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Archive for September, 2009

Why Apologetics?

I’m not huge on apologetics.  It’s not that I find it invaluable or dull; I simply only have so much time in the day.  In the midst of all that has to get accomplished in life, some things have to get cut.  For me, one of those things is apologetics. Instead, I’ve allowed Brian to pick up the slack for me and do all the heavy lifting while I sit back in my insular world of exegetical debate.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but be interested in apologetics to some degree, especially since so many of my non-Christians friends and coworkers buy into junk that gets spewed out on a regular basis.  For instance, Dan Brown writes a book full of historical inaccuracies and incredible leaps of logic, but people buy into it.  It’s simply hard to sit by and listen to people regurgitate his junk without saying something about how wrong it is.  That is, on basic level, engaging in apologetics.

But after watching a video of John Piper interviewing Doug Wilson about his upcoming documentary, Collision, I encountered a slightly different take on public apologetics than I had previously heard.  Collision is a documentary of a debate tour Doug Wilson conducted with well-known atheist, Christian Hitchens.  Wilson and Hitchens debated on a few university campuses over the topic: Is Christianity good for the world?

Wilson referred Acts 18:27-28 to present a more church-focused view of apologetics than what I had previously thought of.  Here is that text:

When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him.  When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.  For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.

What Wilson points out here is that by engaging in public debate, Apollos encouraged the church.  Wilson’s goal is that by answering the objections someone like Hitchens has to Christianity, he is able to encourage those who face those same questions (especially university students).  It’s interesting because I’ve never really thought about the pastoral function of apologetics.  By answering the critics of Christianity, one can encourage those whose faith has been “dented” (to us Wilson’s word from the interview).

To be sure, Wilson says that he would love for unbelievers to come to faith, as one would expect.  But his point about giving Christians confidence that there are answers to the questions that are thrown at them is one that sticks out to me.  Maybe for those who are more knowledgeable of apologetics this is old hat.  For anyone interested in encouraging other Christians, perhaps taking up the challenge of apologetics is worthwhile, if not necessary.

I’ve included the trailer for the documentary below.  I’ve tried to get the video of Piper’s interview with Wilson on here, but I can’t figure out how to do this with wordpress (score a point for blogger) and it isn’t on youtube yet.  When it is loaded onto youtube (and I think it will be), I’ll let you know.  Until then, you can go here, (video will open, it’s about 15 minutes long).

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Many thanks again to Connie at Crossway Books for this review copy.  Continued apologies to Connie and Danny that this is long overdue.

For this portion of my review of William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, I will focus on the topic to which Craig devotes his largest section:  De Deo.  (You can find my introduction comments here, and part 1 of my review here.)  These 100+ pages Craig devotes to the existence of God contain the 14 figures in Craig’s text, the Cyclic Ekpyrotic Scenario inclusive.  In my opinion, these chapters, while still full of useful information, are among the most difficult to read.  I can easily envision a reader getting stuck here, and putting the book down for, let’s say, a year or so.  Said reader would be especially susceptible to this if he or she were easily seduced by other books. Ahem.  Moving on.

Craig divides De Deo into two sections.  The first opens up with a brief history of the four major arguments for God’s existence that he addresses:  The ontological argument, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the moral argument.  The remainder of the first sections addresses the cosmological argument in two forms: that proposed by Leibnitz, and the Kalam cosmological argument.  As the cosmological argument his admitted favorite (p.194), it is no real surprise that he spends 50 pages discussing it (c.f., 10 pages on the moral argument, and this despite the fact that in his experience the moral argument is most effective when witnessing to others, p.194).

Around seventy percent of his section on the cosmological argument are arguably introductory texts in cosmology, as Craig labors to show that the universe began to exist.  While critical to the cosmological argument, in my opinion, Craig’s text dives too deeply into the mind-bending waters of multiverses, black holes, and other areas of physics, to actually edify his intended audience (a seminary level apologetics class, p.12).  Instead, I would guess that most would walk away just taking his word for it.  I consider myself fairly comfortable with the sciences, having two technical degrees that both required a good deal of mathematics, chemistry and physics, but through most of this chapter, I was…(wait for it)…lost in space.

Physics and astronomy aside, there is much to commend Craig’s treatment of the existence of God.  For example, in Craig’s discussion on the nature of the first cause (i.e., Kalam Cosmological argument), he explores the high probability that the cause is personal (pp.152-154).  His treatment is highly edifying, and in my opinion a much needed addendum to the many of the arguments for God, since some of them leave room for an impersonal god, or creative force.

I was also impressed by Craig’s closing section of practical applications (pp.189-196).  Consider the following:

What we aspire to show is that atheism is false, not that it is irrational for anybody to hold.  We do that by presenting good arguments for theism.  Remember:  persons are rational; arguments are sound.  We’re interested in whether there are sound arguments for God’s existence based on premises which are more plausible than their denials.  We don’t need to make a personal judgment on the rationality or irrationality of non-theists.

This quote typifies Craig’s ability to keep the reader’s eye on the ball, as it were, and his text is rife with paragraphs reminding us of what we are, and are not trying to prove or do.  Anybody who has engaged in a conversation with a non-theist has experienced the tendency to drift from the matter at hand, engaging in goose chases that only distract from the original point.  In his book, and on his website, Craig exemplifies the ability to keep a focus on issues (i.e., not people), and avoid the quasi-related (if at all) peripheral concepts that can easily blow up a conversation.

While not a slam dunk, De Deo is ultimately worth the effort.  Though some of the text may be outside of my grasp, as Craig himself states, “In order to recognize an explanation as the best, one needn’t be able to explain the explanation” (p. 171).

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Whenever I encounter a new (to me) interpretation of a familiar passage of Scripture, I’m generally skeptical of its validity.  I hope that this reticence is due less to my arrogance and more to my understanding that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  That doesn’t mean I’m not open to hearing it out, because something may be new to me but not actually new, but I’ve studied enough to know that novel ideas are generally bad ideas when it comes to biblical interpretation.

But when my friend Lacey came up to me some time ago and mentioned a new take on Luke 21:1-4 that she had heard in a Matt Chandler sermon (date: 8/9/09), I’ll admit I was intrigued.  Let me give you the verses (TNIV):

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.  He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins, “Truly I tell you, ” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.  All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

These verses are generally taken as praising the woman for her sacrificial giving.  If you’ve been in church long enough, you’ve heard it preached that way quite a few times.  I’d venture to guess that many a building campaigns have been helped by preaching this passage.

Chandler, however, offered a different take on it.  Rather than praising the widow for her giving, Jesus was actually lamenting that she gave (note: the word “praise” doesn’t show up here).  If you read the passages immediately before and after this one, you’ll see that Jesus denounces the teachers of the law in part because “they devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers” (20:47) and then goes on to predict the destruction of the Temple in chapter 21- the same Temple the woman was supporting with her offering.  Chandler argues that given the surrounding context, Jesus couldn’t have been praising the woman for giving her money to the very Temple he was denouncing.  Instead, he was lamenting.  I don’t remember if Chandler specified if Jesus was upset at her or upset at the Temple authorities for bilking this woman out of what little money she had, though my guess is the latter.

Chandler likens this passage to the televangelists who guilt old ladies into giving up their retirement checks to fund their lavish lifestyle- surely a practice Jesus detests.  (Side note: whether or not his exegesis is right, I’m loving Chandler’s hermeneutics here.)

What do I make of this?  To be honest, I’m not sure.  I’m a huge fan of reading passages in light of the surrounding context.  You can see an earlier post here of how I think the biblical writers can use narrative to make their point rather than stating things explicitly.  So Chandler has that going for him here.  But, I think literary context could possibly work the other way, too.  Is it possible that what we have here is actually a juxtaposition (one of my favorite words in studying the Bible, by the way)?  Is it possible that Jesus is purposely contrasting the widow’s sacrificial life with the greed of the teachers of the law?

Let me address a couple other points Chandler uses in his favor.  One, he states that in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus commends someone for a righteous act, he follows it up with a statement like “go and do likewise” or something along those lines (see the Good Samaritan).  Such a statement is missing here, which Chandler claims works in favor of his interpretation.  However, that isn’t entirely true.  The story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is one example where Jesus praises someone’s action without telling others to do the same.

Two, while it’s true that Jesus declares the impending destruction of the Temple, he also commanded a man healed of leprosy to go tell the priest and make the proper sacrifices (5:14).  As far as the widow is concerned, the Temple is the place where the righteous go and worship.  The Temple had not been destroyed; Jesus had not died and risen from the dead.  Shoot- even Paul went to the Temple and even intended to make an offering (before he was arrested) in Acts 21:26.

After listening to the sermon I popped open some commentaries to see what they had to say.  I only own 1 Luke commentary, but I own a few on Mark, who records this same story in Mark 12:41-44 along with the same surrounding passages.  None of the commentators took the interpretation that Chandler did.  That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, of course, because commentators are capable of rehashing traditional but wrong exegesis, perhaps especially prone in a case like this where the interpretation seems “obvious”.  It does make me wonder what sources Chandler used, though (side note: I’d love it if pastors shared this kind of information once in a while; I wonder if he ever has).

So, I’m not convinced.   Yet.  I’ll admit that Chandler has successfully convinced me that his interpretation is possible, if not plausible.  The immediate context does lend him support, though as I noted above I think it could (perhaps not ‘should’) be understood differently.  I’d be very interested to hear what others have to say about this, so feel free to leave any comments you might have.  I may very well be missing something that a different set of eyes might pick up.

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Knowing God: The Study of God

Why study theology?  Why spend hours praying over biblical texts?  What are we hoping will happen to us when we study who God is and learn His character?

Knowing GodChapter 1 of J I Packer’s Knowing God helps direct us in our pursuit of knowing God.  He starts the chapter with a quote from Spurgeon.  Spurgeon notes that the study of God ought to do three things: humble the mind, expand the mind and console.  The more we learn about God, the more we ought to realize our limitations and finiteness.  The effect ought to be humbling.  Our minds will also find themselves expanding as we try to comprehend the God who created and sustains the entire universe.  Finally, the problems and grieves of the soul will find their comfort and consolation in God Himself.

What do we do about the problem of arrogance?  After all, many of us know people whose study of God simply fed their intellectual pride.  It’s not hard to see examples of this in the church, though I’ll point out seminary students and professors aren’t the only ones prone to this- I’ve met plenty of Christians who have no desire to study theology who are just as guilty of immense spiritual pride (indeed, the fact they don’t feel the need to study the Bible at all may be a sign of that pride).

Packer is well aware of the potential for this problem (pp21-22).

For the fact that we have to face is this: If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us.  It will make us proud and conceited…  To be preoccupied with getting theological knowledge as an end in itself, to approach Bible study with no higher a motive than a desire to know all the answers, is the direct route to a state of self-satisfied self-deception.

Packer’s remedy:  “Our aim in studying the Godhead must be to know himself better…  As he is the subject of our study, and our helper in it, so he must himself be the end of it” (p23).

Ultimately, our motivation will dictact what we get out of our study of God.  If our motive is get smarter, we’ll achieve that- and a healthy dose of arrogance on the side.  We will deceive ourselves into thinking that we actually do know God, when in reality all we know is stuff about God.  If our motive is truly to know God, he will be faithful to reveal himself.  After all, his desire is to make himself known.  And when he does, we can revisit Spurgeon’s points above and discover for ourselves just how right he was.

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One of the highlights of the fall for me is rereading J I Packer’s classic book, Knowing God.  We read it every year in our discipleship and missions training school, and for good reason.  If you’re impressed with quantity, the book has sold over 1 million copies.  At the very least this attests to the fact that many people have found this book useful in their Christian growth.

But some of Knowing Godus are less enamored with numbers than others are.  After all, there are number of bestselling books that quite frankly aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, though I’m not naming any names (coughdanbrowncough).  Books are popular for any number of reasons: celebrity authors, Oprah’s Bookclub, clever marketing, and so on.  None of these necessarily speak to the quality of the book, and in some cases it may speak negatively.  And even the perceived usefulness of a book noted above is no true indication of its merit- see: Joel Osteen books, high sales totals of (I’m not doing a good job of not naming names, am I?).

There are other bestsellers that top the charts because they are simply wicked good.  It is our contention that Packer’s Knowing God is that kind of book, though I’m not sure he’d understand or appreciate the term “wicked good.”  Brian and I have decided that we’d like to blog through this modern day Christian classic, one chapter per week.  I first read Packer’s book in David Wells‘ Systematic Theology class.  It ended up being my favorite theology book of all the ones I read in seminary, in large part because it captures the “why” of studying theology and knowing God so well.  Knowing God is no mere intellectual exercise.  Packer’s concern is that we truly know God, not just know about Him and about His book.  And in knowing God, the life of the Christian and the church will be forever changed.

So we hope you’ll join us in our quest over the coming weeks and months.   We invite you to read along with us and offer your thoughts along the way.  If you do not own a copy, get one.  Beg and borrow if you must, even contemplate stealing, though don’t act on it.  However you get the book, read it, digest it and participate in our discussions.  Hopefully we’ll all come away knowing the God we worship all the more.

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Many, many thanks to Connie at Crossway Books for this review copy.  Thanks and apologies to Connie and Danny that it’s taken me a year to get around to a review of this book, a delinquency for which I have no good excuse, save several weak ones that perhaps taken together…

 I am as intimidated as I am happy at the chance to review William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, which Craig himself supposes to be his “signature book” (p.11).  I have already commented on the excellent introduction to this book here, and would commend it to anyone who would question prima facie the merit Christian apologetics.

The purpose of the book, Craig states, is to focus primarily on the theoretical issues of Christian apologetics, as opposed to offering a manual of “how to’s” (p.23).  Pragmatists (among whom I count myself) needn’t worry, however.  While Craig does indeed focus on theory, he touches down often enough to help the reader apply what has been discussed.  That said, make no mistake that this is not a light read.  This is a book for study and careful reflection, not a cozy morning on the porch.  Consider, for example, some titles taken from the table of figures (p.9):  “Cyclic Ekpyrotic Scenario,” “Oscillating Model with entropy increase,” and “Bubbles of true vacuum in a sea of false vacuum.” 

Craig is very thorough, and very technical, but the diligent reader needn’t worry; let not the titles above scare you away.  Like many (most?) matters in study, the reward you will reap from careful reading of this book is well worth a few trips to the dictionary, or re-reads of a paragraph.  To be fair, I should also mention that text isn’t all cyclic ekpyrotic scenarios, either, and Craig often explains the terms he uses in the lucid, frank prose that makes him one of my favorite apologists.  At the very worst, while you not come away being able to describe why the cyclic ekpyrotic scenario fails to explain the universe, should you find yourself witnessing to an astrophysicist who has interest in such matters, boy do you have the book for him!

Craig’s book is broken down into five major sections, an arrangement inspired by some of the principal themes of post-Reformation Protestant theology:  faith, man, God, creation and Christ (or de fide, de homine, de Deo, de creatione, and de Christo, as Craig titles them, much to the pleasure of my nerdliness).  I shall break down this review roughly along these lines, so as to keep each post managable.

Each section begins with a historical background viz., how have other thinkers addressed this issue?  These are immesely helpful, and well-written.  They also do well to remind us, in the tradition of Isaac Newton, that we stand on the shoulders of thousands upon thousands of great minds.  Craig’s development is chronological, and lays the groundwork for his own, present day “assessment,” which follows.

In De Fide, Craig makes an important distinction:  There is a difference between knowing the Christian faith to be true and showing the Christian faith to be true.  He goes on to explore both of these topics at length, fleshing out the details of each.  For Craig, the heart of knowing Christianity to be true is the work of Holy Spirit testifying that it is true (e.g., pp. 43, 46).  Craig’s support for this is a perfect blend of  copious  Scriptural support (e.g., 1 Jn. 3:24; 4:13) and well-reasoned arguments.  This mixture is seasoned with rebuttals to common objections.

Consider, for example, Craig’s response to the “objection” that some neuro-scientists can artifically stimulate certain areas of the brain to induce “religious experiences.”   A believer’s experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit, then, is not a function of the Holy Spirit so much as a physiological phenomenon.  It follows, that we ought not to trust this “sense.”  Craig notes, however, that other senses, such as hearing and vision, are clearly associated with certain parts of the brain, and they are also manipulable to induce sounds and sights that do not truly exist.  Do we therefore dismiss our vision and hearing as unreliable?  (p.50)  Even more, that there is an area of the brain associated with religious experience could actually be taken to testify that God made us that way.

De Homine, which is easily my favorite chapter, examines “the Absurdity of Life without God.”  I’ve lightly touched on this issue before, but Craig dives in with a full bore, exploring “the disastrous consequences for human existence, society, and culture if Christianity should be false” (p.65).  Put simply, this is the best chapter I’ve ever read on the topic.  Craig holds no punches, and explicitly spells out exactly how hopeless, meaningless and, well, absurd, human life is without God.  This of course does not prove that there is a God, but it does show the inconsistency of a happy atheist.  Frequent quotes of popular atheists often make Craig’s point for him, such as his embarassment of Richard Dawkins on pp.80-81.  (N.b., This is not the only time Craig makes Dawkins look like a hack; the interested reader could also consult reviews of Dawkins’ work by Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton or Christian philospher Alvin Plantinga).

My review is a scant 90 pages into this 400+ page book, but in my opinion, it is already well worth the price of admission.  In part 2, I will tackle the two lengthy chapters that comprise De Deo.  I promise that it will take less than one year for me to do so.

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Some Thoughts on the Updated NIV

While I was overseas for the last 3.5 weeks, I purposely didn’t spend much time keeping up with events back home in America.  One thing I did notice, however, was the announcement from Zondervan and the Committe on Bible Translation (CBT) that they will be discontinuing production of the TNIV and will be releasing a revised NIV in 2011.  You can read their press release here, and check out their website nivbible2011.com.  For those of you who know me, my interest in this announcement won’t be a surprise to you.  I’ve written previously about the TNIV here, as some of you may remember.

Quite a few people have already written about this, so I’ll give you some posts to look at in a couple places.

Al Mohler

Denny Burk

Ligon Duncan

Rick Mansfield

Darryl Dash’s interview with Douglas Moo, the chairman of CBT

The first 3 are from people who are quite critical of the TNIV, whereas Moo is obviously not.  Mansfield is not critical of the TNIV, moreso of Zondervan.  He and I see things very similarly.  I’ve read a few other reactions, but that’ll do for now.

My previous post regarding the TNIV dealt a bit with marketing decisions by Zondervan and how that negatively impacted TNIV sales.  They are now doing what they probably should have done in the first place, that is, replace the NIV.  Selling an NIV and a revision of the NIV side by side always seemed a bit odd.

But will it make a difference?  We won’t really know until the time when the new NIV is released in 2011.  There are some supporters of the TNIV who feel that the CBT and Zondervan have caved into pressure from outside groups and voices, such as Mohler and Duncan above.  But we can’t say they’ve caved until we see the final product.  If the new NIV looks an awful lot like the TNIV, then we can’t say they’ve caved.  In fact, they’ve done the exact opposite.  Even if they do revert some of the changes made in the TNIV, could it be that they didn’t cave but were convinced those changes were wrong?  “Caving” depends on your perspective.

If I were a betting man (and I may be), I’d bet the 2011 NIV looks more like the TNIV than the older NIV.  I know too much about the scholars who are on the CBT to think they’ll revert back to what was going on before.  Truth be told, I’ll be disappointed if they do.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the TNIV is a good translation, one that I think improves on the NIV.

Anyway, I’m not that excited about the next 2 years, largely because they’ll rehash arguments I’ve grown tired of.  In the above articles, you can see some of the language already coming back out.

For instance, Burk notes (correctly, in my opinion) that supporters of the “gender accurate” language of the TNIV claim that generic masculines are no longer used or understood by modern English speakers.  This certainly an overstatement, and Burk argues that this was never demonstrated by those supporters, simply assumed.  Of course, he then states that he thinks that this argument stems owes “more to pervasive feminist propaganda in the culture than to any profound changes in the English language,” which he assumes but never demonstrates.  Oh, the irony.

Mohler states, “The issues of concern related to the TNIV remain. For the sake of the Gospel, we must hope and pray that we do not confront these same issues in the updated NIV.”  I love the “for the sake of the Gospel” language.  And by “love” I mean “hate.”  Here’s the point: opponents of the TNIV aren’t just complaining that the translation philosophy of the CBT is inferior to others (specifically, the “formal equivalent” theory).  They are saying that philosophy has no place at the evangelical table.  Personally, I think this shows a high level of ignorance regarding translation work and linguistics (sorry, knowing Greek and Hebrew does not mean you actually know anything about translation), since many linguists (you know, people who study these sorts of things) would hold to a philosophy closer to that of the CBT.  Then again, Mohler is also the man who once sang the praises of the HCSB as “a major translation we [the Southern Baptist Convention] can control.”  This, apparently, was said without a smile or laugh.

So, I suppose the announcement of the NIV revision and the corresponding cancellation of the TNIV is newsworthy, but we can’t really make any firm statements until we actually see the final product.  In the meantime, I will continue to use the TNIV, as well as other translations, and recommend it to others if they truly are in need of a new Bible translation.  I will also continue to argue that maybe we need to stop working on so many English translations and start working on more translations into languages that have no Bible at all (I’ve promised before that rant is coming- I’m working on it).

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