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Posts from the ‘Theology Not Yet Applied’ Category

Why chairs are a poor metaphor for faith


Every so often in discussions of faith and reason, the metaphor comes up that I exercise faith by having confidence to sit down in a chair.

What if the chair were to break? Bet you didn’t consider that one.

As the idea stands, it depends upon a simple claim that faith and confidence are one in the same.

Does the certainty we have in chairs demonstrate that we have faith in general, and thus undermine by ad hominem the atheist’s claim that faith is irrational?

No, because it ignores an important distinction in the objects of faith in each scenario. In the first scenario, the reason I exercise such confidence in chairs is that I have observed in the past that they hold strong. My mind quickly estimates the probably of a chair breaking as the same as the number of times it has happened to me before divided by the number of chairs I’ve enjoyed. In this case, my faith depends upon the law of cause and effect.

In the case of God or more generally the supernatural, the faith exercised depends upon that which by definition exists external to the five senses. While you have observed the chair many times, you have not observed the supernatural many times. In fact, you have never observed the supernatural, because any interaction between the supernatural and natural is, from our perspective, natural. We don’t see the supernatural hand of God in rearranging human circumstances, we only see the circumstances themselves.

Notice that faith is the evidence of things not seen, per Hebrews 11.

But more generally than this ignored distinction, the real problem is in the equation of faith with confidence. Faith does not equal confidence. For far too long the concept of faith has been hijacked by fundamentalist streams of anti-modern Evangelical thought originating in the 1920’s which wholly posit the Christian experience as an intellectual one.

Yet the scriptures are absurdly clear that faith is not belief. James writes that “even the demons believe, and they shudder,” meaning that being convinced of an idea is not equivalent to faith in it. Supernatural beings like the demons are, I assume, explicitly aware of the existence of God. They are explicitly aware of his power and the metaphysical imperative to submit to his authority. Why do they not follow him?

Faith is a composite term for three distinct convictions. First, that a person believes that something is true. Then, that a person believes that thing is morally good and therefore worth acting towards, rather than against. Finally, that a person acts towards it.

The final step of action is what distinguishes faith from belief. A way to formulate this would be to say that Belief + Desire + Action = Faith. So to say that faith is confidence is to ignore the second and third steps.

Stop using this metaphor. It reduces faith.


Reflections from The Gospel Coalition National Conference 2017

[An assignment for CH 6000: Pastoral Ministry in the Protestant Reformation, a class at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in which I wrote a distilled reflection on each plenary session and workshop at the conference. These focus not on summarizing the argument of each session, but on applications for theology of ministry and pastoral practice.]


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John Piper, Galatians 1

This chapter began with a strong warning – there is no other gospel than that which Christ delivered to the apostles, and anyone teaching otherwise is accursed, anathema, damned. Piper noted that this should cause an unparalleled seriousness about life and worship. Pastors should thus take the pulpit for what it is worth: the means by which God can and regularly does bring sinners into salvation. Jokes are tolerable, but only sparingly, not in the middle of the serious content, and never in a way to trivializes either the weight of the content or the longstanding significance of the pulpit (i.e., do not condition congregants to expect a weekly comedy show). Piper said, “Woe to the Pastor and Worship Leader who create an atmosphere where these truths [the gospel] are impossible to feel.”

To unscramble this passage’s zig-zagged logical path, Piper introduced a homiletical device that I have never seen before. Suppose someone said “I can’t talk now, I’m late, I have to hurry, or I’ll miss my train.” This is not stated in a logically sequential order, but because there are only four steps, our brains sort them out automatically. Not so with Paul’s writing! Piper broke down the chapter into eight distinct claims, and preached through them in logical order rather than through the text in written order. This simple tool can clarify the text when I lead a devotional, Bible study, or preach a sermon.

Paul was able to say hard things because he was not, in Piper’s words, “a man-pleaser.” This is one of the marks of having authority that comes from beyond mankind. As long as I lead with one eye on man’s opinions, on their approval, I “will not be a faithful minister. I will be a coward.” Thus, the pastor who depends on God’s authority (through the Word) does not feel the need to seek man’s authorization.

A serious ministry, a logically-traced message, an authority not from man.


Sandy Wilson, Galatians 2

Peter had not defended the apostolic understanding of justification when certain people arrived. Intimidated, he shirked back and fell into the path of least resistance. If justification by faith alone is true, then those Judaizers are wrong, and Peter should stand up to their imposing presence. From this Wilson asserts that justification (or any important bit of theology) must be demonstrated and defended. JBFA is not “just an intellectual idea; it is something we commit to body and soul and live by in our entire being.” Thus, the minister should defend the legitimacy of the concept and then demonstrate practically that he believes it.

A bold witness.


Stephen Nichols, Martin Luther

Martin Luther has been cast in this presentation as a profoundly honest man: keeping his promise to St. Anne from the storm; trembling before the Eucharist at his first mass as priest; spending hours in the confessional lamenting his sin. Here we find a man concerned with his own standing with God before concerning himself with the particulars of life or the sins of his congregants. The pastor, like Luther, should himself be internally and wholly devoted to Christ before anything else. The Christian Leader must be led by Christ before they can lead others in the Kingdom.

Nichols described Luther as “a one-note theologian,” whose one note was justification by faith alone. He didn’t feel a need to emphasize other doctrines. I am sure that Luther had particular opinions on all the debates of his day, and that if he were living in the 21st century he would as well. But it seems that he chose to sit on one refrain. It can be tempting to make a single issue a “pet issue” on which I specialize, to which I quickly turn in a vacuum of other content. What other issue could be more important? The pastor should hold the gospel message as the most important talking-point of their theology and personal identity.

Near the end of his address Nichols gave an anecdotal story from the National Religious Broadcasters Association conference that year. Having a thirty-minute presentation slot, R.C. Sproul gave a seminary lecture on sola scriptura, focusing on the biblical and traditional support for the doctrine and the effect is has on systematic theology. Immediately thereafter a pastor – who led the largest congregation in the country ­– spoke about “the four pillars of his ministry” which each came from direct revelation from God. He also made sure to throw in the claim that “Jesus did his work for salvation, so no you also have to do yours!”. The clear takeaway here is the comparison between Sproul and Luther, both as men dedicated to the authority of scripture before anything else.

An honest contrition, a one-note theologian, a dedication to scripture.


Kevin DeYoung, John Calvin

The main interpretation of Calvin given in this presentation is this: his lasting significance comes not because he himself did any particularly relevant thing to his day, but because he rooted the ministry activity of Geneva in the scriptures. The scriptures last, not the particular relevancies of the ages, and so his legacy lasts. A ministry’s foundation is not particular relevancies. We can still use them ad hoc, but the real substance, the real foundation should be the scriptures.

For example, consider Calvin’s return to Geneva three years after banishment. He said nothing, walked into the church, stepped into the pulpit, and preached on the very next text after where he left. The pure dedication to the Word in his preaching ministry is obvious.

Another reflection: Calvin worked himself to death. He preached 10 sermons every two weeks, wrote large volumes on theology, had dozens of pastoral consultations per week (or weeks), and worked probably 16 or 17 hour days, for 25 years. DeYoung noted that Calvin did not eat well or sleep enough. These are both an encouragement and a cautionary tale: the pastor should work hard, spending himself and pouring himself out for the mission; yet he also should follow the sabbath principle of rest-taking, being careful to avoid burnout that threatens the mission.

DeYoung also pointed out that Calvin requested to be buried in an unmarked grave so that future generations could not idolize him in death. This, in addition to his original desire to live a quiet and retired life in the countryside, implies that he did not desire a platform or stage. So too should all pastors be content with little, though God occasionally gives much to some.

A scriptural foundation, a hard worker, an over-worker, a man content without power.


Peter Adam, Galatians 3

The Galatians, like so many others, have bought the narrative that they have “moved on to maturity,” in Adam’s words, by leaving behind what they once had. Pragmatism, Legalism, “Civic Religion,” Agnosticism, and such are almost always cast in terms of having progressed from Christianity to the newfound, superior ideology. Yet Paul would disagree; they have moved from Christ to foolishness. The narrative ought to be cast not like Christians are just holding down the fort, (because this empowers these other narratives), but that Christians are the ones who have left what is behind to press forward.

Many have “just enough religion to make them hate,” Adam says, because they fail to understand the law-grace dynamic in Galatians 3. This passage, and the concept of justification by faith alone, ought to be a great equalizer, because salvation does not hinge on anything contained within the person himself. So then, whether a pastor or not, the Christian must treat equally all other believers in Christ, not showing favoritism. We also ought not divide the body along ethnic lines like the Judaizers in this chapter.

A wise narrative, a leveled body.


D.A. Carson, Galatians 4

In this sermon, Dr. Carson asserts that slavery should be a framing metaphor in theology. Now, in the 21st century, freedom is a self-chosen and constructed identity for authentic living. Carson is not talking about this. Instead, freedom in Christ is slavery to Christ. It follows that pastors should use this in their preaching rhetoric, and that they should not discuss freedom in Christ in a way that implies licentiousness or antinomianism.

An enslaved freeman.


Andy Davis, John Yates, Steven Um, Ligon Duncan, The Pastor-Scholar in the Reformation

A heightened need for specialization in the Church has created a rift between theologian and pastor. While at one point the two were conjoined: think of Luther, himself a university professor, or Calvin, a prolific writer, or Cranmer, a seminary professor; they each served the dual roles of pastor-scholar. So, the main takeaway of this panel is that pastors can and should engage in lifelong learning, even scholarship.

Andy Davis mentioned that Calvin followed a teaching principle called “Lucid Brevity,” which implies that his audience has little time and no specialist vocabulary. Other panelists concurred, saying that the Reformers were all involved with the local church very actively. Um commented that pastors need to write without footnotes, so to speak, meaning that they avoid scholarly distractions and minutia when giving the main point to congregants.

Near the end of the panel, Um and Duncan volleyed on Scott Manetsch’s book “Calvin’s Company of Pastors” and mentioned some particular ways to meet today’s need for ongoing in-service training and continuing education for pastors. Duncan mentioned that early Presbyterians has a sermon exchange with 5 or 6 young pastors, organized by the Presbyter within his jurisdiction. (This would only necessarily apply to PCA pastors who were in attendance, but conceivably could also be organized similarly by congregationalist bodies).

A lifelong learner, a quick and clear exposition, a sermon exchange.


D.A. Carson, Evangelicalism and the Evangel

[This talk, while rich in sociological and theoretical implications, gave little in terms of pastoral ministry. I selected it before the title had changed. It originally read “Evangelism and the Evangel,” and the -ism was added latter. I had thought Carson would be speaking on methods of outreach to nonbelievers. Instead, it focused on the definition of Evangelical and how to construct that definition objectively.]


[But, Erwin Lutzer did sit next to me. So there’s that.]


Tim Keller, Calvin’s Company of Pastors Today

One of the reigning themes of the conference, along with the need for modern catechesis and pastoring in a post-Christian context, was Scott Manetsch’s book “Calvin’s Company of Pastors.” Keller presented the main concept of that book in this talk: Calvin convened a group of pastors to preach, scrutinize each other’s preaching, advise each other personally, correct, rebuke, etc., every week, for well over a decade. There is no analogue in modern pastoral ministry. We need to develop a modern analogue.

While Keller was light on specifics (intentionally cutting short to allow for a 30 minute Question and Answer), he did emphasize that a recent trend has been an increase in burnout among pastors, and that the Company of Pastors idea could potentially deter or reverse that trend.

Keller also mentioned that we currently elevate the pulpit among all other ministries, while the Reformers conceived of Ministries of the Word. Other scripturally based ministries are important too. He listed extensive Bible exposition, catechesis, immersion in the Psalms, the Lord’s Supper, Daily Office, and accountability as ministries of the Word used by Calvin that we currently minimize but should not.

A sharpening group, an exhaustion preventative, a variety of Ministries of the Word.


Ligon Duncan, The Reformation After Calvin

Cultural Engagement divided the Reformers just as it divides Evangelicals today. It is important, Duncan asserts in his portrait of Zwingli, to be careful on issues of church-state-society theory, and to treat them like adiaphora, as they deserve. Pastors should seek to persuade, have cordial disagreements, and present a compelling argument, without becoming divisive on the topic.

Similarly, Henry Bullinger had a deep concern for unity in the church. Duncan observes that we think that doctrine must be protected, but we don’t think unity must be – though both are commanded in scripture countless times. The solution is to triage debates into levels of significance, prioritizing doctrine on higher debates and unity on lower debates.

A prioritized unity.


Thabiti Anyabwile, Galatians 5

A pastor should always point people to grace, not to legalism. Congregants will see legalism and think they are climbing their way to God, instead of realizing that they are falling from grace. The apostasy in congregations will not be an outright denial of justification by faith alone. Instead, it will be a subtle change in actions that subtly undermines this doctrine. Pointing them not to law-keeping by grace will blunt this effect.

An emphasis on grace.


Tim Keller, Galatians 6

The “boasting in the Cross” in this chapter does come at the mutual exclusivity of anything else. Keller instructs “not to boast in your endnotes and footnotes, or how much you know.” The example given of Billy Graham preaching at Cambridge is a fantastic contrast between the preacher whose words stir hearts and the preacher whose thoughts numb ears. Pastors should not hold a mindset to impress their audience into buying their book (though nobody is so honest as to admit this) but to preach the Cross until they repent.

This Cross is offensive because it undermines a person’s achieved good works. Keller quotes a hypothetical person asking the preacher, “you mean after all the work I did to stay out of the gutter, I’m still in the gutter?” The pastor should nonetheless preach the doctrine of the Cross and hope that eventually the listeners who would adopt this same hypothetical mindset would repent and trust in Christ.

A boast only in the Cross, a Cross that offends.

Dr. William Lane Craig on Universal Causal Determinism

In my reading today I found this gem:

Universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed.

There is a sort of dizzying, self-defeating character to determinism. For if one comes to believe that determinism is true, one has to believe that the reason he has come to believe it is simply that he was determined to do so. One has not in fact been able to weigh the arguments pro and con and freely make up one’s mind on that basis. The difference between the person who weighs the arguments for determinism and rejects them and the person who weighs them and accepts them is wholly that one was determined by causal factors outside himself to believe, and the other not to believe.

When you come to realize that your decision to believe in determinism was itself determined and that even your present realization of that fact right now is likewise determined, a sort of vertigo sets in, for everything that you think, even this very thought itself, is outside your control. Determinism could be true, but it is very hard to see how it could ever be rationally affirmed, since its affirmation undermines the rationality of its affirmation.

William Lane Craig in Dennis Jowers, “Four Views on Divine Providence,” Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011, 60.

There is another king, one called Jesus

When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. 

But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd, But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go. (Acts 17:1-9, NIV)


Paul and company have traveled about 100 miles in the first sentence of this chapter. He arrives in Thessalonica and “reasoned with” the Jews. This verb translates from the original language as dialegomai, the same word that English speakers today use as dialogue, the conversation between at least two people. Paul’s dialegomai with these Jews extended beyond greetings and small talk; he “explained and proved” the real concept of Messianism, not as a political savior but as a suffering savior.

The common view among first century Jews of the messianic hope was especially informed by the Roman occupation. During the intertestimental period, the Jews living in Palestine were subjected to various ruling empires, depending on the century. Persia, Greece, Egypt, at one point the Jews themselves again, and finally Rome. Also, the prophetic literature of the post-exilic Jews began to narrow down the concept of God’s redemption into messianism; God would redeem the descendants of Abraham through a single person who would restore political control to the throne of David.

What the Jewish people and especially teachers of the scriptures did not expect was that the messiah would return to overthrow the tyranny of sin, not the tyranny of Rome. No political solution would be given — give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. When Peter attacks the soldier arresting Jesus, his rebuke is simple: they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. If Jesus had come to fight a war, his disciples would be killed in that battle.

Instead, they would all die in a different way, many years later, some at the hands of the very same ruling elites. But not now, not yet. Jesus goes on trial before the Roman governor over Palestine and says that “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders.”

So then, the messiah did not meet expectations. He acted outside of, parallel to the political system. He didn’t come to establish a kingdom on earth; he came to establish the kingdom of heaven.

Buried deep in this analysis lies the assumption that the kingdoms of heaven and earth are separate.

The Jewish people never expected the suffering Messiah whom Paul explains in verse 3. They never conceived of resurrection for the Messiah himself; of all people, he should be immutable, unchanging, representative in some way of God’s own character. Imagine the shock on their faces as they first hear teachers of Jesus of Nazareth — that treasonous villager whom someone mentioned years earlier, and whom they promptly forgot as another failed messiah.

Paul and his company then face a pre-trial for defying the decree of Caesar. Caesar had allowed any religion to exist, so long as among their various gods they included him. To polytheists this was not an issue; to the monotheists, the tension was between imminent government persecution and worshiping the one true God. Note that the Jews were totally comfortable undermining Paul’s public credibility by pointing this out, which clearly implies that the Jews themselves had been complying with the emperor worship in some way.

I think that the Jewish accusers accidentally misrepresent Paul more favorably than they intended. Paul, in making the point that Jesus is king, doesn’t discount that Caesar also is a king. Caesar being the emperor of Rome is just a fact. But Paul isn’t merely placing Jesus as a second parallel king; Jesus is a second, superior king. Though their domains are established adjacent, Jesus’s power extends far beyond and even within that of Caesar’s rule. This undermines the autonomous authority of the emperor.

There is indeed another king, one called Jesus. His citizens are not of this world, because his kingdom is not of this world. We hold dual citizenship and every day must tease out the boundary lines between our allegiance to Christ and our subjection to the earthly rulers. But whenever these priorities conflict, we know which to follow — and which is supremely greater.

Evangelicals and Postmoderns Together (Part 3 of 3)

[This began as an essay for a class at Trinity International University on worldviews and Christian thought. It now runs more than triple the length of the original — because the internet, unlike my professor, has no page limit. This post is the final of three. After wrapping up the ideas in the second section, I give some starting points for future study.]


Postmodernity in its fullness and complexity has far more to offer than an undergraduate freshman could critique after reading one book.

In fact, Derridá, Foucault and Rorty probably rebutted every argument in this paper — in thousands of pages of detail — thirty years before I could read Clifford the Big Red Dog.

But for a tentative analysis that mostly rehashed things I already thought, this paper forms a foundation for further study. Like Erickson who dedicated an entire book to understanding others’ opinions before giving a one page initial reply of his own, my complete answer “will be the subject of a much larger work to follow” (154).

In the meantime, the argument of this paper has flown as follows:

  1. Human reason is conditioned sociologically
  2. Human reason is conditioned sinfully
  3. Therefore, human reason is not always reliable.
  4. Therefore, because of three, humans cannot state things objectively
  5. Claim four is an objective claim
  6. Claims four and five are mutually exclusive, yet simultaneously upheld.

It seems that the drivers of a proverbial car through my argument should have seen the “no outlet” sign at three, the dead end sign at four, but disregarded them and proceeded to five and six, where he now must perform a three-point turn to reorient himself into a workable argument. Otherwise, from there, point six trails off into the sunset, left for another day to be solved.

While normal life in the modernist paradigm continues, Christians can continue to receive and criticize attempts at an Evangelical-postmodern synthesis, because “all views, even those of postmodernists, insofar as they attempt to communicate their tenets and to persuade others of them, are assuming some basic rationality that is not distinctive of the modern approach” (157).

Evangelical Convictions mentions that “our study of Scripture can never be a mere academic exercise. It must be accompanied by meditation and prayer” (EFCA 151). It is difficult to stop myself from making everything an academic exercise. In my Cartesian mind, things are either true or false, determined by reason, evidence, and revelation. Why should some quasi-emotional or spiritual process be necessary? 

The postmodern shares with this view a rejection, however subtle, of the exclusivity of truth to determine reality. Non-rationalistic outlooks on the world have huge problems! Like, being wrong most of the time. Maybe I haven’t learned my lesson yet.

Before I mentally file this paper’s argument under “Reasons Why Post-Reformation Christianity is Full of Nonsense,” which admittedly is a bulking mental file, I will pursue further explanation of foundationalism and tentatively remain with the rejection perspective of Oden.

Further study

This article about the college debate league drama.

Foucault, Michel, 1983. Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Continued dialogue with my Old Testament professor, who is very knowledgeable of postmodern thought. He is currently writing his dissertation and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t focused on exactly this subject.

Exploring the connection between postmodern Christianity and the Emergent Church movement.

The work of John D. Caputo.

Smith, James K.A., 2009. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

—- 2014. Who’s Afraid of Relativism?: Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Each of the six theologians in this book, especially their writings that Erickson criticized, and any response they give to Postmodernizing the Faith. 

Erickson appears to himself have written a follow-up book. Erickson, Millard J., 2001. Truth or Consequences: the Promise & Perils of Postmodernism. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Ehrmann, Jacques, 1970. Structuralism. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books.

The recent trend in describing the left’s SJW movement as “cultural Marxism,” which probably is right-wing code word for the integration of postmodern thought into leftist politics.

Evangelicals and Postmoderns Together (Part 2 of 3)

[This began as an essay for a class at Trinity International University on worldviews and Christian thought. It now runs more than triple the length of the original — because the internet, unlike my professor, has no page limit. This post is the second of three, and consists of the main argumentative body of my paper. The forthcoming third post is an (unnecessarily long) conclusion.]

Evangelical Affirmation

Some aspects of postmodernism, as variously defined, can be accepted by Evangelicals. This section will look at those aspects.

Since postmodernism talks about knowledge, I should use a definition before continuing: knowledge is the body of all justified, true beliefs accumulated by an individual.

This seems straightforward enough. There is a very technical objection to this definition, but ignore that for now. Without going there, the postmodern problem quickly surfaces anyway: what if the person’s method of justification needs justification? Once a person climbs the ladder of abstraction one layer up, how can they argue anything?

The main instance where justification needs justification is in cultural conditioning. It seems inescapable to say that culture strongly influences its members (additional factors being genetic and epi-genetic). Postmoderns argue that this influence doesn’t stop at fashion choices, spoken accent and median income. No, culture’s influence goes far beyond these material features; society influences the way that people think, and strongly enough to shatter their objectivity.

According to Grenz, thinkers cannot “stand outside of the historical process and gain universal, unconditioned truth” (91). This argument, called thesociology of knowledge,’ is everywhere. Much like that thing where a person notices something once and then realizes it surrounds them all day, I didn’t realize the ubiquity, the common-ness of this point. Obviously postmoderns talk about it frequently, but, perhaps less obviously, it crops up even in the writings of those who reject postmodernity. For example, Wells argues that “the external social environment provides the explanation of internal consciousness, that the way we think is a product of the society in which we live” (24). This occurs throughout the book. For example, Erickson himself uses this approach, perhaps unwittingly, when discussing Wells:

Wells’ approach to the issues is a function of his unique preparation and orientation. Wells is primarily a historian who taught in the field of church history before moving into the field of theology. This background is revealed by the fact that he generally does theology on the model of historical theology (23).

Yet the question remains, is this a Christian approach? More specifically, an Evangelical approach? We would hope so, because we cannot synthesize Evangelicalism and postmodernity without passing through this dilemma first.

The first problem is finding one person or group that represents all Evangelicals. Of everyone claiming to be Evangelical, the Evangelical Free Church of America would be a great source to consult on this question (though other groups like NEA and some cross-denominational groups would also suffice). I will demonstrate that the EFCA officially, though not explicitly, affirms this position.

Hey, look at that! The EFCA wrote a book. Evangelical Convictions is

  • a theological exposition of the EFCA statement of faith,
  • written by the denomination’s Spiritual Heritage Committee,
  • vetted by numerous EFCA pastors and others within the denomination,
  • including its then-President,
  • including members of several boards within the organization, and
  • including faculty from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (19).

Most books within the Evangelical publishing industry cannot be taken as authoritative of all of the Free Church, but if any book can, then here we have found it.

Peppered throughout the book are references to the sociology of knowledge. The authors acknowledge that

We believe that our Statement of Faith is a true reflection of the teaching of the Bible, but we are not so naive as to think that we can come to the Bible without preconceptions that influence our interpretation… We stand firmly within the Evangelical tradition, and our understanding of the Biblical gospel is informed by historic Evangelical theology” (EC 22).

“Preconceptions that influence our interpretation” ! Do they really mean that they may be incorrect? That their interpretation can be slanted by non-objective factors? This certainly fits with the perspectival realist umpire from Middleton and Walsh’s baseball metaphor.

This view acknowledges that Evangelical theologians “stand firmly” within their tradition. Tradition can be a touchy subject for Protestants; one of the reasons the Reformers broke with Rome was that Rome elevated tradition to a scriptural authority. Reformers thought that tradition was not authoritative. Here the EFCA takes a middle ground by recognizing that, though Rome was excessive, theologians will never escape Rome’s trap. We all exist within traditions.

But they swing harder:

“Just as a word finds its meaning only in the context of a sentence and then a paragraph, so a human life finds its meaning only within the context of a social and historical setting in which it is lived” (EC 101).

They give this statement in a description of the life of Jesus! Inasmuch as the EFCA represents Evangelical theology, they have here endorsed the sociology of knowledge. Using a metaphor of words, sentences and paragraphs sounds awfully deconstructionist…

But they swing once more, even harder:

“In our modern Western world, we think in individualistic terms which often deny real social solidarities such as nation, tribe and family” (EC 127).

The individualistic terms of modernity deny real solidarities. Solidarity is a term usually connoting standing with oppressed groups. One should highly doubt that this statement originates solely in Evangelical circles; this seepage originates from postmodernity. Moreover, these categories of “nation, tribe and family” are impacted by yet another socially-conditioned category, that of individualism.

If the EFCA does represent Evangelical theology, and if the above examples do not somehow grossly mischaracterize the authors’ intentions, then I can conclude that the Evangelical position resounds in clarity by allowing for and advocating the sociology of knowledge.

In addition to the sociology of knowledge, Erickson emphasized the noetic effects of sin, a doctrine consequent to Original Sin. Grenz’s criticism of human reason most clearly illustrates: as a product of man’s sinful nature, the mind can become blinded to truths (91). This means that even if he could exist in a culture-less, presupposition-less vacuum, the mind itself still cannot reason objectively.

This has been a topic of debate since roughly the time of Calvin, though it wasn’t very significant in his time. Abraham Kuyper and Karl Barth along with the fideistic movement in the early twentieth century argued that faith is more important than reason, though they phrased this is various ways, and at times argued the opposite. Some said that only spiritual truths are blinded by sin, while other things are less blinded. This argument assumes a very simple, reductionist model of the spiritual realm: some things are spiritual, and everything else is not spiritual. But at any rate, this doctrinal position almost seems to undermine every other doctrinal position, because if one cannot understand things (especially spiritual things) rationally, then can the rest of theology really make sense? Who can articulate and systematize the unknowable?

At one point in the book Erickson makes the point that modernism assumes that humans are like “Descartes’ autonomous, rational substance encountering Newton’s mechanistic world.” This means that humans think objectively, like Descartes’s idea “I think, therefore I am” implied, and that the surrounding universe also is rationally built, with sensible laws and consistent procedures, like Newton’s laws of plenary motion imply.

But because of the sociology of knowledge humans are not autonomous; because of the noetic effects of sin, humans are not rational (84). Therefore, whether the world around us is rationally built and sensible does not quite matter, because we can’t know so anyways.

This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that some truth lies beyond human reason, or at least is not immediately accessible to human reason.

Notice how another set of postmodern thinkers tie this concept to the critical concept of social oppression:

Middleton and Walsh grant that there is some basis… for the postmodern suspicion of metanarratives. The former stems from the fact that those who develop and set forth metanarratives and worldviews are finite human beings. There are therefore incapable of gathering all the data necessary to create a total view, but beyond that, being sinful, they will inevitably tend to use such ideologies for their own purposes, which results in oppression of others (112).

Here they go beyond being “incapable of gathering all the data necessary.” If that were the only problem, then something like the scientific method, or an advanced computer program, or consensus, or lots of arguing could solve the problem by whittling away all bias and subjectivity until just the truth remains. But the problem is more than this. “Being sinful,” or, as a result of the person’s very nature, they cannot wield a metanarrative healthily.

But is this an Evangelical doctrine, or have Grenz, Middleton and Walsh, and company pulled ad hoc from heterodox, far out views on the human condition to justify this argument? Once more, Evangelical Convictions, with its diverse (yet Evangelical) composition and extensive vetting, provides input:

Every part of us, every human faculty, is infected with and affected by this dreadful malady [sin] — our mind, our will, our emotions and our conscience. None of them can be trusted as objective guides of truth, because all of them are in collusion against God, caught up in this tangled web of sin (EC 84).

So, Evangelicals can draw from the sociology of knowledge and the noetic effects of sin to argue that human reason is insufficient to justify truth. The scoreboard now reads, “Postmoderns 2, Fundamentalists 0”.

Two Conflicts

Sunken deep into the postmodern mindset is a great dilemma: postmodernism makes a whole variety and number of claims about the external world, but among those is also the claim that individuals cannot reasonably make objective claims about the external world!

This amounts to the postmodern thinker tying together all the lose ends of philosophy into one big knot and declaring, “Solved! Deconstructed! I have eliminated structural violence by decategorizing that which was arbitrary from the start!” yet never bothering to pull a little on the ends of their knot. If they had, the whole knot falls apart into its constituent ideas and they prove the system much less sound than they had thought. This epistemic slipknot usually comes in the form of small claims whose object both

  1. finishes the claim and
  2. undoes the claim.

For example, the statement “there are no absolute truths” is itself a statement of absolute truth. On what grounds can the postmodernist make this statement? Moreover, when discussing the grand metanarrative of life, Erickson summarizes that

Postmodernism, for all of its criticism of metanarratives, especially modern metanarratives, is actually something of a metanarrative itself. Postmodernism is therefore caught in what Middleton and Walsh call a “performative contradiction,” arguing against the necessity of metanarratives by surreptitiously appealing to a metanarrative of its own (111).

This is a major argument against the postmodern mindset; for if one cannot know anything, how can they know that they do not know anything? Ought philosophers and theologians “sit rapt in unconditioned contemplation of their own consciousness like an Aristotelian god,” doomed to forever question the foundation of their anti-foundationalism? (link).

Over the years I have noticed even fundamentalists — of all people — crash into this wall. In a presentation that Youtube has since removed due to an Answers in Genesis copyright claim actually is still available at this link, Dr. Jason Lisle made an extensive argument for Christianity that began by claiming that there is no middle ground between evolution and creation to objectively evaluate the evidences; both sides must look through the lens of their worldview. But not twenty minutes later he built a Platonic argument for the existence of God on his rejection of moral relativism!

If one can know what is good (morality) based on objective criteria, one can also use those criterion to evaluate what is true (evidences). So which is it, or does he have some other, necessarily more complex approach to synthesize them? None are provided.

Francis Schaeffer dodges this paradox by saying that the Christian presuppositions work the best in real life, but this does not itself justify the claimed truth, only its functionality (77). His argument does nothing to counter the claim that Christianity is a useful shoulder to cry upon, a crutch in hard times, and the opiate of the masses, yet false.

This problem recurs in a second issue with postmodernity. The prefix post- denotes that an era comes after another which preceded it. But is post- necessarily good? Is something necessarily more true because it comes later? Erickson borrows Oden’s term “chronological chauvinism” to describe this trend; the chronological chauvinist has

a predisposed contempt for premodern ideas, a vague boredom in the face of the heroic struggles of primitive and historical human communities, a diffuse disrespect for the intellectual social and moral achievements of previous periods (48).

But why post- and not anti-modern? Isn’t the contention supposed to be that postmodernism opposes the tenets of modernism?

In Italy the two main parties hold opposing tenets, yet they call themselves the People of Freedom Party and the Democratic Party, not the “post-democracy” and “post-freedom” parties, respectively. Usually opposing movements choose entirely separate names, like realism and impressionism in art; no historian of art uses the term “post-realism” as a surrogate for impressionism, nor “pre-impressionism” as a surrogate for realism.

The prefix post- necessarily connotes progress, which is a modern, rather than postmodern idea (29).

I’m not just complaining about their choice of a title. They could have gone with any title, but if they at all included a theme of progress, this criticism would still be valid. Their vision of having transcended modernity is the problem, labels aside.

Postmoderns do not treat progresses like an assumption, which they regularly criticize in others, but as self-evident, as a truth not worth questioning (46). Yet I argue that it deserves questioning. Wells gives this explanation: behind the constant desire to be post- is belief in

the ability to move from one level of achievement to another… So we speak of being post-Puritan, post-Christian, post-modern, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, and post-Cold War. Wells observes that while it is understandable that our society would want to leave behind these other experiences in favor of what it deems to be superior to them, it seems strange that people today would want to put behind the modernity that has made us what we are. Beyond that however, Wells raises the questions of whether it really is possible to move beyond the modern (26).

On a related note, postmoderns, and especially Evangelicals attempting synthesis, must stop conflating the terms new and good. This is especially true for Evangelicals, whose faith is not new in any sense, yet good in every sense.

When a person substitutes “new” or “good,” they also buy into the progressive narrative of abandoning the old and accepting the new, just for newness’s sake. Cannot old things be good? Cannot new things be bad? This can be difficult to expunge from regular speech, but nonetheless Oden argues that anyone who cares should go “cold turkey… as part of a postcritical consciousness” (48) to break this habit.

Thomas Cornman, the Dean of Trinity College, in a chapel sermon near the beginning of the semester criticized the political reasoning of his children. Their justification for supporting one of the Presidential nominees consisted solely of not wanting to be “on the wrong side of history,” a common refrain among Millennials and progressives alike. In Cornman’s view, this amounts to nothing, a nonargument, except perhaps that they reluct to think outside the majority opinion (if majority can be defined as the opinions they perceive most will hold in the future).

Postmodernism argues that progress or regression do not correlate with time, that society is stagnant in the long run and lacks a metanarrative or direction. This glaring contradiction supports Oden’s view that postmodernism isn’t post- at all; it is late-stage, terminal, geriatric modernism about to give way to something different.

Postmodernism claims to reject all metanarratives, yet is itself a metanarrative; until this problem finds resolution, it cannot be synthesized with any theology, or even stand on its own. The scoreboard now reads “Postmoderns 2, Fundamentalists 2” .

Understanding Romans 13 without the Hyper-Calvinist Spin

[The title and idea for this essay come from and compliment the essay “Understanding Romans 9 Without the Calvinist Spin,” which I highly recommend for reasons unrelated to this post].

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

This passage is the main scriptural text on governance in the New Testament. As John Piper pointed out 35 years ago, this text has “often been used to justify an unseemly conformity to the status quo in this country and in others” (link). This passage is often thrown around in Evangelical circles, from my experience, with the weight of divine authority. Justly so, since the passage was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Yet not so. The words themselves are divinely inspired, but the misunderstanding of the twin doctrines of Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility is not inspired by the Holy Spirit. So then, before fully explaining Romans 13, I must dissect the entire debate over free will and determinism.

But first, go read this.

D.A. Carson here articulates a position called Compatibilism. This is the argument that the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are, in some way, compatible.

The Sovereignty of God

People who believe in this doctrine will point to areas of scripture like Ephesians 1 and Romans 9, and several stray verses here and there that imply man is powerless to choose.

For example, the deafening mention in John 6 that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” is explicit that salvation cannot ever come without God’s expressed permission (if not more). In John 17 the same idea appears again: “None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction,” and, well, does this require more convincing?

If you do need more convincing, in Ephesians 1 Paul writes that God “chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world” and that “in love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,” oh and also that believers have “been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” This really doesn’t cover it, but the prooftexting can relent for now.

The sovereignty of God is another way of saying that God is omnipotent — all powerful. He can do anything he wants, with no restrictions. David Platt has this to say on the sovereign power of God:

“Worthy are You, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things and by Your will they existed and were created.” By Your will. God is sovereign over it all. He is sovereign over all nature — the wind blows at the bidding of God. The sun’s heat radiates according to His commands. Every star in the sky comes out at night because He calls them each by name. There is not a speck of dust on the planet that exists apart from the sovereignty of our God.

He is sovereign over all nature, and He is sovereign over all nations, our God charts the course of countries. And he holds the rulers of the Earth in the palm of His hand and this is good news. It is good news to know that Ahmadinejad in Iran is not sovereign over all, and neither is Hamid Karzai or Hu Jintao or Kim Jong Un or Benjamin Netanyahu or Barack Obama. Our God is sovereign over every single one of them and He holds them in his hands. He is sovereign over them, sovereign over you, sovereign over me, sovereign over everything.

He creates all things, sustains all things, knows all things, He ordains all things. He owns all things. The author of Creation has authority over all creation. He has all the rights. American Christians: you don’t have rights. God alone has rights. He has the right to save sinners, and He has the right to damn sinners. People say well what about man’s responsibility? Doesn’t man have anything to do with his destiny? Well sure he does, man is certainly responsible in human history, but God is sovereign over human history. (cool video link).

(If this doesn’t clear it up, here are at least 3 dozen more resources from Desiring God, here are more from Ligonier, the Gospel Coalition search results, a wiki article on the omnipotence of God, and after that a good book to read would be this book or this book)

The Responsibility of Man

There was a great debate 1700 years ago between the writings of Augustine and Pelagius, the former believing in original sin and the latter rejecting it. Pelagius’s idea was that God only holds us responsible for sins we had the option to commit. So, we must have the ability to do good.

This was roundly rejected by Augustine, who argued that man’s default position of sin as nature (original sin) meant that we actually are “dead” in sin as Ephesians 2:1 teaches. But this is besides the point. Wayne Grudem observes the real issue at hand:

“If our responsibility before God were limited by our ability, then extremely hardened sinners, who are in great bondage to sin, could be less guilty before God than mature Christians who were striving daily to obey him. . . The true measure of our responsibility and guilt is not our own ability to obey God, but rather the absolute perfection of God’s moral law and his own holiness (which is reflected in that law). “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). (Systematic Theology, 499).

In quoting this verse from Matthew, Grudem notes a powerful logical dynamic: we have been commanded to obey, and by issuing a command, God has placed the responsibility outside of himself to achieve its completion.

In fact, if we reject Pelagius’s argument, there is no way to avoid the conclusion that man bears the responsibility for all his actions. God has created man with this inherent responsibility. Grudem, elsewhere in his book, writes this:

If we do right and obey God, he will reward us and things will go well with us both in this age and in eternity. If we do wrong and disobey God, he will discipline and perhaps punish us, and things will go ill with us. The realization of these facts will help us have pastoral wisdom in talking to others and in encouraging them to avoid laziness and disobedience.

The fact that we are responsible for our actions means that we should never begin to think, “God made me do evil, and therefore I am not responsible for it.” Significantly, Adam began to make excuses for the very first sin. . . Unlike Adam, Scripture never blames God for sin. . . Now we may object that it is not right for God to hold us responsible if he has in fact ordained all things that happen, but Paul corrects us: “You will say to me, then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, a man, to answer back to God?” (Rom. 9:19-20). (334).

Really, every commandment given in scripture could be cited here as further proof of human responsibility, because a command itself implies that the recipient must obey, because if there is no “must” (to be replaced by “could”) then it is just another option, and do remember that “options” also indicate human free will. So, then, either way, the burden of responsibility falls on man.


The argument from the initial D.A. Carson link is that, despite the complete contradiction, both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are found in abundance in scripture.

These should be mutually exclusive because if humans are passive recipients of someone else’s decisions, they would not be considered morally responsible for their actions, since they didn’t act freely. Conversely, if humans act from their own will, how could their actions be retroscribed upon God? Would that make him a God-of-the-retrospect, like the Mandate of Heaven from ancient China, where anything that happened was retrospectively declared the will of God? This was in spite of the fact that every action along the way came from humans.

Yet, we have both. There isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, a logical synthesis other than to suspend logic and act like the problem isn’t there.

John MacArthur, with his usual clarity of theology, writes this:

Scripture affirms both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We must accept both sides of the truth, though we may not understand how they correspond to one another. People are responsible for what they do with the gospel—or with whatever light they have (Romans 2:19, 20), so that punishment is just if they reject the light. And those who reject do so voluntarily. Jesus lamented, “You are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life” (John 5:40). He told unbelievers, “Unless you believe that I am [God], you shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). In John chapter 6, our Lord combined both divine sovereignty and human responsibility when He said, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37); “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life” (John 6:40); “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44); “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47); and, “No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65). How both of those two realities can be true simultaneously cannot be understood by the human mind—only by God.

And recall again D.A. Carson’s statement from the bottom of the first link:

at the end of the day, what the Bible does do is insist that those two propositions I gave you stand at the very heart of any faithful Christian understanding of the mystery of providence. God is sovereign, but his sovereignty doesn’t mitigate human responsibility. We human beings are morally responsible creatures but that doesn’t mean God is contingent. And we live with those tensions and all the mysteries of how God in his eternity relates to us in our time. We live with those tensions until the very end.

Returning now to Romans 13

Forgive me for the above longwindedness, but this topic of the sovereignty of God is directly implicated in this passage when Paul writes “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” So we see that God has acted in His omnipotence to appoint someone as king.

But how, practically speaking, did that person become king? Did the Roman Senate hold an emergency meeting and elect a new king at the death of the last? Did the existing king have two sons, and the younger killed the older so that he could ascend to the throne? Did the property-owning citizens of Athens gather together and write names on stones to cast their vote?

In the first example, the Senators are the ones directly responsible for the King coming to power. In the second, the younger brother is responsible for his own coming to power, and sinned in the process. In the third, the citizens of Athens are responsible for their actions.

All rulers, besides the direct ascendancy of a first-born son, come to power because of some actual choice made by a human. (Even in the first-born son case, the Father decided to have a child, or decided not to have the child killed, or decided not to have the throne filled otherwise, or what-have-you).

This is especially true in democracies (read: systems that hold a vote), where the responsibility actually falls upon everyone in the country. This is part of the argument (though not consistently followed) by conservatives who decried President Obama as a sign of God’s judgement against the nation. It could also be true of President Trump, though only time will tell.

My argument in interpreting Romans 13 is this: Paul is giving the sovereignty of God position, but like other texts that depend upon the sovereignty of God, we must look elsewhere in scripture to receive the whole message.

You wouldn’t read Ephesians 1 and think “well, since God is sovereign, man has absolutely no responsibility for his actions,” yet this is exactly what people do with Romans 13 all the time.

So what would it look like to apply the Compatibilist model of the will of God to something like Government?

In this model, when discussing salvation, the following things are true:

  1. we do not know the future
  2. we are held responsible for our choices
  3. God commands a response

And I would say that, when applying this Compatibilist model to Government, those translate roughly into these three principles:

  1. we do not know who will win an election, and therefore God’s will can only be acted upon in retrospect (which means it can’t be acted upon).
  2. we must act according to conscience, which I venture to say should be informed by Scripture, by history, and by political science (though blending these can be difficult work).
  3. we must participate in the decision making process, and if not, we implicitly still are, much like a person who makes no decision about salvation is actually just deciding to reject God.

So then, let us return to the original passage. Romans 13, with some commentary.

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

“Those that exist have been instituted by God” is true in the same way that the color socks you wore today were instituted by God, or that you took 31ml of Nyquil last night rather than 30ml was instituted by God. In no way does this abrogate the responsibility of the people doing the tangible action of choosing the authorities. This is especially obvious today, when hundreds of millions of people cast votes, rather than 30 in the Senate or some other less-than-obvious system. So then, while God can be credited when a good ruler comes to power, man must take the blame when the ruler turns out to be sour.

This type of theological minutia may seem nitpicky, or irrelevant. “What difference does it make?” someone may ask.

The difference is that, as a result of human responsibility, we must treat governance like any other choice. We are responsible! We must take action when things go wrong! Now this action must occur within the confines of the system, and violent revolution is never prescribed in scripture to overthrow existing evil governments (except in the entire book of Joshua where the Israelites are commanded to overthrow the existing governments in the land of Caanan … though this does not translate to today)

This lays out the foundation of my belief in Christian political activism. I must take seriously the notion that God can and does act through humans to change governments, to elect leaders, to restructure society. I can safely push against the system, in one sense because God will override my actions if they are outside his will, in another sense because my actions themselves are determined by his will (?) and therefore they cannot happen unless they are allowed by him, and in one final sense because I have been commanded to love justice and hate evil, and this includes any institution for which I am responsible.

Notice that Paul gives the function of government: the authority must be an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. But notice also that Paul says nothing about the proper Christian response to authorities who themselves are wrongdoers. Who is the King above all Kings? God, yet what if in his silence he is commanding humans to act on his behalf? This seems to be exactly what he does with kings themselves.

My main takeaway point from this pedantic essay should be: to read Romans 13 without the hyper-Calvinist spin, simply add in the recognition that humans are responsible for their actions, and suddenly the all-too-familiar blurry line between His sovereignty and our responsibility has reappeared. What do we do? This is just as difficult a question to answer on government as it is on anything else.

Evangelicals and Postmoderns Together (Part 1 of 3)

[This began as an essay for a class at Trinity International University on worldviews and Christian thought. It now runs more than triple the length of the original — because the internet, unlike my professor, has no page limit. This post is the first of three, and is certainly the most academic, nuanced, boring and wordy. I highly recommend skipping to the second or third post.]

Millard Erickson’s book Postmodernizing the Faith reviews the attempts by six Evangelicals to respond to postmodernity. After introducing the concept of postmodernism, Erickson summarizes three negative and three positive perspectives, at length, and criticizes each before presenting his own preliminary answer. He also encourages Evangelicals to listen to attempts at synthesis with critical but open ears.

The book is intricate — almost irreducibly complex — but regardless I will attempt to briefly summarize each summary before evaluating some aspects of the overall dilemma of a postmodern Evangelical theology (Part 2) and concluding with some anecdotal observations and future study direction (Part 3). 

My summaries sequentially grow in length; I attribute this to my own writing incompetence and lack of focus, and to the content itself becoming more abstract and less accessible as Erickson continues.

Author Meta-Summaries

David Wells: “Just Say ‘No!’” Wells, a historian by trade, begins with the argument that somewhere between the middle of the eighteenth and middle of the nineteenth centuries lies a great historical divide. Before this divide was the Age of the West and after the divide lies Our Time.

The word modern means two different things: modernity was an intellectual movement that began with the Enlightenment, and these people fit all of reality within the mindset of natural reason; additionally, modernity is a sociological situation involving many factors. Interestingly, the intellectual half is irrelevant compared to the societal half, because ideas are not what really count.

“What shapes the modern world is not powerful minds but powerful forces, not philosophy but urbanization, capitalism, and technology. As the older quest for truth has collapsed, intellectual life has increasingly becomes little more than a gloss on the processes of modernization. Intellectuals merely serve as mirrors, reflecting what is taking place within society. They are post-modern in the sense that they are often disillusioned with the emptiness of the old Enlightenment ideals, but they are entirely modern in that they reflect the values of the impersonal processes of modernization” (27).

Intellectual modernity began with the Enlightenment and died near the end of the nineteenth century; around that same time, sociological modernity began (26-27). So, this all muddles the relationship between modernity and postmodernity, which is much more complex than historians and philosophers would like to admit. The word modernization refers to the transitional phase, and modernity is the result after that transition has happened; the same is true of secularization, after which one can observe secularity.

The transition from pre-modern to modern was accompanied by secularization, as “the restructuring of thought and life to accommodate the absence or irrelevance of God” (31). Modernization has divided life into a private and a public sphere, and to minimize antagonisms in the public sphere, religion is moved in the private. As a result, most people, if not religious, learn values from systems like the economy, the political government, universities that generate and disseminate knowledge, and mass media.

After this historical context, Wells argues that in response Evangelicals have mistakenly abandoned confessionalism and resort to teaching love and obedience, which abrogates the formal core of Christianity (34). The formal core of Christianity is to believe the Apostle’s teachings; this is what is has always been and this is how the faith is described in scripture.  Wells is basically calling for a return to truth– not just to content of truth, but to the idea of truth itself (36). Evangelicals ought to “Just Say No!” to postmodernism.

Thomas Oden: “Back to the Future.” Oden describes modernity as

  1. the time elapsed from 1789 to 1989 and as
  2. a combination of self-actualized freedom, moral relativism and naturalistic reductionism, autonomous individualism and narcissistic hedonism (47, 49). 

These are the ideas that: humans should strive for freedom based on self-actualization, or “finding yourself”; morality is not a fixed code to be discovered but a set of values that are neither right nor wrong; all things can be reduced to natural explanations, including human behavior; the individual is greater than the collective and has claim to sovereignty of themselves; an idol is made of one’s sensuality, body and immediate pleasures, meanwhile all values are subservient to making oneself happy.

Each of these modern strands are hidden killers. Oden examines in great detail how each of these tendencies has led to “friendlessness, disaffection, divorce, drug abuse, and the despairing substitution of sexual experimentation for intimacy,” among other effects (51). But we haven’t seen this effect until long after modernity began. The postmodern phase is therefore not actually post-modern, but ultra-modern, a “terminally fragmenting” form of the same period as modernity (50). Modernity has reached its death throes, seen in what philosophers call postmodernity.

What will come after postmodernity for Evangelicals? Oden believes the answer is

“classical orthodox Christianity. By that he means the consensual core of beliefs that has been held by a majority of the church throughout the span of its historical existence, embodied in such documents as the ecumentical creeds of the early centuries. It is this body of material, long over-look or ignored by mainline Christianity, that will prove to be a vital source of postmodern [meaning after ultramodernism] orthodoxy” (54).

Oden is also recommending a new voice for the Scriptures, which have unfortunately been subjected to critical assault; the critical assault has carried many modern assumptions; these criticisms will die as modernity dies (55, 56). The problem with modern theology is that it has “bought into the whole mentality of modernity, and thus suffers all the shortcomings that it posses” (57).

Christianity ought to be the true post-moderns by rejecting the modern emphasis on only objective historical events and returning to paleo-orthodoxy, a term coined Oden uses to mean the replacement of historical event emphasis with an emphasis on the early century creeds and writings (57).

Francis Schaeffer: “Escape to Reason.” A movement started in the nineteenth century whose product was not seen until the twentieth century, as “later modernism” (64). There was a whole set of assumptions then, which happened to accord nicely with Christianity, that are different from the assumptions of later modernism. Among these assumptions is the idea of absolutes in morality and in physicality. Around 1890 in Europe and around 1935 in the U.S., this changed, and society began to slip below the “line of despair.”

The Line of Despair is a contrast between two types of thinking:

“living above the line of despair, philosophers had attempted to develop a worldview, an effort to interpret the whole of reality from within one’s own experience”

“All this changed below the line of despair. Now Kierkegaard and those who followed him abandoned the idea of being able to draw a circle that would include everything. Now if rationalistic humanity wants to deal with the real things of life, such as purpose, significance, and the reality of love, it must be done by a nonrational leap of faith.”

Postmodernism is “the loss of logical antithesis, thoroughgoing relativism, and the loss of metanarrative” (64), or the natural products of living below the line of despair. The postmodern perspective cannot be lived in the world (69), but the Christian persepective can (70-76). A real, living human just cannot consistently live below the line of despair; they can claim to do so intellectually, but to also do so physically and socially would lead one to suicide. 

This forms a great tension within the non-Christian perspective, where their beliefs oppose their world, but they live closely enough to their world that they settle on inconsistency. How can Christians deal with such inconsistent people?

Rather than convincing non- Christians to adopt Christian presuppositions (as many attempt), Schaeffer tries to push them towards consistency, to remove the brakes holding them from living the logical conclusions of postmodernity (78). This may have very dangerous results (again, suicide), but is the solution to evangelism and leading them to Christian presuppositions.

Having considered three negative responses to synthesizing Evangelical theology with postmodernity, Erickson turns to three positive responses to synthesis.

Stanley Grenz: “To Boldly Go Where No Evangelical Has Gone Before.” Grenz defines postmodernism not as time period so much as a broad cultural phenomenon. Postmoderns reject the modern mindset, but under the conditions of modernism. First, what is modern?

Descartes and Newton both contributed to the modern mindset, their ideas founding the view that “human reason is the means of discovering the systematic truth present in the orderly word” (84), the human reason half coming from Descartes and the orderly word from Newton. For these moderns and those who would come after, knowledge is certain, objective, and inherently good.

This all started to crumble in time. Nietzsche was an early attack, but it didn’t really pick up until deconstruction, which was a response to structuralism. Structuralists said that since life is meaningless, societies try to make documents and texts that give it some meaning. Deconstructists replied, twenty years later, that even those texts are meaningless because readers always read-in their own meaning to the texts, so the meaningless life cannot really be encapsulated in a meaningful text, since even “meaningful” is up for interpretation! The world “is only an arena of one person’s interpretation against another’s” (86), and as Foucault argued, people in power are often the ones putting forward interpretations (which advance their power and violence).

Grenz thinks that Evangelicals are moderns. Even though Evangelicalism really formed in the fundamentalist movement in the 1910s and 20s, which was a pushback against modernity, Evangelicalism is based on the same modern mindset of certain, objective and inherently good knowledge. (I would add that the anti-modernity of fundamentalists was in response to the results of modernity, namely evolution, not against modernity itself). But since our society is moving past modernism, Evangelicals need to find a way to present the gospel in postmodern terms (89). But is this possible? And more importantly, how will this be done and how will Evangelicalism and postmodernism have to be altered?

Grenz thinks that Evangelicals cannot accept postmodernity’s skepticism; they must retain the correspondence theory of truth. They also must retain the metanarrative of redemption (creation-fall-redemption-consummation).

But, Grenz does think that the scientific method isn’t the only pathway to truth; some things remain outside of reason (91). Also, keep in mind that Evangelicals believe in original sin; a natural subdoctrine of original sin is that all aspects of humanity are fallen, including the mind. Can humans be rational if blinded by sin? Even more, Grenz rejects the inherent goodness of knowledge since, though knowledge of science has increased dramatically in the past century, so has the destructive application of that science against other humans also increased in the past century. We learned a lot about atoms. We used the atomic bomb. Knowledge itself is not good, people must apply knowledge in a good way.

So what does a postmodern Evangelical theology look like?

  1. “[it] begins with a shift in the basis of the definition of evangelicalism from primarily a theological system to a type of spirituality, focused on the experience of the new birth.
  2. Second, the locus of theology is revisioned. Rather than a summarization of the doctrinal teachings of the Bible, it is reflection on the beliefs of the community.
  3. There is also to be a revisioning of the sources of theology. For Grenz’s theological methodology calls for the employment of three sources: the Bible, the tradition of the church, and the culture. The latter is to supply the though-forms for the expression of the message…
  4. Finally, the nature of biblical authority is to be revisioned. Traditionally evangelicalism has moved from the idea of revelation to the doctrine that the Bible is an inspired preservation of that revelation and is therefore authoritative. But, says Grenz, ‘the assertion of the inspiration of Scripture cannot function as the theological premise from which bibliology emerges, nor as the focal point of our understanding of the relation between the Spirit and Scripture.’… ‘because believers in every age hear in them the voice of the Spirit as they seek to struggle with the issues they face in their unique and ever-changing contexts'” (92-93).

An Evangelical postmodern theology should be communal rather than individual; without altogether rejecting the Biblical emphasis on individual salvation, this brand of theology would emphasize that the individual is always part of a culture, which influences their ideas. The individual (non-community-member) dispassionate theologian does not exist.

This should be mysterious rather than rational; there are some dimensions of reality the rational scientific method does not touch. If one tries to use rationalism to understand these untouchable things, they will reduce theology to a “cool, calculating dissecting of God, listing his attributes in the form of timeless propositions” (95).

An Evangelical postmodern theology should be bodily rather than dualistic; for hundreds of years the Enlightenment modernists emphasized the soul/mind over the body, which has leaked into theology. Grenz thinks that postmoderns, who reject such a distinction, are closer to the perspective of the Biblical writers. There must be an integration of “the many dimensions of the human person into a single whole, including a new concern for the place of emotion and intuition in our lives” (96).

Finally, this synthesis must enrich the spirit rather than just the mind; knowledge is a good, but not a good in and of itself. In other  words, knowledge has instrumental but not intrinsic value. So, theologians can never settle for lists of propositions; they must have a “right heart” or the “right head” is dead, because beliefs shape conduct (97).

J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh: “Theology is Stranger Than It Used to Be.”, Middleton and Walsh had written an earlier book and were about to publish a very revised second edition, but their editor recommended an altogether new book. This new book forms the basis of Erickson’s summary.

Modernity is a combination of naturalism, belief in a progress that lies always ahead, belief that progress will be achieved through scientific advancement, and a rejection of ecclesiastical authority (104). These were problematic because in the end humanity did not achieve the progress that modernity promised; two World Wars and the Great Depression made this clear. Because society no longer believes in the progress feature of modernity, postmodernity has begun. 

What is real? Moderns thought that if one carefully guarded the objectivity of their methodology, they could find truth (105), meaning that the idea in their head corresponds to an actual thing in the world, independently of the thoughts in the thinker’s head. MIddleton and Walsh introduce this great metaphor to describe perspectives using three umpires for foil; the umpire represents a person, the ball/strike represents reality, and their phrase represents how they view reality:

The first umpire (“There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ’em the way they are”) is the naive realist, assuming that his or her judgments correctly reflect the reality that they claim to describe.

The second umpire (“There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ’em as I see ’em”) is a perspectival realist (or perhaps a critical realist).

The third umpire (“There’s balls and there’s strikes, and they ain’t nothin‘ until I call ’em”) is a radical perspectivalist. Many postmodern thinkers, according to Middleton and Walsh, are represented by this third umpire. They doubt whether there is anything “real” beyond our judgments (105-106).

The problem that postmoderns raise over and over is that the first umpire thinks he has access to “reality” apart from his perspective. But nobody has that access. People can never “get outside our knowledge to know reality in some direct fashion. It is always mediated to us by our linguistic and conceptual constructions” (106). Can the socially conditioned person  claim to know morality if they can’t even know truth? What if the system of morality they follow is actually just Western morality, or American morality, or Illinois morality, or Conservative morality? How, if there is more than one morality, and they happen to already be privy to one, can they objectively decide?

Postmoderns like Derrida have deconstructed these arbitrary social constructs. Deconstruction “tries to help people see that what seems so natural to them is actually cultural in origin. It attempts to dismantle the totalizing visions that have been used to disenfranchise minorities and open the door for justice” (108). The deconstructionists also do this to the very concept of self, arguing that the self always expressed itself in violence, and is socially constructed.

Middleton and Walsh often alternate between “late modern” and “postmodern” because we are in a period “of cultural transition, where genuinely novel features coexist side by side with continued, even heightened, central features of the older period and philosophy” (111).

Their synthesis begins by acknowledging that metanarratives are not themselves good or bad, but can be used for good for bad. The Biblical metanarrative does not justify oppression against various groups, like some accuse of it, but instead demonstrates concern for the oppressed (112). (This is a difficult statement to defend.) (They defend it.)

The ultimate solution to all this pedantic counterpointing and posturing comes on page 119, where Middleton and Walsh are quoted as saying “Far from being a closed book about a story that has ended, the Bible authorizes our faithful enactment of the Author’s purposes precisely in order to continue the story across the pages of history,” meaning that the Christian life is an improvised scene, acted out after the intermission (Acts 28), and believers need only stay faithful to the earlier script (everything before Acts 28) so that the scene appears continuous together with it. We also have access to the author of the story, who left us the Spirit (120). A faithfully Evangelical and postmodern thinker lives a narrative life continuous with the narrative of scripture.

B. Keith Putt: “De/con/structive Evangelicalism.” In Putt, Erickson finds a scholar who has not written much, and Erickson’s summary depends mostly on unpublished papers, Putt’s dissertation, a one chapter entry in a textbook, and such. Yet Erickson does piece together something, and from it should obviously follow that Putt has completely accepted the premises of deconstruction; the interesting fact is how he remains an Evangelical.

Moderns want certainty; from the time of Plato onward, men searched for a foundation upon which to build all knowledge. They have sought to

“undertake an epistemological archaeology, and ‘dig’ back through the layers until one can discover a bedrock of first principles (archai) upon which the edifice of learning rests. Only if such a beginning can be located can there be any hope for establishing objective and certain truth.”

Even though Plato and others were premodern, they had in common with moderns this search, this foundationalism.

Modern thinking is a “quest for certainty” while postmodern thinking is a “stark refusal to cultivate a nostalgia for the unattainable ” (128, 130, underline courtesy of Putt), which is a very positive framing of the perspective that since humans cannot have certainty, they should not desire it. Postmoderns abandon the search for a totalizing systemization of truth.

Much of the rest of Putt’s argument is based on his reading of John Caputo, another postmodern, Christian (but not Evangelical) philosopher. So Caputo must be summarized before Putt can answer.

Caputo begins with Derrida, saying that Derrida “is not affirming subjectivity, but epistemological humility” (though, note, this may not actually be what Derrida was saying). So, while they may seem like similar mindsets, there is a difference between saying that one cannot know truth because it’s really difficult and saying that one cannot know truth because there is no truth at all. Simple thus far, but after this, it gets messy.

For the longest time, Caputo thinks, people have turned to metaphysics or ontotheology to try to find their bearings. They point to something external to all of this, usually God or some type of highly-abstracted ethical system, and use that as a reference point for morality, truth, meaning, and such (133). They think that if you abandoned this external reference point, then you could have no morality, truth, meaning and such. But Caputo says that, actually, you can have those things without it. Here is how:

Truth must be “recognized as an effect, not something dropping into the play of textuality from some transcendental beyond.” One can avoid both absolute truth and nihilistic dread because “deconstruction gives us the desire to keep the debate open” [not sure how this follows] (134). We also need community [I’m very unsure of how the points on pages 134-135 follow each other; I am trying to summarize Erickson, who summarizes Putt, who summarizes Caputo, who at times summarizes Derrida. Maybe a meta-meta-meta-summary is exponentially more difficult than a meta-summary]. There is some fine distinction between the Greek ideal of the Body and the Sanskrit word for Flesh, and the Latin obligare for obligation comes into play, [this all gets muddy and I’m convinced I have now found a passage so far beyond my accessibility that the words are meaningless to me].

All of that aside, Putt’s theology of theopassion beings. Readers cannot enter the text of Scripture without their preconceptions; there is no “objective” starting point. This should be a common refrain by now. Putt makes the point, in more clarity here than others have managed, that though God has divinely inspired the scriptures, this inspiration “does not void their also

  1. being historical texts developing within certain contexts,
  2. being transmitted through tradition, and
  3. having to be read and interpreted by each new generation” (136).

But Putt wouldn’t say that you can’t have truth. You just can’t claim the one true interpretative structure of scripture. We should always be suspicious and question the presuppositions of interpreters. So there is an element of subjectivity

Now, sure, the scriptures are subjectivized, but they still don’t have an infinite number of meanings; the sentence “God created the heavens and the Earth” cannot legitimately be taken to indicate an interpretation something along the lines of “David’s affair with Bathsheba was legitimate only insofar as Bathsheba consented to the affair.” (This is my attempt at an example of Putt’s argument, not his). The text does limit itself.

But in addition to the text itself limiting an infinite number of interpretations, there is another factor that caps the number. Biblical interpretation is always done within communities, or by people influenced by their community.” This is how relativism and subjectivism are overcome, then: by submitting one’s interpretation to interaction with other members of the community” (138). The Spirit helps communities out.

Putt emphasizes the suffering (passion) of God (theo), or theopassionism, meaning that he largely agrees with “free will theism” or “the openness of God” theology (this can be a topic for later research) (140). Here he ties in Caputo. Caputo outright rejects incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection (?!?!?!?!?!?), so his theology obviously needs adjusting by Putt. Putt’s God (stylized with an X through the o) “is clearly not the timeless, impassible, immutable God” (141) characterized by modern Christians. Putt’s God can be affected by the events of history, since God cannot suffer or love “in some Eternal Now” outside of time as humans understand it.

There are, I will admit, myriad issues with the contradiction between Christ’s deity and the doctrine that God never changes. God obviously changed form in some way, at least a bit, in becoming Christ. How can this be resolved? By asserting that God actually does change, which is most true on the Cross of all places, where Christ becomes “the ultimate expression of nonbeing.” Also explored is the dilemma of God forgiving something by paying for the debt. Putt pivots back to Caputo, who argues that “forgiveness cannot be established upon a foundation of revenge and repayment. To forgive is to take a loss.” This amounts to a rejection of penal substitution as the theologian’s primary soteriology. All of this argument is constructed without reference to scripture, depending instead on just “the biblical view” (143). I am now sure how Putt’s theopassionate God is more defensible to the points of postmodernity than the immutable God of modernity.

End of Part 1.

Part 2 coming soon.


D.A. Carson on Providence

An excerpt from D.A. Carson’s sermon, “How Could God Allow Suffering?”

Here is the link.

I want to make two statements which I insist the Bible backs up again and again and again and again. I’m not saying that they are easy. But the Bible holds two propositions simultaneously all the time. They surface again and again and again. They surface in books of the Old Testament, that is the things written before the coming of Jesus, in the New Testament written in the time of Jesus for about a hundred years, these two propositions surface again and again and again.

Number 1
God is absolutely sovereign but his sovereignty never mitigates human responsibility.

Number 2
According to the Bible human beings are morally responsible creatures. (By that I mean we believe and disbelieve, we obey and disobey, we chose and so on, and we are held accountable for all of these things. Of course there may be many many things that go into it in terms of our background and our genes or how tired we are and whether we had a night’s sleep, and all the rest, but nevertheless, creatures who believe, disbelieve, chose, disobey, do good things, bad things). But all such moral accountability, all such moral responsibility never, ever makes God absolutely contingent. That is, it never relegates God to the place where he is merely a reactor.

Now the Bible holds that those two things, those two propositions are simultaneously true again and again and again. It doesn’t enter into long dispositions to defend them. Many Christians have done that in the centuries since the Bible was written. But nevertheless the Bible presupposes them.

Let me just give a couple of examples and you will see what I mean.

In the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, in the very last chapter, chapter 50, you come to a part of the history of Joseph, Joseph had been badly abused by his brothers. They were going to kill him at one point, then they sold him down into slavery, and in the mysteries of God’s outworking, eventually, though he was horribly abused down in Egypt, nevertheless the time came when he became the equivalent of prime minister of Egypt and helped to save his own family from starvation.

Now the father of Joseph and of the brothers who abused him has died. And the brothers are afraid that now that the old man is dead, Joseph is gonna take it out on them. He’s got power, he’s prime minister for goodness sake. So they go to him with this song and dance routine about how their father wanted him to be a nice chap and all of that, and Joseph says

“Who am I to stand in the place of God? Listen, when you sold me into captivity you meant it to me for evil, you intended it for evil. But God intended it for good to bring about this result at this time, namely saving many people’s lives.” Now notice what the text does not say: it does not say “God had intended to get me down to Egypt in a chauffeur-driven, air conditioned limousine, but unfortunately you guys mucked it up and as a result I went down there as a slave instead.”

Nor does it say “you sold me as a slave into Egypt while God was on holiday, he was taking a small break, he wasn’t watching at that point, but nevertheless he came back later. He was such a magnificent chess player that he moved some pieces around and eventually it came out to have a happy ending anyway.”

But rather in one and the save event, you intended it for evil but God intended it for good. That is, God is sovereignly working in this event but their human accountability is not thereby mitigated. They are morally responsible creatures but that doesn’t make God absolutely contingent, coming in on his white charger at the last moment, you know, singing triumphalist songs as he sorts it all out as the sun goes down on the west and the credits go up the screen.

That sort of thing is found again and again in the Bible.

[You know what, the apostle Paul never had to worry about these microphones.]

Perhaps the best known example in the New Testament, that is, the bits written in connection with Jesus’s life, is found in Acts chapter 4. In Acts chapter 4 the Christians are beginning to face their first whiff of persecution and they gather together and they pray. And in their prayer they go over the events that brought Jesus’s death to pass. And they say Acts 4:27 “indeed Pontious Pilate and the leaders of the Jews and the Herodians and so on, they conspired together against your holy servant Jesus and put him to death on the cross.” Verse 28 “They did what your hand had determined beforehand should be done.”

So on the one hand, the political factors that got Jesus into a kangaroo court and got him butchered was the result of quite frankly a conspiracy, a political conspiracy, human expediency, it was nasty human machination and the people are responsible for it. On the other hand you can’t really be a Christian and not see how central the cross is to all of God’s purposes right from the predictions of the Old Testament right through the events themselves and into the events that follow, that God designed the whole thing so that Jesus would die on a cross. You’ve got to see that the death of Jesus was not just a political accident, a minor mishap in a two bit nation on the eastern end of Mediterranean in the first century. It was something designed by God himself.

Yet even thought it was designed by God himself, that does not mitigate the responsibility of the conspirators who actually put him on the cross. In other words, although the Bible does not explain the mystery of providence (there are huge questions about how God’s sovereignty works with human will, and the relationship between time and eternity, and if this was another sort of lecture in another sort of venue in a PhD. seminar we could usefully explore some of those discussions together). But at the end of the day, what the Bible does do is insist that those two propositions I gave you stand at the very heart of any faithful Christian understanding of the mystery of providence. God is sovereign, but his sovereignty doesn’t mitigate human responsibility. We human beings are morally responsible creatures but that doesn’t mean God is contingent. And we live with those tensions and all the mysteries of how God in his eternity relates to us in our time. We live with those tensions until the very end.