Monday, September 21, 2009

Karen Armstrong on Fresh Air

I just heard religions scholar Karen Armstrong interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Not to be too harsh, but wow - she radically misinterpreted the Old Testament and the Koran in ways that would make both books unrecognizable to almost any historical Jewish or Muslim community, no matter what their other differences. Here's her basic interpretive premise: "Since we know that the eastern concept that ultimate reality is impersonal and monistic is the true way to think about God, the Koran and Old Testament must have been only using the idea of "God" as a symbol of that impersonal reality. Anybody who who thinks these books are literally talking about a personal God has missed this much more sophisticated point, (and may be on the way to being a terrorist)"
The grain of truth in this is that, yes, the Judeo-Christian view of God portrayed in the Bible is such that our knowledge of God, even knowledge that God gives us by revelation, is always only analogous to his true nature. As most Christian theologians in history have also said, we never quite know God as he is in himself (in se). That is, God is not "just like us but writ large" (Armstrong's regular phrase). However, to say that God's self-revelation functions as analogous language (which is proper) does not imply that such language is merely symbolic in the sense that is has no correlation with God's actual nature. Analogies have a basis in real similarities between symbol and thing signified. So, while neither Jews and Muslims expected God to possess a literal and gigantic fleshly appendage because of scriptural texts describing God's "strong arm", they understood such texts to mean, at least, that a divine personal being existed who had the ability and will to strongly intervene in human affairs. To say, as Armstrong does, that such texts did not even intend to refer to a personal God is really stretching the plain sense of these scriptures, and the plain sense of language in general. And if we deny that the God referred to in the Bible (or Koran) is not even intended to refer to a personal being,the language isn't really analagous in any sense, it's more of a mere fairy tale. But such texts have never functioned that way in any Jewish, Muslim, or Christian community. As an eastern pantheistic monist (as far as I can tell from listening to her), Armstrong should just acknowledge that the Bible and the Koran simply represent a different view of God, rather than suggesting that anyone who doesn't read such texts through the lens of monism has misunderstood the most basic claims of their holy books.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

An Old Exception to the WCF

What follows is a written exception I took to the Westminster Confession of Faith, 21-7, before the Northern California Presbytery of the PCA, back in October of 1996. I'm posting the text here mosty so that I won't lose it myself - in fact, I had to Google myself to find this version, which probably exists only on the website (many written records of our presbytery during this period have been lost). For those less interested in such details, this is basically my rebuttal to the English Puritan view that the fourth commandment forbids almost all forms of work and recreation on Sunday. My own view was shaped largely by Meredith Kline, and, in my view, takes more seriously the typological aspect of Sinai legislation than the Puritan view.

"Kay took exception to WCF 21-7 ("observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations"), since he believes that "it is highly likely that the command to abstain from all work is specific to Sinai, given that Sinai described the unique instance of a pure theocracy where worship and labor could be completely ordered and integrated. Israel was a geo-political expression of the kingdom of God, a type of the heavenly kingdom to come. As New Covenant believers, we still await the consummation of God's kingdom, yet there is no political or civil component to it at this time. Unlike the Israelites then, we live in a common grace culture where we work for nonbelievers as well as employ them. It seems improper that the church (with its solely spiritual domain) would require common-grace culture to accommodate to Sabbath labor laws which originally were in place to make a special-grace typological point--that the people of God will ultimately enter God's Sabbath rest (Heb. 4)."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Note on Theological Category Mistakes

Summary: God provides general revelation to help us fulfill his common-grace culture-building mandate, and special revelation to inform our special-grace kindgom-building mandate. If we mix-up the differences between the content, modes, and purposes of these two types of theology, large problems result.

Mostly, this is a quick note to myself, though I thought I'd post it here in order to stimulate conversation or feedback.
A time-tested category division in theology has been made between general revelation and special revelation. The latter refers to truth that God reveals through Scripture and is otherwise inaccessible to unaided human reason or experience. The former, general revelation, refers to anything that God reveals outside of supernatural means, and that would be knowable to anyone (regenerate and unregenerate) through reason and experience. So, the specific category mistake I'm referring to is when we wrongly require special revelation to tell us about a topic that God has only chosen to reveal through general revelation. A not-too controversial application of this idea is the example of bridge-building: special revelation (the Bible) says nothing about how to construct a suspension bridge, but most of us would only be willing to cross a bridge if we believed the designers and builders had respected the various principles of bridge-building that physicists and engineers have discovered. Ultimately, though God created the laws of physics and the physical properties of various building materials, he reveals these truths to humans through general revelation (the sciences), not through special revelation. General revelation can be understood by a non-Christian person, even if not exhaustively as to its ultimate meaning in light of the triune God (cf. Cornelius Van Til, et. al.). That is, a non-Christian can understand physics, even if he doesn't understand, through special revelation, that the ultimate purpose of physics is the glory of the triune God of the Bible.
Going beyond bridge-building, a slightly more controversial example would be statecraft. Can a person be a good ruler of a nation, say, if he uses principles of political theory that don't acknowledge the God or derive from the Bible? A more controversial example yet: could a non-Christian marriage counselor provide real help to a Christian couple since he would not acknowledge what special revelation says about the ultimate purpose and design of marriage -- for example, that marriage is a mirror of Christ's husbandly relationship to his bride, the church? Even broader, how much general revelation has God given, accessible even to those who do not acknowledge God who is its source, that would allow a perceptive non-Christian to give a piece advice about human relationships to a Christian who could not find that same particular piece of help in the Bible?

These are not new questions, but consider that the context for answering them might best be found in another distinction: the cultural mandate vs. the kingdom mandate. The cultural mandate owes its locus classicus to Genesis 1:28 where God commands Adam and Eve, and all humanity, to "be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it." This mandate is to be fulfilled by those outside of a special covenant relationship with God - it is "general", global, and is the reason why marriage, child-bearing, and culture-building pleases God wherever it occurs (and why indiscriminate divorce, for example, displeases God even when committed by non-Christians). Culture-building, however, as God-honoring as it is, should not to be confused with kingdom-building, which is the mandate to the redeemed community to preach, teach, and live-out the indicatives and imperatives of special revelation. As someone has said, culture-building is God's way of maintaining a theater of redemption, that is, an ordered world where his church can grow and do its work. For example, the Pax Romana was a social and political reality, a laudable culture-building success story that cannot be credited to Christians, though it delivered a peace and prosperity that any Christian would thank God for, and more importantly, that created a particular set of social conditions that made the rapid spread of the church through the ancient Mediterranean world possible.

So here is the final thesis: when the topic is one of culture-building, general revelation will often be indispensable, and the Christian may even turn for help to a non-Christian who has studied that particular area of general revelation more adequately. For example, in-so-far as marriage is a common-grace, culture-building institution that even non-Christians properly engage in, a non-Christian marriage counselor may have something to teach the Christian about the how-to's of married life. Of course, upon leaving the counselor's office the Christian will properly refer any new general revelation discoveries to the God who he knows through special revelation by praying, "God, may you be glorified as I seek to serve my spouse in the ways I just learned, and forgive me for failing to love her like this before today."
A perennial danger will present itself when the Christian, in a theological category mistake, will not accept the teaching of general revelation (that even a non-Christian has access to, by God's grace) because he "doesn't see it in the Bible". The Bible is primarily a book of God's special revelation that proclaims his supernatural redemptive plan to create a people for himself through his Son's intercession -- it is not a manual for how to fulfill the cultural mandate. To require that the Scriptures speak to issues that God only addresses in general revelation is a category mistake, and will cause the Christian to either overly tax the text by making it teach on areas that it barely touches on, or to decide that such areas, since not dealt with by the Bible, are therefore unimportant and should be ignored or actively dismissed. In other words, some will invent whole systems of say, "biblical financial planning" or forcibly extract "God's method of parenting" in the Scriptures, while others will see the specious exegesis of such attempts, but will mistakenly go on to decide that details of financial planning, since not spoken of in the Bible, are not important or is an unspiritual pursuit. The first mistake is to aribtrarily demand that special revelation should be the only manual for how to fulfill the cultural mandate, while the second mistake denies altogether that God has given a cultural mandate. While the Bible is not silent on the topics of money and parenting, to be sure, there is no systematic treatment of either topic. What the Bible reveals, primarily, are "directional" commands -- that is, that we use our money and parenting influence for God's glory and not our own, for the good of the child and not our own, etc. Many more good and proper things could be said about financial management and parenting, but many of those things are properly discovered through God's general revelation (through reason, science, trial and error, etc.)
While most of this entry deals with the problem of denying the role of general revelation (and thus consequent mistake of reductionism and anti-intellectualism) a related problem is the denying the role of special revelation as the necessary source for kingdom building, which results in mislabeling various (good) cultural projects as "kingdom" work. For example, when non-Christians implement an environmentally conscious civic policy, Christians should applaud, but never call it a "kingdom" accomplishment. Just some opening thoughts...

Monday, June 30, 2008

Announcing Book on John Owen

This is probably as good a forum as any to announce the American release of my book on John Owen's devotional theology, Trinitarian Spirituality: John Owen and the Doctrine of God in Western Devotion. The book is a slightly-edited version of my dissertation at the University of Bristol, so it might be rough-going for those who do not already have an interest in the great Puritan, John Owen, or in the development of Western devotional theology. However, there's plenty also to attract determined Christian readers who might want to consider how an abstract doctrine like the Trinity might actually change the way they speak to God in prayer. I am, of course, incredibly flattered to have J.I. Packer's foreword - he, after all, is the one whose writings first introduced me to John Owen. Amazon has copies, as does the publisher, Wipf and Stock.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Interview with John Stott

A few years ago I interviewed John R. Stott for an article in my seminary newspaper (Gordon-Conwell in Massachuesetts). Very few saw that original article, so I thought I would reprint it here. At the time, I was wrestling through a few theological questions and thought I'd ask Dr. Stott to weigh in. For those of you who don't know, Dr. Stott is an evangelical Anglican who was recently described in the New York Times by, I believe, David Cromartie, who said, "If Evangellicals could elect a pope, it would be John Stott."

Brian Kay: In your ministry you have emphasized what you term BBC, or Balanced Biblical Christianity. What areas of potential imbalance do you see as temptations for those preparing for ministry in evangelical churches?

Stott: Frankly there are so many examples of evangelical imbalance that it would be difficult to know which to select, but I would like to begin with a question that I was asked just now which relates to the case of devotional life in theological studies. I quoted to that person something which is attributed to Bishop Moule. He said that we must be aware equally of an undevotional theology and of an untheological devotion, and that is a good example of balance. Now there are plenty of men and women who go to seminary and gain their academic excellence, which is fine, but their spiritual life suffers. They leave an academic success and a spiritual failure. And then of course, there are the people who go the other way; they are such men and women of God that they don’t care about academic excellence. But I believe that we need in the ordained pastoral ministry today people who combine academic excellence with personal godliness. The two are more or less equally important.

Kay: In order to insure proper balance in our Christian intellectual life, you have spoken of biblical agnosticism, that we should avoid forming doctrinal beliefs in areas where the Bible does not speak clearly. Which such areas do you believe evangelicals have shown unwarranted dogmatism?

Stott: I think my phrase was not areas in which the Bible does not speak but areas in which the Bible does not speak with absolute clarity. When the Reformers talked about the perspicuity of scripture, they were not referring to the whole of the Bible but to the central message of salvation—in Christ, by grace, through faith—and that is as plain as day. Evangelical people who take the Scripture as their authority are 95 percent agreed on these central doctrines of the faith—but then there were these areas in which the Scripture is not so clear which the Reformers referred to as the adiaphora, the matters indifferent, in which scripture is not equally plain. These would include questions concerning baptism, such as the particular volume of water that is necessary to validate a baptism or whether you should only baptize adult believers or the children of adult believers as well. It would include our particular understanding of the ministry, I think. It would include prophetic questions, of course, the millennium and the interpretation of biblical prophecy. These are some of the areas, although there are a great many more, in which Christians ought to give one another liberty. I’m sure you know the phrase which is attributed to Rupert Muldinious. Nobody knows quite who he was (some think he was a pseudonym for Richard Baxter, round about the Puritan period). He said that in essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty and in all things charity. We’re talking about the second—nonessentials. How do we know that they are nonessentials or that they are adiaphora? Because Scripture isn’t so clear or because equally biblical Christians, equally anxious to be submissive to the Scripture, come to different conclusions. These then seem to me to deserve to be called adiaphora.

Kay: For Protestantism, documents like the Westminster Confession or the 39 Articles have been historic standards of belief and practice. However, the length of these confessions seem to dwarf many of the short statements of faith that our churches use today. Should we view this trend as a sign of properly applied biblical agnosticism or as a watering down of historic doctrine?

Stott: I think we need to realize that churches that have produced confessions have tended to produce two, one a baptismal confession for members and the other a much fuller confession for teachers of the faith. The Apostles’ Creed is regarded as the baptismal faith of Christians, at least in the Church of England of which I am. Candidates of baptism either have to recite the Apostles’ Creed, which is a basic statement of Trinitarian faith, or they are asked whether they believe it as it is recited for them. The Creed is a pretty elementalist statement focusing on Jesus (though actually Trinitarian) which we believe to be so basic that people shouldn’t be baptized if they don’t believe it. In our Anglican situation, it was the 39 Articles, of course, which were the fuller statement. It was never intended that members should subscribe to the 39 Articles at baptism, but it was intended from the beginning that clergy should subscribe. Indeed, when I was ordained it was still the rule in the Church of England that you assented to the 39 Articles before the bishop ordained you and that in each new church to which you went as a minister you had to recite all the 39 Articles. In fact, for about 20 years at All Soul’s Church I used to recite them every year and then preach on one of them.

Kay: Church discipline is usually considered appropriate not just for moral failure but for areas of doctrine as well. Should we base our discipline on the standard of a more basic document, such as the Apostles’ Creed, rather than on a longer confession?

Stott: I would. Perhaps with one exception—one of the main gaps in the Apostles’ Creed is any reference to justification by grace through faith. Salvation is mentioned in the Nicene Creed, but there is no doctrine of the cross—there is no atonement. I would say that there should be discipline, I don’t know about members but certainly for teachers, if they don’t subscribe to the really basic things. These would include the virgin birth, the atoning death and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But then again, for BBC, the church has always oscillated between extremes of laxity and discipline, and I don’t want us to get back to a very severe discipline where you’re excommunicating people every other day. I think the New Testament indicates that it’s only for very serious offenses, either belief or practice, that excommunication should be considered, and then only as the final resort.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Let's Not Give Up on "Sin"

As a pastor, I’ve learned that one of the realities of my job is to receive unsolicited performance reviews after the Sunday service— sometimes from people I’ve barely met. Alternately, I find myself humbled, flattered, encouraged, insulted, and confused. It's a part of church work that I wouldn’t trade for anything. There is one visitor’s comment, however, that I’ve heard enough times that I’ve begun to take a little more notice. It’s usually phrased something like this: “I like it when you talked about God’s love, but did you have to keep talking about sin?”

The psychiatrist Karl Meninger wrote a book a few decades ago called Whatever Became of Sin? Meninger’s question is still worth asking. It seems that “sin,” as a serious word to describe the dark side of human motivation, has almost fallen out of use. It certainly has lost its broad appeal. When the word makes a rare appearance, it usually serves two very opposite purposes. Either it describes only the worst kind of atrocities, or it acts as comic relief—sort of a playful jab at the overly scrupulous (“Let us tempt you with our Sin-Sationally Rich Chocolate Sundae!”).

Why the recent twisting of such a long-used word? With embarrassment, Christians must admit to some (not all) of the blame. Certain periods of American Christianity have suggested that sin is coequal with drinking any amount of alcohol, playing cards, and dancing. The rest of the culture looks at the Church in such times and sighs, “Oh, brother.” I call this the silly-ification of sin, and it makes my job harder. What’s worse, when “sin” is trivialized in this way, the word loses much of its original power.

The New Testament has another view of sin altogether, one that makes the word worth keeping in our vocabulary. Sin was a deeply complex topic for Jesus and the apostles, yet one very simple term was often used to describe it: the Greek epithymia, which is best translated “over-desire.” Sin, therefore, is not simply the desire for the wrong things, but a disproportionate over-desire for anything, even good things. To appreciate a sleek car is not sin, but to over-desire it by believing that your life is somehow incomplete without it, is greed. Over-desire shows itself as the root of all kinds of sin. Having a good reputation is certainly desirable, but if you over-desire to protect your reputation, you will be tempted to lie or dodge criticism whenever you fear someone may discover your faults. The sin of bitterness has a similar cause. Because God made us, we have built-in dignity and worth. But, if we over-desire that others respect our dignity, we will succumb to bitterness or even hatred when someone doesn’t give us the respect that we demand. Have you ever surprised yourself by flaring-up at another driver who didn’t afford you the courtesy of his turn signal? The Bible says, “Don’t be so surprised,” for to be even slightly snubbed is a crisis for the one who is over-committed to getting the appreciation of others.

If we neutralize such thoughts and motivations by simply calling them “defense mechanisms” or even “personality flaws,” we underestimate their damaging effects. In fact, the greatest underlying human problem, which really defines all sin, is that we desire other things more than we desire God. We regularly seek our ultimate pleasure in things that were never designed to bear that responsibility—they just aren’t weighty enough. Ironically, even those who set out for a great career, a loving family, a good reputation, and then attain their goals, often report a nagging restlessness that something is still missing (and so we divorce, change careers, etc.).

Jesus taught that there is only one thing that can’t be over-desired, one thing that is substantial enough to be the anchor for our souls: himself. Jesus said that knowing and serving him actually brings about the satisfaction that we failingly (and sinfully) seek in so many other places. Blaise Pascal said it this way: “Inside every man’s heart is a God-shaped vacuum.” That is, though we try to fill ourselves with meaning by any number of people, possessions, and good causes, only God is shaped to fit. So, in the end, sins are not the arbitrary no-no’s of a Heavenly Kill-Joy, but the dangerous pursuits that prevent us from gaining the great Joy-Giver himself. Keeping a rough word like “sin” in our vocabulary reminds us that displacing God is not just a lifestyle choice, but is tragedy in the truest sense.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Late Night Thoughts on Arcade Fire and Prayer

Briefly: there is a fine line between desperate, honest, yet reverent prayer to God, and the overt disbelief and God-condemning renuncation of God, to his face. In a way, one might say "fine line? what could be more disparate than a hurting soul crying out to God for relief versus a soul that renunces God?" Ah, but Psalm 88 proves the line really is fine - this psalm would be almost unsingable in churches today, even though it was once sung by the ancient faithful without sense of contradiction. If you haven't read Psalm 88, you might have an overly pretty-ified view of prayer. Now, Arcade Fire is a band that a lot of Christians are excited about (as well as a lot of non-Christians -- seriously, U2 and David Bowie both have taken the stage with these guys - the latter whose recent album is entitled "Heathen" while the former's lead singer has declared his Christian faith in increasingly overt ways lately). My question: is Arcade Fire singing Ps. 88's or are they shrugging off Christianity itself in their lyrics? Which side of the line are they on? Maybe others have settled this question, and I see no evidence that Arcade Fire's talented artists make any public Christian claims (which is fine in itself, even if any of them are Christians). Maybe the answer doesn't matter -- speaking as a true believer, these songs make sense, even if I'm wrongly interpreting them from my side of the line. Their album "Funeral" is jaw-dropping, and, as one post-er said, "if you dont' cry at this, you are dead inside." Overstated? A little, but not by much (though if you're over the age of fifty, I'll let you off the hook for reasons of changing generational aesthetics).