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20 Christian academics speak about God, faith, and science

Here’s an interesting video of 20 Christian academics answering questions related to science, reason, and faith. Along the way, they comment on miracles, free will, the problem of evil, foreknowledge, evolution, and son on. And, the academics run the gamut from evangelicals like J. P. Moreland and William Craig to thinkers who reject almost anything miraculous or supernatural in the world. So, it’s a good video for getting a feel for how a broad range of Christian intellectuals respond to these questions.

An Opportunity Lost: Why Geisler’s Critique Missed the Mark

[I originally posted this as a guest post over at Near Emmaus. So, if you’d like to discuss it, please head over there and offer your comments.]

In the beginning there was discussion. Then we fell. Now, as far as the ear can hear, there is only debate.

Okay, maybe that was a little hyperbolic, possibly even a tad melodramatic. But it sounded good when I wrote it. And, it does reflect a bit of the frustration I feel as I follow many “discussions” today. Words flow across my screen in never-ending sequence, but try as I might, I can’t seem to find the conversation. In my most jaded hours, I wonder if anyone is really listening. Or, are we all just trying to “win” one more argument so we can go to bed at night satisfied that we have vanquished another dragon, unmindful of the dragon’s anguish.

Most recently, I’ve been trying to follow Norm Geisler’s critique of Michael Licona. Geisler has argued in two, separate “open letters” (see Brian’s summary) that Licona’s understanding of Matthew 27:50-53 is wrong, unbiblical, and pagan, ultimately undermining our confidence in the resurrection, the authority of the Bible, the veracity of God, and, quite possibly, the very integrity of the space-time continuum itself. (Okay, I may have added that last one myself.)

Now, I don’t want to go into the specifics of Licona’s position. Indeed, I can’t, since I haven’t read the book. (Will they be making a movie version soon?) As I understand it, Licona’s basic argument is that Matthew used a variety of apocalyptic devices at the end of his Gospel to emphasize the cosmic significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. And, he views the resurrection of the righteous dead in 27:50-53 as a “poetic” (i.e. apocalyptic) image that serves that purpose. In other words, Matthew isn’t trying to say that the tombs actually opened and that dead people actually came out. Instead, he’s using a poetic image that people in his day would have understood to indicate an event of great significance.

So, that’s Licona’s position. But, it’s really Geisler’s critique that I’d like to comment on. Because in many ways, it’s a great example of what happens when debate triumphs over discussion.

This was a perfect opportunity for discussion. Geisler clearly thinks that Licona has erred in seeing this is an example of a poetic genre used inside of a largely historical narrative (which, by the way, people do all the time). And, he obviously thinks that Licona made a mistake by looking to the surrounding cultural context for explanations of how a genre-device like this would have been understood (which, by the way, is something good exegetes do all the time). These are two important points worth discussing further. I can picture a situation where two scholars could sit down and have a very lively conversation about these issues and how they impact our understanding of Matthew 27.

And, Geisler rightly raises the question of inerrancy here. I say “rightly” for two reasons. First, Geisler is committed to inerrancy, so it makes sense for him to wonder how this might impact that doctrine. And, more importantly, Licona himself holds to inerrancy. So, once again I can imagine a meaningful discussion between them on how matters of genre, hermeneutics, culture, text, and history all come together in the context of a theological reflection on the nature of Scripture as the Word of God. (I have a very good imagination.)

Sadly, none of this happened.

Here’s what we got instead:

  • The Logical Extension Argument: I put this one first, even though it’s not the first one Geisler uses, because it bugs me the most. I run into this one all the time. It goes something like this: (a) you claim to believe X; (b) you also believe Y; (c) I think X and Y are incompatible; therefore (d) you don’t really believe X (even though you continue to insist quite firmly that you do). In this case, it goes: (a) Licona claims to believe in inerrancy; (b) he has a “poetic” view of Mt. 27; (c) I think these two are incompatible; therefore (d) Licona doesn’t really believe in inerrancy. Can we please stop using this argument? It’s really annoying. At the very least, it suggests one of two things: (1) you’re an idiot and can’t tell that these two are contradictory, or (2) you’re dishonest since you know full well that you don’t really believe both. Implying that someone is either an idiot or dishonest is not conducive to good conversation. So, we really need to stop doing that.
  • The Guilt by Association Argument #1: Geisler leads out by connecting Licona’s argument with those who would deny the resurrection of Christ or the Virgin Birth because of their parallels with other Greco-Roman stories. And, that’s a fair question. But, unfortunately, Geisler seems to pose it more as a way of associating Licona with these as a way of proving that Licona is just another dehistoricizer. In other words, (a) they’re bad, (b) you look a lot like them, therefore (c) you must be bad too. (It’s the same logic that makes people cross the street at night to avoid people who dress a certain way.) 
  • The Guilt by Association Argument #2: Not satisfied with that, Geisler quickly moves to connect Licona to Robert Gundry and his resignation from ETS over similar issues. Having connected the two, Geisler seems to think that his work is basically done: (a) Gundry was guilty; (b) Licona is Gundry-resurrected; therefore, (c) Licona is guilty. It’s fascinating to me that he never considers the possibility that (a) the situations are actually different, or (b) the earlier decision was wrong. I’m not saying either of those is correct. But, they’re both worth exploring before throwing somebody under the bus. Aren’t they? 
  • The Implied Threat: Though Gundry doesn’t say so in the first letter, he clearly means to imply that Licona’s status in ETS is in jeopardy if he doesn’t change. After all, that’s what happened to Gundry. And, by the second letter, the implied threat has become much clearer. But, what’s interesting here is that Geisler is not a member of ETS. He resigned several years ago because the rest of ETS does not agree with him. Oddly, he doesn’t bring that up in either letter.  
  • The Guilt by Association Argument #3 (he really likes this kind of argument)Geisler paints Licona with the “pagan” brush. Apparently he thinks that if he can associate a position with the pagans, it must be wrong. (By the way, am I the only one who thinks of the movie Dragnet when people start talking about pagans?) Unfortunately, he never gets around to dealing with the reality that the biblical authors lived in Greco-Roman (i.e. “pagan”) context. One would think that this might have some significance for interpreting what they wrote. Just a thought. 
  • The Personal Affront: Geisler opens his second letter by making it sound like Licona has been dodging him. But, the simple fact is that Licona doesn’t owe Geisler any kind of response. To the extent that Licona chooses to engage, great. But, that’s his choice. (By the way, have you ever met someone at a party who insisted on carrying on a discussion/argument with you even though you clearly weren’t interested in talking? They bugged you, didn’t they?)

I may have missed a few, but those are the ones that stood out.

This isn’t discussion; it isn’t conversation; it isn’t helpful. This is debate. Pure and simple. It’s about winning and losing.

I should say, before concluding, that Geisler does ask some good questions. He wants to know whether we can really call these resurrections a poetic device without having to say the same about the resurrection of Jesus. And, he wants to know what methodology we’ll use to differentiate a “poetic device” from some problem text that we just don’t happen to like. And, finally, he wants to know what all of this entails for how we understanding the nature of Scripture. If we hold to Licona’s interpretation, and those like his, can we still meaningfully say that the Bible is inerrant? And, if so, what does that even mean?

These are good questions. And, they called for a good discussion. They deserved a good discussion. They didn’t get one.

They got a debate.

That’s sad.

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you can effectively silence each other by your superior debating skills.

I bet they could make a song out of that.

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Speak with conviction – a visual poem

Here’s a great visual poem from Taylor Mali on the importance of speaking with conviction. He challenges the modern notion that it’s a virtue to hold beliefs tentatively and speak with uncertainty. It’s like we want to say,

I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, I’m just like inviting you to join me on the bandwagon of my own uncertainty.

Instead, he calls for conviction. As he says toward the end:

So, I implore you, I entreat you, and I challenge you to speak with conviction, to say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which you believe it.

Thanks to Brian Fulthorp for pointing this one out.

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Flotsam and jetsam (2/8)

HT James McGrath

Motivation matters here. Yes, personal blogs may be a tool of self-promotion. That’s a given. But if the blogger is motivated solely by the desire to self-promote, then the blog is about building a readership for the blogger’s benefit rather than for the reader’s benefit.

For some, the term “apologetics” has taken on too many negative connotations to continue to be useful. They believe it is time to dispense with the term altogether. I am not convinced. Saving the term, however, is less important than revitalizing and re-contextualizing the concept. Christians need to continue to talk about the best way to communicate the heart of the gospel and the saving message of Christ in compelling and coherent ways. To that end, apologetics (or whatever one may call it) should be evangelistic, integrative, holistic, communal, and contextual.

Because we worship our way into sin, ultimately we need toworship our way out.

Incorporating Lyotard’s Narratives: How Does the Gospel Stand Out?

[This is a guest post by Andy Peloquin and is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

James K. A. Smith in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? outlines the implications of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s definition of postmodern as the “incredulity toward metanarratives” on Christianity.  Smith states that Lyotard’s definition has been “bumper stickered” into a misconception of his critique of modernity, especially by Christians who see a threat to the Christian narrative of God’s overreaching purpose found in scripture.  He states that this misconception is to be found in misunderstanding what Lyotard means by metanarrative.  It is often thought to regard a story great in scope, but Smith indicates that this was not Lyotard’s concern.  Rather it was the nature of the narrative’s claims: “metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story (since even premodern and tribal stories do this) but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason.” (65)  Thus there exist grand stories in non-modern periods but the distinguishing fact in modernism is legitimization to a universal.  This concept of legitimacy is what Smith indicates is the focal point for Lyotard to demark between modern and postmodern.  For modernity, it is science (universal reason) that legitimates its claim. Science is in opposition to narrative which does not attempt to legitimize its claims but only declare them in a story (65).  This point is important for Smith to draw out in order to claim that Lyotard’s denunciation of metanarratives is good for the church.  In brief summary, Smith indicates the Church has co-opted the modern methodology and so attempts to rationalize scripture through the use of reason.  Instead the church should simply proclaim the narrative of scripture on its own terms without worrying about legitimization.  Thus the church can legitimately speak of the grand story of scripture on its own grounds without compromising that story.  The problem that Smith notes, however, is that you then have a plurality of these narratives which are in themselves all legitimate, with none able to appeal to a higher judge of legitimacy.

How does this then affect our proclamation and defense of the gospel?  Smith critiques what he calls the classic view of apologetics as being modern in its use of reasoning.  He advocates for a ‘presuppositional’ style in which all presuppositions are laid out and then the gospel is proclaimed in its narrative through the power of the Holy Spirit.  I think this is the greatest difficulty to overcome and I was a little disappointed in the lack of explanation/exposition of this.

If the Christian story is one of many other equally legitimate stories and there cannot be an appeal to a higher judge to show one better than the other, than how can we speak clearly the message of the gospel among so many voices?  I like Smith’s appeal to the Holy Spirit but I would have liked a more robust defense and explanation here of what this looks like in the everyday.  What do we do with a culture (such as in Portland) that evaluates all these stories as equally legitimate (‘what works for you’) and/or thinks they are just the same story leading to the same end (religious pluralism)?  What is more, what do we do with this apologetic in the context of a culture (such as Chinese) that already easily syncretizes various religious systems and so would have no problem with accepting the gospel or just parts, into their narrative – especially if they see them as equally legitimate?  How do you adequately address the uniqueness of the Christian faith story as we see given in it (i.e. Jn. 14:6) in this system?

Review: The Passionate Intellect by Alister McGrath

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of Alister McGrath’s The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and Discipleship of the Mind (IVP, 2010).

★★★☆☆

Alister McGrath has written an interesting little book, arguing for the central place of theology in the Christian life and calling for a renewed appreciation for the “life of the mind” in churches today. The book comprises eleven chapters based on previously unpublished lectures presented in 2007-2009.

Summary

McGrath divides the book into two sections. In the first, he sets out to convince his readers that theology really is vital for a healthy Christian life and spirituality. And, this was by far my favorite of the two sections. As he says at the beginning of the book,

Christian theology is one of the most intellectually stimulating and exciting subjects it is possible to study, rich in resources for the life of faith and the ministry of the church. It has the capacity to excite, inspire and illuminate the human intellect, giving it a new passion and focus. (7)

And, he follows from there with six essays that together seek to lay out “the intellectual capaciousness of the Christian faith and its ability to bring about a new and deeply satisfying vision of reality” (12). Recognizing that theology has a bad reputation in large segments of the church, the first two essays provide a brief apologetic for the necessity of good theology. The third essay offers an autobiographical account of McGrath’s own conversion and the important role that theology played in helping him understand the vacuity of atheism and the power of the Christian vision of reality. The next essay offers an interesting reflection on George Herbert’s “Elixir” to present the transformative power of theology. McGrath then presents an essay on the explanatory power that theology has for understanding the world around us. And, following naturally from this, the final essay in this section addresses apologetics and the necessity for good theology for articulating the Christian vision to the world.

In the second half of the book, McGrath’s shifts his attention to exploring “how inhabiting the Christian ‘interpretive community’ provides a platform for cultural engagement” (13). McGrath has a long-standing in natural theology and apologetics, and that comes across very clearly in this section. He begins this section by arguing that Christianity and science are supplementary rather than contradictory. I thought the following essay, “Religious and Scientific Faith,” was the most interesting in this section. Using Darwin’s theory of evolution, McGrath argues that both theology and science make arguments based on “inference to the best explanation,” and that, consequently, both are rational and faith-based to some extent. The next essay offers a very brief discussion of Augustine’s view of creation, demonstrating that Christian theologians have long been aware of the need to understand and engage the best science of the day even as we seek to interpret the Bible faithfully. And, McGrath finishes the book with two essays on the New Atheists, arguing against the idea that religion necessarily poisons everything it touches and pointing out the intellectual weaknesses of the atheist argument.

Strengths

Probably the book’s greatest strength is its readability. McGrath writes with a clear, concise style that makes the book more accessible than many others. A few of the essays wander into territory that will be less familiar to the average churchgoer (in America at least), particularly the essay on Herbert’s “Elixir.” Overall, though, the book is very readable and engaging.

I thought the first half of this book was particularly interesting. McGrath did a very nice job laying out the importance of theology across a broad range of the Christian life: love of God, worship, apologetics, discipleship, mission, and so on. The two chapters on “Mere Theology” in particular could be used alone to give someone a brief look at what theology is and why it’s important. And McGrath’s personal testimony in the fourth essay is really a testimonial for the argument of the whole book – the Christian vision of reality has explanatory power that surpasses any other worldview and, when embraced, has transformative power to reshape everything about you.

The second half of the book was less compelling for me. However, if you’re looking for a few, brief essays on the apologetic issues he addresses (faith and science, evolution, and atheism), then you might find it more interesting.

Weaknesses

The most notable weakness was the essay format. Although McGrath has done a nice job organizing the essays around a common theme, the book still feels a bit disjointed and uneven in places. Certain essays are necessarily stronger than others, and the connections between them are occasionally somewhat weak.

As I mentioned above, I also found the second half of the book less compelling. I thought the book would have been strengthened immensely if McGrath had devoted the second half to fleshing out a range of areas in the Christian life that benefit from a deeper appreciation of theology. Rather than restricting himself to a largely intellectual task like apologetics, it would have been great to see whole essays on worship, fellowship, mission, work, and so on. These are the areas in which the average person really needs to see the value of theology.

So, finally, I think the greatest weakness is that I’m not sure that McGrath’s book is going to convince his target audience that theology is really all that important. It will probably serve best those who are already committed to a “life of the mind,” but need to be convinced of the importance of theology. That is really McGrath’s story (i.e. the intellectual who is surprised by theology). But, at least in America, that does not describe the majority of Christians. They need a much more compelling vision of how theology touches everyday life.

Conclusion

The Passionate Intellect is an interesting book that is worth a quick read. The earlier chapters in particular are worth using as short classroom readings or with interested lay persons. And, if you know someone who is fairly intellectual and needs to catch a vision for the power of theology, this would be a great book to suggest.

Flotsam and jetsam (8/4)

  • Last week I linked to an Inside Higher Ed article on anti-Christian sentiment in higher education. NPR has now produced an article of their own on the subject. And here’s a similar discussion from Christian Post.
  • Gary Cutting discusses the relationship of philosophy and faith by addressing the difficulties that all people face when dealing with arguments for and against the existence of God. HT
  • Out of UR has posted the first two parts of a video discussion between Mark Dever, Skye Jethani and Jim Wallis on social justice and the Gospel (part 1 and part 2). Obviously, they bring very different perspectives to the table, so it’s worth checking out.
  • And, apparently monkeys hate flying squirrels. According to “monkey-annoyance experts,” one of the best ways to annoy a monkey is to place it in proximity to a flying squirrel. The best thing about this article is discovering that there are people out there who make a living out of annoying monkeys. HT

Flotsam and jetsam (vacation edition)

Wifi is a wonderful invention. I’m sitting in a nice, secluded cabin on Lummi island. Woke up to a rooster crowing on a nearby farm and spent the last couple of hours reading, drinking coffee, and enjoying a cold, misty morning. I just got caught up with my blog reading, and thought I’d go ahead and pass some links along. To keep the list manageable after a few days off, I’m just going to highlight the more interesting ones, and I’ll keep the comments to a minimum.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/17)

  • John Mark Reynolds discusses in a Washington Post forum whether all religions are the same. He argues that in religion, like in physics, small differences matter.
  • A foundation has donated $400k to a California seminary (CDSP) to write liturgies for gay wedding ceremonies in Episcopal churches. This is interesting for at least two reasons. First, the  Episcopal church has not officially recognized gay marriages yet (emphasis on yet). Second, I had not idea it cost $400k to write a liturgy.
  • Kevin DeYoung offers a very interesting graph showing (colorfully) the change in religious affiliation from childhood to adulthood. It’s particularly interesting to see the transfers in affiliation from one group to another.
  • The Vatican has caused a bit of an uproar (they’re good at that) over its decision to make the ordination of women a serious crime on par with pedophilia.
  • Patheos has an interesting set of posts on whether there’s a widening political rift in evangelicalism. (HT)
  • Christopher Benson has a nice post on Postmodernism (nice list of resources) and whether we should now be talking about a distinctively “Biola School” of philosophy that is characterized by “analytic philosophy, a revised foundationalist epistemology, a classical evidentialist apologetics (indeed, it tends to reduce philosophy to apologetics), and a biblicist notion of propositional revelation.”

Flotsam and jetsam (7/15)