Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Grace Amazing

Posted: February 18, 2010 in Culture, Theology

Celtic Woman really hits this one out of the ballpark:

Wikipedia has a lot of information about this song at:

I did not realize that one of the verses to John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” had been taken from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we first begun.”

Judy Collins introduced a whole new generation to the song around 1970 and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards based their popular arrangement on Collins’s version.  The Celtic Woman arrangement is based on the Guards’ version and starts off the same way.

The Wikipedia article says, “Since the 1970s, self-help books, psychology, and some modern expressions of Christianity have viewed this disparity in terms of grace being an innate quality within all people who must be inspired or strong enough to find it, something to achieve.  In contrast to Newton’s vision of wretchedness as his wilfull sin and distance from God, wretchedness has instead come to mean an obstacle of physical, social, or spiritual nature to overcome in order to achieve a state of grace, happiness, or contentment.”

There is definitely a clash of theologies going on here.  To sing “Amazing Grace” as though it were about some innate quality in man, or man’s ability to achieve a goal, is about as perpendicular to the meaning of the song as one can get.  The main point of the song is that there is nothing in us that is worthy of God’s favor, not in our lifetime, not in a million years, not ever.  And yet God still saves us.  That is what Newton thought was so amazing about grace.

It’s rather amazing in itself that people can sing the same song and have two entirely different meanings in mind.

I’m reminded of what the theologian Karl Barth said in 1934 to the “German Christians,” just before the nightmare of fascism & Nazism descended upon Germany.  He was very opposed to the “God and” theology, the idea that God needed a human contribution in the matter of salvation:

“Let me warn you now,” he said.  “If you start with God and . . . you are opening the doors to every demon.  And the charge which I raise against you, I lay before you in the words of Anselm: ”Tu non considerasti, quandi ponderis sit peccatum!  You have failed to consider the weight of sin.  And that is the sin: that man takes himself so very seriously.”  (God in Action, pp. 137ff.)


Reading List

Posted: January 2, 2010 in History, Politics, Theology

Among all the other things I need to do, here are some books I’m going to try to read in 2010:

1.  The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology, Michael Sudduth, 2010

From the publisher’s blurb: “Michael Sudduth examines three prominent objections to natural theology that have emerged in the Reformed streams of the Protestant theological tradition: objections from the immediacy of our knowledge of God, the noetic effects of sin, and the logic of theistic arguments. Distinguishing between the project of natural theology and particular models of natural theology, Sudduth argues that none of the main Reformed objections is successful as an objection to the project of natural theology itself. One particular model of natural theology – the dogmatic model – is best suited to handle Reformed concerns over natural theology. According to this model, rational theistic arguments represent the reflective reconstruction of the natural knowledge of God by the Christian in the context of dogmatic theology. Informed by both contemporary religious epistemology and the history of Protestant philosophical theology, Sudduth’s examination illuminates the complex nature of the project of natural theology and its place in the Reformed tradition.”

2.  Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, David M. VanDrunen, 2010.

Publisher’s blurb: “Conventional wisdom holds that the theology and social ethics of the Reformed tradition stand at odds with concepts of natural law and the two kingdoms. This volume challenges that conventional wisdom through a study of Reformed social thought from the Reformation to the present. / ‘The strength of this book is the overwhelming amount of historical evidence, judiciously analyzed and assessed, that positions the Reformed tradition clearly in the natural law, two kingdoms camp. This valuable contribution to our understanding of the Christian life cannot and should not be ignored or overlooked. The growing acceptance of the social gospel among evangelicals puts us in jeopardy of losing the gospel itself; the hostility to natural law and concomitant love affair with messianic ethics opens us up to tyranny. This is a much needed and indispensable ally in the battle for the life of the Christian community in North America.’ — John Bolt / Calvin Theological Seminary

3.  The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, Thomas E Woods, Jr., 2005.

While I don’t agree with Woods’ Catholicism, or his ideas on foreign policy, he has a keen grasp of economics.  You can get a flavor of it by reading his essay on Catholicism and the market economy, which by the way, is indirectly tangential to the secular-sacred distinction we discussed in our last post:


Recently, we’ve seen the outbreak of a new theological disturbance (to use Mark Twain’s term).  It appears to be a debate between two-kingdom theologians and one-kingdom theologians.  See:

The two-kingdom view (usually abbreviated 2k) holds that there is a sacred and a secular kingdom, Christ’s church being the sacred, and the natural realm the secular kingdom.  Because the secular kingdom is governed by natural law, the church shouldn’t interfere with it.   By the same token, the secular realm should not interfere with the church.

The one-kingdom (1k) view holds that Christ’s kingdom encompasses both the sacred and secular realms, and believes that a theocracy of some sort should govern both the church and the state.

Ironically, both views hold to some version of covenant theology.  In my essays on Gary North and the Constitution, I’ve warned about the political dangers of covenant theology (at least in some of its more extreme manifestations).  The basic error I pointed to was the idea that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of grace.  In fact, the Mosaic covenant was a conditional covenant, not a covenant of grace (which is unconditional).

To the extent that one’s covenant theology infuses grace into the Mosaic covenant, to that extent it will lead to theocratic politics.  By the same token, the less one infuses grace into the Mosaic covenant, the less theocratic one’s politics will be.

Here’s how it works.  By infusing grace into the Mosaic covenant one can bring all its laws down to apply to modern states – hence the familiar conception of politics known as “theonomy.” This was a popular view of politics among some Christians during the 1970s through the 1990s.  It too held that the Mosaic covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace, and therefore all of Israel’s laws, including its penal sanctions, were valid in the New Testament era, and could be applied to modern states.

Another type of covenant theology – known as the Federal Vision — managed to infuse grace into the Mosaic covenant by making grace a part of all covenants, including the Adamic covenant.  In effect, all covenants became conditional, including the Abrahamic covenant, which according to the New Testament, is the true covenant of grace.

The basic error this led to was a failure to distinguish law and gospel, which led to the denaturing of the Protestant doctrine of justification.  The practical effect was the refurbishing of ecclesiastical authoritarianism and a church first movement that has led some of its followers to abandon Protestantism for Roman Catholicism.

While the dangers of theocratic conceptions are fairly obvious, many do not see the dangers on the other side.  Some 2k advocates argue that Christians should not be involved with the political process, or speak out against moral evil, but should stay within the confines of the church.  There are enough problems in the church, they say, and Christians should clean up their own house first rather than sweep out the Augean stables of modern culture.

Thus, some views of 2k lead to an introverted Christianity.  I think the solution is simply to keep a balanced perspective.  The secular realm is governed by natural law, but since this law is the same as biblical morality, I see no reason why Christians have to sit on the sidelines and play second string in culture and politics.  Everyone has his or her own gift or calling, and should apply themselves accordingly, whether in the realm of politics, culture, science, or theology.  It is God’s world after all, isn’t it?


On Christmas Haters

Posted: December 17, 2009 in Culture, Theology

It’s too bad that during the Christmas season we have the usual cranks and crackpots coming out of the woodwork to bash Christmas, Christmas carols, and all the jingle and jangle of the holiday season.  It seems as though it never ends.  I don’t necessarily agree with the following two writers on everything, but they provide a good defense of the Advent celebration:


who is not Great?

Posted: October 27, 2009 in Philosophy, Politics, Theology

Christopher Hitchens has no faith.  I haven’t read his god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, partly because of the (deliberate) typo, and partly because he once called Ronald Reagan a “lizard,” but also because he doesn’t understand criticism.

His critics have noticed that Hitchens makes plenty of moral evaluations of religion, but does not produce any objective grounds for moral evaluation, or at least fails to do so in a convincing way.  So how can he rationally look down his nose on religion when he himself, as an atheist, has no leg to stand on? 

Despite these criticisms, god is not Great turned out to be a bestseller.  Some have thought that its buyers are just people who don’t like public displays of religious emotion.  I’m not sure if this really explains it, though.  I’m a Christian and I’m usually uncomfortable around public displays of religious emotion — it would have been called “enthusiasm” in an earlier day.

Maybe the success of the book has more to do with Hitchens’ refreshing lack of political correctness, his entertaining if brutal rhetoric, and his writing ability.  At least that seems more likely than any dry “leave me alone” libertarianism.

I’ve been tempted to go out and read the book, but the lizard comment about our former Magnificent President left me angry with Hitchens.  I just haven’t found the heart to forgive him yet — or fork over a large sum of money for his book.

Maybe someday I’ll repent of thinking in my heart that Mr. Hitchens is a toad.  It is not a charitable sentiment, I know, and I’m sorry for it, I really am.  It’s just a failing in me that I think of him as a toad.  And it’s because of this that I’m required to humbly confess that I’m not great myself — at least on some particular occasions.

One of the criticisms of linguistic philosophy is that it smuggles nominalism in under the guise of analysis. The idea is that philosophical problems can only be solved by analysis of grammar and word meaning, how words and expressions are used in philosophical discourse. The emphasis then becomes clarification and puzzle solving, philosophical method as “therapy” for metaphysical ailments.

Much of this stems from the later Wittgenstein, who famously used the example of “game” to illustrate relativity in meaning. This was a denial of the idea of real definitions and resulted in a nominalistic conception of meaning. There are no substantial realities corresponding to our terms, but only the way we use language. Standards are now regarded as field-dependent. Clashes between worldviews are not substantive but based on inability to understand one another’s “language.” So now the task of philosophy is to engage in linguistic archaeology.

Multi-perspectivalism is a method of doing theology or philosophy and has been popularized by the theologian John Frame.  For summary essays, see:

He is not as extreme as the general run-of-the-mill analytic philosopher, but one can still see the influence of this way of thinking on his theology.  “[A]ll of our perceptions of the world are influenced by our interpretations…” he says.  (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 100.)  According to Frame, Christians know there is an extra-interpretive world, but only by faith. We only have contact with this world through our interpretations. “[T]he world we live in is to some extent of our own making.”

The philosopher Immanuel Kant had also said: “[I]t still remains a scandal to philosophy and to human reason in general that the existence of things outside us (from which we derive the whole material of knowledge, even for our inner sense) must be accepted merely on faith, and that if anyone thinks good to doubt their existence, we are unable to counter his doubts by any satisfactory proof.”

Like Kant, Frame regards faith as the evidence of things seen rather than the evidence of things not seen.  Frame’s solution, like Kant’s, is to suggest that instead of discovering the world, we in some relevant sense, make the world.  Wittgenstein would have agreed with this, except that it would be through language that we create our world, not through ideas, as in Kant.  Frame would not go as far as Kant or Wittgenstein, to be sure, which is why he uses the phrase, “to some extent.”  It’s only to some extent that we are world-makers.

Now the whole idea of intra-personal justification, getting from ourselves to the world outside — or more precisely, justifying the out-there from the in-here — is the legacy of the Cartesian program in philosophy.  It involves an a priori separation of consciousness from the “external” world, and then tries to find a connecting bridge between the “inner” consciousness and the outside world.  Obviously, this makes the problem worse by using spatial metaphors suggestive of inner/outer, internal/external, and so on.  Kant and Wittgenstein’s solution was to give up trying to cross that bridge, and admit rather that we create our own world.

In theology, this leads to an overemphasis on interrelatedness, a move away from sharp distinctions.  This is seen in Frame’s claim, for instance, that any sin violates every commandment.  It’s seen in his dislike of theologian Charles Hodge’s view of systematic theology as exhibiting scripture in “proper” order.  Instead, Frame says that theology’s task is not to place Scripture in an “ideally perfect order” but to apply it to different situations. (Ibid., pp. 76, 79; 184.)

Thus we have a movement from the abstract to the concrete, from theory to application, from systematic order to “poetry, drama, exclamation, song, parable, symbol.” (Ibid., p. 85.)  It turns out that Frame’s multi-perspectival method is vapid in the sense that one can prove just about anything with it.  Law is gospel and gospel is law?  Heaven is hell and hell is heaven?  It all depends, I guess, upon one’s multi-perspective.

I can’t help quoting from Vern Poythress, a primary practitioner of Frame’s multi-perspectival method: “Thus, within Aristotle’s system, syllogisms can operate only with unitarian ontology.  Hence syllogistic reasoning is itself tacitly unitarian. Only so can one claim that the reasoning is mechanically valid.” (”Reforming Ontology and Logic in the Light of the Trinity: An Application of Van Til’s Idea of Analogy,” Westminster Theological Journal, 57/1, 1995.)

This is what multi-perspectivalism comes down to, a rejection of, or denigration of, logic.  My view is that our goal is not to be multi-perspectival in our thinking and scholarship, but to be accurate, and syllogistic reasoning is indispensible in that quest.


Death of a President

Posted: September 4, 2009 in Culture, Politics, Theology

A Phoenix preacher named Steven Anderson has managed to get himself into the national media spotlight by praying for Barack Obama’s death.  One of his church members actually showed up at an Obama event carrying a weapon:

Regardless of what one thinks of Obama – and I don’t think very much of him – this type of talk is inexcusable.  Didn’t we just go through eight years of leftwing extremists wishing for George Bush’s assassination or death, even making movies and video games about it?  Ethics 101 — What’s wrong in one case is wrong in the other as well.

Phoenix pastor and debater James White has responded to Anderson, noting that Anderson is a King James Only advocate, someone who believes that the King James version of the Bible is inspired, not just the Bible per se:

A good historical overview of the King James Bible can be found on Wikipedia at:

As if anticipating KJV Onlyism, the KJV translators gave a fairer assessment of their own work: “[T]he very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession… contains the word of God, nay, is the word of God.”

Thus, from the scholars who gave us the KJV is the humble admission that even the poorest Protestant translations still contain the word of God.  The fact is, the KJV was composed to be the standard text for the Church of England, to be read in Anglican churches.  It reflects some of the ornate style and dignified language of the Jacobean period – the time of Shakespeare.  Despite its literary and historical merits, it is not the be all and end all of Bible translations.  Indeed, the old Geneva Bible was the translation that many of the English reformers used, not the KJV.

Anderson appears to be suffering from an inferiority complex.  On his webpage, he says he “holds no college degree” but has “well over 100 chapters of the Bible committed to memory.”  He apparently never got a ministerial degree, either, which may explain his hostility to Bible Colleges.

While it’s true that ministers don’t have to be elite philosopher kings in order to preach the gospel, there is no harm, and certainly much good, in getting an education before taking on ministerial duties.   St. Paul “spent some days with the disciples at Damascus” before beginning his ministry (Acts 9:19), and Apollos temporarily halted his preaching ministry in order to learn theology from Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:26).

Anderson’s KJV Onlyism may be inspired by the fact that he doesn’t know Greek or Hebrew, which is usually a requisite for pastors.  He gets upset when he hears preachers correcting the KJV by citing the original Greek.  “They are correcting the perfect Bible,” he says.

Anderson argues that hell is a literal place of fire and brimstone and is now located at the center of the earth.  He also believes Jesus descended into a literal fiery hell for three days.  Aside from Anderson’s very peculiar versions of geology and Christology, he does not understand that “hell” in the Bible is a translation of three Greek words, each having a different meaning, cf., where “hades” means place of death.  He also doesn’t understand that “Sheol” is the Hebrew term for place of death, and thinks the Spanish infierno is a better translation! 

It’s true that some theologians believe hell is a literal place of fire and torment, but it’s also true that many others believe fire is symbolic for separation-from-God, a punishment that hurts the soul (with shame, guilt, regret) the way fire hurts the physical body.

His lack of understanding of simile and symbolism leads him to accuse Jack Schaap of blasphemy.  It seems Schaap’s great sin was to describe the Christian’s relation to Jesus by way of a rather clumsy simile involving sexual relations within marriage.  Now the basic concept of bridal theology can be found in both the Old and New Testaments, but its indelicate elaboration only starts with Ambrose and with mystical theologians of the Middle Ages.

Schaap was merely following in that rather creepy tradition of overdoing the marriage simile.  Anderson is thus correct to oppose it, but I suspect his opposition has to do not so much with literary taste, as with a gnostic hatred of sex.  Like a true gnostic, he would probably deny that the Song of Solomon has any sexual content in it.

In Anderson’s world, “normal” men are never tempted by homosexuality, which means once a man becomes a homosexual, he is beyond help.  There is no preaching of the gospel to homosexuals in Anderson’s soteriology.

He is opposed to birth control, including the pill, which is, as he puts it, “the most heinous form of birth control.”  Likely Anderson would regard condoms as the invention of the anti-Christ.    As far as I see, neither the pill nor condoms actually take life, but rather prevent conception.  In Anderson’s view, however, preventing conception is like the sinner refusing salvation, so he regards family planning as selfishness.  Anderson’s proof-texting for these views is worthless, something he might have learned had he studied in seminary or graduated from a Bible College. 

Anderson is undoubtedly a legalist.  He is down on contemporary Christian music.  I agree with him there, but he descends into legalism when he advises people not to listen to their CDs throughout the week but only sing hymns.  He also says they should sing hymns from fifty years ago.  He’s also down on women wearing pants, or girls wearing “tight blue jeans.”  In addition, he says “there is really no way we can watch television.”  I would say that television is often unwatchable, but it’s up to the individual whether he watches it or not, not meddling preachers.  He opposes in vitro fertilization as well, regarding it as unnatural, and opposes male gynecologists since they have to look at nude women.  I suppose Anderson, following his own logic, must also oppose male doctors since they often have to look at unclothed women (surgery, child-birth, etc).

It’s all very fine to criticize contemporary culture, which is certainly bad enough, but there is something worse — legalism.  This is what happens when the standards of weak or immature Christians are imposed on other Christians or people in general.  What Anderson wants to impose on himself is his business, but if Christians want to watch TV, or a DVD, or listen to radio, that is their business, not his.

Because Anderson rejects Calvinism, his theology is not a theology of grace, but of works.  It’s no wonder his sermons and essays are so rambling and legalistic.  Because Anderson is an Arminian rather than a Calvinist, it’s all about getting up enough will power to strive against sin, to follow legalistic rules and regulations, to view life through the prism of fear, sin, and wrath.

Because he’s a legalist, Anderson sees enemies and temptations all around him, but his greatest enemy appears to be Barack Obama, whom he says he hates.  “If you want to know how I’d like to see Obama die, I’d like him to die of natural causes,” said Anderson.  “I’d like to see him die, like Ted Kennedy, of brain cancer.”

Anderson would like to see Obama die of natural causes, to be sure, but if Obama were to be assassinated, I suspect Anderson would not dislike that particular outcome either.   I wouldn’t be surprised if Anderson or one of his parishioners doesn’t turn out to be a doppelganger for John Wilkes Booth.

I think it’s pretty obvious this is not the religion of the gentle Savior.  It is not a theology of grace.  What Anderson’s theology represents is the theology of hate, the theology of the spiritual psychopath.  From this all Christians should turn away.