The Basics Conference (I)
Today marks the beginning of the 2009 Basics Conference at Parkside Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. This year’s speakers are Alistair Begg, John Lennox and John Piper. I intend to bring you six updates through this conference, one for each of the keynote addresses that will happen between now and Wednesday morning (that’s two today, three tomorrow and one on Wednesday).
John Lennox had the privilege of teaching the first session. Lennox is Professor of Mathematics in the University of Oxford, Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science, and Pastoral Advisor at Green Templeton College, Oxford. I think it’s safe to say that, of all the conferences I’ve been to, this is the first where one of the keynote speakers was a mathematician!
Lennox began by reading from Mark 12:28ff and 1 Peter 3:18ff. His message was an interesting combination of theology and biography. It was not entirely linear in structure so was a little bit difficult to follow. Therefore, what you read here may seem a bit unstructured. I did what I could! I found it a very compelling message and I think any pastor could benefit from listening to it (and I’ll let you know when the MP3 files are available for download).
He spoke of the enormous import of coming to a settled conviction that what we are dealing with in our faith is the truth because it deals with Jesus Christ who claimed to be the truth. When science asks questions about the world, what is the truth about water? About hydrogen? About oxygen? Ultimately, behind every chain of such questions stands Jesus Christ the Creator saying “I am the truth.” Lennox says that his life’s passion is somehow, with God’s help, to communicate the sheer wonder of the truthfulness of the message we have so we stop being ashamed of bringing it into the marketplace.
In recent years Lennox has been involved in public debates with the New Atheists and this has taken place on both continents. He has twice debated Dawkins and Hitchens. These men have declared war on religion in the name of reason and science and say that Christianity is anti-intellectual and anti-science. Their books have sold in the multi-millions, showing that their ideas are resonating in the public square. Many of these people are finding their concerns answered better by the atheists than by their [former] pastors. The Christian voice is eventually squeezed out of the public space.
How do we approach this concern about atheism? Increasingly, atheism is finding its way into the legal codes of the nations. We can take courage first in the historical record of the New Testament as the social situation there was much the same. Many of us have lived through a strange period of history where we are returning to the situation of the first century where Christianity is becoming a mere minority. In the first century the Apostles had the audacity to believe that they could cut into Greek and Roman society, with all their sophistication, and impact those people with a foolish message.
At stake is the public perception of the content and truth of the Christian message. We are being called to be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks the reason for the hope that is in us. Scripture will not allow any of us to stand on the sidelines. We have no option but to get involved in the battle. What does this have to do with pastors? Everything! It is not only non-Christians who are asking the tough questions but also Christians and Christian pastors. We shall never engage the minds of others if our own hearts and minds are not engaged. You cannot bring someone logically to where you are not yourself.
Reason and defense belong together. Paul reasoned the gospel. The essence of what Peter calls for in giving a defense is to be willing to dialog. Paul is constantly engaged in this. Are we? If a week goes by without us being involved in dialog, it may be that something is going wrong. The biggest reason for not attending church in the U.K. is that pastors never address the questions people are asking. We cannot know what people are asking if we are not among them. The gospel will be misunderstood and misrepresented and we need to be ready to give a reasoned defense.
One of Lennox’s passions is getting this message out: the defense of the gospel, apologia is not a specialist activity but something all Christians are called on to do. Defense of the gospel is evangelism—persuasive evangelism in the face of questioning and accusation. It has been a catastrophe for us to think that apologetics is not critical to the faith and witness of every Christian. Why do so many people shy away from it?
He looked briefly to the context of defending the gospel. It is important to note the background for defending the gospel and knowing what it is. Before Peter tells Christians to be ready to defend their faith he says, “Have no fear.” The background is fear! Are you ever afraid? There is a gnawing fear that silences people that tears people away from their public witness. The time has come to be honest about our fear. What does fear keep us from doing?
There is no limit to what God can do in and through a man who trusts him and who relies on his Spirit. It is important to note that even men of great intellect can be infants when it comes to Scripture. They haven’t a clue to the riches of Scripture because they’ve never given themselves to it.
At that heart of the battles is confidence in God’s Word. “Has God really said…” God blinds the minds of those who do not believe. We have to take up the weapons God gives us—the one weapon, really. It is the sword, the sword of the Word of God. What is the biggest battle in your life and my life? It is to get us insecure in our confidence as to the reliability and sufficiency and effectiveness of that sword. The best way to keep a sword sharp is to keep using it (and not on your fellow Christians). A lack of knowledge of Scripture keeps people paralyzed by fear.
He asked this question: When was the last time you were asked to offer a reason for the hope that is within you? And he offered this encouragement: It is sometimes valuable to ask unbelievers about the hope that is (or isn’t!) in them. This may be a great bridge to discuss where hope can be found.
With just a few moments left, he passed quickly over a couple of topics. The one that most jumped out at me was this one: Paul used reason and intellectual abilities, but he didn’t trust them. It is too easy to trust intellect and use God. Paul used every ability God gave him to the full but he trusted God. We must not find a theological reason to be intellectually lazy. God has no more patience for intellectual slackers than he does for any other slacker.
And that is about my best effort in trying to give you a sense of what Lennox was teaching this afternoon. Again, I’ll let you know when the audio file is available. I think you’d benefit if you took the time to listen to it.