Sunday, May 31, 2015

E1. In Christ, the Spirit creates the Church.

This is now the first post in a section on the Church in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit on the Spirit and the Church was on the Holy Spirit.
In Christ, the Spirit creates the Church.

1. The Church is the body of Christ in which the Spirit dwells. It consists of all those in Christ since Jesus rose from the dead. It was made possible through Christ's blood, inaugurated in his resurrection, and implemented on the Day of Pentecost, when the Spirit was sent forth in his fullness. The Church consists of all those who have received the Holy Spirit since then, in all times and places, who have persisted in faithfulness to the end in the past or who continue to persist in faithfulness today.

The Church is the "communion of saints." It is the people of God in the new covenant, just as the faithful within Israel were the people of God in the old covenant. But these are not two peoples but the one people of God, along with all who call upon the name of the Lord in all times and places according to the light they have.

2. Christ is the rock on which the Church is built. Matthew 16:19 may give the keys of the kingdom to Peter, and Peter may have been a rock in the early church. But the reason for this exchange is Peter's acknowledgement that Jesus is the Christ (16:18). This is the real rock on which the Church is built. The gates of death cannot prevail against the Church because Jesus has risen from the dead and been enthroned as king.

The death and resurrection of Jesus are the foundation of the new, spiritual temple of God, which is the Church (1 Cor. 3:11). From a slightly different perspective, Jesus is the cornerstone of God's house, the Church, with the apostles and prophets as the foundation (Eph. 2:20). Christ's death makes it possible for the Church to be a bride of "splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind" (Eph. 5:27).

Those who are in the Church are "in Christ." They are baptized into his death and rise with him to new life, united with him in both his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:4-5). We have been crucified with him and remain crucified with him (Gal. 2:20). The life we now live, we live in his faithfulness to death. [1] And we live it by faith, trusting in God. [2]

In Christ, we--the Church--are all children of God (Gal. 3:26). In our baptism, we have put on Christ as our clothing (3:27). We have all become the children of Abraham through faith (3:29), just as the biological children of Abraham are only truly his children on the basis of faith (cf. Rom. 3:30).

In Christ, there is no distinction between races, like Jew and Gentile (Gal. 3:28). In Christ, there is no distinction between those of different worldly status, like slave and free. In Christ, there is no distinction between male and female. The consequences of Eve's sin (Gen. 3:16), at least in so far as they exist in the Church, are wiped away by the blood of Christ.

The Church thus knows no hierarchy or distinction based on race, status, or gender. The Spirit, who creates the Church, is the great equalizer. We all have the same body, the body of Christ.

3. The Church was born by the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The death and resurrection of Jesus made the Church possible, but it is the Spirit that has created the Church.

"Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him" (Rom. 8:9). In that sense, technically, there were no Christians before the Day of Pentecost, for it was not until Pentecost that the Spirit came in full force. [3] The Day of Pentecost is thus the birthday of the Church. [4]

As presented earlier in this series, the Holy Spirit not only prepares us for the Church. The Holy Spirit purifies our sins as we enter the Church (Acts 15:9). The Holy Spirit is the "seal" of God's ownership over us (1 Cor. 1:22). The Holy Spirit gives witness to our spirits that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16).

Within the Church, the Holy Spirit creates unity. The Holy Spirit leads the Church into truth. The Holy Spirit empowers the Church for mission and service.

The Church is "in Christ." It is the body of Christ, in which the Spirit of Christ dwells. All those who have the Holy Spirit are in the Church.

Next week: E2. The Church is both visible and invisible.

[1] Although there remains significant debate, many scholars including myself believe that the expression, "the faith of Jesus Christ" in Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16 had a first sense of "the faithfulness of Jesus Christ," referring to his faithfulness to death (cf. Phil. 2:8). By the one man's act of obedience, many will be made righteous (Rom. 5:19).

[2] Unlike those who see Paul's rhetoric as an either/or, I am more and more convinced that he uses both images, starting with reference to the faithfulness of Jesus but ending with the importance of our faith. The very way the Greek of Galatians 2:20 itself is worded suggests such a double entendre. "The life that I now live I live by faith," it begins. Then Paul tags on, "the [faith] of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

[3] There are no doubt those who would suggest that Acts' depiction of the Day of Pentecost was somewhat of an artistic and heavily theological presentation of history. Whether this claim would prove to be correct or not, it would not thereby undermine the theology of Acts 2. Clearly it was the understanding of the early church that the existence of the Church was based on the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all believers and that this possibility followed from Jesus' death and resurrection.

[4] For the American holiness movement, Pentecost represented "entire sanctification," a moment of full purity and power. In this scenario, the disciples were already Christians, but they were not yet entirely sanctified, which happened on the Day of Pentecost. There is a certain power to this interpretation, for it provides a model for believers to come to a moment of decision where they surrender their whole lives to God and let him fully take over and fully defeat any power of Sin that might remain over their lives.

However, the book of Acts itself does not seem to think of this event in this way. In the imagery of Luke-Acts, the Day of Pentecost is the fulfillment of John the Baptist's promise in Luke 3:16 that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit, something that could not take place until after Jesus had risen from the dead (cf. John 16:7).

In the end, we lose an incredibly important theological point of the New Testament about the very essence of the Church and the nature of our entrance into the Church as individuals if we do not read passages like Acts 2, 2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5, and so forth as initial events.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Christian Foundations of America

For several posts, I've been processing the Christian trajectory of Europe, culminating in America.
You often hear that America was founded as a Christian nation and on Judeo-Christian values. I'm not a master of this discussion so I'll just give my hunches on this issue.

1. Many of those who first came to America from England came for religious reasons, to escape the religious pressures of Europe. The Pilgrims were Separatists who just wanted to be left alone. The Puritans were Anglican Calvinists who wanted the power to make their community observe Christianity their way. The Quakers came to be left alone.

Of course these weren't the only ones who came to America. No doubt there were also criminals who came, trying to escape the eye of society. de Tocqueville, coming to America a few decades before the Civil War, had nothing good to say about the south: "No noble views, no spiritual thoughts presided over the foundation of these new settlements" (41). Writing in 1835, no doubt the institution of slavery heavily filtered his assessment.

Many of the colonies were officially Anglican, including the upper crust and the "power layer" in America. George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe were officially Anglican in the Episcopal church, although perhaps more deist in reality. They were generally dubious of organized religion and saw Jesus more as a great moral example than as anything like the second person of the Trinity. John Adams was more or less a unitarian, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine strongly deist. Thomas Jefferson was also more deist than theist.

2. So while the Declaration of Independence references God, it does not reference the Bible. And the only place where the Constitution mentions God is in the phrase, "the year of our Lord," a conventional way of referencing the date. These documents are most directly based on Enlightenment philosophy, especially John Locke and Montesquieu. The inalienable rights of "life and liberty" come from Locke. The three branches of government comes from Montesquieu.

The Puritans of a century earlier did not design a system of government like the US Constitution, especially after the Bill of Rights was added. Puritan New England was more like when the majority in Egypt tried to use democracy to vote in Islamic law as the law of the land. It's a democracy in the sense that the majority are voting on things, but if you are Roger Williams or Anne Hutchinson, it's not a particularly pleasant place to live. It's not who we were when the US was actually born, thankfully so.

3. So was America founded as a Christian nation? Clearly its population overwhelmingly identified as Christian and, given the unique situation of its origins, it probably had a significantly higher percentage of devout believers than Europe in general, at least at the beginning. I hesitate to say that its philosophical foundations were deist, because that might have a negative connotation, so let me put it this way.

America was founded on the notion that God had created the world with a certain moral structure to it. Most of the founders and the philosophers on which they drew did not think much about God's regular action or involvement in the world. But, like Newton, they believe God had infused the world with a certain natural law that had implications for how society might best be structured.

What were these features of natural law?

a. "All men are created equal."
I would argue that the Western world--and America first--has played out a system of government that embodies the Christian sense that all people are created in the image of God better than all of history previous. Indeed, biblical Israel did not play out this value as well as the United States. The Roman Empire of New Testament times absolutely did not play out this value.

We have not played out this principle perfectly, to be sure. There remains great disparity in America. Slavery was not abolished until 1865, and the premature death of Lincoln resulted in the complete race mess that we are still struggling with 150 years later. His vice-president, Andrew Johnson, to me the worst president in American history, let the south mangle the integration of slaves into society.

b. "inalienable rights"
The real genius of American democracy, in my opinion, is that it goes beyond mere democracy to the protection of individuals within that democracy. (Someone always reminds me at this point that we are technically a republic. Yes, yes, I know.) The Bill of Rights is an incredibly important addition to the Constitution because it prevents the majority from voting out the rights of a minority. It can be said to be biblical in the sense that all people deserve to be treated with love because all people are created in the image of God.

The Puritan was not interested, however, in giving freedoms of this sort. Their ideal world was one where the Christian majority forces everyone to follow Christian laws. As an Arminian, I prefer a land where the laws have a basic moral character (don't kill, don't steal), but on specific issues individuals are "given up" to choose whether to be moral or not, as long as they do not harm others.

Of course I could come up with some passages (Romans 1, 14). Freedom of religion, though, is not something all Christians would agree with, especially those of a Puritan stripe. As a Wesleyan, however, I have more admired Roger Williams in his early days.

c. human freedom
I'm not sure how I would argue that human freedom is a primary biblical value, even though it is an essential element in my theology. As an Arminian, I believe that God has given it to us. I believe God lets us choose. This is a long-standing Christian interpretation, of course. Augustine's explanation for the problem of evil starts with Adam's freedom.

IMO, these discussions go beyond what the Bible explicitly says. It is Christian processing of the Bible, especially the notion that God is love. The Enlightenment, with its American and French revolutions, took the notion of freedom to the next level. In my theology, it reflects to some extent the character of God as I understand him. But there is a lot of Enlightenment in my understanding too.

d. centrality of truth and reason
I'm not sure how I would argue that a commitment to reason and objective truth or a commitment to an empirical view of the world is biblical. Certainly there are many presuppositionalists today who would more or less argue to the contrary. I personally don't think it is unbiblical. I think it is unavoidable if we wish to perpetuate the great successes of the West.

But this is a key aspect of America's philosophical founding and, perhaps more than anything, it is one of the key aspects of America that I fear may be decline. The majority of Americans of course have never been Enlightenment thinkers. But the best thinkers and leaders of America have been. Although I have learned from postmodernism, this is its greatest potential casualty--it has threatened to erode the rational foundations of society and empowered the presuppositionalists.

4. I don't know if I will keep posting on this subject, but I do have a line of thinking here. Christians have been saying that America was in moral decline since it started, it seems to me. Didn't they say that in the Great Awakening? Weren't the Princeton Fundamentals saying that in the 1920s? Didn't Richard Weaver say that in 1948, at what some consider the height of Christian America? Wasn't Francis Schaeffer saying that in the 1970s? James Dobson in the 1980s? Any Republican candidate today?

Could it be that each Christian generation has a tendency to idealize the American Christianity of the past and that we're all alarmed to find that, in our generation, it's only about 20% of America that is really Christian in any meaningful sense? Could it be that even my sense of "Enlightenment decline" is really just a slightly different version of the same?

So is America now finally, for real this time, losing its moral foundations?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Friday Novel: The Society

For the first time, Alan began to have a sense of what this organization was. It was a secret society made up of individuals who studied in Europe at places like Cambridge and Bologna. It was born of the Enlightenment and had largely flown under the radar of the world today.

“So what are your goals? What is the purpose of this secret society? Liberty, fraternity, equality, like the French Revolution?”

“Kant’s essay is the place to start,” Fox answered. “I would suggest you read it sometime today. It’s easily available online. Kant quotes the old Roman poet Horace in his essay: sapere aude—‘Dare to know.’ It became the motto of the society.

“But we are not just committed to knowledge. We are committed to dialog. We are committed to dialectic.” Alan remembered that word from somewhere. “Dialectic.” His subconscious was pulling up Karl Marx, the father of communism.

“Marx?” Alan said.

“Not in this case,” Mr. Fox smiled. “Marx didn’t actually come up with the idea. He was borrowing from G. W. F. Hegel.

“What we mean by dialectic,” Fox continued, “is a discussion back and forth in which each side sharpens and improves its position by debate with the other.”

“So you just talk to each other?” Alan said, not particularly gripped by Mr. Fox’s description.

“The original group was fiercely committed to reason and the avoidance of all superstition and sentimentality,” Fox said. Then he smiled and added: “Of course it was not long before we debated this position as well.”

Alan wasn’t sure what to ask next. Finally, Mr. Fox broke the silence.

“Look. Think this way about what you are considering. You are being offered a unique opportunity to study in the most advanced community of learning in the world. Like any other university, you choose a specialty: math, science, history, religion, philosophy, art, music. Which subject you choose will determine where in Europe you primarily study, but you will spend some time in all of them, if you do well enough to continue in the program.”

“So it’s not just a matter of being admitted at the beginning?”

“If you choose to come, your first few months will be a trial period. You can return to begin as soon as you graduate, if you want. But by the end of your first three months, both you and we will have a decision. Do you want to continue? Do we believe you should continue?”

“Then what?” Alan followed.

“Then you will have the rest of the year to decide what subject and thus what location you wish to pursue. During the first year, you will likely spend a quarter of the year at each of the main four locations here in Europe. At the end of the year. You will need to choose, if you are chosen to continue.”

“Sounds like you all will constantly be evaluating me.”

“In truth, you can be dismissed at any time. There is no eagerness to do so. It is only that one can only proceed if one progresses sufficiently.”

They sat in silence for a moment. Then suddenly, Mr. Fox was done.

“It has been a delight to meet you, Mr. Randolph. You have a good deal about which to think. I have booked you a hotel tonight by Heathrow airport.” Mr. Fox handed him the hotel’s business card.

“Here is also a credit card by which you can purchase a train ticket to London, as well as another plane ticket should you choose to return. A text will arrive this afternoon with your boarding passes for your flight tomorrow,” Mr. Fox said, standing up. “I trust you can find your way,” he said and stretched out to shake Alan’s hand.

“Yes, I think I can,” Alan said, a little unused to so much freedom and power.

“Good day,” Mr. Fox said.

“Wait,” Alan quickly interjected. “When am I supposed to come back? When do I have to decide? How will I contact you?”

“We know where you are. You have six months to decide. Just show up if you choose to begin. We will know you are coming.”

“One more thing,” Alan blurted out. “What is the name of this society?”

“La Société des Lumières,” he said. “The Society of the Enlightenment.”

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Judeo-Christian Values of America

More in my series on whether American Christianity is in decline:
So we arrive at America. Was America founded with Christian values? Was the foundation of America "Judeo-Christian"?

1. First, to collect some thoughts from the previous posts above. One thesis is that, as far as real Christians go, people with the Holy Spirit within who are serving God with their whole heart, this is always a minority of people. So Europe may have been Christian for a millennium, but we should only expect to see a fraction of them in the coming kingdom of God, maybe as small a number as 20% of all those who have called themselves Christians throughout the ages (somewhat arbitrarily using contemporary statistics).

2. So in what sense was Europe Christian in form, having a form of godliness? It was mostly orthodox Christian in belief. To be sure, the diminishment of Catholic power made deviations like Socinianism (which didn't believe in the Trinity) or the pantheism of Spinoza possible to be held more openly. Deism was quite popular in intellectual circles in the 1600s and 1700s.

Was it Christian in its outward actions? Certainly the Spanish conquest of the new world had nothing of any substance to do with Christianity. I doubt we will see Columbus, Cortez, Pizarro, or any of these gold-thirsty murderers in the kingdom of God.

If the kings of England are any indication, adultery may have been frowned on but was apparently all too common fare in the everyday life of the English male.

Disparity reigned supreme until the 1600s. The Parliament of England astoundingly executed Charles I in 1649, a clear mark in the movement toward democracy and the shift of power from kings to people. Americans would not include the divine right of kings in what is meant by Judeo-Christian values although the idea of kings is clearly biblical.

The point here is that we are unaware of the influence of American culture on us if we think of democracy (or a Republic) as obviously biblical. For most of Christian history, monarchies were the name of the game, with at least a more straightforward claim to being biblical.

3. It seems that the phrase "Judeo-Christian" itself wasn't really used in the way we use it today until the twentieth century, especially in the 1940s. President Dwight Eisenhower invoked the phrase in reference to the concept that "all men are created equal" in 1952. It was under his presidency, in response to the rise of communism, that the phrase, "one nation under God" was added to the pledge of allegiance in 1954.

I would of course agree that the equal value of all humanity is a biblical principle, but we also have to reckon that this notion was not used to advocate for democracy until the Enlightenment in the 1700s. It must therefore be a valid "translation" of the Bible into the modern era.

But the expression has been used extensively since the 1950s. It played a significant role in the anti-communist rhetoric of the 1980s, for example. "Judeo-Christian" could thus imply capitalism, an economic system that really didn't develop again until the late 1700s and the Enlightenment. It is, again, a translation of certain biblical themes into the Enlightenment era.

Again, the fact that capitalism did not really exist until two hundred years ago suggests that it has less a claim to be straightforwardly biblical or Judeo-Christian than an agrarian or bartering society. For me this fact does not undermine capitalism as an economic form. It just reminds us that we are wearing cultural glasses if we think it is somehow straightforwardly biblical.

In recent times, the phrase Judeo-Christian has been linked to the Ten Commandments. Don't kill. Don't steal. But these are of course well nigh universal human values. Keeping the sabbath in American history has a decidedly cultural dimension (since the biblical sabbath was on Saturday). Not swearing is a cultural version of a commandment that was originally about keeping vows. Not lying is a cultural version of a commandment that was originally about bearing false witness in a legal context.

4. So we have to refocus the question again. Christian religion did seem to play a fairly unique and distinctive role in the founding matrix of American identity. However, the probes of this conversation, just getting to this point, already hint that the religious matrix was a "translation" of the Bible into the cultural world of Europe and Britian in particular in the 1600s and 1700s.

I think it was a brilliant translation. But it is important to say that the Christian values, the Judeo-Christian values, the biblical values on which America was founded were values heavily filtered by the Enlightenment and by the English culture of the 1600s and 1700s. To suggest a more direct basis in the Bible we would have to say that everyone up until that point and elsewhere was biblically illiterate.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wesley, Arminius, and the Enlightenment

Continuing my series on whether American Christianity is in decline:
1. I'm sure that there is a body of research arguing that Wesleyan-Arminian thought reflects some Enlightenment influence... and so probably also some literature denying it. I'd be glad for references.

For me, I think there were positives to the Enlightenment, so I have no problem with the suggestion. The Enlightenment was, at its foundation, about the legitimate role that logic (reason) and observation (experience) should play in human knowing.

Indeed, I would say that we cannot escape reason and experience in our thought processes, even when it comes to matters of God and the Bible. Religion cannot escape them. Even van Til used reason--he just started with huge presuppositions. When we process the content of the Bible, we inevitably use reason. When we assume the theology of the creeds, we are assuming a theology that was reasoned out and debated in the flow of history 1600-1700 years ago.

The importance of will and freedom for Arminian and Wesleyan theology is surely related to Enlightenment individualism. Wesleyans like to think of it as biblical, but the Calvinists and Lutherans are just as convinced. Calvinism and Lutheranism too have shifted the playing field to the individual making an individual decision--just for them it is God leading you to make the individual decision you make.

The hint in this direction does indeed have its roots in Paul and was more extensively taken up by Augustine. Whenever external membership in a parent body (Judaism, Roman Catholic Church) becomes an inadequate indication of true membership, some element of individual decision inevitably comes into play.

2. Among some Wesleyan post-liberals (e.g, Billie Abraham), there is a tendency to want to downplay the idea of a Wesleyan "quadrilateral." Even Albert Outler regreted the term because of what was done with it in his circles. But for Wesleyan post-fundamentalists like me, the quadrilateral is a key sign out of a certain pre-modernism. The post-liberals are seeking a way back. The post-conservatives are seeking a way forward.

Wesley's comfort with reason and experience directly reflected his context, situated as he was in between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. These have to be balanced with Scripture as the starting point, and the tradition as the Spirit's working out of the basic principles of Scripture. But they are unavoidable elements that we do best to acknowledge openly rather than pretend aren't there.

5. Is Wesleyan theology biblical? Or more to the point, are the Enlightenment elements in Wesleyan theology biblical? I would say that Wesleyan theology is the optimal translation of the Bible into the categories of modern world. Remember in my last post that I think it is not only foolish but impossible to return to the time before modernism. It is only possible if you have never really entered the modern era in the first place.

In the same way, could it be that what we think of as the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western society are to a large part the translation of Christianity into the modern world that took place in Europe in the Enlightenment? In that sense, the loss of modernism could entail some loss of what we think of as Judeo-Christian foundations. It would be one thing if that loss of modernism was a return to Platonic Christianity or a mindless drift back into a form of premodern Christianity. But could it be rather than we are simply drifting back into "barbarism"?

What were those Enlightenment filtered Judeo-Christian foundations?
  • The importance of individual rights--the ends don't justify the means
  • The drive to egalitarianism--king is no better than servant
  • The existence of truth, under which all people stand equally, available to all equally
  • The order of the universe--created by God and inherent in all things
  • The centrality of human freedom and human will--morality is a matter of choice rather than act, and humans are responsible because they are free (or should be free)
  • An optimism about history--things will get better, over time; history is headed to a good destination
  • Emotions need to be kept in control--they are a basic source of irrationality; passions need to be controlled.
Can you think of any others?

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Dialectic of Western Development

Following up today on a post from Saturday on theories of Western decline.

I remain unsure about the word, "decline." There are aspects of American culture right now that I consider in decline. I thus wouldn't at all want to say that we are on some trajectory of progress. On the one hand it feels like we are declining or on the verge of decline. But, on the other hand, there are some areas where it seems like we are better than seventy or eighty years ago.

So let me do a little back and forth. Then next I may post on the extent to which America was founded with Judeo-Christian values.

1. The Christian philosopher of history that I find most profoud in this area is Charles Taylor. Taylor is attractive because he clearly believes that the West has lost much of its sense of the world as an "enchanted" place, a place where there is an interplay of more than the material in the world we see around us. He is a firm believer in God. Yet he is not like those who seem to think we can go back to pre-Reformation, pre-modern times in our thinking.

2. I do have a hunch that Aquinas does represent some sort of a turning point in Western thinking. Perhaps he does reflect some kind of "medieval synthesis" between faith and reason. But if so, it was a tremendously good thing, contrary to Francis Schaeffer. Could it be that it is here that we find the seeds of the scientific revolution, in this rise of a version of Christianity that was open to observation of the world around us?

Aquinas was not the first Christian to interact again with Aristotle. Indeed, he began to engage Aristotle because there were those in his day who were engaging Aristotle in an extreme form. Aquinas entered the discussion to steer the discussion in a more positive direction.

The subtlety that Aristotle brings into Christian thought is the sense that we can observe universals in the world. The Platonists are all about truths of thought to which our clearest access is the mind. The world around us is only a shadowy reflection of those truths. The various escapist tactics of modern theology all have this Platonic dimension to them:
  • We are asked to believe Barth's theology on the basis of certain presuppositions he just expects us to buy without any clear sense of why we should buy them other than some neo-orthodox sentimentality. His theology pretends to stand on nothing.
  • The Reformed and post-liberal presuppositionalists again expect us just to believe without any reason to do so. It is impossible to talk to a disciple of Kuyper or van Til unless you share their fideist assumptions. Otherwise you are clearly just predestined to be damned and can't see the starting points of the truth without which no discussion can be had.
These versions of faith are very popular right now because they seem to provide an escape to the modernist crisis by disallowing a faith that integrates strongly with observation. By contrast, Aristotle opened the door to observation as a path to truth, and this is the ultimate foundation of the modern world with all its discoveries and material blessings.

3. I do not think the nominalists are not the fathers of modern thinking, whatever Weaver might have argued. They merely represent an important element in the epistemological equation. They are a balance to the recurring Platonists of history who can't tell the difference between the world and their ideas of the world.

4. When we get to the scientific revolution, it is important to recognize that the key ingredient was the sense that there are truths about the world that are inherent in the world. This is the key Aristotelian ingredient that facilitates knowledge.

Certainly Newton believed in God and believed that God had created the world with a certain order inherent in it. But it is this last point that facilitated his discoveries. Augustine and the Platonists of the early Middle Ages believed in God and discovered nothing of this sort. Nor would we have any scientific discovery if it were up to the Barthians or van Tillians.

It is only the slight shift of Aquinas--that the truth exists in things apart from the direct action of God that facilitates the scientific revolution. Thus, while Newton's faith in God fit completely with his discoveries, it was not the driving force behind them. Indeed, Newton himself was a Deist or almost a Deist.

5. I believe that God has created order in the world that can be discovered. This belief is as compatible with Christianity as the perspective of any fideist. However, the belief that there is an order intrinsic to the world also opens the door to Deism, the belief that God created the world but is no longer involved with it.

And if the world appears to run largely on its own, then it is inevitable that some would suggest we do not need to posit a creator in the first place--thus naturalism. But if there is no God, then eventually we will sense the meaninglessness of it all. Why shouldn't I kill you, if I can get away with it? Thus nihilism.

Then existentialism is a clever thought--why be sad that everything is meaningless? That's glass is half empty thinking. Think of it the other way. We can invent any meaning to the world we want!

6. So it seems to me that there is a great deal of truth to Sire's sense of this progression. From a Christian perspective, we have to see this as a decline. But, in my opinion, it would be wrong to go back and suggest that the drive to observation and natural law was wrong in the first place. The abuse of a truth does not negate the truth. All truths can be twisted.

Sire may also be right that many people intuitively sense that something spiritual is missing, a loss of what Taylor calls "enchantment." The new age movement, the drive to a kind of impersonal spirituality--these may indeed reflect an intution by many that the world is something more than material.

In their own way, the rise of Heidegger and European phenomenologists like Gadamer are a philosophical expression of this sense that the modernist world itself is a pretend world to some extent. The observer can never become disentangled from the world that he or she is observing.

7. But do they truly undo modernism? If so, then our cell phones and satellites are pretend too. These phenomenologists are rather a clear warning that modernism has boasted too much and gone too far. Observation is never objective. It never can be fully outside the things it is observing. All our explanations and interpretations are ultimately laced with self-expression. They are all ultimately "myths"--stories that express mysteries.

But again, it is silly to think that this poetic footnote, no matter how profoundly it is expressed, undoes the juggernaut that is the developments of the last four hundred years. Poetry, art, and music are far more human than science, but they do not negate science any more than biology undermines physics or chemistry. They are just truth on a different level.

So science is myth in its most detailed sense, and poetry is science in its broadest sense.

8. Synthesis is indeed the word. Presupposition and observation. Faith and reason. You can't put the modernist genie in the bottle. Observation wins over fideism every time except in those rare cases where massive brainwashing has steeled a person against the onslaught of what is in front of them.

Nor can one put historical consciousness back in the bottle once a person has truly been bitten by history. One can only ignore history as unimportant, as the post-liberals do. But that is just a stall tactic that only endures for the lifetime of the individual thinker.

I believe there is room for enchantment amid observation. The world is full of wonder beyond Newton. The quantum and relativistic worlds are indeed full of wonder.

I therefore reject the notion that we must try get back to before Aquinas or Descartes. Indeed, we cannot get back before Kant or Gadamer once we have understood them. Each represents a truth we cannot avoid. For Aquinas, it was the power of observation. Descartes gave us the goal of objectivity in its starkest form ever. Kant inevitably dashed that dream, although it took some time for history to realize it. Gadamer put an exclamation mark on this situation when it comes to interpretation.

So I do think we are in a better situation to talk about the world than ever. Have the last two centuries provided us with some extremes to which the trajectory can go? Certainly. But the fundamental trajectory is one of progress in understanding, not deterioriation.

9. What then of Protestantism and Catholicism? Could it be that a synthesis is also called for here? I certainly think so. Both extremes deconstruct. The authority of the temporal church cannot stand as self-sufficient any more than truth is merely some fideist content we must simply force ourselves to believe. On the other hand, we are not sufficient as individual interpreters to use the biblical texts in themselves as objects of our understanding.

True Christianity will always be a subset of whatever group to which we happen to belong.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Theories of Western Decline

I've been exploring what happened when Rome became Christian and asked when Europe became Christian. Today I want to begin exploring several theories of Western decline.

1. The Story of Progress
Before I mention several stories of decline, I might mention the story of progress. There are many who view the last five hundred years as something like a non-stop evolution to a better and better understanding. They would view the Middle Ages as something like the "dark" ages and the Renaissance as a rebirth of culture.

The Enlightenment was thus truly about becoming more reasonable, about shedding religious superstition, and so forth. The rise of science is seen as parallel to this trajectory toward reason and truth. We expect science to make the world a better and better place. At one point, we thought humanity would become more and more virtuous.

2. The Modernist Dead End
I don't know how many people still really subscribe to any strong form of the story of progress I just mentioned. Star Trek in the 80s still looked to a future where humanity was more civilized, more evolved than it is now. But the movies of the last 25 years have been much more apocalyptic. There are more zombies, more world-ending catastrophes, more post-apocalyptic reversions.

Nietzsche in the late 1800s was a herald of where modernism ended, namely, with no basis for morality other than the creation of ingenious Superman who could convince the rest of the world. Alistair MacIntyre depicted a moral world where we had fragments of a picture from the past that we could not remember. Louis Pojman's ethics text deliberately mimicked J. L. Mackie with the subtitle Discovering Right and Wrong rather than Mackie's, "inventing" right and wrong.

In Nietzsche's theory of Western decline, Socrates himself was the culprit. It was he who taught the West to ask questions, that the "unexamined life is not worth living." While Nietzsche agreed with the end of that train of thought in his own writings, he warned that it would not be good for most people to play out the train of thought. They might think that it was good for God to be dead, but it would not turn out as well as they thought. In that sense, Nietzsche is sometimes considered a prophet of the twentieth century.

3. The Story of the Protestant Principle
According to Paul Tillich, it was inevitable that Protestantism would splinter into tens of thousands of little groups once it made a text the center of authority. Texts are polyvalent. They are susceptible to multiple interpretations. So each little group, reading the Bible "alone," becomes confident that it knows exactly what God thinks... and it splinters off from its parent body. And it then goes on to hereticize everyone who disagrees... until the next group splits from it.

Brad Gregory, in Unintended Reformation, more or less sees the turn away from the external authority of the Church as the culprit. Left without some third party to arbitrate the meaning of Scripture, each interprets as is right in his own eyes. Most crucially, secular authority becomes the highest authority rather than religious authority. Completely unintended, Christianity hands its ultimate authority over to worldly powers. Gregory is, of course, Roman Catholic.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of almost Catholics around. There are plenty of people in Wesleyan circles who are on some version of the Canterbury Trail, although many of them stop at Episcopalian. You often get the feeling, though, that they think the Reformation was at least in part a mistake, certainly that modernism was a mistake. All we need to do is go back to some version of catholicism, even if it is the catholicism of the 400s.

In another scenario, Protestant Liberalism was a predictable trajectory for a "Bible only" approach. For once the historical consciousness of modernism comes into play, the premodern, unified text suddenly falls apart into 66 distinct books with distinct contexts addressing distinct audiences. Thus, even most evangelical biblical theologies are not divided up by theological topic, but by Paul, Matthew, and so forth.

4. Nominalist Ideas Have Consequences.
Richard Weaver, in 1948, argued that America was in a state of degradation because of a trajectory first set by the nominalists just before the Reformation. In rhetoric now very familiar, he blamed a turn to relativism and away from absolutes. I've recently written on how fallacy-ridden most of this rhetoric is. Weaver's ideal world was the Roman Catholic society of the Middle Ages (even though he was a "nominal" Protestant).

Nominalism was a rejection of the reality of universals in the late Middle Ages. It is, in my opinion, an extension of Aquinas' version of absolutes, where absolutes are not distinct from the things in which they occur. The nominalists took this concept one step further, namely, that there are just individual things. Weaver, unsurprisingly, was somewhat Platonic in orientation.

Luther's theology is often thought to have been influenced by nominalism. God deems a person righteous without a person being righteous.

5. Aquinas and the triumph of reason
Francis Schaeffer taught that Aquinas had started the decline of the West by rejecting that the human mind was fallen. No serious scholar of history or Aquinas agrees. Schaeffer was a presuppositionalist thinker who more or less held that unless God gave you the right presuppositions out of thin air, you couldn't possibly arrive at the truth.

So the introduction of reason into the equation, in his view, inevitably resulted in humanity thinking it was the authority on what was true, with a resultant decline in the West climaxing with the legalization of abortion in the 1970s.

6. James Sire and declining worldviews
In The Universe Next Door, James Sire describes the changing worldviews since the Reformation as a logical unraveling from theism to deism to naturalism to nihilism to existentialism to neo-spiritualism. In the 1500s, God was thought to exist and to be active in the world. In the 1600s and 1700s, we saw the rise of deism, which sees the world more or less as a machine that doesn't require God's intervention.

In the 1800s with evolution, we see the rise of naturalism, where God is not even thought to be needed as creator. This inevitably results in a Nietzschean nihilism. In the 1950s, existentialism rose to try to reintroduce meaning into the universe. But as it is ultimately unsatisfying, an attempt to recapture a spiritual dimension to life is seen in the new age movement and neo-spiritualism.

On Monday, I may try to evaluate these in some sort of synthetic way. What seems true about these somewhat conflicting theories?

Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Novel: The Cambridge Banquet

"I noticed that some of you are not having sherry," Alan asked. There were only twelve or thirteen people in the room, some five of whom were his age. The professors from Cambridge were wearing an academic gown of mostly black, with some cardinal red lining the front and on the hood. There were a few others with different gowns, most of which he did not recognize. One he did recognize was the one Father Barrett was wearing from Bologna.

"Observant," Mr. Fox said. "No matter what James Bond may say, no one's reactions and ability to process a situation is at its peak with alcohol in his or her system. So we always take turns at these gatherings. Some drink. Some don't."

"Are you expecting something to happen?"

"I wouldn't expect someone to attack here at Cambridge. And, as you know, we only announced this dinner yesterday. It is never scheduled predictably, other than generally being in summer, when we have a sufficient number of candidates. We should be okay," he said nonchalantly and wandered off.

After only three weeks there, Alan already felt sharper and more prepared to defend himself than ever. He still didn't quite know what the belt or phone did, but Mr. Fox assured him it required an assailant to attack face-to-face.

"So, have you been enjoying your time here in Cambridge?" came the familiar voice of Father Barrett, who had a small glass of sherry in his hand.

"Yes," Alan find himself saying. "Some of it has been grueling, but I've surprisingly found it very satisfying."

"Good," Barrett responded. "I've heard good things about your progress. You can run a kilometer in just over three minutes. You are well into physics 2 and calculus 3. You've read all the philosophy brainwash they feed you up here." The last comment came with a smile and another sip of sherry.

"You consider Wittgenstein, Kuhn, and Putnam brainwash?" Alan asked over the din of conversation in the wooden floored and walled room. "What do you have them read in Bologna?"

Barrett raised his eyebrows with a smirk and said, "Machiavelli and Nietzsche." Then he took another sip of sherry.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

When did Europe become Christian?

This is a follow-up to yesterday's post about the "conversion" of the Roman Empire to Christianity. My thesis there was that most people simply changed their flags, not their hearts. My thesis is that the number of "true" Christians at any one time--individuals who are truly devoted in heart to God--is always a minority.

The current thesis of Ed Stetzer is illuminating, I think. His thesis is that the number of truly committed Christians is actually on the rise in America. The declining numbers of those who claim to be Christian is simply the fact that nominal Christians--people who self-identify as Christians but who really have little invested in it--are increasingly becoming "nones." In short, the declining numbers of Christians in America are mostly people who never had any real skin in the game to begin with.

So the question I am asking is when, if ever, Europe really became "Christian" in the first place--at least Christian in name.

1. As an addendum to yesterday's post, it is worth noting that the Roman Empire pretty much died after it converted to Christianity. It would be false, however, to draw a cause-effect relationship, I believe. Rome had been on a death trajectory before Constantine and you could probably argue that his conversion to Christianity was in part an attempt to save it.

Of course the pagans in Rome blamed the Fall of Rome on its abandoning the Roman gods. Augustine addresses this charge, if I remember correctly, in The City of God.  The core problem, I think, was that because of massive population decline and a failure to maintain a healthy military, Rome was unable to defend its borders.

Decadence over time could have had something to do indirectly with the failure to maintain a healthy military. But of course there would be something contradictory about claiming both that Rome failed because of moral decline and to argue that the conversion to Christianity from paganism was a great moral revolution.

2. The "barbarian" rulers of the Germans, the Slavs, and the Celts in northern Europe converted to Christianity in next few centuries. They would eventually become Catholic or Orthodox.

Polygamy was still practiced here and there, however. Indeed, if we are to go by the rhetoric of some of the early Christians, monogamy cannot be said to be Judeo-Christian for they indict Jews of the time for practicing polygamy. Martin Luther himself apparently did not completely condemn polygamy.

I don't think most of us would consider the sexual views that seem to have prevailed in the Middle Ages as a good Judeo-Christian norm. Celibacy increasingly became the ideal of a truly holy person. Sex was only for procreation purposes and had a certain sinful connotation. Of course there was no sense of a person having a "sexual orientation." Rather, certain sex acts were allowed and others weren't.

Inside cave church in Cappadocia
I am not nearly as critical of the Crusades as many. The first crusade was a counter-attack after centuries of Muslim conquest of what had been Christian territories. What is now Turkey was firmly Roman Christian territory in the 300s, as you can see if you go visit the caves of Cappadocia. It would be like the US trying to take back California if it were taken over by the Russians (Putin actually sees his actions in Ukraine in similar terms). Spain was mostly taken over by Muslims for a time in the Middle Ages.

3. In the lead up to the Protestant Reformation I think we have the same situation as it arguably has always been. There is always a true "remnant," a minority who truly serve God with their whole heart, mind, and soul. But the majority is just the never-ending struggle of those who want power and those who are going through the motions of whatever culture to which they belong. Christian in name, Christian in flag, but not really in heart.

The corruption of the medieval catholic church is thus no surprise. We should not be surprised if those in power are usually not particularly godly people... anywhere.

Christian lords in England might still demand prima nocte with newly married Scottish wives. Christian kings might still slaughter Scots. After the Reformation, the Protestant Henry VIII might chop off the godly Thomas More's head for not supporting him. Then Bloody Mary the Catholic might burn the Protestants at the stake. Has Europe yet become truly Christian? According to one tradition, Charles Spurgeon was once asked why the Baptists never burned anyone at the stake. His answer in the story, "We were never in power."

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What changed with Theodosius?

1. You often hear that Constantine made Christianity the only allowable religion in the Roman Empire, that he squashed Gnosticism as a Christian possibility. This is false. Constantine made Christianity legal (it had been the target of persecution previously) in AD313. He did not make it the official religion of the Roman Empire. He even patronized some other gods.

Another thing I hear often is that the New Testament canon--the list of authoritative books in the Bible--was determined at the Council of Nicaea in 325, called by Constantine. This is also false. The contents of the NT had mostly been agreed on for years by then, but the final agreement on the edges (e.g., 2 Peter, 3 John) would not really come into play until decades after Constantine's death. There was no universal council. It just more or less happened. In 398, a Western council did affirm these books.

It was a later emperor, Theodosius who in 380, declared Nicene Christianity the only legitimate religion of the empire. A "heterodox" bishop in Constantinople was removed. Then in 381, the Council of Constantinople finalized the Nicene Creed. Only Nicene Christianity, at that point, could be considered catholic Christianity.

2. So the main thing that changed was the end of support for polytheism and the worship of other gods. I believe my colleague David Riggs would tell you that much of polytheistic worship continued nonetheless and went underground. I remember dabbling in an anti-catholic book as a teen that suggested that the cult of the saints was largely the polytheistic religion of the majority gone underground. (no idea whether there is any truth there at all)

3. Did the moral climate of Rome change?  I'm not sure how much evidence there is for this. Anything associated with the Roman gods or other gods was outlawed. Magic was outlawed. The Olympic games were outlawed. In 529 Plato's Academy was closed.

In keeping with the Mediterranean worldview, the main thing that changed was religious practice. Rituals and ceremonies associated with Jupiter or Mars were outlawed. The Vestal Virgins were disbanded. The temples associated with these gods would now either fall into disrepair or be re-purposed. Instead of Saturnalia, we would now have Christmas.

Now basilicas of worship would be built. The biblical text would become more or less standardized (thus the Greek behind the King James Version). Doctrine was standardized (Nicene)--Manichaeans for example would be persecuted.

4. So there were changes in religious worship and changes in religious belief. But the Roman empire was not Pietist. The empire did not necessarily become more loving or more biblical in the most meaningful sense of that word. I believe Constantine did make some changes that curbed the practice of infanticide. I would be interested in knowing other changes that took place.

I would argue that the number of "real" Christians probably stayed about the same, just like today, a minority. See Ed Stetzer's claims in more than one place that Christianity today is not in decline in America. It's only that nominal Christians, who arguably weren't really Christians anyway, are no longer identifying themselves as Christian.

5. So when did Europe become "Christian" in anything other than matters of external form and cognitive assent? The next candidate in Western storytelling, I suppose, is the Protestant Reformation.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Interview with the New Dean, Dr. David Smith

Interview with the New Dean, Dr. David Smith

Teaching math as needed for physics (for nerds only)

I came across a physics textbook a long time ago that was striking to me because it interrupted the flow of the physics instruction with about 7 gray sections on calculus. As a teacher, this approach intrigues me. It could be used in the teaching of any discipline that has prerequisites.

Although I haven't finished or published examples of this approach. I have used something like it to teach biblical languages and the Seminary uses an approah something like this in its integrative approach to the practice of ministry. I believe it is far more effective than the "building block" model if it is done correctly. It is something like problem-based learning.

But I can imagine putting together the beginnings of a science curriculum this way.

1. Instantaneous velocity and acceleration (while discussing motion)
This is a great place to introduce the basics of finding a derivative, and this is how the Marion/Hornyak (MH) book pictured began. Integration can also be introduced as the inverse process in brief. Both would be introduced simply, to be expanded upon later.

2. Vector addition (motion in more than one dimension)
Vector addition begins to come into play as soon as you hit motion in more than one dimension. I find Young and Freedman's (YF) introduction of all things vector in chapter 1 a teaching problem. The cross product in particular is, I think, a difficult concept to introduce at the very beginning. Wouldn't it be more helpful to introduce the various characteristics of vector addition and multiplication as they arise in specific topics? This is also a place to review some basic trig.

3. Summation (forces)
When you get into forces, you could introduce summation notation and extend integral calculus. MH review definite integrals when they get to the application of Newton's laws.

4. Vector dot product (work)
Young and Freedman introduce dot products in chapter 1, but students don't need it until chapter 6. Why not introduce it there? There are more integrals in the treatment of work. So an integrative approach could be solidifying and extending techniques of integration as the student went along.

5. Partial derivatives, nablus (energy)
It is amazing to me that I wasn't introduced to partial derivatives until my third semester of calculus and I don't remember hearing about the nablus/gradient in four semesters. Yet these are relatively easy concepts I could have learned in a first semester. This is frequently the case. Teaching the calculus in order, you don't get to simple and useful concepts until way down the line.

Yet chapter 7 of YF already introduces these fairly straightforward concepts in their treatment of energy.

6. Integration in two and three dimensions
MH have a calculus 5 section on this before a chapter on angular momentum. YF also have an advanced section involving integration in their chapter on angular velocity.

7. Radian measurement (angular velocity)
YF review radian measurement as they begin their chapter on angular velocity.

8. Cross product
It is not until chapter 10 and the treatment of torque that YF ever use the vector cross product. Why introduce it in chapter 1, when most students will have no idea what it means or what it is for?

9. Taylor series
MH review this third semester calculus topic in between their chapters on gravitation and periodic motion.

10. Differentials
I see some differentials by themselves in YF treatment of thermodynamics.

11. Surface integrals
When you get into Gauss' law regarding electric flux

12. The gradient
More partial differentials when you get to electric potential

13. More cross product
When you get into electromagnetic induction

14. Second order differential equations
MH finally review second order differential equations, a fourth semester calculus topic, as they are digging deeper into electromagnetic waves.

I picture, perhaps, two teachers tag teaming over the course of a year or summer intensive. Problems might circle back around to earlier physics topics after new mathematical concepts were introduced. Similarly, methods of application (e.g., in calculus) could be introduced in the process of doing problems.

Just some ideas for a Monday morning...

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Wesleyan-Arminian Reflections on the Holy Spirit

I forgot to put up the summary last week of my posts on the Holy Spirit. Here are also the links to the first two parts of the series on theology from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective, my "theology in bullet points" series.

Part 1: God and Creation
God and Creation (online)
God and Creation (book form)
God and Creation (Kindle book)

Part 2: Christ and Salvation
Christ and Salvation (online)

Part 3: The Holy Spirit and the Church
The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology)
1. The Holy Spirit is a distinct person, but one in substance with the Father and Son.
2. The Holy Spirit enacts the will of the Father and Son in the world.
3. The Spirit sanctifies the Church.
4. The Spirit sanctifies the believer.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Christians and the Death Penalty

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev received the death penalty yesterday for his part in the bombing of the Boston Marathon two years ago. It's a good time for us to reflect and ask whether Christians should support the death penalty.

I suppose the Christians I most respect as thinkers and, indeed, as people of God, would mostly oppose it. I suspect that the rising generation of Christians mostly oppose it. I can live with this position and, of course, will have to, since no individual decides such matters.

But I also do not have a problem with the death penalty from a Christian standpoint, especially in a case such as this one. And I thought I would think through it with you.

1. I was trying to come up with a nice phrase that might guide our approach to the Bible on such things. One that came to mind this morning is "trying to put the Bible in the context of eternity." It's not popular right now to think in terms of the original meaning of the Bible, by which I mean the meanings these words from God had when they first spoke to the specific times and places of the Bible. For example, Paul's letters are "occasional," which means that God inspired him to write them to address specific occasions in the life of the early church.

The objection to a phrase like, "putting the Bible in the context of eternity" is at least two-fold. First, it seems rather presumptuous to think that, while the biblical authors only saw things from a contextualized point of view, I can somehow see the timeless perspective of God and get a God's eye view.

Thus the second objection--I can't see the Bible from the standpoint of eternity. I can ultimately only see it from where I sit... on a different occasion.

I've never thought that this conundrum was a reason not to try.

2. So the Bible knows nothing of a world where the death penalty is not an assumption. The penalty of death is assumed throughout the OT. And the fact that Paul endorses the Roman government as an instrument of justice (Rom. 13:4) seems to indirectly support the death penalty.

If there is one thing of which I would like to convince the church, it is that this is not the end of the story. We have to put this teaching in the context of eternity--or at least try. We don't simply apply a verse directly to us today without stepping back to think theologically, to integrate it into the principles of the whole Bible.

3. So I am sympathetic to arguments like the following. The Parable of the Prodigal Son shows us that God will take someone who repents back no matter what horrible things they have done. If a person is given a life sentence, then there is at least a little hope that they might repent at some point and be saved.

Good argument and I think one that shows the heart of Christ. I do not think justice is unloving and I take the "law of retribution" as a fundamental statement of justice--an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But the heart of Christian faith is God's love for humanity, the "righteousness of God" (Rom. 1:17), his desire to save humanity. As Christians, we believe that God still loves Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and would prefer for him to repent than to perish.

I have serious questions about those strands of Christian thinking that treat justice as something to which God is a slave. In my opinion, justice is not unloving. But God can show mercy without having to satisfy justice (thus the Parable of the Prodigal Son). After all, he is God.

Justice makes sense. The cross makes sense. But I see it as an act of God's free will, not an instance of God following some rule book he had to follow if he wanted to get forgiveness done. In my mind, that diminishes God and makes him a slave to rules he did not create.

4. Hell suggests that God is not, in principle, against the death penalty, where hell is thought of as a final and unalterable eternal destiny. There are of course questions about the justice of hell. Even Hitler's sins, it would seem, were finite. If so, God would seem to be unjust to give an eternal punishment for them. The suggestion that any offense against God is an infinite crime meriting an infinite punishment makes some sense logically, but in the end doesn't sound like the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to me.

I am not a ecumenical council, so it would be perilous for me to take a position on this issue. But I could at least make a good theological case that annihilation after final judgment is a possible position to argue from the biblical texts taken as a whole and that it is a position that fits better with the biblical picture of God than eternal torment.

In either case, the existence of hell suggests that God would not be opposed to the death penalty.

5. Death, it would seem, is not intrinsically evil. I imagine the experience of death to be unpleasant for most people, but suffering in itself is not evil. Indeed, the death penalty as it is currently administered is not intended to cause pain.

In that sense, it might be considered an unjust punishment to give Tsarnaev the death penalty because it is not painful enough! In the death penalty, the criminal does not experience "an eye for an eye." Justice in Tsarnaev's case, it would seem, would literally be to blow up parts of his body in stages in accordance with the number of people his actions injured or killed. The fear he would experience might render "fear for fear," for him to pay for the collective fear and distress his actions caused.

Wittgenstein once said that "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death." Of course Christians believe in more beyond death, but there is perhaps a sense in which he is correct. Those who are put to death by the death penalty ideally experience a moment of passing into unconsciousness. Thereafter, any pain they might experience is not caused by us but by God.

The this-worldly part of death is nothing but to go to sleep. Death itself, from the perspective of this world, is only troublesome to those who live thereafter. As far as our bodies are concerned, it is nothing but a sleep to those who die.

6. So should Christians support the death penalty? I have been arguing 1) that it is allowed for biblically and 2) that it is not unjust theologically or philosophically. So the question is whether a life sentence is better in keeping with the nature of God and Christ, to leave room for the possibility of repentance.

I have argued in the past that there are three reasons why the administration of justice is not unloving. The first is when justice is redemptive. This is discipline in its best sense--the attempt to reshape individuals by letting them experience the consequences of their actions.

Would a death sentence provide a clear window for re-assessing one's actions with a view toward repentance? I don't know.

The second situation in which justice is not unloving is when it protects others. So there seems little question that this young man might try to harm more people if he were released. And let us also recognize that there is such a thing as a "hardened heart," individuals who will never change no matter how much time they are given. Theologically speaking, there is a point when God withdraws his Holy Spirit and, accordingly, individuals will never be able to repent in their hearts, even if they know with their heads that they should.

Most of the time, we had best leave it up to God to sort out who such people are. Miracles happen.

It seems to me that the third situation in which justice is not unloving is something like the situation under discussion. These are situations when the very concept of justice seems at stake. Serial killers, mass terrorists, the Hitlers and Osama bin Ladens of the world. In these cases, we seem to be putting the existence of justice itself up for question as a society.

God is a God of justice, not only a God of mercy. As an individual, must we as Christians prefer that Tsarnaev repent? Yes. By the power of the Spirit, the Spirit of Christ in us wants him to be truly sorry for what he has done and experience the forgiveness of God through Christ.

But there is also something more at stake, even if he were repentant but even more since he is not. The system of justice is at stake. The very notion of right and wrong itself is at stake. It becomes about something more than one individual. It comes to be about righteousness itself.

For this reason, I am not opposed to the death penalty as a Christian, especially in heinous cases such as this one.

What do you think?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Dr. David Smith to be the new Dean of Wesley Seminary!

The news is now out that Dr. David Smith is coming to Wesley Seminary to be the new academic Dean. Woo-hoo! This is VERY exciting news to me because I now know that the academic oversight of the Seminary is in excellent hands going forward (in addition to the already excellent faculty).

1. Here is the announcement that our fearless leader, Wayne Schmidt has put out:

"Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU) is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. David F. Smith as Academic Dean, effective August 16, 2015. Dr. Smith is currently the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Kingswood University in Sussex, New Brunswick, Canada. He succeeds the founding Dean of Wesley Seminary at IWU, Dr. Ken Schenck, who served for six years and returns to a full-time ministry of teaching and writing in the School of Theology & Ministry at IWU.

"Dr. Smith’s heart for the local church, his passion to equip ministry leaders, and his widely recognized biblical scholarship were enthusiastically affirmed during the search process.

"Dr. Smith earned the M.A. in Old Testament and the M.Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary, and the Ph.D. in New Testament Interpretation from the University of Durham. An ordained minister in The Wesleyan Church, he also previously served churches in the Free Methodist and Church of Christ in Christian Union denominations."

2. I know this was a difficult decision for Dave because he and Angie have loved being at Kingswood so much, and Dave was excited to stand with Steve Lennox as he takes the reins at Kingswood this summer.

But I truly believe that the Lord had other plans for Dave. And I am amazed as I dream of what God is going to do through Steve at Kingswood, including whomever the Lord is going to bring as its new Vice President for Academic Affairs!

3. It again seems amazingly providential as I look back at these last six months. I never planned to change myself, but doors opened and I believe this was the right time for Wesley to transition to a second phase of its existence. Then it is also a dream that Dave Smith would be able to come as Dean. He was part of the first task force that designed the MDIV curriculum back in 2007! He not only knows the vision--he helped shape it from the start!

Let me say what I told Dave. Wesley Seminary has been a model of health within Indiana Wesleyan University itself--in the black with budget, consistent in growth. It has been such an astoundingly healthy model of a seminary that the Association of Theological Schools asked me to speak at the chief academic officer's meeting this year and be on the steering committee for its Chief Academic Officers.

Not only that, but the Seminary has become a truly unifying and enriching force within the denomination. It is connecting ministers with each other and with ministries they would never had connected with otherwise. It is deepening the level of both practical and theological excellence among pastors in the denomination and beyond. It has a global reach, even beyond the regional identity of Indiana Wesleyan itself.

Hitherto hath the Lord blessed us!

God's richest grace and blessing to you, Dr. Smith, as you and Wesley embark on this next segment of your/its journey!

Friday Novel: Origins of the Society

Fox paused, clearly contemplating how much to say and in what order.

“In 1784, a German philosopher by the name of Immanuel Kant answered a question that had appeared a year previous in a Berlin magazine, ‘What is enlightenment?’ His answer was basically that enlightenment was learning to think for yourself. For him it was an ability in one's mind to critique one's country, one's religion, and those in authority over you. In effect, it is the ability to use reason to evaluate the traditions you have inherited and the culture in which you swim."

Alan sat silent. He had heard of Kant, but didn't know much about him, other than the fact that his theology professor in high school wasn't too keen on him.

"This piece resonated with a controversial figure here in England by the name of Joseph Priestly. In fact, Priestly himself had influenced Kant's thinking on these sorts of things."

Alan finally said something. "I've heard of Kant, but not of Priestly."

"Priestly was the kind of person who tended to cause controversy wherever he went. He supported the American and French Revolutions and in 1791 finally came under so much pressure in England that he left with his family to the newly formed United States. He spent the last part of his life in Pennsylvania.

"But before he left," Fox continued, "he was quite eager to start a society of sorts here in England, a 'society of enlightenment.' He had many friends all over Europe. He was a minister, a scientist, a chemist. He discovered oxygen, for example.

"Priestly wanted to start a very public movement, but after he was forced to leave England, his goals were left to others, most importantly an unlikely person named Henry Cavendish, the chemist who had made major discoveries about hydrogen just a few years before Priestly discovered oxygen.

"Cavendish was a bit of a recluse, a very private and shy man. He probably had Asperger's syndrome. He had no interest in revolution or a public movement. But he did have connections with Peterhouse College at Cambridge. He had the idea of a secret society, one that functioned out of the great universities of Europe with the goal of moving the world toward enlightenment..."

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Learning Outcomes and Competency Based Degrees

Educators made the shift several years ago to think of college classes in terms of "outcomes" rather than professors talking about a topic. This is a good model, assuming that there are clear reasons for these courses to exist. I support this approach, although a certain personality can obsess over outcomes in unhelpful ways.

1. Unexamined assumptions can come into play here too. The benefit of some courses may be the journey rather than some specified destination. So IWU parents often have said, "You need to take a class with Wilbur Williams while you're at IWU." What they are saying is that there is something about the experience of a class with him that is possibly more significant than the Old Testament content of the class. Students have often talked about the experience for the rest of their life, long after they have forgotten when King Jeroboam II reigned.

But it would be foolish to put that on a syllabus--"By the end of this course, students should be able to articulate the benefit of taking a class with Wilbur Williams." The fact that some would almost have you say something like that demonstrates the current sickness and obsession in some parts of the academy.

It is perfectly legitimate for some courses--maybe a small minority but they are an important reminder--to be about the journey rather than a specific destination. The greatest benefit of some courses is also somewhat intangible. It's not that you can't find way to measure such things. It's that you shouldn't always have to. "By the end of this Frisbee game, the student should be able to articulate the importance of having fun." That's how twisted the assessment obsession becomes in the hands of some personalities.

You don't have to measure something for it to be good. There's a positivist fallacy at work here. "If a student learns something in the forest, and there's no one there to measure it, does she actually learn something." The answer is yes. How about this one. "If a student has clean fun at the university, and it doesn't have a learning outcome, is it a good thing." Yes. Yes, it is.

The outcomes shift has been a real improvement to our educational system. It just needs to be kept in proper perspective. There's a special padded cell waiting for those who obsess about the verbs in the outcomes list of a proposed course.

2. Ironically, I didn't actually start this post to rant about the current assessment obsession of the academy. My point was rather that you can break down the essential knowledge and skills content of a course into micro-outcomes. The movement toward competency based granting of academic credit is fascinating to me, and I strongly support it as an option.

Obviously you lose some of the experience of a classroom. You lose the professor-student experience that, for many of us, is more of what we remember from college than the actual content. I would hate for us to go to an extreme (again) and say this is the only way to conceptualize a course. I hope that in 10 years a new course proposal will not require 1500-2000 individually specified micro-outcomes, each of which needs to be assessed. This is the trajectory of the academy right now.

Mind you, it would be fun for me to create that list (as long as I was not required to). For example, it would be fun to break down a New Testament survey course into a long list of knowledge and skills outcomes. If a person could demonstrate that he or she had that knowledge and skills, why not grant them credit for the class, even if he or she has never sat in a classroom? The credit becomes something more like a certification of knowledge and skills rather than a statement about time spent in a room.

3. Some teachers will notice that I have left off what we call "dispositional" or "attitudinal" outcomes. They're hard to measure even in the traditional classroom. Perhaps a first thought is that this is one place where a hyper-outcomes, competency based-approach is inferior to having a classroom experience.

But not necessarily. You can require, as an artifact to demonstrate competency, interaction with people or experiences in the student's own context in order to undergo attitudinal change. Reflective writing can demonstrate maturity achieved. Never say never.

4. The competency based approach seems to be the next thing. It has the potential to reduce student debt, speed up the process of getting through college, to clarify with great specificity what given courses are really about, and to ensure that students do in fact acquire such knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

An outcomes orientation has a tendency to clean up a lot of waste in the classroom. Obsession aside, it is clearly a good thing. There can be intangible benefits to the classroom experience, but there is plenty of room for improvement there too. How many students can't remember whole classes they took in college? It's very common!

A lot of general education classes are this way. Students take them to check them off a list and hardly remember that they ever took them. They may not even be able to tell you who the professor was a year or two later. That seems like a waste. That professor hasn't left a personal mark and is more or less extraneous. That course might just as well have been skipped. It's not doing what it's supposed to do.

If students don't have fun memories of a class or professor they took, then I'm not sure there's any basis to say that it wouldn't have been just as good or probably better for them just to have worked through achieving a list of competencies on their own. And, if there is a mentor involved, we have just come full circle back to the Ox-Bridge model, where a professor set a string of individualized learning experiences until s/he was satisfied that the student was cooked.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Wednesday Reading: Wright's Romans

I didn't get much further in Philo this week, but I did read some more of N. T. Wright's Romans commentary. I'm finding it very readable and very helpful. For my Wednesday post, I thought I'd comment on his section on the key verses of Romans--1:16-17.

One of the reasons I wrote a New Testament series for Wesleyan Publishing House is because the the pulpit often lags about twenty to thirty years behind current trends in interpretation (the mission field even more). You often hear from the pulpit things people were saying decades ago about the Bible. For example, I still hear regularly from pastors all over word fallacies that were very popular back in the Kittel generation of the 1960s and 70s.

I wrote the second volume of my three Paul books especially to bring the church up to speed on where the interpretation of Romans has moved in these last twenty to thirty years. It turns out, contemporary scholarship is very friendly to Wesleyan-Arminian thinking...

Wright doesn't go into a lot of detail in his short section on Romans 1:16-17 but he does touch on some features that reflect the best understanding of scholarship on Romans at this time (built on the best of the scholarship of the past--scholarship may change, but I would argue there can be a cumulative dimension rather than simply a bouncing around):
  • The gospel, in the first place, is the good news that Jesus is king and all that his enthronement entails. Salvation is thus part of the good news but it is not the focus of the good news. Jesus is the focus, not me.
  • The "righteousness of God" is a concept with a history. In particular, if you look at the overlap between Psalm 71:1-2 and Romans 1:16-17, a strong case can be made that God's righteousness is his propensity to save his people (and the world). (in this verse at least, not a righteousness ascribed to us from God, as the NIV1984 translated it--the NIV2011 has fixed it)
  • "From faith to faith" is a cryptic shorthand. It is too cryptic I think to say for sure what Paul was thinking, but I am very sympathetic to Wright and Dunn's sense that it is a shorthand for "starting with God's faithfulness and ending in our faith in response." 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Language to stop using...

1. Stop using "absolutes" as an argument. We're muddling it.

First, people don't distinguish between absolute truths and absolute rights and wrongs. For example, it could be the absolute truth that there are no rights and wrongs at all. I don't believe it, but you see how people accidentally mix the categories. One category has to do with what is true (epistemology); the other has to do with what is wrong (ethics).

2. I believe in certain absolute rights and wrongs--meaning that there are no exceptions to the rule. Love God and love neighbor--these are Christian moral absolutes to which there is no exception.

But there are obviously many Christian values that are universal, but not exceptionless. For example, Christians are to obey those in authority over them. But there are exceptions, when we must disobey those in authority over us. So the value of obeying those in authority over us, by definition, is not a moral absolute.

Christians, indeed everyone thus has a hierarchy of values, even when it comes to universal values. When a higher value comes into conflict with a lower one, it would be wrong not to make an exception.

3. This is an important point. It can be morally wrong to treat some values as absolutes. It can be morally wrong not to make an exception to a general rule. God's will is sometimes to keep a higher value and make an exception to a lower value.

This is not sinning! I get so frustrated with such slop thinking. I remember a student once concluding that sometimes it must thus be God's will for us to sin. NO!!! That's circular reasoning, where you assume the standard is absolute and so say making an exception is a sin desired by God.

NO!!! Sometimes it is God's will to make an exception and it would be a sin in that instance to treat the value as an absolute!!!

4. You can see that to pit absolutism against relativism is a fallacy of false alternative. There are other categories. The most important is the position that argues for universal right and wrong, but with exceptional cases. This position believes in right and wrong! It believes in a universal scope to right and wrong, so it is not relativist. But because of exceptions, it is not absolutist either.

The argument that it is either one or the other is slop.

5. When we used to talk of having personal convictions, we were talking about issues on which the correct Christian position is relativist on an individual level. Romans 14 is all about issues on which the correct Christian position is relativist. Do you have a conviction not to go to any movies, but you recognize that other Christians can do so with a clear conscience and not be one bit morally inferior to you? That is a completely appropriate position, and it is an example of a relativistic position on that issue.

Similar is when something is wrong for a Christian in one culture but not wrong for a Christian in another. It could be that it is wrong for an Arab Christian woman in the Middle East not to wear a veil. The meaning of many, many actions are a function of cultural context. To that extent, there will always be actions that are wrong in one place but perfectly acceptable for a Christian in another. It all has to do with the playing out of more fundamental values in a specific context.

6. Many people assume that they are following the Bible more fully if they treat its commands as absolute moral commands, but this is flat wrong. If the Bible never intended the command to be exceptionless, then you are being less faithful to it if you treat it as an absolute. It doesn't honor God or the Bible to treat its commands differently than it ever intended!

7. Finally, and this is the hardest of all, since the Bible presents itself as God's word to specific groups at specific times and places, then we take it at its word when we read its words first as contextualized, "incarnated" truths rather than treating the first meaning as timeless and absolute. When God speaks, he wants to be understood, so God spoke the Bible in the categories and languages of the first audiences of the Bible.

It is premodern or postmodern to read the words as if they were spoken directly to me today--premodern if you don't know you're changing the audience by doing so, postmodern if you do it knowingly (which I do not oppose). God uses this hermeneutic, yes. Probably it is his dominant way of using Scripture.

But when we get into disagreements and we have to open the hood to see why the engine isn't running, then we profitably look into the most likely original meanings, which were written at and to specific times and places.

8. All that is to say is that most Christian rhetoric about absolutes and relativism is a complete muddle. We should stop using it because half the time we don't know what we're talking about and the language just doesn't do what we want it to do.