded Christians who believed that Jesus was coming back on Saturday. At some level you probably expect this from people who have no concept of living between the ages; of praying with the apostle John at the end of Revelation, “even so, come Lord Jesus!”; of feeling the same missionary burden that propelled these otherwise normal Americans into the streets to warn of the judgment to come.

The real danger post-Saturday doesn’t come from the skeptics, however, it comes from people like you and me. Having lived through Camping’s failed prediction in 1994 and his 2002 rejection of the visible body of Christ on earth, many Reformational Christians feel the same desire to smirk, roll their eyes, and use the worst kind of language to describe fellow Christians who have been deluded by false teaching. We also probably feel a justified sense of outrage that Camping is making a mockery of Christ and his church, giving skeptics like Shermer a free shot at one of our cherished hopes.

We must be very careful about how we respond. Will we join our friends at the “Rapture Parties” that are planned for pubs and living rooms around the nation? Will we laugh at those who have spent the last several months of their lives dedicated to a true but untimely belief? What will we say on Saturday night or Sunday morning?

History teaches us that previous generations caught up in eschatological fervor often fell away from Christ when their deeply held beliefs about the end of the world didn’t pan out. While Camping must answer for his false teaching at the end of the age, Reformational Christians are facing a pastoral problem come Sunday morning: how can we apply the salve of the Gospel to the wounded sheep who will be wandering aimlessly, having discovered that what they thought was true (so true they were willing to upend their lives over it) was not? If this isn’t true, they might reason, then what other deeply held beliefs and convictions and doctrines and hopes might not be true?

It’s at this point that we need to be ready to provide a reasonable defense of our reasonable faith. Christianity is not founded upon some complex Bible code that needs years of analysis to reveal its secret. Christianity is about a man who claimed to be God, who died in full public view as a criminal, and was inexplicably raised from the dead three days later appearing to a multitude of witnesses. When his followers, who witnessed his resurrection, began speaking of it publicly, they connected the prophecies of the Old Testament to the life and death and resurrection of this man who claimed the power to forgive sins. This is the heart of the Christian faith, the message that deserves to be featured on billboards, sides of buses, and pamphlets all over the world.  It is also the message that needs to be reinvested into the hearts and lives of those who found hope and meaning in Harold Camping’s latest bad idea.

Reformation in Korea

Yullin Presbyterian ChurchI just returned from Korea, after 10 days of fellowship with brothers and sisters seeking a new Reformation not only in their own nation but also throughout Asia. Much as is the case in the U.S., the vitality of sound faith and practice in Korean churches has been challenged by consumerism, pragmatism, and Arminian revivalism. The history is rich, especially given the fact that the earliest missions were dominated by Presbyterian leaders and the Presbyterian Church (mainline as well as conservative denominations) remains the largest body there. However, a number of solid Reformed and Presbyterian leaders there are longing for a new Reformation that will recover a more Christ-centered, Word-proclaiming, and doctrinally sound faith and practice.

Together with my colleague, Julius Kim (and our wives), I was treated to the remarkable hospitality of several churches and institutions. Sponsored by the Yullin Presbyterian Church in Seoul, the trip included a conference at Yullin on recovering Reformed theology and worship, with 1400 conferees. I also spoke at Hapdong Theological Seminary and Torch Trinity Graduate School of Theology and preached at Yullin Church and Jesus Family Presbyterian Church. The trip also included interviews with one of the largest newspapers in Korea as well as the Ministry and Theology Journal, the most widely read Christian magazine in Korea. Lastly, I gave a lecture at the Korean Reformed Theological Society meeting.

Three things especially encouraged me.

First, Yullin-pastored by The Rev. Nam-Joon Kim, is a hub of reformation not only in Korea but throughout Asia, especially China. It’s one of the most rigorous disciple-making churches I’ve encountered, with serious courses in Scripture and Christian doctrine required for membership and even more for office-bearers. The church even houses an amazing collection of sixteenth and seventeenth-century books and manuscripts as well as a whole team that oversees a bee-hive of activity for database and curriculum development. Among the 4,500 members are many young people, hungering for God’s Word. Out of this concern for truth there is an amazing range of efforts in missions, evangelism, and outreach in Seoul and beyond. It’s truly remarkable to see such a dedication to getting the gospel right and getting it out!

Second, Reformation and Revival Publishing, under the leadership of The Rev. Geum-San Baek, has been translating and publishing all of my books and we are even talking about the possibility of a Korean edition of Modern Reformation.

Third, my interest in expanding our reach into China was encouraged by conversations with Pastor Nam-Joon Kim and others who have established contacts throughout the house church movement. As the Christian movement grows there (soon China will have the largest Christian population in the world), the opportunity to infuse it with Reformation theology is very exciting.

As we continue this fellowship with like-minded brothers and sisters in Asia, please pray that White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation will be able to make the most of strategic opportunities.

What hath Jerusalem to do with Palo Alto?

Church, digitizedSubmitted by Dr. Brian J. Lee of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C.

The May 16th New Yorker (behind firewall) delivers “The Facebook Sonnet,” a delightful poem by Sherman Alexie, which captures the anomie of “the endless high-school reunion” that is Facebook. Interesting that for Alexie the desire to “exhume, resume, and extend Childhood” ends with a perversion of the divine:

“…Let one’s search for God become public domain.
Let church.com become our church.

Let’s sign up, sign in, and confess
Here at the altar of loneliness.”

Where is wisdom to be found? Theologians seek to rebuild the house of God as a “virtual resource center,” but poets see the pitfalls of making the sacramental digital.

WHI-1049 | Paul’s Defense of the Faith

The religions of the world teach doctrines that are believed to be timeless eternal truths. They contain moral and ethical instructions, which if applied will place adherents on the path to the good life here and now, and possibly nirvana in the next. But according to the apostle Paul in his numerous speeches in defense of the Christian faith recorded in the book of Acts, the Christian faith is not a program of life improvement founded on timeless truths, but is rather a truth-claim associated with particular historical events. The hosts will unpack the significance of this important distinction on this edition of the program as the wrap up their brief survey of the book of Acts.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Christianity & Liberalism
J. Gresham Machen
Christianity Explored
Rico Tice
The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton

PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Zack Hicks

“Real-World” Church

SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World
by Douglas Estes
Zondervan, 2009
256 pages (paperback), $16.99

In his book SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World, Douglas Estes gets defensive about an accusation that no one seems to be leveling. I, for one, was only peripherally aware of the “virtual world” before picking up Estes’ book. As a member of the clergy, I didn’t really know that there were virtual churches in virtual worlds, much less was I aware of some movement to classify such churches as “not real,” the movement against which Estes writes. Rather than writing an introduction or an ode to virtual churches, his defense of the same comes off as, well, defensive. He rarely quotes specific arguments against the validity of virtual churches (pulling most of the critique from only two sources outside of general anecdotal “evidence”) and puts his reader in mind of Queen Gertrude’s observation: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” SimChurch, though, provides an introduction to the virtual church despite itself.

The first point that Estes is at pains to make is an important one and well made: Virtual churches are not the same as church websites. My brick and mortar church has a website, on which we publish sermons, prayer lists, sign-up sheets, schedules, and so forth. This does not make us a virtual church. To borrow Estes’ vernacular, it simply makes us a real-world church with a website. A virtual church proper is a church that exists in the virtual world. That is, a church that exists in a world that exists exclusively online, such as Second Life or even World of Warcraft. This distinction is important to Estes, as it should be. It is the first place virtual churches apparently come against resistance. Everyone knows real-world churches should have websites, and isn’t that enough of an Internet presence? Estes argues that it isn’t, and to illustrate he makes a comparison with which real-world evangelists are sure to take issue.

Estes likens the virtual world to a new landmass discovered off the coast of Africa. “Wouldn’t we plant churches there?” he asks. By ignoring (at best) or shunning (at worst) the virtual world, Estes claims we are making no attempt to reach this new continent full of souls in need of the good news of Jesus Christ. A large fallacy exists in this argument, of course:  The citizens of this newly discovered land (the virtual world) are also citizens of a known territory (the real world). The implication that we (the apparently anti-virtual church crowd) are dropping the ball on the Great Commission is a little underhanded and ultimately specious. It would serve Estes’ argument better to simply suggest that it’s possible some people might be better reached in a virtual church than in a real-world church. He does make this argument later in the book, but he doesn’t do himself any favors with what he must hope is his audience: real world Christians wondering about virtual world ministry.

One of the first protestations that critics of virtual churches are alleged to bring up is the necessary use of avatars. For the uninitiated (a group that has shrunk considerably in the wake of James Cameron’s blockbuster film), an avatar is an online “you” that you control in the virtual world. Estes admits up front that most people create avatars that are little like themselves. The first-blush reaction to widespread avatar use is that it is too easy for congregants of a virtual church to hide their “real” selves behind their avatars. Indeed, how is a pastor to minister to a congregant who presents as half-man, half-bull? As Estes is quick (and correct) to point out, though, we all use avatars in our real lives—the “us” we create for the world to see. This practice could be said to be especially prevalent in churches. Virtual churches simply admit that a ubiquitous real-world practice occurs while real-world churches pretend it doesn’t.

When Estes’ discussion turns to the administration of the sacraments and church discipline, though, he paints himself into a bit of a corner. By making the administration of each a constitutive part of what makes a church legitimate, he forces himself to find ways in which virtual churches can administer the sacraments, for one, in a “real” way (mostly involving pilgrimages to real-world churches). It would seem to be a better route, however, to attempt to argue for a redefinition of church: that where the preaching of the gospel is, there the church is. By holding to a historical definition of “church” in a decidedly nonhistorical context, Estes makes the sacraments into a ponderous chore rather than the glorious grace they are meant to be. With regard to discipline, Estes finds himself in a similar place. My own tradition, Anglicanism, does not consider discipline a necessary mark of the church, but many other traditions do. Once again, by insisting on a measure of church discipline, Estes (whose church is loosely connected to the Baptist tradition) makes his argument harder to win.

Confronted with such issues, Estes seems to cheat. He offers alternatives of varying worth, but doesn’t argue for one over another. He asks lots of rhetorical questions, often ending sections with several in a row, without ever answering any of them. Beyond being a tiresome technique, it’s only a surface profundity without any substance underneath.

I never would have thought that virtual churches were “real” or “legitimate” churches, although any opportunity for people to hear the gospel is some small victory. The preaching of the gospel is rare enough in real-world churches that its presentation anywhere should be celebrated. By writing his book in defensive response to a perceived critique, Estes has weakened what could have been a powerful story of gospel witness in a new environment, and he could have interacted with old definitions of church for a new world, rather than allowing the virtual church to simply “be” church in a new way.


Reviewed by Nick Lannon. The Rev. Lannon is curate of Grace Church Van Vorst in Jersey City, New Jersey.

This review was originally published in Modern Reformation magazine (May/June 2011) Vol 20, No 3, pages: 50, 63.

What makes a good resume?

We’ve all heard of resume-padding, but this is a little ridiculous:

A pastor who regaled family and parishioners with tales from his time in the Navy SEALs is backtracking after his story turned out to be nothing more than a self-described “ego-booster,” according to reports.

Without knowing the man, his ministry, or his preaching, it’s impossible to say how this lie found its way into his sermons, his counseling, or his leadership. But it certainly had to have an impact. Contrast how this pastor wanted to be seen and known with how the apostle Paul describes his ministry in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5,

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Paul’s perception of his own ministry and of his own place in that ministry went arm in arm with his message of Christ crucified, the power of God displayed in the hiddenness of the cross. Sadly, many modern pastors do not have the same confidence that Paul had in his message.  But when the message changes to something more than the scandal of Christ and Him crucified, there must be a corresponding change to the messenger. Messages that are focused on me and my abilities and my successes are far more convincing if they are delivered by a man who seems to have experienced the success he offers in his sermons.

The foolishness of the cross remains a scandal among those who profess to worship the risen Christ, even among those who are called to be his heralds. When faced with our own personal sins and idols, the temptation is strong to make ourselves more than we really are, to pretend to be more than we have ever been. But when we succumb to that temptation we also turn away from the only hope we can ever have to be loved according to our real circumstances rather than the fiction that we create, believe, and project to others.

I hope that for this particular pastor, someone in his church or some peer reminds him of Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 2 and I hope it changes the way he preaches to desperate sinners and counsels those who just can’t seem to rise above their circumstances. Having had his glory pulled out from under him, he is in a perfect position to remember the glory of the One who was lifted up for him. May all our pastors take refuge in the foolishness and weakness and hiddenness of God.

WHI-1048 | The Whole Counsel of God

We often hear Christian leaders say things like, “I’m not inviting you to join a church, but to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus.” So in this approach, everything that is formal, official, planned, and public is seen as mere church-ianity, while genuine Christian experience is informal unofficial, spontaneous, and private. But is this biblical? Would the apostles agree with this kind of anti-institutional approach, or would they recognize it as part of the spirit of the age? The hosts will discuss these questions and more as they walk through Paul’s farewell address to the elders of the church of Ephesus in Acts 20.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

The Christian Faith
Michael Horton
Let’s Study Acts
Dennis Johnson
The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton

PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Soular

Revised “Christianity Explored”!

The Great Commission has been our year-long theme at White Horse Inn. In fact, everything we do is focused on getting the gospel right and getting it out. We know we’re not a church, but God has used the White Horse Inn, Modern Reformation magazine, events and our other resources to help Christians know what they believe and why they believe it. And even many pastors have written to tell us that these conversations have changed their own conversations and directions in their ministry.

But beyond helping Christians know the faith better, there is a tremendous need for resources to help us to communicate this faith to those outside the church. There just isn’t very much out there, frankly. Of course, there are lots of evangelistic programs-lines to memorize, with pretty strong (and predictable) pressure to “close the deal” at the end.

Well, we can’t complain any more about our resources. Unlike other evangelistic courses, “Christianity Explored” isn’t formulaic. It isn’t built around themes, but around the unfolding drama of Jesus-his person and his work-in the Gospel of Mark. The author, Rico Tice, is a long-time friend-we roomed next door to each other at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and kept each other up many a night talking theology and evangelism. Rico’s example alone is a constant source of encouragement to make the most of every opportunity to share the gospel. And it is the gospel that drives him. I love his familiar line, “The bad news is worse than you thought; the good news is greater than you ever imagined.”

Besides the content, there’s finally a practical program. Yes, a program. Only this one is sound! It’s easy for us as ministers to talk about evangelism as a noble ideal, but never get around to it. D. L. Moody once replied to a critic of his methods, “I like my way of doing better than your way of not doing it.” Well now you don’t have to choose. The program is based on the content, not vice versa. But there is a DVD (also CD), with Rico walking folks through Mark. There’s a Leader’s Guide as well as a Handbook for others following along. You can do this with your family, invite over some neighbors over to the house or do the course at a local spot where non-Christians who wouldn’t attend church can show up, listen in, and ask questions. And you can go through the course with your whole church. Even mature believers will gain new insights-and fresh appreciation for the glory of Christ in his gospel.

Sorry to go on about this, but “Christianity Explored”-especially with this newly revised edition-is exactly what we’ve need for a long time. My prayer is that churches faithful to getting the gospel right will become just as known for getting the gospel out. And “Christianity Explored” is the best supporting resource I know of for helping us to do that. The best way of getting more information on “Christianity Explored” in the US is by contacting Brad Byrd at The Good Book Company. You can also visit www.christianityexplored.org.

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