Well, to be sure, I was tempted by the Romanists in my late teens – and I felt the pull of the Anglo-Catholics when I was in my mid-twenties. But now a little older and fatter (mid-thirties), I find myself a boring ol’ Protestant – and a sassy one at that. Here are 12 lessons I’ve learned along the way – and if they help you along yours, great.
1. The church is God’s people called by God’s gospel gathered around God’s word. That’s it. And the implications are huge. There is no anxiety to be had about being unable to trace a series of institutions or a series of bishops back to the past. No, there is a series of “hearers and receivers” of Christ’s promise to forgive. That’s it. That’s church history. That’s our family. Nor is the history of Christian doctrine and practice the history of clergy doctrine and practice. Clergy is vocation, but it is not, as such, the church.
2. Related to this, all those cool-sounding Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic church fathers? They’re our fathers too. Seriously. They are not one iota less our fathers than that of contemporary Roman Catholics. They sat at Christ’s feet. They listened to His voice. Did they get some stuff wrong? Sure. I’m sure we do as well. But we are gathered around the same Jesus – and it is He who defines the church.
3. This is, incidentally, true even if they could get in a time machine, come to the present, and disown us. Would all of the church fathers own the Protestants? Maybe not. Perhaps they’d say that since I was not in fellowship with a particular bishop, I was not part of the church. That’s fine. We forgive them. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox theology is the theology of all Italian families. If you have an Italian family recently immigrated from the old world, you can be sure that theirs is the only Italian family in the world, from the only real Italian region in the world, with the only real Italian culture in the world – whose traditions hail back to Romulus and Remus. But most of us can intelligibly talk about “Italian culture” without indulging in these (fun as they are) mythologies. Similarly, if a materialist defines a human being as merely a collection of atoms, it does not falsify the fact that a materialist is a human being precisely because he is more than that. Similarly, I don’t accept “church father Stan’s” belief that he is in the church because he is united to a bishop – but I do consider him to be in the church precisely because he is more than that.
4. I often hear of the benefits that obtain for those who have the consensus of the saints and in infallible church – and all the catastrophe that would and does ensue for those who do not. This used to bother me. But now I hear something like this: “Consider: If humans could fly, imagine how much we’d save on fossil fuel emissions. Imagine how many lives would be saved. How can you ever hope to save these lives and the environment apart from our ability to fly? To be honest, I don’t see how you sleep at night while denying the ability to fly.” Well, I do. The hypothetical benefits of an infallible church are just that – hypothetical. But the apocalyptic scenarios that allegedly obtain apart from these are, to be frank, pretty overblown. Sure, walking is limiting. But it’ll do.
5. These apocalyptic scenarios, by the way, often stem from observations of how many churches there are, how diverse interpretation in them is, and what little hope we have of ever “finding the truth” in such a case. This is, of course, all to be blamed on Luther. This does not falsify Luther’s correctness, mind you, but it is also bad history nevertheless. It makes complex what is simple and simple what is complex. With respect to the former, human beings are not Cartesian “thinking things” who use a toxic combo of voluntarism, nominalism, and any other “ism” as passive blocks of wood to disseminate the evil workings of “the man.” Sorry folks. Ideas matter, but not that much and not in that way. In general, human beings move along a far simpler axis. Show me the best food and the prettiest girls, or (alternatively) the most effective propaganda and fear-mongering, and I’ll find you the most people. This could be qualified of course, but don’t make it too sophisticated. With respect to the latter, belief is unified where there is a magistrate to unify it. Get a modern world with a bunch of independent magistrates and some freedom of thought and you’ll get 30,000 denominations. Sorry. Your options aren’t “Luther” or “Rome” or “Constantinople.” They’re “empire” or “non-empire,” “coercion” or “freedom to be wrong.” Allow the latter, and you’ll always have lots of opinions in this life.
6. These narratives, of course, have no teeth apart from the modern skeptical move which they are intended to evoke. “30,000 denominations!? How will I ever know which is the right one. I guess I can’t” – and thus begins the search for a surrogate reasoner (paradoxically chosen by – you?). The problem with skepticism is that it is a universal acid. Whether there are 30,000 links in the chain or just 1 link in the chain, a universal acid is a universal acid. And it will eat right through any confidence you can have in your own “finding” of your surrogate reasoner. And it will eat through all the judgments you made along the way. If the Protestant always has people smarter than him who disagree about the interpretation of the Bible, the Eastern Orthodox always has persons smarter than him who disagree about the interpretation of the fathers, the facts of church history, the veracity of their claims, the rationality of their theology, etc. It is worth noting that many who convert with this anxiety continue this same trajectory right out of the church and into the natural habitat of skepticism – agnosticism. At least it’s honest.
7. So what do we do? If the church fathers aren’t infallible and the lot of them can be wrong about something, what good are they? Imagine asking this same question to someone studying the history of philosophy, the history of science, the history of…anything? Why do we listen to the church fathers? Because they’re our fathers, for crying out loud! We don’t exist in a vacuum. And lots of them are smarter and more godly than us. Lots of them have great insight. And certainly the more consensus there is among them, the greater we should weight that opinion. That’s not an issue of infallibility. That’s common sense. In short, we listen to them because to not do so would be dumb. We listen to them for the same reason that we often listen to our own parents – not because they’re infallible, but because they’re part of us and they have lots to offer. And like our own parents, they also have problems. My children will, I hope, think of me the same way. Or, since it will be far more persuasive to quote a hip philosopher, church history is the “history of the interpretation” (both in doctrine and life) of the word (Gadamer).
8. Does this mean that everyone in the past can be wrong about something (say, gay marriage) and that a few blokes in the 21’st century might be right about it? Sure it does. Just as it means that everyone in the past could have been wrong about the existence of a spiritual realm, the objectivity of reality, and the importance of respecting your parents. Does this cause us much anxiety? It shouldn’t. Paul himself entertained the hypothetical implications of Christ not being raised in 1 Corinthians 15. I doubt Paul would object to someone saying, “Show me the body!” But does this hypothetical scenario make the apostle bite his fingernails? Hardly. Here’s one that is even better:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:6-9)
This text really is staggering. Note two things. Paul entertains a hypothetical scenario where an angel from heaven and even he himself preach a different gospel. He’s not anxious about this, of course. But it is the second point that is the most important. Paul expects ordinary Galatians to be able to tell the difference. He expects them to be able to “evaluate” the apostolic posse for themselves. They’ve received Jesus’ message. They should now know the difference between the real thing and its counterfeits.
9. Since we’re talking about evaluating Paul, maybe we should talk about the anxiety of anxieties – the question of canon. And let’s start with Galatians 1. Christians who have accepted Jesus’ message know God’s voice when they hear it. Why? Because it is God’s voice and creates its own recognition. That’s why there is so much consensus on the canon. Consensus? Yep. Most of the books are and always have been agreed upon. Are there some stragglers? Sure. There are several possible explanations for this: 1. Some people are better at hearing God’s voice than others. 2. God speaks more clearly in some places than others. 3. Some cases are more ambiguous because the criteria of canonicity are more ambiguous with respect to them. These objective (apostolicity) and subjective (hearing God’s voice) criteria have created a stunning level of agreement over time. We can argue about the details. But the argument at the fringes can never shake what is clear – and very clear to all who hear God’s voice through Christ.
10. Speaking of clarity, we should avoid an “a priori” concept of how clear something is supposed to be. God could always be clearer. Church history could be neater. But this is not an argument for or against a particular position. God’s existence itself could be clearer. Indeed, if God so desired, He could make Himself so clear that atheism and agnosticism were impossible. This does not mean that He is not clear. Nor does the fact that many persons mis-interpret Scripture mean that it is not clear. It means that God is as clear as He desires to be. He is clear enough for His precise purposes. Rather than having an abstract standard of clarity to which we seek to find an instantiation (and which could, in principle, always be one-upped) – it is better to ask how clear God has been in actual fact – and then to ask why and what for. These last two points lead to the most important point. To wit…
11. If I have learned anything along the way, it is this. Don’t ever ever ever ever ever let anyone tell you that the gospel of Jesus is not jumping off every page of the Bible. The gospel of God’s free grace through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, is clear enough for a child to grasp. And the basic manner in which we are to follow Him through loving God and our neighbor as the Spirit works to redeem this world through the kingdom of Jesus is right on the surface of the page. Damn skepticism. Listen to the Word. Obviously, this should be done with others (dead and living) simply because we are communal creatures who understand communally and who are spoken to communally – but God’s speech is the main thing for all of us. Gather with others around it and listen. Don’t tell it what to do or how to be. Let it speak and do its work.
12. Finally, that gospel is freeing. One cannot do theology or church history or exegesis if one is nervous that their eternal destiny is hanging in the balance of their conclusion – whether passed on to a surrogate or not. No. Rather, this is where I will insist to my bones that Luther is right. You must first be free in Christ. You must first know that all your sins are forgiven in Him. You must first know that He loves you and wages war against all your enemies and holds you in His hands. And then you can chill out. You can work through these things patiently and humbly with others. You can admit that you sometimes don’t know. You can avoid all those who seek to attack your fragile identity by standing on the unshakeable foundation of your identity in Christ. In other words, you can live in the real world. Indeed, you can even enjoy it.
One frustrating aspect of the modern world is the juxtaposition between our large amount of awareness and our small amount of control. We are confronted, on a daily basis, with so many tragedies that it is difficult not to feel either overwhelmed or (perhaps more often) incrementally numbed. One can respond to only so many human rights and awareness raising campaigns, so many injunctions that it is “up to you” and that if “someone” doesn’t do something, “no-one” will. The anxiety over the fact that there is something wrong in the world does not just extend to the more obvious and senseless suffering, but also to comparatively trivial matters on our own turf – whether it be the politics over which we have very little influence or the institution in which we are but simple pawns. Modern life, it often seems, is far bigger than our capacity to process it.
The tendency to numbness and psychological overload are really the same. The numb are likely those who overload rather quickly. And these twin maladies have twin antidotes. On the one hand, we can re-animate our deadened emotions through the surrogate of spectacle and entertainment. In this, entertainment ceases to be a mode of rest for life and rather becomes life itself. Or we can compensate for our smallness by pretending to be “large” in the mode of self-expression and of asserting our opinion. Show me a prolific CNN commenter or Facebook alarm-raiser and I’ll show you someone who actually feels quite small. The more honorable version of this, of course, is the servant who is burned-out from a job which is far beyond their capacity.
But here’s the thing. We are small. We are very small. Most likely, your circle of influence is smaller than you think. Wisdom is learning that this is just reality. Virtue is to evaluate this as good. We were not designed to process what technology has made so available. We were designed to process the world in small bits and, indeed, to labor in making it reflect God’s own righteousness. In normal circumstances, this will mean doing something that is right in front of your face. And there, ironically, your circle of influence is likely much greater than you think. It is just that the extent of your power for good terminates before the world’s spotlight – in your often overlooked family and neighbors. We have the capacity to love our neighbors in all sorts of ways. This won’t “change the world,” but it will change your neighbor’s world. Such work is small to man but great to God – the penny of the widow.
It is, of course, urgently right to be concerned with our distant neighbors and wrong to ignore them. Some are called to work for them in radical ways. We are all called to sacrifice, to give to, and to pray for them. It is also right, of course, to be concerned with big issues, to strategize, to “organize” (or whatnot), etc. But we are not called to anxiety – which is often rooted in the pretention to control and the illusion of greater understanding than we actually have. We are not called to be bigger than we are. We are called to be still (even while doing), because God ultimately fights our battles (Psalm 46). The fruit of the Spirit is peace. And such peace grounds us in such a manner than we do not need entertainment to inoculate us. And it gives us the humility to recognize that, far from controlling the world, we do not even understand most of it. But He does.
The fruit of such peace, ironically, is a clearer mind with which to strategize and a great capacity to work tirelessly for God’s kingdom. We plant. Another waters. But He causes the growth.
Van Til’s followers often speak of the “transcendental argument” for the existence of God. Greg Bahnsen applied this in a famous (in our circles) debate with atheist Gordon Stein. In short, the transcendental argument for the existence of God (or TAG) states that the Christian God must be presupposed for any fact to be rendered intelligible. That is to say, all facts are what and as they are because of the Christian God. Take away the Christian God (in all His particulars) and you have an unintelligible world and no basis by which to judge any proposition true or false. The preconditions for all intelligibility are to be found in the triune God’s special revelation to us. Van Til and his followers often start with the ontological Trinity (communicated in special revelation) and then apply this premise in terms of a solution to the “problem of the one and the many,” moving on to other philosophical or ethical problems from there. Some of Van Til’s followers (especially John Frame) have made the case that this argument cannot work unless it is elaborated in terms of more classical arguments. To say that the Christian God underlies the intelligibility of any facts requires more spelling out– and that inevitably involves considerable overlap with classical apologetics. Others disagree with Frame and argue that the transcendental argument is unique and in its emphasis on the preconditions for our beliefs, does not rely on the supplementation of any other arguments.
What does one make of this debate? The classical position is that reality is communicated commonly in reason and experience and specially in Scripture– and that these cannot (even in principle) contradict one another precisely because reality is one and their Author is one. Neither natural nor special revelation is more authoritative than the other, but one’s understanding of the content of and relationship between natural and special revelation is different. To a large extent, much of the content of reason and experience is immediately intuited by human beings. Unlike the Bible, which we can imaginably doubt, the unique quality of reason is that our persuasion of (at least many of) its conclusions is coercive. Indeed, if the Bible said in Proverbs 12:4 (thankfully, it does not) that “two and two is five,” not even Cornelius Van Til (despite his declared positions) would have believed the Bible on this matter. No amount of appeal to the transcendental argument or Scriptural authority could have made him believe it. Why? Because he was a reasonable man. Because he believed, despite some of his formulations, certain propositions with a sort of coerced certainty. This does not mean that Scripture must be demonstrated by reason, but it may never contradict reason as such. In most of the moments wherein Van Tilians appeal to realities beyond reason, it is clear that they finally settle on a position that goes something more like “Certain aspects of biblical teaching are beyond our ability to comprehend” (Something more like James Anderson’s “unarticulated equivocation” than any tension within reason itself). They do not contradict reason, but rather point to realities or a mode of being which human reason is incompetent to analyze. But of course, this is the conclusion of reason itself, and has plenty of analogues in non-Christian thought. The limitations of reason are precisely where we’d expect them to be, in the principled place of the boundary between the finite and the infinite. Reason can find its own boundary, but not its contrary. Call this, then, the transcendental argument against the transcendental argument. The preconditions for the intelligibility of the transcendental argument are the very tools of reason and experience that it is supposed to explain. Many presuppositionalists live on the “borrowed capital” of commonsense realism, but claims it for their Van Til’ian transcendentalism. For all the rhetoric, the authority of the Bible is not absolutely “over” the authority of reason or experience. It is not “made” authoritative by those things. It is authoritative by virtue of what it is, the speech of God. But it would not be the speech of God, or authoritative, if it contradicted the other modes in which reality authoritatively confronts us, including the modes of reason and experience. Granted the conversation between these is subtle, complex, and there are plenty of conundrums, but the reality is that no-one consistently applies a “trump card” approach in which Scriptural revelation “trumps” the legitimate inferences of reason and experience. Cut an “orthodox” Van Tilian with reality, and watch a Thomist bleed. The real “precondition of intelligibility” is just that, an intelligibile singular Reality in which both reason and Scripture participate.
The Bible itself assumes this, of course. Paul allows that if the resurrection did not occur (entertaining the possibility for the sake of argument) that his faith would be in vain. In the Hebrew prophets, God Himself is willing to enter into confrontation with His people around the authority of “reason.” The Hebrew prophets mock idolatry as “obviously” stupid. This is ultimately by God’s own authority, of course, but it is by reason itself also nevertheless. And while the larger argument might include the “reasonableness” of special revelation, it is still just that: reasonable. Any negation of special revelation can, then, be reduced to precisely a failure to reason properly or to an illegitimate philosophical move such as, say, the skepticism of Descartes or the dualism of Kant. It is within this latter framework and history that we find the tradition of skeptical rationalism to which Van Til’s philosophy is ultimately an early 20’th century Neo-Kantian response. He would have done much better to abandon the modern project altogether. Despite his best efforts, Van Til still stands on the shoulders of Descartes and Kant. But each of these stand on the shoulders of the common reality which falsifies them both – an objective order which God is pleased to reveal to children but which He sometimes hides from the critical philosopher.
In the past decade, I’ve taken a lot of time to read and digest much of the anti-Christian or anti-theist polemic on the market. This has been a very rewarding experience. I have particularly enjoyed John Loftus’ “Why I Became and Atheist” and Daniel Dennett’s very clever “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” More than any books, however, the greatest challenges to my own convictions have come from the many atheist and agnostic pals that have enriched my walk to Zion, if they’ll please pardon my inserting them into my own pilgrim’s progress.
Of course, while nothing replaces face to face conversation, it is worthwhile to lend a hand to the other side and suggest some texts which might help them see why I find the case for Christianity and against agnosticsm or atheism quite convincing. Of course, depending on the particular query at hand, one could recommend a whole bibliography. There are many wonderful works that treat issues like Christian faith and biology, physics, neuroscience, Old Testament morality, Old Testament archeology, the plausibility of certain miracle claims, etc.
However, I present the following resources to any who might be interested as the best attempts to get at “the big picture” within which all the particular debates take place. And, since even this list could be overwhelming, I’ve decided to go with a “book recommendation” tradition and limit the number of suggestions to 5 – though with a preface. To wit…
In several recent books and articles I’ve read, I’ve noted several invocations of an apparently problematic thing called “neutral” reasoning. Presumably, “neutral” (as opposed to biblical, Christian, confessional, etc) reasoning can lead to all sorts of wrong conclusions. But let us pause for a moment to consider what this qualifier really means with respect to “reasoning.” Traditionally understood, a claim just is reasonable or it is not. An argument is cogent or it is not. From this perspective, the addition of “neutrality” as a qualifier is just a category confusion.
Rather, the object of critique seems to be the neutrality or lack thereof of reasoners (i.e. intelligent persons). The only cogent way to read this qualifier is to say that what is being criticized is a psychological posture of “neutrality” with respect to an object under consideration, presumably with the possibility that such neutrality can give way to commitment by a process of reasoning. And certainly, here, one can criticize many positions of neutrality. We ought not to be “neutral” with respect to many common-sense notions or to the Word of God in Scripture.
The object of critique might also be an implicit assumption that a position of neutrality is impossible with respect to certain (and in some views, any) objects under consideration. But in the relevant sense, this seems preposterous. Surely experience confirms that there are persons who are genuinely willing to consider the claims of the Christian faith even while they remain uncommitted to them. Inasmuch as these truths are evaluated to be good, we can infer that the Holy Spirit is at work in someone’s heart. However, it is even more relevant to note that the above anxiety tends to confuse moral and epistemic neutrality. I have known people who accepted the claims of the Christian faith and self-professedly hated them. This is also the position of the demons and of the great “unbeliever” himself, Satan. And this is not to mention the sad truth concerning Christian hypocrites, who believe certain propositions held forth to them in the gospel, but who do not (in a manner unseen to us) evaluate those truths as “good for them” in a way that constitutes Christian belief. Certainly this sort of epistemic neutrality is rare (given the darkening power of sin over human cognition), but it is not impossible for the unbelieving reasoner. The essential tension between belief and unbelief is moral, not epistemic. The latter is common, but is a more of a common effect of the real essence of sin (which is a matter of will). Indeed, it is precisely here (in the demons, for instance) that we see sin at its darkest – a persuaded mind which willfully fails to evaluate Reality as “good” and good “for me.” That latter bit, so emphasized by Luther, really is the essence of faith – the evaluation of God’s word not just as true (!) – but as good and good “for me.”
But let us imagine that one was “neutral” with respect to these things. What if someone stood at a critical distance from the voice of God and evaluated it by reason operating from a position of “neutrality.” Would reason all of the sudden become a false guide? The answer, if Christianity be true, is that reason would absolutely not be a false guide. It would not be a sufficient guide, to be sure. Many essential Christian doctrines are not derivable from reason, but they are certainly not contrary to reason. Both the universal laws of reason and scandalous particularity of Christian claims simply cannot be in conflict if they participate in a singular Reality. And that, they certainly do.
Of course, qualifications need to be made. This is not to deny that one can start from false premises and come to false conclusions. But here, the failure is not a failure of reason, but a failure of premises – none of which (qua reality) are defensible according to reason. And, it is worth noting again that this does not mean that reason is omni-competent. Reason is a tool and gift, but it is limited. It cannot mislead, but it can be unfit to lead. And finally, it is important to state that there are realities which transcend our capacity to reason. This is not to say that such realities violate reason, but that they just are the sorts of objects which transcend our capacity to reason about. Once again, this is not a violation of reason, but a transcendence over reasoners and reason themselves. There are many examples of the former. Perhaps God alone is an example of the latter.
This point is important to make lest we fail to feel the pressure of reasoning carefully…lest we easily cover a multitude of “reasoning” sins with a rhetorical wave of the hand. In truth, adding adjectives to the word “reason” does not make up for a failure to reason well. And most importantly, if common rules of reasoning and the particular claims of Christianity both participate in the same Reality, then we don’t need to worry about the Boogeyman adjective as though the qualifier “neutral” would give us a sort of reasoning which might mislead. Indeed, we can reduce our opponents’ arguments to failures of reason or to unreasonable premises.The Jesus Christ who entered into our history at a particular place in time is also the one Lord of all creation – with the regularities, laws, and spontaneous symmetries that render it reasonable to the fittingly fashioned human consciousness. And so the jocular injunction is in fact an expression of Christian virtue: “Let’s be reasonable.”
In about a month, Rebecca and I will celebrate our 10’th wedding anniversary. And so I’ve been wanting to pen some brief reflections about marriage. Here it goes…
11. A lot of these reflections come from some struggles that Rebecca and I had early in marriage. As I said, we’re very different and we married very young. But, let the record show that our journey together has been the best thing in my life. Rebecca is fairly private and I’m somewhat loud and “up-front,” and so no one really knows how much I depend upon her in every way. I don’t mean that she raises children and cooks for me (though she does that). I mean that she is my friend, my confidant, my encourager, my comforter – the one who has stood by me and loved me in moments of incredible insecurity, weakness, and doubt. And she has not done so begrudgingly, but with patience, love, and respect. She is “my sister, my bride” – and I hope that we have 60 more years together.
This poem probably sucks, but I wrote it for Rebecca about 18 months ago on the occasion of her 30’th birthday. You have to read it right, but for what it’s worth…this says something like all the above in a more succinct fashion.
My sister, my bride
My other self to have and lose
Other…for me to love…to chose
A body, a soul to muse…to use
Your love…my wine
Not fracture, not fusion
Better than all our dreams, this.
With failure…with surprise…with kiss
In disappointment….in bliss
Walking to Zion
But not for eternity
Time, a companion…patient…waits
An unbreakable bond to break
“Now” loves only sure fate
Death’s dark sea
Drowns marriage…but not we
Death kills not love for earthly friends
If e’en in it our marriage ends
In resurrection our love ascends
My love for you…perfect…free
The Calvinist International has graciously hosted my review/critique of James K.A. Smith’s philosophical project…